Like most schools, the fall contemporary art season starts the week after Labor Day, and for many New Yorkers, art fiends and casual gallerygoers alike, the first Thursday after summer ends is can’t-miss pageantry. From a business perspective, it is not particularly important: buyers are relatively immune to the sort of hype these openings generate, and anyway, if you want to buy, you go on a Tuesday, or really you send someone you have paid to buy something for you and she goes on a Tuesday. Plus, Larry Gagosian’s two spaces, on 21st and 24th, deliberately don’t open on the first Thursday after Labor Day—this year, their exhibitions drop tomorrow night and Tuesday night—so that Gagosian can convince the world (and himself) that he is special, which he is.
Another problem with Opening Thursday is it is a poor time to see the art. The Danish artist Jesper Just’s This Nameless Spectacle, for example, consists of two movies beamed onto opposite walls, meaning that the optimal way to experience it is to stand for a good long while in the dark room at the James Cohan Gallery on 26th Street with at most a couple other people, so that you are able to follow the two videos simultaneously, without having to crane your neck or walk around to get unencumbered views of both films. Last night, the place was packed, and so nobody could have appreciated it.
Instead, Opening Thursday is irresistible ceremony, in which hundreds of warm young bodies—the attractive barnacles on a $5 billion-a-year industry—descend on West Chelsea to drink free booze and watch each other in a setting where there is always a converstation-starter. It’s still warm, but the wind blows in from the Hudson, allowing the men to wear jackets and the women a range of cuts, cardigans, and accessories. Everyone has been gone for the summer—“Croatia, Montenegro: no art!” I overheard a woman complain—and everyone wants to know what everyone else thinks of the art in the galleries that are crammed, approximately, from 21st to 28th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, amid car washes and a strip club and also, on 22nd Street, a Balenciaga store and several unostentatious oak trees planted next to unobtrusive slabs of basalt—part of the great artist Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks.
What’s in this year? David Byrne-style haircuts and baseball caps on the men, extremely small dresses on the women. Color-coordinated couples (non-threatening, non-gendered purple). Lamenting, in “there goes the neighborhood” tones, the extended High Line, which traverses overhead (New York, 1996: “Chelsea! It’s the New SoHo! Maybe”).
As for the art—what you could make out of it among the hordes of people—I sensed a lot of contempt for the viewer. One example was The Feverish Library, at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery, which did a lot of plays on books. A table in the center was stacked high with interesting-looking volumes with neatly drawn covers and names like Smut by Mr. Customer and Pair, Dice: A Novel by I.M. Happier, whose pages had stills of a movie made for the exhibit—something I learned only upon opening one of the books, at which point a gallery employee approached from her spot three feet away and asked me not to touch them, something I saw her do three other times in five minutes. Why not put up a sign? “It’s classier to have me stand here,” she said in the tonal equivalent of an eye-roll.
The least busy room I was in during the whole evening was on 22nd just off 10th. A few doors down, Matthew Marks Gallery—the Red Sox to Gagosian’s Yankees—had a gigantic Tony Smith sculpture called Source (the press release describes it as “monumental,” and it is not clear which meaning of the word is being deployed), which sat toward the back of a vast room packed with people sipping white wine. By contrast, this small Matthew Marks alcove closer to 10th hosted five small sculptures, three by Smith and two by Jackson Pollock—yes, an artist you’ve heard of!—all made in 1954 or 1956 and presented “on the centennial of their births.” They were all untitled and made of materials like plaster, sand, wire, canvas, and wood. Four were undeniably abstract—the sculptural equivalents, to my untrained eye, of Pollock’s famous canvases. But an all-concrete piece by Smith, no bigger than a football (and pictured above), seemed to me to vaguely but evidently resemble an empty egg carton. I suggested this to my friend, who actually knows about art and the art world, and then I braced for a polite denial and an embarrassed explanation that the sculpture is really a lot more pretentious. But I was wrong. “Oh,” he responded,” “it’s definitely an egg carton.”
Though the Chelsea galleries have their flaws, they are still indispensable in New York City. The Museum of Modern Art is ponderous and costs money, and to different degrees so are the other contemporary art museums. The galleries on the Lower East Side strive too hard to be political, for my taste, and regarding SoHo, well, there truly does go the neighborhood—there it went more than a decade ago. They say the galleries are great in Mexico City, but you may not live in Mexico City.
Of course, if you appreciate contemporary art at a more than superficial level (assuming that is possible), none of this will matter to you, and you will also head for Chelsea on a Saturday this fall, when the galleries are reasonably, not unreasonably, crowded. Opening Thursday has bustle, friends and strangers, and fortuitous happenstance; it is also a carnival of phoniness and posing. Say this for it: nothing else quite so efficiently condenses New York City.