There’s something for everyone at the Armory Show, but good luck trying to figure out how much anything costs. The annual art bazaar, which returned to the Javits Convention Center this week, is as good a place as any to learn which artists are captivating the contemporary art market. And with 225 galleries from 35 countries participating, patrons have plenty of options to splurge on their latest storage-locker addition.
But at Hyperallergic, we have a budget. A fake budget of, say $100,000, to pick out a new statement piece to zhuzh up the office decor. On Thursday afternoon, we ping-ponged through scores of booths, pestering gallery assistants to find something that screamed zeitgeist and happened to cost less than two years of tuition at New York University.
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It was far more difficult than it sounds.
Nearly all participating galleries omit publicly listing prices, as usual, so buyers must discreetly ask for the cost. That can lead to polite double-takes and the end of conversations.
We soldiered on. After breezing through the main entrance, the recognizable schnozzes of Alex Katz’s portraits greeted us. Katz’s eight-decade retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum last year reportedly bumped up his value at auctions. Peter Blum Gallery featured a 2010 self-portrait of the black-hatted and sunglasses-wearing virtuoso on a goldenrod background. A gallery assistant declined to give the exact price, but said it was well over $100,000. (A follow-up with the gallery put “Black Hat (Alex)” between $1.5 and $1.7 million. Next.)
A few booths away, at Sean Kelly, a Kehinde Wiley portrait of two dancers in patterned leotards towered over visitors. Known for painting President Obama’s official portrait, Wiley visited Cuba several times and was inspired by the circus acrobats and religious dancers he encountered. Sean Kelly exhibited the work in the spring.
Wiley’s work wouldn’t come cheap. And it didn’t. Sean Kelly was asking $800,000. We needed a new strategy.
At Altman Siegel, a Didier William wood and acrylic piece of two mythic figures made of hundreds of eyes that ominously stared back at us caught our, um, attention. “A lot of his work deals with being a large figure navigating the world as an immigrant from Haiti as well as Haitian culture, myths and gods,” Altman Siegel’s Becky Koblick helpfully explained. Alas, it sold hours into the fair’s opening for $58,000. In our budget, but unavailable: A classic plight of the art-fair shopper.
Other booths proved more promising. The Chicago-based gallery Kavi Gupta reassembled The Barbershop Project, an immersive functional barbershop that artist Devan Shimoyama collaborated with CulturalDC to create in 2019. Shimoyama contributed portraits of men getting their glitter-made beards trimmed while leaking rhinestone tears, reverting the hypermasculine stereotypes of barbershops.
The project provided 350 free haircuts to children during its four-month Washington, DC, run, although no touch-ups were offered for Armory VIPs. Kavi Gupta wanted $85,000 for the centerpiece and $45,000 for two smaller works.
Maybe it made sense to try a little closer to home (Brooklyn). Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery featured works from Sermin Kardestuncer, Mark Lombardi, and Daniel Zeller, who was milling about the booth. Zeller had 11 intricate fractal-like ink drawings on display that each took about three months to create. “I don’t think about how long they take, but when it’s nearly done, I think: ‘I gotta finish this,’ and it drives me crazy,” he said.
Pierogi priced the drawings between $20,000 to $25,000. We informed Zeller of our $100,000 assignment. “I could charge you that,” he said.
Over at Microscope, a former Bushwick gallery, Ina Archer’s evocative mixed-media collages named after her family’s homes in Georgia lined the walls.
“Her parents built this house and it mysteriously burned down. Then they rebuilt the house and it mysteriously burnt down again,” Microscope Co-Director Elle Burchill said. The works were listed at $15,000.
Meanwhile at James Cohan, a Fred Tomaselli psychedelic photo collage of a vermilion flycatcher was so loud it was almost audible (in a good way). The artist’s latest work combines the themes of his earlier resin pill paintings with his New York Times front-page alterations. “He’s an avid bird watcher and spends a lot of his time in his yard,” James Cohan’s Emily Rutolo said, pointing to a pattern of leaves Tomaselli had plucked from his garden and arranged underneath a layer of resin. The flycatcher was available for $675,000.
Perhaps we’d get better deals from the dead. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, one of the few places listing their prices, loaded up on post-war abstract painters that wouldn’t be out of place at the Museum of Modern Art. A 1957 Jack Tworkov oil painting, “Sketch for Queen,” was intriguing but north of our fake budget at $165,000.
“People often thank us for bringing something that they can relate to, that they have seen and understand,” Zachary Ross, a senior associate at Michael Rosenfeld, said.
We bumped into artists Catherine Haggarty and Andrew Prayzner who each co-founded artist-run Brooklyn galleries Ortega y Gasset and Tiger Strikes Asteroid. Haggarty correctly estimated the prices of two paintings we were considering and politely smirked at our exercise.
“You could buy ten $10,000 works from young artists or one overpriced work from a middle-aged artist, or three higher-priced works from emerging artists,” she said.
A visit to Los Angeles’s Night Gallery may have solved our non-existent dilemma. Roxanne Jackson’s three-piece ceramic sculpture of a fire-breathing aquatic creature, complete with a mermaid hitching a ride, spooked visitors. The she-beast was listed at $45,000.
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Inside, Bambou Gili’s striking portrait of a sleeping woman in multiple shades of blue drew admirers from neighboring galleries. A vibrant painting of three figures in shallow water by artist Marcel Alcalá evoked Monet’s water lilies. The Gili painting was priced at $24,000, while the Alcalá was marked at $20,000. Jackpot!
With a sales tax of 8.875%, that would put us at just under $97,000. Now, how about that free shipping …