Picture This

Inside The Show Where ‘Real Housewives’ Buy Art

The annual Armory Show, an enormous potpourri of modern and contemporary art, is more circus than fair—and full of the well-monied keen to splash out.

03.05.16 5:10 AM ET

There is no guarantee that the art displayed at New York’s elite art fairs will be exceptional or outstanding or even good.

But that never deters garish collectors from attending with their art advisors, who field questions about the “value” of that monolithic sculpture by what’s-his-name (it would look fabulous in the garden).

As ever, these conspicuous collectors came out in droves to the annual Armory Show, an enormous potpourri of modern and contemporary art that is more circus than fair.

This year features 205 galleries from 36 countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast, with a special section of the fair devoted to “African Perspectives” in contemporary art.

And it’s the contemporary art that draws the most reliably clueless shoppers, determined to fill their homes with works by emerging or big-ticket international artists.

Around 11:00 on Friday morning, a designated “VIP hour” before the fair opens to the general public, mostly middle-aged women were milling about the maze of galleries, their faces puffy and stiff with various cosmetic fillers. They paired dark jeans with over-the-knee boots, fur coats, and Chanel handbags.

Indeed, there is always a large “Real Housewife”-looking contingent at these contemporary art fairs, particularly on weekdays, when their husbands are presumably working.

A crush of them gathered around one of the most talked-about works at the fair: “Photo Bloke,” a portrait of an African American man in a bubble-gum pink suit against a pink backdrop by the African American painter Barkley L. Hendricks.

One of the “Housewives” pulled out her phone to show “something similar but bigger I’ve got at home” to a friend, who smacked her gum loudly.

“I wish I had the wall space for that,” she replied, annoyed.

But she perked up at the gallery next door, where a series of small-ish floral prints by Dutch artist Sebastiaan Bremer were selling for $8,000 each.

Another woman wearing diamond earrings and an A-line skirt—more Upper East Side than New Jersey chic—was seduced by one of Bremer’s larger works, unframed and priced at $16,000.

“You know it’s a flower because you’re looking at it next to all of these other flowers,” the gallerist told her, then held up the print on the opposite wall. “But if you look at it over here, it’s harder to tell!”

The woman nodded enthusiastically. “It would look wonderful in my bedroom!” she said. Then, in a more hushed tone: “Please reserve that one for me.”

One husband-wife-daughter trio rushed from vendor to vendor with their harried advisor, who was keeping track of their favorite pieces, including a relief-like “Anti-Painting” by Vienna-based artist Rudolf Polanszky.

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The gallerist told me that Polanszky “overlays these found objects using a mathematical system that I don’t understand, but there is a system that he follows.”

More insightful was her remark, in a heavy Spanish accent, that collectors almost seem disappointed when she tells them the price: $18,000.

“They hear ‘$80,000’ at first,” she said, “and then their faces fall when I clarify that it’s ‘$18,000.’”

The same husband-wife-daughter trio was considerably more excited by a large, $150,000 abstract painting by Frank Bowling at London’s Hales Gallery. The gallery had already sold one of the three larger paintings on display, which seemed to be the collectors proof that Bowling’s work was a solid investment.

By 12:30, the Real Housewives had been replaced by a younger, hipper, and more eccentrically dressed group of art enthusiasts.

This is the see-and-be-seen crowd, as interested people watching as they are in taking in all of the art. Unlike the VIPs and better-known collectors, they pay $45 just to get in the door.

An hour later, the fair was a mob scene, which made the entire experience all the more exhausting. (It’s also why the shoppers tend to come early.)

Attendees can recharge at one of several food vendors serving lunch and brunch fare. There’s also a champagne bar right smack in the middle of the L-shaped pier, a clever scheme to make sure buyers are properly lubricated when they shop.

But at a certain point, there’s only so much stimuli—and expensive contemporary art—anyone can take, lubricated or not.