We Went to the Independent: A Fair With Sturdy Walls

by Paddy Johnson and Whitney Kimball on March 7, 2014 Reviews


The Independent, March 6th – 9th
548 West 22nd Street

What’s on view: A mix of the best non-profits and sexy mid-level galleries from New York, Europe, and Mexico.

Whitney Kimball: This year I’ll save the disses and the praise and just give you the boring truth: The Independent is not a unique or beautiful snowflake. In terms of the ongoing fair season drill, it’s honed a smarter brand (no booths, open space, zig zag partitions) but the format has about the same retail function as the funky doorway to Comme des Garçons. It’s a nice change of pace. But to invest hopes that fairs like the Independent might take the industry to new places—especially when art fairs now take up so much time in the public life of an artwork—is a dangerous line to toe. Hipness is not a concept.

Paddy Johnson: The Independent’s press release doesn’t even make the claim that they’re going to take the industry to “new places.” In fact, I read their pr as an interest in returning the fair to a more familiar retail model, “the gallery.” (They say they want the fair to reflect the “spatial and curatorial concerns of the galleries and institutions.) I think they succeed in that respect. And let’s face it, this fair was a million times better than the Armory. At least some work stood out.

That said, I feel the fair’s branding as the “Independent,” is slightly disingenuous. The name evokes the popular notion that art is a free voice, but their model doesn’t make a space with those who are actually ‘independent.” Where are the artists representing themselves? Where are the independent curators? Where are the independent publishers? They’ve got one indi mag in the whole fair—Mousse—and they’re sequestered to the fourth floor behind the bar. It’s ridiculous.

WK: The Independent never made those claims, but like many writers I made the mistake of getting too excited about how boundary-breaking the Independent at first seemed to be; as Jillian Steinhauer pointed out this morning on Hyperallergic, it was at first not to even be branded as an “art fair” but a “grassroots” collaborative exhibition that happens to have a lot of onsite sales. It ultimately mimes the look and feel of serious academic institutions (something Will Brand and I complained about last year) but is still, inescapably, a salesroom. The idea of trying to package a market-free, academic, liberated vibe scares me, since I can easily envision a future where the market consumes all alternatives.

At the fair, Rodrigo Garcia from the Mexico City gallery Labor mentioned to me that he knows galleries that are closing up their storefronts and simply showing at fairs altogether; apparently this prompted Art Basel to make a policy where you can only participate if you have a physical space. That’s consistent with Clare McAndrew’s predictions cited by Ben Davis in “9.5 Theses on Art and Class” (p 84) of a more event-driven marketplace, which could drive mid-level galleries to drop the expenses of running a physical space. This seems even more possible with Ed Winkleman’s claims to the rising instability for mid-level galleries. So I agree, the brand of “independence” is disingenuous. Let’s call it what it is.

PJ: I’m inclined to see Art Basel’s policy requiring galleries to have physical spaces as a means of streamlining their application process. It discourages galleries that can’t afford to purchase a booth at Basel from applying and ensures that the participating galleries put forth a sufficient image of wealth. This is about branding and resource management.  A commercial gallery is just another showroom; do we really think art’s better able to serve a higher purpose just because it’s landed on a sturdier set of walls? (This is what the Independent is clearly hoping, with their thick, museum-like walls.)

WK: Yes!!!!! It’s the space to present one person’s work without having to compete with 5,000 other objects—packed in like sardines with the collectors—to look at for five seconds in a three-day clearance sale event. Do you really want to live in a world where you consume most emerging art through fairs? And where most art is made for fairs? It’s a world without videos or books or foresight.

PJ: Look, if art is really meant to serve a public good, maybe it would be better if these fairs didn’t all charge admission. My feeling is that art fairs will continue to improve the way they showcase art—Moving Image, a video fair, is a great example of that—but the problem is that this art is on view for three days or four days and then disappears into a private collection never to be seen again. Commercial galleries by necessity have longer viewing periods and are free to the public. Accessibility to art, not the quality of the art itself will prove to be the real issue with fairs.

WK: I was surprised to hear the Independent charges now ($20); that it used to be free was one of its really strong points. Josh Baer reported this morning that it’s one of the cheaper fairs for exhibitors, though, so maybe the price helps keep the booth rental costs down? (All speculation.) UPDATE 3/11: The Independent’s Communication Advisor Justin Conner reports that admission went to “subsidize costs we can have a great group of participants who can present artist-focused, experimental presentations,” as well as support the upcoming Independent Projects, which “will not be just a second edition, but different in character”.

I know the fair model will get better as it continues, and the Independent does attempt to improve the landscape. But even Independent founder Elizabeth Dee talks about the importance of distinguishing the roles of “gallerist” and “dealer,” and I think that’s a critical distinction to make; a gallerist is somebody who manages artists, helps them get better opportunities (rather than commodify their work), and to co-produce work. Somebody who’s selling exclusively at fairs, as they are now, doesn’t necessarily have those stewardship responsibilities.

PJ: Well, a dealer makes his or her reputation by placing work in great museums and collections, so I’d say it’s not quite so cut and dry but yeah, you make a good point. (I do find it hard to imagine an art scene in which no physical spaces remain though).

Text by Dan Graham, illustrations by Antoine Catala. "A Dolphin's Smile," 2013

Text by Dan Graham, illustrations by Antoine Catala. “A Dolphin’s Smile,” 2013.

All this aside, though, let’s be honest; there’s been some good work on display this year. That Martha Wilson solo booth at the ADAA was fucking incredible and dealt with identity, stereotypes and rage. They had Wilson’s staged suicide photo and note meant to get back at a lover, and a suite of goddess photos that put Cindy Sherman’s self portraits to shame. The text under each photo is so biting. “The Lesbian. She hates the goddess, because actually the goddess was actually invented by the men on Madison Avenue. She alone sees through goddessdom, but unluckily, her sexuality is so misplaced that the rest of society ignores her.”

At the Independent, we saw two booths with strong, difficult work. That may not sound like a lot, but if we take that much home from a walk through the Lower East Side and Chelsea than we’ve had a fine day. 47 Canal was selling dolphin-intercourse drawings, and upstairs we saw explicit drawings made by an unknown artist who may have been a prisoner. When I asked Oliver at 47 Canal how the fair was going he conceded that he was dealing with difficult work. “Dolphin sex has a niche audience,” he said. So true.

WK: Yeah, the dolphin-sex comics and weirdo unknown artists will probably make my 2014 highlights (the stoner scarves and abundance of modernist-looking food packaging won’t). What makes the Independent a better art fair than usual is its dedicated exhibitors, who typically bring a handful of under-known artists, more video than normal. That kind of integrity isn’t something you can streamline.

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