Jerry Saltz: Art-Fair Week Is Not Actually Horrible

A woman look at a piece by artist Allan McCollum title
Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project, seen at the press preview for the 2013 Armory Show. Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

I arrived at the piers for the opening of the 2013 Armory Show at 2:30 p.m. I left at 8:45 p.m. Given that I was carrying a glitzy gold VIP pass with my name on it, I figured I’d be in a sparsely attended space for the first few hours. Sucker! The place was jammed when I got there, and as I walked in, I saw batches of art-world machers already leaving. D’oh!

As some readers already know, I do not really look at art at art fairs. I can’t. I’m sorry. Fairs are places where the dealer is always only a few feet away from the art, and I need my own space to see it. As soon as a dealer comes up to me in a booth to explain this or that work, my skin starts crawling, I have wee panic attacks, I begin behaving badly, and I duck away. They think I am insane. And rude. Which I may be. (I avoid fairs after the first day too. So my ideas about them are very limited.)

However, I love that art fairs offer a lot of artists and dealers chances to pocket a little cash. (Or way more. Hi, Larry. Nice twenty-foot Warhol there.) I want dealers and artists to make all the money they can from doing what they do. Art fairs seem to have evolved into places where that can happen. Whatever these things are for artists, dealers, and collectors seems to work for all of them. So I’m good with that, because I can’t do what I do without them.

I love that dealers are making deals with one another. I also love that a few enlightened, brave curators go and don’t only follow the correct trends buying the perfect art that fits perfectly into their teeny-tiny niche of art history. Some curators really are there looking for themselves. As someone who spends almost all of his time alone writing, I love going out, being with the crowd, wandering around, looking at the great fashions on women, and watching everyone interact. I love the multiple tribes exchanging silent looks and invisible information. I love seeing power people having meetings right there in the aisles. You don’t dare interrupt; they put out protective security shields that let you know to just move along.

Last year, I felt as though the cloud of the coming Frieze Art Fair cast a very dark shadow on the Armory Show. Moreover, the Armory Show had grown big and boring. Other art fairs — the Independent especially, and also ADAA, Frieze, and NADA — drained too much quality from the Armory Show. I thought it was time for it to die, and that last year was a near-death experience. Now Frieze and the Independent are the cool hot fairs, the ones I have to attend (and I do, reluctantly). No doubt about it: The Armory Show had its thunder stolen.

All that having been said, my highly limited sense of the Armory Show is that it did not die. In fact, it has gained new life, evolving into something else. (Not that I know what that is yet.) I saw an event that was very relaxed, without hyperselling, where my eyes were not darting everywhere but only talking to people (while texting on my iPhone). Yes, I know dealers will always put the best face on things — but every dealer I spoke to seemed happy, reporting that sales were good and that they were really enjoying themselves. (Enjoying is a word one seldom hears at art fairs.) Even I wasn’t too hysterical. The event seemed smaller, booths were fewer, space seemed wider. You could avoid who you wanted to avoid and yet not look too needy dashing around to meet people. I didn’t overeat or get too freaked out about my place in the pecking order.

Do we need art fairs? I don’t. But for now and for whatever complex reasons, we do. That’s how the art game works right now. And although I won’t go back to it, the Armory Show was just fine by me. If it returns next year, I’ll go again. Earlier this time.

Saltz: Art-Fair Week Is Not Horrible