Installation view of Hollis Taggart Galleries’s booth at The Armory Show. Photo by Teddy Wolff. Courtesy of The Armory Show.
Despite coinciding with the London auctions, TEFAF Maastricht, and a snow storm, the 24th edition of The Armory Show still proved a success for many dealers, highlighting the continued importance of American collectors in the art market.
“The timing is not ideal for The Armory,” said European dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who has five spaces across Paris, London, and Salzburg. “Having said this, America is still the biggest art market in contemporary art—it’s really dominant there...We shouldn’t underestimate that Americans can have a fair, and almost ignore the rest of the world.”
Despite the increasingly global nature of the art market, The Armory Show’s inadvertent overlap with other key art events in other countries did give credence to its solidly domestic focus where buyers are concerned. Dealers repeatedly referred to the fair’s focus on being a hub for collectors from all over the United States; more so than, say Art Basel in Miami Beach, which draws in collectors from Latin America, or Frieze New York, with its British roots and more international feel. Ropac said he and his colleagues noted museum groups and important collectors in attendance from places such as San Diego, Maine, North Carolina, Texas, and across the Midwest.
Ropac himself had to miss the first two days of The Armory Show because he remained in London for the auctions, where he said a number of Asian collectors were also present. He arrived by Friday and could be seen warmly greeting collectors for most of the afternoon. His staff had made notable sales in his absence on the fair’s first two days and business continued through Friday, including a large $650,000 Robert Longo charcoal drawing fresh from the studio, which sold to a Stuttgart museum, a heavily textured Jason Martin painting, multiple works by Gilbert & George, and a large painting by Alex Katz. With the exception of the Longo sale, all the other works went to U.S.-based collectors, said executive director Arne Ehmann.
Unlike last year, when the pall of U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration hung over The Armory Show and its largely left-leaning participants, this year “people seemed to have made their peace” with the political situation and were back to being focused on art, said Sean Kelly, whose booth near the fair’s entry was doing typically brisk business. Plus, many in the art-collecting tax bracket will benefit from a recent tax code overhaul (residents of New York and other high-tax cities and states will likely suffer due to the limit on deductions for state and local taxes).
The fair leadership this year decreased the number of exhibitors from 210 to under 200 in favor of wider aisles and larger booths, which made the atmosphere marginally less like that of a bazaar. It continued to draw in legitimate celebrities and New York quasi-celebrities, since so many of them live in New York. Artists and art-world fixtures such as Marilyn Minter and RoseLee Goldberg, fashion designer Alexander Wang, musician Alicia Keys and producer Swizz Beatz, actor Steve Martin, and actor/director/writer James Franco were seen wandering the aisles. While most of Europe’s old guard collecting community was likely in Maastricht enjoying oysters amidst TEFAF’s antiquities, mega-collectors including Michael Eisner, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Anita Zabludowicz, Agnes Gund, and the Japanese e-commerce magnate Yusaku Maezawa (whose $110.5 million Jean-Michel Basquiat painting is completing a residency of sorts at the Brooklyn Museum this weekend), all showed up for The Armory Show.
Harriet Onslow, managing director at Pearl Lam Galleries, one of Asia’s most prominent art galleries, said the U.S. “has always been a big market” for them, but this was their first appearance at The Armory Show.
“We’ve always wanted to come,” she said, but “a lot of our clients travel all over the world, they come to Hong Kong, so we don’t need to be here necessarily.” The visit seemed to have paid off by Friday, with the sale of two works at $250,000 each by Su Xiaobai, Purplish Blue (2017) and Out of Tune (2017).
“Obviously Americans are very passionate, very knowledgeable, all the rest of it,” said Onslow, noting that most of the conversations she has had so far had been with American collectors, although the buyers of the two works by Su were not American.
Frederik Schampers, New York gallery director of Brazil and New York’s Galeria Nara Roesler, said the U.S. market seemed robust but stable.
“There’s less of an urgency; people really don’t want to make rash decisions, especially when you go over $100,000,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen...but now it takes a little bit longer.”
His gallery had sold works at a range of prices: from $4,000 for each of two sets of three gold-plated brass leaves by Laura Vinci Folhas Avulsas #1 and Folhas Avulsas #2, both made in 2018 and part of an edition of five plus two artist proofs, up to $125,000 for a mirrored work by Daniel Buren, Prisms and Mirrors, high reliefs, situated works (2016-2017), which sold “within minutes.” In between, there were sales such as large and small iterations of Vik Muniz’s Metachrome: The Abaporu, after Tarsila (2018), for $50,000 and $35,000 respectively.
Schampers said he liked the bigger booths, which felt “more elegant,” and also observed Americans seemed to be more familiar with Brazilian artists this year, giving him “less explaining to do.” He also noted the heavy presence of art advisors at the fair, which he said is typical for The Armory Show. Schampers said everything the gallery sold as of Friday had gone to American collectors.
An American constituency was also key at Nathalie Obadia, a Paris and Brussels gallery that had a beautiful, austere selection of black-and-white photographs by the late Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, who Obadia noted was a major influence on popular contemporary American artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley. Obadia said the works she had sold so far had gone to a mix of American collectors and institutions, with prices for those on offer in the booth ranging from $7,000 to $33,000. She said that some were also on reserve for a museum as of Friday afternoon.
Mira Bernabeu, director of Espaivisor Gallery in València had moved from the Presents section, which features solo- or two-artist booths by galleries under ten years old, to the main galleries section this year. He said the move gave his booth more seriousness in addition to allowing him to bring three artists in total, each of whom was given their own wall.
“Clients look at you in a different way,” he said. Despite the snowstorm, he sold four works on the fair’s opening day and then one each on Thursday and Friday. He said he sold pieces by each of the three artists he brought, including Spanish duo Bleda y Rosa, Patrica Gómez and Maria J. González, two long-time collaborators and British artist Hamish Fulton, known for his documentations of long walks and hikes. Prices in the booth ranged from $6,000 to $45,000.
Bernabeu said clients at The Armory Show tend to return multiple times throughout the week when considering a piece. He compared this with Frieze New York, which because of its remote location is often only visited once per fair.
“Frieze you have to work really hard the first day; Armory, you know, you can sell any day,” Bernabeu said. He added that Armory tends to get a consistent group of American patrons.
“People who come to Armory from all over the U.S., they have a tradition—they’ve been coming to buy from the Armory for a long time,” he said.
Things were a little quieter on Pier 92, which this year held 28 booths in the Focus section—curated by Gabriel Ritter, curator and head of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art—as well as Insights, the section of the fair dedicated to presentations of works made before 2000.
“There is a lot of interest, but small business,” said Saverio Repetto of Repetto Gallery in London, who said a lot of the clients he normally sees at The Armory Show had not yet arrived by Friday afternoon, possibly because of the daunting weather.
Repetto had nonetheless sold a few small things: a Maria Lai thread-on-cardboard for $10,000; a small oil painting by Piero Dorazio for $40,000, and a small colorful embroidered canvas by Alighiero Boetti, for $50,000. But bigger-ticket items, such as a $600,000 Alberto Burri, were still unsold, and surprisingly, due to recent competition for her work, none of the Carol Rama drawings displayed on the outside of the booth had sold as of Friday afternoon.
Omer Tiroche, a London-based dealer, opened a space on Conduit Street three years ago in order to be able to participate in fairs like The Armory Show, which still require galleries to have a permanent, brick-and-mortar location in order to exhibit. He brought a series of collages from 1980 and 1981 by Yayoi Kusama, which feature magazine clippings, many of birds, given to her by her former lover Joseph Cornell. Priced at $300,000, they were grabbing a lot of media attention and a lot of interest from collectors from Asia, South America, and New York, said Tiroche, but no sales had been finalized by Friday afternoon.
William Lawrie of Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi noted the relative quiet of Pier 92, but acknowledged the works he was showing by New York-based artist Shahpour Pouyan, replicas of Persian manuscripts digitally and manually manipulated to erase the figures in them, weren’t big or flashy, which could be why some people were walking straight past the booth. Those that did stop to look, though, were typically appreciative of Pouyan’s work, with one expert in Islamic Art noting that Pouyan was the only Iranian artist he had seen who was “working with historical material in a way that’s credible,” Lawrie said proudly. By Friday afternoon, the gallery had sold three of the manuscripts in the smaller sizes, priced at $10,000 each, as well as some works from the gallery in Dubai that were not at the booth, all to American collectors.
Patrick Armstrong of Berlin’s Tanya Leighton Gallery noted a lot of its collector base was in the U.S., so the gallery does at least one New York fair a year, rotating between The Armory Show, Frieze New York, and Independent.
“I think at Armory it seems like a much more local focus,” he said. “Not necessarily from New York, we’ve also met collectors from Florida, Los Angeles, Texas, but it does feel like a very American focus.” Armstrong had not yet sold any of the works by Oliver Laric or Aleksandra Domanović in the booth, but he had made some sales of the artists on display and other artists from the gallery off of his iPad.
Towards the back of Pier 92, near the VIP lounge and dining room, Pascal de Sarthe of Hong Kong- and Beijing-based de Sarthe Gallery said he had sold one work on the first day, received several offers from collectors on other pieces, and was in the midst of negotiations. De Sarthe was among the eight galleries based in Asia that were participating in The Armory Show for the first time. He said his decision was in part because his son Vincent, who had spent the past five years opening a branch of the gallery in Beijing, had moved to New York to live.
“It’s a bit personal for me,” de Sarthe said. “Now he’s in New York, so I like to refocus on the American market.” He said he had a gallery on the West Coast and used to participate in Art Chicago (a fair that was since revamped as Expo Chicago), and being at Armory had allowed him to reconnect with collectors from that era in his business.
“I have seen a collector I have not seen in 20 years, we had just lost track...and we just reconnected,” de Sarthe said. “And I can introduce a lot of people to my son...The purpose of a fair is to meet new people.”
Although his business is very international, he said, “You cannot ignore the American market. You’d have to be very stupid to do that.”
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