The elephant in the room when London’s Frieze Week opened was just what the fair would indicate of the state of the art economy. Answers came in pronto. “We sold 90 percent of our booth in the first two hours,” says Carol Greene of the New York gallery, Greene Naftali. Kenny Schachter, the London-based American dealer, was in Rove, his gallery in Hoxton Square. He floated a hand over a black-and-white cube by the designer Richard Woods. “Aby Rosen and the Mugrabis just bought ten pieces” he said.
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So things were going okay?
“Things have come back. They’ve never been better. I sold a piece for $10 million this morning.”
“A Monet.” Pause. “You do what you gotta do.”
Well, Greene seemed gung-ho and Schachter is a straight-shooters so, even allowing for the more nuanced optimism I heard in some quarters, things were certainly on the mend. So I could stop number-crunching and focus on the inner life of the fair, including the promotional hoopla, and, of course, the art.
• Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignThe art first. The bust of 1990 created great change and this one is clearly doing the same. There was less fairground art, meaning huge in-your-face installations, slapped together with bags of post-adolescent macho in the manner of the Chapmans or Paul McCarthy. Jane England, whose Westbourne Grove gallery, England & Co., [LINK: http://www.englandgallery.com/] was over in Zoo, said, “There’s less bling. It’s much less vulgar.”
Gavin Brown’s stand had several pieces by Rirkrit Tiravanija, seven double pages of the New York Times, one for each day of the week, apparently chosen for the gloom of their contents upon each of which the artist has written THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY IS NUMBERED. By the end of the fair collectors, clearly more optimistic than the artist, had bought “more than one but not all,” in the words of the woman running the stand, at $90,000 each.
The Paris gallery Frank Elbaz was dedicated to Wallace Berman, a Los Angeles artist of the 1950s and ‘60s, who has always been identified with the Beat movement. “There is this California spirit in London right now,” Elbaz said buoyantly, pointing out that John Baldessari was showing at the Tate Modern and Ed Ruscha at the Hayward. Such are the external forces that create a sale. At any rate, Elbaz had sold several.
Elmgreen & Dragset, flavours of the moment after the Biennale, as they have been ever since their success in Venice when they turned the Danish and Nordic Pavilions into darkly funny installations, the supposed houses of two gay collectors. Humor is extremely rare in American art, but not uncommon among Europeans, and the Elmgreen & Dragset at the Madrid gallery, Helga de Alvear, is a replica of a large Giacometti walking figure. It is entitled Homme Qui Ne Marche Pas and attached to one leg is a large white ball and chain. (Helga de Alvear told me that it was sold to “a Spanish Institution” for 55,000 euros.) Some stands were willfully eccentric. The Milanese gallery Zero was showing just one piece by a Rumanian artist, Victor Man. “That was the artist’s decision,” said the gallery girl, who was sitting on a table in the corner. (They sold it for 30,000 euros.) “I hope to sell other works” she said, and returned to leafing through her books of transparencies.
And some stands were jokey. Copystand, a Frieze project impertinently situated across an aisle from Waddington, described itself as An Autonomous Manufacturing Zone. Anther sign read: Nothing Over £500.
They were cheekily copying art from the fair and selling it. I told Jim Ricks, one of the copyists, that I was unfamiliar with the artist whose work he was then replicating, small-scale.
“I don’t know his work either,” Ricks said. “It’s kind of like karaoke. We fulfill requests.”
Cornelia Grassi , daughter of the great New York painting restorer, Marco Grassi, and a partner in the London gallery, Greengrassi, was sitting at a desk at her stand. I asked what she felt about the new look of things.
“There’s less sex,” she said, and gave a general wave. “A few nudes. Fewer erections.”
I pointed out that she had a Lisa Yuskavage on her wall, a tremendous painting, Piggyback Ride, in which the main figure has, as is the artist’s wont, colossal breasts and a bristle of pubic hair.
“That’s not sexy” Grassi said.
A young man approached, clutching a black portfolio. He had a question about one of the artists.. Grassi answered politely.
I looked at some of the art, turned to see the man disappearing. “
Did you see that?” Grassi asked. ‘That’s the way things are now. He just asked that question to get the conversation going. Then he asked me too look at his work.
And he stalked off in a rage because I said I wouldn’t look at his work at an art fair.”
She said it was rather typical of some artists these days. At art fairs?
“They’re not allowed to,” she said. “It’s not a convention.”
Actually there was a time when you would be as likely to see an artist wandering around an art fair as to see a goose in Harrod’s Food Hall, but times have changed. I walked around with Adam Dant. Daniel Silver, a terrific young London sculptor, was in and out of his gallery, Ibid Projects. “That one was supposed to be a reclining woman. Then it became a Sitting Woman. But her title is Golden Woman,” he told me of a piece. Mike Bouchet, a Frankfurt-based American who had a hit at the Venice Biennale with his shipwrecked Floating House was showing stainless steel anchor and 4,500-meter chain. “It’s become much more artist-friendly here now,” he said. “Art has become much more popular generally. And artists. I think it’s the gallerists that are the weirdos now.”
Artists at the tippy-top of their careers were far more in evidence than formerly. I ran into Ron Arad, and here and there I saw Zaha Hadid, Grayson Perry, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, and Antony Gormley. It’s as if there is a necessary performance element in most art careers these days – as Francis Ford Coppola suggested at the Beirut film festival that movie directors attend performances of their work on a regular basis – so artists had better learn to enjoy it.
“It would be nice if there were fewer auctions.,” said the LA gallerist, Javier Peres with lethal politeness. “They are having them at three in the afternoon.” Market forces had eliminated Scope and Pulse, the two main piggyback fairs, leaving Zoo, but Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury were in there to pick up the slack and whatever else they could.
The Sotheby’s day sale began at three on Wednesday and it was packed, with about as many people standing as sitting. There was a time when you were about even less likely to see an artist in an auction house than at an art fair, so it was further proof of the raised profile of artists that Tracey Emin was sitting in the second row. That said, the first nine lots were to benefit the Haresfield, a London hospital and most of them, including the Emin, were donations from the artists. The first lot, a Grayson Perry urn, went for £48,000. Emin clapped vigorously. The Emin, a neon reading THOSE WHO SUFFER LOVE, was the second lot. She popped to her feet and gave a brisk bow to applause.
The bidding reached £38,000.
“I can buy it,” Emin said audibly.
But the bidding went to £40,000. She clapped. And clapped each subsequent hospital lot.
As I marked up the catalogue I came upon a letter, printed on a separate sheet. It was headed Private Sales at Sotheby’s and began: “At Sotheby’s we are aware that as the global economic climate shifts, so do our client’s collecting needs. While auction remains our core business, facilitating private sales has become an increasingly important service. In the last three years, the private sales of works, across varying value band, have amounted to nearly $1.5 billion, a significant increase from prior years.”
So the war continues between the auctioneers and the dealerdom, then still at Frieze.
Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.