Alex Bass’ Salon 21: Is It Art for All Or Just for a Few?

Champagne in SoHo. A modelesque woman with the sequined word VIXEN affixed to a black catsuit-like ensemble brushes by. Glasses clink. Merch is available for grabs. Around that young woman, paintings from emerging artists and deep burgundy flyers that feel soft to the touch. The vibe is girl-boss-meets-Emily-in-Paris-meets-capsule-exclusivity.

The interior of Salon 21. Moriah Sawtelle, Courtesy of Salon 21

Welcome to Salon 21, a new brick-and-mortar art and interior design space on Greene Street that aims to “support emerging talent and reimagine the lost art of conversation.” Launched during Armory Week by Alex Bass (a young graduate from Sotheby’s Institute by way of work experiences at Gagosian and the Met), Salon 21 occupies a sizable 1,200-square-foot space in a Greene Street historical address. The space is positioned to be elegant, poised, and social.

With monthly exhibitions and programs, such as figure drawing, Salon 21 sees itself filling a gap—specifically that of lost face-to-face social interactions after the pandemic—while reviving the spirited artist studio atmosphere that once shaped SoHo’s creative reputation. This stems from years of thinking and piloting on Bass’ part.

Bass rightly points to the gentrification of SoHo, a former industrial area turned artistic hub during the 1960s onwards, which was home to avant-garde artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ad Reinhardt, among many others. Coveted lofts were converted to studio spaces, but of course, things changed and artists eventually moved elsewhere. Present day, its streets are now littered with high-end, luxury outlets, and walking there quickly turns into a claustrophobic, hellish experience that involves dodging tourists, street sellers and Instagram influencers.

In capitalizing on the SoHo brand via the remanence of its glory days, Salon 21 offers continuity more than disruption. The aura of “Downtown” avant-garde artists in SoHo is long gone, and there’s no denying that Bass’s venture is on the fancy side (or wants to be). The space’s edges are rather round, far from the hand-to-mouth living experience of most artists then—and now.

Salon 21 founder Alex Bass. Moriah Sawtelle, Courtesy of Salon 21

Bass credits the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein as an inspiration behind Salon 21 (21 stands for 21st Century). Witty conversations, tastefully curated art… canapes. Gertrude Stein lived off inherited wealth and received the company of artists such as Cézanne, Picasso, Apollinaire, Braque and Hemingway. Many of these artists living in Paris at the time survived thanks to generous patrons and she constituted one of the first modern art collections.

Crucially, post-WWI Paris was an abode of emigrés, an ebullient place of creation, experimentation and subversion of norms. Early expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism flourished. André Breton disrupted the Ballet Russes performances put together by Sergei Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau, thus creating Dada moments. People discussed the essence of things. It was radical, and in that atmosphere, Stein collected while supporting emergent art movements.

By comparison, Salon 21’s curation seems timid, with an overwhelming emphasis on North American and European artists. In September, one could see—by appointment—vanitas-art-meets-fast-food natures mortes by Morwenna Morrison, Matisse-like interior paintings from Sophie Edell, more interior paintings from Anna Rocke that are hyper-textured and quasi-goth in composition and color. Artworks from the group show, which included many more artists than these three, saturated the salon walls and a scanned QR code (very 21st Century) gave access to a catalogue. All items on show were also for sale, at a price point below $10,000.

Curated art at Salon 21. Moriah Sawtelle, Courtesy of Salon 21

Perhaps owing to Bass’s background in interior design, we are drawn to visual harmony and the way this Kunstkammer looks homogeneously “good,” even a little quirky, without fundamentally causing a stir or ruffling the gaze. Artworks exude a stiffness ascribed to aesthetically pleasing ornamental prizes, to be admired more than questioned. Likely unintentionally, the interior-on-interior paintings in that space induced for me a case of what Jean Baudrillard called hyperreality, or the confusion of no longer separating reality from its simulation. The painted interiors confoundingly resembled the interior of Salon 21—which one was which?

Bass wants to appeal to her “demographic,” as she says on her website, which led me to consider the following question: What happens when art is consciously curated to appeal to a chosen few? (Sidenote: Salon 21 is located on the upper floors of a historical building; it’s unlikely to be wheelchair accessible.)

I seek art that moves me, that challenges the way I look and understand myself and the world around me. I fundamentally believe that art is subjective and that it’s for everyone. The message of attending to like-minded peers feels conservative, at odds with a needed change in the way we envisage access and inclusion in that scene. Sobering, if this is the road that affluent younger generations want to take.

SEE ALSO: Decoding the Mysteries of Symbolism in the Art of Paris’ 19th Century Salons

American artists and influential personalities have always loved to fantasize about Paris, which becomes a concept of their own projections more than a real city. As a Parisian in New York, I encounter this trope daily, from misspelled store names seeking a recherché feel to bourgeois boudoir interiors that purport to represent Paris as if it were a monolith or without acknowledging their fabrication. My Paris is foremost the eruptive banlieue, the experiments of street art social housing Paris Tour 13 slated for demolition, a market that speaks idioms from Asia and Africa and off-center areas that pulse with unruly creation and vibrancy, where people argue for hours over supermarket cornichons and cheap wine.

Should the 21st-Century art scene still promote ingenious, business-savvy taste-makers or instead reimagine ways to humbly engage with those who haven’t been heard, who lack platforms, for instance, to design collective models of participation and co-creation that seek to break huis-clos kinship? What is the 21st-Century responsibility of a young collector or curator? There’s a phenomenal potential for Bass to succeed in pairing emerging art with younger collectors and art enthusiasts if Salon 21 learns from what’s already broken and dysfunctional in the industry. I wish her to be bold and to achieve that transformation.

Not long ago, I attended an event close to where I live. I joined strangers in a night of art and exchange in the historical home of a legendary poet. That premise is not unlike Salon 21—a space to connect, exchange, talk around art, on art or with art. Young poets were invited to read from their latest work that spoke of pain, compassion and love. There was little curation to speak of; it was an open mic. It was a little messy and unpretentious, in the endearing way that community events can be. The crowd included some artists as well as people with very different profiles. It felt nurturing and accepting. I could see a young Basquiat there, but as for Salon 21, it’s too soon to tell.

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