BECAUSE ART FAIRS are truly the context of no context, the best part of Frieze London is what isn’t there. Over the last week, the fair’s greatest by-product has been the surfeit of exhibitions in the city’s galleries and museums. For fairgoers on the prowl, it’s been all about dressing up with everywhere to go.
With Frieze opening to VIPs on Tuesday, a day earlier than usual, the week began on Monday afternoon with a chops-whetting dash across London from the ICA (for a complex show by Neïl Beloufa), north to the Zabludowicz Collection’s new installation of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s Priority Innfield, and east to tea at Victoria Miro, where shows by Wangechi Mutu and Eric Fischl were opening.
All week, several people, mostly English, would remark on the big play that London is giving German painters. Anselm Kiefer (Royal Academy), Gerhard Richter (Marian Goodman), and Sigmar Polke (Tate Modern) are all holding prominent positions in the current British artscape. But so many Americans are showing in galleries here that it was easy to forget we weren’t in New York.
Even more striking was how many black artists were having shows. Not just Mutu, but also David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Steve McQueen too. “It’s very exciting to see artists I’ve been following from the beginning of their careers all showing at the same time,” said Studio Museum director Thelma Golden, who stopped into Mutu’s show at the same time as Hank Willis Thomas. “It’s a great moment,” agreed Laura Hoptman, who came to Frieze from a show by Julie Mehretu in Berlin. “Best painting of Julie’s ever,” she said.
In Miro’s upstairs gallery, Fischl was showing canvases based on photographs he took of visitors at art fairs and gallery openings caught in the act of not looking at art. “I made going to an art fair fun,” he said, speaking for himself. Camera slung around his neck, he was at it again during the opening, snapping surreptitious pictures of guests across the room.
In Mayfair that evening, McQueen was showing a short film at Thomas Dane. It was shot in 2002 on Super 8 by cinematographer Robbie Müller, and McQueen added a voice-over interview memorializing the film’s subject, a young man named Ashes. Nearby, with her mother on the scene as well as fellow dealers Paula Cooper and Marianne Boesky, Dominique Lévy opened a bespoke London outpost with a Stella-Judd-Castellani show organized by art historian Linda Norden.
As the drizzle turned to a downpour that would last all night, Monica Sprüth emerged from the compact Sprüth-Magers, umbrella in hand, to join Reinhard Mucha and a crowd on the sidewalk surrounding Andro Wekua. His debut with the gallery features a compromised female robot that is nothing like Jordan Wolfson’s but is just as disturbing, despite the bright pink carpeting beneath her feet. Weirdly, it was the same pink in Mucha’s racing jacket. For her part, Sprüth kept to a black-and-white ensemble. “You look like a show of mine!” quipped Joseph Kosuth. Nate Lowman showed some color in the shaped canvases of his solo debut in London with Massimo De Carlo, breaking from the reception to hide out in the gallery’s Günther Förg/Lucio Fontana pairing of bronzes upstairs. “I’ve been here for hours,” he said.
By now the rain was torrential, but a little weather can’t stop the march of art. Back in the East End, Gillian Wearing was premiering We Are Here, a new film so emotional and so imbued with the tragic that it moved the hearts of many into their throats. On-screen, one after another, people cast for the film in Wearing’s native Birmingham describe the best moment in their lives and then how it fell apart.
Guests quickly recovered for dinner at St John, which was, in writer Kirsty Bell’s words, “a real London event.” Wine flowed, cigarettes were smoked, and one course of delicious food after another came to long tables occupied by all manner of curators, artists, writers, and Wearing’s other dealers, Shaun Caley Regen and Tanya Bonakdar. The evening went so late that by the time dessert was served, the exhausted rain had retired for the night.
It returned the next day, when Frieze opened under a new tent and a new configuration that was often confusing to negotiate. That’s OK. Getting lost is the shortest route to discovery. If the food was as bland and pricey as ever, carpeting tamped the usual, headache-inducing noise level, and the better, softer lighting was almost as flattering to people as it was to art.
Most conspicuous was a concerted attempt by Frieze cofounders Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp to make the fair seem less like a trade show than a carnival. Live events commissioned by Frieze Projects curator Nicola Lees both on site and off definitely provided refreshment.
Just inside the fair entrance, Shanzhai Biennial collective members Cyril Duval, Avena Gallagher, and Babak Radboy sat in their ersatz real estate office all day, nervously awaiting a visit from Jay Z and Beyoncé—the most promising potential buyers for the $51.5 million house the artists were selling in partnership with an actual brokerage, Aston Chase. (The stars arrived eventually, but after hours.) “I don’t know why more artists don’t get into real estate,” Duval said. “People really like what we do with a property.”
French dealer Jocelyn Wolff presented the re-creation of performances by Franz Erhard Walther last seen in 1969 and 1977, with the artist watching. “They’re doing very well,” he said of performers wrapping their heads in a long piece of fabric and pulling it taut. Things really picked up when spontaneity entered the picture. With collectors Dakis and Lietta Joannou, hotelier Andre Balazs, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, and artists Emily Sundblad and Darren Bader looking on, crimson-haired dealer Lia Rumma strode onto the stage of Nick Mauss’s installation, where young ballet dancers in T-shirts performed throughout the day and literally pulled the plug on Kim Gordon’s meditative drone-guitar performance while screaming, “You’re too loud!”
Other dealers took it upon themselves to do some showboating as well, though with a bit more subtlety. Michael Werner Gallery director Gordon VeneKlasen sent a troupe of ten young things around the fair bound by a single pink sash wound around their heads. It was James Lee Byars’s Ten in a Hat. (I wonder what happened when they came across the Walther.) On the Lisson stand, which Cory Arcangel provided with a spectrum-spanning carpet, dealers wore muddied sneakers designed by Ryan Gander (for Adidas).
Infant in hand, Mélanie Matranga, winner of the first Frieze Artist Award, sold cigarettes and coffee from a cubicle café—her attempt to create an underground economy within the fair. “This is the moment for extreme gestures,” observed dealer Alex Zachary from the Greene Naftali stand. He could have been talking about Hauser & Wirth. Mark Wallinger outfitted the gallery’s booth with a two-room replica of Sigmund Freud’s cluttered studio that was made for oversharing, with available works by gallery artists illustrating the division between the rational and the unconscious.
This welcome shift away from white-cubism continued at Sadie Coles, where all-around, red wallpaper by the late Angus Fairhurst framed both drawings by the artist and one of his mirror-gazing gorilla bronzes. Quite arresting. For her booth, Esther Schipper chose a cherry blossom-patterned wallpaper by Thomas Demand. Very optimistic. Anton Kern put down a wood floor, erected gray walls with diamond-shaped portholes, and augmented his display of Mark Grotjahn sculptures with a collection of antique, beaded African masks. At Salon 94, the floor was a buttercup yellow and the walls had cartoony, smiley-face paintings. Yellow was also the color of Dan Gunn’s cinder block walls at the back of Frieze’s ghetto for its younger or smaller galleries.
Gunn’s stand, opposite Robert Breer’s slowly rotating, igloo-like dome for Frieze Projects, was actually a “government-approved” bomb-shelter installation from 1983 by the dependably droll Michael Smith, parts of which came from Nelson Rockefeller’s fallout shelter beneath the former New York governor’s townhouse opposite the Museum of Modern Art. (Sculptures by Michael E. Smith—no relation—were nearby in the Clifton Benevento booth.)
Actually, a number of dealers who generally bring only new work arrived at Frieze this time with historical pieces. Hollybush Gardens, for instance, showed—and sold to the Tate—an installation by Lubaina Himid first shown by the ICA in a exhibition of black artists in 1985. So either artists are refusing to make new work on demand in time for fairs or the older stuff really is more compelling. Then again, Freedman Fitzpatrick had no trouble selling works on unstretched canvas that resulted from performances by Mathew Lutz-Kinoy. Across the aisle, screams emanated from the Mathew Gallery booth, where dealer David Lieske was auditioning professional actors for a film by Villa Design Group to be shot on the art-appointed set.
For those who could not take these strenuous efforts to relieve fair fatigue seriously, Frieze Masters opened the same afternoon. Yet here, too, were theatrics. Helly Nahmad chose to hang small, zillion-dollar works by Matisse, Picasso, Calder, Dubuffet, and other modernists in a fully furnished, Instagram-ready, one-bedroom apartment supposedly owned by a fictional collector who stuffed every room (including the kitchen and bath) with a chaotic scatter of art, antiques, books, and magazines—shades of Elmgreen & Dragset’s Nordic and Danish pavilions for the 2009 Venice Biennale!
Whatever. Peter Freeman went the cabinet-of-curiosities route with small works ranging from fifteenth-century Dutch objects to palm-size sculptures by Eva Hesse and Richard Tuttle. Paula Cooper had a pristine Judd/Flavin installation that was beyond cool, Marlborough was all Bacon all the time, and Fergus McCaffrey had unique copy-machine prints by Sigmar Polke. In the Spotlight section for neglected contemporary artists, Hubert Winter turned it out for eighty-seven-year-old Minimalist Marcia Hafif, whose 1970s star was eclipsed by her relationship with Robert Morris. And Anke Kempkes devoted her Broadway 1602 stand to the undersung but significant talents of Rosemarie Castoro, Carl Andre’s first wife.
It was great to see these women emerge from the shadows, but if the night belonged to any person it was the pint-size powerhouse Marian Goodman. Widely regarded as the world’s top dealer, the eighty-six-year-old New Yorker opened her four-story Soho gallery with a show of new works by eighty-four-year-old Gerhard Richter—and tout le monde showed up for it. Certainly, no artist was ever served better by a gallery and vice versa. Designed by David Adjaye, the two exhibition floors are unpretentious and grand all at once. Kind of like Goodman. Among those paying respects were just about every artist on the gallery roster, collectors like the Rachofskys and the Kramlichs, museum directors and curators galore, family and friends.
“Marian Goodman comes to London and she doesn’t play around,” said Julie Mehretu as the car bringing her to dinner with Tacita Dean and Matt Saunders rolled past the topiaries lining the long drive to the Orangery in Kensington Palace Gardens. Seated between William Kentridge and Jeff Wall, Goodman welcomed her 240 guests with enormous grace. “Every one of you have given us in the gallery a wonderful time in the art world,” she said, before letting on that it was Kentridge’s desire to be in London that started her looking for space there. “I didn’t know that,” he confessed when he volunteered to give the toast, during which he cited Goodman’s lack of cynicism and her power to turn even the most resistant artist’s “no” into a definitive “yes” as two of her most attractive qualities. When he concluded, the applause for Goodman was thunderous.
Yet the evening held another adventure. Bidoun, the Middle Eastern arts and culture quarterly, was celebrating its tenth anniversary at Shishawy, a restaurant where patrons seated at outdoor tables were smoking hookahs while readings by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Stuart Comer, Dana Farouki, and Sunny Rahbar were taking place inside. Yet they were drowned out by the chatter of friends and supporters drinking an unidentified red liquid that seemed to help propel them onto a beckoning dance floor, where they spent the rest of the evening.
Still, Frieze week is given more to business meetings and art viewing than wild parties—London isn’t Miami. Wednesday morning, VIPs had private access to the peak Phyllida Barlow installation at Tate Britain, which contrasted sharply with the most baffling Turner Prize show to date. (To my mind, there isn’t a winner among them.) Fortunately, one could go straight from the Tate’s show of late Turners to the National Gallery for its exhibition of late Rembrandts, possibly the most pleasurable, if least challenging, show in London right now.
But Frieze is never just about Frieze. Instead of the product promotions that blight Art Basel Miami Beach, international biennials and other nonprofit entities introduce themselves through social events and symposia. Before a vegan lunch on Thursday, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev laid out the principles behind the fourteenth Istanbul Biennial, which she is organizing, for interested patrons and several of the artists involved, Theaster Gates, Adrián Villar Rojas, and Ed Atkins among them.
Another treat was the Thursday afternoon performance inaugurating Cerith Wyn Evans’s new neon for Frieze Projects in Regent’s Park—at the zoo. The neon is suspended on a diagonal wire over a picturesque canal by the Snowden Aviary and spells out a misquoted line from a poem by James Merrill: “So, I came to know what the Japanese puppets taught us, namely, what it means to be moved.” The aviary is a mesh and steel structure designed in 1964 by Cedric Price, Frank Newby, and Antony Armstrong-Jones (then the First Earl of Snowdon) and one of the most peaceful places in London. It was also the spot Wyn Evans gravitated toward in the ’70s, when he arrived in London.
While a hundred guests, including Tino Sehgal and Frances von Hofmannsthal (a daughter of Armstrong-Jones) looked on from a bridge, a boat carrying Wyn Evans’s musical collaborator, the flutist Susan Stenger, passed under it and left the scene, the sound of her flute rising through the trees. Reportedly, Wyn Evans was inside the cabin, but he didn’t appear. He didn’t have to. The quiet beauty of the moment transcended personality.
Besides, an opportunity to let loose was waiting at two separate events that followed: a party at the David Roberts Foundation in Camden, where Sarah Lucas performed by frying eggs and pinning them to the breasts of female volunteers; and Anal House Sit-Down, a record release party hosted by artists Eddie Peake, Prem Sahib, and George Henry Longly, sponsored by the Vinyl Factory at Hoi Polloi in the Ace Hotel, Shoreditch.
This spinoff of the artists’ roving Anal House Meltdown parties started quietly enough, with dinner, including a seminude performance carried out in total darkness, and developed into a tail-wagging party that attracted young art people from dinners in other parts of town. What was nice was the seamless mix of sexual identities—gay, straight, and much that lies between, in the birthplace of the new world. If one should emerge.