THE COMMERCIAL CONFLAGRATION that is Armory Arts Week always begins with promise. This year—perhaps predictably, given the conservative profile of most art fairs—the nonprofit zone delivered on it first. The appetite whetter was MoMA’s Robert Heinecken retrospective, a revelatory show curated by Eva Respini. It gives overdue, East Coast recognition to the influential Left Coast proto-appropriationist and UCLA photography department founder—an artist’s artist if ever one was.
The Monday night opening sent paroxysms of pleasure through a photo-centric crowd that included collectors Michael and Eileen Cohen, photographers Susan Meiselas, Mitch Epstein, and Paul Graham, International Center of Photography curator Carol Squiers, and Paris Photo director Julian Frydman. As Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin was quick to note, the show travels to her institution next.
“It’s really fantastic,” said Marc Selwyn, who represents the Heinecken estate in LA, in collaboration with Mary Cherry. “It’s fantastic,” echoed Freidrich Petzel, who shows Heinecken in New York. “I worked with Robert in 1976,” veteran photo dealer Janet Borden recalled. Evidently she knew something that a lot of other people didn’t know, but it didn’t take long for first-nighters like Phil and Shelley Aarons or former New York Times photo editor Philip Gefter to see that Heinecken’s photocollages and magazine interventions anticipated the Pictures Generation strategies by twenty years.
With history thus nipping at our heels, I joined uptown art congregants the following evening for the forward-backward experience of the twenty-sixth annual Art Dealers of America “Art Show” at the Park Avenue Armory. Audiences here tend to be very pearls-at-the-neck, diamond-brooch-at-the-breast, and a generation or two past the lemmings streaming into the Whitney Museum that same night for the opening of this year’s biennial—the last to take place in the Marcel Breuer building before the Whitney decamps for new headquarters in the meatpacking district, designed by Renzo Piano. (What, him again?)
The Park Avenue crowd always brings a certain decorum to the ADAA show. Unlike the Whitney Biennial, it’s one that everyone loves to love. On Tuesday night, it actually felt more like a curated group exhibition than most biennials, which appear increasingly more like art-fair feeding grounds.
The modest size of the booths, and a generational shift that has turned what was a stuffy, modern/Old Master fair into an elegant contemporary one, prompted many of the seventy-two, all-American exhibitors to install one-person shows of recent art. Directly opposite the entrance, Sperone Westwater showed a knockout new group of Charles LeDray’s tiny, handmade clothing, including a rack of women’s dresses, and a delicate, daisy-chain necklace carved from human bone.
A moment later, ADAA president Dorsey Waxter waxed ecstatic about Petah Coyne’s plastic flower and stuffed peacock installation at the Lelong stand—if looks could talk, a crowd-pleaser—and told me not to miss Ann Hamilton’s live portrait studio at Carl Solway’s booth, where the artist was photographing volunteer subjects behind a translucent membrane. “Is this your art?” inquired the art lawyer John Silberman. “You are my art!” Hamilton replied. In the adjacent booth, Jacob Kassay had installed a group of shaped paintings on tan MDF board that was as cohesive a visual statement as he’s made since his dipped silver paintings. “It’s like a 1920s salon,” dealer Lisa Spellman said of the fair. “But contemporary.”
In the aisles I spotted MoMA director Glenn Lowry, art consultant Alan Schwartzman, Christie’s Bret Gorvy, and artist Philip Taaffe (who was featured at Luhring Augustine). Visiting dealer Jay Jopling, his cell phone glued to his ear, helped himself to the delicious hors d’oeuvres that are always an attraction of this fair’s gala preview, a benefit for the Henry Street Settlement, as Dallas collector Howard Rachofsky strode past and collectors Peter and Jill Kraus huddled with dealers Paula Cooper and Steve Henry. “We tried to go to the Whitney,” Kraus said, “but the line was backed up to Park Avenue—and this was just after seven o’clock.”
Personally, I was happy to keep looking around here. At Yancey Richardson’s stand, I discovered Zanele Muholi’s striking photographs of lesbian and transgender women in her native South Africa—resplendent in this refined environment. Sara VanDerBeek’s photos looked beautiful at Metro Pictures, as did Dana Schutz’s big charcoal drawings at Petzel, but the ten small portraits by Jeronimo Elespe, a former assistant to Sean Landers, sold out at Eleven Rivington before I could focus on a single one.
The hall was filling with sharp suits and trophy jewelry when Marianne Boesky attracted a full deck of distaff collectors—Artsy LA’s Haley Rose Cohen, Art Cart founder Hannah Flegelman, and the cheerful Amy Phelan—to her booth, which presented an unknown, ballpoint pen–drawing side of painting-machine, mushroom-sculpture artist Roxy Paine. Blum and Poe continued its tasty rollout of Mono-ha works; Alexander Gray promoted early abstraction by Jack Whitten; and Stefania Bortolami put up a handsome fourth wall to support shiny stripe paintings by Daniel Buren, with Richard Aldrich paintings behind it.
With their Gaston Lachaise–Louise Bourgeois twofer, Chelsea’s John Cheim and Howard Read materialized as very smart uptown dealers, as James Cohan was invoicing Spencer Finch’s Scotch-tape cloud drawings. Laurie Simmons arrived at the Salon 94 booth just as collectors Anita Zabludowicz and Wendy Fisher were admiring her “Walking Objects” photographs, three of them never exhibited before. “I used to feel funny about the big tomato, because I was afraid it would be taken as antifeminist,” she said. “Now I don’t care. I love it.”
There were two lines of shivering contenders for the door when I arrived at the Whitney, and a long snake of a queue for the coatroom in the lobby, where director Adam Weinberg was the official greeter. Relieved from biennial duty, Donna De Salvo and Scott Rothkopf also mingled with the waves of people pouring in to see the first biennial curated totally by curators from outside institutions—the better to leave Whitney staffers free to figure out what to do with the museum’s new building.
Left: Justin Vivian Bond and Participant's Lia Gangitano. Right: Artist Ei Arakawa.
Michelle Grabner’s top floor was a veritable fun fair of art, an obstacle course of riotous color made even more impassable by all the people—so many, I wondered how there could possibly still be so many waiting outside. (It was too dark out for Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura inside the Whitney’s Cyclops window to reflect the street.) Many of those present were artists. Some, like Amy Sillman, Dawoud Bey, Alma Allen, Karl Haendel, Joel Otterson, Laura Owens, and Sterling Ruby, were in the show. OthersRachel Harrison, Robert Longo, Lorraine O’Grady—were just visiting ghosts of biennials past. Phil Vanderhyden stood by his expert redo of the late Gretchen Bender’s forty-two-foot-long People in Pain, for my money one of the strongest works in the show. “There were eight feet I couldn’t fit on the wall,” Vanderhyden said, as former Stedelijk Museum director Ann Goldstein sidled up, recalling her own installation of the work in her seminal 1989 “Forest of Signs” exhibition at LA MoCA.
That must have been a better year for art than this one. Despite all the color and variety that Grabner brought to the floor, I had doubts that much of the work would have the Bender’s staying power if installed in a different context. Meanwhile, it was a lot of fun to negotiate the fourth floor and just enjoy the sights: Uri Aran roaming with his identical twin; Joel Otterson as delighted with his Bill Erlich diamond-and-sapphire brooch as he was with his handmade “transgender” tent of vintage gazar silk for girls; Jerry Saltz having his picture taken with Steve Martin, who said he came to the opening “just to see.”
It was so crowded that most people didn’t notice this special Oscar winner, just two days after the Oscars. But the stars here were the artists, who included a number of writers and publishers. Complaints of having to read too much were loud and perhaps not too serious, it was hard to tell. I’ll be the first to claim literature as an art, but it’s not an especially visual art and generally not one well suited for collective viewing. Yet dealer Lorcan O’Neill reported, “We’ve been getting high in the Semiotext(e) room,” evidently a covert clubhouse for pot smokers as well as a hangout for the press’s Sylvère Lotringer, performance artist Penny Arcade, and Tony Award–winning playwright and novelist Colm Tóibín.
“I like the mix of cool and uncool,” said Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum director Bill Arning. “Dealers are confused. They’re saying, ‘You mean we’re supposed to be showing this stuff?’ ” That would have made Stuart Comer laugh. “Museums are in crisis,” the curator of the Biennial’s third floor said—trapped between box office–pleasing market favorites and marginalized but culture-shifting ideas.
Guards chased us out of the museum before I’d even reached Anthony Elms’s second floor, but I followed the fleet to the Carlyle Hotel, where the poet and Triple Canopy supporter Tom Healy was hosting a cocktail party to celebrate the collective’s participation in the biennial. Among the famished diving for sliders and lining up for cocktails were biennialists Julie Ault and Emily Sundblad, as well as musician-artist-collector Michael Stipe, who held down a table with the English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“We’re going to the Toolbox,” said transgender performer Justin Vivian Bond. “You know it’s going to be trashy and ugly, and the drinks will be cheap.” Would that it could be as easy to predict where history will situate this biennial. All we can guess is that the celebrants of the next edition, downtown, will have to give up the Carlyle to settle for the Standard. Like many works in the show, it too is now for sale.
Left: Artist Carroll Dunham and Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf. Right: Artist Frances Stark.
CONTEMPORARY ART FAIRS MOVE FAST. For those dealers, collectors, and curators who stick around for the whirlwind of ten-hour fair days, visits to remote private collections, and thumping social hours at neighborhood joints with names like “Why Not?” the fair is quickly supplanted by hazy memories. But ARCO, set thirty minutes out of centro, or downtown Madrid, takes a more measured pace than others, as if mandating a siesta within the normative frenzy. And why not?
This year’s ARCOmadrid was pushed back a week to accommodate Mexico City’s ascending powerhouse, Zona Maco. But ARCO’s new dates didn’t fix every conflict: I heard a few dealers complain that the richest Spanish collectors weren’t at ARCO because of the overlap with Spain’s school vacation period, which spanned the fair’s entire week. “Basel Miami Beach also changed everything,” Inés López-Quesada of Travesía Quatro reminded me. Her gallery, co-run with Silvia Ortiz, had just finished opening a new space in Guadalajara, Mexico. “Spanish collectors are not in a hurry; they don’t care if the work they wanted on the first day is no longer available.” Other galleries were banking on the Spaniards coming in over the weekend after their annual ski trips to Switzerland, but few showed up. “It’s something we’re still figuring out,” said ARCO director Carlos Urroz Arancibia.
Left: Collectors Leonora Belilty and Estrellita Brodsky. Right: Reina Sofia deputy director João Fernandes.
Instead, I saw figures from the Latin American market, like collectors Estrellita Brodsky, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, and Jorge Pérez. There were also dealers such as Elena Foster, Luciana Brito, and Tom Krinzinger; institutional bigwigs like Fundación/Colleción Jumex director Patrick Charpenel and Manifesta 10 curator Kasper König; and international artists like Dan Graham, Fernanda Fragateiro, and Christian Boltanski. All of them mingled until troves of high school students descended on the fair and began taking selfies and giggling at the art, which raised the question of who these art fairs are for—a knowing few or a disinherited many in the throngs of a recession? “Because Spain is in crisis, it’s a bit cooler,” said guest speaker Judith Benhamou-Huet at a talk on collecting.
ARCO to some degree answers the question of audience through its innovative curatorial focus, which persuades curators from all over the world—from Adriano Pedrosa to the Guggenheim’s Pablo León de la Barra, from Museo Tamayo’s Julieta González to University Museum’s Cuauhtémoc Medina, Pérez Art Museum Miami’s Tobias Ostrander, and São Paulo Bienal 2014 cocurator Pablo Lafuente—to attend, flying them over gratis and inviting them to hold meetings with whomever they’d like. “We have to pay more attention,” said SculptureCenter’s Ruba Katrib, the first face I recognized. Katrib was preparing to head the opening talk, titled “Material Culture and Contemporary Art,” and she was a paragon of calm. “I’ve always wanted to get this group of people together, and ARCO has made it happen,” she continued. “This fair is really about quality, slowing down and looking at even derivatives in a different way. How are we to understand derivatives in today’s art world?”
Organized into two halls, the more than two hundred galleries tried out different strategies: Some took a nationalist tack, like Chantal Crousel, who showed the Spanish José Maria Sicilia—“an artist who could also be seen at any museum here,” she said. Or they went global. Los Angeles–based Honor Fraser showed the stoic work of Austrian Tillman Kaiser because “we believe in it; anyway, our clients are world travelers.”
The Opening section of the fair, cocurated by Manuel Segade and Luiza Teixeira de Freitas, included younger galleries, like New York–based Johannes Vogt, showing artists Sadie Benning and Johanna Unzueta. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s NoMíNIMO was at the fair for the first time, sharing a booth with Lima’s Revolver. “Guayaquil is where artists are producing innovative art in a range of media,” mentioned gallery director Pilar Estrada Lecaro. “In Quito, the government is the source for most of the funding.”
“Ecuador is a tale of two cities,” said Pablo León de la Barra as we passed Mexico City’s Proyecto Paralelo in the Focus Latinoamérica section of the fair. De la Barra had just come in from Bilbao (where he’d been visiting Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s latest exhibition, “The Body That Carries Me”) to give a few public talks with Latitude Brazil—a group that represents Brazilian galleries abroad. “My favorite work here is Fernanda Laguna at Nora Fisch,” he said. My favorite was Diego Bianchi’s wrenching performance installation over at Buenos Aires’ Barro Arte Contemporáneo, where a male performer’s clothes, limbs, teeth, and phallus were tethered by wire to assorted objects that hugged the walls of the closed-off booth, causing the assemblages to hover and produce audible creaks as he moved. “In a fair like this, you have to be contrary,” said Barro director Nahuel Ortiz Vidal. “Diego’s a contrario; the work doesn’t have to mean anything.” I took that to mean the opposite.
On Friday night, Latitude held a cocktail party at the Dry Martini. Pinta London chairman Alejandro Zaia was there, as were Madrid-based curator Virginia Torrente, dealer Cecilia Jurado, and 80m2’s Livia Benavides. The ascot-wearing dealer Henrique Faria arrived after most guests were already sipping their second or third caipirinha. (“Be careful; they can creep up on you,” warned São Paulo artist Ricardo Alcaide.) Faria was exhibiting the work of two Spanish emigrants, Venezuelan Emilia Azcárate and Cuban Waldo Balart. “Hopefully I’m showing them in better states than their two countries are in right now.” He had already purchased for himself a series of erotic drawings by artist Carlos Motta that riffed on pre-Columbian art. When asked where he was going to put them, Faria quipped, “Right in front of my bed, of course.”
I followed the crowd out into the night and on to collectors Leonora and Jimmy Belilty’s capacious, art-filled apartment. Cohosted by Nogueras Blanchard, Maisterravalbuena, and Mor Charpentier, the gathering was flooded with usual suspects: Estrellita Brodsky and Leonora held court in the dining room while Alex Mor and Misol Foundation director Solita Mishaan exchanged drawn smiles in the living room. There was a life-size white patent horse replete with a matching medieval rider in the den, lance at the ready. And the joust was on as we headed afterward to Bar Cock, ARCO’s answer to Cheers—if Cheers were once a down-low bordello.
Quiet it wasn’t. Beatriz López of Instituto de Vision was complaining that Sofia Vergara stole her accent (though López’s singing voice was all her own). Magali Arriola, Fundación/Colleción Jumex curator and co-comisaria of the fair’s Latin American section, though herself hoarse, was able to explain to me what it’s like to work at the Jumex’s new digs while balancing her art schedule with a seven-year-old daughter. Her husband, artist Mario García Torres, had just opened a show of new animations at Madrid’s Elba Benítez Gallery. CAPC director María Inés Rodríguez joined a tête-à-tête with Juan Andrés Gaitán, while Documenta 14 director Adam Szymczyk, curator Abaseh Mirvali, collector Frances Reynolds, and dealer Peter Kilchmann circumambulated the wainscoted room. Above it all a painted rooster presided over the clucking.
The next morning I flew to the south of Spain. The NMAC Foundation, located in Càdiz, had invited a private group that included dealers Esther Schipper and Marc Blondeau, Tate trustee Nicole Junkermann, collectors Pilar Lladó and Jaime Gorozpe, and more to tour its natural surrounds. (It was once owned by the Spanish military, and army barracks still dot the landscape like camouflaged caterpillars.) Jimena Blázquez of the importing/exporting Blázquez family opened the foundation in 2001 to work with artists on site-specific projects. Marina Abramović was the first, carving niches along a quarry rock face, then came others, including Sol LeWitt, Olafur Eliasson, and James Turrell, lured no doubt by the Càdizian light and the cross-cultural vantage of the city’s proximity to Africa. On a clear day, you could see the plains of Tangier from the Blazquez house, a modernist white cube decorated with Spanish antiques. It sat perched on a manicured hill above the family’s stables—the largest in the world, with over 1,500 horses (some of which were so scared of Abramović that they had to be given sedatives during her stay).
For lunch at the sun-filled house, we were served shrimp curry, naan, and a lomito wellington (an Argentinean take on the English classic) while Jimena and her father Antonio told stories about the NMAC artists in an easy mélange of English, French, and Spanish. Maurizio Cattelan had apparently asked the family to buy another refrigerator so he could stuff Antonio into it for one of his pieces; this idea would later evolve into Betsy, a 2002 portrait of grandmother Betsy Guinness of the Guinness fortune. After visiting poignant works by Cristina Lucas, Santiago Sierra, and Adrián Villar Rojas—the last of which was purchased jointly with Junkermann’s JJ Foundation—the tour culminated in a thirty-minute stop at the Turrell, the artist’s first Skyspace to fuse an Egyptian pyramid with a Buddhist stupa. “There was a convention of Skyspace owners last summer,” Jimena began to laugh. “We bonded over how difficult it is to build something like this.” This one had taken four years to complete. Once inside, despite the work’s consuming light, I could see the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt through the oculus. I felt I could have been anywhere—Cairo, Goa, Sevilla, Tokyo—and I suppose that’s the point of it: to transcend.
LAST YEAR I had to reckon with the fact that online magazine Triple Canopy was no longer just some little-known project run by friends. A public program of theirs in New York had sold out, and we were left shivering on Freeman Street. “But I know them!” And more pathetically: “I was in a band with one of them in college.”
Saying that they’ve “blown up” is a tad hyperbolic—after all, our context is that of publishing and nonprofit art spaces. Plus, some of you out there probably knew Stefani Germanotta at NYU. Still, the fact is, the group is now six years old and has already worked with the New Museum, MoMA PS1, and MoMA. They’re participating in the upcoming Whitney Biennial. Also, The Guardian ran a piece that described them “eating salads.” (If having your diet reported on by British press isn’t a sign of celebrity status, what is?)
This past weekend, TC left Brooklyn to head across the country, where editors Molly Kleiman and Lucy Ives gave a talk at UCLA. They were there to present the relaunch of the magazine’s online platform and “Alongslide,” its latest open-source layout. “Triple Canopy is no People magazine,” a friend said. “They’re rigorous.” That point was driven home as Kleiman, Ives, and developer Seth Erickson dissected common Internet-layout problems that are felt but not articulated by your average schmo.
After, speakers and audience alike made their way through rush-hour traffic to Silverlake, where Triple Canopy cohosted a party with the LA Review of Books in the house of author Joshua Wolf Shenk. LA, so I’ve heard, is on the brink of a drought, but that Friday evening was dewy, and a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd had amassed by 8 PM, around cheese and clementines inside, drinks from a bar at the balcony out back, and the pool and hot tub beyond. (When you’re coming from New York, any pool at a party seems magic and insane.)
“I didn’t know who’d be here,” said artist Shana Lutker, back in town for Project X’s benefit this weekend, “since it’s not quite an art opening.” And still, familiar faces: the Hammer Museum’s David Morehouse, Various Small Fires dealer Esther Kim, artists John Houck and Eve Fowler, and illustrator Joanna Neborsky. Artist-run spaces and nonprofits were in the house, with reps from Ooga Booga and Human Resources, among others. (“Artist-run spaces mean a lot more in LA,” said educator-editor Ronni Kimm.)
Kleiman and LAXART’s Eric Golo Stone discussed Common Practice LA—a newly minted advocacy group that counts LAXART, REDCAT, East of Borneo, and the MAK Center among its seven founding partners. (As it happens, Triple Canopy’s a member of Common Practice New York). “Small-scale art organizations don’t have a lobbyist,” Kleiman said. “So how do we make a case for the sector?”
A hush in the crowd paved the way for toasts. From the stairs, Tom Lutz, editor of the Review, spoke protectively of the magazines’ missions and prospects. “Advanced literacy and the arts are going against the flow, but also going with the flow of our culture too,” he said. Shenk used his toast to draw parallels between the two projects: “Both take advantage of online technology. But now they’re also letting us touch them.”
He paused. “And here we all are. Crowded and getting ready to touch each other.”
Fearful of what that scenario might look like, I escaped out front, where artist Phil Chang had gone for a smoke. We pondered conceptual connections between Triple Canopy and LA. Reflecting that Triple Canopy editors originally lifted their name from a private security firm, Chang pointed out that the city of angels also offers a huge military-industrial presence. “Usually it’s the production of cinema that becomes a parallel to artmaking in LA.”
So was arms manufacturing a better foil?
“Well,” Chang said, “LA’s truth is still stranger than the fiction it produces.”
Tell that to professional reality-TV-jackass Johnny Knoxville, who drew a flock of paparazzi on Monday at the Orpheum Theater downtown. There, he (and two thousand other Angelenos) convened to hear a conversation between John Waters and Jeff Koons. The event was part of “The Un-Private Collection,” a series of talks hosted offsite by the Broad Museum while it waits out delays to the completion of its $140 million building. (Apparently the museum’s tiled exoskeleton is what’s holding the project back.)
Ushers in velvet and brocade directed everyone to their seats. And everyone means the toniest of the LA art world’s movers, shakers, makers, and breakers—Paul Schimmel, Ed Ruscha, Alma Ruiz, Jeffrey Deitch. And so forth. People coming through town (like the Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf, curator of the upcoming Koons retrospective) and people who seem here to stay (Michael and Eva Chow).
“That was a very presidential-debate entrance,” Waters remarked, after he and Koons (both in suits) strode out from opposite ends of the stage and shook hands. And though they were clearly each other’s fanboys at the end of the day, there was a slight clash-of-candidates aspect to the whole affair. It was yin versus yang. Flamingo versus teddy bear. Prison psychologist versus Landmark life coach. For instance:
Is menace always lurking in your work?
What’s menacing for me is . . . to waste an opportunity . . . to experience the vastness of possibilities.
Let’s look at slide thirteen: the caterpillar with the ladder. To me that’s threatening! I mean, everybody knows you don’t go under a ladder!
The way you view something, it’s perfect. Whatever experiences you have in life, your interpretations, the art that you’re feeling: that’s perfect.
(bringing up an image of Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988)
Slide 18, to me, is your scariest work. Does Bubbles know the truth?
Actually, this piece always reminds me of King Tut. There’s aspects of the Egyptian, in the gold, in the light. But then, also, this is the Pietà.
If Waters was indeed the evening’s prison psychologist, he even became downright parole-board inquisitive—drawing laughs. “Do you smoke pot?” (“No. Well, I’ve tried things.”) “You try LSD?” “You ever been arrested?”
There was common ground, too. “I think we really do share a core,” said Koons at one point. “And that core is acceptance.” (Plus, Waters noted, his mother and Koons’s aunt had lived in a retirement home together.) And both seemed genuinely grateful for their success. Koons said that he could live in a trailer—and do what he wanted—for the rest of his life.
“Success [is] two things,” Waters quoted. “You can buy every book you want without looking at the price—and you never have to be around assholes.”
His words lingered as a portion of the crowd headed downstairs for the VIP reception hosted by Gagosian, and found itself facing a phalanx of five-plus bouncers with lists. Inside, in the wood-paneled room, caterers passed out crabmeat on spoons. “This is the Dom Pérignon from Koons’s balloon Venus,” nodded Gagosian Beverly Hills director Deborah McLeod, pointing at the champagne being poured.
Reactions to the talk ranged. “I was enjoying their opposing charms,” McLeod said. “Such wonderfully diverse styles.” Meanwhile, Bettina Korek, of ForYourArt, pondered: “Koons almost said something new.”
Waters appeared happy: “LA audiences are great. This is the only place you can say, ‘Maybe art for the people is not a good thing’—and get applause.”
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.