Whitney Biennial And ADAA: Ben Austin’s Armory Week Diary day 4

Dear reader, so here I am in Starbucks on 67th and 3rd, seems like this is the only place apart from McDonalds in New York where there is free WiFi, beggars can’t be choosers I suppose, so I will suck up their frothy overpriced crappy coffee.

Today is bright and considerably warmer, feels like spring is around the corner here.

Yesterday was pretty relaxed in terms of art stuff, as I am staying with family on Upper East Side, I walked a few blocks up onto Madison to visit the Whitney Biennial. I love having a press pass during Armory week, so as the art tourists lined up in the freezing cold, I sailed past them, right to the front of the cashier (complimentary ticket, of course).

I took the staircase up, where there was a series of creepy sound installation pieces, speakers with plush toys attached to the top. This set the mood for all the weird and wonderful on display.

On the 2nd Second floor, curated by Anthony Elms, I was struck by the sprawling mass of work, taking it in like some immersive experience. The curator in his exhibition notes cites the poet Susan Howe as a point of departure: ‘I believed in an American aesthetic of uncertainty that could represent beauty in syllables so scarce and rushed they would appear to expand though they lay half-smothered in local history.’

I’m not sure quite what this means but it sounds lovely to the ear.

Onto the art, I liked the muted abstracts by Rebecca Morris and the homoerotic prints by Gary Indiana. There was a striking series of acrylic, ink, wax, charcoal and collage work on paper entitled ‘Folk Tales’ by Charline von Heyl.  The ink on paper portraits by Paul P was also strong as were the homoerotic (a subtext to this floor maybe?) coloured drawings by Elijah Burgher.

On the 3rd floor curated by Stuart Comer where there was an insane installation by Bjarne Melgaard involving multi-media, fabric and highly sexualised dolls. I liked the work of Morgan Fisher ‘Ro(Ro(Room)om)om, which plays upon spaces within spaces. There was a salon hang of paintings by Keith Mayerson entitled ‘My American Dream’ drawing upon iconic elements of American culture including images of Annie, Sitting Bull and Abraham Lincoln.

Onto the 4th (and in my opinion, the best) floor, curated by Michelle Grabner, who had honed down the collection of work into three overlapping priorities: ‘contemporary abstract painting by women; materiality and affect theory; and art as strategy – in other words, conceptual practices oriented towards criticality’. I know this sounds like art speak, but the whole floor had cohesion. I adored the glass installation by Joel Otterson, the witty ink, paper, glue and gesso on linen pieces by Donelle Wollford, riffing on Richard Prince and the bold paintings by Jacqueline Humphries.

There was a lot to admire on this floor and I will not list all the work on show, but suffice to say that it certainly had a ‘wow’ factor and the graphite pencil and enamel on paper large-scale series by Karl Haendel was incredible, reminiscent of John Baldessari.

I wondered up to the quieter upper floors to take a peek at the permanent collection and was delighted by the Alice Neels, Edward Hoopers and Alexander Calders there.

Next stop was the ADAA (Park Ave Armory) art fair. This is always a very smart and civilised affair, far removed from the frantic activity of Piers. There was some wonderful work on offer here with eye watering prices to match. Acquavella Gallery had a 3rd rate Bacon on show for $11M but a rather good smallish Freud for $3.5M. I spotted a stunning Egon Schiele coloured drawing, a snip at $2.75M. Howard Greenberg had a great set of Bern & Hila Becher photographs on at $125K. Sean Kelly had very ‘bling’ solo presentation of Kehinde Wiley, contemporary African-American portraits on gilt alterpieces at $75K each. John Berggruen Gallery had a beautiful unique Chuck Close portrait of his wife Lesilie from 1977 on at $475K.

Rhona Hoffman Gallery had an impressive solo presentation of Sol Lewitt and Robert Miller had some wonderful collages by Lee Krasner. David Zwirner presented degrees of black pieces by Ad Reinhardt and Cheim & Read presented Louise Bourgeois.

Great photography was to be found at Leslie Tonknow with the work of Laurl Nakdate and Fraenkel Gallery had a solo presentation of the late great Diane Arbus, these were for me the highlight of the fair. Finally there was an interactive portrait performance doing on at Carl Solway, with visitors lining up to have their picture taken behind a semi transparent screen, producing translucent images. This seems to me a clever and instant way of engaging the public.

In the evening, I ended up the Independent party at the Americano Hotel, which had a good vibe with 80’s music to boot.

Back to the Piers today, which I’m sure will be mobbed.

Whitney Biennial Mar 7–May 25, 2014 Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY 10021, (212) 570-3600

ADAA – March 5–9, 2014 Park Avenue Armory, New York City



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