THE New York gallery world experienced a mini-watershed last fall, when the Grace Borgenicht Gallery shut its doors after nearly half a century. Borgenicht appeared on the scene in 1951, showing American avant-gardists such as Ilya Bolotowsky, Milton Avery, and Jimmy Ernst. By the time she retired, at eighty, they had become established figures, and her gallery had come to typify the sort of soberly run, familial blue-chip shop to which many serious artists aspire. Borgenicht's final show was a display of complex, jewel-toned still lifes by the painter Janet Fish. At its opening the dealer presided one last time a white-haired, dignified, formidable presence seated sternly behind the counter, as if guarding the vegetables and dip. A huge crowd milled about the gallery, and more than one person said morosely, "This is the end of an era."
The recent art-market collapse hit New York hard, causing a wave of closures and bankruptcies, and the gallery world that has since emerged has dismayed many by teetering between two extremes: a few glossy mega-dealers who have the muscle to move the market their way, and a rash of smaller, scruffier galleries that often struggle to stay afloat. Yet even through the darkest days new dealers and spaces have continued to appear. When Borgenicht opened, probably only a handful of the city's dealers promoted that era's contemporary art, let alone the American variety. Today, according to Steve Anzovin, who edits Art in America's annual guide to galleries, a New York dealer of contemporary art must vie for attention with 365 others-- about 15 percent more than in 1990, the pre-recession peak.
Despite the renewed activity, what characterizes the present moment is a sense of frustration with the gallery itself. In Borgenicht's early days the contemporary lookspare, white-walled, and bare-floored, more like an artist's loft than a bourgeois living room--was freshly minted. Betty Parsons, the legendary dealer who championed Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock, had opened New York's first such gallery in 1946. Thirty years later the critic Brian O'Doherty, in a famous series of essays titled Inside the White Cube, decoded the aesthetic and market assumptions that underlie the presumed neutrality of such a space. Today many of New York's chicest shows, most of which are conceptual, seem intent on hammering home the idea that we are all participating in a big cliché. The artist fills the exhibition space with furniture from the back room, where deals are traditionally made, thus putting the business end of things on display. Or it is somehow made clear that the gallery itself has become a framing device and we are the installation. It has actually become a cliché to invoke the cliché--a nice display of Postmodernist tail-chasing. Perhaps that's why, as the art world moves more surely into the mood and aesthetic that will come to define the nineties, the motif that keeps cropping up dates from a time before Borgenicht's--the era of the salon.
IN the annals of art the word "salon" has a slippery range of meanings and associations. One thinks first of the French Salon, the juried expositions put on by the Acadámie every year or so from 1667 on, which later became one of the first ways for the public to see new art. In the late nineteenth century the Paris Salons arose as an alternative to this official display. These huge gatherings, often with thousands of works and tens of thousands of viewers, became important venues for Impressionism, the avant-garde that eventually forced the academy out of favor. Although the original Salon still resonates in the imagination the way Emile Zola famously described it--an "absolute cacophony"--"salon" has become another way of saying "group show."
Whereas the public salon has often helped to advance the avant-garde, the private salon seems to spring up in someone's home whenever it needs nurturing. The salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein in turn-of-the-century Paris, where the "modern" community gathered to hash over Picasso and Matisse, is the prime example. In New York, as European modernism was filtering into this country at the time of the First World War, most creative movements got their start in someone's living room. At Mabel Dodge's "Evenings" artists exchanged ideas with many of the city's flashiest political and intellectual figures. The collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg provided late-night hospitality for Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, the reigning deities of New York Dada.
For "absolute cacophony" today, visit an art fair, where hundreds of dealers gather under one roof to hawk their wares to collectors and one another. This kind of clubby, convivial event is becoming such an important part of the international art market that the trade magazine Art & Auction recently termed art fairs a "mania." One reason is simple economics--the need to get maximum bang for each buck spent in overhead. Another is that for an art market whose rapid growth has required increasing professionalization, it's fun to get back to those old horse-trading roots.
A recent variation is the art fair in a hotel, which manages to be both public and private. Dealers, usually young and cutting-edge, take over a few floors and install their wares in individual rooms. The Gramercy International, the granddaddy of the bunch, was held in New York for the third time last May. As usual, it proved a barometer of the trendiest art trends, and also a voyage in miniature through salons of New York past. Last year the highlight was a room decked out in tribute to Florine Stettheimer, whose campy, idiosyncratic portraits, many based on her own family's Jazz Age salon, recently enjoyed a vogue. This time it was a performance by Brigid Berlin, a former denizen of Andy Warhol's Factory. One could also visit rooms hosted by the dealers Holly Solomon and Gracie Mansion. Solomon, whose most notable artist is probably Nam June Paik, the creator of video art, began by holding a salon in her home in 1969. Mansion helped to jump-start the East Village funk scene in 1982 by holding a photography show in the toilet of her flat.