nlike most of the art scene’s top festivals, New York City’s Armory Show is deeply embedded within the Western art-historical narrative of modern painting's evolution and artistic expression in general. In 1913 the International Exhibition of Modern Art presented a group of paintings and art objects at the 69th Armory Regiment in Manhattan marking the first time the American public experienced modern, abstract and weird art. Americans scoffed and began to insult these new mediums of expression but ultimately they were intrigued. The same show would be installed in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Copley Society of Art in Boston after the Manhattan debut.
If these initial American encounters with Picasso and Duchamp’s Nude Descending Down A Staircase No.2 aren’t enough to spark your curiosity about the Armory Show’s legacy, John Sloan’s charming cartoon from 1913 may help to reveal the scope of this show. This was America’s first time seeing art that did not depict reality explicitly and they did not understand.
How does this sort of historical legacy transfer to 2020? Well, to put it simply, The Armory Show is one of the richest, fanciest and most exclusive art fairs in the world. The hottest galleries from across the globe present their all-star artists to all the thick pocketed collectors that roam Pier 90 and 94 in Manhattan for this special weekend. There seems to be two distinct facets to the Armory Show that could entirely dictate your opinion of it; first there is the exhibition of the finest attempts at human expression by contemporary and modern masters then there is the ugly art market that finances their endeavors, gets a good price and hocks it for hundred times more a few years later. We prostitute the visions of artists to gain status, increase margins and maybe get a tax deduction along the way. But before we get into the bad and ugly let us observe the good.
The Armory Show offers intimately rare experiences with art that you will never witness at a normal museum setting or gallery. As you walk through the Focus section at Pier 90, you begin to realize that a majority of the people who are occupying these booths are either the owner of the gallery or the artist of the works on the wall. This uncanny environment serves for weird scenes like gallery owners grabbing $50,000 paintings off the wall to expose a hidden image on the reverse or artists giving the ‘thumbs up’ in front of their paintings.
All you can hope for at the Armory Show is that you are walking into a booth while an artist is offering an eloquent explanation of a work that you would have otherwise never understood. Walking through the Marc Straus booth, Malaysian artist Anne Samat guides you through her anthropomorphic beings made of rakes and hanging beads, encouraging you to savor seeing them as a group because soon they will be shipped to different white-walled galleries in various countries. Passing by the Inman Gallery Booth you may just hear Jana Vander Lee explain the important notion of ‘perspective’ in her geometric textile designs that are partly inspired by her experience with the Dutch Calvanist Church and meetings with Robert Motherwell.
One of the most thrilling booths was Belgian gallery Sorry We’re Closed’s exhibit of recent paintings by Robert Nava. Nava’s intense, visceral style coupled with his childlike subject matter makes many wonder if this is truly art but when these sort of questions begin to spin in the mind, the painting is usually a success. These inquiries are quickly dispelled when one sees the $30,000 price tag on his massive paintings but the question stands. What is art and what makes it so valuable? Art’s value resides in true, human expression, the ability to translate the odd experience of existence into a coherent form. Most of the attendees at these fairs are rich assholes with empty souls that would love to get a glimpse of true human nature once again. Feelings like sadness, anger and bliss are portrayed in these paintings and these hungry ghosts try their very best to comprehend. Let’s move on to the bad and ugly.
This was a real interaction witnessed at the 2020 Armory Show: A beautiful elderly couple were looking at Alex Katz’ Ada from 2017 at the Peter Blum Gallery booth and attempted to ascertain the year the painting was made. After guessing it was an “early Katz” they asked the gallery representative when it was made and he politely responded. This is a large Katz painting, it’s about 48 x 84 inches and it depicts the artist’s late wife. The elderly woman then asked for the price and the gallery representative casually responded, “Six Hundred and Seventy Five Thousand Dollars”.The woman kindly thanked the gallery rep and left with her husband. My curiosity overcame me as I asked for the price on Katz’ Spring Flowers 1 from 2011, a small 9 x 12 inch painting. He said it cost $75,000.
This anecdote was not documented to infer that Alex Katz was not worthy of such a price or that the gallery was snobby for pricing it so high but to show the normalcy of such an obscene conversation. People throw around money like it's nothing here but buying such expensive artworks must be a thrill in itself. We shouldn’t be surprised by the activities of the one percent elite that gets taxed way less than anyone else and gets bailed out by Big Brother when they are in trouble. What we should be surprised at is the curators, galleries and institutions that allow the super rich, those that wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about art if it couldn’t garner over a half a million dollar with one canvas, to be such an integral part of the art distribution process. The real crux of the problem was exposed at the Curatorial Summit talk on Thursday afternoon. The art world elites complained about the exorbitant salaries of art directors around the world and how this is the biggest problem. It seems that these jaded curators fail to realize that they wield the strongest weapon, the most valuable tool to influence humans; art.
The leaders of the talk explained that an ugly duality is usually unavoidable considering the British Museum can have an exhibit on climate change while also being sponsored by BP. We fail to realize the obvious, that our participation allows these practices. I may be idealistic but why put on a show about climate change that will aid one of the main causers of man-made natural disasters? We look down and to the side because we don’t want to acknowledge that we profit from this odd gap between concept and reality. In the end all we can do is enjoy the works of today’s visionaries before they are auctioned off for large prices that may be used for decrepit purposes. But that’s art baby.