I received an email from Miguel Benavides, a friend who runs Studio Trust. At the request of Studio International's Editor, he had just made a superb photo coverage of Frieze Art Fair New York. As coincidently, I was about to leave for the opening of SP-Arte, the São Paulo Art Fair, I decided to repay his kindness by setting myself a mission to find an image of a single work that would synthesize the whole Art Fair at this corner of the planet.
While I cycled the four kilometers of Avenida Brasil, that goes from my place to the Bienal Pavilion, São Paulo, where the Art Fair SP-Arte takes place, the images of the NYC Art Fair seemed to set the standard for a comparison. Avenida Brasil on the rush hour is a portrait of the emergent Brazil: four lanes of immobile cars stuck both ways, surrounded by the former coffee barons’ mansions. Unfortunately for the Art circuit, all that traffic was not for the Art fair. The city is huge, but its Art circuit is small.
Arriving at the Art Fair with neither a map of the exhibition or with a plan, I put myself in the hunting spirit of a collector who doesn’t know what he wants until he finds it. Nearly at the end of the first alley of galleries I solved my anxiety. At a gallery from Madrid, Galería Elba Benítez, a small acrylic display hangs from the wall like a shelf. Inside the acrylic case lies an April 1969 edition of Studio International Art Magazine. It’s a perfect find. This work will do. With a Donald Judd work on the cover, the bottom part of the work displays the magazine laid open in a V-mouth shape in such a way that it’s possible to read part of the article on Judd. I fall like a prey into the trap proposed by this work and I’ll carry it around filtering the rest of the fair with this prospective tool. The work is by Portuguese artist Fernanda Fragateiro and is called See Part 2. I’ve had enough of this, Don Judd, “Complaints part1” in Studio International, p.182-185.
Judd’s drawing depicts a project of four rows of five boxes, each, with variations of intervals between boxes, thickness of walls, curvature of corners, open or closed. I use this image to read the Art fair booths, both, as a topological map and a vertical cut. The Portuguese artist’s work becomes a statement on the Art fair and the role of the magazine in the Art circuit. I can no longer distinguish my readings of Judd’s drawing, the Portuguese artist’s work, the art fair, or the art magazine. They all overlap each other in meanings of interchangeable boxes. Some research would be necessary to follow but for now I just try to make sense of these thoughts.
Taking into consideration the immanence of Judd’s work about minimalism and transposing it to the art fair context, the exhibitions that run in the museums and galleries of the city seem more compelling than the galleries’ stands in the fair. As much as Bienal de São Paulo, the Art fair now brings another seasonality that mobilises the local circuit in a healthy impulse and pulse.
If language is fair and fair is language, Frieze Art Fair New York speaks it fluently while SP-Arte still struggles with a broken discourse. From the pictures of Frieze Art Fair one can read overlapping levels of curatorship of works and space in a competitive format that forces experimentation and adds value. Frieze is an institution, which has grown from a magazine to an Art Fair in London and now expands, crossing the Atlantic. SP-Arte is growing but at a much slower pace and with much less ambition. In the stream of the international art fairs, SP-Arte may use Frieze as a North Point though, neither emulating it’s best solutions, as a Brazilian anthropological cultural tradition would indicate; nor searching for an alternative format itself grown from the inner characteristics of the circuit. What we do expect from any Brazilian enterprise is to see the same sort of expansive creativity found in the Arts applied to a business format. There’s a huge gap in here waiting to be crossed and where there’s a gap, there’s opportunity for those who can see it.
This year, SP-Arte was forced to evolve from previous editions due to the new competition of RioArt, Rio de Janeiro’s Art Fair. The situation of a circuit in expansion may attract foreign investors, galleries, artists, as much as an emergent Brazil does attract attention nowadays. It may not be coincidence the first image from Miguel’s pictures of Frieze NY is of a work by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. Being a modular work as much as Judd’s work is a coincidence though.
The fair as the main arena for trading of goods still is trapped in a formula of best exploitation at any cost. Directed specifically to the local market, the format of compacted stands with exorbitant prices per square metre, combined with a portrait of the public as a modern audience not ready for the contemporary production consumption leave the fair with aesthetics of the street markets instead of a high quality tool of legitimation of works. Some foreign galleries opened room for artists to present works in a more generous format, betting on their artists and on building institutional image with a new public, therefore, going in a counterfeit direction.
SP-Arte is divided into three sectors: the ground floor is reserved for the main local contemporary art galleries, the coffee barons of the local circuit; plus significant galleries from other Brazilian States capitals, such as Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte or Recife, and international heavyweight galleries. The mezzanine is reserved for the modernist galleries and the first floor is for the small and new galleries plus curatorial projects and publications. The modernist mezzanine has an ambivalent feeling, I suppose not just for myself, of something that should be put aside of the fair to make the event a purely contemporary, and, at the same time, a fetish-activated show with the neo-concrete works that are standing to be appropriated into a contemporary context such as had happened to Judd’s own work through Fragateiro’s work. The presence of the Modern segment of the market acts as a portrait on how the local public is seen by the organization of the fair and perhaps even by the galleries. In a sense, it’s up to the public to actively ask for some other sort of production.
This triple partition of areas solved a problem in the mixture of the previous editions of the fair where all the galleries were put together without much balance. Despite the fact that the total area has grown, the stands are still small, as the number of galleries participating has further increased. The exhibitors on the first floor complain that the public doesn’t bother to go up the monumental modernist ramp of Oscar Niemeyer’s building to see the younger production. If I’m to follow Judd’s scheme, I’d suggest even one more floor for the exhibition and more space for each box. This would open room for other productions that don’t necessarily fits on the format for “up the sofa”. So be it!
Contrary to my expectation, on a second visit to the SP-Arte Fair there wasn’t much still to be discovered. I do remember the works and the stands from the evening before even if they had to compete with the crowds on the opening day. If there’s something to learn it is that the more we see the more we want to see. That’s how Culture works. That’s how Markets function. There’s plenty of room for the circuit to grow, and it has to.