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The New York fairs.

Remember Doctor T. J. Eckleburg? Think back to high-school English. Eckleburg is the defunct optometrist who stares down from his billboard on the protagonists of The Great Gatsby. "Standing behind him Michaelis saw with shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg that had just emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night. 'God sees everything; repeated Wilson. 'That's an advertisement; Michaelis assured him."

The art world has its own Eckleburg. Staring down from the elevated railroad track of the High Line, which cuts through the Chelsea gallery district, are three billboards. What they advertise is not optometry, but an ever-rotating assortment of banalities on the world of art, printed in bold black letters: the sayings of Patrick Mimran.

Some of Mimran's efforts are aphorisms: "Intellectual revolution = retinal submission." Many concern themselves with the business of art: "Artists do not need dealers, they just need walls." Others contain the answering-machine messages of a jet-setting art snob: "Sorry I'm in Gstaad."

In March, The New York Times caught up with Mimran on the slopes of the Wasserngrat and described him as a "silver-haired 50-year-old Frenchman with a penchant for ascots." He "lives in Switzerland, where he once owned a factory that made Lamborghinis, but spends several months of each year in New York." (If this story isn't a hoax, it should be.) The article went on to present Mimran's billboards as a sort of public service, a National Debt Clock for the art world.

I've always taken these to be publicity stunts by a latter-day Jenny Holzer. Whether it's "God sees everything" or "That's an advertisement" we may never really know with Mimran. He is an aphorist of little consequence, his statements as meaningless as Eckleburg's beeper number. Nevertheless, his billboards speak to the valley of ashes we call the contemporary art scene.

The art of today has grown self-referential in an uncanny way--a new ars gratia artis. By expanding the boundaries, the new pluralism may have broadened the definitions of art. But it also rendered its purview more self-contained. Buyer, curator, dealer, critic, and artist now contend for the same spots at the table--and it's all anybody wants to talk about. "Art world for art world's sake" could be the motto of the day.

Twenty years ago we could expect a conceptual artist to rail against the patriarchy. No more. Mimran's statements don't reach east of Tenth Avenue. His most recent billboard reads "Collectors want to be dealers, dealers hope to be stars, and curators dream to be artists." Okay. But isn't it also true to say that "Collectors hope to be stars, dealers dream to be curators, and artists want to be collectors," or whatever you want? Just stick the art world front and center, and the laughs keep coming.

Consider this closing line from the Times's coverage of Molly, the 11-month-old mouser who became stuck in a West-Village wall in April and attracted international attention with her rescue: One passerby said she "thought the whole panorama was not an animal story but an elaborate effort by the cat, the media, the shop and the people 'to get into the Whitney Biennial.'"

The Whitney Biennial? That's rich. And the funny thing is, the art world loves to be reduced to a punchline. There may be no end to the smug humor it seeks to derive from itself. This year, for example, there was the spectacle of the Biennial having a gut buster over that other great art phenomenon of the contemporary age: the art fair. In the Biennial catalogue, Bruce Hainley wrote a mock standardized test called "No Child Left Behind." Every question concerned the art biz. One multiple choice compared "art/artists" to "art fairs" and gave these possible analogies: "a) writers : readings; b) Judy Garland : Carnegie Hall; c) pigs : slaughter; d) Duchamp's Fountain : 20th century; e) heroin : crack; f) art fairs : biennials." Judy Garland? Duchamp? Crack? Art fairs? Biennials? That's gold, Jerry, gold!

Then there was also this side-splitter, by the curators Iles and Vergne: "In another twist of the uncanny, a new breed of art fair has infused the traditional commercial marketplace with a sense of carnival, defamiliarizing the mercantile with a critical, performative impulse, creating a shimmerer's dance evocative of Andy Warhol." The way they parody art academese to such brilliant effect--you can't beat pros like this.

Journalists now write about art in similar ways. The art fairs pose a particular challenge, because they have little meaning except in relation to each other or their former selves. Bald so we get the art-world scold Tyler Green of Bloomberg News nattering last year on his weblog "Modern Art Notes": "The Armory Show is a trade show, Miami Basel is an industry-wide convention." In other words, talk to the hand. In The New York Times, Ken Johnson this year contemplated how "Other Art Fairs Hitch a Ride on Armory's Buzz" (New York saw five fairs over Armory weekend, including fairs named "Diva," "Scope" and "Pulse"). Zachary Pincus-Roth issued a comparison chart from the Times's Arts and Leisure desk with this important Armory statistic: "OSCAR NOMINEES OR WINNERS ON HAND--At least 6."

I sympathize. This year The Armory Show again presented its well-oiled operation on two piers along the Hudson River. (1) As the contemporary art market continues to lead, The Armory Show remains the fair to beat, at least in New York. But how can you say anything new about it? I won't even try, and instead fall back on these post-fair stats: "47,000 collectors, critics and curators visited the show and galleries reported $62 million in sales, a 37% increase over $45 million in sales at The Armory Show 2005."

Contemporary art is a show. Armory is its artful choreographer, even if the routine seems little changed from years past. The fair continues to be overseen by a street-smart press director who cut her teeth in union organization. The piers are packed. The fair runs innumerable parties. Journalists contend for press passes. Buyers sneak in disguised as workmen before the preview. MOMA director Glenn Lowry even eats his post-press lunch at the same Armory cafeteria table he did a year before.

Meanwhile, the same formula of derivative modernism fills out 150 or so international galleries--an offering of aesthetic junk bonds ready to be given meaning by the next daring speculator. Dean Sameshima's Isolation (Black on White) (2006), a painting of connect-the-dots from Peres Projects, is a good example of how such work demands to be completed. This is not to say Armory goes without its pleasant surprises, such as Walton Ford's pseudo-storybook illustrations at Paul Kasmin. But it is the "newness" of this show that gets old hat--the pratfalls one encounters in seeking out the next curious thing (Let's make something out of breakfast cereal! Packing material! That hirsute 1970s edition of The Joy of Sex!). Predictability is a part of contemporary art's in-house joke.

One question you hear frequently in the insular world of art is how The Armory Show compares with the Whimey Biennial. My one-liner is that the Armory does conceptually derivative art while the Whitney does derivative conceptual art. Did that make you laugh? No matter.

If only The Art Show had not been so predictable in lusting after The Armory Show's insular style. (2) Once positioned against The Armory Show, The Art Show now grafts its rich resources of twentieth-century modern painting onto Armory-like derivations of its own real thing. Only two years ago, early to mid-twentieth-century American modernism was the mainstay of this fair. But the Art Dealers Association of America, the trade organization behind The Art Show, has unwisely decided to purge some of their regular twentieth-century galleries, push Salander-O'Reilly into the back corner, and move in some younger blood. (The tragically hip gallery P-P-O-W had the dullest booth of the entire fair season, by the way).

The Art Show is trying to tap the fun of the contemporary scene, but what results is a carnival without the parade, a kegger in the old-age home. One expects the audience at The Art Show just about to trip over Richard Tuttle's string do-dads with their walkers. There were, however, still several good individual exhibitors. Michael Werner wisely bet the farm on a single-artist presentation of Francis Picabia, who could paint in more styles than one might like. Nolan/Eckman had smart visual pairings of Markus Lupertz, Steve DiBenedetto, and Barry Le Va. Mary Ryan Gallery was new to the show with a rare work by Charlotte Salomon, the art world's Anne Frank, who left behind a remarkable visual record of her life, now mainly in the The Jewish Historical Museum of The Netherlands. There was also Salander-O'Reilly's beautiful display of Giorgio Cavallon, Georg L. K. Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, and a precious Albert Ryder from 1885. Knoedler had a Barnett Newman from 1949 that was the talk of the fair. My favorite presentation, however, was an assembly of early twentieth-century abstractionists at Rachel Adler Fine Art, many of them largely unknown: Georges Vantongerloo, Liubov Popova, and Amedee Ozenfant matched to more household names like Krupka and Arp. See! Something new can pierce the Ironic Curtain of contemporary art. The Art Show once did this quite regularly.

Permit me to skip the Outsider Art Fair, an Asperger's Roadshow now in need of a hiatus due to a saturated market, to arrive at the sleeper hit of the season. Last year, beset by an ice storm, the Winter Antiques Show could not have fallen flatter over its weeklong run. What a difference a year makes. Oblivious to the run-up of contemporary art, this antiques lair now thrives on a market that maintains a healthy relationship with the art it values. (3) The rising interest in American antiques may be regarded as one of the few good things that happened to American art in the past several years. Market value now preserves and showcases once underappreciated work. An exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum this winter no doubt triggered a particular interest in grain-painted furniture from the early nineteenth century. Examples of this fantastic, decorative craft were in abundance at the fair. Jeffery Tillou had fine colorful examples, as did Olde Hope Antiques and David A. Schorsch-Eileen M. Smiles Antiques.

I understand this fair even held a successful Young Collectors Night. How's this for a punch line? American antiques may just have the last laugh over the insulated hothouse of contemporary art. Now that's something you can smile about.

(1) "The Armory Show: The International Fair of New Art" was on view at Piers 90 and 92, New York City, from March 10 through March 13, 2006.

(2) "The Art Show" was on view at the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York, from February 23 through February 27, 2006.

(3) "The Winter Antiques Show" was on view at the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York, from January 20 through January 29, 2006.
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Title Annotation:art shows
Author:Panero, James
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:May 1, 2006
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