At the end of my third full day of Frieze week, I walked out of a tent the size of a major international airport terminal – an airport terminal filled with beautiful and expensive objects and aggressively stylish people peering at them – and strolled down Marylebone High Street in central London, relishing the benign chill of an early October evening. I was glad, even giddy, to be liberated from the abundance of paintings and sculptures and video pieces and talks and performances. I passed the window of a high-end children’s clothing concern and my eye was drawn to a trio of small mannequins facing out onto the street from the window. Why were these children headless, I wondered? What message was being sold in the form of these uncanny figures, adorably attired and decapitated? Were they genuinely unsettling, these pieces, or merely glib in their juxtaposition of cuteness and surreal horror? What, as art-world people like to ask, was I seeing?
What I was seeing, it slowly dawned on me, was art where no such thing was intended. The intensity and duration of the Frieze experience had done something to my brain. Over the time I spent at the fair – a period in which I was repeatedly presented with new things to look at and think about – some mental reflex of appraisal had been honed to a hair-trigger sensitivity, to the point where I was experiencing absolutely everything as art. I had lost some essential capacity to distinguish between the categories of art and commerce. It was strangely telling, because of all the many experiences a person is liable to have over the course of Frieze week, the sense of this boundary dissolving is the most potent. What I was seeing was art, in prodigious quantities. What I was also seeing was money, in one of its more rarefied forms.
Here is a pretty much random list of things that encroached on my various senses at Frieze week. I saw a 16th-century Renaissance sculpture of a crucified Christ, from which the actual crucifix was missing, so that Christ seemed to float in the air above the heads of two bored and unredeemed-looking Florentine art dealers eating salads out of cardboard containers. I saw countless people, some of whom seemed to be honest-to-god Instagram influencers, posing for photographs in front of a Tracey Emin neon scrawl that read, “I thought about fucking the inside of your mind”. I saw a middle-aged woman maintaining an air of decorous irony as a Chinese conceptual artist encased her entire leg in plaster. I heard two different people, no more than half an hour apart, utter the phrase, “I’m such a fucking cliché.” I saw an elderly androgynous couple, identically made up and identically bald, wearing identical pearl necklaces and sequined pink dresses and matching handbags, posing outside the Gagosian Gallery booth for photos with other less dementedly glamorous VIPs. (“Who are those people?” I asked the person standing beside me. “I don’t know what their names are,” she said. “They’re fixtures. They come to everything.”) I found myself paying £16 for a sandwich and a bottle of water, which I then ate from a paper plate while standing at a counter beside a bin. And I felt in the palm of my hand the numinous weight of a 4.5bn-year-old object, the impacted core of a meteorite as old as the Earth itself and with a list price of somewhere in the mid-£60,000s.
All of these things were, as individual experiences, remarkable in their own right. But if you spend any amount of time at Frieze you will have so many of these experiences that they will merge into an undifferentiated torrent. It’s pure exhibition. Such was the hi-definition relentlessness that, on each of the five days I visited, the fair there was always a point where it became an urgent psychological necessity for me to slip out into the calm of Regent’s Park and sit on a bench for half an hour or so, just to stare into the middle distance and listen to the chatter of magpies.
Frieze art fair, which takes place every October in London, was launched in 2003 by Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, who co-founded the British art magazine frieze in the early 1990s (Frieze fairs are also held in Los Angeles in February and New York in May). On the afternoon before the fair opened, I met Sharp outside the Frieze London tent, where she had been checking in on the last leg of the installation. A small, humorous person with a slightly somnolent manner of speaking, and a great tousled mane of brown hair that she periodically swept sideward from her brow as she talked, Sharp didn’t give the impression of being among the art world’s most powerful figures. When we met, she was ranked 99 on ArtReview’s Power 100 list, an annual ranking of the art world’s most influential players. (The Power 100 list is one of those things that art people tend to roll their eyes at, but you get the sense they’d rather be rolling their eyes at it from the inside than from the outside.)
“An art fair is first and foremost a trade fair,” she said. “But our background is a bit different to most trade-show organisers.” She and Slotover knew nothing about the business of art when they started the fair. She had, at that point, never met a collector. “Our world in the magazine was a little ivory tower, completely removed and separate from the market. We were not art-market experts. And even now, that’s the case.” She did not sell art, she said, so much as create a space for people to bring art to, where other people could buy it. But she herself, she said in a tone of even sincerity, was not involved in that transaction.
At the time of Frieze’s inception, the major international fairs were Art Basel in Switzerland, The Armory in New York and Madrid’s Arco. But with the rise of the Young British Artists in the 1990s, and the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, London had become a major art-world city. (“When Matthew and I published the first issue of frieze in 1991,” Sharp told me, “you could have comfortably fit every gallerist, artist, collector and curator in this city in one pub.”)
Despite its organiser’s professed innocence of the business, Frieze London was an immediate success, becoming one of the non-negotiable events in the art-world calendar. Since 2012 Frieze has been composed of two distinct fairs in two gigantic white tents at either end of Regent’s Park in the centre of town: Frieze London, where dealers sell new work by contemporary artists, and Frieze Masters, which focuses on everything from early Homo sapiens to the late 20th century. To put it in business terms, Frieze London is all about the primary market, whereas Frieze Masters is all about the secondary. The bigger deals tend to be the secondary ones (2019’s priciest transaction was Hauser & Wirth’s sale of a 1968 oil-and-chalk work on paper by Cy Twombly for $6.5m). But it’s Frieze London that generates more excitement, for its commanding vision of the state of contemporary art, its larger crowds and its hipper VIPs. (At Frieze Masters I saw the actor John Malkovich drifting urbanely through the throng, whereas at Frieze London I passed M.I.A, a controversy-courting rapper and producer, as she was hustled in.)
The vast majority of visitors come to look at the art, and at the stylish people who have come to be looked at while looking at the art. “There are 60,000 people at this fair,” as Marc Glimcher, ceo of New York’s Pace Gallery put it to me, “and maybe 3,000 of them will buy something.” Glimcher (Power 100 ranking: 23) is an American man of comfortable middle age who somehow managed to pull off a hooded top beneath a blue suit jacket. He talked about the explosion of interest in contemporary art over the last 20 years or so. People were here, he said, because art was an essential part of life.
Glimcher’s argument was that Frieze was more than just an occasion for gallerists and collectors to cut deals. It also offered a panoramic view of what was going on in the art world. But the people who kept dropping by the Pace booth to deliver fist bumps and high fives and well-wishes, thereby breaking the flow of Glimcher’s suave oration, seemed to be paying their respects not for his contribution to culture per se, but for his extraordinary success in the art of unit-shifting.
It is of course true, as the New York gallerist Pat Hearn put it back in the 1990s, that “the art fair is simply an effort to move the product in whatever way possible”. And the product at Frieze, despite jitters around Brexit, was changing hands rapidly. Within two hours of the fair opening, the Gagosian Gallery had already sold its entire stock of vivid abstractions by the bankably named painter Sterling Ruby, each of which went for around $325,000.
But there are other things going on, too. You hear a lot at Frieze about “discovery” of new and exciting work. One person who mentioned this to me was Candida Gertler, a German-born art collector and philanthropist. “Every time I walk into the place on Wednesday,” she said, “I feel like there is nothing that captures my attention. And by Sunday, if I come back three or four times, everything crystallises and the things I really appreciate all of a sudden emerge.”
Véronique Parke, another collector, said that “informed buyers” tended to be able to recognise what she called a “wink”. A particular work would seem to wink at her across the chaos of the fair – perhaps because she’d seen it in a detailed JPEG sent by a gallery, or simply because of its inherent pull – and she would keep coming back to it. For this mysterious enchantment to take hold properly required the physical presence of the observer and the object.
An art fair like Frieze can seem like a strangely anachronistic phenomenon in a culture that is ever more virtual and in which an increasing proportion of our purchases and social interactions take place online. At an art fair, thousands of bodies convene in an actual space to consider hundreds of tangible objects. (At one point, while backing up to get a better look at a painting in the Hauser & Wirth booth, I narrowly avoided tripping backwards over Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture “Nature Study # 6”, a pink trough filled with sculpted marble breasts. I asked a couple of Frieze employers whether people clumsily stumbling over valuable works of art was an occupational hazard. Not really, they said; the regular clientele were just more graceful than me.)
The art itself can come to seem almost incidental to the human interactions. One of the most interesting things to do at Frieze, particularly during the VIP days, is to stand around and watch. The more I did of this, the more the essentially fractal nature of the fair’s social dynamic impressed itself on me. I’d see one person bump into a second person, then, after a certain amount of air-kissing, the ensuing conversation would be interrupted by the arrival of a third person who wanted a quick word with one of the original people, and then I’d notice that all three were more or less openly glancing about to see if there was a fourth person who might be more profitably spoken to.
I do not personally know or care much about footwear, but I did notice an awful lot of guys wearing trainers with suits. At first I thought that this must have had something to do with all the walking and standing around. But I texted an art-critic friend of mine, and he assured me that this was not a practical measure. Rather, it was a “whole thing”. These guys were everywhere, with their slicked-back hair, nattily tailored suits and designer trainers. Sitting in the booths in stylish chairs with their legs smartly crossed at the knee. Drifting suavely but somehow insubstantially in and out of VIP lounges. Standing around talking to other slicked-back-hair guys. Some of them carried overnight bags, most of which were made of tan leather that looked incredibly supple. And though they may not all have identified as Swiss, they seemed to me, nonetheless, to emanate a deep and powerful aura of being Swiss, such that to hear them speak in an American or a British accent was to become even more firmly convinced of their irreducible Swissness. (To maintain that kind of hair, I reasoned, surely required clean alpine air and low taxes.)
My ambition going into Frieze was to have a meaningful encounter with a work of art. But over five days this ideal experience eluded me with maddening persistence. I would see things I liked the look of, certainly, things that seemed to be interesting and good. Things that I recognised as provocative and clever and even beautiful. But I was only ever recognising, never feeling. There have been occasions, rare but memorable, where I have walked into a room in a gallery or museum and felt an immediate connection with a work of art, as though it had been waiting patiently for me to approach it so that it could impart some urgent message, encrypted in the form of emotion. I badly wanted this to happen at Frieze, but it never did. Because there was just too much art, and it was surrounded by far too many other things – too many people talking too much shop, taking too many selfies, making too many deals. I had asked Amanda Sharp whether she felt people’s engagement with art at Frieze was affected by the knowledge that everything was for sale. She had said that for most people she didn’t think this was the case. But I could not tune into the frequency of the art. The signals were drowned out by the noise.
That’s not to say that I didn’t see things that moved me. I encountered for the first time the work of Lisa Brice, a contemporary South African painter whose mostly blue paintings of nude female figures – smoking, dancing, undressing, painting – were both ghostly and extraordinarily self-possessed. I found them mysterious and beautiful, and they have haunted me since. Yet I didn’t see Brice’s work at the fair itself, but at Stephen Friedman, the Old Burlington Street gallery that represents her. (Galleries all over London mount shows to coincide with Frieze.)
I kept asking people how they succeeded in having moments of connection with actual works of art at the fair. Some told me that it was absolutely necessary to have a plan so you could isolate in advance a manageable number of works. Others told me that the trick was to drift about and see what grabbed you. An art critic told me that her approach was to walk around the fair and find people who seemed to be looking very intensely at a particular object, and to ask them why were they so transfixed. I experimented with all of these methodologies, but I eventually became resigned to the idea that the whole setup of the art fair was basically inhospitable to the appreciation of art. There was too much to look at and I had lost my capacity to see.
At dinner one evening after a gallery opening in Mayfair, I sat beside an artist in his early 30s who talked in a sorrowful manner about the necessary relationship of artists to collectors. If he were a musician, he said, he would be in a direct and intimate relationship with his audience, who would show up at a venue and hear him play; if he were a writer, his readers could buy a copy of his book in a shop for ten quid. But as a visual artist, he said, he was reliant on very wealthy people wanting to own his work and thereby supporting him. It struck me that for an artist to be successful, to make a living out of art, it was necessary for his work to be unaffordable to ordinary people.
The entanglement of art and money is nothing new. (Cf, for instance, the entire history of Western visual culture since at least as far back as the statuary of classical antiquity.) There’s a special starkness, though, to the way in which art fairs lay bare this relationship, which is why artists as a general rule do not relish the experience of attending them. John Baldessari, an American conceptualist, once joked that an artist at an art fair is like a kid walking into her parents’ bedroom while they’re having sex. Some version of this line was quoted to me by a not inconsiderable number of people during Frieze week.
It’s tempting to analyse the art market in class terms. The artists are certainly the workers in this equation; the dealers and collectors the factory owners. But once you start easing yourself into straightforward narratives about structural inequalities, you come up against the reality of collectors who use their wealth and privilege to address historical and ongoing inequities. They’re not the norm, by any means, but they’re out there.
Right before Frieze opened, I met Pamela Joyner for coffee at the nearby Langham hotel. Joyner, an African-American collector in her early 60s who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, made her money in finance. She is now among the most influential figures in the art world (Power 100 ranking: 35) and the kind of collector whose existence and prominence complicates preconceptions of collectors as rich people who just fly around the world buying expensive art to put in the vestibules and drawing rooms of their many mansions. To be clear, Joyner is a rich person who flies around the world buying art to put in her vestibules, among other places. But her collecting, which she pursues with her husband Alfred Giuffrida, who works in private equity, is at least as much a means to an end as it is an end in itself. As a self-described “activist collector”, her purchases, individually and as a whole, are directed at making radical adjustments to an art-history cannon warped by the almost total exclusion of artists of colour. “The premise of our collection is that race was a terrible lens through which to view art,” she said, referring to the marginalisation of a great many artists simply because they were not white. “And I am trying to correct the effects of the historical use of that lens.”
Historical injustices were not mitigated through the purchase of the art itself or the residencies offered to artists at her rural California property. It was through the elevation in status that came from being perceived as valuable. If you were in the Joyner-Giuffrida collection, your work mattered.
One person who happened to be in the room, in the Baldessarian sense, was Himali Singh Soin, a London-based Indian artist and poet. She had just received the 2019 Frieze Artist Award, which gives a young artist the chance to present a major work at the fair. Singh Soin’s commissioned work was the film “we are opposite like that”, for which she travelled by boat around the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Circle. The film explores Victorian anxieties about the advent of a new ice age, linking popular fantasies about the encroachment of Arctic ice with worries about the collapse of empire. I attended a packed screening of the film and found it moving and eerie. Perhaps because of the silence and calm of the screening room, the film had a more powerful effect on me than anything else I saw that week at the fair.
The award represented a significant coup for such a young and relatively unknown artist. When we met, Singh Soin was clearly pleased with the opportunity to display her work to the public. She did not yet have gallery representation – partly out of choice, she said, and partly because she had yet to meet someone who she could work with as a friend and collaborator.
“I don’t think the business of art can be purely a work relationship,” she said. “It feels like a very slippery place full of ethical dilemmas. And I know that you can’t always choose the right thing. But I would like to meet somebody who would help me make the right choices. Because I could not show in a collection that had money from oil companies or something like that. That is just something I couldn’t do. And I think fairs also need to begin interrogating that aspect. To ask, when it comes to collectors, where is the money coming from?”
I said that it was clear that some collectors were using their wealth for worthwhile ends – Joyner being an obvious example – but that a person who worried about inequality would feel ambivalent about this, because these worthwhile ends were facilitated by the concentration of vast wealth and power in the hands of a tiny number of people.
She said that, for an artist with her anti-capitalist values, exhibiting at Frieze was a “complicated” proposition, but that it was nonetheless important in that it afforded her an opportunity to bring her work, which embodied those underlying values, to a wider audience. Her job as an artist, she said, was to serve as a critical voice, not least of the fair itself. She described Frieze as having “no axis”: it was a place in which value was based on pure speculation, lending everything an air of illusoriness. The tent itself was in some sense a fiction. Mere days ago it had not existed, and mere days from now it would disappear again, leaving no trace.
“All of this”, she said – gesturing at the packed restaurant and the intensity of the fair beyond – “is like a cloud.”
The immovable fact about the art world is that it is a commodity market. This was underlined for me, in a manner that felt slightly paradoxical, by the presence at Frieze Masters – along with all the paintings and sculptures and ceramics – of certain objects that didn’t fit into the category of visual art, but which did fit into the more capacious category of cultural-artefact-as-commodity. That 4.5bn-year-old meteorite, for instance, and some Lower Palaeolithic axes I saw on sale for 50 grand.
But for me, an incorrigible sucker for both the written word and good old-fashioned historical irony, the real highlight of the fair was a secondhand book. Just by the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge, in the booth of Peter Harrington, a rare book dealer, displayed behind glass and opened to its title page, lay a signed presentation copy of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”. The price tag, plainly spelled out on the accompanying information card in an elegantly minimal font that I think may have been Garamond, was £500,000.
Also printed on that card, directly above the asking price, was the following description of the contents of the book in question: “Marx’s examination of capitalist production processes reveals how commodification necessarily generates a structural imbalance between different social classes. His class theory posits a key dividing line in society between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, that is, the factory owners (and their allies) and the workers.”
I believe I looked at that book, and at the card beneath it, for longer than I had looked at any other object in my five days at the fair. Eventually, I realised that I was not just looking at it, but seeing it. I was having exactly the kind of charged encounter I had been trying and failing to have all week. There was something vertiginous about the experience. It was terrifying and weirdly thrilling. If some conceptualist had bought a signed copy of “Das Kapital” and put it in a glass case and stuck a half-a-million quid price-tag on it, I would probably have rolled my eyes at the mere idea. It would be excessively on the nose: simultaneously too outrageous and too predictable. But an honest-to-god retail concern selling the same book at a gigantic bazaar, right across from something called the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge? That was truly audacious. That was authentic provocation.
I remembered Singh Soin’s description of the fair as a kind of cloud, both insubstantial and all-encompassing. It hit me then that I had been having an authentic experience all along. What I had been experiencing was the fair. Because the fair, I realised, was itself a vast installation, a technical and aesthetic achievement of almost incomprehensible scale: an immersive experience in which the viewer was subject to an endless barrage of stimulations and provocations, on the theme of the endlessly complex relationship between art and money. The paintings and sculptures and films and performances were merely the material. The fair was the art.•
Frieze Los Angeles runs from February 14th-16th