Declarations on the Independent Art Fair

Friday, March 9, 2018

Tony Feher, Untitled, 2013.Plasticbottles with plastic screw caps, water, food dye on painted wood shelf and metal brackets Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Walking through the Independent Art Fair, I found myself turning one particular question over in my head: “Do I actually like art?” Yes, some of it is brilliant—those wonderful cave paintings in Lascaux, the David, Broadway Boogie Woogie—but is it enough to justify art as a whole? Is something like The Starry Night really so profoundly beautiful that it overrides a Macramé wall hanging with rocks tied to it?

I haven’t yet figured it out. The German theorist Walter Benjamin once wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” I think there’s an art world corollary to that idea; namely, that there is no great piece of art that is not at the same time a document of a thousand lazy, shoddily made imitations.

There are works from 57 different galleries on display at the Independent Art Fair, spread out over three floors of Spring Studios in SoHo. As the funkier, avant-garde alternative to the stately Armory show uptown, it should come as no surprise to hear that many of the works on display lean toward the outré. There’s a lot of shoddiness, pretension and unoriginality on display here—so much that it made me wonder whether art is actually worthwhile. But there’s also a lot of first-rate stuff that touched me deeply in ways I didn’t expect. Here are some of the pieces, good and bad, that stayed with me after I had left. 


Good: Tony Feher at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

I once saw a piece by the artist Martin Creed that consisted of nothing but an empty gallery with the lights turned off. I was shocked by its laziness and pretension. “Can you believe the chutzpah of it?” I said about it later, “What a scam!” But somebody set me straight. “I guess it really had an effect on you, didn’t it?”

Minimalist conceptual art can be powerful. I wouldn’t recommend buying it, but if you can forget about the art market, it can be a lot of fun to look at and discuss. So I admit, with some hesitation, that I really enjoyed Tony Feher’s Untitled, a wall of plastic bottles filled with liquid in different shades of blue. It’s easy to harp on the lack of technical skill needed to make something like this, or on how easy it is to recreate at home. But the fact that anybody could have made it struck me as liberating rather than fraudulent, and the way that things as simply as soda bottles could inspire serious thoughts about the nature of color and form—I don’t know, maybe I’m a sucker, but I dug it.

Cheim and Read Installation, photo by Etienne Frossard, courtesy Independent.

Good: Jack Pierson at Cheim & Read

Jack Pierson’s Diamond Life at Cheim & Read was another one of the conceptual pieces that really astounded me.  It isn’t much, really; just a chair, a wooden table with a record-player and personal mementos on it and a stack of records leaned against it and a postcard of Miami tacked to the wall. Pierson has described it as “me in 1989, ’90, already memorializing my youth in 1983.”

While I wasn’t able to grasp that without additional research, its transportive power is undeniable. The peeling Breuer chair and yellowing newspaper, the carefully-chosen copies of In Cold Blood and The Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go—all of them suggests both something vibrantly personal and something already gone.


Alexandru Chira, Study XVII, 1984. Oil on canvas. © The Estate of Alexandru Chira and Delmes & Zander, Cologne.

Good: Alexandru Chira at Delmes & Zander

This was my favorite thing I saw, and justified the entire day for me. The objective abstraction of the Romanian artist Alexandru Chira’s wispy drawings and paintings feel like something from the ‘10s or ‘20s. They bring to mind other things as well, like Da Vinci’s notebooks, the art produced by Schizophrenics popular at the turn of the 20th century, or, with their emphasis on strange UFO-like shapes, the contemporary new age movement.

But influence isn’t particularly important— what matters is that these are beautiful, richly-detailed pictures unlike anything else on display at the fair.

Hans-Peter Feldmann, Two girls with red noses. Oil on canvas. © Hans-PeterFeldmann, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.

Bad: Hans-Peter Feldmann at 303 Gallery

Hans-Peter Feldmann is one of those artists who doesn’t seem to have had an original idea in his entire career. There are plenty of concepts here, but all of them are really just tedious parodies of things that already exist. There are 1950s family photos…with their subjects’ faces cut out! Eighteenth century portraits…with red clown noses! Renaissance and romantic-era nudes….with bikini tanlines! 

That’s not a knock against appropriation itself, just a recognition that stuff like this—and there’s a lot of it on display at this fair—is really just the art world equivalent of Scary Movie.


Bad: Hélène Delprat at Galerie Christophe Gaillard

“Hélène Delprat has often used 18th century caricatures or satirical drawings in her work or made reference to Hogarth. This time, she uses Walt Disney and Tex Avery but also other oddly happy images: the cartoon figures one could see on U-Boots or, much more disturbing, the naïve drawings Dr. Mengele would sketch in his notebooks when he was hiding out in Latin America.”

Don’t be bamboozled by descriptions like this. Delprat paints unimaginative, notebook doodle-level abstract canvases with Disney’s “Big Bad Wolf” and other Golden Age cartoon characters over them. This is the kind of thing you’d find at a “trendy” bar in Downtown Disney—steer clear.

Night Gallery installation view, photo by Etienne Frossard, courtesy Independent

Bad: Christine Wang at Night Gallery

Ripped from the headlines! Christine Wang’s paintings combine image and text to capture the uneasy politics of the post-#metoo world. Paintings of photos of Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein with “I wish I was a White Man” over their faces, or of Kristen Stewart in Twilight with “I Just Want to be a White Girl” over hers, navigate the murky waters of gender, power and class in contemporary America.

I’m just kidding. This is ersatz crap, poorly conceived and painted, with a completely trite and vacuous message. What does Kristen Stewart have to do with sexual predation in Hollywood? What does she have to do with anything? What’s the point of artlessly saying “white men sure get away with a lot of stuff,” particularly in a year where that message was said with more elan and craft in the newspaper every day? This whole thing seems like a fraud, an easy way to hitch one’s name to a very real, very serious issue.



The Independent Art Fair runs through Sunday, March 11th at Spring Studios.


A December to Remember with the Madison Avenue BID

Madison Avenue BID hosts 32nd annual Miracle on Madison

On The Avenue

Modern Manners: Accidents Will Happen

An unintentional cartoon from Anthony Haden-Guest


Rules Don’t Rule

Our columnist rues a world with too many rules