The Boys in the Back Room

John Haber
in New York City

The 2004 Armory Show

One on One in Video

It is a common experience. Turning to make sure that I have seen every last inch of a show, I stumble sheepishly into the gallery's back room. Probably you have, too, more than once. In an instant, I have crossed that imperceptible border between public space and inner sanctum. I have trespassed from fine art into the commercial particulars of a desk, an overworked dealer, and a clutter of work from gallery artists. Oh, them.

A moment ago, those objects of perception challenged the very notions of space and time. Now somehow, the same objects more closely resemble office furniture and interior decoration. One can only imagine how they might look at home. Shannon Plumb's Roller Coaster (Pierogi, 2003)

For another audience, that back room means something altogether different. I mean those who actually do take the work home. They find a personal connection to the dealer and, yes, to the art. They find the chance to get the inside track on just what is coming up and what is moving out.

If Chelsea and its galleries have become art's shopping mall or evening hangout, the Whitney Biennial its circus, P.S. 1's "Greater New York" its toyland, MoMA itself its textbook, and the outlying galleries or the Studio Museum in Harlem its experiments in urban renewal, an art fair is like one extended, numbing back office. A Biennial already exceeds any hope of encapsulating it. At the same time, even the Whitney's institutional weight inevitably fails to encapsulate art. Implicit challenges to its scope continually arise—from group shows and borough-wide consortia, from the Brooklyn Museum and its seemingly less judgmental "Open House." Yet nothing prepares one for an international arts fair like the 2004 Armory Show. And that was just one assault this March on my very assumption about how art engages me, the viewer.

The many and the one

"One on one." Is it the very definition of art—or a fallacy that Postmodernism has swept away for good?

Art still promises an intimate confrontation with the viewer. It urges one to reimagine oneself in light of the art object. It delivers on the goods, too, but only when the viewer takes the time for intimacy to grow, time to engage the work and its history.

Postmodernism dares one to see through all of that. It asks one to see every one of those presences as a fiction. It puts them all in context of art's shopping mall—of galleries, museums, and reproductions. Even up close, the "other" in that intimate relationship really stands for many presences. And each one—the work, its subject, its maker, and the shared space of experience—draws on the viewer's imagination for its very being.

The March Armory Show displayed only one extreme kind of encounter. It turned two Hudson River piers into a literal shopping mall for contemporary art. Close to two hundred galleries competed for attention, along with at least half a dozen nations and goodness knows how many artists. Meanwhile, talkative videos in Brooklyn promised to go "One on One" with the viewer. They discard slick production values and image manipulations, so common in video art today, in favor of clumsy camera movements and single takes. In a postscript, I pick up the story with competition to the Armory Show in 2006.

Suppose I start with the piers. The show there definitely targets both audiences used to art's back room. It has outgrown an actual Upper East Side armory, still the site of Old Master events, to New York's own hidden back room—the piers far to the west of Manhattan's theater district. It costs from $17 to $20 just to get in—low enough that anyone can come, but high enough so that one knows one can afford more than an already preposterous museum entrance fee.

And lines to pay run almost as long as for Leonardo da Vinci at the Met—only self-policed, unruly, and largely outdoors in the cold March air. Inside lie an upstairs "collector's lounge," talks on "the art of collecting art," crowded cafeterias, and close to two hundred of those back rooms, all in four dense rows.

A disappointed bridge

In all these years of gallery going, I had never once set foot in an arts fair. This year, my curiosity got the better of me, and I joined the lines. I had visions of a transforming challenge like the original Armory Show, in an actual armory further downtown, not far from where I write. Was I really thinking of 1913, when a nude descended a staircase for Marcel Duchamp and shocked New York? I had a lot to learn.

The 2004 Armory Show reminds me more of the Washington Square art shows of my childhood. Back then, people browsed packed sidewalks of tired images, in hope of regaining the long-past days of a downtown scene. Now, out on the water, one sees the scene's international scope and wonders if it has turned the whole idea of downtown upside-down.

Greenwich Village once again has some of the city's hottest galleries, such as Kenny Schachter, Gavin Brown, and Sperone Westwater. Yet Washington Square still shows what happens when a dream outlasts its time. Has contemporary art come to a similar pass? In James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen shrugs off a student's definition of a pier, "a disappointed bridge." Out on piers 90 and 92, has postmodern art blown up the bridge to this century?

Perhaps not, not when typical conversations run to "we must have lunch soon." Still, the show has a way of making artists look like their own imitators. So many booths from Germany have crisp and blurry realism that one forgets one or two works may actually be by Thomas Struth or Gerhard Richter. Germany actually is a feature this year, along with dealers chiefly from New York, Paris, and London. Few galleries in other American cities could afford it.

So how does art stand out? With great difficulty. Not even size necessarily does the trick, although it helps to remake a booth as an installation. Schachter himself has one crawling around a steel cage by Vito Acconci and model airplane to see the paintings. Team lets one sit on a couch to play Cory Arcangel's arcade game based on I Shot Andy Warhol, rather than his less ironic engagements with Super Mario. Team also hangs Katherine Bernhardt in her blend of spray paint and fashion names perfectly, along the main corridor, like actual graffiti.

Roebling Hall, one of just two Williamsburg galleries that did pay the price of exhibiting, has a sinister classroom. It seems not inappropriate for a show that resembles cramming for an exam. Quick: who shows with . . . ? I'm terribly sorry. Your time is up!

From back office to cubicle

But is even winning the game enough? Arcangel's display is already a two-year-old work, based on an eight-year-old movie, based on art nearly half a century old, based on the reproduction of almost anything. By the time one has sorted through that litany, one may long for a more intimate exchange with the artist than at the end of a toy pistol.

In fact, that hope does not die easily. Museum visitors cling to it, and the best art books for each of the last two years—Miranda Carter on Anthony Blunt and Hayden Herrera on Arshile Gorky—were biographies. Herrera's point of view even hinges on the biographer's intimacy with her subject: she is the daughter of Gorky's widow. Less admirably, Michael Kimmelman of the Times has compiled a volume of his chumming around with big-name artists in museums (although he has also made a thrilling case for a new Penn Station). Cindy Sherman on the cover, like most of Cindy Sherman's poses, is almost worth the price.

Even postmodern role-playing makes one think in terms of presences. Paradoxically, the photography of Sherman or Lucas Samaras almost returns portraiture its traditional place. It makes one imagine that the subject, perhaps the artist, stands right there, whispering something sordid in one's ear.

How better to sustain the conversation than to place video and a gallery-goer in a cubicle together? Pierogi, the other Brooklyn gallery that bought space on the pier, did exactly that this past fall. "One on One in Video" made a delightful break from the gallery's taste for finicky drawing, sometimes better suited for heavy-metal album covers.

Only beware: here, too, a one-on-one exchange is a fiction. The title alone sounds less like a conversation than a game of skill, played against the viewer, the gallery, and tradition. Once one tries to piece out the video artists from their on-screen roles, things only get rougher. Video goes one-on-one with gallery-goers in the space of an office cubicle. No wonder that exposure and exaggeration here become part of everyday life.

The show models itself on one side of early video art, as in Bruce Nauman's clowning and self-exposure. Forget the craft or complexity of Shirin Neshat's polished rituals and lyrical cinema, Matthew Barney's museum epics, Bill Viola's existential operas, or Gary Hill's philosophical puzzles. Certainly try to forget Madonna's music videos and any number of software manipulations. These artists play themselves. And I do mean play. They definitely have it in for innocence.

Searching for airspace

Deborah Edmeades could be making fun of Samaras, Robert Mapplethorpe, and a whole decade of kama sutra. She appears to be thrusting at least one person's butt toward the camera, but I had trouble ascertaining exactly how many. Kenneth Shorr has problems with his mother, if you have the patience to listen and the innocence to confuse confessions and Borscht Belt routines. Matt Marello inserts himself into video of other artists expressing themselves. Need some sympathy after all that? Jim Torok's cartoon stick figure will admire you endlessly, only very, very slowly and in a tone of perpetual despair.

My favorite reminds me a little of Sherman, but the glossy film stills give way to scratchy sound and jerky images. Sherman's mythic American cities give way, too—to an interior more like the studio a New York artist can really afford. If Sherman plays not a person but a film role, Shannon Plumb plays a person playing a film role—and maybe watching one as well. Her woman in curlers, for example, pretends to find solace, fear, and loathing in a horror movie on TV. Her straight-faced skits and dress-up characters owe something to Sherman's feminine roles, but they straddle the line between the naive and the ridiculous.

You know, it is not as easy as it sounds to hold out a plain brown paper bag, pretend that it is a barf bag, stick out your tongue, and demonstrate how to use it. It is harder still if one has not the least interest in gross-out humor. Rather, Plumb is playing perhaps the stereotypically polite role. She is pretending to serve as a stewardess, one who also shows how to use a life jacket by putting on a necklace of party balloons.

In case one missed how confining the feminine role remains, even in an era of male flight attendants, she holds up a pretty mean looking industrial hook and chain in place of a seat belt. In case one missed how infantile the role is, too, she has her own safety instructions, drawn like a child's first efforts in art class. And in case one missed that this game puts the viewer in a fictive space, in an airspace far above Williamsburg, one can always leave for the next cubicle.

Of course, not just the role is infantile, confining, and imaginary. So is the obviously clumsy role-playing. The viewer knows this. Better still, Plumb knows it, and that, too, is part of the game.

Is it art, or does she just have a talent for acting? Perhaps one should look back at Mapplethorpe, Sherman, Samaras, and the paradoxes of self-exposure as a kind of stand-up act, too. They have the weight to do without a punch line. When art gets this serious, it exposes the viewer to an unnerving comedy.

Fasten your seatbelt

So is that it—the Armory Show without an armory or "One on One" with only a video presence? Describing art that way, one runs a risk. It may sound as if contemporary art is simply a hoax. It may sound, too, as if the market trivializes art and experience to the point of redundancy. And often it does.

There is much to be said for any degree of cynicism, even if one does not have a right-wing tract on culture to sell. An awareness of redundancy can home in on the reality of arts institutions. It can also open the viewer to art's own games with reality. Fasten your seatbelt.

Still, whether in a Brooklyn cubicle or at the end of the piers, cynicism becomes pretty much beside the point. Art always works with reality as best it can, sometimes as gloriously as with the original Hudson River School. As with the Frick Collection's 500th anniversary show of Parmigianino, understanding patronage and political change can actually bring a perplexing artist into the mainstream—and perhaps even appreciated for his own sake.

With each review, I am trying to keep contrary points of view in the air. If I left Pierogi laughing, where better art might bring me closer to tears, suppose I just say that I have expanded my emotional range. If I left the Armory Show less confident in artists that I (or you) admire, suppose I keep that question in the air. That alone would make the weekend worthwhile.

The puzzle of the many and the one will not go away any time soon. How could it, when artists who ripped into authenticity starting in the 1980s became the biggest art-world celebrities since Salvador Dalí left Spain? How can those outside art's club scene expect to get past the ropes?

I cannot promise I shall return to the Armory Show next year or in years after, but we must have lunch soon. Perhaps at the Whitney?

A postscript: beyond the Armory Show

So, everyone gets to ask each other one weekend a year, when are you seeing the Armory Show? I was taking all sorts of pleasure in saying never, but in a small way I broke down again. In 2006 I dropped in on one of (goodness) four competing shows. Pulse may not count as the Armory Show, but it occupies for one year the actual 26th Street armory. The spiral has definitely taken the event beyond the confines of an exhibition, a neighborhood, or even a shopping center—to something more akin to a suburban sprawl of megastores.

One exodus from the real Armory Show on the Hudson River Piers, called Scope (as if to provide a breath of fresh air), now parks just blocks a way, while some video art clusters in a hotel in Battery Park City. Yet more LA artists, already a frightening thought, fill the Altman Building just east of Chelsea proper. Each resembles the exhibit hall at pretty much any convention center. Ironically, the armory lies directly across town from Chelsea's continued expansion, but the concept did spread from here. Even if one discounts the legendary 1913 event that shocked New York, the current activity began with what The New York Times calls a "quaint marketing exercise" in 1994. If one discounts the word quaint, one pretty much has it summed up for today.

Of course, every exhibition amounts to a marketing exercise, or else galleries and artists would not survive, but this event has the exercise down pat. Dealers and clients can make efficient contact, without having to deal with actual art exhibitions. As in 2004, it feels much like stumbling on the awkward but privileged confines of gallery back rooms. It puts in question the premise that art and the viewer—or perhaps the artist and the viewer—have a one-on-one connection. Again like the Washington Square shows of years past, too, it makes one wonder yet again if the very rituals by which art survives have destroyed the modern or postmodern visions they purvey.

So how does art stand out? As I wrote two years ago, with great difficulty. One remembers, not necessarily for the better, works on the largest scale or the most "in your face"—not unlike on many a day in Chelsea. And indeed I took note of Leonardo Drew's wall of tiny, rusted cells (from Texas this time and not Brent Sikkema in Chelsea), the anxious cartoon face by Joyce Pensato (from Parker's Box in Brooklyn), a cardboard hot rod by Chris Gilmour (from Italy), and Jennifer Dalton with her mammoth collection of business titans in the guise of antique toy soldiers (from Plus Ultra, which moved just days before to Chelsea from Williamsburg along with Schroeder Romero). It seems almost fitting that the largest of all, cotton boots by Erwin Olaf, come from Houston. In Texas, no doubt, it takes a lot to fill one's shoes, if not necessarily a lot of art.

Disillusionment has led even some big Chelsea names to abandon the weekend exercise, but one can learn something, aside from cynicism. Now that the Whitney Biennial seems disinclined to search high and low for the state of the art, perhaps an encyclopedia of self-selected, paid entries has its place. "Pulse" includes several other fine New York galleries. I have mentioned von Lintel's exhibitions of Mark Sheinkman and others before. However, the bulk of the booths come from beyond the city, one more sign of art's seemingly eternal, global fair.

Perhaps one can try to take an environment's pulse this way. Here Germany puts images familiar from abstraction or, more often, a satanically alluring view of mass culture through the usual range of Neo-Expressionist styles. Britain, too, leans to realism, although with a more dour view and ample attention to photography. France's art here seems more cautious and self-effacing than its citizens (give or take painted text to the effect that "Je vous méprise profondément" and "Vous êtes des cochonnes), San Francisco's painfully small and illustrative. Texas gets many of its artists from New York, and indeed they may be increasingly happy to escape. However, one should consider any generalization as just one more move in an increasingly difficult game, and my kudos to those who manage to win.

BACK to John's arts home page

The Armory Show ran through March 14, 2004, on the piers across from Twelfth Avenue, between 50th and 52nd Streets. "One on One in Video" ran at Pierogi through November 10, 2003. The 2006 events occurred the weekend of March 11. Look for updates on the 2008 art fairs, 2009 art fairs, 2010 art fairs, 2011 art fairs, and 2012 art fairs, including Frieze in its first year in New York.


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