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Does the World Need Another Art Fair? An Investigation at the Opening Day of Independent Projects in Chelsea

Chelsea on the opening day of Independent Projects, which runs through November 15.

Chelsea from the roof of the former Dia building, on the opening day of Independent Projects, which runs through November 15.

Independent, founded by the art dealers Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook in 2010, has always presented itself as a kind of antidote to the commercial circus that defines most art fairs. Held in the former Dia building in Chelsea, it features natural light and clever installations and a generally mellower vibe. Further contrasting the hectic feel of, say, the Armory Show, which runs concurrently with Independent in March, Dee has started a second edition of Independent, opening this week to coincide with the auctions in New York. Called Independent Projects, it will stay open for two weeks rather than the usual frenzied three days, and feature 40 galleries, all presenting small shows by a single artist. After the first weekend, the dealers will clear out and the fair will transition into a massive group show for the public.

Virginia Overton at Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

Virginia Overton at Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

“I’m not sure the world needs another art fair,” said Andrew Kreps, a regular at Independent in March, whose gallery occupied a spot near a window with work by the painter Pádraig Timoney, “and I haven’t really left this doorway, but it seems good. I mean, it feels kind of good to be here.” There were clearly some promotional benefits for Kreps, whose gallery is on the same block as the fair: “You know,” he said, “we also have our show across the street,” and he raised his eyebrows high for emphasis.

Opening day was rainy and the first hour was slow, though several collecting families–the Rubells, the Horts–were a visible presence. In reference to the bad weather, Bridget Finn, a director at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, offered assurances that the Virginia Overton sculpture the gallery had placed near a corner window–a stack of wooden boards that were repurposed from the artist’s recent show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami–produced a really nice visual trick when the sun shined through it. (Alas, the proof was only on Finn’s Instagram.)

Works by John Giorno at London's Max Wigram gallery.

Works by John Giorno at London’s Max Wigram gallery.

London’s Max Wigram gallery was showing large square paintings by New York poet and artist John Giorno with messages in large capital letters, like “I WANT TO BE FILTHY AND ANONYMOUS SCUM AND SLIM,” “LIFE IS A KILLER,” that sort of thing. They’re actually the first paintings he made, back in 1989. “These are really great things,” Wigram said. “I went to go see him a couple of days ago and he had them! I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s Wigram’s first Independent. “I really don’t like fairs,” he said, “but I can recognize some kind of involvement with fairs is probably necessary, and this is the least offensive fair there is.”

Duane Hanson's Flea Market Lady (1990) at Karma.

Duane Hanson’s Flea Market Lady (1990) at Karma.

Which doesn’t preclude dealers from bringing potentially offensive work. Elsewhere, Karma, the gallery and bookseller, had installed a bronze sculpture by the late Duane Hanson, which was troublingly life-like, even though the figure depicted felt out of place in the art world: an older woman wearing pervy plastic glasses, a yellow visor, floral-print shorts and a blue T-shirt that said “Florida,” she was seated next to a blanket covered in clothing, trashy red shoes, and at least one straw hat.

“The flea-market seller,” said Brendan Dugan, Karma’s co-founder. “It seemed appropriate for an art fair. Duane lived in Florida, and Florida is definitely a place where you see,” a pause, “a lot of America.”

The sculpture was for sale for $400,000, and Karma had also published a book about the piece, which featured a fake interview between Hanson and Maurizio Cattelan, who, as Dugan put it, “lives in the same world of sculpture.” The conversation is a strange combination of Cattelan conjuring the dead and talking to himself about one of his influences. For instance: “MC: ‘Some of your sculptures can be pretty scary.’ DH: ‘They have a life of their own.’”

An Yves Klein at Dominique Lévy. A secret awaits inside.

An Yves Klein at Dominique Lévy. A secret awaits inside.

Speaking of which, Yves Klein’s Sculpture tactile (1957), on view courtesy of Dominique Lévy Gallery, was quite literally alive. A large white box with a hole near the top, visitors were instructed to reach inside, where they were greeted by the corporeal form of a contorted performer, seated inside the box. (“It’s the first relational-aesthetics piece!” said Begum Yasar, who curated the mini-show.) Sticking your hand in felt squishy and warm and a little damp, like touching the creepiest throw pillow of all time. A fun game to try: stand by the work for a few minutes and watch the reaction of people as they thrust their hands in, unsure what exactly it is they’re touching. “Gah!” and a quick jump backward was almost invariably the response of the public.

An Aura Rosenberg painting at Martos.

An Aura Rosenberg painting at Martos.

If Klein carried a salacious suggestion, then Jose Martos was decidedly more direct. He was showing new pornographic paintings by Aura Rosenberg, all of which, offered gallery director Taylor Trabulus, are based on images “from the Golden Age of porn.” (This enlightened era apparently comprises the ’60s through the ’80s.) There were small canvases featuring a man receiving oral sex from two women in a shower, and a woman, dated to the mid-’80s with a crown of blonde hair, engaging in coitus in a field. Rosenberg made a number of paintings like this in the ’80s, when censorship was an intensely debated issue in American politics.

Porn rocks by Rosenberg at Martos.

Porn rocks by Rosenberg at Martos.

“After she had her daughter, she stopped doing these because some parents would come to pick up their kids at her house and saw her watching porn movies,” Martos said. He turned to Trabulus. “You push the kids away, OK?” Installed on the floor were Rosenberg’s porn rocks–which are, as one might expect, rocks with painted pornographic images on them–erect penises, oral stimulation, etc.–that Rosenberg had once strategically planted in a riverbed at a particularly popular fly fishing spot. Martos turned to a reporter: “When did you meet Aura for the first time?”

“I never have.”

Gesturing back to a particularly, uh, endowed rock: “Oh, come on, man, of course you have.” It was a good line. He might consider using it on a collector. (The rocks were for sale as a single set for $25,000.)

Around the corner from Martos, Gagosian Gallery had co-opted several walls with work by Piotr Uklanski that had debuted last year at Miami Beach’s Bass Museum. They featured New Age crystals mounted on sheets of velvet.

Raymond Pettibon at David Zwirner.

Raymond Pettibon at David Zwirner.

“There’s a lot of Mike Kelley in Piotr’s work, in sort of looking at vernacular forms that have been ghettoized,” said Sam Orlofsky, a Gagosian director. Kelley was something of a specter in the Dia building Thursday afternoon; a floor below, Skarstedt Gallery was showing felt banners by Kelley, which were located–either significantly or just conveniently–across the aisle from David Zwirner, showing an installation of drawings by Kelley’s friend and contemporary Raymond Pettibon.

More Pettibon.

More Pettibon.

Pettibon had lined two high walls with a stunning suite of new unframed drawings, including quite a few of his trademarks—baseball scenes, globes, a towering cathedral. In some instances, he painted directly on the wall. “There’s a lot of ephemera mixed in,” Zwirner director Branwen Jones said, pointing to a portrait of Babe Ruth from Pettibon’s personal collection. A baseball bat alongside and an empty bottle of Tanqueray were lined up beneath the portrait. They gallery had spent three days installing all the work.

The artist Sam Falls, in town from Los Angeles, happened to stroll over.

Sam Falls at Hannah Hoffman Gallery.

Sam Falls at Hannah Hoffman Gallery.

“He got me interested in contemporary art,” Falls said of Pettibon. (His own work was on view at L.A.’s Hannah Hoffman Gallery.) “I was at the San Diego Museum when I was like 13 with my mom, and I saw this guy painting a surfer mural, and I was like, ‘Oh, do you work for the museum? What’s up?’ I was just really into surfing at the time.” They talked surfing, skating, and punk. “Later I saw a surfer at MoMA, when I was like 15, the same painting, and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’”

Gagosian and Zwirner are just a few of the blue-chip galleries who have signed on for Independent for the first time with this new edition.

“There are probably five galleries of our scale here that wouldn’t have been invited in March,” Orlofsky said. “It’s just not what they were going for. But we all like Independent. It’s always the most enjoyable fair.”

Mike Kelley felts from the late 1980s at Skarstedt, of New York and London.

Mike Kelley felts from the late 1980s at Skarstedt, of New York and London.

As for what the new Independent is going for, that was summed up pretty tidily by the dealer Gavin Brown, ever so casually leaning against a wall alone and looking at his phone.

“I’m thinking about this less as a fair,” he said. “Clearly, it’s in the same branch of DNA. It’s part of the same family in that different galleries are presenting different stuff, but I certainly feel less pressure here. They’re not reinventing the wheel, but it’s more pleasant. It demands a different kind of display.”

He brought with him Joan Jonas’s After Mirage, a black-and-white video playing on an old TV resting on the floor, adjacent to a circle of tall, white cone sculptures.

“Maybe the collectors are following the less commercial lead as well,” Brown said. “They’re certainly not rushing the doors.”

Still, asked if the work was for sale, he said, “Absolutely!” The asking price was $250,000. He added, “This is an art fair, remember?”

Nina Beier at Croy Nielsen.

Nina Beier at Croy Nielsen.

David Medalla's Cloud Canyons at Venus Over Manhattan.

David Medalla’s Cloud Canyons at Venus Over Manhattan.

Paulina Olowska at Metro Pictures.

Paulina Olowska at Metro Pictures.

Thornton Dial paintings at Andrew Edlin.

Thornton Dial paintings at Andrew Edlin.

June Hamper at White Columns.

June Hamper at White Columns.

Haroon Mirza at Lisson's booth.

Haroon Mirza at Lisson’s booth.

Marie Angeletti at London's Carlos/Ishikawa.

Marie Angeletti at London’s Carlos/Ishikawa.

Nicolas Deshayes at London's Jonathan Viner Gallery.

Nicolas Deshayes at London’s Jonathan Viner Gallery.

Mark Barrow windows at Elizabeth Dee's space.

Mark Barrow and Sarah Parke windows at Elizabeth Dee’s space.

Liam Gillick's Hamilton at London's Maureen Paley.

Liam Gillick’s Hamilton video at London’s Maureen Paley.

The Better Being cafe on the roof.

The Better Being cafe on the roof.

The Artists Space bookstore on the roof.

The Artists Space bookstore, also on the roof.

A rainy day in Chelsea at 548 West 24th Street.

A rainy day in Chelsea at 548 West 24th Street.

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