The 10 Best Booths at The Armory Show 2021
Installation view of The Armory Show, 2021. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh. Courtesy of The Armory Show.
Eighteen months after its last edition closed—just as COVID-19 sent New York City into lockdown—The Armory Show is back in a new timeslot and a new venue, the hulking Javits Center, allowing for ample social distancing in the aisles. With 157 galleries participating in the physical event and another 55 taking part through its online portal, while this year’s fair has slightly fewer booths than in years past, it also has an airier and more user-friendly layout than its longtime home on the West Side piers afforded. On more than one occasion during Thursday’s preview, dealers I spoke with likened the fair’s refreshed format to Art Basel’s takeover of the Miami Beach Convention Center each December. And, as at that fair, gallerists have made the most of the big, bright stage. Here are the 10 standout presentations from The Armory Show’s 2021 edition.
Presents Sector, Booth P24
With works by Bony Ramirez
Bony Ramirez, installation view in Thierry Goldberg Gallery’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Thierry Goldberg Gallery.
Bony Ramirez’s magical realist subversions of colonialist imagery take a turn toward the autobiographical here, with a series of recent paintings augmented with sculptural elements depicting scenes and figures from his childhood. For instance, the painting The Last Day, Ultimo Día En El Campo (2021) depicts the artist and his sister as children on the day before their parents brought them from the Dominican Republic to the U.S.—unbeknownst to them, permanently. The artist added to the works’ three-dimensionality by painting palm trees directly onto the booth’s walls, and setting new sculptural works at its center, for a richly immersive experience.
“The work is more personal than his previous paintings, which were more about colonialism,” said Ron Segev, one of the gallery’s co-founders. “These works are all about the Dominican Republic, how he left, and missing it.” By the end of the fair’s first day, all the works in the booth—priced from $5,500 for the sculptures and up to $40,000 for the largest paintings—were either sold or on hold.
Presents Sector, Booth P28
With works by Jessie Makinson
Jessie Makinson, installation view in Lyles & King’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Lyles & King.
Jessie Makinson’s enigmatic scenes of androgynous figures lounging in various states of undress and hybridity are not short on style, with their many frames, animalistic patterns, sensuous gradients, and scenes within scenes. For this booth, which serves as an appetizer of sorts for a solo exhibition opening at Lyles & King next month, the London-based artist augmented the works’ dramatic flair by covering two of the booth’s walls in pink curtains. She also created two sculptural kissing chairs—S-shaped seats that allow the two sitters to sit side by side while also facing each other—adorned with more cavorting figures.
“Jessie thought of this as a kind of parlor room,” said gallery director Isaac Lyles. “She wanted to create an atmosphere with a sense of theater and play, all the while maintaining the very serious themes in the work.” By the afternoon of the fair’s opening day, all the pieces in the booth (priced between $8,000 and $36,000) had sold.
Main Sector, Booth 405
With works by Alvin Ong
Alvin Ong, installation view in Yavuz Gallery’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.
Most galleries used the new, spacious layout of The Armory Show to let their wares breathe. Not so for Singapore- and Sydney-based Yavuz Gallery, which filled all three walls of its booth with 108 paintings by Alvin Ong. The artist created the works, all self-portraits of sorts, over the course of five months when he was largely confined to his home and studio amid COVID lockdowns in Singapore. The images, especially packed into the booth’s tight grid, have a slightly claustrophobic edge that may provoke a familiar twinge for most visitors. The tight framing and often distorted, glowing expressions reflect on the long stretches of living in isolation, glued to screens of one sort or another.
“A lot of the paintings capture the very solitary life and inner world of being in lockdown,” said gallery manager Caryn Quek. “We wanted to present the works in a grid to evoke Instagram and the experience of scrolling endlessly.” Collectors were apparently happy to doom-scroll around the booth; by the end of the first day, about half the paintings had sold.
Main Sector, Booth 222
With works by Norman Gilbert and Charlotte Keates
Installation view of Arusha Gallery’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Photo by Mikhail Mishin. Courtesy of Arusha Gallery.
The canary-yellow walls of Edinburgh-based Arusha Gallery’s booth feature a kind of cross-generational dialogue between the Scottish artist Norman Gilbert, who died in 2019 at age 93, and the London-based Charlotte Keates, who was born in 1990. Gilbert’s paintings and drawings (spanning 1974 to 2001) feature figures seated in embrace or contemplation in interior settings, rendered in bold colors or thick lines of charcoal or bands of ink. Keates’s paintings use the domestic spaces from Gilbert’s works as points of departure, extrapolating airy, brightly patterned, and plant-filled interiors devoid of human figures.
“Norman started each of his paintings as drawings, then made them in black and white with ink, and then a full color painted version, so there are three iterations of each,” said Arusha Gallery creative director Agnieszka Prendota. “Charlotte’s process is totally different, starting from one detail and letting the composition grow from there.” Keates’s paintings are clearly growing on collectors; by the end of the fair’s first day, nearly all of them had sold, for prices between £4,950 and £25,000 ($6,800–$34,500). Two works by Gilbert, priced at £5,500 ($7,600), had also sold.
Focus Sector, Booth F5
With works by Marie Watt
Marie Watt, installation view in Marc Straus’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Marc Straus.
The meaning of Marie Watt’s work is inseparable from the process of its making. The artist, who is a member of the Seneca Nation, creates her seminal “Skywalker/Skyscraper” works—whose forms and titles refer to the Iroquois construction workers who were known as “skywalkers” for their role in building Manhattan’s skyscrapers in the mid–20th century—from reclaimed blankets dramatically pierced by steel I beams affixed to cedar bases.
Meanwhile, pieces from her “Companion Species” series involve beading and embroidery created by women in communal sewing sessions. “The work has a lot to do with the matriarchal society she comes from,” said gallerist Marc Straus. “To create these works, there will be a community of women who come together in a sewing circle.” The works in the booth, including a totemic steel sculpture and a panoramic beaded work in dazzling crepuscular palettes, reflect the incredible craftwork of these gatherings. The entire presentation, with each work priced at over $100,000, had sold by the end of the fair’s opening day.
Presents Sector, Booth P19
With works by Kwesi Botchway
Kwesi Botchway, installation view in Gallery 1957’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.
With its hot-pink walls, it’s hard to miss Accra-based Gallery 1957’s booth. Its presentation is included in the fair’s “Presents” section, which is devoted to solo and two-artist showcases by galleries founded in the past 15 years. The bold backdrop only adds to the chromatic force of Ghanaian painter Kwesi Botchway’s four large-scale portraits and Fancy Pillows (2021), a wide-format canvas featuring a figure reclining against a psychedelic backdrop. Botchway’s sitters are a mix of family members, friends, and people he’s connected with online. They all sport eye-catchingly colorful wardrobes, but it’s his way of rendering their skin with a glowing hatchwork of dark purple brushstrokes that arrests the viewer.
“He uses purple to paint the skin because it’s a regal color,” gallery director Victoria Cooke explained, noting that the technique doesn’t always translate in digital images. “We’ve shown his work in solo shows in Accra and London, both of which were impacted by COVID, so it’s nice to be able to show him here to people who’ve only seen his work online.” The in-person viewings had clearly convinced collectors; all five works sold on the fair’s first day.
Main Sector, Booth 210
With works by Young-Il Ahn, Alfred Conteh, Basil Kincaid, José Lerma, James Little, Manuel Mathieu, Michi Meko, Kour Pour, Clare Rojas, Mary Sibande, Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, Jessica Stockholder, Tomokazu Matsuyama, Beverly Fishman, Deborah Kass, Jeffrey Gibson, and Suchitra Mattai
Installation view of Kavi Gupta’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Photo by John Lusis. Courtesy of Kavi Gupta.
Many of The Armory Show’s most memorable booths are devoted to one or two artists, but plenty of galleries have taken the sampling menu approach. Among them, Kavi Gupta’s presentation is especially strong (honorable mentions go to Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Steve Turner, and Anat Ebgi).
“The guiding principle for our director of exhibitions, David Mitchell, was really thinking about how long it’s been since the gallery did an in-person fair, which was the last edition of The Armory Show,” said Phillip Barcio, an associate director at the gallery. “So we were thinking about the types of work that really benefit from the in-person viewing experience, whether that’s a textural experience or a color experience. That guided us first.”
The stalwart Chicago gallery has brought standout works by many of its artists, including a typically irreverent neon work by Deborah Kass, Don’t Stop 1 (Yellow/Black) (2020); a new Beverly Fishman sculpture that looks like it’s neon, but just features very bright neon green urethane paint; and a dazzling magical realist painting by recent pickup Tomokazu Matsuyama. Most striking of all may be Jeffrey Gibson’s THEY PLAY ENDLESSLY (2021), a mixed-media work combining most of the Choctaw and Cherokee artist’s distinctive techniques—including colorful, abstracted text; intricate beading; and reappropriated images of Native American stereotypes. It offers a teaser of what’s in store when Gibson’s next solo show at the gallery opens in a few months.
Main Sector, Booth 314
With works by Lita Albuquerque
Lita Albuquerque, installation view in Peter Blake Gallery’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blake.
Peter Blake Gallery’s booth features a microcosm of California-based artist Lita Albuquerque’s cosmic practice. It’s anchored by a sculpture of a blue figure—a miniature version of a life-size statue Albuquerque installed atop a mountain in Switzerland—and represents a 25th-century woman who has traveled back to various points in human history to make earlier inhabitants of the Earth more mindful of their relationship to the stars. In the sculpture, the figure appears to be laying on the ground, but she’s actually pressing her ear to it.
“She’s listening to the Earth,” Albuquerque explained. “The work is about having a bird’s-eye view of the planet, but it’s also about being rooted in the Earth.” Coming at the tail end of a summer of compounding natural disasters aggravated by climate change, the work’s eco-futuro-feminist ethos feels especially timely.
In addition to the blue female figure and gold-plated bronze disks representing her inter-temporal vessel, the booth’s most magnetic works are those from Albuquerque’s “Auric Field” series, which feature gold leaf–covered concave circles at the center of panels featuring ethereal halos of blue or red pigment against black backdrops. They resemble dazzling stars or moons radiating energy, and range in price from $35,000 for the smallest to $90,000 for the largest.
Main Sector, Booth 418
With works by Clare Rojas
Clare Rojas, installation view in SOCO Gallery’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and SOCO Gallery.
Charlotte, North Carolina–based SOCO Gallery turned over its booth to the painter (and folk-rock musician) Clare Rojas with winsome results, including a fetching wallpaper of pink and brown stripes that covers three of its walls (and a table). “She curated the booth to include both her figurative and abstract paintings,” explained Hilary Burt, a director at the gallery. “She designed the wallpaper based on one of her paintings.”
The booth features a mix of paintings of female characters—“they’re not self-portraits,” Burt noted, “but they sure resemble her and her mother, these strong female figures”—in contemplative scenes in nature or domestic spaces, and hard-edged abstraction. The works share a distinctive palette that spans crystalline blues and muddy greens, and are often grounded by formal parallels like a horizontal line in an abstract painting that becomes the horizon in an adjacent figurative work. Rojas’s confidence in both modes is only accentuated by the complimentary wallpaper. By the end of the first day, more than half the works—priced between $18,000 and $75,000—had sold.
Main Sector, Booth 119
With works by Phyllis Stephens and Genesis Tramaine
Installation view of Almine Rech’s booth at The Armory Show, 2021. Photo by Charles Roussel. Courtesy of Almine Rech.
Many galleries in The Armory Show’s main sector opted to present solo or two-artist booths, but few had the wall power of Almine Rech’s pairing of bravura portrait paintings by Genesis Tramaine and intricate quilted works by Phyllis Stephens. The French gallery’s presentation was organized in partnership with Brooklyn’s Richard Beavers Gallery and makes for an improbable cross-generational dialogue between Black women artists working in very different modes. Hailing from Brooklyn, Tramaine’s energetic brushwork and bold hues evoke comparisons to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon. Meanwhile, the Atlanta-based Stephens creates delicate renderings of female figures in lush, verdant settings that incorporate techniques that include quilting, embroidery, transferred images, and subtle painted embellishments.
“With Phyllis, everything is on the table,” said Paul de Froment, a managing partner at Almine Rech. “She’s a fifth-generation quiltmaker, but she’s also using painting, printing techniques, sewing, dying, and more.” Works in the booth, priced between $50,000 and $100,000, were nearly sold out by the end of the fair’s first day.