The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and a mere five years later the first of what has been a new global wave of art fairs opened in New York City at the Gramercy Park Hotel.
Think there's a correlation between the collapse of Communism and art-market expansion?
Covering the 1994 fair with Paul H-O and Cathy Lebowitz for Art TV Gallery Beat (available here on YouTube), we were less than hospitable to the youthful art dealer Jay Jopling and the adorably cheeky Tracey Emin, no doubt thanks to the recent inroads made by the obstreperous YBA on the imperial New York art world.
Reclining on one of the hotel room beds, Emin called Paul "stupid," while later I ventured on tape that the primary Brit import to the Big Apple was "snottiness."
So do all good things get off to a rocky start. A little while later I got a job that obliged me to file reports on art fairs in cities all over the world, including Madrid, Paris, London, Cologne, Berlin, Turin, Moscow, Singapore, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Miami and Toronto. (Mercifully, or sadly, I ducked opportunities for trips to China, India, Africa and Latin America.)
Most of the time it was long hours of eye-opening hard work, rewarding in itself. FIAC in Paris attired its female staff in cute outfits by Courrèges, I remember, while Madrid's ARCO art fair would be briefly shut down by security so King Juan Carlos could sweep through and take a look. Gotta love a monarch who manages to block a fascist counterrevolution and likes art, too.
Today we have so many art fairs that journalists have given up on trying to count them. As I write this, at least 10 are opening in Manhattan, including the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, Volta (now in SoHo), Independent (in Chelsea), and the "curator-driven" Spring/Break Art Show in Little Italy. Every major art writer has already weighed in on the art-fair phenomenon, some more than once, and if those heavy-hitters decided to ignore the whole megillah this time, I wouldn't be surprised.
A couple of years ago, I joked that the floor plan of the Armory Show on the Hudson River piers resembled a giant phallus, while the layout of Volta, its sister fair, suggested the circles of hell. What was I saying? That we were tumesced and accursed?
These days, the pros and cons—mostly cons—of the art-fair experience are seldom treated so light-heartedly. If you're not reporting on the big sales, you're grumping over the baleful effects of money on art. Either position has become a commonplace.
For a lot of art writers, the art market is treated a little bit like sex was in Puritan America. Everybody does it, but nobody wants to admit to liking it. Its been 16 centuries since St. Augustine urged that we should strive to separate our spiritual essences from our material natures—you'd think we'd be over that by now.
As a child of the hedonistic 1960s, I rather like going to art fairs, especially if I don't have to work. The last time I went to one—a mere three months ago in Miami Beach—I remember walking out of the pavilion with a sense of triumph. It was fun. The people were on my wavelength. The business wasn't completely alienating.
Strolling down the aisles, looking at artworks, chatting with friends and new acquaintances: this is what one does. It has a perfectly libidinal economy of passing impulse and random desire. It's shopping.
But more than that, an art fair provides a look behind the curtain, giving a glimpse of the art-world Oz playing at his levers. An art fair is a DIY demo of how it's done, what works and how the stars work it. In Miami I passed off my admission ticket to a 21-year-old artist because I wanted him to see what plays in the big top. It may have been my mitzvah for the day.
God help us if the first art critic to speak favorably of something that might be characterized as an art fair wasn't Charles Baudelaire himself, the father of modern art writing. His flâneur is a perfect model for the typical bohemian idler, then and now, wandering aimlessly through the crowd, eyeballing passersby and shop wares alike.
If Baudelaire was the first, he may also count as the last. It was Walter Benjamin who registered the most famous complaint against the art-and-money nexus, which for him reduced complex humanity to so many goods and services. But the notion that art gives an identity to otherwise faceless money, which Benjamin also advanced, can supply a kind of ticket to our very own Theater of Capital.
Art is an empty vessel that we fill with meaning, and those who ignore the invisible hand of the market are going to miss its omnipresent touch. The serenely rigorous dimensions of the white cube have yielded to encompass far wider horizons over the years. We might consider giving some attention to the economic elements of our art experiences as well. Art fairs are a good place to start.
Walter Robinson is an art critic who was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). He is also a painter whose work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison, and other galleries; he currently has a new show on view at Dorian Grey Gallery in New York's East Village. Click here to see his previous See Here column on Artspace.