$5 Million Warhol/Basquiat Work Among Highlights of NYC's Snowy Armory Week

Kehinde Wiley, Swizz Beatz - P 2015

From wine-and-nibbles society affairs to shows with academic appeal, art lovers such as George Lucas and Neil Patrick Harris braved the elements in NYC this weekend to see what the world's galleries had to offer.

Inches of snow muffled the start of Armory Week in New York this year, as one of the season's biggest snowstorms coincided with the gala kickoff of The Art Show, a 72-dealer fair that was the first of many of the long weekend's events gathering galleries, artists and collectors under a few very big roofs. Organized by the Art Dealers Association of America, the poshest of the events drew major art patrons (including Agnes Gund and Ronald Lauder) and other notables but, with around 2,600 people attending, was substantially less crowded than last year's party.

"The really rich people are staying home," complained a gallerist, who preferred to remain anonymous, before wearily inquiring "is it still ugly out there?" Around the Park Avenue Armory's vast drill hall, a dearth of red dots affixed by paintings backed up the sense that an early-bird sales rush wasn't happening this time. But the increased elbow room made it easier for art lovers to view exhibits that sometimes were best seen as a whole: A wall full of small paintings by the rediscovered Texas eccentric Forrest Bess made more of an impact than many of the works did individually; Cheim & Read's beautifully presented collection of 1950s abstractions by Al Held was a revelation for those familiar only with his later, more cleanly geometrical canvases.

Contemporary art stars Tracey Emin and Heim Steinbach posed for pictures alongside their work, and beloved street-fashion photographer Bill Cunningham made plenty of galleristas' nights by snapping photos of their outfits. If mainstream celebs were harder to come by — hey, is that Bob Balaban chatting over there? — one could at least gawk at the occasional flashy price tag, like the nearly five million dollars being asked for a huge collaborative painting by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The following day belonged to the fair actually named The Armory Show, which these days is so enormous it can't be held in an armory. Out on Piers 92 and 94 near the USS Intrepid, the intensity of insider socializing was not camouflaged by wine and finger foods, and work was actually selling. "We already changed them twice," said gallerist Nieck de Bruijn of eye-pleasing "lenticular paintings" by Rafael Rozendaal; just a couple of hours into the VIP sneak preview, the Dutch-Brazilian artist had sold the first and second batches of work brought by his dealers at Amsterdam's Upstream Gallery.

In between spying on visitors like Neil Patrick Harris, Swizz Beatz, Mike Myers and Christian Slater and watching dealers work the crowds, attendees could not only fantasize about picking up blue-chip pieces (multiple galleries offered pint-sized John Chamberlain sculptures for under $400,000) but discover new corners of art history. Beside their more familiar Outsider offerings, Fleisher/Ollman showed an array of beguilingly simple Tantric drawings, produced by anonymous artists as a form of spiritual exercise; the Cecilia De Torres gallery introduced some lesser-known artists from the world of Latin American geometric abstraction; Tokyo's Whitestone Gallery highlighted the Gutai group, whose legacy was popularized by a 2013 Guggenheim Museum retrospective.

After the endurance test presented by the Armory Show, nearby fairs couldn't help but feel intimate. Yes, George Lucas was seen at the nearby VOLTA, but the main pleasure here was in discovering younger artists. Tom Butler, who uses gouache to transform antique portrait photos, was attracting attention for the Charlie Smith gallery; response "has been superb," said dealer Zavier Ellis, who sold over ten pieces in the first hour. (At $650 each, they were among the week's most attainable objects.) Japanese sculptor Nobuaki Onishi, who has shown in Berlin and Melbourne, made an American debut with painted-resin work in which everyday objects seem to dematerialize before one's eyes. Similar discoveries (if fewer of them than in years past) awaited at The Independent show in Chelsea.

As the weekend got going, the vibe at SCOPE's Friday premiere was more like that at a regular gallery reception, with trend-conscious art lovers vying for free cocktails and sifting through an array of clever gimmicks and pop-culture tropes. Stormtroopers, superheroes, and street-art influences outweighed the highbrow material here; so much so that when one stumbled across the Francis Bacon, Richard Prince, and George Condo work at Dean Borghi Fine Art's booth, it felt like a rift in the space-time continuum.

Each year, more organizers look to capture some of the attention of Armory Week: Newer, specialized fairs like Moving Image (showing video art) and Art on Paper (self-explanatory) count on aesthetes having an insatiable appetite for visual stimuli — or perhaps gamble that, faced with the full-tilt commercialism uptown, some would like a more tightly curated alternative. Happily, the weather cleared by Saturday, allowing the most determined New Yorkers to imagine getting to all the shows without breaking an ankle out on the ice.

Above right: Sculpture by Barry X. Ball; photo by Matthew Allen.