The Armory Show: Art Fair Meets Avant-garde

Trendy, Avant-garde, the Armory Show has it all.
Trendy, Avant-garde, the Armory Show has it all.

After my romp through the 2014 Whitney Biennial this past March, I took a crosstown bus from Fifth Avenue to the Armory Show on display on the remodeled Hudson River Piers 92 & 94 that protrude into the Hudson.

With two hundred and five exhibitors, the Armory Show is the largest art fair in New York and really Disneyland for art lovers. You don’t have to be quiet or pretend to be knowledgeable; you can eat, drink and even nap in a corner surrounded by, for instance, a rug that can’t decide whether it’s a wall piece or something to walk over. To say this exhibition is sensory overload is an understatement!

Fairs are a great way to gallery hop and not be intimidated about walking into London’s Whitechapel Gallery or Chicago’s Monique Meloche with your jeans and mittens. The food is delicious; there are bathrooms and places to sit as you contemplate shapes and colors.

The Armory Show takes its name from the famed 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington and 25th St.—supposedly the first Modern Art show held in America. Back then this extravaganza displayed 1,300 paintings and sculpture with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase leading the way into the history books as scandalous. Our Nude now resides in a small gallery at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, an easy hour ride on Amtrak from Midtown Manhattan, and tame in comparison to the sex scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street.

In 2001, the present day Armory Show moved to the remade piers. Back story: over one hundred working piers once lined up around Lower Manhattan. Timber and livestock came down the Hudson River from upstate New York to be unloaded or processed for shipments to other locales. Ocean liners escorted the rich and famous across the pond.

In the movie Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart catches a tugboat to chase after Audrey Hepburn who’s already shipboard and heading out of New York Harbor, of course with her poodle and beret. Then there’s On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando showing the seedier, grittier side of dock life. Today, some of the piers have rotted away and only the stumps appear to bob in the waves as landing platforms for birds. But others have been revitalized as in the movie Manhattan, where Woody Allen plays tennis with Diane Keaton inside an inflatable building that occupies an entire pier.

Paper towel dispenser (as art).
Paper towel dispenser (as art).

I hopped on a crosstown bus near ‘30 Rock’ which takes you within blocks of the show, housed in a massive building that straddles both 92 & 94 piers. It was about 10 am and a long line was forming with uniformed guards mouthing into walkie-talkies, all yelling in unison and seemingly accomplishing nothing. My downloaded press pass allowed me to bypass the line but the poor directions from the goofy crowd controllers sent me up and down the street uselessly. After twenty minutes of enduring March winds off the Hudson, I finally entered into a nirvana of white walls, bright lights and art everywhere.

Food vendors abounded so I eagerly purchased my overdue breakfast coffee and danish– overpriced for their size but tasty. I passed up a faux pushcart of Belgian chocolates as I headed for a lecture about magazine publishing—very boring as the presenters exchanged quips and ignored the audience, but a good chance to snooze and reduce some of my jet lag. I began walking what would be hours through miles of abstraction. I came upon a large canvas that had become storage for handbags; why didn’t I think about this ‘pick-up’ plan when my daughters were in high school and clothes strewn their rooms?

Chinese art is very popular; the Armory Show catalog said curator Xu Zhen was from Shanghai as was an art piece about two large wrist watches. I wondered why this artist hadn’t sculpted two large wrists to show off these time pieces. A Chinese sign said, “Don’t copy anyone” [and] “Do something no one’s ever done before.” Good advice, but I wondered if this sign didn’t contain some hidden message couching subversive political agendas, as the Chinese government isn’t always receptive to ‘art for art’s sake.’ It was difficult to tell which country represented what artists as everyone has gone global—maybe that’s a good thing.

I passed a paper towel dispenser that was really art and a large metal wall piece that looked like a broach. It was after one pm; I was getting hungry. I bypassed champagne at a tapas bar and elevated to the second level for a mini hamburger and a Coke that I ate overlooking the white-capped Hudson River.

The "giant broach" spotted at The Armory Show.
The “giant broach” spotted at The Armory Show.

Upstairs the art was less trendy; more of established artists like Tom Wesselmann and Josef Albers. There didn’t seem to be a lot of price tags but if you wanted to invest, say, $5,000 on a small print or drawing, it seemed doable. There was a section devoted to women artists where viewers could see an Anni Albers; like her husband she was a refugee from Hitler’s Europe. And there was Joan Brown, a San Francisco Bay Area painter known for her color and dog portraits.

I passed several areas of large white sofas where viewers could people watch or read the Armory Show catalog. Like the Whitney 2014 Biennial catalogue, the art in this book didn’t match what was displayed on walls—be aware. I elevated back to floor one, past two metallic cartoon-like figures seemingly madly in love. There was a sculpture of running shoes and a super-sized pearl earring, now a wall hanging. Art Forum magazine, my favorite as they provide me with an extra copy monthly, had a long table where the fatigued could pull up a stool and browse through past issues. I passed totemic sculptures of picture-less frames, and a painting that looked like ketchup and mustard had been used instead of paint. On a desk was a doggie vase with tulips that might have been a Jeff Koons?

The "Ketchup and Mustard" painting.
The “Ketchup and Mustard” painting.

It was nearly five pm and my feet hurt. My head pounded; I empathized with the large wooden figure plastered with nails. A couple were pushing buttons on their iPhones while sitting on a bench shingled like a house. It looked uncomfortable but after hours of walking across two piers of art, I would have sat on a house, too. Heading out, I passed a ring of stones looking somewhat prehistoric. Attempting to exit, I came upon a door that said, “Emergency Exit Only”. A women’s bathroom sign was stationed as the only preventative apparatus for not accidently sending off the alarm system. I laughed; one of the walkie-talkie folks had a sense of humor.

I boarded the crosstown bus back to Midtown and then hopped on the number six subway to Maryann’s Mexican Restaurant near the Astor Place stop where I joined daughter Maddy and boyfriend Joel for a huge Margarita and very fresh veggies on burritos and tacos. Art fairs are a great way to experience contemporary art without feeling uncomfortably out of place.

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Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She holds degrees from The University of Alaska, The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of AICA/USA. Jean is a PhD candidate with IDSVA. Her whaling abstracts and portraits have been shown from Barrow to New York City.


She can be reached at: 38144 [at] alaska [dot] net
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