Stereotypes abound at New York’s two main art fairs this week. In terms of people, of course, plus the contrasts between the fairs’ identities, as well as the style in which they choose to host the art world. The Art Show, organised by ADAA (the Art Dealers Association of America) greets you with towering wooden doors so heavy you can barely open them, followed by mood lighting and soft carpet. As one visitor was overheard commenting on entry, "Oh it's just so pleasant!" Perhaps she had come directly from The Armory Show across town. ADAA’s smart setting on Park Avenue—confusingly in an old armory building, although not the same that gave The Armory Show its name, after an historic modern exhibition held there—throws high contrast onto the glaring functionality of The Armory Show's industrial setting across two Hudson piers. One represents the traditional bastion of the art dealership establishment, the other the eclecticism of a shifting global contemporary. This draws comparisons with the Frieze London/Frieze Masters dyad, and the difference in quality is similarly felt.
Curated by Omar Kholeif, this year’s Contemporary Special Projects at the Armory Show are the liveliest aspect of his MENAM focus (the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean: three intersecting regions, absurdly reduced for ease of categorisation, still experiencing a honeymoon with the art world). Armory commissioned artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, (showing soon at MoMA), has made A Convention of Tiny Movements, an installation piece centred around a sound booth that transmits a dispatch from 2017 about everyday objects having become recording devices. Sound waves that bounce off pot plants, chocolate wrappers and tissue boxes transmitted what people were saying; so too, supposedly, do those resounding off the silver bags of chips that the artist had produced for the fair—quite the highlight on opening night.
The two Modern Special Projects (Armory Contemporary takes up one pier, Armory Modern another) inevitably felt less relevant but still had impact. Lynn Gumpert and Michele Wong of Grey Art Gallery at New York University curated a series of Iranian Parviz Tanavoli’s wonderful stylised prints and sculptures. Italian design expert Maria Cristina Didero curated Lebanese designer Carlo Massoud’s Arab Dolls: Maya, Zeina, Racha, and Yara, a mildly feminist ceramic floor installation that has been showing with Carwan Gallery for the past year but makes its New York debut. It’s a fun piece but seemed out of place among the Modern booths.
The gallery booths in general throughout both piers favour cheap hits. Bright colours and positivism are everywhere. The entrance to Contemporary promotes numerous candy-coloured light installations. Plenty feels derivative and there was considerable overlap between the sections. Bonalumi seems to be everywhere—in Modern, Contemporary and at ADAA. Sean Kelly Gallery had an ultra commercial array, with neons saying Everything is Connected by Peter Liversidge, a Sun Pilar light sculpture by Mariko Mori, a figurative Anthony Gormley, and Mapplethorpe's nudes and flowers. Lisson was appealing as usual with engaging Amish Kapoors and Ryan Gander's cool paintings that go off canvas onto the wall. David Zwirner was showing lush large format photography by Thomas Ruff and sculptures by Karla Black.
Unlike this open mood, ADAA’s fair, the oldest in the US, feels like an insider affair. 72 galleries (compared with the Armory’s near-200), 33 of which are showing single artists and 39 exhibiting tightly themed presentations preventing the supermarket feeling of most fairs. Where the Armory’s MENAM focus includes one or two big names among the emerging and mid-career contingents, ADAA has Lebanon’s two grande dames of modernism, Etel Adnan at Galerie Lelong, and Saloua Raouda Choucair at CRG Gallery. One of Adnan’s prized concertina notebooks in black and white makes for a cool, clean display as the monochrome ink scrawls sets off the bright blocky abstraction of her celebrated miniature paintings. Choucair’s small sculptures and maquettes from her studio sit on a central plinth in front of her own colourful abstract paintings; the two displays are remarkably similar. Interesting to consider how the presence of these two elderly female Lebanese abstract artists constructs a tight narrative within ADAA of an emerging modern MENAM canon while the Armory’s self-described “potted history” actively seeks to avoid such coherence.
More generally, sculpture took centre stage immediately from the entrance where Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings greeted you from Luhring Augustine’s booth, delivering an instant hit of art-viewing reflexivity. Pistoletto’s mirrors are in vogue but that doesn’t stop them from being relevant and enduringly radical. Opposite Luhring Augustine, Sean Kelly’s booth showed a set of Antony Gormleys. Plenty of outright money talk can be heard at ADAA, more perceptibly than at the Armory: Sean Kelly’s Gormleys at both ADAA and the Armory were the hot topic.
Further inside the fair are two sculpture sensations. First at Sperone Westwater where Barry X Ball’s newest work Perfect Forms is a rendition in black marble of Umberto Boccioni’s renowned Futurist work Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913. Ball has developed a digital modelling technique that allows him to produce the sculpture at the scale Boccioni intended it for the first time, and to finish it with the same mathematical accuracy “as one would use to make a car”, according to the gallerist. The strident black figure is so macho and Italian that her comparison seems apt. The second sculpture buzz is around a bronze by Paul Manship that was stolen 32 years ago, showing with Hirschl & Adler after it was found in December. The classically influenced Central Figure of Day dates from 1916 and is a smaller version of the figure in his sundial Time and the Dancing Hours.