4-7 May 2012 saw the first Frieze Art Fair in New York, it exhibited work of 180 contemporary art galleries from around the world. The Frieze Fair started in London a decade ago, it is essentially a trade fair for art but works well as an exhibition space.
Here is an exhilarating account from artist and bookmaker Lillian Wilkie, our woman on the ground.
(Image taken from ArtInAmerica magazine)
A crowd is gathered around a middle-aged man who is lying, chin lifted to the ceiling, in a reclining chair. His features are obscured by a thick layer of glutinous plaster, and two truncated drinking straws extend from his nostrils. Slowly, the artist John Ahearn guides the man to an upright position and then – a collective intake of breath – further forward, allowing a perfect cast of the man’s face to disengage and ease into the hands of a waiting assistant. The crowd applauds; the man appears dazed and somewhat relieved, testing out a range of facial expressions while rising from the chair.
John Ahearn repeated this procedure dozens of times in the spring of 1979, casting the faces of friends, street characters and neighbors of the South Bronx arts space Fashion Moda, where he based his practice. Now, over thirty years later, he has been invited to recreate the seminal South Bronx Hall of Fame not in Fashion Moda, but in a 250,000 square foot white tent snaking along the East River, the largest free-standing temporary structure in the United States, and for five days in May, the US home of the Frieze Art Fair.
Ahearn and long-time collaborator Rigoberto Torres were invited by curator Cicilia Alemani to take part in Frieze Projects, the specially commissioned programme of installations, performances and happenings designed to complement or, in many cases critique, the customary model of the commercial art fair. The Fair, launched in London in 2003, has found its success in engaging not just gallerists and collectors but the general public too. The Projects, along with an extensive programme of talks and screenings, provide accessible platforms for interactivity and exchange, eschewing the glossiness of the gallery booths and championing alternative arts spaces and practices. The inaugural Frieze New York also featured a charming, uncanny field of tumbleweeds courtesy of Latifa Echakhch, and choral painting workshops for local children conducted by Tim Rollins and K.O.S, amongst other projects by Uri Aran, Joel Kyack, Rick Moody, Virginia Overton and Ulla von Brandenburg.
Latifa Echakhch’s tumbleweed installation (photo by Liz Gwinn taken from here)
Back inside the gently meandering tent, conceived by Brooklyn design team SO-IL, 180 different galleries from around the world were represented alongside an area dedicated to arts publishing, interposed with classy drinking and dining options championing local produce, such as Roberta’s wood fired pizza. More open, linear and accessible than the London space, the gentle curves of the tent created open ‘wedges’ for congregation, respite, and er, Mark Ruffalo grilling sausages on the preview day. The gallery displays shone, with more space and scope for playfulness. Most exciting was the Frame section, where young galleries established less than six years ago showcased a single artists each, many at the very beginning of their careers. Vincent Vulsma’s Jacquard loom tapestries – inspired by the rich African textiles photographed by Walker Evans in the 1935 MoMA exhibition African Negro Art – provided a quiet moment of reflection and resolution at the Friedlander Gallery booth. Gallerist Steve Turner was on hand to discuss a project by Mexican artist Antonio Vega Macotela on show in his own booth, where the front page of a Mexico City newspaper was used to construct a highly public yet decidedly coded performance piece examining the ambiguity of language and ideology across Mexico’s drug cartels and military groups. With less of an emphasis on retail, the Frame section gave visitors the opportunity to engage on a more intimate level with a singular project, often with the curator or gallerist present to provide insight.
Elsewhere the big guns provided reliable value for money, with Anish Kapoor’s sensual and inviting heliacal dishes at Lisson Gallery, and David Zwirner providing a who’s-who of American minimalism with works by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and John McCracken, in a display which struck me as at once authoritative and highly therapeutic. The smaller London galleries showed well, with provocative work at both Seventeen and Approach Gallery and a daring display at Limoncello, where tarnished copper walls framed Matt Golden’s giant, gravity-defying dragonfly.
(photo from Arrested Motion)
For the most part, a visit culminates at the southernmost tip of the tent, which is largely given over to various VIP champagne bars and, more welcome, a large bookshop and book arts vitrine curated by Walther König. Jay Joplin’s White Cube Gallery also commandeers a considerable square footage in this area, linchpinned by the impassive fish, suspended in their voyage, of Damien Hirst’s Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purposes of Understanding. It was Hirst who appeared on the first front cover of Frieze Magazine in 1991, and the magazine’s success essentially grew with him and the other YBAs, providing a platform for their dialogues and the promotion of their early work. Hirst even curated an exhibition called ‘Freeze’ in 1988 whilst still at Goldsmiths, showcasing work by YBAs including Matt Collishaw and Sarah Lucas, a fact that won’t have escaped Frieze founders Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp.
White Cube’s booth seems a succinct conclusion to the fair; this is big business after all and there are no pretensions to the contrary. But the optimism and ambition of the early 1990s are an interesting foil through which to look at trends in the art world today, at a time of recession. And we are also are brought back to the beginnings of the Frieze story. Art fairs seem to be the events that everyone loves to hate, but it’s hard not to be impressed by how far this one has come; crossing not just the Atlantic but out of the stuffy and elitist world of art trade shows like the Armory and into public cultural consciousness.
You can check out Lillian Wilkie’s blog here
The New York Frieze will no doubt be back next year, in the meantime the London show will be on 11-14 October. Well worth a visit!