If I'd arranged to walk through the Independent art fair with anyone but Boston-based curator Paul Ha, who has endured 105 inches of snow (and counting!) so far this winter, I would have felt compelled to apologize for the inclement weather. But Ha, director of MIT's List Visual Arts Center since 2012 and curator, with Ute Meta Bauer, of the American pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale, seemed unfazed when we met at the former Dia building yesterday afternoon. (The building sold to a real estate firm last year, making this year the fair's last on 22nd Street.)
Ha arrived at the Independent (Mar. 5-8) straight from Penn Station, ready to see what kind of work the fair's 50-plus international galleries brought to snowy Chelsea. "I come to art fairs with two goals in mind," he said: "To scout new artists, and to buy work for our collection." His previous purchases include prints by Seth Price and Vik Muniz, as well as a multi-author Artists Space portfolio, for MIT's student loan art program, which allows students to check out a work for one year. "Art is such a physical thing," he said, surveying the scene. "You really have to get out and stand in front of it."
Starting on the fourth floor, Ha was surprised to see a blue-chip gallery like Michael Werner (New York and London), which brought work by A.R. Penck. "This fair used to be totally emerging. It's interesting that Werner wants to put down stakes here." At Artists Space's booth, Ha bypassed Isa Genzken's eye-catching prints in favor of Night Light, 2013, an easy-to-miss floor sculpture by Joan Jonas, who is representing the U.S. in the upcoming Biennale. "Joan made several of these really beautiful light sculptures and covered them with paper. They were eventually incorporated into a performance."
Making our way down to the third floor, Ha immediately ran into Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator of New York's White Columns, as well as the Independent's creative advisor. (Ha worked at White Columns from 1993 to 2001.) At White Columns' booth Ha spied a stack of Bob Nickas-designed T-shirts designed by Bob Nickas riffing on the identical initials and number of letters in "Joan Didion" and "Joy Division." "I used to be a huge Joy Division fan," Ha said, handing Higgs $20 for the black tee adorned with the same abstract-mountain pattern from Joy Division's album "Unknown Pleasures," Joan Didion's name in place of the band's.
"Gavin [Brown] hasn't shown work in New York since 1995," Higgs said, pointing to two sculptures by the New York dealer. The pieces-molds of Brown's right hand set on circular mirrors-had just been finished that morning. On our way out, before Ha could finish asking Higgs what work at the fair shouldn't be missed, Higgs pointed us to the booth just behind his where Kerry Schuss (New York) was showing collages by the self-taught artist Birdie Lusch-"a true American maverick" according to Higgs.
Schuss showed us a black-and-white photo he'd taken of Lusch in 1984, standing outside her ramshackle house in Columbus, Ohio. "She was the first artist I ever worked with. I sold some of her work to the governor of Ohio," Schuss remembered. Lusch's charming, intricate collages of flowers and vases are made of scraps from envelopes, stamps and magazine clippings. Like a lot of people who lived through the Depression, Lusch never threw anything away, Schuss explained. "She wasn't crazy," he said, intentionally avoiding the word "outsider." "She knew art history, but she was certainly an oddball."
From there we wandered over to another gallery that coincidentally specializes in outsider art. Galerie Susanne Zander/Delmes & Zander (Berlin and Cologne) presented a solo show of work from the estate of Harald Bender, a decidedly outsider artist obsessed with photocopies, who died last year in Berlin. Six artist books-more like very thick three-ring binders stuffed with pages covered with pseudo-scientific diagrams and text-were on a low table, while on the walls hung 20 framed pages from one of Bender's other volumes. "He saw this material as research more than art," gallery director Lisa Arndt explained. "He believed he had a woman's uterus filled with an atomic secret, which he had to protect." "Kind of like Forrest Bess," Ha observed, referring to the American painter who is known to have performed surgery on his own genitals (and who, coincidentally, is being shown in a solo presentation at David Zwirner's booth at the ADAA's Art Show uptown this weekend.)
At London's Herald St Ha was drawn to a solo presentation of austere wood-and-metal sculptures by Los Angeles-based Matt Paweski. "He has a fetishistic attention to detail," remarked Herald St staffer Harriet Mitchell, pointing out the impeccably carved and painted panels and identical copper rivets joining them symmetrically together.
Our last stop was Catherine Bastide (Brussels), on the recommendation of fair co-organizer Elizabeth Dee, whom Ha ran into just before we parted ways. There Ha examined several new paintings by William Pope.L., which reminded him of a 2004 show he curated while he was director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. "We organized a lecture during Pope.L's show, and afterwards he made everyone line up, and he hugged each person one by one."