Here’s what not to miss at New York’s leading art fair, which is returning stronger than ever
For many, The Armory Show’s 2020 VIP preview marked the last moment of normal before the world paused: in a heartbeat, museums and galleries shuttered, art fairs postponed, then cancelled, and dealers rushed to sophisticated virtual platforms. But Thursday morning saw the official emergence from this long hibernation, as the first major American fair returned with VIP hours and fresh September dates at the sprawling Javits Center.
On the one hand, a subdued reality still hangs in the air. Careful pandemic protocols are in place; artists, collectors, and gallery staff are masked throughout the 54,000-square-foot venue. Yet despite lingering uncertainty, the day pulsed with the familiar vitality of the Armory Show, a singularly New York art fair that has a tradition of including younger, exciting galleries, many with lesser known, solo artist booths, alongside traditional blockbuster names and topical, curated presentations in the Focus section. This time, the Armory Show also embodies a singular resilience, launching a grand re-entry to art opening season in the country’s enduring contemporary capital. As they say, never bet against New York City.
Even with travel difficulties, 157 international galleries managed to attend this edition, though there was a decidedly less international feel among the stylish clientele. “In the first five hours, we’ve seen a lot of the people that we expected to see,” says Eric Gleason, senior director of Kasmin Gallery. “But I think for this fair, there was a considerable amount of pre-selling, likely due to the fact that people weren’t sure if they’d be able to make it or not, whether they’re from Europe, Asia, or even the U.S.”
Overall, the Javits Center received stellar reviews as the fair’s new permanent, more spacious home, with its natural light and close proximity to Chelsea for galley staff throughout the day. “In the over ten years I’ve attended, this is the best the Armory Show has been executed,” reflects art advisor and independent curator, Alex Glauber. “Javits is much more conducive to art viewing than the piers. It does feel a little slower than it typically would in any other year. People are a bit out of practice. But I think this fair is quite thoughtful and the quality of materials is quite high.”
The galleries seem to be doing good business, and also having meaningful conversations with collectors now at the fair.” If anything, the preview reminded art insiders that— despite a year plus of impressive, monumental pivoting— art is an in-person experience. As Rachel Uffner of Rachel Uffner Gallery explains, “Online sales aren’t particularly fun for anybody. This is more fun. It’s a very personal thing for me. I wouldn’t be doing this if I couldn’t interact with people, on both sides, collectors and artists, and writers.”
Indeed, there is a trove of thrilling, real-life art to experience at the fair this year, much of it created during the tumultuous times of lockdown and Covid. Here, seven artist highlights not-to-miss from the Armory Show 2021:
Tony Matelli is likely most famous for his provocative, unsettling “Sleepwalker,” a life-size, Zombie-man in baggy white briefs that caused a stir on Wellesley’s campus when it debuted in 2014. But Matelli also creates stunning, domestically-scaled bronze sculptures that appear frozen mid-air defying all sense of reality. His solo presentation at the Armory is as dazzling as they come, with tulips and orchids magically balancing, upside down, on their petal tips. Straddling conceptual art and design, Matelli nearly steals the show, with an inspiring array of gravity-defying sculptures that belong as easily in a museum as a collector’s home.