Major museum surveys of contemporary art, like the current Whitney Biennial (through May 30), sit on the artistic landscape the way monumental sculpture sits in a public square, unavoidable and imposing. They aspire to be arbiters of taste, cataloguing contemporary trends and identifying cutting edge new work. (See my earlier blog.) By contrast, art fairs are transient, ephemeral. They show up on a regular schedule, but more like traveling salesmen who are here today, gone tomorrow. However, because the sole purpose of an art fair is to sell art, they may reflect the culture in ways that a museum survey doesn’t.
I managed to see two such art fairs recently and I was struck by their distinctly different personalities: the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) show in New York (March 18-21) and ArtChicago (April 30-May 3). Leaving aside the obvious surface difference—the AIPAD galleries specialize in photography, while the galleries at ArtChicago include a wide range of art media—I found the types of artists represented in each to be nearly the inverse of the other. Blue chip was the name of the game at AIPAD—and the name of the artists generally those I learned as a freshman in an introduction to photography. Small, vintage black and white silver prints ruled the day, vastly outnumbered the large, color work by contemporary photographers. I could have bought this same famous image by Cartier-Bresson at three different galleries (if I didn’t need to pay the mortgage for about a year!)
Most odd, considering the familiarity of the vintage work, was the unfamiliarity of many of the contemporary photographers. If the top names in vintage photography were abundant, why weren’t the top names in contemporary photography? (I suppose if I’d asked that question of one of the dealers, they might have insisted that I simply haven’t kept up with that shifting territory.)
At ArtChicago the opposite prevailed. With a few exceptions, the blue chips and famous names were missing while the vast majority of work was by artists unknown not only to me but to the group of art aficionados with whom I went. Not sure whether it was Chicago vs. New York, painting and sculpture vs. photography, or some less tangible cultural phenomenon. But here’s the monkey wrench: the photography at ArtChicago was more likely to be both contemporary and familiar, like Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Alec Soth.
The few big names at ArtChicago commanded similar prices. Albers’s 9”x12” Homage to the Square can still be had for a mere $70,000. But since these were the exception, the prices were generally much lower. So, what about the art? I enjoyed both shows very much, but…. Further reflections on this to come. A random sample from the NEXT portion of ArtChicago is below. I hope you’ll check back.