There were two ways to get to the inaugural Frieze New York art fair on Randall’s Island. One was to get in a car and fight through traffic, then cross the Triboro Bridge and turn onto Hell Gate Circle, travel past a looming, derelict-looking mental institution and a maximum-security prison, and park in a funky-smelling lot in the shadow of a tree that the artist Christoph Büchel draped, gallows-like, with dozens of pairs of sneakers. That approach—let’s call it Dante-meets-Shutter Island route—sent shivers up one’s spine.
The other way, by water taxi, is a different story: call it the Venice-in-Manhattan route. Here one motored up the East River in a sturdy yellow boat past city landmarks—is that the Punta della Dogana? No it’s Silvercup Studios—and watched as the resplendent white Frieze tent appeared on the misty green island, then debarked in parkland dotted by quirky art projects (curated by Cecilia Alemani) that led up to the fair. This was clearly the preferred mode of arrival, encouraging visitors, as Frieze director Amanda Sharp said, “to think about Manhattan in a different way.”
It also prompted one to think about New York art fairs in a different way. Why can’t the experience of going to one be comparable to attending the Venice Biennale? That’s the question Frieze seemed to ask, occupying a cavernous and airy space (that famously $1.5 million tent) that evokes the Arsenale and, for good measure, offering visitors a menu of delicious Italian food options, from Roberta’s pizza to pastas at Frankies Spuntino to panini at Sant Ambroeus to expert espressos at Cecconi’s, aka the VIP room. All of these amenities, by the way, were possible only because the Frieze organizers eschewed the city’s convention centers, where dining concessions go to the highest bidder—at the cost of cutbacks in food quality.
This civilized atmosphere was the dominant takeaway from the event, with the general consensus of visitors being that Frieze had created an art fair where people were actually happy to spend long periods of time. (At the vernissage, for instance, a little boy clinging to his father’s arm could be heard to complain, “We’ve been here for three hours!”—to which the grinning dad responded, “I know, it’s awesome, isn’t it?”) As for the art, it by and large played second fiddle to the spectacular setting—but that didn’t seem to slow down sales, and it didn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of gems to be found, as a tour of what Artspace’s gallery partners had brought attested. [Click the hyperlinked text to see related work on Artspace.]
The talk of the fair, of course, was the Gavin Brown’s Enterprise booth, where during the opening the dealer was humorously joined by his spitting image, the actor Mark Ruffalo, behind a grill where the two of them good-naturedly handed out sausages as a way to raise awareness of the dangers of hydrofracking, one of Ruffalo’s causes. (The actor had reason to be in good spirits: his new movie, The Avengers, was in the process of having the best opening weekend ever.) The food-based stunt was naturally related to a display of work by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose two sculptures of silvery links of sausage hanging from drying racks stood at the entrance to the booth, next to a mammoth new Alex Katz painting of white roses and a louche Elizabeth Peyton portrait of David Bowie. Laura Owens, meanwhile, had a mesmerizing series of six floral canvases apparently conjoined by bits of trellis, and Steven Shearer contributed a gorgeously Edvard Munch-esque painting of a long-haired man smoking that was painted in 2009-10—that is, two years before The Scream‘s record-breaking sale put Munch in everyone’s minds.
David Zwirner‘s booth was, as usual, a temple to refined restraint. Devoted to work by the Minimalist artists in his roster, it had a generous assortment of work by John McCracken—one a late, pitch-black 2002 piece that looked like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey crossed with a stick of gum and another from 1968 that resembled a pink cube of Bazooka Joe—that nicely played off a translucent vacuum-coated glass box from 1965 by Larry Bell. Dan Flavin was shown in top form, too, with a pair of lusciously hued light sculptures that he had made in homage to two of his influences, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian. Taken together with a pair of Donald Judd‘s wall-mounted Menziken boxes and a vanishingly subtle Fred Sandback string piece in one corner, the booth was the best art-historical presentation in the fair (of which there were, admittedly, few).
It was at White Cube where visitors encountered the requisite Damien Hirst, a staple at Frieze’s London fair, and it was as bright and pretty as his formaldehyde sculptures get: a 1993 array of translucent, skin-pink fish on a shelf, it was one of his earliest aquatic sculptures, with a tidy asking price of $3.8 million. A selection of Tracey Emin‘s masturbation drawings in blue were enlivened by the artist’s presence at the vernissage, as she explained them to TV crews, and a Gilbert & George piece from their new London Pictures series commanded an exterior wall with news headlines featuring the word “attacker.” A Darren Almond wall piece of digital wall clocks grouped together into a large square, their numbers scrambled by process of a computer algorithm, was like the kind of train schedule one would see in a nightmare.
Then there was 303 Gallery, which brought a thoughtful piece of art-fair bling in Doug Aitken‘s mirrored sculpture of the word “more.” Front and center at the booth, the work accomplished several things at once: it (critically?) reflected collectors’ acquisitive hunger back at them, it reflected the room to literally create more of its surroundings, and it offered viewers the change to look at their reflections in it and ask more of themselves. The sculpture was wittily flanked on one side by another shiny piece, a metal ball balanced on a motorized beam by Jeppe Hein, and a dirt-brown Pyramid of Dust by Matt Johnson, which was just that. There were also splendid paintings by Karen Kilimnik, Mary Heilmann, and Maureen Gallace.
At Sikkema Jenkins‘s booth, a majestic Kara Walker triptych in pastel and graphite on paper that commanded one long wall was similar to the one that Eli Broad bought for $175,000 at Art Basel Miami Beach last December. This year, the billionaire collector who stopped by the gallery was none other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who lengthily admired a 2012 Vik Muniz take on Emanuel Leutze‘s Washington Crossing the Delaware that the Brazilian artist rendered in torn-up magazine pages and then photographed. The edition on view had been sold, and the mayor appeared to be inquiring after another.
Metro Pictures, still riding high on the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA, capitalized on that attention by displaying two choice deep cuts by the artist. One was a 1977 paper-doll-like row of 35 small black-and-white self-portraits that showed Sherman morph from a white-robed religious figure into a sexy western-style vixen in a cowboy hat, black tights, and white shirt and then finally into a black-robed mourner, with the figures’ wardrobes together creating an undulating band of black and white. A knockout. The other was a 1989 photo of what seemed to be offal, teeth, undigested food, and other revolting human garbage that seemed to say, “Well, do you love me now?” A few feet away, then, where two small Louise Lawler photos of Warhol Brillo and Heinz Ketchup boxes from 2010/11 that seemed like must-haves for any collector wanting to contemplate that great koan of conceptual art known as appropriation. On the outside of the stand, finally, were lovely little poem-like wall pieces by B. Wurtz.
Lehmann Maupin’s stand was a study in booth design, placing two buzzy neon masturbation drawings by Tracey Emin against a painted blue wall for a pleasingly graphic (in both ways) effect, which was enhanced by a group of deep blue and red Teresita Fernandez seascapes on the outside wall. A suite of stop-motion photos by Robin Rhode was then accompanied by two sea-creature-like sculptures of undulant glass tendrils, also by the artist. A sumptuous Billy Childish portrait of a be-suited man dominated from one wall, and two works by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. from their Midsummer Night’s Dream and Invisible Man series popped off the other walls.
Marianne Boesky Gallery, then, brought a pair of enigmatic wall pieces by Pier Paolo Calzolari—mere tastes of that Arte Povera artist’s magisterial gallery show, which is currently the best exhibition anywhere in New York—and Mexico City’s kurimanzutto devoted its booth to three large monkey drawings and an assortment of bright, found-object sculptures by Abraham Cruzvillegas, who will have a major show at the Walker Art Center next year. At James Cohen, seven dark and spooky paintings by rising star Trenton Doyle Hancock brought a bracing dose of “outsider” weirdness into what was generally an insider fair.
And with that it was time to head back out to the boat, and back to Manhattan. Farewell, Frieze NYC, and do come again next year.