In Pursuit of the Transaction at the Dallas Art Fair

Dallas Art Fair

Not long after I started my tour at the Dallas Art Fair, I found myself discussing the works of Jason Salavon with Mr. Moore from Mark Moore Gallery of Culver City, California. I had seen two of his works at the Inman Gallery in Houston a month ago, and here now both had red dots.

“Have you seen his works based on Anthony van Dyck’s portraits?” He picked up his iPad and showed me the image. It was rather dark brown overall, with a ghostly white figurative form that looked more like a bad Gerhard Richter. It, apparently, is the cumulative result of averaging many van Dyck’s portraits through computer software.

A few hours later, I came out of the Fashion Industry Gallery. The weather couldn’t be better. The late afternoon breeze combed the crowd in Klyde Warren Park. Up and down along McKinney people participating with “Crawl against Cancer” event were on their way to being drunk. But when I asked myself what I had seen at the show, images from the memory started to stack together and average out, like that van Dyck meta-portrait.

Art fairs can be art wearing.  Dallas is not immune to the condition.

First, there is the too-many-notes problem, had Emperor Joseph come to the show. The organizers’ power only lies in recruiting and marketing. Little can be found in the way of an overarching or coordinated curatorial effort among participants. To maximize the likelihood of a sale, galleries boost the variety in the spirit of “there is something for everyone.” The result was not unlike a holiday bazaar with pricier tags.

It is perhaps unfair to blame the galleries. A few nights ago, some Dallas galleries welcomed one of the biggest crowds for the opening night receptions. But they invariably chose to have a sample sale style in the fair. Big art shows suffer attention disorders. Artist-oriented installations would work if there were only a dozen or so galleries presenting a dozen or so artists. Two seconds, that is the average time a museum visitor spends on a piece of artwork. That number could be even smaller in an art show. In responding to a fleeting moment decision made by a pass-by, galleries are inching toward transactional. The art, in consequence, feels and looks, more like commodity than at any other time.

Still, a few galleries stood out, with their less-is-more approach. The monumental canvases of a one-person installation, from 333 Montezuma Arts of Santa Fe, were stunning and refreshing. Painted in the 70’s and 80’s, these geometric paintings by Hassel Smith engulf viewers in an ecstasy of sensual colors when at a close proximity (all canvases are of 68 by 68 inches), but bequeath an air of authority with calculated precision and balanced texture when viewed afar.  Hassel Smith is not as well-known as other California School artists such as Clyfford Still or Richard Diebenkorn. But he was one of the artists who participated in Walter Hopp’s ground-breaking inaugural exhibition at Ferus Gallery in 1957. Largely known for his paintings in the abstract expressionism genre, his fascination with pure geometry and exuberant colors deserves its own lasting legacy. For that installation alone, the art fair was well worth visiting.

David Richard Gallery, also from Santa Fe, brought their strong inventory in Op Art. Translumina with Pale Green, by Richard Anuszkiewicz, juxtaposes colors so intense that the are beyond the normal range of our visual apprehension. The result was a near hallucinogenic experience that dimmed everything around.

Visitors were not the only ones who became weary at the fair. At the show, an old gentleman commented “everyone is looking at their computer screens, no one even looks up to say hello.” Ironically, the lady at the desk did not move her fingers from the touch screen as he passed by, perhaps hearing the comment she dared not. Granted, by midday after the opening, the most focused, trigger-ready art patrons had done their drills. Some important transactions have been completed and champagne exchanged.

The rest of the time at the fair, which represents probably 90 percent of the traffic, may mean little to many galleries, especially those out of town ones with few local connections. Why would one bother if visitors cannot tell the smudged charcoal drawing, all unnamed and unlabeled, were done by Joan Mitchell? Impulse purchases from new buyers happens, but not as often to the level of key figures in abstract expressionism. Still, it is an eerie and disconcerting scene to see attention-deficit walls, filled with inspiring art, only blocked by a desk with inattentive representatives.

David Bates Dallas Art Fair

A highlight of the fair was the exhibition from Talley Dunn Gallery, which represented the estate of Sonny Burt and Bob Butler. They collected, with passion and connoisseurship for nearly five decades. The list of artists in their collection is printed on a large wall, including big names like Picasso and Calder and local names that many don’t know.  Their personal items, together with a small sample of their fascinating collection, were installed in one of the largest rooms in the show.  Some items were sold. David Bates, with two exhibitions currently in DFW, is hotter than ever. The painting, my favorite among a few other Bates offered in the show, had a red dot.  But more artworks were there to be observed and remembered as a celebration of their life. There was a stunning walking flower, more manageable in size, made by James Surls. And a diminutive night scene painting by Dallas native Patrick Faulhaber, reminded visitors that not always did artworks have to be as big as Bate’s — small wonders could be equally intriguing. And there were some funky or even kitsch works tucked in the corners.

They stood together as a manifestation that collectors here are not Wall Street investors. (And the couple certainly did not dress in pinstripe suits.) It is more important to have fun. And that fun is likely to be higher if you are part of a contemporary art community. Be it valuable in future or not, who cares?!

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