EVER WONDER why so many art and art history professors are leftist liberals? No, that’s not the setup for a joke. The answer may become clearer if I rephrase the question: What does social activism have to do with art and with teaching? Education breeds equality. (That’s the goal, anyway.) By that metric, an academic convention of teaching artists and art historians—the annual College Art Association conference—should be as enlightening as a Zen retreat. Late the week before last, CAA members convened in Chicago for the 102nd edition, armed to tackle the big questions.
While an ice storm barred many East Coasters from boarding their planes—the same thing happened three years ago, the last time the CAA descended on Chicago—an aura of disenchantment was cast over the Windy City’s signature brand of “social practice,” a type of community activism in the guise of art. “When is Theaster Gates acting as a real-estate developer?” pondered the Renaissance Society’s Hamza Walker. “I’m worried about the pressure on artists to be social providers,” ranted Shannon Stratton from Threewalls. “There are times when you have to be a bad teacher,” a tenured art professor publicly confessed. Is social practice deskilling our artists, a curator asked me in a hotel hallway; is it killing connoisseurship?
Left: Jacob Proctor, curator at the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, with artist Zachary Cahill. Right: Artist and writer Gregory Sholette with curator Olga Kopenkina. (Photos: Jason Foumberg)
By the end of the conference on Saturday, you could hear the minds of skeptics opening like so many elevator doors. It turns out that a good antidote to doubt is hearing an artist speak. A panel discussion on “Identity Politics: Then and Now” jarred awake a morning audience. CAA accommodates an extraordinarily diverse offering of topics, from medieval to new media art, but everyone agrees on one thing: We must learn from the past. The recent past of identity politics provided a brilliant example, with Gregg Bordowitz at the helm of the evolving revolution. “Stop trying to be radical. Stop privileging ‘radicality’ as a term. The radicals do it out of necessity. What is your necessity?” Bordowitz rhetorically asked the audience.
Bordowitz was responding to Joan Kee’s question, “How can an artist be controversial today?” It’s a question on many locals’ minds. Just last month, the Block Museum at Northwestern University issued dozens of answers by artists, writers, and educators to the question, “What is revolutionary art now?” in conjunction with its new exhibition, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929–1940.”
“We live in a depressing moment right now,” said MCA curator Dieter Roelstraete on the identity politics panel; we are reduced to remembering the radical art of the past. “The problems don’t go away,” he said. Kee agreed, noting how “the same questions are asked over and again” in classrooms and artworks, which she chalked up to “intellectual laziness.” Even though Bordowitz dissented (“I don’t experience the repetition. There’s been nothing but production and sideways moves”), art history’s eternal return echoed throughout the conference halls: “We need to start doing a better job of learning from the struggles of the past,” said artist Laurel Ptak in her workshop “Wages for Facebook,” which was inspired by the 1972 feminist campaign “Wages for Housework.” It was a profound statement to make in a city with a rich history of labor activism. A couple days later, a faculty strike for better wages closed the University of Illinois at Chicago for the first time ever.
Left: Art historian Lisa Corrin. Right: At “The Fifth Dimension” at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. (Photos: Jason Foumberg)
By the time of Friday’s all-star social practice panel, “Exhibiting Socially Engaged Art: A Chicago Case Study,” cochaired by Mary Jane Jacob and Pablo Helguera, artists were making provocative declarations left and right. Theaster Gates seemed at home behind a podium: “Simply lead your life and do what you believe in. It’s completely possible that no one will care.” Then the panelists pulled a performative move and left their stage for the Q&A portion, urging the audience to come forward. “I’m an artist,” said Michael Rakowitz. “I decided not to be a social worker or a politician. People still want art in war zones.” No one disagreed.
Sometimes the past comes rushing back like a favorite track from the 1980s. “O Superman” was the revival anthem of the conference, with two artists on separate occasions using Laurie Anderson’s 1981 hit as lecture performance. For her talk, painter Dana DeGiulio turned the song into a PowerPoint music video while she danced behind the podium. A few days later, Karl Holmqvist performed the song a cappella for his contribution to the group exhibition “The Fifth Dimension” at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. “Hi, I’m not home right now, but if you’d like to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone,” recited Holmqvist in an eerie monotony. The audience was enrapt, and after the performance DJ Dieter Roelstraete opened his evening’s set with Anderson’s catchy tune.
I HEARD about the general strike minutes before boarding my flight to Dhaka. Three Indian businessmen at the Delhi airport were discussing the flaws in a batch of T-shirts they’d commissioned to manufacture in Bangladesh and deliberating on their itinerary to avoid the citywide hartal, as they call it in this part of the world, on February 6. Me? I was supposed to attend a dinner party to kick off the second edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, which promised to exclusively present South Asian art through elaborate solo projects, curated exhibitions, gallery booths, performances, film screenings, and lectures, all at the country’s national fine arts institute, the Shilpakala Academy. As I eavesdropped, I considered how high-reaching it was for a city known for alarmingly regular political shutdowns and attendant street violence to host a three-day “international” contemporary art festival. Indeed, the summit’s existence was testimony to the determination of the young, enthusiastic collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, who pumped in around one million dollars to mount the event. “In Bangladesh, where there is no infrastructure to support the arts, this was a really ambitious project,” stated a proud Nadia Samdani, director of the Samdani Art Foundation. “We are so passionate about art!”
Ultimately, that day, no public buses were burned nor petrol bombs hurled at vehicles on the roads of Dhaka. The shutdown inadvertently reduced the traffic as I made my way to Dhaka’s richest neighborhood for a Japanese meal. Guests flown in from around the world instinctively headed to the restaurant’s open bar; the constant flow of alcohol was taken for granted, and few seemed aware that it is otherwise an acrobatic feat to get a drink in this town. I spotted Gasworks’ Alessio Antoniolli, the Guggenheim’s Sandhini Poddar, the Delfina Foundation’s Aaron Cezar, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Helen Pheby, all huddled around various food stations. Indian art worlders too milled about, prominent among them collectors Lekha and Anupam Poddar and Khoj director Pooja Sood. Almost no Bangladeshis seemed to be in the crowd. Most of the participating artists, curators, and dealers were missing, too, including the summit’s India-based curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, who was installing works well into the early hours of the morning. But Nadia Samdani was present—as she would be at every event—elegantly draped in a traditional Bangladeshi sari, bedecked in pearls and diamonds.
The team had begun installing forty-five days in advance: Enclosed areas, walls, and partitions had to be constructed to accommodate different kinds of displays across 120,000 square feet in anticipation of seventy thousand visitors. Projectors were brought in from Sharjah and Germany for two projects and helium had to be imported from India for another. The most prominent spots across the building’s three stories were occupied by South Asia’s most established artists, each represented by monumental works. Here, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander, and Lida Abdul were in the company of Shilpa Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Runa Islam, Naeem Mohaiemen, Mahbubur Rahman, and Tayeba Begum Lipi. Many of these fourteen individual projects were commissioned by the Samdani Art Foundation specially for the Dhaka Art Summit. “We wanted artists to engage with Bangladesh,” explained Betancourt. “Also, you can’t really ship large works here.”
The layout of the summit allowed visitors to wander from imposing solo presentations to geographically divided group shows and clusters of gallery booths (there were thirty-three in all). One might even stumble upon performances on the way to lectures or screenings. Nikhil Chopra “blackening” his face here, Yasmin Jahan Nupur perched upon a chair atop a column there. The performance and film sections were curated by Bangladeshi artist Rahman, cofounder of the nonprofit Britto Arts Trust. Neither a fair nor a biennial, neither performance festival nor conference, the Dhaka Art Summit turned out to be a restrained, beautifully mounted combination of them all. “The public can’t tell the difference between a fair and a biennale,” noted Eungie Joo, curator of the forthcoming Sharjah Biennial. Joo wasn’t the only art-world celebrity impressed by the summit’s unique, unusual configuration. Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of the next Documenta, lurked in the background during most of the summit’s activities (despite being frequently hounded by South Asian talent) and nodded in assent. Here on a trip to see “art in its context,” Szymczyk revealed his plans to return to the region for more in-depth engagement. A number of other power wielders had flown in—curators Jessica Morgan and Nada Raza from Tate Modern, Antonia Carver from Art Dubai, Beatrix Ruf from Kunsthalle Zürich, and dealers Pilar Corrias and Leila Heller. The cozy daily evening gatherings—two of which took place poolside at the Samdani residence—seemed to be always overflowing with celebrities ferried in on chartered buses.
The first edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, held in 2012, had focused solely on Bangladeshi artists and didn’t attract such a crowd. But with the second edition, the Samdanis astutely expanded the scope of their project, capitalizing on international interest. Among the most arresting projects on display was Shahzia Sikander’s mesmerizing painting- and drawing-based animation Parallax, first screened at last year’s Sharjah Biennial. Lida Abdul’s four films, particularly What We Saw upon Awakening, showing men pulling ropes tied to a bombed edifice, and Shilpa Gupta’s installation highlighting daily challenges faced by residents of enclaves on either side of the India-Bangladesh border, were powerful and provocative. Raqs Media Collective’s citywide billboard project Meanwhile Elsewhere featured clocks that riffed on Dhaka’s frustrating traffic jams. But Rashid Rana’s work was definitely the cheekiest: He replicated an empty room from the Tate using printed, pixelated floor-to-ceiling wallpaper. After all, wasn’t the gleeful mood at the summit propelled by the latent desire to fill or inhabit rooms just like this one with art objects from the region?
Amid the mix of artists from India and Pakistan, it wasn’t always easy to map Bangladesh’s art scene. But even if the quality of work was uneven, there was a range of it on view at the country’s fifteen gallery booths, all offered without rent. One Bangladeshi artist was omnipresent: The very articulate, New York– and Dhaka-based Naeem Mohaiemen had a solo project at the booth of Kolkata’s Experimenter—sequestered in a section reserved for some of the best galleries, primarily from India. His solo project, entirely in Bengali, was a fictitious newspaper full of hopeful and subversive ideas. Mohaiemen also shared dazzling insights on the rural and urban themes in art from Bangladesh in a panel discussion. Most of the other conversations were led by VIPs who had little to say about Bangladeshi art. In one of the sessions Asia Art Archive’s Hammad Nasar questioned presentations about the activities of the British Museum, the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, and the Guggenheim. “Why aren’t we talking about the Fukuoka Museum or the Queensland Art Gallery or the Asia Pacific Triennial, which have really facilitated dialogue within the region?”
There were murmurs of discontent among the Bangladeshi art community, too. One artist and journalist complained about the underrepresentation of artists from the country. “They could have given the Samdani Art Award nominees a small amount to make a new work for the exhibition,” he said. One nominee concurred: “Why have large budgets been reserved for the projects of established artists with ample funding while we weren’t given any support?” On the other side, Ayesha Sultana, the winner of the award for emerging Bangladeshi artists, seemed pressed for time between meeting quote-hungry journalists and eager dealers. “There is no system of gallery representation in Bangladesh,” she explained.
In that, the Dhaka Art Summit seemed to have attracted enough invested visitors to become a place for private discussions and potential partnerships. With the India Art Fair—once the only hub of activity in South Asia—growing staler each year, the Dhaka Art Summit assumed an urgent conviviality. Betancourt’s model, mixing a range of contained activities and events, turned out to be a confident and unique display of art from the region—although if the guest list was anything to go by, still with one eye looking West.
Left: Curator Md. Muniruzzaman and Ganges Art Gallery’s Subhra Chowdhuri. Right: Dealer Priya Jhaveri.
Left: Artist Anjana Kothamachu. (Except where noted, all photos: Zehra Jumabhoy) Right: Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, assistant curator of INSERT 2014, with artists Rasmus Nielsen, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Mai-Thu Perret. (Photo: Akshat Jain)
ROUND AND ROUND and round we go. It was the eve of the sixth edition of the India Art Fair, and a group of us had made our way into Gallery SKE for Sudarshan Shetty’s solo exhibition, “Every Broken Moment, Piece by Piece.” The show kept us busy ruminating on revolutions, both physical and metaphorical: At its center was a burnt hexagon-shaped wooden container filled with shattered white crockery, and at the core of this chaotic jumble sat a delicate pink-and-gold teacup, rotating serenely. All the usual Shetty themes were there: the cyclical passing of time, decay, resilience. Walking out of the building—itself under renovation, as loud crashes and bangs testified—I wondered if I would escape the turmoil of the next few days as unscathed as Shetty’s porcelain.
This year’s fair produced a sense of déjà vu—at least initially. As massive as the last one, it occupied three tents and two hundred thousand square feet at the NSIC grounds, sheltering ninety-one booths crammed with artworks by one-thousand-odd Indian and international artists. Also like last year, queuing up outside the entrance were a smattering of “special” sculptural projects, such as young Anjana Kothamachu’s giant cement beastie, Agalma. Twelve feet high and weighing two tons, it resembled a cross between a demonic lizard and a chrysalis. “Agalma” is Greek for a seductive offering to the gods, yet for all its hefty menace, the sculpture itself was hollow. How deceptive appearances can be.
Left: Artist Sudarshan Shetty and dealer Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Gallery SKE. Right: Christie's Amin Jaffer.
Inside the tented enclosures, the fair was in full swing. Its opening preview afforded all the trappings of success. Certainly, lots of designer-clad local celebs could be glimpsed in the crush. The bejeweled art patron Feroze Gujral and Kiran Nadar (owner of the eponymously named private museum) jostled amid the usual run up of “glocal” talent: Reena Kallat in a flowing blouse; Jitish Kallat (the artist director of this year’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale) doing his rounds; the ubiquitous Subodh Gupta (he of the shiny bartans, many of which were on display); Bharti Kher; Nalini Malani and the photographer Dayanita Singh. And there were the stalwarts: art historian Geeta Kapur with her hubby, artist Vivan Sundaram; Bombay-born cultural theorist Homi Bhabha. A mandatory sprinkling of “international” grandees—the Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon and Asia Society’s Melissa Chiu—rubbed shoulders with artists like London filmmaker John Akomfrah and Superflex’s Rasmus Nielson.
The art market didn’t seem depressed. Just as Christie’s Amin Jaffer was raising a bubbly-brimmed glass to the apparent success of his first Bombay auction, Yamini Mehta of Sotheby’s nursed her own secret: “We are going to be establishing a bigger presence in India,” she said, promising that announcements would be made soon. The parties were as stuffed with art as they were overflowing with alcohol: At their lunchtime bash, the mother-and-son duo Lekha and Anupam Poddar dished up—for invited guests, of course—an array of thoughtful, mostly abstract art: New Yorker Zarina Hashmi’s monochrome woodcuts chatted up Pakistani-Welsh Idris Khan’s black-and-white digital prints on the mansion’s walls.
Yet the fair itself didn’t offer up as much aesthetic titillation as previous editions. None of the big-name international galleries were there—Lisson, White Cube, and Hauser & Wirth had vacated the field. And if the IAF’s press release boasted of “galleries from Israel, France, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Turkey, and, notably, from Karachi, Pakistan,” most of them (barring Galleria Continua, Istanbul’s adventurous NON gallery, and Galerie Lelong) tended to be second-rung outfits. Which perhaps accounts for founding fair director Neha Kirpal’s guarded statement: “India Art Fair attracts an interesting mix of galleries looking for emerging markets, fueling tremendous possibilities for both business and culture.” No official visitor or sales figures were released.
Left: Artist Subodh Gupta. Right: Artists Zuleikha Chaudhari, artist Dayanita Singh, and Umang Bhattacharya. (Photo: Akshat Jain)
Conspicuously missing in action were Bombay-based Chatterjee & Lal and Project 88. “I’m neither seen nor heard,” twinkled a sari-clad Sree Goswami of Project 88 as she glimmered by one of the booths during the opening. Amid a great deal of glitter—think Jagannath Panda’s giant gilded deer sculpture at Delhi’s Nature Morte booth—some Indian galleries offered true gold: Bombay’s Jhaveri Contemporary participated for the first time; Gallery Lakereen showed-off Waqas Khan’s skillful, discreet drawings. Trouncing competition was dealer Abhay Maskara. His khaki-green, net-swaddled booth imitated an army barracks. There Shine Shivan’s untitled “painting” was smeared with palm thorns, blood, and resin—what looked like the beaks of screeching birds were ranged along the canvas. “It has been a triumph of the will even at the fair. In the end, I’m happy: Things did sell, but to known people.” The complaint surfaced elsewhere too: “The biggest problem is to grow our collector base,” corroborated Prateek Raja of Kolkata’s Experimenter. “I’ve sold to the same young collectors—not new ones.” Parisian dealer Suzanne Tarasieve and her India consultant, Anne Maniglier, didn’t hold fire. “The IAF has to make more connections for the foreign galleries, they have to introduce them to major collectors. Our main frustration is that we are neglected,” complained Maniglier.
But NON’s Derya Demir saw the sunny side of things. “Ultimately, this event was about the city,” she said. Outside the fairgrounds we were spoiled for choices, reveling in a variety of contrasting exhibitions. As political video artist Nalini Malani grabbed our attention at Vadehra Art Gallery, Ranjani Shettar’s pleas for local flora, in the guise of wood-and-glass sculptures, at Talwar Gallery, quietly stole it away. If Zarina Hashmi spoke about mobile homes in her “Folding House” at Gallery Espace, Gupta’s extravaganza, “Everything Is Inside” at the National Gallery of Modern Art, attempted permanence, with a giant silver-shiny tree, dangling pots instead of fruit, putting down roots on the lawn.
Left: Artist Sonia Khurana and dealer Derya Demir of NON gallery. Right: Aparajita Jain and Peter Nagy of Nature Morte with curator Nada Raza from Tate Modern.
Perhaps the most compelling blockbuster of all was INSERT 2014, an initiative presented by the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation and curated by Raqs Media Collective—with a little help from their friends. It spoke about the role of artists in changing the city and politics. With a weighty agenda and a humongous lineup of heavyweight artists—Superflex, Kendell Geers, and Rirkrit Tiravanjia, among others—the show could have turned into an overstuffed disaster. It didn’t. Filling up the Mati Ghar (aka “Mud House” in Hindi) of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the show was a labyrinthine archive of facts, footage, and epiphanies. Clark House Initiative’s curated section inserted young Prabhakar Pachpute’s crumbling, yellowish wall installation Wanted/Unwanted Move to discuss the ravages of time and enforced migration. As you approached the flaking wall, you noticed tiny, scuttling charcoal figures. “Through efforts such as Insert, we have begun tackling the limitations of the fair,” pledged Sumesh Sharma of Clark House.
Another significant offsite exhibition was Delhite Sonia Khurana’s atmospheric “Oneiric House,” a sprawling video-photographic installation that, Khurana explained in her sibilant-soporific press release, was “an examination of the realm of sleep, insomnia, somnambulism, somnolence.” As I watched Khurana nod off in her video, it occurred to me that the Indian art market might be resting, but the artists themselves are waking up. For me, this year was all about the satellites, and (surprise!) the art. A fair tradeoff.
Left: Curator and critic Girish Shahane and artist Manish Nai. Right: Tate Modern director Chris Dercon.
ANY ART FAIR worthy of the name has a VIP program. It’s supposed to attract collectors, who mustn’t spend a moment idle, lest they start spending money on something other than art. Staged conversations or lectures further sweeten the pot, along with lunches, dinners, and after-hours parties stocked with plenty of tequila and local color to bring the privileged closer to their roots. They’re all pretty much the same. What’s different is the place—and sometimes the people.
Zona Maco, the Mexico City art fair that recently completed its eleventh edition, has the drill down pat. That may be because its artistic director and VIP relations chief, the Spanish-born curator Pablo del Val, created the first collectors’ program back in 1992, when Gabriela López Rocha founded Expo-Arte Guadalajara, the fair that put Mexico on the world map of contemporary art. It lasted six years, and inspired Zelika Garcia, then a recent art-school grad, to create Maco.
Today it has at least one advantage over fairs in other parts of the world: Mexico City. The weather is sublime, the atmosphere convivial, the food and hospitality supremo, and the museums first-rate. “Why I like to come to Maco is the vibrant atmosphere not only of the fair but also of the city,” n.b.k. curator Sophie Goltz told me. “You get it all: museum collections, contemporary institutions, highly profiled galleries, off-spaces, and the clash of different cultures.”
Moved this year from April to February, the better to attract norteños escaping the bitter pill of winter, and to keep well out of the paths of oncoming fairs in São Paulo and New York, this year’s edition (February 5 to 9) attracted 40,000 visitors. Of those, four hundred – including Gabriela Lopez signed on for the VIP tour. Early arrivals took a pre-fair, overnight trip to Guadalajara, home base for a number of Mexican artists, followed by a stop in Cuernavaca for lunch with the state governor and visits to exhibitions.
But the program began in earnest on Tuesday, February 4, with a Mexico City gallery hop, a cocktail party in the raised garden of architect Fernando Romero’s offices next door to the Luis Barragán house museum, and a big welcome fest at trendy Covadonga, an enormous cantina in the neighborhood of north Roma. Because I arrived after the tour began, I set off on my own with a companion, stopping first at Kurimanzutto, where the red-hot Argentine Adriàn Villar Rojas was making his solo debut with the gallery.
Departing from the gray palette of his signature cement sculptures, Villar Rojas created a kind of organic farm viewable only in the natural light of day. With a crew of twelve others, he had ripped out the reception desks and buried the floor of Mexico City’s most agreeable exhibition space in dry soil a foot deep, then “planted” rows of watermelons that sprouted sculptures made from twisted sneakers and other commercially produced objects. “This is hilarious,” said Eungie Joo, the peripatetic curator whose new posting is in the Emirates for the next Sharjah Biennial. She arrived with Danh Vo, a recent transplant to the Distrito Federal. “It’s a lab for ideas,” José Kuri said of the installation, which was made for the space and will be trashed at the exhibition’s end. “Adriàn wanted to go to extremes,” Kuri explained, “and we wanted to go as far as he did.”
Left: Artist Danh Vo with Sharjah Biennial 12 curator Eungie Joo. Right: Artist Gabriel Orozco.
With the light fading, I headed for Proyetco Parelelo in Condesa where the Guadalajaran artist Cynthia Guttiérez was making another impressive solo debut. Next on the agenda was the venerable OMR, recently given a needed second wind by Cristobal Riestra, son of gallery founders Jaime Riestra and Patricia Ortiz Monasterio. In the main space, Jose Dàvila (another Guadalajaran) showed immense, one-thousand-pound slabs of marble and granite held almost upright by brightly colored straps anchored to the floor. If one were to tip over, it would squish you flat like a cucaracha underfoot. Pia Camil’s annexed show of ceramics and striped curtains contributed a sense of safety, and a 1970 work by James Turrell—the first piece by this artist to appear in a commercial gallery here—provided solace for the more than one thousand people who would see it that night. “A record,” Ortiz would say later, “even for the week of Zona Maco.”
Because evening events in Mexico City seldom get into gear before 9 PM—Dàvila’s opening didn’t really take off till ten—I was way too early for the cocktail party at the Romeros’ archive, but the Gabriel Orozco–like work of Jorge Satorre was waiting across the street at Pamela Echeverria’s immense Labor gallery, along with the taxi that would take me to Fernando Mesta’s House of Gaga for a performance by Emily Sundblad.
A crush of art-fair attendees crammed the narrow exhibition space, where Sundblad’s drawings were barely visible. Instead, the faces of artist Klara Lidén and dealers Marc Foxx, John Riepenhoff, Lorcan O’Neill, and Alex Schroeder stood out among those of Museo Jumex director Patrick Charpenel, collectors José Noé Suro and Rodrigo Peñafiel, and historian Warren Niesluchowski before everyone trooped into the garden for the on-time start of Sundblad’s half-hour set. Who could have predicted that the Swedish lass would carry the night by singing English country folk tunes? Accompanied by guitarist Matt Sweeney, she also sang three equally poignant Mexican songs with Mesta.
Left: Dealers Alexander Schroeder and Lorcan O'Neill. Right: Artist Emily Sundblad (left).
Following a garrulous gathering in a nearby cantina, the evening made Zona Maco’s VIP preview the next morning feel almost anticlimactic. Not that anyone was ready to go home. It used to be that any gallery that applied to this once-chaotic fair could set up shop, but this year the affair at the Centro Banamex convention center exhibited clear signs of maturity. With the big guns—Kurimanzutto, Gladstone, OMR, Proyectos Monclova, Bortolami—accorded large, central spaces in the seventy-gallery main section, and Labor, Travesía Cuatro, and Salon 94 nearby, it was immediately apparent that the hodgepodge art of yore had been banished in favor of the minimal and conceptual.
“Collectors in Mexico think this is the next ARCO,” said dealer Clara Gurau, visiting from Majorca. Collector groups from Austria, Aspen, and the Metropolitan Museum wandered the aisles, alongside a smattering of Americans like Christen Wilson, Richard Chang, and Richard Massey, and Mexicans like the businessman Rodrigo Barerra. Orozco’s influence on art by younger Mexican artists was visible everywhere. “It’s very conceptual, and very sophisticated,” said the Berlin dealer Michael Fuchs of Maco. In other words, as Copenhagen’s Nils Staerk put it, “It’s starting to look like a real fair.”
It also looked very quiet. Though some dealers reported first- and second-day sales, the general drift in Mexico follows the eBay model: Collectors pounce at the last minute. “The speed of Mexico is not the same as everywhere else,” del Val told me. “The biggest sales happen two hours from closing.”
There is a lot of new wealth in Mexico, and it has created a class of younger collectors who get in the game by going first to Miami Basel, and making choices that tend to be ruled by advisers, some more expert than others. But art advisers are not risk-takers. To make newbie clients feel secure, they may make conservative or fashionable choices and eager galleries will naturally follow suit. At Zona Maco there was much to admire, if one looked closely, but for me the greatest interest, art-wise, was in the place where surprises usually lay—around the edges.
Along the back wall, for example, was Zona Maco Sur, where galleries selected by the Berlin-based curator Juan Andrés Gaitàn present one-person displays. One standout was a superb exhibition of works in several media by the late Léon Ferrari at Buenos Aires’ Ruth Benzacar. Another was Leonor Antunes’s space-altering, hanging sculptures of leather or fishnet at Marc Foxx. I also name-checked Alejandra Prieto’s black chandelier and monochrome painting—both made of polished coal—at the Lower East Side’s Y Gallery, and was amused at Johann Koenig’s stand, when a woman asked artist David Zink Yi what the inky substance spreading out from his giant ceramic squid was made of (it was ink) and if she could touch it. (No.) Most transfixing, in the booth of Buenos Aires’ Ignacio Liprandi, was a short film by Ana Gallardo, shot at a Mexican nursing home for former prostitutes.
The next day brought the most resplendent event of the week: the opening of Ugo Rondinone’s exhibition of bluestone figures at the Aztec fortress–like Museo Diego Rivera-Anahuacalli, followed by a three-course, outdoor lunch hosted by dealers Barbara Gladstone and Eva Presenhuber. The guest list included James Brown, the expat American who was invited to do the annual contemporary exhibition last year; a passel of Mexican-born artists (Gonzalo Lebrija, Laureana Toledo, Pedro Reyes, Francisco Ugarte, Steffan Bruggemann, Dàvila); visiting dealers (Max Wigram, Jonathan Viner, Thilo Wermke, Schroeder, and Bortolami); consultant Patricia Marshall; Viennafair codirector Vita Zaman; curator Ana Sokoloff; architect Manolo Mestre; and the Rondinone exhibition’s curator, Patricia Martin. Two colossal sculptures from “Human Nature,” Rondinone’s Public Art Fund installation at Rockefeller Center last year, made an especially dramatic sight on the plaza, where Beat poet John Giorno put in a captivating performance after the meal. With the late afternoon sun casting long pink shadows, one line—“everything is delusion / including wisdom / and then, there are the illusions / that make life / bearable”—went over especially well.
Back in town, there was barely time to regroup before the evening’s onslaught of fair-related parties. I started with a cocktail given by Expo Chicago director Tony Karman, where news of collector Fran Dittmer’s fatal plane crash cast a sobering pall. But word hadn’t reached the crowd attending a nearly all-night, jam-packed party given by Peñafiel at his apartment in Polanco, and life went on its tequila-soaked way, uninterrupted by the tragic.
Friday brought me to the upstart Material Art Fair at the downtown Hilton Reforma. There’s no other way to describe it: This was fun. “I haven’t seen a fair of this quality put together in twenty-one years of having a gallery,” said the Chicago dealer Carrie Secrest. Organized by Daniela Elbahara and Brett Schultz, codirectors of the D.F.’s Yautepec Gallery, with the art advisor Natalia Castilla, Material featured forty young galleries from North and South America, Europe, and the UK. Most presented modest work by young artists selling for modest prices, and they gave the fair all the energy, bootstrap pluck, and sense of discovery now largely gone from Zona Maco.
“We saw a need for an alternative fair that would have a focus on emerging practices,” Schultz said. “It’s a great opportunity to give attention to the explosion of Mexican project spaces over the last year.” One was Otras Obras, an artist-run space cocurated in Tijuana by Temra Pavlovic, Clay Gibson, and Michael Rayvon. The three madcap CalArts grads were making a film in their booth during the fair, and will soon move the gallery to Mexico City. “For a first edition,” Schultz said of his fair, “this feels good.”
That night, Zona Maco’s Garcia and del Val had a dinner for the curators participating in the following day’s special event within the fair: a four-hour conference organized by curator Montserrat Albores Gleason and artist Josiah McElheny. Titled “Symposium for the Art of the Future,” it would reconsider Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray’s Société Anonyme in contemporary terms, with presentations by such eminences as LACMA director Michael Govan, the US National Gallery’s Lynne Cooke, Bard CCS director Tom Eccles, art historian Richard Meyer, deCordova Museum curator Jennifer Gross, Artforum contributing editor Molly Nesbit, dealer (and Duchamp scholar) Francis Naumann, and historian George Baker.
That was an awful lot of brainpower for one dinner, where the talk was, as might be expected, pretty much all art all the time. But the symposium on Saturday had to compete with a Las Americas edition of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castet’s 89plus marathon at Museo Jumex. After a stop at Casa Barragán for the opening of a photo exhibition by the collaborating duo Lake Verea, and a detour through architect Maurizio Rochas’s remarkable library for the blind, I arrived in time to catch Kickstarter’s Perry Chen in conversation with José Luis Martinez Limôn, an information media student from Monterrey, Mexico. “We’re all looking for the extraordinary,” Chen said. “If you’re making mediocre work, you’re in trouble.”
Next morning, on my way out of the Hyatt, I asked Jennifer Gross about her experience of the curatorial think tank at the fair. Her response spoke for all of us in Mexico City that week: “Actually,” she said, “I learned a lot. And that’s always a good thing.”
GROWING UP in New York City during the 1970s and ’80s, I assumed that subway cars would always be psychedelic—rolling metal loaves with multihued fluorescent frosting, brightening grim tunnels and el tracks with every color of the spectrum. This, as we all know, was not to be. As a 1982 painting by legendary graffiti writer Lady Pink foresaw, a combination of citizen hostility, law-enforcement crackdowns, and new easy-wipe surfaces ensured that the jagged, letter-based “wildstyle” pieces and ambitious, often topical murals were all but extinct on the MTA by 1990. Pink’s The Death of Graffiti is included in the Martin Wong Collection, part of the Museum of the City of New York’s standing collection since 1994 and currently on display there as the exhibition “City as Canvas.”
In the painting, a naked woman (Pink herself) stands atop a rainbow bridge of spray-paint cans, pointing at a passing train on an elevated track. A car adorned with one of Pink’s pieces is followed by a pristine, graffiti-free car. The fact that the “clean” subway car is white—not silver or metal gray—is telling. While there have always been white graffiti writers, the form’s association with nonwhite urban culture has made both its celebration and efforts to eradicate it inextricably bound up with issues of race and class. MCNY’s location—on a gold-coast Fifth Avenue street a few blocks west of Spanish Harlem—seemed to trace New York graffiti’s journey from its uptown source through the downtown waystation of the ’80s East Village gallery scene and back again to an entirely different institutional uptown (Museum Mile) that is so close and yet so far. I grew up on East Ninety-Sixth Street, so traveling to the show for the private opening last Monday night felt like coming home.
If it’s true that 90 percent of all artistic product is crap, the non-crap 10 percent suffers unduly when 100 percent of the work is unavoidably in your face everywhere you go, which has always been the case with graffiti. Viewing street art in august museums may appear to be missing the point, but given the ubiquity and high visibility of bad graffiti, where the amateurism isn’t even charming and the act does seem to be approaching vandalism, there’s something to be said for curatorial winnowing. Even better if the initial collector was someone as intimate with and devoted to the form and its top practitioners as Martin Wong, a gay, Chinese-American painter from San Francisco who moved to the Lower East Side in the late ’70s and befriended some of the city’s best graf writers. These relationships quickly became symbiotic once Wong secured a job in the canvas section of Pearl Paint, a massive art-supply store on Canal Street. Through “five-finger discounts” and creative accounting, Wong was able to keep many of these writers—some of whom were transitioning from trains to canvases and getting shows at the Fun Gallery and other downtown spaces—in painting materials on the cheap.
Wong started collecting graffiti pieces in various formats early on, often bartering art supplies or his own meticulously crafted paintings of urban facades, but occasionally even paying money to acquire coveted “black books,” graf writers’ notebooks, where the artists sketched new pieces intended for subway cars or building walls and which functioned almost as imagistic diaries. Viewing some of the black books at the show, I was struck by how personal and intimate they were, amazed that the writers were willing to part with them at any price. Some of the stars of the scene had already made the transition to canvas—Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, Daze, Dondi, Futura 2000, Sharp, Rammellzee, Zephyr, among others—and Wong showed rare acumen in collecting many of these paintings.
Wide-angle photographs of bombed cars and covert shots of writers plying their nightly trade in the train lots taken by Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, Jack Stewart, and others rounded out Wong’s graffiti art collection at the show, along with a rare 1981 documentary film by Manfred Kirchheimer, Stations of the Elevated, projected onto a wall in the gallery. The film stock had the same nicotine-yellow cast that so many New York movies of the period have (e.g., The Warriors ). As I was getting lost in nostalgia on a bench in front of the projection, a brusque older man sat down next to me and asked, “Whaddaya wanna know? I made the thing.” Kirchheimer told me that the film was going to be screened at BAM in June, and then he left, perhaps misinterpreting my ramblings about nicotine scrims and the earth tones of late-’70s New York (brown cars anyone?) as criticisms of his cinematography.
That night I spotted Quiñones, Daze, and a tall, older black man in an impressive vest festooned with Black Spades and Zulu Nation patches, who must have been someone from the original scene (but was always too busy to interrupt). Jeffrey Deitch was in the house. I expected to see Ms. Rapture herself, Debbie Harry, but no luck. And sadly, my favorite character of all, Rammellzee, had died several years ago (though he was represented by some of his truly singular “Ikonoklast Panzerism” work). Overall, the crowd was perhaps the most diverse—in age, ethnicity, and style—I’d ever seen at an American museum. There were many reunion hugs between the old-timers, and the whole evening had the feeling of a homecoming—for them, for me, for graffiti—to an earlier New York.
On one wall, quotes of various luminaries opining on New York graffiti in its heyday were printed. There were some “pro” comments (Warhol, Mailer), but far more “anti” (politicians, law enforcement, rich people). One Kathleen Westin, MoMA Junior Council Co-Chair, apparently said, “The people who graffiti ought to be shot at dawn.” If Ms. Westin could see this well-tailored collection today, in an establishment museum setting, she might change her mind. Or at least be persuaded to put down the gun.
Left: Filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer and Lady Pink. Right: Haze.
IT WAS THE WEEKEND of the Big Game and tensions were high.
“Where’s the Stoned team?”
“Seriously, guys—get on the field! It’s game time!”
Emerald-teed Team Stoned stumbled onto the part of a dusty parking lot marked up to resemble a soccer field, as their red-shirted opponents—Team Drunk—roared cheers from a formidable-looking huddle. Less than ten seconds after the first whistle, one of Drunk’s forwards sent an impassioned kick toward the Stoned goalie, who was casually chatting with a passing stranger. The ball flew by him, easily sailing through the parking cone goalposts. Team Drunk erupted into howls and fist-pumps. Team Stoned dissolved into disparaging grumbles: “Cooome on, man! You gotta watch the goal, if you’re going to play…” “That guy asked me a question!” the goalie protested. Needless to say, what followed was a pummeling akin to that of this weekend’s other big game (the Puppy Bowl).
Drunk vs Stoned was Scott Reeder and Tyson Reeder’s contribution to Paramount Ranch, Los Angeles’s newest art fair, masterminded by Paradise Garage’s Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen and fresh transplants Robbie Fitzpatrick and Alex Freedman. Paramount Ranch eschewed the convention centers, expo halls, and airport hangars of other fairs, installing thirty-some galleries and artists-run spaces in an eponymous prop Western town tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains. Once known as Rancho Las Virgenes, in its sixty years as a movie set the ranch has appeared on screen as everything from Old Salem to an isle in the South Pacific. Most attendees knew it—if at all—as the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but apparently it’s also a hotspot for theme weddings.
The fair was free to all who made the journey, and closed at sundown. (The latter was less a nod to cinematic tropes than deference to the National Park Service, which maintains the site.) “We prefer to think of it not so much as a commercial fair as a community street festival,” Fitzpatrick explained. “Our mission has really been to connect these new, young, globe-trotting galleries, but in a way that’s more interesting than just another white-cube fair.” Outfits like Supportico Lopez, Neue Alte Brücke, Misako & Rosen, and Essex Street settled behind the old-timey facades of the General Store, the Great Bend Jail, and Hotel Mud Bug, while 356 Mission/Ooga Booga headquartered in the open-air Depot (where Teams Drunk and Stoned pregamed at a finger-painting station).
“If you’re going to have to have a hangover, this is a pretty sweet place to spend it,” dealer François Ghebaly mused from the sun-soaked porch of the Barn, where he was showing some coltish Mike Kuchar drawings. Over outside the Saloon, two cowboys wearing little more than their hats, boots, and limited edition Artists Space Stewart Uoo scarves sunned themselves in front of a red pickup truck. “I tried to get us some Hollister models, but we ended up with porn stars,” director Stefan Kalmár admitted. “I think it still works, no?”
Kalmár was sporting a hat of his own, but those who embraced the Wild West couture were by and large outnumbered by fairgoers who stuck to the all-black, I’m-from-Milan uniform of European art folk. By a little past high noon, the main street was patrolled by curators Cecilia Alemani, Ann Goldstein, Aram Moshayedi, Ali Subotnik, and Marc Olivier-Wahler; collectors Michael Chow, Susan and Michael Hort, Herbert and Lenore Schorr, and John Morace; and too many artists to count. On the porch of the General Store, the dealers of Night Gallery and Balice Hertling were mixing sun and cigarettes, when artist Anicka Yi paused from bemoaning the dust coating her white pants (“I figured if I wasn’t going to wear a cowboy hat, I might as well go Elton John in the Hamptons”) to pose a relevant question: “Wait, so who’s tending your booths at the other fair?”
After all, Paramount Ranch wasn’t the only rodeo in town. Besides Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ostensibly the week’s big ticket venue), Printed Matter’s second annual LA Art Book Fair brought together over 250 independent publishers and book peddlers at MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary. Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the offerings, I pleaded my way into a walking tour with fair curator Shannon Michael Cane and coordinator Jordan Nassar, who pointed out the newly rechristened “(Xe)rox & Paper+Scissors” (née “Zineworld”), where very earnest-looking artists manned folding tables full of DIY mags and mailing list sign-up sheets. “That was fast,” Cane marveled, tapping a print of what looked like a dick somebody had accidentally stepped on. “It’s a Pharrell hat,” he clarified. (I made a mental note to Google that.)
Up the ramp, the Paul Schimmel Gallery was lined wall-to-wall with full frontal posters of naked bears (not the Smokey variety)—denizens of Christopher Schultz’s Pinups world. They stood watch over the two hundred–plus handmade queer zines combined from the collections of Phil Aarons and AA Bronson. Onlookers gingerly fingered titles like Straight to Hell: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts, Johnny Are You Queer?, They Shoot Homos Don’t They?, and Sluts: Special Death Issue. I was charmed by a humble edition titled Great Paintings of Western Civilization, which featured cheesecake hunks pasted over Rubens, van Dycks, and Jan Weenix’s Trophies of the Chase.
Speaking of trophies, all over the fair folks were lining up to get newly purchased copies autographed by the likes of Dave Hickey, Allen Ruppersberg, and Frances Stark, the last of who was camped out with her adolescent son Arlo at Contemporary Art Gallery of Vancouver, signing transcripts of her chat-room-sex epic, My Best Thing. I asked for a photo of the two of them, and Arlo gave me the eye: “What do you want it for…?” “Oh, he’s already such an operator,” Stark laughed, proudly.
Not everyone was in a sunny mood. While there seemed to be plenty of appreciation, cash flow was in shorter supply. “I came all the way from New York, so I could not sell any books,” grumbled Ari Marcopoulos. “I have a friend who’s done this fair before, and he warned me ahead of time not to bring too many books,” Pin-Up’s Felix Burrichter confessed. “He told me that people here don’t buy books, they buy merchandise.” This would explain the Etsy-esque arrays of prints, bumper stickers, T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, coasters, keychains, and infant onesies crowding the aisles.
For the window-shoppers, the fair provided a full program of performances, panels, and conversations at the Japanese American National Museum’s Democracy Forum, just “30 secs away,” according to the fair map. Much like the merch, variety was key. At 11 AM on Saturday, I stumbled from a well-attended discussion of the journal Documents into a one-woman show by Dynasty Handbag, sponsored by MoCA TV. Handbag used the early hour as an excuse to riff on brunch themes (“Tabasco, ketchup, salt and pepper, milk for the coffee / So much shit on the table at brunch time” and “Pigs can open a door / Do you want to eat something that can open a door?!”) while gyrating before a only-very-recently-caffeinated audience. “You’re awake now, aren’t you?” cracked organizer Emma Reeves from our ill-thought-out front-row seats.
For those who couldn’t nab a spot for Surface magazine’s Saturday night showdown featuring Hans Ulrich Obrist, John Baldessari, and Meg Cranston at the Ace Hotel’s theater, ForYourArt organized a morning-after event at the fair. “Artists Reading Baldessari” (#BackAtchaBaldi) enlisted fifty artists, friends, and longtime supporters to read selected texts from the recently published/perpetually launched More than You Wanted to Know About John Baldessari, Vol 1 + 2. Each reader offered his or her own interpretation of the artist’s dry wit and dogmatic antidogma. Actor Fred Savage nailed “Advice to a Young Artist,” reading from a binder, audition style. Jim Shaw punctuated his assigned text with falsetto trills, while Rachel Lord delivered hers to the tune of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” Ed Fornieles sent a thick-drawled friend to read in his stead. (“I’m kind of obsessed with Americana right now, and what’s more American than a Southern accent,” the artist grinned.) Simone Forti struck a series of poses, pronouncing “I Am Making Art” after each as a single spotlight followed her around the stage. “That was really special,” fellow reader Alex Israel gushed afterwards. “I mean, come on, it’s Simone Forti.”
Slow sales aside, the LA Art Book Fair was filled with the kinds of endorphin highs LA usually attributes to kale salads and canyon runs. Who wouldn’t feel hopeful looking at all those would-be bibliophiles corralled into a queue outside the Geffen? “This won’t take long,” someone assured their line companion as I slipped out. “I just need to take a quick selfie here.”
Left: Dealer Federico Vavassori at Paramount Ranch. Right: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmar at Paramount Ranch.