ARCO, the strange annual mirage of the Madrid artworld, is over. I watched it like anyone else, from the outside, as a spectator among thousands. That usually works. I don’t need to schmooze. Besides, like Frank always says, “What you see is what you get.” But this time I have to say ARCO 2014 was a dessicated mystery. I passed on all the panel discussions about collecting and museums. That kind of talk is the sound of gears meshing in the engine of international art. This fair emanated an overall feeling of exhaustion at holding the line of a system that isn’t working, with an approach that isn’t flexible, that is becoming more conservative and more avaricious. Still, the people came. Even with admission at an astonishing 40 euros a day, it was packed, in a weird collusion of dealers who pay to be the scenery in a Hollywood production of an art fair. The big money came in at the gate. The bar and restaurant section was bigger, and there weren’t enough seats. (“Keep ’em moving.”) In some odd reflection of anxiety over the “Spanish brand” (not sure what that oft-repeated phrase means), the newspaper El País put up a display about cooking centered on the wizard of the restaurant Bulli. Last year they sponsored an art installation. In short, there was just a lot less beef than bun this year.
There are novels to be written about the weird parade of these fairs, the people posing in their outfits for “youies” in front of artworks, the dealers scowling, anxious, some deadly glum. With the senseless last-minute change-up in the tax rate the government pulled, very few of them seemed happy. The missing meat? Politics. The bun was filled out with acres of abstraction, and endless montage—mash-ups of past art. Dealers scrupulously avoided showing art with any relation to the real world. Democracia’s large photo blow-ups of captioned riot police struck at the prevailing absence of similar content like a gong.
The problem with the art fair model—which seems to be creaking badly in Madrid—is the problem with the global economy. It has a strained relation to production. It is about the financialization of everything, and totally abstracted from life. Making new art is, yes, about making new value—like bitcoin mining. But, it’s value in the social sense, as well. The art fairs are only about banking—maintaining and transacting established value. The more they retrench and put their guard up, the deader they become.
The oldest Madrid art fair was held this year in the refurbished city hall. It’s usually dead-boring in just these terms, so I didn’t go. JustMad, the fair of “emergent art,” was a shadow of its 2013 self (although the parties looked like fun). With high audience demand and timid diminishing content, this year’s art fair offerings seem ripe for takeover. Truly, “wir sind wo anders.”
Yeah, yeah, kvetch, kvetch. But, as always, there was a lot, even too much to see. And like the Sochi Olympic games which ended this weekend, we have to say it’s all about the athletes. Even if white men ruled the roost, with barely a nod to any outside. And even if they weren’t allowed to try for any records, the sensuous generic animator Julian Opie, for example, a perennial at art fairs, showed paintings. Matt Mullican went for beauty and scored, with a bright, haunting semi-abstract That world where cartoon characters roam (Frame World Elements), 2013. It’s very knowing, evoking scratched film, dirty canvas, and using a color scheme from the RGB model of electronic devices. (Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich)
Utterly eerie and totally weird was the beautiful room installation of multiple screens of a faux-Weimar era German film “The Lost.” Reynold Reynolds pretends he found this film censored by the Nazis that survives only in fragments. (Actually, he made it.) The seven screens were cleverly situated, so that watching them becomes an interactive experience of intersecting gazes, interests and desires. (West gallery, The Hague.)
Anti Laitinen, a part of the spotlight on Finland, works with glacier landscapes. He’s a classic earth artist. A video shows him at work, preparing materials like pine needles and lichens, for display. A floor piece is squares of this stuff, poignantly evoking the deep quiet forests from whence they came. (Galerie Anhava, Helsinki.)
Through the forest of decorative rubbish, one could still see the tall trees of modernism, telling their familiar tales. A mini-show of exquisite Juan Gris paintings was crowned by a powerful nearly abstract Picasso in Gris’ colors, showing the master thief at work. Roy Lichtenstein had surprising mid-1950s constructivist style assemblages. (Galeria Marc Domenech, Barcelona) It was also great to see vitrines full of works by Meret Oppenheim, the German Swiss Surrealist. A bronze shoe with a bubbling warty fill would be my choice of low-load investment grade feminist art. (Levy Galerie, Eppendorf, Germany) Some works by the under-known Filipino master David Medalla were delightful, like the “bio-kinetic” soap bubble fountain in a passageway (reconstructed from a 1965 original). These shared space with documents of an early British museum-crashing work by Mexican ’68 émigré and Fluxus comrade Felipe Ehrenberg, and a row of enigmatic masks by the political humorist Roberto Jacoby. The presenter (Baró Galeria, São Paulo) is doing very interesting work putting these masters together with younger artists.
Héctor Zamora, a Mexican public artist working in São Paulo, had a delirious video installation of workers inside a museum throwing bricks from one pile to another in a kind of proletarian circus act. To me, Inconstância Material (2012) brilliantly evoked the building sprees that led to the global economic collapse. Fun while it lasted. (Luciana Brito Galeria, São Paulo)
Karin Sander’s blank canvases, shipped unwrapped, greatly annoyed a friend I was visiting with the second day. I think they’re funny, these forms, abraded by chance, pasted with labels. One, a large tondo, has been patched up with bright colored tape by DHL workers. (Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich)
Dan Graham’s Tunnel of Love (2014), a simple grand work in his architectural style, made sly use of the reflective properties of curved glass. Only we inside can see each other as we are; outside, everyone and everything looks funny. (Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen)
By Alan W. Moore