Published  10/11/2009

Frozen smiles, melting hearts: Frieze Art Fair 2009 America: New Painting and Sculpture

Frozen smiles, melting hearts:
Frieze Art Fair 2009

Regent’s Park, London
15–18 Oct 2009


Devoted to work by living artists, and now in its seventh edition, Frieze Art Fair is anticipated as a measuring instrument for the contemporary art market as well as one of its facilitators. The big tent, designed this time by Caruso St John, covered 21,000m2 of Regents Park. It was entered via a giant porch, studded with light bulbs and resembling a sentry of bright ideas – appropriately so, for bright ideas were in demand. Of all sectors, contemporary art has tailed the financial markets most directly. The first five years of Frieze thrived on the influx of people attracted to London’s growth as a financial centre, bringing with them their collecting habits. This September there had been a 70–80% contraction in sales since their peak in May 2007. Ups and downs have been translated into caricature at the fair. From the frenzy of 2006–7, where buyers were seen running to booths as soon as the preview opened, to frowns in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ collapse, this year the prevailing rhetoric was one of quiet confidence. Coincident with the unseasonably warm weather, daily editions of the Art Newspaper dispensed headlines like cough syrup: ‘Gravitas is good’, ‘Calm after the storm’ and ‘Spirits lifting’. On the closing Sunday, press releases were a stronghold of astonishment and delight, misrepresenting the fact that the fair was energised by an acknowledgement of market weaknesses.

One of the fair’s biggest pieces, in terms of scale and sales, was Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) Opus 133 (2007) by John Baldessari, to be found at Spruth Magers. In conversation with Matthew Higgs as part of the programme of Frieze talks, Baldessari joked that he couldn’t think of any artists painting noses or ears in art history, and ‘it got me thinking, it seemed profitable.’ Indeed, Beethoven’s Trumpet sold for $400,000, but positioned in the middle of the fair, and luring viewers to poke their entire heads into the trumpet’s cavity, it also tapped into an overarching theme: ‘We’re listening... Come buy!’

Frieze directors Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover adopted an outlook that was more permeable than defensive, capitalising on Frieze’s status as a citywide event. The fair, replete with a Mark Hix restaurant, sculpture park, and VIP itinerary of tours and private views, was surrounded by satellite attractions. Major museum shows included Baldessari at Tate Modern, Ed Ruscha at the Hayward and Sophie Calle at the Whitechapel. Galleries tied in exhibitions and book launches – a monograph on Grayson Perry was unveiled along with his 15-metre Walthamstow Tapestry at Victoria Miro, plus a baby version at Frieze; Rizzoli’s heavyweight publication on Frank Auerbach was complemented by a show of new work at Marlborough and an exhibition of his paintings of building sites at the Courtauld Institute. And while east London opened its galleries for a late night viewing on the penultimate Saturday, there was a rash of pop-up shows manned by younger gallerists within spitting distance of Regent’s Park. Nick Hackworth’s Paradise Row, formerly of Bethnal Green, took up residence close by in a Mayfair house; 23-year old Henry Little filled a disused chapel in St John’s Wood with 17 young artists, and on a smaller scale, Sarah Bejerano and Kate Sapera (both 23) persuaded a housing trust to lend a former shop space to their coterie of recent graduates.

Public interest fed back into the fair, sustaining the 60,000-target figure set in 2006 (double the audience since Frieze’s first edition). This figure relates to a wider trend, as witnessed by the crowds at Frieze’s neighbouring trade fairs, the Pavilion of Art & Design London in Berkeley Square (14–18 October), the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park (22–25 October), now celebrating its tenth anniversary, or the London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel (25–27 September), which attracted an audience of 2,500 a day, roughly twice the gallery’s average. Toby Webster, of Glasgow-based gallery The Modern Institute (and on the selection committee for Frieze applications) stressed, ‘the level of people here has been really important. Although we have been selling recently the mood has been down – however here this has changed and the fear factor seems to have calmed. We were selling works well into the weekend, whereas other fairs stop.’ A clue to the topsy-turvy goings-on in Regents Park was Modern Institute’s central exhibit, Martin Boyce’s inverted park bench. If gallery sales have been generally slow over the past year, Matthew Slotover suggested that this left participants with more significant inventory to show, and contributed to a generally higher quality of work. Similarly, Frieze was positioned to benefit when Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury stopped guaranteeing minimum prices to sellers at the end of 2008, and with collectors reluctant to offer high-priced works in public without guarantees. In tune with the auction houses, many galleries at Frieze adopted the strategy of smaller sales with reduced estimates.

The new Frame section was a constructive response to the dropout rate of high end galleries. Twenty eight galleries decided not to return to the fair this year; for them, hiring and running a booth (80m2 estimated at £60,000) may not have seemed to have been a cost-effective option. Frame also addressed the paradox that although Frieze requires a regular turnover of fresh galleries, as those that were young in 2003 have returned and grown up, so they have displaced newcomers. Frame therefore demarcated cut-price booths, at £6,500 apiece, for galleries under six years old. While its location right at the back, far away from the Deutsche Bank VIP room, confirmed that these galleries were the lowest on the food chain, it was also, fortuitously, adjacent to the bar on the preview day; there was something of a festival atmosphere.

Frame provided relief to the rest of the tent, not least because presentations were devoted to single artists. Lemoncello's booth in Frame was particularly youthful. 25-year old Jack Strange presented portraits of six recent art school graduates, through their music and photo collections. The laptops, neat on plinths, shuffled each graduate's music and photos at random, conjuring a sense of the personal from digital sprawl. Two of the hard drives had sold, at £10,000 each. Meanwhile, one of the star exhibits of Frame was neither starry nor for sale. At Ancient & Modern, Alan Kane counteracted the usual patter about the dispatch of pieces to good homes in international collections, by presenting ornaments from his parents’ living room. A miniature china high heel, a souvenir thimble from Virgin Airways, a family photo-collage, an embroidery of chaffinches: under the strip-lights, these knick-knacks emitted pangs of homesickness. Postcards were available to take away for free.

The enthusiasm for Frame among audience and exhibitors (it had over 200 applications) had a knock-on effect on Frieze's younger sibling, Zoo Art Fair. Having relocated from the former Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly to east London, it felt sidelined. It experienced a diminution of commercial stands, from 58 in 2008 to 22 this year, contributing just 30% of budget, when it had been more like 70% before. Its very name was downsized to Zoo.

Where Kane’s display served to divert the drive towards pecuniary evaluation, at the other end of the spectrum, the fair’s aftermath has entailed conjecture as to whether Damien Hirst’s vitrine, Night of the Long Knives at £2.5million (White Cube), made the most expensive sale; guesses have not been confirmed. Hirst’s simultaneous show at the Wallace Collection, ‘No Love Lost’, presented new paintings against a backdrop of gorgeous French silk, reiterating a favourite epithet of the artist’s, that all art is just something to go over the sofa. Last year, Hirst had posited himself as curator of the market at the Sotheby’s auction ‘Beautiful in My Mind Forever’, which raised £111.5million even as Lehman Brothers collapsed – a reconstruction features in Tate Modern’s current exhibition, ‘Pop Life’. Cue another of Frieze week’s many algorithms: the Art Review Power List 100, which saw Hirst fall from first position to number 48. Mark Rappolt, Art Review’s editor, who chaired the jury, observed that last year Hirst was ‘very clever about experimenting with the market, and that’s not where art is right now.’

Right now, a conclusion from Frieze 2009 might well be that uncertainty begets opportunity. As part of Frieze Projects, Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth diverted visitors from the walkways with their installation, Players. The duo created a hideaway within felt curtains, onto which events in the tent were projected. Buyers, sellers, invigilators and visitors were caught on camera, while a viewing disc in the middle of the den made this a warm and fuzzy incarnation of a villain’s control room on a James Bond set. Even so, the unavailability of any actual controls to the viewer made Players more of a den of innocuity, returning the artists to a position of superintendence.

All the more memorable for eschewing production values was a piece by Michael Landy, stowed away in Waddington’s booth, among various exhibits that slipped through the ‘contemporary’ rule, although it did not sell. Emanating from Britain’s last recession, Work III (1990) reduced a market stall to its basic components: steel legs, a board, artificial grass. Flatpack-cool, it served as a memento mori to the whole business.

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