“If any gallery tells you they’re doing well but their neighbors are doing poorly, don’t listen,” advised one veteran insider the night before the fair. “What it really means is that they’re the ones that are doing poorly.” Ruses, euphemisms, and circumspect sales pitches are the beloved lingo of every fair, even one as hip and unflappable as Frieze. Nobody was willing to rat out their neighbors this round (there’s always Miami), but many dealers admitted that they had arrived in London “expecting the worst”—though by the end of Wednesday, they also claimed that the worst was held at bay.
At the 11 AM VVIP preview, the ranks were thin; speaking to the pervasive market anxiety, many saw this as the first ominous sign of impending doom, while others (perhaps more convincingly) credited Frieze’s notoriously exclusive VIP list. That said, Charles Saatchi, Dasha Zhukova, Dakis Joannou, and Frank Cohen were all spotted pacing the stands, though none I spoke to mentioned any purchases. This being dizzy London, I wasn’t surprised to count as many celebrities as collectors: George Michael, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sienna Miller, Sofia Coppola, Kate Bosworth, and members of Duran Duran all poked about during the early hours of the preview. Coppola, less reticent than most collectors, was even happy to mention a few faves, including Victoria Morton’s paintings at Sadie Coles and Roe Ethridge’s photographs at Andrew Kreps.
The art wasn’t so political, but the people often were; Obama fever ripples through the art world on this side of the Atlantic as well. Paltrow, sporting an Elizabeth Peyton–designed BARACK IS BEAUTIFUL pin, wasn’t shy about her intentions. “They still haven’t sent me my absentee ballot,” sighed the London-based star. “I’m beginning to get suspicious.” Three weeks before the election, Obama pins were the accessory of the moment, with Studio Museum director Thelma Golden and numerous others working their own, too. (If art-world McCainiacs exist, they’ve made themselves scarce.)
The tone of the fair was arguably decided some weeks (or months) earlier, when dealers finalized their inventory lists: few videos, lots of salable prints and paintings, nothing in the way of provocative Art Fair Art declarations. “The days of selling videos for $150,000 are over,” chimed one prominent dealer. (But if Larry Gagosian has anything to say about it, you can still sell a Richard Prince “Nurse” painting for seven million dollars.) With even big-statement stalwart Gavin Brown taking the safe route (qua some admittedly handsome prints by Eduardo Paolozzi and paintings by Jonathan Horowitz and Rob Pruitt, among others), the fair’s playful prestidigitations have largely been relegated to Frieze’s program of commissioned artist projects, a short-circuiting of the Art Fair Art economy that suggests a silent co-opting of the whole enterprise: What is Art Fair Art, after all, if not an affirmation of the artist-dealer partnership?
“I just lost two hours at Sirkus,” enthused a peripatetic Rome-based curator, commenting on Kling & Bang’s faithful re-creation of the defunct Icelandic bar. If fun, the piece was a limited statement at best. (By now, reconstructed bars constitute their own special subset of art.) Bert Rodriguez’s Where You End and I Begin, an amateur foot-massage stand manned by the artist himself, was more penetrating, if still a bit too nice. “I wanted to do the massages out in the open to reflect mall culture, which is all this is, essentially,” Rodriguez said while rubbing my feet. “But because I’m not a professional, I also see myself as something like a helpful friend or a lover after a long day.”
The hands-down coup of this year’s projects was Cory Arcangel’s Golden Ticket. Ingeniously echoing Willy Wonka’s sly selection mechanism, the work, which involved persuading fair organizers to send chocolate bars to each of the galleries whose applications was rejected, takes as its subject the delicate ecology of the fair’s vetting process. One “lucky” gallery, in this case Milanese dealers Studiò di Giovanna Simonetta, was awarded a golden ticket, allowing it a free booth at the fair (if you don’t count costs for shipping and walls); the booth was also specially marked on the map as a “Frieze Project,” making it simultaneously a celebrity and a pariah in the midst of the capitalist jungle. “A lot of journalists have come by,” said director Arianna Di Nuzzo, ambivalent about and a bit fatigued from all the attention. “But it really is a great opportunity, and we’re taking it as such.” If the work evokes Roald Dahl’s classic tale, it also brought to mind Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery”; it’s a double-edged sword that encapsulates the fair’s unique blend of cynicism and whimsy.
By the end of the day, I still hadn’t heard of anyone selling out their booth, though a rumor (later confirmed) had it that “Thomas Dane almost sold out.” “Cautious optimism” seemed to be the viral boilerplate asserted by dealers around the fair. “C’mon—don’t use the Sarah Palin standard,” railed one fired-up New York consultant in the VIP lounge. “You can’t call the fair a success just because the tent hasn’t burned down!” Some took all the nay-saying with a grain of salt. “Everyone’s just being dramatic,” said veteran dealer Daniel Buchholz, rolling his eyes. “This economic mess will all be over by January.” Others found a silver lining amid the gloom and doom. As Marc Foxx’s Rodney Hill noted, “The vibe during installation was just fabulous. The economy is really humbling—it brings everyone together.”
October in the last extant stable society. After the fair, I rushed to a Rockefeller Foundation dinner for the Bellagio Fellowships hosted at the Langham Hotel (a site of Bosie and Oscar Wilde’s famous dalliances). As Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones introduced a series of speakers, affluent guests enjoyed an endless flow of wine and a divine mint sorbet and cake dessert. Service was impeccable in the way that only grand old hotels can manage; as I left, the Landau’s restaurant manager helped me to put on my coat. With the cost of the affair, one hazards that they could have sponsored a whole other fellowship. But that’s not the way of the system—and the system wouldn’t have it any other way. “Art and drugs are the last remaining unregulated markets in capitalism,” artist Pavel Büchler later opined. “Those economies will survive just fine.” For better or worse, the frills, the VIP pandering, the stuffy dinners, and the contrived and overcrowded parties aren’t going anywhere—and neither is the art.