Yard Sale

Domenick Ammirati on Frieze Week 2021

A Mungo Thomson work in Karma Gallery’s booth at Frieze New York. Photo: Casey Kelbaugh/Frieze.

FRIEZE’S LITTLE CARNIVAL SNUCK UP ON US, much like Andrew Yang’s mayoral campaign. Fellow New Yorkers, I implore you, do not space on the primary election (June 22), and do not vote for this jovial empty suit. Perhaps his support for the recent Israeli violence in Palestine will have gotten your attention? The motherfucker will trade affordable housing for the Olympics or an Iron Dome. It will just be Bloomberg 2.0, which resulted in criminal offenses like Hudson Yards.

Hudson Yards, coincidentally, was the site of this year’s Frieze art fair, which abandoned Randall’s Island for the first time since its inaugural New York edition a near-decade ago. One assumes the reason was money (they hold it in a tent, a structure not exactly immune to air circulation). The synergy of desperation between the two behemoths, both harpooned by the pandemic, produced a symbolism around the event perfect for contemporary audiences, who savor brazenness glazed with an inframince layer of irony, rolling it around in the mouth before swallowing it whole. Luxury housing, luxury mall, luxury goods available for purchase in a luxury would-be museum. (I half think that the Vessel was closed not because people were jumping off but because there’s no markup on suicide).

The fair itself—the first major such event held in person since the pandemic began—was manageably small, sixty-four galleries instead of the some one hundred ninety it had hosted last time around, in 2019. There were no little boats to ride, just the view on approach from the High Line, whence the Shed looms in the distance like an exquisitely detailed digital rendering. Attendance was capped and tickets presold, the aisles populated with perfect algorithmic calibration. Designated two-hour time slots, masks, temperature guns, more check-ins than an airport after 9/11: All felt totally reasonable, even banal, in the way that everything that we thought might feel strange during the end of the world has automatically seemed so normal.

Frieze New York at the Shed. Photo: Casey Kelbaugh/Frieze.

Because attendance is not correlated with commerce, the small size of the crowd was a blessing for the dealers—they looked less sweaty and haggard than usual—but it was lousy for ambiance. It depends on what you like, of course, but if you derive any pleasure whatsoever from a fair, you have a taste for mania, and the absence of a buzzing, colliding crowd put the whole experience on mute. Without the swivet, the experience was like walking through a mall with temporary walls and very expensive products where I couldn’t afford a pair of shoelaces, and mostly wouldn’t want to.

The actual mall at Hudson Yards was, on the other hand, bold, explicitly dumb, perfectly turned out in its mode of choice, and shameless, like a good follow on social media. I’d never been. A store in an atrium proclaims, with its logo in a curvy and glaring green ’60s font, CAMP. Brooks Brothers and Cremieux stand conveniently close to each other, selling the worsted wool and loafers that will someday clothe an aspiring art blogger, after a stop in a vintage shop or two or three. The Spanish-themed basement food court greets you with a cheery HOLA AMIGOS; as a white man, I felt so welcome. The aisles have charming names like “Calle Bernardo Gálvez,” named for a colonial governor of Spanish Louisiana and Cuba who first feathered his cap by slaughtering Din’é out west. At Hudson Yards, this passes for a land acknowledgment.

At the Art in America dinner. Photo by author.

After the fair, I went to a dinner in celebration of the excellent all-Black issue of Art in America guest-edited by writer Antwaun Sargent, recently tapped for a director/curator position at Gagosian. I was professionally photographed as I stood next to a genuinely fashionable person, but because my hair has not been cut in six months and my mask of choice, the KN95, has unfortunate medical associations, the image has so far failed to grace the tabloids. And so on.

The problem with writing columns like this is that it implies things are back to normal, which (1) Are they? (2) If so, for whom? It seems telling that the sexiest party of Frieze Week was thrown by Wet Paint, an Artnet gossip column that serves upmarket scoops peppered with dollar signs and the occasional scandal on the side (all impressively executed, to be fair). The same night’s other party of note, meanwhile, had been organized by the number one flack of the Bungalow 8 era and took place at the home of macroeconomist Nouriel Roubini, whose credits include a stint with the Clinton White House and predicting the collapse of the housing market in 2007. They call it the dismal science for a reason.

Here’s what back to normal meant at the Wet Paint soirée: guiltily avoiding people whose names you suddenly inexplicably can’t remember; being ignored by people you do know; waiting patiently for people to stop insufflating ketamine, presumably, in the toilet; ordering two drinks at the open bar after a long wait in line (we all do that, right?). Also totally normal, yet something I’d somehow forgotten: the bracing sensation of being looked up and down repeatedly as you enter a room. The rooftop lounge where the party was held was designed as if precisely for this ritual; to reach the bar from the entrance, you must walk a long, narrow path between the wall and a number of sequestered cabana booths, treading in a file past the private boxes. Being eyeballed is not necessarily unbearable; it can be refreshing, like a plunge into a cold creek in the summer, or erotic. But one likes to be prepared for it. I didn’t realize NYC was quite that far back, baby, already.

In another worrying development—and one obscurely linked, in my mind—relational aesthetics appear to have returned. Recent examples are as various as the community remembrance shelf at Performance Space and Marie Karlberg’s bar at a peculiarly ’90s feeling show at Chinatown gallery Tramps. That return seems inevitable when you consider that we’ve all been sculpting our social space for years now in the form of social media. It’s like we all went to RISD and majored in scene-making, except we learned something. The surge of persona as key, even primary, to an artist’s value is an offshoot of relational aesthetics. Like signifier and signified, the brand cannot be detached from the product; and so every appearance is selling; and so every social engagement is a promotion. None of which is news, exactly. But when you see the glamour shots—even your own, on the photo agency’s website, which may be purchased for multiuse digital license at the low price of $375—it’s hard not to think, Oh, so this is what you wanted. People don’t want to be the misfits after all; they want to be the fits.

Chloë Sevigny’s offering at Tramps gallery. Photo by author.

Or they’re cast as them, whether they like it or not. The mascot of Frieze Week 2021 unexpectedly turned out to be Chloë Sevigny. This torchbearer of downtown past was somehow nominated (through no apparent campaign of her own) to light the next generation’s path toward a brighter future, which if Frieze week is any indication, might look a lot like twenty years ago. At Bortolami, a participant in Saturday’s TriBeCa gallery walk, she appears in an exhibition of nude sketches on found cardboard by one of Dash Snow’s old graffiti crew (so too, does Dan Colen, a man whose dick I had imagined I’d never have to see again). At Frieze, walking by the Half Gallery booth, I overheard its proprietor telling a customer nonchalantly—that is, pointedly—“Chloë came by.” She turned up in the exhibition at Tramps, showing a lock of her son’s hair bound in pink ribbon bow, laid across a loose pile of rose-scented tea leaves under a little cylinder of Plexi. It was the best thing I saw all week—precious, redolent, distant, and with a hint of augury. And the day after the rooftop party and its Corridor of Long Stares, Sevigny appeared as that event’s avatar in Page Six, standing in for something eternally thirsted after by the art world—an honest-to-god celebrity.