Sometimes circumstance dictates that a passenger travels alone and then posts her findings rather late. Two weeks ago on an unseasonably chilly day I boarded the luxury Greyhound liner and trundled off to New York, where the second annual Frieze fair was about to begin.
Frieze New York is an international art fair that, like its older British sibling—and contrary to the static and stale connotation of the word “frieze”— is dedicated to the exhibition of, and trade in, art produced by living and practicing artists. Frieze is becoming many things: a cabinet of contemporary curiosities; a networking opportunity; a barometer of current trends and tendencies in art. More than anything, the fair functions as an irrefutable demonstration that the art market and all it encompasses is itself alive, and extremely well.
I was prepared and expecting to not buy it, in both the economic and ideological sense—it’s easy to pronounce one’s disdain for such a vulgarity! — but I found the Frieze-fruits to be extremely varied and impressively inventive. This alone demands discussion and, at the least, some consideration of how the Frieze fair may be both reflecting and potentially shifting the currents of contemporary art culture. I overheard one journalist remark that there were “not nearly as many big shiny things” as last year—perhaps an indication of a changing tide in art today, or at least in the works that washed up on Randall’s Island from May 9-13.
Lacking my usual art-roving company—regrettably Reilley couldn’t make the trip—my local artist friends and I took a ferry from 35th St. in Manhattan up the ever-gusting East River to Randall’s Island, a hammer-headed tract of land wedged between East Harlem, the Bronx and Queens, the home of a multitude of baseball diamonds, the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, and the conduit of the RFK Bridge. Today we are not passing through: the island is the destination. I and the other Frieze-ing passengers (we’ve warned you before about the puns) alight at the north end and walk past the organic coffee stand and the hot dog truck that reads “eat me” on one side to the giant white tent that houses the fair.
There is apparently a sculpture garden outside the tent but the only work that I (and the aliens who are watching us from space) could see was Paul McCarthy’s ludicrously large (24m high, and admittedly, also shiny) “Balloon Dog” (2013), a hyperbolic spoof of the dog sculptures for which Jeff Koons is famous. (Until mere minutes ago when I asked the Internet, I had assumed it was a Jeff Koons dog; I’m not sure whom the joke is on, now, but maybe McCarthy won.)
The bespoke tent, too long to see one end from the other, houses 180 galleries’ booths and features the work of over 1000 artists. (I learned that the fair is not connected to the city’s power grid and that all electricity is produced by generators, which goes a long way in justifying the entrance fee.) Inside, the space is airy and evenly lit with natural light. Monday, the last day of the show, is still busy, but there is a sense of impending relief—gallerists will admit that for every day in the booths there is a previous, and forthcoming, night of dinners, parties and plenty to drink. (Handily, in case one couldn’t wait to get off the island for such things there was a speakeasy hidden in plain sight between booths C33 and C35. You had to get a key from one of the far-away information booths—a tantalizing frisson of exclusivity in case you needed to be reminded.)
I managed to see about three-quarters of the offerings—in retrospect I think a two-day visit would improve the chances of wrapping one’s brain around, or simply absorbing, the sheer number of exhibitions.
Walid Raad’s Museum Floors IV is a wood inlay panel hung low on the wall, its parquet design and cut-out sides giving a perspectival illusion of another room’s floor just through the wall. It reminds me of the ways that artists have focused on the negative space of architecture and institutions, or simply highlighted the systematically overlooked structures: I’m thinking of empty white-cube installations beginning in the 1960s, or Rachel Whiteread’s plaster-cast interiors of the 1990s, for example. This time the expensive flooring of the museum is literally foregrounded; how the work would function in a commercial gallery space, or a private collection, is another question.
New York-based photographer Ryan McGinley’s large photographs of young bodies frolicking in waves and mudslides and lithe silhouettes on cliffs evokes a kind of weird sunset-kitch sublime. New York veteran Kathe Burkhart’s large “amateur-Pop” paintings depict glamorous-yet-grotesque females resembling variants of Elizabeth Taylor. Surrounded by their prescriptions, sex toys and various other provisions, each “portrait” is foregrounded with large special-font titles like “Wanker,” “Blueballs” and “Beaver.” I find them hilarious and distinct because they don’t smack of newness but the best kind of feminist art from the 70s and 80s: caustic and wry but also self-deprecating. (In a similar vein, but in a minimal blush, was Barbara Kruger’s “You Look Good,” in big white letters on black, at the L&M Arts stand.)
Tino Seghal, the art world’s own Wizard of Oz, presented Ann Lee (2011), which consists of a young robot-girl actor sitting in a white booth—a futuristic confessional? — who has apparently escaped from a video game and has become three-dimensional. As with most of his works, the piece consists of a conversation between the viewer and the work, the limits of which are revealed when you breach them: when asked if I could take her picture she replied, “Tino doesn’t want that.”
There were some wonderful paintings, of course. Most appear to be engaged in a formalist inquiry rather than a representational or figurative one. But this doesn’t seem to be a Greenbergian type of formalism, in which the constituents of a traditional painting—frame, canvas and the paint—are protected in order to preserve the “purity” of the medium. Instead I observed a real attention to the manipulation and mastery of materials, oftentimes seeming to be something other than it is until closely inspected. One large, pleasing abstract work in fact consisted of thousands of tiny beads of two different colours. Another wall-sized painting appeared to be patchwork, but the segmented effect was actually the product of a complicated dyeing process. In a few others, the frame was either augmented with two-by-four scaffolding, or supporting three-dimensional objects projecting outward. I saw some laser-print works that produced their perennial effect, for me: a seductive pull for my eyes that is easily exhausted and ultimately boring. There is currently an enourmous interest in industrially or technologically produced images and objects, however, and admittedly this kind of work is contributing to the continual broadening of possibilities for what a painting can be.
I like the kind of sculpture that suggests a simple but irreconcilable problem, a kind of visual conundrum, and I found several examples at the fair. Urs Fischer’s fabricated office chair with inverse-suspended metal house, like the heaviest helium balloon in the world, was delightfully confusing. How did it stay airborne? Was there a propeller hidden in that metal casing? Was that fragile-looking filament connecting them really holding it up? At another stand a small concrete sculpture sat modestly on the floor, its egg shape bifurcated by bristles on each half and pushed together. It shared a strong affective quality with Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim, who produced such memorable textural juxtapositions as the fur-covered saucer, cup and spoon in 1936. The sculptural enigmas came in life-size human forms as well, and seemingly out of nowhere. We almost brushed into a woman, leaning against the wall, her head covered by her sweater. Her position was so odd, her nullified presence such a surprise, that the work, Daniel Firman’s Linda, has remained with me—even though we initially yelped and recoiled.
Confronted by this multitude, even in such a spacious and airy place, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. I wonder how the judgment of quality can possibly function in such a context. What kinds of benchmarks are we using? Is it the polish and finish of a work, or a strong form that one remembers? A high level of technological and material ingenuity? A detectable thesis or line of questioning that an artist engages throughout their oeuvre? The cachet of a name? The longevity of an artist’s career? These last two questions are most directly linked to the art market. These works are here because they are valuable and they are valuable because they are here. This tautology repeats Arthur Danto’s assertion that (in sum) an object is art if the art world says it is so. Value, it follows, is a market condition.
Some galleries apparently had a trove of quality on offer: one London-based outfit had re-hung their entire sizable booth twice, a not-uncommon phenomenon I am told. If business was brisk it was nonetheless woven almost seamlessly into the larger project of Frieze, which included a curatorial program of artists’ commissions realized specifically for the event, presentations of audio works, an education space (on the Monday, Douglas Crimp, among others, was giving a talk), and a section for publications.
The classic (bourgeois) dilemma remains unresolved: do a walk-through trying to avoid saturation before one gets to the end, or really look and engage with each work at the risk of burnout? After a while, instrumental things help one reconcile this admittedly first-world problem: hunger, bathroom imperatives, time constraints, that much-needed drink. As you hope happens in life, the wonderment and excitement wears down into a spacey contentment and you’re not too sad about having to leave at the end of the day. You’re tired and have felt you’ve done your job pretty well, and you have beautiful images to take away with you, if only in your memory (and ever-present smart phone.) But again, I encourage living it twice.
It is perhaps too early to make pronouncements of a nascent art-utopia or Big Frieze Culture that will redraw the landscape of contemporary art, at least in New York. But it has done well in circumventing the usual accusations of just being about commerce by providing educational programs and other fora of information and discussion, bars, good food and coffee. It also has risen alongside—and perhaps casts a shadow upon—The Armory Show, which has enjoyed art-fair hegemony in the city. There is undoubtedly room enough for two, especially as they don’t share the same island. What Frieze New York proves is that art fair culture, while continually evolving and shifting shape, is not going anywhere. In fact, we are going to it.
Natalie Zayne Bussey and Reilley Bishop-Stall
© Passenger Art