Art Review Archives:
The Merchandise Mart
Bigger, better, and putting Chicago back on the map as a world-class destination for art fairs, Art Chicago 2007 was the showpiece and powerhouse of Artropolis, a four-day, five-fair extravaganza that signaled a renaissance in the way Chicago does art fairs, while at the same time bringing some of the world's leading contemporary art galleries to Chicago's doorstep. With all shows gathered under one roof and included on a single ticket of admission, Art Chicago 2007, Bridge Art Fair Chicago07, The Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art and The Artist Project Independent Artist Exhibition + Sale reached new heights in location, organization and production in enabling viewers to see better art, and more of it, all in one go (the fifth fair was the Merchandise Mart's International Antiques Fair). The central location of the Merchandise Mart within Chicago and the Mart's experience in hosting fairs further added to the sophisticated atmosphere which welcomed over 42,000 visitors through the course of the event. "See what you want to see" was the byline, and this promise was kept, in abundance.
Of the four fairs presented concurrently, Art Chicago was the heavy hitter, with a blend that offering something for everyone. Having purchased Art Chicago in its ailing state from former host Thomas Blackman & Associates after its dramatic last-minute rescue of the fair in 2006, the Merchandise Mart made good on all the potential available in a well-known, internationally-themed event, in particular grooming the guest list of over 180 participating international galleries to represent a consistently high, intriguingly balanced selection of contemporary fine arts. The content adroitly blended living artists, modern masters, and early 20th century blue chip; it was further nicely balanced in its proportions of figurative painting, abstract painting, and photography.
Certain modern masters tend to appear with greater frequency than others in a particular year, and this year those included Tom Wesselman, works by George Bailey, and exotic prints by Wilfredo Lam. Meanwhile, like a gilded sweet, selections of museum-quality, 20th-century blue chip provided more serious temptations for buyers. And for those seeking living artists, worthwhile offerings were in abundance, including a high quantity of figurative art. It is good to see figuration resurfacing in fairs and exhibitions, and artists such as Steven Assael (Ann Nathan Gallery), Vasily Shulzhenko (Maya Polsky Gallery) and Michael Triegel (Worthington Gallery), all on display at this year's Art Chicago, are representative of the superior quality of figurative art well worthy of attention. The international galleries were primarily German and Canadian, and with very strong offerings; entries from Spain and Korea also made up the international roster. The wide-ranging offerings of Art Chicago 2007 showed galleries relaxing from the conservative stance of the past few years and opting to take more risk on living artists. The level of quality was conspicuously high, and nearly all were slated to appeal to a broad spectrum of collecting tastes. Equally conspicuous was the high attendance, even on a Friday afternoon, of individuals there to see -- and buy. Art Chicago has not attracted this much serious attention in years.
Photography made a noticeably more significant appearance this year with the choice to partner with AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers). The infusion added liveliness and fresh approaches to the fair's blend of offerings. These included several galleries, such as Robert Koch Gallery, dealing solely in photography. Here again, dealers presented selections that noticeably balanced both the classic and the new, with 20th-century masters of the Steiglitz era complementing works by leading contemporary photographers. The most noticeable trend here was that of the large architectural photograph, especially of buildings and city scenes in urban China. While Chinese painting has long received attention and acclaim in the international art market, photography of Chinese subjects, whether by occidental or oriental practitioners, is a new and promising area for growth and interest. The special exhibition Project AIPAD showcased one-person exhibitions of eleven internationally-celebrated photographers, giving an opportunity to see the range and diversity of contemporary offerings, both within a single photographer's work and across multiple visions and voices. Featured works and photographers included the color portraits by Charles Fréger (Stephen Daiter Gallery); the well-known homages to wryness and decay of Joel-Peter Witkin (Catherine Edelman Gallery); Edward Burtynsky's (Robert Koch Gallery; Charles Cowles Gallery, Inc.) large-scale digital chromogenic prints of Iberian quarries; and the turbulent seascapes of the series Free Element (2001-2004) of Beijing-born DoDo Jin Ming (Laurence Miller Gallery).
Outsider art encompasses a variety of approaches, including self-taught art, ethnographic art and non-traditional folk art. The Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art, premiering this year, created a focus for those interested in the unique world of these raw, often visionary pieces. Grouping these into The Intuit Show lent a thematic unity that allowed for a full immersion into diverse realms, such as the earthy, intent figures of Michel Nedjar (Judy A. Saslow Gallery), the obsessive drawings of Eugene Andolsek (American Primitive Gallery), and art ranging from American vernacular folk, to the creative endeavors of mental health institutions and programs. Sponsored by and benefiting Chicago's own Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, The Intuit Show was easily accessible as a venue, a quick flight of stairs up from Art Chicago. Forty-one participants from across the country and with select international participants, and smaller, highly affordable pieces, made this a distinct destination for collectors.
Across the concourse and over in the Mart's western satellite, the 350 West Mart Center building, Bridge Art Fair Chicago07 catered to a hipper, more easygoing crowd, something clearly signaled by its black, bare-ceilinged, urban-industrial space and the throngs of twenty-somethings in jeans who were its primary attendees. Sixty-eight participating galleries were present in this undeveloped corner of the building's twelfth floor. Composed primarily of Chicago, New York, and L.A. galleries, and a few international guests, Bridge's offerings were a mixture of professional galleries and much smaller, more homespun endeavors, a blend recalling the Art Chicago guest lists of previous years in Butler Field. Art incorporating celebrity references and cartoon characters, as well as video art, both all but absent from Art Chicago, had located themselves here, signaling the younger and more cutting-edge constituency of Bridge's appeal. Far more experimental in its offerings and their quality, some of the highlights included the photographic self-portraits of Kimiko Yoshida at FLATFILEgalleries; innumerable tempting items at Packer Schopf Gallery; the highly eclectic mix of classic artists at Contessa Gallery, which included Cartier-Bresson, Ray Lichtenstein, Dali and many more, with a splendid photography section; and a figurative artist new to Chicago exhibition and well worth seeing, Steve Huston, represented by the Beverly Hills, CA gallery Tim Yarger Fine Art.
The Artist Project Independent Artist Exhibition + Sale, smallest of the fairs, consisted of a series of stalls set up in the 350 West Mart Center lobby and featuring the work of 48 artists, primarily Chicago-based. After trolling the halls of Art Chicago, the visionary offerings of Intuit Show and the contemporary variety of Bridge, this equivalent of a 'stray show' did not show to advantage. No one, or so it seemed, had chosen their best work for display in this tail-end offering, which when all was said and done ended up as an undistinguished minor coda. The large, prominent placement of a cashier booth seemed intended to encourage sales, but only a few viewers were in attendance.
Backed by a powerhouse of experienced marketing, a well-developed clientele and a superb media blitz, the Merchandise Mart gave Art Chicago 2007 a thorough makeover, with aplomb. Such treatment is less an extravagance than a necessity. Competition is stiff, with two other art fairs this April alone (AIPAD Photoshow in New York, artDC in Washington, DC) and a host of international events in Dubai, Venice and Basel in the immediate months to come. In such a light, the Mart's adoption of Art Chicago is possibly the most fortuitous thing that could have happened to the city's longest-running art fair. The Merchandise Mart is one of the most civilized venues in Chicago for appealing to a high-end crowd, and it employed this flair to good advantage. Artropolis visitors were provided with every luxury, from a cafe and bar on every showfloor to the buffet and Parisian bistro for a sit-down luncheon amid all the art. It was a far cry from a tent in Butler Field, and even a far cry from the vast and tradeshow-sterile vaults of Navy Pier. Such little perks did precisely what they were meant to do: put the fair's 'shoppers' into a feel-good mood and encourage visitors to devote the entire day to exploring the event and finding pieces to purchase.
This was further encouraged by having all venues in the same location. In previous years concurrent fairs such as Art Chicago, Bridge and NOVA required demanding treks to the far corners of the city in a single weekend. That meant for most people a choice between one or the other, and missing the rest. Here, all four shows could be seen without venturing far afield, in fact, without even having to leave the building. The only plaint overheard among select visitors was that taken in a gulp, the shows were almost too much ground to cover. If that's the only criticism, then it is welcome. Far better to see superabundance of art and interest than a paucity. For future Artropolis events, you can only be well advised to bring good walking shoes, a day to explore, and a keenness to enjoy the astonishing range and scope of artworks spread before you.
At Art Chicago things were thriving, and art was being seen -- and sold. That, in particular, is an important requirement in encouraging participation from galleries, who must recoup, either on site or in promotional exposure, the significant costs of attending a fair such as this. The Merchandise Mart's Art Chicago and its fellow Artropolis fairs succeeded in showing their art to best advantage, one calculated to encourage appreciation, value, and ultimately, purchase. "It's not an art show, it's an art sale," commented one visitor. "It's important to keep that in mind."
--Katherine R. Lieber