Art Fairs and the "Value" of Surprise

Tina Rivers Ryan
Mar 8, 2013 7:20PM
Les jeunes et les jeux twistent, 1964

Given their association with crass consumerism, globalization, and financial speculation, art fairs get a lot of bad press; just last night, I heard artist Liam Gillick casually perform the now ubiquitous and reflexive critical gesture of associating art fairs with the deterioration of contemporary art. While there are certainly valid criticisms to be made (and notably, Armory-commissioned artist Liz Magic Laser is making them), one advantage of art fairs is that they make little-known works by well-known artists available for public consumption. Objects that are in museums become very familiar to us, not only because we get to see them in person, but also because museums are convenient and reliable databases of images for art publications. Works that aren't in museums, by contrast, may only become known to us at art fairs, where we encounter those works that have been hanging over couches or stashed away in closets, possibly for decades. In bringing these relatively obscure works into the light of day, fairs offer us a special opportunity to reevaluate the trajectory or legacy of artists who seemed incapable of surprising us.

Case in point: looking at this year's Armory Show, two works of art grabbed my attention in Pier 92, the "Modern" section (although really, "contemporary" art was also in abundance). Both were near the front of the pier. The first is a late work by the Surrealist Max Ernst, whose enigmatic figurative paintings and meticulous collages I came to love in my first art history class in college. I was totally shocked by this abstract, geometric, almost monochromatic painting of his, and I fell in love with it. Same goes for this late de Kooning painting of a reclining nude; I'm not really a de Kooning fan, but seeing how he approached the very limits of figuration here (much like Matisse did, at an early pivotal point in his career) made me appreciate his process in a new way. Say what you want about art fairs (and I'd probably agree with you), but still, from an academic's perspective, I'm thankful for the opportunity to encounter these works--in the flesh, no less--and for the new insight I've gained into two artists I thought I knew quite a bit about.

Tina Rivers Ryan