Armory Show Soldiers On

The Joy Factory, 2020, by Mehdi Ghadyanloo. (Courtesy Dastan Gallery)
Awash with Purell, an art show brings in crowds

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I  went to the opening of this year’s Armory Show at Pier 94 in Manhattan on Wednesday. Outside was the sparkling Hudson. Inside, there was enough Purell to float the Circle Line. The first flu cases have already hit Manhattan but the mood was lively among big crowds. Elbow bumps, air kisses, unusually ridiculous jazz waves, and a bow or two ruled the festivities. Champagne flowed, as did 120 proof hand sanitizer, but hold the Corona beer, please. It’ll kill the mood.

With 180 galleries from 32 countries showing mostly new work, it’s a massive show, so big no Armory in New York can show it. The 1913 Armory Show was indeed in an armory and famously supplied Americans with so massive a dose of new art from Europe that the New York art avant garde was born. This fair, held every year, borrows the name “Armory Show” and covers the globe.

It’s a giddy show but not one big, floating junk shop. That would be the annual Frieze fair on Randall’s Island. Kudos to two dealers for tenacity on top of some very good art. Most of the dealers are European but, in a first, I saw an Iranian dealer. Dastan’s Basement opened in 2012 and focuses on living Iranian artists. The founder’s grandfather was a general in the Iranian army under the Shah, which was a better route than most to the firing squad, but he smartly changed careers to calligraphy. The owner is a civil engineer by training who fell in love with art. Now, the gallery is his full-time job.

My sense is that Iranian art is thriving, as art often does in tumultuous times. “The Joy Factory” by Mehdi Ghadyanloo, painted this year, is big — 78 by 118 — and probably one of the few things in Tehran these days putting a smile on people’s faces. About ten years ago, Ghadyanloo was hired by the Tehran Bureau of Beautification to paint big outdoor murals in a trompe l’oeil style. He’s doing very good studio paintings now. “The Joy Factory” went for $44,000, a good deal.

There’s an Iran chic, and as many of my readers might have intuited, I look askance at fads. Still, Ghandaloo’s mural work in Tehran relieved acre upon acre of dismal concrete. He’s an illusionist and possibly a fabulist, too, and I can read what he’s doing in a subversive way, though the mullahs, hardly connoisseurs, might not. I kept thinking about the optometrist Dr. T. J. Eckleberg’s billboard — disembodied eyes — hovering over gray, drab Queens in “The Great Gatsby.” Ghadyanloo’s shiny, bright, relentlessly happy murals might be an exercise of, as art history professors say in class, “compare and contrast.”

From Tehran to Hong Kong. One of the earliest high-quality, international art dealers in Hong Kong is the 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. Again, to its owner’s great credit, it had a nice booth. The gallery overcame both the unrest in Hong Kong and the coronavirus scare to get to New York.

It’s mostly Chinese contemporary art and very strong. I think Shi Guorui’s photographs of Catskills woods are enchanting. He does camera obscura work, a technique that’s hundreds of years old. Shi (b. 1964) is one of China’s leading photographers. He’s used camera obscura to photograph Chinese urban landscapes, which is a fascinating mix of an old technology and constant change, but he’s now photographing in the Catskills.

Kaaterskill Falls is one of the icons of Hudson River School painting, with Cole, Kensett, and a dozen others tackling this distinctive site. Shi’s is a camera obscura silver gelatin print. It’s a three-day exposure. At 68 by 44 inches, it has immense presence. It’s actually breathtaking, with each branch, leaf, and ribbon of water a hypercharged reality. I felt I was about to walk into a Maxfield Parrish painting, though in a grisaille palette. It’s $55,000 and a unique print.

Installation of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC)

For sheer dazzle, I couldn’t find a matching, cleverly done booth for the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s big exterior wall. It’s a reprise, though smaller, of two landmark museum exhibitions exploring how Modernists interpreted the Grotesque, the 18th century taste for the strange, the hideous, and the mysterious in art and literature. I saw one, “Deformations,” at MoMa in the mid-1990s. It correctly revealed that Modernist art in America wasn’t all geometry and light. Indeed, the Modernist monster is scarier than Dr. Frankenstein’s.

I think this booth is the best in the show. First of all, I’m beginning to like the idea of recreating old exhibitions more and more. I see so many mediocre “new” exhibitions that I’m beginning to wonder why museums don’t just do milestone exhibitions of the past, like recreating a Whitney Biennial from, say, fifty years ago. Exhibitions such as “Deformations” are now period pieces themselves, showing what critical and curatorial opinion was finding new and thrilling at a given time. The checklists are done so it’s economically efficient. Seeing these shows today is enlightening. What did the curators of yesteryear get wrong or, better, what did they get right that we’re overlooking today?

Untitled (Head), 1949, by Pavel Tchelitchew. Pastel on black paper. (Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC)

The exterior wall for Rosenfeld Gallery displays about twenty small works, mostly paintings, in Salon Style. They’re all good and all blue chip Modernist names. An exquisite Mark Tobey painting goes for $75,000. I loved a pastel black and white head by Pavel Tchelitchew, today a vastly underrated American artist. He was a Russian emigre who became a friend of Gertrude Stein and, later, part of the estimable circle of Lincoln Kirstein. The asking price is $80,000.

Mel Kendrick (b. 1949) and Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) are both having career retrospectives this year so it’s a good time to look at their work in the marketplace. They’re very different artists but share core qualities. They’re consistently good and inventive. Their art never feels redundant or derivative. It’s blue chip but never trendy or brash. Neither has ever had a price bubble. They evince human values: curiosity, empathy, love of craftsmanship, and trust in materials and subjects.

Two Young Men, Harlem NY, 1976, by Dawoud Bey. Gelatin silver print. (© Dawoud Bey. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly, New York)

There’s a great early Bey portfolio at Sean Kelly, an always good New York dealer. “Harlem USA, 1975–1979” launched Bey, who does enigmatic portraits of teenagers and scenes of everyday city life. Bey has lived in Chicago for years, though he grew up in Queens and made these photographs when he was a teenager. I’ve followed his work for years and will quote myself as I always say this when I talk about Bey. “He is a pure artist and has never sold out.” There’s lots of honesty and kindness in his work. “Two Young Men” is part of the portfolio. There are 10 prints of this image, starting at $7,000 for 1/10 and ending, at 10/10, at $20,000. This simply means the fewer prints remaining, the higher the price. It’s an easy example of supply and demand.

Untitled, 2020, by Mel Kendrick. Mahogany with Japan color. (© Mel Kendrick. Courtesy of the artist and David Nola Gallery, New York)

Kendrick’s big abstract wall sculpture, from 2020, is very handsome and priced at $100,000 at David Nolan’s booth. He works mostly in wood, America’s ubiquitous material. It’s good to start with the material. Each piece of wood is different, its grain a fingerprint. Kendrick takes this core quality and carves lines and creates voids that make sense to him. He usually uses color but only to complement the wood, and his sense of the color of paint and the wood’s natural palette is pitch perfect. Some of his sculptures are in the round but they are always of human scale.

Boat Group 2, 2019, by Dana Schutz. Monotype with hand painting in gouache. (Courtesy Two Palms)

Two Palms Press has a lovely booth. What do they do? They make great prints. They work with artists whose vision and edge demand extraordinary technical prowess. Such artists as Chuck Close, Carroll Dunham, Terry Winters, Matthew Barney, or Dana Schutz, will appear on their doorstep saying, “I want to do this weird new thing,” and that’s the beginning of a collaboration. Schutz (b. 1976) is one of the best American painters today but she creates prints, too. “Boat Group 2” from 2019 is a monotype with hand applied gouache. It’s her riff on Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” or Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” in my opinion, or maybe Jaws. Note the arm reaching toward something lurking in the deep.

A monotype is a one shot print. The artist makes a design on a glass or wood plate with a greasy crayon or pen and then the plate goes through the press. The squish of the press makes beautiful, gauzy contours and elegantly tapering lines. Schutz then added gouache embellishments. It’s $70,000 and was just sold when I got there. It’s a unique work — there’s almost never enough ink on the plate for a second go — but it’s still called a print because it’s on paper.

I’m in Amsterdam today to see the Caravaggio and Bernini exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. I’ll head to Maastricht tomorrow for the big TEFAF Old Master fair, then to London to see shows and finally to Ghent to see the just restored Ghent altarpiece.

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