Best of the 2012 Armory Show: Marina Abramovic, Jorma Puranen & More (Photos)

Most of what's on view at the weekend's giant art fair is predictable stuff with broad appeal, but Blake Gopnik found some arresting pieces of contemporary art. See his favorites.

If the galleries of Chelsea, in New York, are the art world’s designer boutiques, then the Armory Show, the giant art fair that runs all this weekend, is its Bloomingdale’s—maybe even its Century 21: There are unique treasures to be found, if you dig long enough, but most of what’s on view is predictable stuff meant to appeal to all comers. Everyone admits that the redesigned show looks less trade-fair grim than in previous years, but it’s not obvious why you’d prefer to spend your weekend at the Armory, out on two piers on midtown’s far western edge, than browsing the city’s best galleries.

Here, however, are a few works of contemporary art that caught my eye and kept my attention for longer than most others did at the fair. If I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have seen them. That’s reason enough to have gone.


--By Blake Gopnik

BSC Chairs

The “Street Seats” project at the Armory Show consists of a series of found chairs painted taxi-yellow by the architectural firm called Bade Stageberg Cox, which designed the environment for this year’s art fair. The chairs were meant to give the event a distinctly New York feel. What’s so nice about the project is that its status as art never quite becomes clear. It feels like a modest little aesthetic infection that quietly spreads through the Armory show.

Credit: Photo by Lucy Hogg

Lucy Hogg

Abramovic

“Bed for Human Use” is a new “performed sculpture” by Marina Abramovic, on view in the Armory Show booth of Sao Paulo’s Luciana Brito gallery. There is something quietly intense about the piece. Its silent performer studiously ignores the Armory’s sales-floor atmosphere, and helps remind fairgoers that quiet times are not yet an impossible dream. (A gallery rep told me that a collector isn’t obliged to man the sculpture at all times, although it is only complete with its sleeping figure in place and dressed according to instructions provided by the artist.)

Credit: Photo by Lucy Hogg

Courtesy Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

Puranen

“Shadows #52” is a large-scale print from 2010 by a senior Finnish photographer named Jorma Puranen, presented in the Armory Show booth of New York’s Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. For this series, Puranen simply photographed Old Master portraits as we see them in a real-life museum setting, where they’re often half obscured by glare and shadows. In this age of Google Images, it is easy to turn classic artworks into free-floating images, and to forget that they are first and foremost objects in the world with us.

Credit: Courtesy Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

Courtesy Seventeen

Owens

This recent work by Kate Owens, from Seventeen gallery in London, was in the Solo Projects section of the Armory art fair. Owens made a series of works that, you could say, painted themselves. In this one, Owens stuck the corner of a white T-shirt into a soft drink, letting the various chemicals in it diffuse out into a rainbow of chemistry-set colors. In another piece, she put a folded piece of white paper into the pocket of a new pair of jeans she was wearing. In Seventeen’s booth, that sheet is shown unfolded as a Whistlerite study in blue.

Credit: Courtesy Seventeen, London

Lucy Hogg

Saethre

Three of the seven objects that make up “Ghost Arcade I-VII,” by the Norwegian artist Borre Saethre, as seen in the Armory Show booth of the Paris gallery called Loevenbruck. Saethre’s “sculptures” duplicate the cabinets from arcade video games, but with all their working parts removed. As per the title, there’s something genuinely ghostly and poignant about them, since we’re left to pay attention to the one part of the game we’re supposed to ignore. The white edges of the particle board, against all that black Formica, also turns the cabinets into almost-abstract drawings of themselves.

Credit: Photo by Lucy Hogg

Lucy Hogg

Bayne

Two tiny paintings by the young Canadian artist Mike Bayne, on the wall of the Armory Show booth of dealer Katharine Mulherin, who has galleries in Toronto and New York. I normally have less than no interest in contemporary photorealism, but in this case there’s special magic in the fact that Bayne presents his paintings at about the same small scale as the snapshots they were made from. And Bayne’s works are so slickly and immaculately painted that they can hardly be told from their sources—meaning that they come closer to being paintings of photos than paintings of the subjects they show.

Credit: Photo by Lucy Hogg

Lucy Hogg

Ruff

Thomas Ruff’s 1998 photo titled “Portrait (A. Zeitler B),” as installed with other works in the Armory Show booth of Mai 36 gallery, from Zurich. In a show full of objects with the most complicated premises (including some of those in this Web gallery), Ruff’s image proves the direct power of a big, bold, un-arty face.

Credit: Photo by Lucy Hogg

Courtesy the artist and Pierogi

Lamson

One moment from a 13-minute video by William Lamson, called "A Line Describing the Sun," presented in the Armory booth of Brooklyn’s Pierogi gallery. It documents how Lamson went to the Mojave Desert with a giant Fresnel lens, which concentrated the punishing sun into a single 1,800-degree spot. Wheeling his lens on a goofy, hand-made cart, Lamson followed the sun’s path across the course of a day, so that the sand beneath his feet became an arc of fused glass.

Credit: Courtesy the artist and Pierogi