Armory Arts Week 2011 may be remembered as the year of art fairs that failed to defy our expectations. Unlike 2010, which saw the debut of Independent, or 2009, in which the glimmerings of a healthy art market emerged after the major 2008 recession, despite some shifts in gallery loyalty, the 2011 Armory Arts Week remains more or less the same. Swiping many blue-chip galleries from the Armory, the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), The Art Show launched on Park Avenue to reveal mostly stuffy secondary market offerings. The Armory International, though it experienced a slight slippage in taste this year, continued to dominate as the most massive and greatest accumulation of all influential galleries amidst the art fairs in New York. Independent, in its sophomore year at the "old Dia building" on 22nd street in Chelsea, continues to act as the vanguard of the fairs, attempting to re-work the art fair model physically and intellectually.

It’s the paintings of Alice Neel that greet the viewer arriving at the ADAA Art Show in David Zwirner’s booth—perhaps diminutive in size compared to those at the International. Zwirner is one of the most blue of blue-chip dissenters of the Armory, including Friedrich Petzel and Pace Gallery, which alone gobbled up more than a significant amount of real estate at ADAA. Housed in the grossly gorgeous Park Avenue Armory, the Art Show hosts scores of pretty little collectible things with the occasional head-turner. The good first: a series of recent color charcoal landscapes by Richard Artschwager at David Nolan Gallery. Vaguely hallucinatory in effect, the drawings represent a left turn from his signature furniture-inspired minimal constructions. And the new work by Rachel Whiteread at Luhring Augustine: a modest departure from her casts of the negative space of domestic interiors in the form of small, transparent resin blocks similar to domestic soap bars.

Simultaneously enjoyable and uncanny was seeing Diane Arbus’s gelatin silver print Child With a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962, an image reproduced to seemingly no end. Debra Force Fine Art—a name heretofore unheard of—displayed a stunning collection of Charles Burchfield paintings, though its wall text featuring a $150,000 price tag slightly distracted my aesthetic experience. As a whole, ADAA greatly sucked the pleasure out of viewing art in general. Those who feel ardently about the transformative qualities or social potential of contemporary art may want to skip ADAA and stay below 60th street. Though the fair certainly has a purpose—to sell and re-sell luxury goods—the way in which this is rendered has little to do with the most progressive and compelling aspects of the art world.

Perhaps the most distinguishing factor to this year’s presentation of the Armory is the aforementioned loss of major blue-chip galleries. Although these stables weren’t exactly missed—their presentations generally enjoyable in a conservative art history textbook sort of way—their absence carved room for more "experimental" exploits, both winning and tacky. Noticeable here is the strange appearance of fantastical animatronic artwork within the Armory—a desperate aesthetic faux pas usually relegated to the likes of satellite fairs such as Scope. Although I’m a champion of the broadening discourses of "art and technology," mechanizing artworks for the sole purpose of demanding a "how did they do that" moment of aesthetic arrest is as regressive as it is annoying. Case in point is Pier Paolo Calzolari’s whirling dowel with a vase and Calla lily perched upon it set against a painterly black canvas at Studio La Citta’s booth.

More successful by leaps and bounds is the booth of Rhizome at the New Museum, a non-profit promoting the work of artists engaged with new media and technology. Thankfully kinetic sculptures were absent here. Participating in the Armory for the first time, Rhizome shows both moving images and material work chosen by their Executive Director Lauren Cornell. The display isn’t necessarily "curated" but the works included bear great sensitivity to one another, a tactic with perfect rendition for a fair. To be sure, curated thematic exhibitions at fairs always seem a little overblown, though the shoving-my-archive-into-a-closet tactic familiar to many is even more embarrassing. Most compelling at Rhizome were works by two emerging Dutch artists, Harm van den Dorpel and Anne de Vries, both of whom approach the hastening integration of technology into everyday life through material means. Van den Dorpel, also included in Cornell’s recent exhibition "Free" at the New Museum, presents collages originally composed in Photoshop and secondarily hewn through various physical and digital permutations—in this case, paper and various plastics. De Vries’s ink jet prints CAVE2CAVE, are actually photographs of crumpled pieces of mirror foil reflecting images of cave paintings, which appear at once Photoshopped and painterly—a sort of nouveau reverse trompe l’oeil. Additionally, Cornell shows a revolving roster of screen-based work changing daily, ranging from Sara Ludy’s pulsating animated GIFs to URL-based works by Rafaël Rozendaal—all of which call into question the standards by which new media works are collected and preserved.

Gems within more standard Armory fare are scattered throughout this year’s presentation. Veteran galleries such as Kavi Gupta, CANADA, Bo Bjerggaard, Murray Guy, Modern Art, and Sies + Höke bring work worthy of note to the mix. At Kavi Gupta, Scott Reeder has created a composition similar in feeling to falling face down into a grass lawn. Layers upon layers of pine green paint directly applied upon what appears to be straws use the object’s negative space to create the illusion of depth, but evade a figure ground relationship. At CANADA, Katherine Bernhardt’s Moroccan rugs—for which the artist has a strange if endearing affinity—are piled up in the booth’s center, providing an oasis-like reprieve from those suffering from fair fatigue. Complementing the carpets are Bernhardt’s own paintings as well as deconstructed fabric pieces by Jess Fuller, bringing to mind Richard Tuttle’s canvas works or Sergej Jensen’s fabric-based abstractions.

This year, Murray Guy—a gallery curiously adept at art fair presentations—shows work by Lucy Skaer and Moyra Davey. Davey’s series “Blow,” 2007, juxtapose luscious, intimately scaled photographs of dusty, decrepit bookshelves with emptied gin bottles caught by refracting light. Davey’s accumulations speak to the ineffable futilities and quiet frustrations of domestic life as poetic observations.

While Stuart Shave (Modern Art) expertly installs the work of darkly humorous British painter Ansel Krut, replete with burlap wallpaper, Bo Bjerggaard shows the severely under appreciated Austrian artist Eva Schlegel, whose lead-based screenprints are breathtaking as they are lugubrious. Etienne Chambaud’s Atlas, 2009, at Sies + Höke drills holes into various origins of a map, commenting at once on the mutability of political borders and the volatile forces upholding and amending them.

Moving south into Chelsea, Independent sees a second successful year bleeding the format of the traditional cubicle-based art fair into a sprawling presentation resembling that of an institutional-quality exhibition. Also siphoning respected galleries from the Armory, Independent boasts critically revered and commercially successful names such as Sutton Lane, Hotel New York (one of the fair’s founding galleries along with Elizabeth Dee), Meyer Riegger, Jan Mot, Bortolami, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, Harris Lieberman, and Sprüth Magers.

Independent expertly employed its sprawling 22nd street space, installing many a sculpture in their postindustrial premises. Most exciting on view were new plywood and inkjet print sculptures by Los Angeles based artist Lizzie Fitch. A collaborator with Ryan Trecartin, Fitch employs a similar sensitivity to new media aesthetics, pulling stretching and Photoshopping seemingly mundane images into sumptuous inkjet prints. For her two works on view at Elizabeth Dee’s section of the fair, Fitch utilizes an unpredicted combination of stacked, slick Home Depot items such as saw horses and window panes, creating various levels of valence. Fitch succeeds in creating what seems an abstract metaphor for the suffocating suburban-bred contemporary consciousness.

Also enticing are Katinka Bock’s strange clay tubes installed on the floor of the shared section of Jocelyn Wolff and Meyer Riegger. Using a car tire’s imprint, Bock’s sculptures act as a form of contemporary intaglio. At Klosterfelde, Tobias Buche presents a precarious Plexiglas wall with pasted upon images of laser jet prints—such as an Andre Cadere stick—and newspaper clippings, evoking a vague pedagogical spirit allowing rewarding albeit loose conceptual associations. Less successful was Klaus Weber’s monumental black wind chime at Andrew Kreps, the likes of which evokes at once a sex sling and gross profit margin.

Veteran Swiss artist Miriam Cahn makes heavy appearances in Elizabeth Dee’s programming this turn, with an exhibition in her 20th street space and multiple paintings and vitrines within the fourth floor of Independent, within a collaborative presentation betwixt Jocelyn Wolff and Meyer Riegger, who also represents the artist. At New Galerie, Welsh artist Dan Rees lightheartedly connects variously colored canvases with a spray painted squiggle. Wallspace shows new work by Walead Beshty, who continues to explore the physical and sculptural aspects of the photographic medium, presented two dimensionally.

If 2011 marks the Armory Arts Week with a sense of flatness or status-quo, looking outward toward the circumstances surrounding the fair seem anything but—specifically, new innovations in technology occur more rapidly than ever, not to mention that political turmoil has hit both the Midwestern United States and northern Africa. Although the fairs included in Armory Arts Week do little to speak to such contextual newness programmatically, specific works included within them succeed in doing so. Ultimately refreshing it is to see supported the work of those up-and-comers questioning their relation to new media—such as Lizzie Fitch, Harm van den Dorpel, or Anne de Vries—but also efforts reimagining hermetically the traditional art fair in general, as in the case of the Independent team and heretofore unmentioned video-only Moving Image Fair. Should we stay on this winsome track of lateralizing the efforts of independent artists and galleries, perhaps the stuffy and staid ADAA will soon be eclipsed in cultural capital by its precocious and keenly felt decendents.