Dispatch from The Piers: The Armory Show Celebrates 25 Years in New York City

BY Harper's BAZAAR Arabia / Mar 14 2019 / 19:21 PM

The New York art fair put the spotlight on galleries from across five continents

Dispatch from The Piers: The Armory Show Celebrates 25 Years in New York City
Mickalene Thomas. 'Racquel with Les Trois Femmes. '2018. Chromogenic print. 121.9×152.4cm. Courtesy of Yancey Richardson, New York

One of the biggest art fairs on the international calendar almost became the fair that wasn’t. Mere weeks away from their opening at the Piers along Manhattan’s west side, the Armory Show received rather unwelcome news from city inspectors. Finding Pier 92 structurally unfit, the Armory staff executed some quick-thinking, fancy footwork at the expense of the Volta art fair, and landed Pier 90 a few hundred or so steps away. In the end, the colossus continued on and the Armory Show extended itself from Pier 90 to neighboring 94 linked by 92 which acted as both bridge and lounge between the two great legs of the fair.Now in it’s 25th year, the Armory Show has come a long way from the Gramercy Park Hotel and it’s four founding gallerists - Pat Hearn, Colin de Land, Matthew Marks, and Paul Morris, respectively - where art was displayed in suites along the top three floors and visitors could encounter some of the most radical and innovative contemporary art on offer. It was an exciting display, avant-garde by today’s standards while now some of those artists have become institutions in their own right, like Tracey Emin and Nam June Paik. Yet that was the origination - and still current - ethos of the Armory Show, to bring together a group of gallerists who could showcase the best and most engaging works of contemporary art to a fresh audience. Now, both audience and exhibitors have expanded to the global stage, and this year saw 198 galleries from 33 countries, including 63 new galleries spanning 5 different continents. So much for taking up a few hotel suites, the Armory Show has a ballooned into a diaspora all its own.

Jody Paulson.'Lonely In The Canyon.'2018. Felt collage. 318x206cm. Courtesy of SMAC Gallery, Cape Town

One of the diasporas currently making a significant wave throughout the international art world is that of African artists, both those making work in and outside of the continent. Some of the most striking pieces on offer came from these artists, such as Moffat Takadiwa at the Los Angeles-based gallery, Nicodim. The Zimbabwean artist works with found materials to create undulating and at times beautifully grotesque wall hangings that pull the viewer in with their shape and stark contrast of colors. At SMAC Gallery, based out of Cape Town, South Africa, retina-burning and enthusiastically psychedelic felt collages by Jody Paulsen evoke tribal masks atop fantastical outfitted creatures and create a wild, in-you-face riot of color, shape and pattern that speak to contemporary anxieties. Part of the Focus section of the fair, SMAC rubbed elbows with one of the mainstays of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, Aicon Gallery, which had not one but two booths. The first in Focus showcased the works of Abdullah M.I. Syed who brought uncirculated currency to life in the form of clothing, flying carpets, and mosaics, while the second space in Insights highlighted career-spanning offerings by Rasheed Araeen, a Pakistani conceptual artist whose primary colored, geometric sculptures and early paintings need no introduction.

There was a shortage, somewhat, of galleries representing art from the Middle East and South East Asia at this iteration of the Fair, but those who were in attendance brought a wide array to suit every collectors palette. These included Nidhal Chamekh and Massinissa Selami at the London-based Selma Feriani Gallery, both artists executing works on paper both sobering and political, and DAG, a New York gallery which showcased an unsung chapter in Indian art history which, facilitated by the John D. Rockefeller III fund, brought Indian artists stateside in the 1960s to encounter other movements such as color-field abstraction. The result was a mini-jewel box like atmosphere with arresting works on display by Indian masters such as Ram Kumar, Paritosh Sen, and Jyoti Bhatt that tackled tradition, folklore, racism, and expressionism.  

Hassan Hajjaj. 'Cardi B Unity. '2017.Mixed media photograph. 140.3×101.6×10.2cm. Courtesy of Yassi Millo Gallery, New York

Other notable works included those hung on the bright green walls of Mariane Ibrahim’s booth, the Seattle-based art dealer who exhibited Haitian-American artist Florine Demosthene’s emotive situational portraiture on paper, and the exuberant photography of Hassan Hajjaj and Mickalene Thomas at blue-chip stalwarts Yossi Milo Gallery and Yancey Richardson Gallery, respectively. Yet despite these offerings, one could not help but notice the long journey literally taken to the end of these thoroughfares where many of the global galleries were clustered, creating a hard-to-reach environment where one had to pass the usual noisemakers and crowd pleasers of contemporary art. For the 26th year, it would benefit the Armory to hold some front and center space for those who have traveled the literal distance to show what many fairgoers are unable to see beyond the white cube spaces of both coasts.

The Armory Show ran from March 7-10 in New York City.

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