1:47 pm May. 10, 2012
On the morning of May 4, at 11 a.m., it was still half-heartedly raining, but the tent on Randall’s Island gleamed against the dreary atmosphere, a shiny, glass-topped mountain in the mist.
The pristinely, relentlessly white tent housed the Frieze Art Fair, opening that day. Covering 250,000 feet, or the length of three football fields, Frieze hosted some one hundred and eighty galleries, two-thirds of them coming from outside New York, all showing work by living artists.
Its placement on Randall’s Island—one-time setting for an “idiot asylum,” an orphanage, a Civil War veteran rest home, a juvenile delinquent center (euphemistically known as the “House of Refuge”), Lollapalooza, and the office of Robert Moses—was perhaps the most striking thing setting it apart from the city’s many other art fairs. Reachable by ferry, bus, or car, but not subway, with manicured lawns and woody areas—sites of a sculpture park and commissioned installations—the location allowed an escape from the city, which conferred a certain amount of adventure on the proceedings. Leaving reality behind has its advantages.
Frieze magazine was founded in 1991 by Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover. The magazine begat an annual art fair, staged in London’s Regent’s Park since 2003, and it’s been an increasingly crucial stop on the global art-fair circuit ever since. This was the first time Frieze would take place in New York.
Perhaps because New York already has so many art fairs, most held during one exhausting March weekend—the Armory Show, VOLTA, the Art Dealers Association of America Art Show, to name just the biggest—there was some grumbling over the arrival of yet another, and just two months on. But collectors and art-world cognoscenti can never really seem to get enough of these fairs, and by the looks of it, any Armory-related hangovers were long gone by Friday. The system was not rejecting the transplant.
The system was, however, not cheap. The question of whether New York could accommodate another art fair was sort of a distraction, even a mystification. Perhaps a more pressing issue for a lot of people was the price attached to regular admission to the fair, which was $40. (Tickets to MoMA, the city’s most expensive museum, are currently $25; tickets to the Armory, the most expensive of the fairs in March, were $30.) Who would pay that much and why? And what did that $40 price tag say about the state of the contemporary art world?
Such questions seemed particularly pertinent given that big art fairs, with their insistent international flair, generally have a whiff of the airport about them, and Frieze was especially airport-ish: the ticket counter was staffed by French-accented workers; entrances into the tent, both on the north and the south sides, were ruled by rigorous security protocol, with passes and tickets validated, bags checked; there were lounges, discretely protected by beige curtains and guarded by fashionable women with clipboards, for first-class patrons; the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and packaged salads were exorbitantly overpriced. (Even the ticket pricing had the hallmark of arcane and impenetrable airline logic: a reduced price of $25 was offered for those visiting after 1 p.m., suggesting that, in this case, the early bird got a $15 surcharge.) But this art fair, the prices seemed to convey, wasn’t meant for everyone. It was just pricey enough to make it seem exclusive, less like a nice day strolling among the great artworks of today, more like a sorting mechanism to separate nobodys from 40 bucks if they decided to clog up the terminal with their useless, non-art-buying selves.
“This is one is on hold,” said a gallerist at the Canada Booth in reference to a painting by Xylor Jane.
“Oh, but how much does it go for?” asked the visitor.
“It is thirty-five thousand,” the gallerist replied, making forceful eye contact.
Commerce, of course, is the only reason for the existence of art fairs (and this is, for the most part, no less true of the smaller, ostensibly more independent fairs, including those organized as a rebuke to behemoths like the Armory and Frieze). That is perhaps why the booths tend to resemble miniature furnishings stores, as if to telegraph the kind of lifestyle conferred by purchase. Frieze, with its open layout, was especially prone to creating this impression: the booths had been individually furnished by each gallery, and there was an array of high-end coffee tables, work desks, love seats, and benches.
Gallerists occupied their respective perches, the vast majority of them concentrating intensely on laptops or iPads, as if, driven out from their usual posts behind concealing gallery desks, they did not know what to do with themselves. Occasionally, seeing a well-dressed lingerer intently studying a piece, one would approach, with studied casualness. (Substitute “I bet this sofa would look great in your living room” for “It’s really a beautiful piece, isn’t it?” and you have the typical pitch.)
But art-fair commercialism also has a kinder side. In recent years, perhaps as half-conscious rejoinder to the staggering amounts of money dedicated to the fairs—according to a recent New Yorker article, the most expensive booth at Frieze went for a total of $84,000, pricey rent for four days, even by New York standards—organizers have begun to commission works directly from artists. Theaster Gates was the official commissioned artist at this year’s Armory show, while the PULSE fair, held at Chelsea’s Metropolitan Pavilion over the same weekend as Frieze, included several “Pulse Projects” including Shannon Gillen’s BOTLEK, “an in-depth physical analysis of the international shipping industry” in the form of a dance cycle.
Frieze committed to a raft of commissioned or special projects for its New York fair, which, even if those works only comprised a small fraction of the art on view (or being viewed), suggested that the fair organizers were, at least to some extent, in it for the art, that they were after all interested in non-buyers (most of the special works were not for sale) and that maybe one got something for that $40 after all.
Frame, a section of the fair devoted to mini-solo-shows for young artists, was intended to allow “visitors and collectors to see work by artists who have not previously benefitted from an international platform to show their work.” Many of these shows—like Samara Golden’s mixed-media installations of mirrors and cameras, in L.A.’s Night Gallery booth, or the rigorously conceptual work of the Mexican artist Antonio Vega Macotela, recently included in the New Museum’s Triennial and here shown by Steve Turner Contemporary, another L.A. gallery—potentially flirted with rejecting collectability, given their awkward formats and performative or ephemeral nature. Vega Macotela is best known for Time Exchange, a project involving his collaboration with prison inmates, the artist carrying out a task on behalf of an inmate in exchange for the prisoner executing the artist’s instructions for cataloging his possessions or carving a bar of soap, all with the aim of undoing traditional capitalist systems. At the fair, Vega Macotela was showing the results of his practice, a video, Dog to God, priced, according to the Frieze website, at $10,000-$40,000.
But if this suggested an almost comical tension between resistance and collaboration, such tension was in itself exciting and interesting. (After all, as Andy Warhol—the patron-saint of the art fair—famously remarked, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.) Another fair-specific attraction, Frieze Projects, included works specifically commissioned to engage with the history and geography of Randall’s Island. Virginia Overton wedged acrylic mirrors into random trees around the island, resulting in an effect as lovely as it was uncanny, and Ulla von Brandenburg staged a shadow play, set to sweepingly operatic music, inside a striped tent on the fair grounds. There was even a trailer of carnivalesque games (pictured above), installed by Joel Kyack, its sign pessimistically proclaiming that “Most Games Are Lost Not Won.” (Those few who did win would receive one of the painted mirrors decorating the trailer). Rick Moody contributed what the Projects curator Cecilia Alemani termed “a site-specific short story,” called “The Undependable Global Positioning System.” It opens with the announcement, “Warning! Do not attempt to use this device to travel from one location to another, as this device has no love for destination.” He read the story on Saturday as part of Frieze Talks (a recording of the story was also played, in rotation with other sound-based projects, in BMWs conveying V.I.P.s to the fair.)
These works, notably, weren’t for sale (though the sponsors for the Projects—this year, it was British fashion line Mulberry—would be delighted to sell you things), and, in walking around the park, casual visitor and collector were, for a moment, made equals in their mutual appreciation of art’s capacity to surprise and argue and persuade. (There was also a sculpture park, featuring large-scale installations cannily inserted into the landscape, like a clutch of Louise Bourgeois beehive-like structures suspended from tree branches.)
One of the Projects in particular exploited the friction at the intersection of art and commerce. The re-creation of John Ahearn’s 1979 exhibition “South Bronx Hall of Fame,” was placed among the exhibiting galleries, and had Ahearn, along with his collaborator Rigoberto Torres, making “portraits” by coating subjects’ heads with molding gel, then painting the resulting casts. The results, mounted on the wall around the room, resembled a colorful game-hunter’s den. A sign posted on a nearby wall explained that “[t]his project also functions as a tribute to alternative spaces and galleries that were once vital for the artistic community and have now closed.”
The sign failed to acknowledge the role art fairs, with their exorbitant fees, their increased pressure on artists and galleries, have played in such closings. But this was also what made the drama into art, performing, in booth after booth, the intersection of artistic credibility and profitability, of a day at a non-profit exhibition and a stroll through a meat market. For better, for worse, for some combination of the two, Ahearn’s presence suggested, artists can still make work and live and breathe amid the commerce. Perhaps, if the artist is somebody who makes things people don’t need to have (Warhol again), an art fair is something that ensures people will feel like they need to have such things.
Waiting on the dock for the ferry back to the city to arrive, the sun out in full force, the weather positively resplendent, the entry fee and exorbitant prices nearly faded in the face of a pretty spring day out in the city. Arriving passengers disembarked for their day at the fair, and departees boarded, trooping to the top deck and stretching out on the benches for a view of the city from the water, luckily included in the price of admission.
All photos Linda Nylind. From top: two views of the fair; Joel Kyack, 'Most games are lost, not won' (2012), commissioned and produced by Frieze Projects New York 2012; Louise Bourgeois, 'Untitled' (2004) Hauser & Wirth, The Sculpture Park; John Ahearn, 'South Bronx Hall of Fame' (2012), commissioned and produced by Frieze Projects New York 2012
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