Independent 20th Century—the newest venture from the Independent art fair—makes a compelling argument that the typical fair set-up, a multi-story sprawl of the art historical canon, needs rethinking. There are just 32 booths featuring famous and unfamiliar 20th-century artists. It unfolds over a single floor of the Battery Maritime Building, steps from the Staten Island Ferry send-off. It’s intimate and tightly curated, and a blessed departure from Spring/Break and the Armory Show, which both opened this week.
The baseline of quality here is high, chock-full of highlights, and many galleries matched the unusual circumstances with ambitious offerings. Below, a look at six stellar artists getting their due there.
Juanita McNeely at James Fuentes
Perhaps the most splendid display in the fair is the first encountered: boldly colored figurative works which bend toward the surreal. This is a solo presentation of American feminist painter Juanita McNeely, who calls to mind the symbolic figuration of Frida Kahlo and Paula Rego. These women are twisted, elongated, sensual but searching for more than a bedmate—there’s a palpable desire for connection that’s met in many canvases by violence. Some of her subjects bear bite wounds from birds and dogs, some of which bark and wrestle—play?—at her feet. She’s an animal too, crouched, naked, and feral, and brandishing phallic-like forms as trophies. The last impression is one of bright crimson blood, gushing from wounds and orifices. It’s thrilling to imagine a whole fair subsumed by this energy.
Barbara Levittoux-Świderska at Richard Saltoun
The elegant textile works of Polish artist Barbara Levittoux-Świdersk are the star of Richard Saltoun’s booth. Spanning six decades of her practice, it follows the underknown artist’s innovations in form, texture, and composition, from delicate collages on paper and card, to her masterpieces: wall hangings loosely woven from thick sisal that evoke rushing water. It’s a welcome visual departure from the painting that dominates this edition of the fair. These crisp homages to nature are a nice contrast to her early, more restrained works, minimalist cityscapes in which the night sky, polluted by urban noise and light, hides its stars.
Stanislao Lepri at Galleria Tommaso Calabro
A man in a red cloak unbuttons his garment, releasing a flock of angels. Elsewhere, people hatch from eggs. These are just two surrealist visions put to paint by Stanislao Lepri, who is given a solo presentation by Galleria Tommaso Calabro. Born in 1950 in Rome, the eccentric aristocrat was lauded in his lifetime for his art, which drew inspiration from the cultural past of Rome, as well as Biblical and classical myths. Here, humor and excess are offset by the blight of Fascism and World War II. There’s no need for a coherent narrative, it’s obvious we’re visiting the ground floor of an electrified mind.
Robert Duran at Karma
Tucked into a corner of the fair is Karma’s booth, dedicated to the paintings of Robert Duran which exist as a rebuke to Donald Judd’s declaration in his famed 1965 essay “Specific Objects”: “Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.” It sounds like an oxymoron, but this is Minimalism at monumental scale, proving the power of a few bold lines. Duran employs the hallmarks of the movement—like a minimal grid—but also subverts them, with a ripe color palette and a conscientious brushstroke. The border of each block softens and melts into the next, like the gradient of an alien sun setting over the sea.
Francisco “Chico” da Silva at Galatea
It’s astonishing that this is the first major solo presentation outside of Brazil in more than half a century for Francisco “Chico” da Silva, one of the country’s first self-taught artists to receive acclaim. This was a man who viewed the world through a kaleidoscope: folkloric beings cavort in the sea and flit through an Amazonian jungle of pulsing pointillism. Born in 1910 to Indigenous Peruvian parents in northeastern Brazil, Chico spent his childhood living in the rainforest. Some of his earliest pigments are produced from charcoal, fruits, and “other organic substances,” according to São Paulo–based gallery Galatea, which has been instrumental in his revival. Once one of the most celebrated artists in Brazil, his name has largely fallen into obscurity; the last significant surge of interest in his work was ignited by an honorable mention at the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966.
Paul Gardère at Soft Network
Paul Gardère, a Haitian-born artist who spent most of his life in the United States, said in a 1999 interview that the diaspora experience was captured in his work by “a sense of not being in a specific space or time but rather in a cultural bubble flying in a high wind.” His life story unfolds over a series of paintings, collages, and works on paper in a similar way. The subject slips between private moments, epochs in Haitian history, and first-hand accounts of the Harlem Renaissance. He developed an iconographic language anchored by the interplay between Kreyòl identity and the history of modernism, in the process investigating the colonial context of each. These are restless works by someone who dedicated themselves to a question—how to exist between worlds—that has no easy reconciliation.