New York's Armory Show reported record attendance and some promising sales. Is the American contemporary art market is on the rebound?
Back to business in the US art market
Within minutes of the Armory Show opening last week on two piers in the Hudson River, Michael Schultz Gallery of Berlin sold East Is Red by the Chinese painter Zou Cao to a New York collector for ?130,000 (Dh650,000). The painting, just completed by the artist, wasn't among the most expensive works sold at the 12th annual show, yet the speed at which it sold reflected demand that seems to have burst out in the American contemporary market after a year of uncertainty.
The Michael Schultz Gallery was not alone. Upstream Gallery from the Netherlands, at the show for the first time, reported selling out their booth of works in pencil by David Haines within the first 35 minutes. Not much at the Armory Show was radically different in style or subject matter this year, but there were a few exceptions. A slight rebound in the economy apparently brought buyers back, drawing record attendance.
In a place where unemployment is higher than the 10 per cent national average, crowds massed on the piers on the west side of Manhattan, and swarms of secondary fairs (one of them, Volta, owned by the Armory Show) offered work that tended to be more whimsical and adventurous. And cheaper. Yet it was the Armory Show that drew the collectors, if not the trendspotters. Fittingly, the finest work - at least in the eyes of artists and critics - was in the show's modern section on Pier 92. It was Henri Matisse's Oceanie, Le Ciel, an extraordinarily graceful silk screen on rough linen from 1946 at $2.5 million (Dh9m) from Chowaiki & Co of New York.
One of the show's stalwarts, the Manhattan dealer Jack Shainman, reported on the first day that he had sold an elegant wall hanging by the Nigerian artist El Anatsui, who is now a pillar of the contemporary art scene. Anatsui designs richly textured "cloth" that appears to be woven and decorated with jewels. On closer examination, it is revealed to be stitched together with cast-off fragments of metal cans and bottles. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns two of them, which are produced by teams of workers in Nigeria.) The price was $750,000, up from $500,000 for a similar work last year - a sign of increased demand.
Also from Africa, the Goodman Gallery of Cape Town and Johannesburg showed Four Musicians: (Moo, Roar, Chee-how, Yeeeoh), which consisted of a stuffed animals and an eagle stacked almost three meters high as well as a set of chairs and music stands from which a musical composition could be played. Few booths drew the sizeable crowds that Four Musicians did, but before the show's end, the installation had not sold for what one gallery employee called the reduced price of $300,000.
Another unusual crowd stopper evoked a more traditional aim of art: serenity. It was a statue in the form of a medieval princess or saint, reminiscent of stone sculpture from 13th or 14th-century France - only this sculpture was made of coral. The unusual figure was the work of the Japanese sculptor Mori Junichi, explained Mizuma Sueo of the Mizuma Art Gallery, which was showing Mori's work in the US for the first time. The crowned figure was priced rather low for this crowd at $42,000.
"The contemporary market in Japan is very small and quiet," Mizuma said, "but we have a strong market in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei. We know that the United States is in a recession, but we think it's a good time to start relationships with real collectors. That's why I'm here. "The investors used to be at the art fairs, but not so much now. The collectors have lower budgets, but that's OK. What we're selling is not so expensive."
As always, price was a deciding factor. At Wetterling Gallery, from Stockholm, Ladies of the Opera Terrace, a wall-sized painting by the pop scion James Rosenquist that was commissioned for a Stockholm restaurant in 1986, was selling for $3.5 million. Rosenquist's recently published memoir raised his profile in the past six months, yet the massive painting hadn't sold. Nearby, the Copenhagen gallery Faurschou sold Edvard Munch's Beach in Asgardstrand (1895-96) for $6 million. Jens Faurschou noted that his gallery had failed so far to sell Robert Rauschenberg's 1997 collage Mirthday Man for $35 million or Pablo Picasso's The Artist and His Model for $9.5 million, but stressed that this year's Armory Show was still an improvement over a year ago. "Last year we did nothing," Faurschou said.
A rough poll of dealers echoed the sentiment that the American market was back. Meanwhile, Pier 92, which was reserved for modern art rather than contemporary, contained a remote corner that seemed dedicated to reviving the reputations of forgotten or neglected artists. Gary Snyder Projects, a New York gallery, focused on Sven Lukin, the Estonian-born abstract artist whose paintings stretch into three dimensions. On view was Untitled, a work from 1960 in blue and yellow vertical panels. Once shown by the prominent Pace Gallery (now Pace Wildenstein), Lukin drifted into relative obscurity after making a splash in the 1960s. Untitled, at $225,000, hadn't sold, but two drawings by the artist were bought right away. Could a rediscovery be on the way?
The same hopes for rediscovery were evident at three galleries promoting the work of women artists: Dorothea Tanning at Frey Norris Gallery of San Francisco; the dealer/painter Betty Parsons at Spanierman, and the satirical sculptor Niki de St Phalle at Nohra Haime Gallery. St Phalle shot paint from a gun before there was such a thing as performance art. Many see her as a martyr who died of exposure from the toxic materials that she used in her art. Louis Armstrong, a gargantuan sculpture celebrating the trumpet player, was priced at $600,000, enough to reinforce anyone's reputation.