March 8–11 marked the third edition of INDEPENDENT, the alternative exhibition forum held in the former DIA Center for the Arts on West 22nd Street in Chelsea. Founded by gallerists Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook in conjunction with White Columns’ Matthew Higgs, Independent has established itself as a thoughtful and ambitious counterpoint to the annual Armory Art Show. This year marked the fair’s largest audience with attendance figures surpassing fifteen thousand. The forty-three participating organizations range from established blue chip galleries to emerging galleries as well as respected non-profits.
According to Co-Director Jayne Drost Johnson, the exhibitors were selected based on their distinctive voices and programmatic rigor. “Each year we look for exhibitors that have unique points of view to their program—to bring different approaches that you wouldn’t normally see together in New York.” Drost Johnson highlighted a few booths as emblematic of this spirit. “McCaffrey Fine Art is a good example of a program that is not very well known to everyone but the work they show is really fresh. They are an Upper East Side gallery who are super rigorous in their concentration in a 20th century Japanese art—its kind of unparalleled. McCaffrey presents works that feel totally fresh but are from the 40s and 50s—something you have never seen that seems like a revelation.”
“On the other hand, Broadway 1602, which is a younger gallery, also has an interesting concentration that is distinctive. They work with older European artists, people you don’t see in New York. And Galerie Suzanne Zander specializes in what might be called outsider art. This year she showed three incredible artists. People really responded to what they are doing.”
In keeping with the trend of art fairs collaborating with architects, Independent brought on the ambitious Swiss architect Christian Wassmann to devise the exhibition layout and design a site-specific environment on the roof of the building. The interior exhibition space featured central walls set on a 29-degree angle in line with true North, South, East, and West, creating a unique flow specific to each of the floors. Rather than orienting with the city grid or even magnetic North, the design grounded the exhibitors and viewers in terrestrial geography. According to Drost Johnson, Wassmann played a crucial role in developing the layout of exhibitors. “Coming up with a configuration for the space that works from a gallerists’ point of view and the viewers’ point of view is the most challenging part of Independent. Christian has a really creative approach to how he worked around those challenges. He created a space that flowed in a way better than any prior version of Independent.”
On the roof, Wassmann’s 29° Observatory, a tent-like structure aligned to the same true North grid, hosted a slate of young art publications: Mousse, Kaleidoscope, 02 and Bidoun. Each morning, the architect sprinkled pigment powders in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the colors of offset printing—on the floor of the observatory so that visitor foot traffic created an improvised sandpainting.
Faced with the expansion of the Frieze Art Fair to New York in May, many speculated that Independent might see an attrition of significant participants or perhaps lose its position as the premiere alternative to the Armory. Several prior exhibitors—Anton Kern Gallery, Wallspace, and Johan Koenig, to name a few—chose not to return to Independent in favor of Frieze New York. However, Drost Johnson does not see Frieze as a rival, rather a compliment to Independent. “I don’t feel it’s an either/or thing. Both have a place in New York. Independent is a different scale, it’s a different conversation, and while obviously this is a place where people can sell their work, it’s a different contextualization that lends to slower paced viewing.”
Drost Johnson said that many of this year’s exhibitors chose to continue at the Independent in addition to participating in the upcoming Frieze New York. Independent’s open-plan exhibition model and eclectic curation continues to be an attractive alternative to the traditional fair. “Galleries need these multiple platforms to show their programs. They want to present artists’ work in formats other than a jpeg.”