Friday, September 11, 2009

A Spectrum of Openings

In honor of the opening of the new Fall season of photography, I thought I would do something last night that I don’t do particularly often: take a spin through a series of gallery openings. The primary reason we tend to pass on most openings is that they are the single worst time to see an art exhibition: the crowds severely reduce the likelihood of seeing or understanding the images on view. But as another collector recently reminded me, the main reason to show up is not to see the art, but to show support for the artists and galleries and to reinforce for them that at least some collectors are paying attention.

So I chose a group of five openings to visit last night, spanning a show of vintage prints from an early 20th century master (long dead and who didn’t attend) to a first gallery show in New York for an emerging contemporary photographer (clearly alive and who did), with a few in between. In many ways, my goal was primarily to take the pulse of the market and get a feel for the overall mind set of the collecting public. We’ll go back to each of the shows we visited last night for a more formal review, so our comments here are aimed more at the quality/quantity of the visitors than the quality of the art.

The Jacques Henri Lartigue opening at Howard Greenberg (here) and the Nicholas Nixon opening at Pace/MacGill (here) had a generally common feel: civilized and refined art viewing for a select group, with well known collectors comfortably conversing with each other and the gallery staff in hushed tones. Both shows attracted a generally older but sophisticated looking crowd; I was certainly on the younger half of the age distribution. While all openings work hard to be welcoming and casual, these two were both a bit more formal, likely a result of the density of deep pocketed collectors taking it rather seriously.

Down in Chelsea, the atmosphere was entirely different: the crowds were thick and full of life. My itinerary included the Dutch landscape show at Aperture (here), the Todd Hido/Nicolai Howalt show at Bruce Silverstein (here), and the Amy Stein show at Clamp Art (here). My first stop was Aperture, where the crowd waiting for the elevator filled the lobby and spilled out into the street; I opted for the stairs, which were just as packed. Up in the galleries, the crowd was clustered near the bar, with the viewing areas somewhat less crowded. This was not the case at Silverstein or Clamp; in these galleries, the viewers were jammed in like sardines, overflowing into every nook and cranny of available space.

In all three Chelsea venues, art viewing was a sweaty, bustling, bumping, free booze infused communal activity. The crowd was quite a bit younger overall; this time, I was likely on the older half of the age spectrum. While there were seemingly less collectors milling around, there was a fantastic energy to the entire neighborhood party, more a lively celebration of the return of art than anything else. The artists and gallery owners looked harried and exhausted, but happy with the huge turnout and running on adrenaline.

As a collector, what I took away from this whirlwind tour was a renewed set of questions about the split in the market between the “vintage” and “contemporary” worlds of photography. In many ways, each side could use a little more of what the other side has in abundance: the vintage photography market would benefit from an injection of the youthful energy of the contemporary market, while the contemporary photography market needs more attention from true collectors who will turn into real buyers, rather than those just out for free drinks and a good party. (By the way, we see this same exact split in our efforts on this site: posts about vintage/dead artists are usually well received by the collectors in the audience, but otherwise arrive with a thud for other readers; posts about contemporary work get shared and passed around on Facebook or Twitter, creating a flood of visitors who come by once and generally never return.) How we go about mixing the two worlds to their mutual benefit seems quite a bit more open for debate.

Overall, it was great to get out and see a bunch of fresh work and fresh faces. If these openings can be used as a barometer of confidence in the photography market, there’s a surprising amount of optimism in the air as we head into Autumn.


Gabriel Benaim said...

One way to bring the vintage and contemporary worlds together is to show the continuity between them, be it through theme shows, 2 or 3 artists showing related work from different periods, etc. MOst people working today have some connection to the medium's past, and this only adds interest to one's understanding of contemporary work, bringing out how it's part of a larger story, while making clearer what's really new about it. The discontinuities, if there are such, also make sense only within the broader framework.

Anonymous said...

I think DLK has a responsibility to mention the fact that one of the openings visited included possibly the most horrifyingly apparent example of digital prints with extreme "horizontal banding" streaming across the prints.

The artist in question is almost definitely not to blame. This reader has seen numerous stellar prints from this artist in the past.

One can only speculate that the show and/or the prints were a rush job, and that the esteemed artist may not have even seen the prints before they were hung on the gallery wall.

In any case, it is an unconscionable example of carelessness and disregard for the artist and/or his/her work. What an embarrassment!

dlkcollection said...

Well, I'm certain it wasn't the Lartigue or Nixon prints that Anonymous is referring to. Given the overstuffed atmosphere at the other three, I'll be the first to admit I didn't get a good up close look at many of the prints in Chelsea; I spent most of my time talking and squeezing through the crowds. As I go back for the formal reviews, I'll keep my eyes peeled for these problems, and call them out if they haven't been corrected in the meantime. Thanks for the tip.

verninino said...

Why is it DLK's responsibility? If you're going to post anonymously, otherwise what's the point?

DLK: Over the years I've spent enough time window shopping in the galleries you mention that the staffs know me by sight.

As an agnostic computer guy it sort of strikes me as a Mac v. PC thing: hipsters don't want to be squares and squares don't really want to get caught trying to be hip.

Having thought about this a little bit after asking myself the same sorts of questions, I've come to prefer the inconvenience of the partitions. Integrating for its own sake leads too easily through chaos to blandness, unless you've got a consistently inspired and ingenious curator.

As you suggest in your entry on the MoMA PC showing, there aren't a lot Szarkowskis with the kind of moxie-clout to pull off something to amaze almost everyone. In the meantime, I've learned to revel in the syncopated dissonance. Judging by your entries you do a much better job than me of appreciating the photo-diversity.

dlkcollection said...


I agree there is a real divide, but I don't think we need super human curators/gallery owners to get at the idea Gabriel has raised. There are at least a few galleries in NY (and elsewhere)that have two separate spaces, where shows are run concurrently. It doesn't take a genius to run a contemporary show in one space and a vintage show in the other that informs and supports the primary show (or vice versa, depnding on which show is in which space). I personally liked the Kikai/Sander pairing at Yancey Richardson recently, as it tried to tease out some of the obvious connections between the two bodies of work. I agree though that given the stables of most galleries, this kind of cross pollination isn't likely to happen too often. Part of my hypothesis however is that the two camps aren't as separate as they seem; there's just a lack of information on both sides; i.e. people from one camp would like the work in the other if they were exposed to it more often. I think we all benefit from mixing the two if we can, as the discussion becomes more robust with more viewpoints represented...

Gabriel Benaim said...

I was initially thinking of something like an inter-gallery loan system, unfeasible as that probably is commercially (or is it?). Short of having the actual prints hanging, of course, they could easily just do an online show, as an adjunct to their on-site one. In fact, this would be an excellent idea for a blogger, to do comparative shows connecting contemporary and 'vintage' artists, perhaps even to coincide with actual exhibits. It's something many of us do anyway, piecemal, when we look up the references we read in a review, say, but it could be done systematically and archived for later reference. Anyone up for it?