Fairs and biennials got cancelled, exhibitions got panned, an air-conditioning system failed—here are some of the decade’s biggest flops, presented in chronological order.
VIP Art Fair
An art fair online! Its organizers were saying adorable things like “Viewing in Pajamas”! It was an exciting moment, but as soon as the 100-plus virtual gallery booths opened in January 2011, things began going wrong. Just hours into the event, a warning appeared on the website: “Due to the overwhelming number of visitors from around the world who have logged on to VIP Art Fair since its launch at 8am EST this morning, the Fair is currently experiencing slower than normal response rates.” A lesson for the ages: popularity is only as good as what your servers can handle. VIP had to disable the “chat with the gallery” function, which meant that interested buyers had to email or … make a phone call. A phone call?!?!!? How 20th-century! Writing about the second edition, in 2012, Forbes called the inaugural fair “a thorough disaster from the kickoff”; of the second, megagallerist David Zwirner told their reporter, “The fair was unfortunately a waste of time for us this year. We didn’t have any significant traffic in the booth, nor did we meet new collectors. I’m uncertain this format will work moving forward.” It didn’t.
Early in the decade, abstract paintings by young artists were filling enterprising galleries, many of them slapdash, direct, and eerily familiar—and selling at a clip. The painter and critic Walter Robinson coined the style (if it could be called that) Zombie Formalism in a 2014 essay, declaring that it “brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg.” (Jerry Saltz went with “crapstraction.”) Like most zombie apocalypses, this one ended with total annihilation. Artists whose work was trading for six figures like Lucien Smith (famed for spraying paint onto canvas with a fire extinguisher) saw their markets dry up as collectors moved on to the next craze. By the latter half of the decade, figuration—much of it cartoon-inflected, punchy, and eye-grabbing—was ascendent. Many of us now wonder how long that will last.
Jeffrey Deitch at MOCA Los Angeles
In spring 2010, it seemed a highly unorthodox choice that just might be a match made in heaven: one of the great art dealers and advisers of the postwar era closing down his New York gallery to help pilot one of the world’s greatest contemporary art museums. Instead, the pairing fizzled, with Deitch departing the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles just three years into his five-year contract. For some critics—and members of the museum’s board—his programming was too commercial or too invested in pop culture: a James Franco production, a streetart show, a proposed disco exhibition that never saw the light of day. But it was lackluster cashflow that eventually spelled his end. Just five years after his departure, though, Deitch would mount a comeback in the city with characteristic élan, opening a giant Hollywood gallery with an Ai Weiwei show that generated huge crowds and securing his place in L.A. art history.
Even Mega-Galleries Make Mistakes
Those who say art criticism doesn’t matter anymore have not been on the receiving end of a scathing review from New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith, whose critical acumen and incisiveness are beyond compare. Which is to say: it really hurts. (Note: it doesn’t always hurt an artist’s market…) This past decade, Smith did not disappoint, and she managed to take down a show at three of the world’s four biggest mega-galleries. To those who would argue against writing negative criticism, Smith and her husband, New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz, have a rebuttal, which they gave in an interview with Interview magazine in 2013: “SMITH: I can’t imagine not writing negative reviews. That doesn’t help anybody. Part of what you’re doing is educating your reader about their own critical faculties. SALTZ: Being critical of art is a way of showing art respect.”
Mega-gallery-wise, the decade opened with Dan Colen’s first solo show at Gagosian’s huge space on 24th Street. Smith found that the sculptures in the show ultimately read as “monumental obscene gestures of the adolescent kind, numbing, boring feats of nose-thumbing.” The good news: She praised Colen as a painter, concluding that “you may even begin to wonder about the kind of painter Mr. Colen might become if he ever decides to grow up.”
Next up, in 2012, came Adel Abdessemed’s solo turn at David Zwirner. This review made the rounds on the internet such that “Adel Abdessemed Roberta Smith” is now the second Google result after the artist’s name. The best way to represent it is through choice phrases, because all the critic’s guns were pulled out on this one: “inert, artistically confused, pandering”; “clichés”; “the remaking of famous works of art in stunningly obvious materials”; “devoid of sculptural interest”; “heavy-handed reference”; “pure craft embellished with an ambiguous title from Derrida”; “veer among expensive spectacle, ‘I get it’ simplicity and kitsch”; “unimaginative application of … received ideas”; “exhausted artistic tactics that should not be tried at home, in the studio or at the fabricator’s.”
In spring 2014, Smith weighed in on the James Franco—yes, that James Franco—solo outing at Pace gallery, a recreation of Cindy Sherman’s film stills starring, you guessed it, James Franco. “Perhaps James Franco should just stick to acting,” Smith opined. “He remains embarrassingly clueless when it comes to art.” Granted, she softened the blow. “It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him, while also wishing that someone or something would make him stop.” It didn’t help that earlier that month Sherman herself had weighed in, in the New York Observer. “I don’t know that I can say it’s art,” she told a reporter, “but I think it’s weirder that Pace would show them than that he would make them.”
Finally, an exhibition that didn’t come in for a drubbing from Smith but got one from two other marquee-name critics: Saltz, and the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl. Matthew Day Jackson’s show “Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue” at Hauser & Wirth in October 2013 was panned as “dolefully atrocious” by Saltz and, by Schjeldahl, a “very big show of very bad art.”
Björk at the Museum of Modern Art
And then there was Björk. Oh, was there ever Björk. MoMA’s 2015 exhibition devoted to the singer/songwriter/artist was roundly criticized, not for Björk’s lack of talent—everyone agreed she is talented and deserving of museum attention!— but for the museum’s failed execution. Writing for ARTnews, M.H. Miller left feeling “sad and embarrassed,” reflecting that “the show is hardly a retrospective—it’s starfucking.”
In the New York Times, Roberta Smith praised Björk herself but added, “she probably should have trusted her first response — No thanks — when the Museum of Modern Art came calling.” MoMA, Smith wrote, was “not up to the task.” The show was “scant, cramped,” and “jammed into a tacky little two-story pavilion” in the museum’s atrium. It came with a “disappointing catalog.”
Then Smith drove the knife in: “[T]he Björk exhibition stands as a glaring symbol of the museum’s urge to be all things to all people, its disdain for its core audience, its frequent curatorial slackness and its indifference to the handling of crowds and the needs of its visitors. To force this show, even in its current underdone state, into the atrium’s juggernaut of art, people and poor design is little short of hostile. It superficially promotes the Modern’s hipness while making the place even more unpleasant than usual.”
Frieze New York’s Air-Conditioning System
When an art fair is called “really hot,” it’s not supposed to be literal. But, alas, it was so at the Frieze New York art fair in May 2018, when the air-conditioning system crapped out and temperatures soared into the 80s. Not a great thing when you have a generous portion of the world’s top collectors under one tent out on Randall’s Island, and galleries are under pressure to do well at fairs they pay a lot of money to take part in. Frieze ultimately came through with a partial refund for participating dealers, but one ended up taking legal action. The good news: the AC was fixed by the 2019 edition, which was quite comfortable. Then again, it wasn’t as hot outside that year. Murphy’s Law!
The Montreal Biennial
O no, Canada! The Montreal Biennial debuted in 2013 with guns ablaze. According to the organizers, within the decade it would be “one of the 20 or 25 biennales that you absolutely have to see worldwide.” Unfortunately for them—and the artists involved—it didn’t turn out that way. Dogged by a $200,000 deficit from the 2016 edition, the 2018 Biennial was canceled. The announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise. The organizer had recently put out a statement reporting “a precarious future financial situation” as exhibitors sought payments deferred in some cases for nearly a year after the 2016 fair’s conclusion. Cédric Bisson, chairman of the board, blamed poorly managed books (former director Sylvie Fortin quietly departed) exacerbated by failed sponsorship deals and unmet fundraising goals. The good news: there is hope for Canada, biennial-wise—as the inaugural Toronto Biennial, this past fall, was a major success.
Art Stage Singapore
When, god forbid, art fairs get cancelled, it’s usually at least six months out. But gallerists (and crated artworks) were already en route to the 9th edition of Art Stage Singapore in January 2019 when they received an email from its president, Lorenzo Rudolf: “I am forced to immediately stop the preparations for Art Stage Singapore 2019 … and to cancel the fair.” It was less than 10 days before the opening. Amid demands for answers—even the fair’s director was blindsided—exhibitors scrambled to find alternative venues. Speculation that the fair, launched as the centerpiece of Singapore Art Week, would be cancelled had been brewing since December 2018. The fair’s social media went silent in November of that year, and some artworks had yet to be collected from overseas exhibitors. The number of participating galleries had been rapidly dwindling, from 170 in 2016 to 84 in 2018. The 2020 edition is scheduled to take place October 30-November 1, but Rudolph has been quoted saying that if Singapore’s art market continued to stagnate, “I sure won’t be sitting here until the end.”
Navigating the rickety staircase that connects the interiors of Piers 92 and 94 on Manhattan’s West Side has always been an exhilarating—and sometimes frightening—experience at the annual Armory Show fair. But that ended in 2019, when, just days before the fair was to open, sections of Pier 92 were deemed unsafe. Armory organizers responded quickly, moving galleries that were to be housed in 92 to nearby Pier 90, which, in turn, led to the cancellation of Volta, the emerging-art-focused show that for the past few years has called Pier 90 home. Thankfully, all was not lost. In a sign of camaraderie and nimble thinking, collector Peter Hort and dealer Quang Bao banded together Volta dealers to show at temporary locations in Chelsea, one of them offered up by blue-chipper David Zwirner. The initiative was dubbed, appropriately enough, Plan B.
Marciano Art Foundation
The Marciano brothers—Maurice and Paul, who are behind Guess jeans—poured millions of dollars into the renovation of a former Masonic temple in Los Angeles to house their contemporary art collection, and opened it to the public to great fanfare in 2017. This past fall, an attempt to unionize by museum staff led to layoffs and then an indefinite closure of the building. What’s left now is a litany of questions relating to issues of labor, the civic status of foundations, and what it means for well-heeled collectors to wield the power to flip switches of art institutions on and off at their whim.
Is it safe to say that there are simply too many art fairs in the world? This past year, Art Berlin, the city’s most prominent fair, was another casualty of an overcrowded market. In December, Koelnmesse, a Cologne-based company that organizes around 80 trade exhibitions every year, including Art Cologne, announced that it would not proceed with Berlin’s 2020 edition. The previous edition had been troubled: they had secured the fair’s venue, the historic Tempelhof airport, in a last-minute agreement that did not extend to 2020. According to the company, profits were “not satisfactory,” and unlike similar European fairs, Art Berlin never received funding from the city or state government. “Our focus, now more than ever, is the art fair in Cologne,” Koelnmesse said in a statement. In other words, tschüss Berlin.