Cruising The Armory

#TRANSENCOURAGED, #FULLSPECTRUMRAGE and #BISLASHTRY With David Riley

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As the largest of New York’s annual art fairs, the Armory Show provides thousands of visitors with the opportunity to experience museum quality work in a convention center setting. Most often described in the press as “sprawling”, the humming fluorescence, politely buzzing crowds, and row-upon-row of makeshift gallery booths all contribute to the fair’s big-box allure.

The crowd control barriers and tab-free Tyvek wristbands suggest the excitement of a concert or sporting event, but the mood is closer to that of an airport. TBT I lost my companions within the first five minutes, after staring too long at an Enrico Castellani canvas. I felt the old, familiar anxiety of a child lost in a supermarket, wandering the aisles, quietly observing the strange, transitory environment.

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The dealers favor a simple uniform: muted pant suits in navy or charcoal or black, with sensible shoes. A few (rare) eccentrics in colorful collector cosplay gather at the random outcroppings of sponsored furniture––slabs of raw wood and artificial rocks, deposited as if by glacier. Art students roam the fair in packs, perhaps hunting for something to describe as #normcore (Julian Opie?).

It’s difficult to engage with the work on a personal level while navigating swarms of Instagrammers, and art dads multitasking strollers and plastic champagne flutes. In this increasingly data-driven art market, Artsy has installed helpful displays of the trending artists and most followed exhibitors, making it more convenient to browse the fair on one’s smartphone, sorting by price, low>high. Even if I were to really look at the inscrutable assortments of objects (mostly paintings), what to make of a booth showing a Rashaad Newsome collage alongside a Tom Otterness sculpture? Are these pieces in conversation?

The impulse is to float out of one’s own skull into the rafters of this hangar-like space, to wax macrocosmic, get big picture, and take a few casual leaps of imagination.

Wouldn’t Wayne Thiebaud’s patisserie paintings pair charmingly with the La Durée macaroon wagon? Does the general layout of the fair echo that of the Mercedes showroom across 12th avenue? Certainly, there is the same preference for low-slung modern coffee tables and high traffic carpeting. Would a rubber sculpture by Peter Fischli and David Weiss fit into the trunk of an E-Class?
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And maybe we’ve found an enormous analog for the entire Armory show in the hulking, inescapable presence of the Carnival Splendor, the 100,000+ ton cruise ship parked next to the fair, and which fills all of Pier 92’s portside windows. Rivaling the Armory in sheer size, the Splendor comes equipped with thalassotherapy spa, ceremonial tea-house, mid-ship pool with retractable dome, and supper club offering “magnificent ocean vistas”.

Cost to build: $697 million.

With the unstoppable rise of the world’s seas, it’s not hard to foresee a time when Piers 92 and 94 are swamped by the waves, and the Armory fair must be relocated to the Splendor.

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On the Art Ark, every booth gets its own cabin. Dealers fight over their placement on the Empress, Lido, or Panorama decks. David Zwirner of course gets first choice of the staterooms. How long does open bar last at El Morocco? The tangerine-hued Marc Jacobs lounges by the Splash Park waterslide, beneath Yorgo Alexopolos’ panoramic video loops of digital ocean waves. Israel Lund hangs between a pair of twin relaxation tables in the Cloud 9 spa suite. Nadim Abbas’ “Marine Lover” installation, made of polyresin coral casts, fluorescent black lights, plywood, door frames, and mirror, fits perfectly into the Oceanview Bar.

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In case of disaster, which work would you take on the lifeboat? Large work must be jettisoned in favor of the portable. Zhang Ding’s monolithic “Black Orbit” is tossed overboard. On the other hand, Yayoi Kusuma’s Nets & Red No. 8, a delicate watercolor on paper with nylon mesh overlay, can be used in an emergency to net fish. Others might appreciate the dark humor of George Widener’s “Do Your Best”, an ink-on-paper cross section of the doomed Titanic. A more practical and buoyant choice might be Craig Kauffman’s “Untitled (Donut #14)”. Or maybe the performers within the white cube of Xu Zhen’s “Action of Consciousness” might eventually toss us a life preserver?

In any case, The Armory Show could use a map as simple as that of the cruiseship, which shows each of its 13 decks individually color-coded. There isn’t much of an organizing principle beyond the division of the fair into modern/contemporary wings, each with its own “special section”. In the case of the modern, it’s “Venus Drawn Out”, a survey of great women artists of the 20th century, which includes drawings by Louise Bourgeois, gouaches by Nancy Spero, oils by Inka Essenhigh, and effusive cast paper sculptures by Lynda Benglis, all mounted on grape-colored walls––the fair’s only concession to color-coding.

In the contemporary wing, the “Focus: China” section groups together galleries from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Though many of the featured artists never experienced the Cultural Revolution, the specter of Mao still hangs over the fair like a benevolent smog. Here he is in enormous crumpled poster form, as one of Jin Feng’s “Socialist Leaders”, which I imagine presiding over a Tiananmen square teeming with Xu Zhen’s floral Citibikes. Elsewhere he peeks out from the décor of Lichtenstein’s “Modern Room”, and on the Artsy app itself, he appears over 20 times, in the work of Sophie Calle, Cao Fai, and in 6 different Warhol versions. Almost 40 years after his death, Mao is more collectible than ever. (Did you know he was a strong swimmer?)

On Sunday afternoon, around cocktail hour (which is every hour), I finally spotted my companions, one of whose shirts, a red, skintight sports compression top, stood out like a beacon at the far end of the fair.

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A few minutes later, after a few drinks, I was overcome with another old, familiar feeling––seasickness. Children flocked to the windows to watch the Carnival Splendor, as long as a city block, leave port and move slowly out to sea, giving the entire Armory fair, at least for a few minutes, the illusion of movement.