The Armory Show: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

by Paddy Johnson on March 7, 2013 Art Fair

Armory Fair Entrance. All images by Marsha Owett

An air of something clung to the walls of The Armory Show yesterday. Sales were uneven, but steady, and the crowds pretty much identical to last year. The mechanics of the fair seemed to be working fine.

And yet, change seemed certain. A number of the usual blue chip contemporary galleries were missing, and not a dealer at the fair would deny it. With the wildly successful Frieze about to launch its second year in May, that “something” may have simply been the unspoken questions about the The Armory’s future. Will the fair have to reinvent itself to remain competitive?

A brief look at the fair’s branding suggests the organizers have already put some thought into this. This year, commissioned artist Liz Magic Laser designed a catalogue for the show that resembles a program guide for a generic multinational event. Its aesthetics are intentionally vanilla and corporate, thus offering both a reflection and critique of the commercially driven fair. The commission stands in stark contrast to eye-candy covers produced in previous years by such market friendly artists as Pipilloti Rist (2007) and Susan Collis (2010).

Liz Magic Laser t-shirts worn by dude standing with a security guard.

Generally speaking, dealers avoided speculating on The Armory’s future, and when they did, they talked about sales and sameness.  “Collectors go to crappy fairs, too,” one anonymous dealer told me, in response to the idea that The Armory might need a make over. He noted that he knew plenty of serious collectors who began their fair tours by beginning at lesser fairs such as Pulse or Scope.

Espousing democracy at an art fair seems a little silly given all the politics involved in getting into the “right” ones, but I heard a lot of that kind of thinking yesterday. Joe Amrhein, at Pierogi, spoke of how all the fairs suffer from a kind of aesthetic sameness that leaves viewers disoriented. “You could be standing in Paris and not know it,” he said. According to Amrhein, the last two fairs have been the best for the Armory, because they’d offered more floor space.

Aesthetics and branding were less of a concern to most galleries though, which were simply concerned with sales.  When we asked David Zwirner artist Diana Thater whether any of her work had pre-sold or sold by 3 PM, the response was not positive. “No,” she replied, nonplussed. “It’s all new work.” That statement was offered only an hour after the VIP preview began, but likely disappointing for them regardless given that that they’d sold half their Milton Averys at the ADAA’s Art Show yesterday. David Zwirner’s booth of Michael Riedel’s work sold out last year within 30 minutes.

Diana Thater at David Zwirner

That speed of sale isn’t typical for most dealers. Unlike many I spoke to yesterday, Derek Eller saw more difference than sameness within the fairs.  “It’s not like doing NADA Miami,” he mentioned, “where everything sells fast.” Derek Eller said of the Armory, “It’s a little slower here and the sales continue over the full course of the fair.” Eller had already sold some work and anticipated selling more.

I often got a sense of fatigue when speaking to seasoned dealers, like Eller, about the fairs. These multi-annual events have become routine, and anyone who spends a lot of time at them, knows their particular rhythms. “It’s like this every year. The locusts come and depart…” That quote was actually from an anonymous dealer in Miami this December, but by the end of the day, I’d probably heard the same sentiment put a dozen different ways.

All photos courtesy of Marsha Owett. Follow her on tumblrhere. 

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