Inside Frieze New York, the Mega-Rich’s Art Supermarket
At Frieze New York’s ‘VIP day,’ contemporary art was sold for millions, and collectors and gallerists were dancing delicately but decisively around each other.
Forget even the sight of Adrien Brody surrounded by admirers at White Cube.
The only queue to see any art at the crowded ‘VIP’ opening day of Frieze New York—the contemporary art fair running till May 8 featuring art, sculpture, and installations costing a lot of money from all over the world—was to see Gabriel, a 15-year-old donkey rolling in straw and wandering around an enclosure lit by a glittering chandelier.
Gabriel was the centerpiece of Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Warning! Enter At Your Own Risk. Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank You.’ This was a re-creation of a 1994 exhibit in New York: The donkey, Cattelan said, was “a symbol of his own inability to produce any decent artistic idea displayed under a crystal chandelier, an emblem of the sophistication of the art world.”
Gabriel, under the care of showbiz animal hiring agency All Tame Animals, seemed happy to be on view. “He gets all the chicks,” his handler grinned. “If you want a goat for a commercial, you come to us.”
At first, Frieze New York’s huge, tented space in Randall’s Island Park overlooking the East River—200 galleries from 31 countries—seemed far too crowded to be “VIP,” but then one acclimatized to the hundreds of millions of dollars of contemporary art; the very visible king’s ransom of cosmetic surgery and designer outfits on the VIP visitors; and the fancy food and drink refreshments.
Collectors and scenesters surveyed each other as much as the art. Frieze, and the art therein, is a pop-up supermarket for the super-rich. The first snatch of conversation one reporter overheard went thus: “The modulization of luxury brands dilutes the brands. If I was the chairman of LVMH I would target one luxury brand per luxury market. Just to be clear, I do not want to be that.”
Gallerists and collectors engage at Frieze in an intriguing flirtation, with both parties signaling how much they’re worth—up to a point.
Collectors display their wealth ostentatiously to ensure gallerists take them seriously, stopping short of disclosing their net worth. Gallerists reveal prices of the works on display and attempt to convey an artist’s relative value in the market, stopping short of disclosing previous sales.
The scene on VIP day was a genial riot of air- and cheek-kissing, hugs, and proclamations of “I can’t believe it’s you, Patrizia,” as the very wealthy and artistically inclined—including artists like Tracey Emin—bumped into one another, and compared notes on what to buy, and who was there. Art advisers hovered alongside their rich clients.
It was an international melting pot of languages and accents: Italian, Russian, French, Chinese, American, British. The outlandishly dressed—one gentleman was in a kind of silver puffball tunic dress—tottered alongside the more understated in expensive looking camel-colored and Barbour coats.
New York-based stylist and designer Patricia Fox, aka Purely Patricia, attempted to outshine the art in a black dress splashed with neon hearts and lightning bolts, and a towering pipe cleaner hat—all by British designer Ben Copperwheat.
“It’s like the walking dead around here,” she remarked to a companion, gesturing at another visitor’s all-black outfit.
One Chanel-jacketed lady was heard to mutter by one booth, “That was so funny, that girl knew nothing about the artist.” A man near her said, far less disapprovingly, “He has so much money he doesn’t know what to do with it.”
At Los Angeles’s David Kordansky Gallery, a young woman was eyeing a new carpet painting by Mai-Thu Perret, the Swiss-born artist whose work reflects her interest in utopian societies, particularly feminist ones.
“She’s a post-feminist artist,” the woman’s adviser explained, stressing that the “female body” is very important to Perret. Indeed, his client was transfixed by the womb-like paintings. “Visually, you don’t need to know what her work is about in order to appreciate it, but it helps to know the artist’s background,” her adviser said.
Here was an easy-to-digest conceptual piece that was also aesthetically pleasing, and—at $45,000—appropriately priced, according to the adviser.
Another adviser-collector duo hovered around Ed Ruscha’s “Rusty Silencers” drawing, one of the blue-chip works at Acquavella Galleries. The collector had not expected to fall in love with a mere drawing during his shopping excursion.
“It’s still a 1979 Ed Ruscha,” his adviser assured him.
“And it’s an important work, too,” the collector replied, reassuring himself now.
At David Zwirner’s two-artist booth featuring works by Lisa Yuskavage and Isa Genzken, Yuskavage’s four paintings—including three unconventional female nudes the artist had created for the fair, as though it were an exhibition—had all sold by the end of the day (the nudes were priced at $900,000 each.)
Douglas Baxter, president of Pace, said he’d sold six works by Fred Wilson ranging from $25,000 to $125,000—but declined to give details about specific pieces.
Stand still, and one risked being the roadkill for serious collectors and buyers, darting this way and that—while high heels were the order of some glamazons’ day, the truly savvy opted for pumps (chic black and white, of course).
The actual buying was being done quietly, but swiftly. At Hauser & Wirth, two of Roni Horn’s cast glass sculptures—that looked like very classy, glassy paddling pools—sold for $975,000 each.
Philip Guston’s 1977 oil painting “Black Coast” sold to a buyer for a price in the millions—the buyer, who wished to remain anonymous, also did not want the sum stated. (There is an exhibition of Guston’s work, produced between 1957 and 1967, at Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea gallery.)
Marc Payot, vice president and partner of Hauser & Wirth, told The Daily Beast that this kind of shopping had a degree of planning and calculation behind it.
“We are in contact constantly with our clients, so they are informed of what we will bring,” Payot said. “We know who of the clients will be interested in things that we show here. For some it happens, for others it does not—they are too late, or it is not what they thought, or it is too expensive. This is not random. This is not people walking in and saying, ‘I’ll take this.’”
Payot said there were collectors, museum directors and curators from all over the world at Frieze, partly because next week also sees a raft of art auctions take place in New York, with over 1,500 works up for sale.
Over five “editions,” Frieze New York, on whose committee Payot sits, had grown up, he said. The art market, he said, had grown from an American-European axis, to one encompassing Asia, Australia, and South America.
“The big difference from 10 years ago is that the art market is now completely global,” Payot said. “It’s more grown-up. Most clients are real collectors who have an idea about what they want to achieve with their collection, and also over generations. It’s not financially speculative for them, but they do care if the works are a good investment.”
Payot also noted the presence of a younger generation of art buyer in their thirties, who “may have had a Western education and created networks and friendships in London and New York, then returned to South America or China and kept that interest in art and culture.”
Indeed, there are gallerists from Frieze from many different countries. At her stand—in front of a neon-colored canvas by abstract artist Peter Halley, who she is proud to represent—Irit Sommer, owner of Sommer Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, said Frieze was vital “for meeting people and a great platform for our artists.”
For Sommer, Frieze has become more “professional” over the years, the audience and collectors bigger and more diverse.
“Newcomers come with an art adviser—they don’t understand too much and rely on them,” Sommer said. “That’s fine at the beginning, but you want the collector to become engaged personally with the work, and learn and get passionate about it. We try as hard as we can to choose people to stay with us and stay with the artists, and stay interested in their development.”
The work on display at Sommer’s stand ranged in price from $17,000 to $150,000 for the Halley canvas. Would she sell out of the art by the end of the weekend?
Sommer laughed. “I wish. Usually not. Hopefully we’ll make back our cost and some more. This is really about presence, especially coming out of Tel Aviv we need to be present to show off the gallery and the artists.”
Howard Read, co-owner of Cheim and Read, would not reveal the prices of the works his New York gallery had sold—including a Jenny Holzer painting and two William Eggleston photographs—but the selling had been bolstered by the wealthy customers visiting early in the slipstream of Deutsche Bank, the event’s main sponsor.
Read said, “The very first time we were here we sold an important work by one of our senior artists, and we sold it to someone on the Upper East Side of New York who had never been to our [Chelsea] gallery. It taught us that, as remote as one thinks Randall’s Island as being, people get here.”
The fair had “a good mix” of collectors, museum people, and artists, Read thought. “Traditional artists don’t go to Art Basel or most of the fairs, but they come here. This is a really good one. The light feels good, it feels open. The bigger, more expensive things are not in this fair—classic modernist or works from the 20th century. This is more about a younger audience and contemporary work.
“The buyers are young and getting younger. I think people are more impulsive in their buying here. The ‘discovery’ part is very fresh and very quick. It’s not studied. They come in, fall in love with something, and decide they want to have it. Half come on their own, half come with advisers. A lot the advisers have pre-shopped the fair already, and are coming in to see the works.”
For Read, Frieze is centered around “the passion linking collector and artist. Basel is more serious and business-like, there’s more history and investment. Here it’s a little freer and a little younger.”
However, even the fantastically wealthy patrons were occasionally awestruck by the extravagance of Frieze New York. Standing in line at a café, an elegant French woman was horrified that a cup of tea cost $5.20—after tax and mandated tip. “It’s a ripoff!” she harrumphed to one reporter, putting her credit card back in her Hermès wallet.
At Marian Goodman, which featured a solo exhibition of works by William Kentridge, an older man with an ultra-exclusive “lounge pass” around his neck couldn’t fathom that one of the smaller pieces cost $50,000.
“It’s lovely, but that’s ridiculous!” he exclaimed to the purse-lipped gallerists, who refused to engage him. He turned away and threw up his hands. “The world has gone mad!”