The Gramercy International's distinguishing feature was that it took place in a hotel - the 70-year-old Gramercy Park, unfashionably situated on East 21st Street and Lexington Avenue, a hotel that has 509 rooms and has seen better days. Each of the 32 participating dealers had taken a room for four days at dollars 90 a day - or dollars 125 for a suite - and spread their art works over the bedroom furniture and bathroom fixtures. On the opening day there was a 500-yard queue around the block as connoisseurs fought for admission to the old-fashioned elevators. Some desperate art lovers found their way via the men's room and the kitchens to the freight lift; others were prepared to climb the stairs to the 15th floor.
Packing avant-garde art and artists into hotel rooms looks set to become a trend for the Nineties. After the huge success of the Gramercy International, its organisers, five bright young New York dealers, are talking of taking it on the road - maybe to Los Angeles or Santa Fe, maybe to Basel or London.
The show was put together in a matter of weeks. The organisers were inspired by two precedents: the 'Unfair' exhibition which has been run by young dealers on the fringe of the Cologne Art Fair for the past two years, and 'Art Hotel', an art fair held in Amsterdam in February - the first to use individual hotel rooms as dealers' stands. The Amsterdam hotel cleared the furniture out before they let the dealers in, which made display a little easier; at the Gramercy, however, all the out- of-town dealers moved the art off their beds at night and slept in them.
There were dealers from London, Paris, Cologne, Berlin, Vienna and Milan as well as American out-of-towners from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago - and a lot of New Yorkers. All of them were young and exhibiting on a shoestring.
The fair was a showcase for the most electric developments among emerging artists in America and Europe. The organisers had picked 32 galleries that they believed were likely to show the sharpest art and invited them to participate - only two refused. Once the project was known about, begging letters from galleries who wanted to be included flooded in - all but two were turned down. The organisers were determined to keep the show small enough to be visited without exhaustion interfering with aesthetic judgement.
So the 12th, 14th and 15th floors of the Gramercy Park Hotel - there's no 13th - presented an unparalleled overview of what young artists are doing. Their preoccupations are rarely formal ones; there was hardly a hint of minimalism in sight and not much geometric abstraction. They were grappling with the human predicament: sex, death and the shadow of Aids provided matter for many harrowing insights; lighter, but not necessarily less profound, were examinations of the nature of the consumer/industrial society. The impersonal nature of industrial products was worked over by many artists - by imitating Tupperware in tinted beeswax, encasing used tea-bags in transparent plastic and converting garbage into colourful installations.
The artists and their dealers were interested primarily in emotions or thought processes; it didn't matter what medium was used to express them. The media employed were wildly diverse and inventive, ranging from traditional painting and sculpture through photography and video to scrubbing brushes, tea-bags and human hair.
The prize for inventiveness, as far as medium is concerned, should probably go to the British artist Stephen Pippin who had turned a British Rail toilet into a camera, developer and processor of photographs on the line between London and Brighton. He converted the bowl into a camera by installing a custom- made lid with a pinhole in it and lining it with photographic paper. The camera took almost 360 degree pictures of the cubicle. Then he drilled a hole in the flush tube and tipped developer into it at the same time as working the handle; the fixative went down the same way. It took 30 visits to Brighton to get five images that he considered successful; the set of five, from an edition of 10, was on offer at dollars 5,500 (pounds 3,800).
'The photo is a kind of icon of what he did,' the dealer Gavin Brown explained. 'He is interested in capturing light on his own terms.' Brown himself is a British artist who has recently switched to dealing; he opened a New York gallery five weeks ago. Pippin, the best known artist he represents, has had a show at the ICA in London and recently showed the lavatory pictures at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Five out of the 32 galleries were showing the work of young British artists, including the two London dealers Jay Jopling and Maureen Paley. Jopling had brought along his artist, Tracy Emin, and tucked her up into bed.
It was a shrewd move since Emin's art is primarily autobiographical and having her lying in bed in a floral negligee, chatting to potential customers, brought the autobiography to life. 'Nothing very special has happened to her,' Jopling explained. 'She is the archetypal 'woman' and that's what makes her art significant.' Apart from the bedspread, a patchwork of text and old clothes, her art comprised mementos and hand-written accounts contained in glass boxes: 'My Abortion', a five- part work which sold for dollars 2,000 ( pounds 1,380), included three blood red watercolours, her hospital identification bracelet, and a handwritten account of what happened - she caught the foetus in her hand as it slipped down the side of her leg in a taxi; 'My Future', a three-part work which sold for dollars 1,800 (pounds 1,250), comprised an old tooth, a dentist's card recording an appointment and an out-of-date passport.
Body parts were a recurrent theme. On the stand of New York's Fawbush Gallery were colour photographs, costing dollars 1,500 (pounds 1,050), of a flayed arm created by American artist Kiki Smith out of fatty beef steak - Smith has made a large enough hit on the international circuit to be given a show at the d'Offay Gallery in London. Ma Galerie from Paris had brought over Eric Duyckaerts, a 41-year-old whose work explored the possibility that evolution would convert the human hand into four fingers and two thumbs; a plaster cast of it plus a spoof video lecture was priced at dollars 5,000 (pounds 3,500). There was a plastic skeleton of the hand at the same price.
The best of the body parts were on the stand belonging to the New York dealer Craig Cornelius. Robert Guillot, 41, from Alabama had made a big toe, the size and shape of a foot, cast in concrete; it was paired with an ordinary shaped foot, also concrete, and offered for dollars 1,000 (pounds 700); a plaster ball of fingers cost dollars 900 (pounds 620). Guillot's works are virtually unknown, which explains the low prices - though there wasn't much in the fair at more than dollars 10,000 (pounds 7,000).
Cornelius was also showing a painter called Jonathan Seliger in his bathroom. 'Look carefully,' he urged me. 'You won't believe it at first sight, but everything's acrylic on canvas.' There was a floral bath cap hanging on the shower, a pair of black lace knickers drying and a carton of milk with a straw in it; all of which turned out to be made of canvas, painted in acrylic colours. They were priced between dollars 750 (pounds 500) and dollars 1,600 (pounds 1,100).
Cornelius was one of several exhibitors who had run galleries in New York's SoHo district during the boom years of the 1980s but closed down during the recession. They now set up exhibitions in their homes. There were also several artists turned dealers among the exhibitors, including Pat Hearn, one of the five organisers. She started her career amid the explosion of 'alternative' art in the East Village in the early 1980s and now has a gallery in SoHo.
So, in New York terms the fair had an alternative flavour. It didn't look as if many dealers made serious money; they were involved with art because they loved it. The event reassuringly underlined the fact that art can still be fun. There was a party for 1,000 art lovers in the Gramercy's ballroom on Saturday night and they danced till 1.30am.-
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