Art for money's sake

Chicago hosts the biggest fine art fair in America.

By Mark Swartz
May 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Last weekend, with almost 40,000 in attendance, Art Chicago 1999 was the indisputable center of the art world. More than 200 galleries from as far as Sydney and Buenos Aires congregated in the Festival Hall of Chicago's Navy Pier to present the work of more than 2,100 artists.

Works by Picasso and Monet were on sale, but the focus of the seventh annual event was contemporary work, often with a conceptual edge. After the annual exposition in Basel, Switzerland, Art Chicago is the largest art fair of its kind. With more than a billion dollars worth of art on display, organizers predicted sales of about $50 million -- although exact figures are hard to come by.


Throughout the weekend, the art world bought, sold, mingled and trend spotted in a market where such traditional indicators like nationality and gender can no longer predict an artist's style. It also allowed curators the opportunity to see more work than their travel budgets normally allow. Whether the art sells or not, work that makes an impact at this event often turns up in contemporary art museums and biennial exhibitions around the world.

The atmosphere at the fair was more shopping trip than museum visit. The crowds and the overloaded displays rendered analysis and contemplation all but impossible, giving Hans Hemmert's video of a disco dancing yellow egg the advantage over Terri Zupanc's minimal painting "Drops." Most exhibitors tried baiting their booths with one or two huge, unlikely-to-sell attention-getters in order to catch the eyes of art lovers suffering from retinal overload, then reeling collectors in with a dozen or so smaller and more affordable pieces. That seemed to be the strategy of New York's Matthew Marks Gallery, but Katharina Fritsch's eight-foot "Display Stand With Madonnas" sold on Sunday, depriving the gallery of its centerpiece.

San Francisco's Haines Gallery created a buzz with a beaded Blaxpointation giantess created by the 28-year-old artist Liza Lou. The nontraditional piece was in some ways the polar opposite of an equally massive -- and ambitiously titled -- "Self-Portrait as the Prophet of Painting" by Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum. Somewhere in between was a suit studded with luminous green beetles by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre, displayed by Cristine Rose of New York.


Ace Gallery, an operation with spaces in New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City, relinquished its floor and wall space to Tim Hawkinson, a sculptor whose multiple sensibilities gave the display the feel of a group show. The attention-getter: a life-sized faux elephant skin made from foam core, felt and foil called "Hide."

Art Chicago was organized by Thomas Blackman Associates, which started a similar exposition in San Francisco last year.

Mark Swartz

Mark Swartz is a contributing editor to "New Art Examiner."

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