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Art in America

Working NADA with Dan Byers

By William S. Smith

May 13, 2013

Arriving at Basketball City, the Lower East Side athletic facility that houses the second NADA New York art fair (which was open through May 12), Dan Byers was thinking about work in all its forms. “Art fairs are really for seeing people, for re-connecting with dealers, curators, artists and writers,” he told A.i.A. “I’m interested in how everyone is performing a certain kind of labor in those roles,” he continued, “and part of my job as a curator is being socially present in these contexts.”

Byers is curator of modern and contemporary art at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. Together with Daniel Baumann and Tina Kukielski, Byers is co-curating the 2013 Carnegie International (Oct. 5, 2013-March 16, 2014). Earlier in the day, during a public talk at the Frieze art fair, the trio had wrestled with the question of how to mount an exhibition of international contemporary art in a way that engages with the city of Pittsburgh. During the audience questions that followed, Carnegie director Lynn Zelevansky chimed in, describing the curators’ work as a “civic duty” and stressing the exhibition’s public function.

Yet, as Byers told A.i.A., the success of that public mission also depends on “the curator’s ability to participate in the rituals of art fairs.” These rituals of the private market can feel collegial and relaxed at NADA, at least compared to the high-stakes machinations that unfold at Frieze. For this year, the second edition of NADA in New York, the New Art Dealers Alliance brought together more than 60 new and emerging galleries from around the world. It’s hard to feel uptight in the same venue where New York-based artist Nathan Gwynne was preparing to have his chest shaved as part of a rock opera about King Arthur he was staging with fellow New York-based artist Andrea Merkx. (The sprawling film set-cum-exhibition they built near the fair’s entrance featured a life-size dummy horse and theatrical tableaux that could be described as Mike Kelley meets feudalism.)

But visiting NADA with Byers was also an object lesson in how subtle questions of labor underlie every interaction at an art fair. While disputes over workers’ rights took highly visible forms in picket lines and an inflatable rat at Frieze, where the mega-fair’s decision to hire non-union labor sparked controversy, conversations at NADA turned as well to the broad spectrum of cultural labor, and the strange “balance of social and professional interaction” that is common in the curatorial field but “most explicit at art fairs,” as Byers told A.i.A.

Byers navigated the fair according to an itinerary defined as much by the art on view as by conversations with friends and colleagues. “I can be talking about art to a friend who is a dealer, and we will both be working in different ways in the same conversation,” he said. An important stop was the Callicoon Fine Arts (New York) booth, which featured a series of abstract relief paintings by New York-based filmmaker, sculptor and painter Sadie Benning, one of the 35 artists Byers and his co-curators selected for the Carnegie International.

New approaches to abstraction—and some ironic rehashing of older ones—were prominent at the fair. The surface of David Scanavino’s polychromatic work at New York’s Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery bore traces of the artist’s fingerprints where he pressed wet pulped paper into a rectangular form. The selection of small, unassuming abstract paintings at Brooklyn’s 247365 Gallery, including a gestural work by Julie Benjamin and an example of Sebastian Black’s weirdly unstable grids of geometric shapes, suggested a cadre of art school grads drifting through a catalogue of modernist art.

Byers also joined a steady stream of curators and critics at the booth of Gavlak Gallery (Palm Beach), which was displaying Florida-based David Haxton’s films and photographs, many dating from the 1970s and ‘80s. “While NADA is billed as a fair for emerging artists and dealers, I find myself drawn to work by older or more established figures this year,” Byers told A.i.A. Haxton’s film Cubes (1977) documents a performance in which he paints and then disassemble two enormous cubes. From the camera’s perspective the forms that Haxton manipulates appear suspended in midair.

The summer-like weather on NADA’s opening day made for a stuffy climate inside Basketball City. The booth of New York dealer Rachel Uffner had a new series of work by New York-based Sara Greenberger Rafferty: photographic inkjet prints of human figures and objects that appear to have melted under sheets of plastic. “These works look like how we all feel,” Byers said. Greenberger Rafferty’s work was one highlight of the fair. “Not that novelty is an essential quality of art, but nothing else looks like this,” Byers told A.i.A. “The experimentation feels new, and her focus on process is conceptually integral to the work.”

After parting ways with A.i.A., Byers juried the NADA Artadia Award, which went to Los Angeles-based Meg Cranston for her installation Emerald City at the shared booth of New York’s Fitzroy and Newman Popiashvili galleries. A painting of Kate Middleton was hanging at the center of the booth. The emerald color of the Duchess of Cambridge’s dress was echoed on one of the walls of the booth as well as a nearby monochrome painting, dramatizing a continuum between high fashion and high modernist art.

Following the fair, Byers was off to a cocktail party to celebrate the Carnegie International with his co-curators at a dive bar near the East River landing of the Frieze ferry, which transported visitors to the Randall’s Island fair. The room was full of artists and curators from around the world who had assembled in New York for the weekend. They were drinking pints of Guinness, chatting and, one might suppose, at the same time, doing a certain kind of work.