“Today, you need to have a story behind the art,” mused Isaac Stein, a New York-based collector, as we stared together at Jenny Morgan’s black-and-white painting of a spectral reclining woman at the booth of Anat Ebgi Gallery. He’s not wrong. Zig-zag your way across the 200-booth floor plan of New York’s Armory Show, back at the Javits Convention Center in Hell’s Kitchen through this Sunday, and you’ll likely overhear snippets of dealers romancing potential buyers with their artists’ sometimes credible, sometimes improbable backstories. You can recite a three-page CV from memory or name-drop that a certain curator passed by the booth, but if you want to sell, you better have something interesting to say.

The 2023 Armory Show had one clear message: The art world can no longer afford to take itself so seriously. And that’s a relief. For the first time in ages, I found myself feeling — dare I say it! — inspired at an art fair.

Anat Ebgi Gallery’s presentation, with works by Fabian Treiber, Charlotte Edey, Jordan Nassar, and Jenny Morgan

There was vanessa german’s sculpture “White Flag Rag/e” (2023), whose mediums included, according to a label, “a forehead kiss” and “a grown man weeping in the parking lot of a steakhouse in Cincinnati.” There were the strangely relatable paintings of Thomas Bils, particularly one close-up of a figure lifting their shirt to reveal a belly “nife fite” tattoo and a Hanes waistband, a flashback to my Miami ex-boyfriends; and Arleene Correa Valencia’s “fuck you, migra” textile piece, from her 2023 series handwoven by the Zapotec artist Jacobo Mendoza and based on texts engraved on the steel door of an ICE detention center.

Ontario-based Inuk artist Couzyn Van Heuvelen exhibited some of his foil balloon pieces, inspired by the Inuit seal-skin floats used to hunt marine animals. These works are typically filled with helium, but the fair prohibited it, worried that the artworks would drift up into the convention center’s impossibly high ceilings, thousands of dollars lost forever. “They told us: ‘Pop them or get out,'” said Fazakas Gallery owner LaTiesha Fazakas. “So we blew them up ourselves using straws.”

Cynics will say the Armory Show aimed for cheap thrills, with a large portion of artworks admittedly falling under the loose categories of “engaging,” “interactive,” “kinetic,” or as some nose-in-the-air commentators who fashion themselves the next Donald Kuspit will call it: “gimmicky.” I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel like a bit of a circus at times, but a circus is fun, and art fairs, generally, are not. In the nonprofit section, for instance, I peeked into a makeshift art studio where artist Drake Carr was live-drawing a portrait of Interview Editor-in-Chief Mel Ottenberg, who posed on a plush gray recliner, arms crossed over his Lacoste shirt, with the vacant-stared nonchalance of the models in his magazine spreads. Titled Housecalls and presented by the Manhattan-based Artists Space, which was awarded a free booth this year as part of the Armory Spotlight program, the project turns innocent visitors into prying observers.

Artist Drake Carr live-drawing Mel Ottenberg for Artists Space’s Armory Show project Housecalls

On the exact opposite side of the fair, the South Korean Wooson Gallery was showing “Theme for a Major Hit” (1974), a motorized marionette-slash-self-portrait by Dennis Oppenheim that is the only moving work by the artist available in the market, I was told by a gallery attendant at the booth. I inquired about the price.

“We would also like to know the price,” he replied, shrugging and gesturing at a woman walking away from the booth — the late artist’s wife, clearly the one calling the shots. 

I waltzed into a booth of British artist Poppy Jones’s works just as a frazzled art advisor (bingo!) was pleading an Overduin & Co. salesperson for a second reserve on a tiny but luscious oil-and-watercolor still life of a lemon, priced at $9,500. I respect her hustle — Jones’s works, rendered on suede instead of canvas, have a mystic allure that reminded me of Vija Celmins’s early depictions of everyday objects. In a distinct but resonant vein of entrancing painting was Coco Young’s “Coquelicots” (2023) at Night Gallery’s booth, a canvas entirely occupied by a lush green field dotted with wild blooms, with no beginning or end.

Coco Young, “Coquelicots” (2023), 51 x 70 inches (photo by Pierre Le Hors; courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles)

I thought about another observation by Stein, who portrayed this year’s fair as more “emerging” than previous editions. The limitations of this exhausted label notwithstanding, I noticed many of the artists whose work caught my eye were fair newcomers; young or old, these are individuals galleries really seem to be taking a chance on.

But not everyone thinks this is a good thing. “What galleries bring to an art fair costing them over $50K is what they are thinking will sell,” said Belgian collector and art-world pundit Alain Servais.

“Remembering Hans Ulrich Obrist’s words that ‘art is the best defense against annihilation by standardization,’ I have no clue what Americans find in those miles of interchangeable paintings, most of them with no more concept than a cigarette paper,” Servais told me. He said he enjoyed the Focus booths, whose theme this year was “materiality”; the most offensive disappointment was the Present section: “This cannot be the present of art.”

“Object and image-making is not enough to make it art,” Servais concluded, my eyes watering at the smoke emanating from the searing words in our WhatsApp chat. “AI can do it cheaper.” 

Solo presentation of works by April Bey at the TERN Gallery booth

James Greenberg of Greenberg Art Advisory lamented the “dearth of modern material,” wistfully remembering the days when the Armory Show resembled the heavy-hitter Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) fair. “Galleries are trying to take advantage of the new focus on marginalized voices, which is wonderful, but it does seem that there’s a lot of testing of the market with new artists,” he told me. “For those of us who’ve been around for a while, it feels a little young, and less serious.” 

Greenberg suggested that this perceived scarcity of modern art at the Armory could be attributed to the debut, just last year, of Independent 20th Century, a concurrent fair; dealers who had once gone to the Armory to flaunt their newly discovered and under-appreciated “masterpieces” of the 1900s now have a dedicated space to do so. Or perhaps the Armory Show’s acquisition by Frieze, announced this summer, had something to do with the vibe shift — but despite some mostly empty gossip, my feeling is that it’s too soon to say.

Shafei Xia, “The happy tiger” (2023), painted and glazed ceramic, 11 13/16 x 24 1/64 inches

Contemporary art fairs have one obvious upper hand: the artists, for the most part, are still alive, and often there in person. I was fangirling over the works of Lydia Blakeley in a solo presentation by London-based Niru Ratnam Gallery when I was told the artist was standing behind me. The centerpiece of the booth, a Danish vintage sunlounger that Blakeley re-upholstered in fabric painted with lovely, pink-tinged images of lobsters and octopi, was surrounded by variously sized works depicting objects of leisure whose function has been stripped away — such as a beach cooler filled with dirt and cacti. Others are scenes of Airbnbs in Palm Springs, a place she never visited — this is her first time in America — but had “experienced vicariously through the internet, thinking of these vacation sites as aspirational places.”

I learned Blakeley had come into her arts education later in life, having worked through her 30s in the retail and hospitality industries; she was selling to people the very aspirations that she now examines, parodies, and yearns for through her paintings. Perhaps because she was able to make this career shift, her works convey an authentic sense of pleasure.

“I couldn’t think of anything worse than being a tortured artist,” Blakeley told me. “While I totally appreciate that there are different types of artists, for me, I prefer the joy in it. I love that moment when I’m into a painting and something clicks, and you get a kind of rush. It’s mentally cathartic.”

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