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Frieze New York, a VIP Art Fair for Our Gilded Age

John Berens/Frieze

Frieze New York, up and running through Monday, is a fashionista’s wet dream of what an art fair ought to be. Take a look if you want to know how the people who buy and sell contemporary paintings and whatnots are amusing themselves right now. Set in a meandering white tent on Randall’s Island in the East River—it’s just a quick taxi ride (or Frieze-organized bus or ferry ride) from Manhattan—Frieze New York is our Gilded Age art world’s answer to the perfect Edwardian country house party. The bleached-chic style can make ignorance and mendacity look pretty. At a time when the people with the heaps of money are terrified of anything that isn’t “curated,” whether it’s their Louboutins or their Warhols, Frieze is so finely curated that it becomes its own conceptual art work, annihilating whatever art happens to be on display. Even an interesting late painting by Joan Mitchell, at Cheim and Read, registers as little more than another color swatch. You don’t need an art critic to explain Frieze New York. Henry James would have savored the drop-dead elegance and seen straight through to the corruption, although you might want a little help from Marx or Keynes (take your pick) to explain exactly how it all works. 

Artistic experience is first and last a local experience—an experience of some particular thing seen in some particular time and place. The trouble with Frieze—and the same goes for Art Basel and all the rest of the high profile international art fairs—is that the particulars are effectively pulverized so as to create one grandiose global mash-up. To the extent that a fairgoer distinguishes one thing from another, it’s just a matter of determining the product placement in a top-of-the-heap trade fair. And whom does this all-in-one experience really serve? Well, it definitely serves the people who keep the galleries in business, because this is a constituency that has a lot of money but not a lot of time, at least so they will tell you. Contemplation is dead. Closing the deal is all that matters. At an art fair the mood is so keyed up that even the most lackluster work of art can begin to look as if it’s on steroids. And there’s always the chance that a collector will get in the mood and rev things up even further, with the adrenaline high of a purchase made more or less in public. Art collectors used to be inclined to be secretive. Now they’re pretty much all publicity hounds.

Actually, Frieze seems to have managed to send the entire Manhattan art scene into a mind-altering frenzy. This is only the second year Frieze, an established event in the London season, has appeared in New York. And it’s still fresh enough that the hometown team is eager to partner and stir things up—and make a bit of a rumpusin the same few weeks that also include the major spring art auctions. Days before Frieze had opened, when I went down to Chelsea to see a few shows, there were already many more gallerygoers than you would normally see on a Tuesday afternoon. The international crowd had already arrived, anxious not to miss out on any of the fun. Over the weekend, the city is hosting a bewildering number of art and art-related happenings. And next Wednesday a major Jackson Pollock, November 19, 1948, is on the auction block in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s. I suspect that at least for all but the most exclusive events there may be some anxiety as to whether there are enough bodies to go around. At Frieze there are VIPs and VVIPs, at least so I gather. And to top it all off—and obviously coordinated with Frieze and the auctions—Jeff Koons, king of the trashmeisters and the top dog among the top selling artists, has a duo of shows opening in Chelsea. One is with his dealer of recent years, Larry Gagosian, but the second is his first appearance at the David Zwirner Gallery, which has a far more austere and intellectual atmosphere than Gagosian and might just persuade the chattering class that’s wearied of Koons to take another look. Koons is now ripping off the Greco-Roman sculptors and for all I know will be hailed for revitalizing neoclassicism.

John Berens/Frieze
Fairgoers stand in a room curated by Gavin Brown's Enterprise, a New York art gallery. 

I am sorry to be a party pooper. Of course I get a buzz out of Frieze, what with the people-watching and the suave food concessions (Blue Bottle Coffee, Court Street Grocers, The Fat Radish, Sant Ambroeus, and so forth). I could write about the work I saw that stood out a bit, including Mai-Thu Perret’s miniscule, minimalist, and possibly mystical gameboard-like paintings at Zurich’s Galerie Francesca Pia and Simon Evans’s pale, all-over collages featuring bits and pieces of lined paper and graph paper at New York’s James Cohan. But under the circumstances I refuse to be the well-behaved art critic assigning B- to this and C+ to that and maybe even a provisional midterm grade of A-. Everything about Frieze—from the blinding white light to the open floor plan with galleries flowing one into the other—is designed to obliterate any particular impression. And that’s what’s wrong with the whole godforsaken glamorous weekend. At Frieze, you’re being pushed to groove, not to grapple. You’re in the know, but you’re a know nothing. 

John Berens/Frieze
"Smoking Room in a private Palais in Brussels, as seen from entrance, 1905,"by Maria Loboda. 

The people who run Frieze certainly knew what they were up to when they positioned themselves on an island that has a bit of a never-never land feeling. It’s as if they had set out to deny New York’s great artistic history—what Donald Judd, in the title of one of his pioneering articles about the art of the 1960s, referred to as “Local History.” At Frieze, history is dead and New York’s legendary spirit of place is totally obliterated.  Art is left to start from scratch every time, which perhaps explains the scratchpad stupidity of a lot of the work on display. It’s demagogues who want to obliterate the past. And there is something autocratic if not fascistic about the sleekly cosseted ambience in Frieze New York’s snaking white tent.  Everybody walks around in a cheerfully hypnotic state. The flow patterns have been oh so beautifully worked out. If you go, you have no choice but to go with the flow.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.