NEW YORK -- Contemporary art fairs have in the last decade become so routine that they must work to give visitors unexpected or memorable experiences. Think food from a trendy Brooklyn pizzeria, a talk by French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman on Andre Malraux’s “imaginary museum,” and car rides home in BMWs playing audio works created by artists and writers such as Rick Moody.
The first New York edition of the London-based art fair Frieze, which opened Thursday and runs through Monday, offered all of the above in an unusual location: a 250,000-square-foot white tent designed by the Brooklyn firm SO-IL set up on Randall’s Island, a small land mass east of Manhattan that is home to a track and field stadium and various athletic fields.
Inside the tent, the event worked against expectations in other ways. Many of the galleries’ booths — there were about 180 — seemed less congested than the one-stop-shopping mini-emporiums of other big fairs. The buzzword for this approach is “curated,” suggesting (if not always delivering) a museum-like emphasis on quality over quantity.
Yes there were the familiar, high-impact sort of attention-getters that work so well in fairs: a bright sun of a yellow disk sculpture by Anish Kapoor that plays an optical trick, receding before your eyes, or a jacked-up and radically rebuilt low-rider (a mix of a 1987 Trabant and a 1973 Chevrolet El Camino) that artist Liz Cohen rigged to give passengers a very bumpy ride.
Other galleries resisted the art-fair overload by giving over their booths to a single artist. David Kordansky Gallery in L.A., for instance, dedicated its main walls to a handful of abstract oil paintings by artist Jon Pestoni, whose richly layered surfaces work the territory between the aggressive markings of Gerhard Richter and the imperfect geometries of Mary Heilmann.
Gallery director Stuart Krimko said they could have squeezed in more work by more artists but decided to focus on Pestoni instead as a prologue to Pestoni’s first solo show in his hometown of L.A., at the gallery in November. “There is a typical art fair experience the bling people expect,” said Krimko. “But part of doing the art fair now is challenging expectations. So we wanted to do something more serious.”
At the very least, the booth isn’t just about making sales off the wall. Krimko said the gallery sold the nine available paintings by the artist for $14,000 to $22,000, based mainly on jpegs, after announcing its representation but before the fair even opened.
The solo show idea also won over New York gallery owner Andrea Rosen, who devoted the lion’s share of her booth to new work by L.A. artist Elliott Hundley, with a sampler of other gallery artists around the corner. “Doing a one-person show as opposed to having a piece here and there, you have a chance to make a real impression,” she said.
Half of Hundley’s eight works were in his signature collage-style painting, in which he uses pushpins and wire to suspend on canvas material as diverse as coconut shells and photos. The rest were oil on linen paintings. Rosen sold the eight works for $85,000 each early on. “We informed people before the fair, but for the most part people like to see them in person.”
The fair also has a section called Frame for less established or younger galleries, devoted to solo exhibitions or projects. “It’s a great way to introduce an artist to a client and also curators,” said Atsuko Ninagawa, owner of the Tokyo gallery Take Ninagawa. She brought 10 “painting-collages” by the versatile Japanese artist Shinro Ohtake, which sold around $20,000 each. By the end of the first day all but one had sold; the last was on hold, she said.
“I like Frieze because it’s not like business-business too much, so you can focus more on the art,” she said, noting that the open feeling of the tent architecture helped. “In a tall building in Manhattan, you would feel the power hierarchy more.”
Gabrielle Giattino of Bureau gallery in New York had a booth nearby, also part of Frame. Hers featured a 1,500-pound sculpture in cast concrete by Brooklyn artist Justin Matherly based on the monumental, multi-figured Roman sculpture Laocoon from the Vatican. Matherly’s gritty and rough-edged take on the marble original, known for its broken limbs, sold the opening day of the fair for $35,000 to a European collector who knew about the piece in advance. “He came and saw it in the first 10 minutes of the fair, and that was it,” said Giattino.
So what’s the purpose of doing the fair now that she’s sold the work? “It’s about building relationships for me, and it’s also an exhibition for Justin,” she said.
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