A sea change is taking place in American taste. This thought occurred to me as I worked a table of hors d’oeuvre at a Chicago dinner party a few years ago. The apartment in which I stood was decidedly Gold Coast. In New York, we might call it “pre-war”; in Chicago, they call it “old.” It looked like your typical classic six: nice molding, some wainscoting, a servants’ kitchen set apart from the dining room by double doors. My hostess was Illinois gentry. Not so long ago, Chicago was known for its sophisticated, if subdued, community of art patrons, and a good Chicago hostess might have been expected to display a sophisticated, if subdued, collection of modern art. Milton Avery comes to mind. Maybe Miró. Regardless of the names, it would have been an art collection in which the topic of money never came up, and where aesthetic delectation conferred a certain level of social status.

Now that we have established my train of thought, imagine my alarm when I looked up from a canapé to find two cocktail franks staring back in my direction from the opposite wall. The wieners belonged to the aging British art duo Gilbert & George—two artists who have staked their careers on high-priced naked self-portraits (some with excrement), not exactly work that is either sophisticated or subdued.

It may be nothing new to suggest that a segment of the contemporary art world long ago tossed aside connoisseurship in favor of displays of conspicuous consumption. But that a Chicago matron went in for the trappings of the contemporary scene spoke to me of a more significant development. I had witnessed the transformation of the credit-card aesthetic into a new radical chic. Spending had become the new thrift.

When historians contemplate the art of our times, the greatest attention must be given to the consumers rather than the producers of contemporary art. New wealth and new technology have washed out the old social pecking order and the way art functions within it. Today, we aspire below our station. Today, we want to be new money. Today, it’s Gatsby who lays the golden East Egg. Not only has the art market responded to this reversal of fortune by breaking from the serious art favored by a previous generation, but the market has also learned to cater to the consumer in a new way that privileges purchasing power as an essential component of the creative act. Gilbert & George would mean something quite different if their art wasn’t so expensive while at the same time being so worthless.

Art fairs have been around since the beginning of portable art. As an extension of the gallery system, the fairs represent a temporary advertisement for a gallery’s permanent space. Nothing new there. But recently the contemporary art fair has started to shape the way new art is made. Work of a specific size and appearance is now created with the fair booth in mind. And sales made in the opening hours of certain fairs might constitute a significant percentage of a gallery’s yearly take. Whether it’s “dealing for art” or “the art of the deal” that’s on display is an open question, but one thing’s for certain. Forget critics, forget curators, forget connoisseurship—at the new art fair, the customer is always right.

For a few years going, I have used this space to cover the New York fairs. Art fairs run in New York throughout the year—print fairs, photography fairs, Asian art fairs, outsider art fairs, antique fairs, you name it. February and March have been the traditional months for New York’s modern and contemporary fairs, but this year New York tried something new. With the blessing of Mayor Bloomberg, New York has taken on the international competition from Basel and Miami by arranging to have the contemporary fairs show at once, over the same days in February. That meant six major fairs showing in coordination with one another across the city, and a handful of unofficial shows tagging along for the ride. (If only the city could run all of its parades on the same day, too.) Most importantly, the timing meant that the two leading venues for modern and contemporary art—The ADAA Art Show at the 67th Street Armory, and The Armory Show at the piers—went head to head with their very different visions of the art of the moment.[1]

For the past several seasons, The Armory Show at the piers has had a lock on New York. The show has banked itself on the spiritual legacy of Colin de Land and Pat Hearn, a husband-and-wife gallery team with street cred that in the 1980s and 1990s turned the reception and consumption of art into a form of underground theater. De Land sometimes wore a trucker’s hat that read “don’t bother me unless you’re buying.” The two were among the first downtown gallerists to move to space in Chelsea. They were also two of the four founders of The Gramercy International Art Fair, a makeshift exhibition of alternative galleries run out of rooms at the old Gramercy Hotel in 1994. Their efforts eventually grew into The Armory Show.

Both Hearn and de Land died of cancer while still in their forties—she in 2000, he in 2003. The Armory Show now raises money for both an acquisition fund at MOMA and a cancer fund for artists in their names. Since 2000, The Armory Show has been under the directorship of Katelijne De Backer. In a few short years, she has seen the show grow from its underground origins into an unrivaled city-wide spectacle of conspicuous consumption: in addition to the fair itself, there are collector nights, visits to private collections, VIP events around town, and even a party on wheels called “Sound Art in a Limo: An experimental white box, a moment in art, and a moveable salon.” De Backer’s transformation a few years ago of Piers 90 and 92 into two long, winding paths overlooking the Hudson River became a fun, if frivolous, garden party of contemporary art.

This year the fair moved a few blocks north and consolidated under one roof on Pier 94. Certainly the crowds still came. At times over the weekend, the ticket line reached a quarter-mile long. But once inside, anyone with a familiarity with the Armory Shows of years past would have seen that the move was a meltdown. With a grid of booths arranged on a giant T, the show came off as airless and incoherent—even dingy. Stuck on the same ditzy-crafty aesthetic as years past—and, oh yes, Gilbert & George—it also felt down-market. The theater of contemporary art had become a knick-knack barn of second-hand contemporary goods.

And what to make of Ms. Orlando? Did you happen to read about her? On March 3, The New York Times ran an article by Eric Konigsberg called “Novice Art Collectors Find Access Is Priceless.” The piece tracked the fancies of a certain Susan Hancock of Orlando, Florida as she went on a $200,000 buying spree at The Armory Show. Here she admits that she often doesn’t remember the names of the artists she collects. She prefers the company of collectors to artists. The actresses Cameron Diaz and Megan Mullally collect the same artist she does. At one point she is quoted as saying, “I was never interested in art, I never took a course in art history, but I always liked to decorate my apartments.” At another: “Look at all these people crowding in. It’s like, ‘Attention, K-Mart shoppers!’” She’s Warhol without the wig.

Positioned for the international trade, this year’s Armory Show had to settle for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd instead. Now with rumors that Louise T. Blouin MacBain of LTB Holding might like to purchase the fair itself, everything’s on the auction block. A report in Bloomberg News offered up the money quote: “‘What’s new and exciting isn’t the art,’ said one collector, Niva Grill, at the Harris Lieberman gallery booth. ‘It’s the new collectors.’” Unfortunately for Armory, the new collectors have suddenly gotten old.

Enter the latest ADAA Art Show. For the last several seasons this controlled production of the Art Dealers Association of America has played catchup to its Armory competition. Once focusing on American modernism through mid-century, The Art Show has in recent years made halting efforts to acknowledge the explosive interest in contemporary art without foregoing its modernist principles. No easy task, and unfortunately the show lacked the confidence to pull it off. Some Marsden Hartley here, a little Richard Tuttle there: The Art Show seemed stretched dangerously thin.

Not so this year. Now under the new leadership of Roland Augustine of the gallery Luhring Augustine, the 2007 Art Show accomplished something remarkable. With a tightly orchestrated presentation, The Art Show proved that connoisseurship as well as commerce can have a place in contemporary art. The show set a new standard for appreciating contemporary art within the modernist tradition, with art that was deserving of aesthetic consideration and art that was not merely an outgrowth of consumer culture.

Compare the sculptures of Anish Kapoor on display at Lisson Gallery at Armory with the Kapoor at Gladstone Gallery at The Art Show. Without sight-lines and proportionate space, the Armory’s Kapoor looked like another trinket tacked on a busy wall. At The Art Show, the Kapoor at Gladstone, Untitled (2006), could be seen from the entry hall. As a work of art, rather than an art object, Kapoor’s curved surfaces at The Art Show invited closer inspection and unfolded hidden depths. And yes, it sold the first night, too, but without shouting the news from the rooftops.

The same might be said of the eight single-artist booths at The Art Show, each of which could have been a museum exhibition. There was a different side of Ad Reinhardt at PaceWildenstein, and a series of small bronze sculptures by Louise Bourgeois at Cheim & Read. Fischbach Gallery also dazzled fairgoers with the pairing of Glen Hansen’s warm realistic paintings of New York architecture with Colin Brown’s marvelous nighttime cityscapes in white on black.

Serious contemporary art can elicit sophisticated, if subdued, contemplation. In another reversal of fortune, certainly some of the best galleries at The Armory Show this year tried their best to catch up with The Art Show. Paul Kasmin, for example dedicated his booth to Deborah Kass. But at Armory, with its circling din of chatter, all you could concentrate on was buzz, buzz, buzz. And it was starting to get boring, boring, boring.

If the scorecards of this year’s New York fairs are any indication, it’s only a matter of time before my Chicago friend trades her Gilbert & George back in for that Miró.

 

Notes
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  1. “The Armory Show: The International Fair of New Art” was on view at Pier 94, New York, from February 23 through February 26, 2007.
    “The Art Show” was on view at the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York, from February 22 through February 26, 2007. Go back to the text.