Every October Frieze London delivers all sorts of extracurricular action around the city—openings, cocktails, dinners, and the like—but this year the scene feels particularly frenetic, with two grand new arrivals on the scene: Gagosian’s third and largest gallery in the capital, in Mayfair, and Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, which is to showcase his private collection.
Ultimately, though, everyone is here for the fair, which opened to invited guests on Tuesday. Those VIPs took in work from 164 galleries from 27 countries, a sprawling sculpture park, and even an AirBnB-style pavilion where weary patrons could rest on mattresses under blankets printed with soothing messages like “Sleep with Me” or “I Touch You While You Sleep.” Dreamed up by the four-man art collective ÅYR and titled Comfort Zone, this odd space was one of Frieze’s special projects.
Frieze is now in its 13th year, and the ambitions of its organizers have always been to create something weighty, something that transcends being a mere shopping event, the “Ikea for millionaires.” And indeed, wandering into the massive white pavilion in Regent’s Park, which looks like a cross between a wedding tent and an airport hangar, you might think you’d stumbled into something much more clever—the London biennale, maybe, if there were such a thing.
Artists like Ellen Gallagher and Lawrence Weiner are sitting on panels with critics and art figures like
It’s all a strong example of how the art market—self-conscious about its own vulgarity, blushing at its own excess—has decided to take on the airs of academia. It doesn’t want to be just a market anymore. It’s not content to be mere entertainment. It wants gravitas, substance. It wants status, the kind of status money can’t buy but it’s going to try anyway, with a frankly impressive lineup of art talks, expert panels, and films that would inspire envy in the curatorial department of any kunsthaus in the world.
This aspiration for intellectual heft has been creeping into top-echelon art fairs for years now, but nowhere has it become clearer than at Frieze 2015. “I think [the organizers] are trying to distinguish themselves a bit from the other art fairs. They’re taking a more considered, more curatorial approach,” said Maureen Paley, owner of the London gallery of the same name, whose stand was showing a new painting by David Salle. “The lines between art fairs and biennales are blurring,” said Mario Cader-Frech, a Miami collector. “The fairs are trying to become institutions, and then you go to Venice and most of the national pavilions are sponsored by galleries. The distinction is breaking down.”
At heart, however, Frieze is still about buying and selling art. And if you don’t mind the perfumed crowds of tech billionaires and business titans, it can be marvelous fun. There are few places on earth with more fantastic paintings on sale in such a small area.
At the stand operated by the New York and London gallery David Zwirner, you can sink into the luscious beauty of a Chris Ofili painting in black and flecks of yellow called Midnight Cocktail (2015). Turn around and you’ll see Kerry James Marshall’s painting of a woman painting her toenails, which, despite its garish colors and the woman’s smile, feels strangely bleak. At the stand of Mexico City gallery Kurimanzutto, the artist Abraham Cruzvillegas (whose Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern also opened Tuesday) has papered over a corner with hundreds of pieces of consumer detritus—newspaper clippings, coupons, yogurt lids, bus tickets—that have been painted over with silver acrylic paint to create a work of glittering, delicate beauty.
At the fourth edition of Frieze Masters, a sister fair in a separate pavilion across Regent’s Park, its roughly 130 galleries are offering work primarily by Old Masters and modernists, with at least half a dozen stands selling pieces by the Argentine-born Italian postwar artist Lucio Fontana.
The stand run jointly by Luhring Augustine of New York and Galería Franco Noero of Turin has six works by the Brazilian artist Tunga, who, being born in 1952, is on the younger end of artists at Frieze Masters, which has gradually welcomed in more contemporary work with each edition. His works include a great, sensual sweep of copper-wire hair being combed by a copper comb the size of a sofa, like a blingy version of a Claes Oldenburg.
Amid all the good, there is a surprising number of duds and retreads. Back over at Frieze, at the stand run by the London and Hong Kong gallery White Cube (they have shuttered their São Paulo location), there is a 2015 piece in pink neon by Tracey Emin that reads, “You Made Me Feel Beautiful Again!” It looks indistinguishable from work she was doing in the YBA days of the 1990s, but then some artists make a good business going in circles.
And there are whole areas of contemporary art, whole mediums, that are almost completely absent from Frieze, as they are from so many fairs. Video and sound art get little play, and even photography doesn’t have much of a presence. Big-ticket artists making edgy, political work, from Kara Walker to Theaster Gates to Ai Weiwei, seem to be also almost completely missing. (I saw only one work by Ai Weiwei, and a pretty harmless one at that, a purple-painted model of a tree trunk called Iron Root ,2015, at the stand run by Lisson Gallery.)
At the end of the day, Frieze would seem to be about painting. That’s not a bad thing—there’s lots of good painting under the tent. But it’s in indication that no matter how much the organizers try to adopt the airs of a cultural institution, they know their market.
Roger Atwood is a London correspondent for ARTnews.