Randall’s Island, Manhattan
14-17 May 2015
Art Miami New York
Pier 94, New York
14-17 May 2015
by JILL SPALDING
In its fourth iteration, Frieze New York is ageing – maturing, the preferred word – into a cultural signifier. Pointing the way to the art fair of tomorrow with a model that targeted both sales and education, the chalk-white, canvas serpent, billed as the world’s largest freestanding tent, enveloped galleries big and small, a sound section, a conversations programme, interactive and performance work, and a non-profit programme of artist commissions, to position itself less as a fair than a cultural centre. Though a lofty ambition, it is not clear that Randall’s Island – or New York for that matter – is the venue for such a model. Yes, new power galleries signed on, such as Marian Goodman and Acquavella, and those willing to spend the day on this islet could have happily immersed themselves in thoughtfully prepared talks and intensive soundscapes, but it speaks to our fast in/fast out era that the fair’s major interest remained in art of the kind that arrives in crates – what sold, what was new, what was worthy.
A first walk-through reassured and disappointed. Names long familiar held few surprises, though I was struck by how fresh the work looked of such as Ken Price and Sam Francis; a sweep of Richard Tuttle’s new work at Pace showed the old master acing new tricks; and a survey of John McCracken’s flamed resins at Zwirner lit their surroundings like new pennies. Refreshingly curbed was the still-trending spectacle-art that spreads out from the walls to literally stop you in your tracks. Exceptions were a couple of the still-ubiquitous pieced mirror-works aimed at the selfie generation; a few overly clever installations such as those by Josef Strau at Greene Naftali grouping the sort of disparate objects culled from thrift stores; and, at Galeria Jaqueline Martins, Martha Araújo’s – hopefully – satirical take (it won the $15,000/£9,700 Champagne Pommery prize for most innovative stand) on our interactive art moment, which loaned visitors a suit patched with Velcro and set them loose on an alarmingly steep Velcro-clad ramp.
The actual showstoppers – two from the projects programme – were more intricate. Two immense LED works coincidentally faced each other at the entrance; the more accomplished, Ian Cheng’s Emissary in the Squat of Gods (2015), presented a “live simulation” of human consciousness as a decision-making technology. Pia Camil’s Wearing/watching turned performance art inside out, as visitors who lined up to be given a poncho painted by the artist and sewn by a Mexican collective, wore them – living artworks – as they wandered through the fair. A more cynical work by Jonathan Horowitz paid 700 visitors $20 to paint, as instructed, 6in black dots on white canvases, which he then hung in seven groups of 100, each priced at $100,000. More diverting was Aki Sasamoto’s Coffee/Tea, a 3D maze that riffed on Sol LeWitt and tested your personality according to how you found your way out. More challenging (to the point of having to sign a disclaimer before entering) was a labyrinth recreated by the collective Gelitlin from one conceived in 1976 by the Fluxus group to physically unbalance and disorient you with obstacles such as marbles underfoot, soft stairs and virtual doors that reduced some to banging on the walls for help to get out.
There was more emphasis on diversity than on trend, given the ever-increasing interest in international artists that resulted in more galleries from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Painting on canvas predominated, and sculpture abounded, but video material was scarce and, with such notable exceptions as a Mapplethorpe self-portrait, there was a paucity of photography, due, said one dealer, to the sun-washed tent’s harsh light, but credited by collectors to the poor return of any but the rarest images, given that the cost of showing here is the highest of any fair – even Art Basel.
Seeping into this edition was an haute whiff of curatism – curatorship in artspeak. Long a feature of the biennial, and well-settled into the gallery vernacular of such as Pace, Gagosian, Wirth and Zwirner, it manifested here in tightly edited presentations and the welcome focus on solo shows (that of Giuseppe Penone at Marian Goodman reaching a new level) that radiated gravitas like stones dropped in water. Buzz bubbled to the surface, nonetheless, in a meet-and-greet flow down alleys wide enough to navigate the 190-plus galleries at ease, and the attendance was stellar. I spotted Leonardo DiCaprio, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, collectors Mera and Donald Rubell, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros and Mercedes Bass. And, as has become common, quite a few artists manned their spaces. The dealers, by and large, voiced satisfaction with the turnout, though tinged with anxiety as the fair’s island venue discourages repeat visits, making the VIP opening “must-sell” day.
Still, the collectors I spoke to, alarmed by the prior evening’s sale at Christie’s of $1 billion worth of art, expressed a general feeling of malaise over the soaring prices of “blue-chips”, and lamented the incremental commercialisation of it all. More specifically, many questioned the material’s overall “quality” – a fussy criterion that has crept in for large art fairs – to the detriment, I believe, of the sort of risk-taking presentations that still should be asked of them. There was pushback by fledgling collectors against the pretension of art shown without labels, and the bored indifference of fair-regulars to art they had seen everywhere – another Kehinde Wiley; another Alex Katz. There were the inevitable raised eyebrows: “That’s supposed to be art?” I heard asked of a paint-splattered wooden crate at Peter Blum, and of Nicole Wermer’s (to me, poignant) Untitled Chair series shouldering silver fox jackets that equated endangered species with bygone elegance.
Fairer targets were increasingly fraught installations that add up to nothing, such as Peter Collins’s lizard holding a ball of rice cooked midtown that sold the first day for $90,000; Korakrit Arunanondchai’s paint-splattered massage chairs that you could sit in if you took off your shoes; and the two-sided compilation of carpeted furbishment constituting Andreas Angelidakis’s Crash Pad.
The demotion to the Twitterverse of overly clever signage was made evident by the selfie-sticks obscuring the one lettered EVERYONE IS A COMPLETE DISAPPOINTMENT (2015) and another reading CALIFORNIA OLIVE OIL IS SUPERIOR. Meanwhile, at Gagosian, commenting on the irony of it all, 38 of Richard Prince’s real-life, porno-inflected, ink-jet Instagrams jumped off the wall at $100,000 each.
A second run-through for those with the luxury of time would have balanced out the negatives with discoveries and delights. Here, a hole dug underneath the flooring to lodge one of Daniel Arsham’s tectonic universes: there a masterful installation of Broomberg and Chanarin’s manipulated Russian surveillance portraits. Several Venice Biennale participants – Portia Zvavahera among them – showed major work. There was a strong African presence, most notably Otobong Nkanga’s multimedia installation at Fabienne Leclerc, and stimulating juxtapositions that put both artists in a new context – a standout, at Lehmann Maupin, was Kader Attia’s anthropomorphic swirl of 2,978 beer cans set against a cut-metal mural by Teresita Fernández. The current ceramic exuberance was played out repeatedly – the worlds that Milena Muzquiz fashions into vases and Chris Antemann’s takes on Meissen porcelain the most memorable – and sculpture in fabric by Francoise Grossen and Paola Pivi (whose fluffy polar bear That’s Right You Better Believe It (2015) added feathers) reached for the bar set by Joseph Beuys.
I liked the new Spotlight section that fronted compelling work by both established and emerging artists (grand to see Ibrahim El-Salahi and Rasheed Araeen among them), though I regretted the should-be-passé emphasis on women artists as a category – Shelagh Wakely, Carolee Schneemann and Natalia LL among those so put forth. I was relieved to find 3D-printed objects in abeyance; of the three sculptures that looked suspect, George Condo’s was of bronze, Daniel Silver’s of marble, and only Julieta Aranda’s If a Body Meet a Body (2015) proved to be a resin 3D impression – in three sizes, but an edition of only three. It was heartening to come upon gifted young painters, such as Satoshi Ohno, whose intricate canvases, at Tomio Koyama, distinguished by their intensely original pictorial language. And thrilling to find current “old masters” such as Larry Bell adding strength to strength with probing new work.
Frieze New York’s only unforgiving element remains its remote island venue (word is that they are searching out a different one) as it is accessible only by a $55 round-trip taxicab, the $19 round-trip ferry that leaves from a godforsaken East River pier, or an endless $8 round-trip bus-ride from and back to the upper-eastside Guggenheim Museum, which lets you off nowhere near where you want to go next, namely the Hudson River, the pioneering venue for the first New York debut of Art Miami.
An oxymoron underscored by the chilly temperature’s warning that nothing tropical could ever thrive here, this storied fair from down south took over the Armory Show’s mammoth space at Pier 94 to premiere in Manhattan with the self-confidence of a pro. More than 100 galleries walked a largely young crowd down wide, carpeted alleys fronting work that, known or new, for the most part imparted a vibrancy of colour and purpose. Here, as at Frieze, I noted a preponderance of appropriation, floral pictography and bold abstraction – many presented as “homages”. There was an overwrought assemblage (at Wetterling), highly accomplished painting (Charles Bierk’s photographic illusions) museum-quality sculpture (Arman, John Chamberlain, George Rickey) and knock-your-socks-off amazements (20 years to assemble the Banksy material, said the Keszler Gallery). Startling at first, given the expectation of raw work, was the large number of modern masters, but, with the exception of a muddy Monet Waterlilies that was walled off by ropes, they popped and seduced. As at Frieze, work fashioned from materials once relegated to crafts (ceramics, glass, fabric) commanded attention, although, tellingly for an era committed to enduring investment, all were politically correct and chemically stable – no elephant dung, flank steak or chocolate, unless replicated in resin.
Oddly, at both fairs, it was the in-your-face work, at its origin so refreshing, that felt stale – even, dare I say, newly vulgar. Case in point, the mini-retrospective at Frieze of British artist Linder Sterling’s brash collaged female avatars of soft porn, so amusingly outre in the 70s but, as reprieved today, irretrievably lewd. Across the board, too, appropriation of signatures that trade in the stratosphere looked tediously dated; ceci n’est pas un Monet, un Warhol, un Deborah Butterfield, un Joel Shapiro, un Dorothea Lange, un Peter Beard … Personally, though, I was fine with it all, given that art up for sale, in a world lacking fearless critics, still finds its surest footing in the inevitable realm of “what is, is”. Nonetheless, I was grateful for the scrappy outlier fairs, of which several popped up during Frieze week – and the more established New Art Dealers Alliance, where new art has a chance. Because what I did miss here, as I do at all of the closely curated fairs, is the direct communion between artist and viewer best expressed as “simple gesture” – the artwork equivalent of that offered by Henri Rousseau, who invited a few artists to his studio, and laid out one of his paintings on the floor for them to walk on because he had no carpet.