This is contemporary auction week in New York, and the art world is collectively holding its breath. Here’s how Art & Auction, one of the magazines I write for, put it on this month’s cover: “Will There Be Smiles—Or Will There Be Tears?”
Frankly, though, auctions are the antithesis of why I got into this business in the first place. First, I’m most interested in the kind of work that’s generally referred to as “emerging”—that is, by artists who haven’t quite managed to hone their approach or to tap into a reliable market. Second, what has always fascinated me about the art world is that it is truly a world, and one made up of pretty interesting people. Each gallery has its own unique program and flavor, which are determined by the personality of the individual dealer, and you rarely encounter such idiosyncrasy in an auction house.
So, as an antidote to the coming week, I spent most of Sunday tromping around artist-run galleries in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York’s latest hip bohemia, with my friend Annie Herron, who is sometimes referred to as the Doyenne of Williamsburg because she opened the neighborhood’s first commercial space about 10 years ago.
Annie and I became friends about three years ago, when Williamsburg seemed on the verge of hitting the big-time, something that hasn’t quite happened yet and probably won’t ever, because it is so completely dwarfed by Manhattan’s massive professional gallery scene. I went to Annie’s apartment to interview her for a story, and we ended up spending hours poring over her archives, hashing over our relationships, and discussing the merits of having children. (As well as being a dealer, she is also the single mother of a 17-year-old son, which in my eyes has always made her seem rather exotic.) For just over a year now, she has been battling a particularly virulent form of Stage IV cancer. So far she’s had one major surgery and three types of chemo, and on Monday she’ll have her second embolization. If it were me going into the hospital the next day, I’d probably be at home, packing up my toiletries and mulling over my fate. But New York dealers are nothing if not tough nuts, and Annie was dressed to kill and raring to go gallery-hopping.
Our first stop was Pierogi 2000, probably Williamsburg’s most famous space. My friend, the artist Joe Amrhein, started it several years ago in his studio, the idea being to give other neighborhood artists a place to show and sell work to each other. Collectors discovered it—they’re always hot on a good deal—and it suddenly metamorphosed into an institution.
Recently Joe moved Pierogi to a larger space and now he and his wife live in the loft upstairs, so the gallery more than ever seems like an extension of their home. We spent a little time looking at the show—a big installation by a British artist, Patrick Brill, who for a complicated reason works under the name Bob + Roberta Smith—and a lot of time looking at work in the back room and meeting Joe’s new dog, Lucky, whom he rescued from the street a couple of months ago. After a while, one of the artists saw me taking pictures, realized something critical must be afoot, and suddenly snapped into action. “I am trying to transcend the cartoon and take it into the spiritual realm,” he earnestly explained, pointing to his work. The line was so good I had to write it down.
Over the course of the day, I think Annie and I must have visited something like 10 spaces—not a lot, but that’s because we stopped to talk in all of them. Here are some of the highlights:
• Holland Tunnel, a tiny space housed in someone’s garden shed that’s so cute it hardly matters what’s inside (in this case it was abstract paintings—three small and one very large).
• Plus Ultra, where we saw an installation that involved a lot of mysterious artworks that were hidden behind dark glass: to get the artwork to light up, you had to put a quarter in a slot in the frame.
• Bellwether, which was showing some weirdly dizzying videos of houses. My favorite involved footage of the artist’s rather Gothic-looking home town, which she ran upside-down to a soundtrack that combined Aaron Copland and Jimi Hendrix. I couldn’t tell if I was excited by the total package, or just by the music.
One of our last stops was a new place called Open Ground, which I think does double duty as the local Green Party headquarters. Here, we saw a great show by David Kramer, an artist and comedian who also moonlights as a contractor and, as it happens, spent the last few weeks working on my apartment. The front part of the gallery was taken up by a huge sprawling installation composed of empty bottles and neon lights. It reminded me of what my living room looked like while David was working on it.
We ended up the afternoon by having a quick dinner at a little taqueria in the back of a Mexican grocery store. I wished Annie good luck with her embolization—actually, I told her to break a leg—and then I took the subway home.