Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator, and writer. The opinions expressed here are his own.
On the heels of the Frieze art fair in London, I was off to FIAC in Paris, a breather before November’s monster modern and contemporary art auctions in New York. FIAC, which has been spiffed up over the past decade and returned to its exquisite digs in the Grand Palais, ranks among the world’s longest running and most prestigious contemporary art fairs. It also happens to be celebrating its 40th birthday this year. But 40 is the new 30, and FIAC marked the occasion with little fanfare, unless you count the erection of a 79 foot green inflatable Paul McCarthy sculpture in the posh Place Vendôme that was called Tree but could just as easily have been one of his monumental butt plugs. And Tree didn’t last long. Before the fair even opened, some unimpressed citizen had deflated the thing. This after someone reportedly slapped McCarthy (I can think of others in the art world far worthier of a slap) and told him, “You’re not French and this has no place in the square.” His crime would appear to be not being a French butt plug artist. All I can say is, in this case, at least people are reacting to the art, and not the auction results!
No one let the air out of FIAC, which had, as in past years, a lot of top-quality art. But apart from the McCarthy brouhaha, the French fair was subdued compared to Frieze. Not that FIAC’s exhibitors, many of whom were coming straight off Frieze, didn’t make just as big an effort in setting up their booths and bringing lots of art. They did, but the mood was more laid back and chatty. Even Gavin Brown was nice to me which, admittedly, was a little unsettling. (Not so Herb Schorr of Basquiat-collecting fame. He wouldn’t shake my hand when I extended it, to which I replied: “You can stay at my house and cook in my kitchen but not touch my hand?”)
Paris’s own Almine Rech continued the trend of forgoing wall labels identifying the art in her booth. I’ve found this annoying trend at play more and more often not only at fairs, but in galleries. Folks, let’s not forget that this is a commercial enterprise. Rech, who just opened a London branch, is on a tear. She recently poached Ayan Farah and, at FIAC, Kadar Brock, from Toby Clarke’s vigorous micro London start-up Vigo Gallery. Brock is the perfect artist for my own hectic household: he sands down his pale paint-on-canvas abstractions until they’re threadbare and riddled with holes and therefore bullet proof in terms of future damage.
Also at Rech were examples from highflier Alex Israel’s ongoing series of cartoonish silhouette self-portraits. These began, a few years ago, as outlined blocks of color. Over the course of successive fairs, they have grown to incorporate a Hallmark Card-kitschy pier scene. For FIAC, Israel had introduced a director’s chair superimposed over his face, yet another reference to his home base of Los Angeles. Israel’s series has become, in effect, a form of art-fair art. Rather than going out on a limb and offering brand new bodies of work at fairs, artists are instead making incremental tweaks. Which is understandable—but I’m ready to be wowed anew.
Elsewhere at FIAC, disappointingly, Ugo Rondinone, an artist of whom I’m otherwise a big fan, was showing, at Eva Presenhuber and other booths, a series of miniature shaped paintings that are dead ringers for Israel’s Flat Paintings. Are these a joke? And what about all those Jean-Michel Othoniels you see everywhere these days, which resemble sex toys more than any McCarthy piece does. Enough already!
The Nahmad Gallery was dating younger in Paris, showcasing Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince, and Wade Guyton as opposed to the usual Picasso, Calder, Miró, and Fontana. The Guyton appeared to be the very piece from Christie’s May sale in New York that, word on the selling floor had it, may or may not belong to known Nahmad friend Leo DiCaprio.
Then there was Moroccan-born Latifa Echakhch’s roundels, which look like Lucien Smith rain paintings or Nate Lowman bullet holes without the articulation. I’m not so sure about her prices, but with her pieces on display at so many different galleries (Presenhuber, Dvir, Kamel Mennour) you get the sense of something congealing, even if only in a market sense. Though I grew to dislike these works, I found I had a fondness for Echakhch’s hanging-cloud works, which I didn’t notice until my 15-year-old pointed them out to me later on Instagram.
A more solid bet, market-wise, were the Philip Guston paintings at New York’s McKee gallery, a continuation of the terrific display McKee mounted at Frieze Masters in London. I would go so far as to call an $850,000 painting of shoe soles (The Window, 1971) free money compared to the value you get at around the same price for artwork by many of today’s young’uns.
Due to galleries’ booths being packed in close together—or maybe it’s some quirk of the acoustics in the Grand Palais—it’s easy to overhear gems from fairgoers (“I only go where there is money or love.”) and dealers (at L.A.’s Kordansky Gallery’s solo show of Jon Pestoni: “Its not only a conflation of cognitive dissonance but a topographic way of looking at pictures beyond the signifier. A divergence from Cézanne’s envelope of ambiance and attitude but with a consummate catalogue of emotions.”) Listening in at Kordansky, I was lost until I heard the dealer revert, in hushed tones, to the tried and true: “I shouldn’t say this but one work is going to [major collection in Berlin].”
According to one art advisor, Rich Aldrich’s works, at Barbara Gladstone and Bortolami galleries, were selling well because they “look like Rauschenbergs, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” and also happen to look overvalued in the region of $100,000, compared to, say, the offerings at Luhring Augustine: Josh Smith’s palm tree paintings, at $80,000 and Jeff Elrod for a little bit less. Both of those artists are, it’s worth noting, fairly priced in relation to many of their overheated peers.
But in today’s market, what’s old becomes new again. And again and again. Over at Turin’s Galleria Franco Noero was Henrik Olesen’s photo-collage, Teaching About Gender, priced at €15,000 (about $19,100) plus tax and comprised of an image of Vito Acconci engaged in one of his legendary performances. Numerous artists these days seem to be profiting from Acconci’s legacy, especially Marina Abramovic, while Vito, whose work I’ve shown on many occasions, continues to struggle to find a solid collecting base.
These kinds of things, and other things at art fairs invariably get me down and I usually plan an early-exit strategy, but this time I decided to stick around and visit the ineptly named OFF(ICIELLE), FIAC’s foray into the satellite fair business. This off-site event was a venue for young galleries and emerging artists, whose work, despite my griping, I have a weakness for. I also have a weakness for paintings. Just before FIAC, I’d put on hold a painting by up-and-coming California based painter Joe Reihsen at another Paris-based gallery, Praz-Delavallade, for around $12,000. But then I was able to secure some pieces by Reihsen from Milan’s Brand New Gallery, so I removed the hold with Praz-Delavallade, and immediately felt terrible about it. What was this? Jewish guilt? Anyway, OFF(ICIELLE) turned out to be a less-than-successful experiment. I’m generally a fan of the casual junk-shop stroll, on a hunt for treasures. But for the most part here you had grad school-ish art so lackluster that around a quarter of the booths were unattended when I arrived on day three of OFF(ICIELLE)’s five-day run. There were lots of knockoffs of the expensive brand-name stuff at the main FIAC fair, including soups du jour Rauschenberg, Christopher Wool and Rudolf Stingel.
There were, however, a few nice finds. Angel Otero’s cadmium pigment and silicone works on raw canvas, priced at $20,000 to $30,000 apiece, stood out at Kavi Gupta Gallery. (And I’m not just saying that because Gupta is a fellow classic car nut about to inaugurate a Concours d’Elegance showcase in Chicago.) Also of note was the installation by Amalia Ulman at Ltd Los Angeles Gallery (or ltdlosangeles as they’d rather be known, ugh), a funky updated take on Joseph Cornell employing noticeboards, tapestries, and digital prints.
The day before I left Paris, I popped into a tiny restaurant where I bumped into an American collecting couple I first met back in 1990, when I was a roaming curator/gallerist in New York. (I never managed to sell them anything—I’ve always been a lousy, hesitant art dealer). Over the years, they have remained serious, focused and—crucially—non-selling. Currently bigger and grander than it’s ever been, the art market gets bigger and grander by the minute, but these old-school collectors are as steadfast and determined as they were in the ’90s, when the market was in the throes of a nasty, prolonged recession, one that was deeper and broader by far than the short-lived downturn that began in 2008. Today’s art market, by stark contrast, seems almost alarmingly immune to the dark tide of current events. What could stop it? One pictures a packed Christie’s salesroom next month, with bidders clad in hazmat suits, paddles waving away.