The Armory Show opened to VIPs this morning, debuting a rejiggered booth landscape reflecting the vision of its new director, Ben Genocchio. But while the fairgrounds looked markedly spiffier than in years past, restoring a bit of glitz to the proceedings, the tempo of sales remained in line with the contracting art market, and stayed slow in the first few hours, with an uptick in the afternoon, dealers said.
Genocchio—a former art-magazine editor and critic who once advocated for the cancellation of Art Basel Miami Beach—has made it clear for some time that he had no use for the old notions of what an art fair could be. Upon being named director of the Armory in late 2015, with no prior experience in the business, he told me, “Looking at art in a tent is like eating chicken from a bucket.”
Now fully in the fair business, Genocchio’s iconoclastic attitude has endured. During the press conference this morning (which, in a slight tweak to the proceedings, took place in the VIP Lounge, potentially to butter up the fourth estate—the space is usually off limits to reporters), he explained that he wanted to ensure Armory Shows maintains its place as the anchor of the city’s biggest fair week, listing the number of fairs that have switched their dates to coincide with the Armory, and noting how he completely revamped the approach to ensure that it was as fresh as possible.
“I took these industrial spaces on the West Side and I said, ‘Let’s rip it up and start over,’ ” he said, wearing a Maison Margiela suit.
He also took what appeared to be a sly shot at his local rival, Frieze New York, as well as an international rival that’s based in Basel, Switzerland.
“This is not a franchise fair,” he said before the reporters. “This is a New York institution.”
So, what did it look like, this reimagined, non-franchise New York institution? Well, it looked like an art fair. There were booths with dealers in them. There were a lot of people who were proverbially eating chicken from a bucket. But it’s hard to deny that there was a bit more cheer in the air when the fair opened its doors. Pier 92, which could become a ghost town when it held the modern galleries in past years, was enlivened by waterside views and the presence of younger galleries, like On Stellar Rays, of New York, and Moran Bonderoff, of Los Angeles. The Armory is still on a dirty pier next to Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, but there seemed to be some newfound spunk.
What’s more, after a few slow hours, dealers began to sell art—perhaps not for Basel-level prices, but in the mid-to-high six figures. White Cube, which was participating in the fair for the first time, had a solo booth of work by Cerith Wyn Evans, whose work had been selling for up to $250,000. (Two chandelier works of his were on sale for $265,000, and on hold.)
“We’ve got a whole week to sell, but it’s been great so far,” said White Cube’s Peter Brandt, when we chatted at the booth late in the day. “It’s always great to be in New York. And New York is full of slow-burners. People are going to buy later.”
Likewise, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac had managed to get Robert Rauschenberg’s Seafood Mama (Borealis), 1990, on reserve at $75,000, and Robert Longo’s Study of Helena (2016) on reserve for $50,000, but neither deal had been completed, last we checked. (“Come back and check in an hour?” a gallery rep said.)
And Sprüth Magers sold a Sterling Ruby collage for $35,000, just hours before the artist was about to open a big show at Gagosian Gallery’s 980 Madison location. But the gallery’s directors were still waiting for buyers to close on two other Rubys, including a very large sculpture that was laid out on the floor.
“You need a lot of space for it,” said Sprüth Magers’s Andreas Gegner. “Maybe it’s not made for New York.”
And then there were some outright successes: Sean Kelly said that he always does brisk business as the Armory Show and that this year was no different.
“It’s been a fantastic start,” Kelly said. “We’ve sold everything basically. We’re going to have to completely rehang tomorrow.”
Those on their way out include Hugo McCloud’s deleted lines (2017) for $40,000 and Sam Moyer’s Wide Eye (2017) for $35,000.
At least one work sold in the seven-figure range. Yayoi Kusama’s Guidepost to a New World (2016), which got a lot of attention in the Platform sector, was being offered through Victoria Miro, and sold in the range of $1 million. It was an edition of two—the first sold, the second is on reserve. Likewise, in that ballpark, Blain Southern sold a work by Jonas Burgert for $400,000 to $500,000.
And there were no shortage of collectors and notable figures who stalked the booths, looking for work. Adam Lindemann, Marty Margulies, Don Rubell, Laura de Gunzburg, Patricia Sandretto de Rebaudengo, and Larry Warsh were all spotted, as well as celebrities such as Anderson Cooper, John McEnroe, and Sofia Coppola.
And what about that much-heralded, crazy shakeup? Radical it wasn’t, but when changes were made, galleries seemed happy. In the past, for instance, Jack Shainman has usually occupied a very large space at the end of the northern part of Pier 94.
“The largest space in Armory history,” said Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, the gallery’s director.
Not so much this year. In the reshuffle, the space that Jack Shainman had been known for was chopped up and, as Bellorado-Samuels put it, “It didn’t make the area as enticing.”
Not that anyone is complaining—the gallery sold a slew of works, including Nick Cave’s Hustle Coat (2017) for $85,000 and Nina Chanel Abney’s Si, Mister (2017) for $75,000. (Carrie Mae Weems’s amazing All The Boys (Blocked 1), 2016, a powerful statement on police brutality, is on reserve for $40,000.)
So perhaps it is best they lost that very large space.
“Change is kind of nice,” Bellorado-Samuels said.
Just wait until next year, when the director could decide to rip it up and start over, again.