The Soho Scene Lights Up

EARLY FALL-WHEN THE TOURISTS have gone back home and pouty, would-be supermodels reappear in New York's Soho district - hasn't been kind to the art world in recent years. After a mid-decade boom, the contemporary art market hit bottom at the end of the '80s. The mood in the world's most esthetically influential neighborhood sank as low as the economy. Cognoscenti huddled in the sidewalk cafes, prattling less about the new season's art than about which galleries had folded over the summer. But a few weeks ago, on a balmy Saturday night, the streets of Soho were blocked off so that nearly 50 galleries could stage simultaneous openings. The turnout: a seething mass (some said 5,000 people) of black miniskirts, Doc Mar-tens and ponytails, so dense it had to snake single-file through most of the shows. Buzzing at cicada level, Soho seemed reborn.

The scene actually started creeping back two seasons ago, when several galleries decided to retrench-rather than close-in smaller, cheaper spaces away from the best art addresses. This month the Art Now Gallery Guide lists a record-high 249 Soho galleries, 10 more than last year. While no dealers were touting sales figures, several said that activity in their galleries had been intense the first weeks of the fall season. That means that people are at least coming through the doors to look, peruse the price lists and ask questions. But Art & Auction magazine's watchdog, Judd Tully, warns that it's still a "psychologically delicate" situation. "One bad auction or one gallery closing, and it could turn around again," he says.

While Soho may worry about bad auctions, bad reviews shouldn't be a big problem, at least for the moment. There's no museum temblor, like last year's Matisse show, to make its offerings seem small. Overall there are fewer pretentious installation pieces and more drawing and painting skills on display. Some exhibitions, like the following three, are actually beautiful:

thesis-visible right in his paintings, no explanatory text necessary - is that 40 years after Jackson Pollock, drips and brushstrokes thrown from the shoulder are linguistic signs as old hat as a red octagon for STOP. Recombining them as pictorial passion is futile. Why not just lay abstraction's devices out like cupcakes on a shelf and let savvy viewers just take inventory? Sounds like a bad idea, and it is ... philosophically. But in art a good idea is whatever looks good. Fortunately Lasker has the astute eye to set off a green squiggle nicely against a pink one, and, in "The Value of Pictures," the nimble hand to concoct a troweled yellow rectangle. With taste winning out over theory Lasker's paintings (at Sperone Westwater until Oct. 24) end up big, bright and powerful.

Talk about taste: Mary Boone's gallery has Soho's best skylight, walls that are repainted for each show (dove gray this time) and a blond guy in a great shirt who's always sitting at the front desk. The art is usually OK, too. Until Oct. 30, the space belongs to Roni Horn. She used to make twin abstract sculptures in copper that were harder to tell apart than Patty Duke. Now she makes black epoxy words embedded in aluminum bars that she leans in groups against the gallery walls. The work is supremely cool and enigmatic ("as birds before achieving" reads one bar), but it's oh-so-precise and looks just right under that skylight.

The rightness of Patrick Faigenbaum, on the other hand, is his rescuing of the honorific. ennobling photograph from the exclusive province of Bachrach and fashion photography. He goes directly against "serious" photography's Arbus-to-Avedon convention of grotesque hollows, puffs and twists that are supposed to signify tragic individuality. His 17 very dark, dense, but ultimately shining pictures (at Barbara Gladstone through Oct. 16) somehow demonstrate that there's hope for humanity yet. In "Paris, 1993" the boy seated next to the chest of drawers is so graceful and vulnerable you have to look for a long time to realize he's not a made-up photorealist painting, he's real.

Finally, Alexis Rockman's ominous "Biosphere" paintings (at Jay Gorney through Oct. 9) depict mutant animals in space stations. Hooked up to wires and tubes, they need artificial life support. But if a fraction of the fans pouring through Soho are real customers, maybe the galleries won't.