After the Flood


Left: Gwyneth Paltrow. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Maurizio Cattelan. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

“Art is in the wallet of the beholder,” said author Kathy Lette on Tuesday evening. “I wish that rich people had a longer attention span. It’s easier for them to look at a painting than read a book; you can’t frame The Satanic Verses.” Just then Salman Rushdie emerged from the posh crowd that had converged on the Duchess Palace to celebrate the opening of Anish Kapoor’s show at Lisson Gallery. When I asked him what he thought of the exhibition, Rushdie reflected: “Anish and I share an interest in the continuing power of myth, and I respond strongly to the sensuality of his forms, particularly his ability to remain—what?—lyrical even when he works on an immense scale.” While the literary master was talking, I couldn’t help but be distracted by a scene taking place over his shoulder: Barbara Gladstone in tears, grappling for the words to describe the overwhelming impact of the work to Kapoor himself. “Oh, oh, oh
. . . it’s divine,” she eventually mustered. A round of bear hugs ensued, while a cynical onlooker commented, “She’s just upset that Lisson is making the money on this one.” Nicholas Logsdail, owner of Lisson Gallery, wrinkled his nose when I shared the venal quip, then, after four seasons of facial expressions, he said grandly: “The show is incredibly moving. It evokes the centerless . . . boundless . . . swirling volume of the cosmos."

The next day at 10:45 AM, I was standing on a long ramp with three hundred or so Very VIPs waiting to gain admittance to the fourth annual Frieze Art Fair. Apparently, the organizers want the fair to be a more serious art event, so they devised a new “tiered” strategy of crowd control: one thousand big spenders welcomed at 11 AM, fifteen hundred members of the press admitted at 1 PM, three to four thousand run-of-the-mill VIPs received at 2 PM, and then finally the onslaught of partygoing “private viewers” permitted at 6:30 PM. I’d bagged a plus-one for 11 AM, so I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of a press pass.

Suddenly, the pack was moving, and once through the white block barriers, the Top One Thousand were zipping about, in and out of booths. When I asked art consultant Andrew Renton about his initial impression of this year’s fair, he said: “It’s bigger, better, stronger, faster, richer. Sorry, can’t talk now.” However, at Frieze, where most of the art on sale has been made since 2000, dealers and collectors of more established art were enjoying leisurely promenades, and in general, the pace felt more relaxed than Basel's.

Left: Artists Idris Khan and Candice Breitz. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Gallerist Victoria Miro. (Photo: David Velasco)

Art stockpiler Alberto Mugrabi was sitting for his portrait in an installation called “Painting for Pleasure and Profit” on the White Cube stand, where Jake and Dinos Chapman would, for £4,500 plus VAT, paint your picture in half an hour. The room was adorned with pub wallpaper, dimly lit with two hanging light bulbs, and hosted by a gallery assistant acting as a receptionist. “You’re at 4 PM with Jake,” she said as if booking a cut and blow-dry. “Isn’t this a lark! You must be able to squeeze me in,” said a tall blonde for whom the painters’ fee was clearly small change. Customers for this quick art-labor exchange seemed happy with the results. Upon seeing his portrait, one subject exclaimed, “It’s the dog’s bollocks!” Dinos nodded in agreement and offered, “Yeah. It’s the mutt’s nuts.”

Just then it started to rain. In fact, it bucketed down, and the torrent was deafening. Dealers looked to the heavens, anxious that leaks might damage their wares, while collectors worried, “It’s like Noah’s ark . . . Maybe we’ll be stuck here forever.” Once the downpour petered out, climate conditions were still a major topic of conversation, as the tent heated up and humidity stayed at 98 percent. “Although it’s called Frieze, it’s a ‘hot’ fair—in every sense,” grumbled one sweaty wag.

By this time, I’d found myself in the back-and-beyond of aisles F and G—a mixed neighborhood of younger galleries, many from LA’s Chinatown and London’s Bethnal Green, where I saw party pieces like Untitled (Red White and Blue), 2005, by Ryan McGinley, a photograph whose focal point is a giant, flaccid cock (in the Team Gallery booth), and Hell Mouth, 2006, by Spartacus (aka Lali) Chetwynd, an enormous, roaring gorilla head made out of cardboard boxes (on Herald Street’s stand). Vilma Gold had priced its art in guineas (as part of a conceptual project by artist Michael Stevenson). Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner’s Ur Text, 2006—a kinetic sculpture similar to Ergo Ergot, 2006, installed at Tate Britain’s Turner Prize exhibition—was going for the bargain price of nineteen thousand guineas. In the same hood was the Wrong Gallery. In the corner of their minimal white cube sat a Down syndrome androgyne in front of three objects. The work was jarring; it forced you to shift gears and reflect on the hedonism, superficial beauty, and vacuous velocity of the fair. “The extra chromosome changes your perception of time,” whispered one respectful viewer.

Left: Studio Museum chief curator Thelma Golden. Right: Salman and Milan Rushdie. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

With that, depression set in, and I ricocheted aimlessly around the stands like a numb pinball. I bumped into a secondary-market dealer who told me, “Prices are out of control. I just bought a large late Warhol painting for the cost of a Neo Rauch work on paper.” To which his friend deadpanned, “But that’s not surprising: Warhol was not from Leipzig.” I bounced off a collector who said, apocalyptically, “The art world is running out of material,” then landed at the feet of a curator who commiserated: “The market is like a sex addict, looking for perversity. The whole idea of something new has become old and crusty.”

After a couple of glasses of champagne and a double espresso, my energy picked up. I grabbed the arm of an old buddy and we went in search of the much-talked-about Mike Nelson installation, which, despite its large scale, was nowhere to be found on the map. As we wandered through its series of photographic darkrooms that stank of developing chemicals, the installation reminded us of the diligent production of art in the midst of this mayhem of consumption. Sometimes, it is not so much what you see as when and where you see it, and in this context, the work, entitled Mirror Infill, acted as a curative balm. It also got me to thinking about how darkness is a luxury at a blindingly bright fair where the works are flashed for maximum wow. In fact, the environment was so bright that one might be able to identify a new, fair-specific version of Seasonal Affective Disorder—shall we call it FAD?

After the uneven artistic chaos of the tent, it was a relief to be invited to dinner at a collector’s home, which I’d heard was resplendent with “carefully selected ooh-and-aah works.” Down the street from the fair and around the corner from Jay Jopling’s house, the apartment was a bit “like being in Paris with a tiny bit of Park Avenue.” Inside, I found some twenty of the world’s most significant collectors of contemporary art—all on their best behavior, respectful of the intimacy of the invitation. One man carefully wiped the mark left by his wineglass off the 1938 Jean Royere coffee table. When I asked our French-born hostess about the logic of her guest list, she explained that it was not about “la crème de la crème, but rather just my friends,” adding that “there is something wonderful about having people in your home who give a damn.” In the drawing room, a Philip Guston self-portrait consisting of a giant bloodshot solitary eye with very small ears (Head, 1975) was a good reflection of our collective condition after such a long day. As I gazed admiringly at Robert Gober’s Tilted Playpen, 1986, which our hosts told us they’d bought over ten years ago, a collector joined me and quipped, “Because of prices, we’re going younger and younger.” I was introduced to Allan Schwartzman, perhaps the only art adviser present, as “the great-white hunter of art consultants” and learned from a self-deprecating collector who’d received “an A from Rosalind Krauss” that there’s “nothing more dangerous than someone with an MA in art history.”

Left: Artist James Rosenquist. Right: Artist Dinos Chapman. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

The next day, I sauntered into the fair just in time for a fabulous late lunch at the Urban Caprice, then attended Liam Gillick’s talk, “Factories in the Snow,” for what I hoped would be more nourishment. Alarm bells rang early when, in his preamble, the artist confessed that he found his own promotional blurb to be so “slippery” that he couldn’t keep the description “in his head.” He spat out something garbled about taste, then proceeded to list “420 points” generated by a brainstorming session with his students at Columbia. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he hadn’t, at the last minute, decided to do a performance—an Andrea Fraser–style parody of a scrambled postmodern ramble. Thought-provoking phrases did pop out of gobbledygook, like “the artist’s ability to be in a whirlpool and not commit to a trajectory,” but he failed to elaborate. Forty minutes into the session, a heckler whined, “How much longer?” Gillick replied, “It’s just an hour. It’s OK. I’m going to be fine. It’s findings. I’ll stop at six. Some things arrest you and some things don’t.” Gillick had offered his talk as a gesture “completely opposed” to the “superdistracted context” of the fair, but his “unedited, disorganized throwing up of cultural stuff” simply echoed the way that art fairs toss up their offerings. Without a narrative or explanatory structure, with next to nothing to hold on to, the talk—like the fair—was yet another spectacular exercise in forgetting.

Left: Artists Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Anish Kapoor. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Gallerist Daniel Reich. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Outset Contemporary Art Fund's Jana Peel and Candida Gertier. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Cartier Award winner Mika Rottenberg. Right: Artist Francis Alÿs with Lisson Gallery's Mariska Nietzman. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Artist Grayson Perry wearing House of Harlot. Right: Curator Chrissie Iles, artist Marina Abramovic, and Paolo Canevari. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Gallerist Shaun Caley Regen with Angelica Taschen. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Frieze Art Fair directors Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Gallerist Maureen Paley. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Artist Kiki Smith. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Artist Peter Coffin. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Vilma Gold's Rachel and Sarah McCrory. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Parasol Unit owner Ziba De Weck. Right: Artist Marc Quinn with portrait by Jake Chapman. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Artist Liam Gillick. Right: Ronnie and Vidal Sassoon. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Collector Alberto Mugrabi sitting for a portrait by Dinos Chapman. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Gallerist John Connelly. (Photo: David Velasco)