Modern artists have seen some things, man. This was the working opening line for my reflections on the Independent fair, dedicated this year to lesser-known artists from the previous century. What I hoped to see: Carrington-esque paintings of spectral creatures rendered on tiny wooden panels, salvaged from someone’s post-war basement; the next Hilma af Klint; lovable sculptures by some forgotten Minimalist who wasn’t sleek enough for David Zwirner to pick up. Instead, I found myself ambling down the plush-carpeted corridors of Cipriani South Street, housed in the imposing Beaux Arts-style Battery Maritime Building, thinking that some of these artworks should have stayed in the past — and pausing, here and there, to admire a few rare gems.
One such standout was the entire booth of Shin Gallery, which recreated founder Hong Gyu Shin’s New York apartment, complete with messy stacks of old auction catalogues (relatable) and an authentic Man Ray chess set whose original owner was William Copley (less so).
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“I think there are still great artworks and artists that were overlooked,” Shin said, pointing to a work by David Drake, an enslaved potter who inscribed lines of poetry on his alkaline-glazed stoneware jugs. “If we don’t do it, who is going to rediscover these careers? Look at Van Gogh: He was overlooked for 50 years after his death.”
It’s true: Although the 20th century is arguably the most canonized period in the history of art, scholarship has disproportionately favored a select handful and completely neglected others. These oversights are typically aligned with racial, geographic, and gender-based biases, but not always; they also result from prejudice against certain mediums and subject matter, or artists’ socioeconomic status and their ability to reach an audience (no Instagram, slow ships, etc.) I was delighted to discover the work of Italian painter Stanislao Lepri, who eschewed his aristocratic lineage to spend a large part of his life in a throuple with Argentine artist Leonor Fini and Polish writer Constantin Jelenski. In “Pandemonio” (1958), haunting figures right out of Dante’s Inferno emerge from a gauzy environment, a cat poking his paw out improbably from the left-hand corner; the artist gazes at us from a 1953 self-portrait with a face that clearly says: “I was too weird for the Surrealists of my time, but look at me now!”
And just as there are countless artists who deserve their place in the sun, likewise there are those whose work doesn’t quite resonate. There are a number of great reasons to resuscitate a career — perhaps an artist played an important role in the evolution of another, more successful figure, but they were never given their due; or they were genuinely brilliant but the clunky machine of grandeur that is the art world steamrolled right past them. At Independent, I saw a fair amount of abstraction that added little to the conversation. We don’t need to keep replicating the monotonous gestures of modernity under the banner of historical correction.
In addition to spotlighting modern artists who are not household names, the fair invited presentations of rarely seen artworks by “masters.” This worked out well for Giorgio de Chirico. His Gladiator (1927–30) series, painted as Mussolini ascended to power and resurfaced at the fair by Nahmad Contemporary, offers up absurdist interpretations of heroic Classicism. One visitor, Presina Mottley, who has a degree in printmaking and now works at a museum, described the paintings as “nostalgic” — a word that I felt succinctly summed up so much of this fair, filled with artworks not necessarily identifiable but redolent, sometimes soothingly and other times unsettlingly, of a bygone era.
“The Greek and Roman references, the contrapposto, it brings me back to my younger days of studying and learning about European artworks,” Mottley told me. “The surreal elements and faceless figures — it’s comforting but creepy. I enjoy that.” Refreshingly, this booth also provided didactic material, including a wall text and a flip-book filled with examples of how the Gladiators have inspired contemporary artists, from Philip Guston to Lisa Yuskavage.
At Ross + Kramer Gallery’s booth, a massive diptych by the Nuyorican Lee Quiñones also caught my eye. The harrowing portrayal of a wincing face, peering from a place of hiding at a patch of blue sky marred by a trail of fighter jets, is impossible to look away from. The gallery’s booth attendant shared that the imagery was born out of the artist’s fascination with World War II history and iconography, which he evokes in “The Long Prayer” (1984) as a commentary on the Cold War and ongoing oppression in the Eastern Bloc. Quiñones, who is 62 years old today, is most typically associated with New York City graffiti and the subway art movement; the works you see if you Google his name are representative of this. I would have likely never seen this painting elsewhere.
Other times, the impetus to unearth a famous artist’s obscure oeuvre backfires. No hate on Miró, but do we really need to see more of these, especially if they aren’t outstanding? In this booth, Peter Fischli’s ingenious painted cardboard “can” sculptures were strewn throughout, but they were completely engulfed up by the bland Mirós sitting on giant black easels, a modernist shark swallowing up a guppy.
The fair was small — just 33 galleries — which meant that I was not saturated or hangry, and most importantly, I remembered what I saw (instead of recalling only a homogenous, overwhelming, and quickly evaporating haze of art.) The works that stayed with me indelibly were those that are still relevant today, despite their origins in the past: Juanita McNeely’s paintings fearlessly centering abortion access and the female body; queer artist Ivens Machado’s sculptures, surreptitious and haunting reflections on repression, housing, and destitution.
The show’s manageable scale also had the significant effect of leaving space in my brain to process and dissect ideas beyond what was immediately in front of me. As I wandered this fair, I asked myself: Who is being served by the purportedly revisionist undertaking of singing the unsung? Of course, contemporary art also unabashedly panders to the market, but at least in that case there’s (typically) a living artist reaping the profits. I would guess most — though not all, as in the case of Quiñones — of the artists on view at Independent 20th Century fall under the rubric of “Estates,” a category plagued with secondary-market sellers trying to cash in on their storage room stashes, or stealthy heirs who want to inscribe their own in the annals of history. We must tell a more inclusive narrative of art, that is certain, without repeating the old mistakes of selectivity that landed us here in the first place. For this reason, we must be so very thoughtful about whom we bring back.