Media Farzin

March 13, 2013
The Armory Show, New York

MY DEAR J—, when you did me the honor of asking for an analysis of the Armory Show, you said, “Be brief; do not write a review, but a general impression, something like the account of a rapid philosophical walk through the galleries, an overview of a century of art fairs.” Very well, you shall have your wish; not because your program accords (perhaps it does) with my own conception of that tiresome kind of article called an “Art Fair”; nor because your method is easier than the other—it is not, for generality always demands more effort than specificity, especially when historical research is involved; but simply because, above all in the present instance, there is no other possible way. Certainly I should have been more embarrassed if I had found myself lost in a forest of originality, if the contemporary art fair, suddenly modified, purified, and rejuvenated, had provoked floods of praise—a garrulous admiration—or necessitated whole new categories in the language of criticism. But there is nothing of all that, fortunately (for me). The thoughts suggested by the sight of the Armory are of so simple, so traditional, so classic an order, that a few pages will doubtless be sufficient to develop them. Do not be surprised, then, if banality in the subject should have given rise to commonplaces in your writer. Besides, you will be no whit the loser; for is there anything (I am inclined to hope you share my opinion in this)—is there anything in the world more charming, more fruitful, of a nature more positively exciting, than the appropriated commonplace? 1

I often run into professional acquaintances during the run of the Armory, and to my first question, the critic usually replies, “Flat, mediocre; I have seldom seen so dismal a fair.” She is both right and wrong. Any grouping that includes works by Dorothea Tanning, Agnes Martin, Yayoi Kusama, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alighiero Boetti, Francesca Woodman, David Lamelas, or Philippe Parreno cannot be dismal, not to speak of Chitra Ganesh, Matt Mullican, Alexandre Singh, Cyprien Gaillard, Tala Madani, or Liz Magic Laser. But from the point of view of general inspection, I see that they are in the right. It cannot be doubted that mediocrity dominates; but that it should be more than ever on the throne, that its encumbrance should have turned into an absolute triumph—it is this fact that is as true as it is distressing.

The effect, my dear J—, is more a result of the carnivalesque setting than any individual shortcomings of artists or even dealers. The fair’s chaotic profusion imbues even the sharpest of voices with crackling radio static, and so everything is pitched to rise above it, elevating nothing but the general cacophony. The Armory had no shortage of flashy hues—the perennial party-colors of Assume Vivid Astro Focus, Diana Thater’s glimmering videos, and the compilation of trash, paint, and vintage Chanel that filled Sverre Bjertnes and Bjarne Melgaard’s sly shrines to Mary Boone. Nor was there a shortage of literally flashing texts: “Day’s End,” spelled the bright bulbs of Peter Liversidge’s text work over the champagne bar. “PUSHED/AS IF/& LEFT AS IS,” a Lawrence Weiner across the room responded. “The meaning of life is that it stops,” Barbara Kruger interjected a few booths down, her sternness undercut by the furry adorableness of a Rosemarie Trockel rug below. “Pot is fun,” “Forever,” “Optimistic/nihilistic,” other walls burbled. “I need to start seeing a therapist,” read a large outdoor billboard by Cary Leibowitz (aka Candy Ass). As the backdrop of frenzied art-buying, Leibowitz’s self-effacing humor became a flippant stand-in for the neurotic apathy of an entire community of artists, dealers, and audiences.

After having passed my eyes for some time over so many successfully-completed platitudes, so much carefully-labored drivel, so much carefully-constructed stupidity and falseness, I was led by the natural course of my reflections to consider the artist in times past and to place him face to face with the artist of the present. Pier 92, dedicated to “modern” art (as opposed to the presumed contemporaneity of Pier 94), supported this view, as did the parade of lectures, panels, and film screenings organized to celebrate this “centennial fair.” It would seem that littleness, puerility, incuriosity, and the leaden calm of fatuity have taken the place of ardor, nobility, and turbulent ambition. I therefore asked myself the following question: what were they, then—the artists and dealers of former times (Marcel Duchamp or Colin de Land, for example)?

To answer that question properly, my dear J—, one must not shrink from being too stern. A scandalous favoritism sometimes demands an equivalent response. How many honors, how much money has been showered upon those without soul and without education? I am certainly far from advocating the introduction into art of means which are alien to it; and yet, to quote an example, I cannot prevent myself from feeling admiration towards an artist such as Weiner, who is always agreeable in the way that books are agreeable, and gracefully intelligent even when he is pompous. At least with him I am sure that I can have a conversation about Virgil or about Plato. Andy Warhol, in spite of the dazzle and elusiveness of his work, never fails to let one know that he knows his audience, and has compared, a good deal. And, of course, it is unnecessary to elucidate the work of Duchamp, that enfant terrible of the 1913 show, who was a masterful mix of philosophical solidity, of lively wit, and of blazing enthusiasm. His work is endlessly invoked in this fair, from Francis Naumann’s salon-style booth, with its many contemporary homages to the Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 (1912), to the panel discussion and film screening on “Myths and Misconceptions” of the first ever Armory. Oh, how they howled!

In spite of all the magnificent privileges attributed to the 1913 Armory, the “Centennial Armory Show” of 2013 is transparently a fiction, a fortuitous appropriation. The original Armory was modeled after several European exhibitions that had been arguing, around the turn of the century, for the inclusion of late nineteenth-century movements like post-impressionism in the art-historical canon—essentially a pedagogic undertaking based on historical chronology. Despite its dense hanging and offer of works for sale, the 1913 Armory was primarily a curated show: Redons in one room, Cubists in another, a narrative of modernism that stretched from Ingres to Duchamp, with an American version running from Albert Pinkham Ryder to Marsden Hartley. What prompted the mocking fun of newspapers and disgruntled American “traditionalists” was the formal incomprehensibility of the art on view: the spatial confusion of “the cubies,” the wayward tangles of Duchamp’s hurried nude, and the gracelessness of Henri “Hair-mattress” Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907).

No, my dear J—, I will not bore you nor your readers, since you are surely convinced by now, as am I, that the origins lie elsewhere. For the contemporary art fair as we know it today is a postwar phenomenon. In the mid-60s, there were a few professional associations devoted to showing the work of living artists (the venerable seasonal Review of the Art Dealers Association of America, begun in 1963, is one of the earliest), but none that considered selling their primary goal. In 1967, two entrepreneurial Cologne dealers, Rudolf Zwirner (father of David) and Hein Stünke brainstormed a way to entice the Documenta crowds to see their wares. Kunstmarkt Köln ’67 was inspired by antiquarian book fairs, where buyers could browse the stalls, handle the goods, and chat with dealers. The fair was a runaway success, for both the town of Cologne and the eighteen dealers involved, to be sure. Art critics—then as now—were nonplussed: “Paintings and sculptures are being traded like refrigerators and sewing machines in a household fair… Can one do that—put art on the market like any old household article?”2 But dealers and collectors thought it was a fine idea. In 1970, Art Basel brought modern masters together with younger artists, in a similarly informal atmosphere. “[It] allowed new kind of freedom in looking,” a critic recalled, “There wasn’t some museum director steering your eye and soul with labels, stylistic preconceptions and didactic material. The public could experience art close up.”3 The 1973 auction of the Scull collection cemented the new status of the contemporary art market. “Scull, you’re a pig!” read the sign carried by Robert Rauschenberg, whose work had sold for a record 85,000 dollars. (Only six years earlier, Joseph Beuys had staged a performance outside Kunstmarkt Köln ’68, demanding symbolic “entry” into the fair that had just sold his work for a record 100,000 marks.) But the idea of the fair had taken hold. FIAC in Paris, Art Chicago—the first major fair in the US—and ARCO Madrid soon followed, all eagerly greeted by the flush market of the 1980s.

Each day art further diminished its self-respect by bowing down before external realities; each day the artist was pulled more and more into making not what she dreamt of but what they needed her to dream. And then—then came the market crash and subsequent recession of the early 1990s. When four dealers in New York decided to start an art fair in 1994, the situation was nearly as dismal as it had been in 1967 in Cologne. Colin de Land, Pat Hearn, Matthew Marks, and Paul Morris rented out several floors the Gramercy Hotel. The Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair was a casual, low-budget affair that everyone seemed to enjoy, from the crowds milling outside the elevators to the dealers, buyers, and artists in attendance. “I was so hung over” Tracey Emin held court in the bed in Jay Jopling’s room, and the following year, a bunny-suited Nayland Blake took a nap in a Jack Hanley’s room (and viewers were provided with cameras to take pictures of him). “It was the most fun I ever had as a dealer,” Marks would recall.4

They were soon branching out—the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, the Raleigh Hotel in Miami Beach. When they moved the New York fair to the 69th Regiment Armory in 1999, what better move than to pluck the title of one of the most controversial and—nearly a century later, most respected—US avant-garde exhibitions as their new name?

This, my dear J—, is the backdrop of the Armory Show of 2013: not a trajectory of avant-garde sensations, but a history of postwar art read through its markets. By the time Art Basel opened its Miami Beach outpost in 2002, fairs were a dizzying landscape of all-night parties fed by rivers of hedge-fund money. That party has yet to end—over the past decade the number of international art fairs has more than quadrupled, and class divides have only become sharper. Some fairs are corporate-owned, others “independents,” and the difference often shows: the Armory fair is owned by the equity real-estate investment trust Vornado, which today owns Art Chicago and Volta, as well as Art Platform Los Angeles (The Basel franchises, like FIAC, are also owned by large conglomerates). When Frieze New York appeared last year, the difference in scale and approach caused rumors of anxiety at new competition, worries that seem as unnecessary to this critic as they did to Leo Castelli back in the day—“In New York there’s always a Kunstmarkt!”

Whether this is optimism or pessimism depends on the context of our appropriation. “To sum up, a great deal of technique and skill, but precious little genius!” That is what everyone says. Alas, then, I agree with everyone! You see, my dear J—, it was quite unnecessary to explain what all of them agree with us in thinking. My only consolation is that, by parading these commonplaces, I may perhaps have been able to please two or three people who will guess that I am thinking of them, and in whose number I beg you to be so kind as to include yourself.

Your very devoted collaborator and friend.


This text borrows liberally from the prose—but also the critical spirit—of Charles Baudelaire’s “The Salon of 1859: Letters to the Editor of the Revue Française,” as reproduced in Baudelaire, Art in Paris, 1845–1862. Reviews of Salons and Other Exhibitions, translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1965).—MF


Christine Mehring, “Emerging Market,” Artforum 46.8 (April 2008): 322–329.


Anna Somers Cocks, “Forty Years of Art Basel,” The Art Newspaper (published online June 9, 2009).


Walter Robinson, “Gramercy Art Fair: Rooms with a View,” Art In America 82 (June 1994): 29.

Art Market, Exhibition Histories

Media Farzin is a New York-based art historian and critic.

The Armory Show
March 13, 2013

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