When I plugged “Cipriani South Street” into Google Maps on the scorching afternoon of Thursday, September 7, I was met with a descriptive tag notifying me that my destination was a “ritzy Italian eatery for people-watching.” Indeed, the site of the second Independent 20th Century boasts what may be the best-dressed crowd of any art fair preview. The child of the Independent fair, which happens in the spring, focuses solely on historical works from the 1900s. Many galleries opt to exhibit lesser-known artists, often overlooked in their day or excluded from canonical retellings of art history. Carefully curated booths at the waterside Beaux-Arts Cipriani exhibit vinyl placards, archival glass tables, and even blown-up introductory text. In other words, this fair feels like a museum.
The standout display is nestled in the corner of the second room at James Barron Art’s presentation of work by Winfred Rembert, whose biographical paintings on tooled leather panels evoke a seemingly endless store of personal memories. The works’ folk-art stylization diverges from the modern art in the rest of the fair, much of which can be neatly categorized into Pop Art, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.
James Barron and the gallery’s director Dylan Everett walked me through the show and narrated Rembert’s life story. After stealing a car to escape two gunmen at a civil rights protest in 1965, he spent seven years in prison. He was forced into manual labor while incarcerated, which he depicted in the multiple self-portrait “Looking for Rembert” (2012), so packed with chaotic movement that the stripes on the artist’s prison garb morph into a pattern. Another narrative work, “Hamilton Ave” (2006), portrays the car chase that led to Rembert’s prison sentence.
Rembert had learned how to make leather goods during his sentence, and two decades after his release, his wife Patsy, whom he met in prison, encouraged him to use his craft to document his life. He delved into old and new memories, some of which are joyful and optimistic: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” (2008) portrays worshippers singing in church, while “Jazz Singer” (2002) shows an exalting performer in a restaurant.
The artist has been the subject of two documentaries, and his 2021 memoir Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South won a Pulitzer Prize shortly after his passing.
Another self-taught artist, Dingda McCannon, is spotlighted at Fridman Gallery‘s small booth toward the front of the fair. Her multimedia practice ranges from painting to prints to three-dimensional quilts.
When I asked McCannon to tell me about her favorite works, she first walked to the quilt, explaining that it’s a portrait she executed a year after her wedding day. “The marriage did not go well,” McCannon said, but noted that “sometimes in life you get thrown lemons, so you make lemonade.” The artist recalled that some guests didn’t get along, pointing to two figures in the upper right glaring at each other. She explained that the outfit her uncle wears in the piece was made from cloth from his actual suit. The fur and brooches are from her mother’s real coat. Other works depict imagined West African scenes, images that McCannon created before she traveled to Senegal in 1984 after winning a trip in a raffle.
Other standout installations inject biography into abstracted works. A two-artist installation presented by the Hauser and Wirth Institute — a nonprofit offshoot of the gallery — features archival cases alongside paintings and photographs by Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Mary Dill Henry.
Executive Director Lisa Darms and Hannah Myall, the finance and administration manager, walked me through the ephemera accompanying Henry’s “Love Jazz” (1965), a precise abstraction of lines that immediately betrays its creation within the aesthetic world of the 1960s. Darms pointed out a thesis notebook in which Henry recreated Bauhaus imagery.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Darms said to Myall, giving her the floor to show me her favorites. One is a peaceful photograph of Henry in her garden in Mendocino, California. Another is a scribbled collection of words on the back of a drawing, notes from a talk about LSD the artist attended in her 40s.
“To think about a woman in that time period — who is a mom — sneakily exploring this aspect of counterculture, that’s awesome,” Myall said.
Other mid-century women took the spotlight at Ryan Lee Gallery’s setup. I approached the booth to ask about a pair of tesselated kaleidoscope paintings depicting a man and a panting pug, which undoubtedly shares a few facial features with the human sitter. The works are from May Steven’s Big Daddy series and the subject is Steven’s father, a controlling and ever-present figure in the two works, even as his image circles away and spins upside down.
“They’re looking at themselves or gathering in such a way that you can tell that they are a cookie cutter for any man in power,” sales director Jeff Bergman explains.
Bergman showed me Vivian Browne’s 1966–1969 Little Men paintings, which are nearly identical in theme. The series comprises bright, expressionistic renderings of infantilized White men in suits. In “Little Men #84” (1966), a roughly outlined baby lurches confidently toward the viewer dressed in a jacket and tie. His gaping mouth appears mid-yell and his hands seem to be clenched, although it is difficult to discern any shapes beyond the torso of the man-child focal point. The pastel coloring contradicts the painting’s sinister subject matter, although the palette is fitting for an infant.
After circling the refreshingly small fair, I walked up to a pair of visitors intently discussing a Cubist abstraction to ask them their impressions. Sarah Bouchard, who runs a gallery in Maine, traveled to Independent 20th Century with one of the artists she represents, James Parker Foley.
Foley noted that all of his artist friends are exhibiting at Spring Break art fair. “It almost feels like multiple different worlds, right?” the artist commented. “I wish that they were here on opening night and that there was that kind of overlap, because it can feel so foreign.”
“I’m finding it really refreshing to be at what is primarily a contemporary art week and to be looking at a lot of names that I wouldn’t necessarily see in a museum, but whose work is of that quality,” Foley said. “To see people advocating for and championing the work is very exciting.”