Friday’s ‘flash crash’ of the British Pound, which at one point saw the value of Sterling suddenly plunge 6% on the US dollar, coincided with my first day at Frieze London. While the reason for the crash is unclear at best, it is mainly being attributed to statements made earlier in the week by Angela Merkel and François Hollande emphasizing the difficulties they intend to impose on ‘Brexit’ negotiations, as well as an acknowledgment by Prime Minister Theresa May that the UK will likely have to concede its access to the European common market. Although the art market is usually insulated from such uncertainties, and in some cases is even strengthened by them, this year’s fair felt deeply tied to the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Indeed, the ubiquitous logo for Deutsche Bank – one of Frieze London’s main sponsors – seemed emblazoned throughout the fair as a beacon of confidence. Keep calm and carry on.
And yet, the prevailing attitude was much more tentative, with presentations vacillating between a cynicism by turns opportunistic and resigned. The Nineties, a curatorial project by Nicolas Trembley that re-staged some of the decade’s more appreciable exhibitions, reflected the rush to capitalize on the wealth of nostalgia for that era that has, predictably, surged forth in recent years. Yet, Trembley’s project also failed to draw from the period’s exuberance – perhaps due to the fact that the ascent of the art fair as a form took place during subsequent decades. On occasion these presentations, which included work by Karen Kilimnik, Steven Parrino, and Wolfgang Tillmans, were productively echoed by activities taking place elsewhere in the fair. This was the case, for instance, between Sylvie Fleury’s iconic 12-channel video installation from 1993, A Journey to Fitness or How to Lose 30 Pounds in Under Three Weeks, and Jõusaal (gym) (2016), a performance for Frieze Live by Augustas Serapinas for which the Lithuanian artist worked out inside a makeshift ‘gym’ made from discarded materials found inside the sculpture department of the Academy of Art in Talinn.
As for the exhibitors, besides a handful of thoughtful presentations – the booths of Campoli Presti, VI,VII, and Proyectos Ultravioleta come to mind – most were uninspired and circumspect. Glasgow’s Modern Institute for instance evoked a boutique interior (of the Acne Studios in Hong Kong, say), while David Flaugher’s installation for Jan Kaps seemed to parody the ‘non-productive attitude’, as Josef Strau once put it, of the Cologne scene during the 1980s and 90s. On a somewhat different register, Hauser & Wirth’s installation was arranged to mimic the studio of a fictional modernist artist, complete with tribal masks, maquettes and nude studies of the human form. Another take was offered by Rome’s Frutta gallery, which took as its model a caricature of an Italian restaurant.
At the opposite end of Regents Park, Frieze Masters offered a reprieve from such ostensibly critical gestures. Despite emphasizing antiquities, old-masters and blue-chip artists, it nonetheless contained two of the most tender presentations at the fair: a number of carefully-selected paintings by Carol Rama at Isabella Bortolozzi, and several modest intermedia works by Bay Area conceptualist Terry Fox at Anglim Gilbert Gallery.
Indeed, the most rewarding experiences at this year’s fair kept irony at arm’s length. Eddie Martinez’s abstract bronze sculptures (one of which was also installed in the nearby sculpture park) at Timothy Taylor’s booth disarmed with their straightforward, painterly approach; elsewhere, paintings by Kerry James Marshall, Alice Neel and Alex Katz held their own amidst the wheeling and dealing. Katz’s portraits in particular, which seem to recede into solitude and inner-quiet, were particularly sympathetic and well-suited to the context. By contrast, paintings at Martos Gallery by Alex Chaves – the ambiguously-titled portrait Hayden (2016), in particular – appeared not only to embrace, but enhance the abstract relations that organize life under late capitalism (not to mention high-commodity fetishism).
Admittedly, my plus-one and I opted to skip the remaining days of the fair in order to visit the collections at the National Gallery. We lingered for some time in room #19, which houses Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (ca.1648) – one of the two paintings on which art-historian T.J. Clark writes so affectionately in his book, The Sight of Death (2008). Clark’s quasi-autobiographical volume comprises a series of observations, notes and short essays made while visiting same works day after day. At its center is the notion that some works of art are none-too-easily exhausted, much less in a single viewing. That is, Clark’s book proposes that a viewer must offer herself, what she knows, as much as the work offers itself, what it knows. Such an approach is, of course, a far-cry from how work is typically encountered at a fair, where the primary offering is value. Flash, crash, these are things that can happen in an instant. Cynicism gets you there.