Trends Fairs USA

A search engine for art

Like the internet, art fairs are increasingly providing a snapshot of the global contemporary scene

Kendell Geers, Mouthing off, 1993 (edition of three), at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen (D13)

Art fairs have no theme; they are vast, sprawling displays of hundreds of works in every medium. They are “almost like the internet itself: [they’re] open and [dealers] can bring anything, so you can take the temperature of what’s going on [in the art world]”, said Chrissie Iles, a curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

To navigate the mass of art available at Frieze New York, we asked curators and museum directors to choose their favourite pieces. Several described Tino Sehgal’s performance at Marian Goodman Gallery (C7) as a highlight of the fair. Visitors were queuing by the gallery’s stand on Friday to interact with a child actor posing as a Manga character.

“Going against the grain” in choosing to host such a work “pays off”, said Nicholas Cullinan, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Not literally, but in terms of making a statement; in foregrounding an artist’s work.” He also said it was “wonderful to see older things” at an event devoted to the art of now, citing Volume, 1959 ($90,000), a black abstract canvas with spaces cut out by the late Italian artist Dadamaino, at Massimo De Carlo (D17).

Another historic piece—Robert Whitman’s Garbage Bag, originally made in 1964—is on display with Broadway 1602 (C10). The piece consists of a paper shopping bag; inside is a film projection of things one would normally find in the bin. “It’s one of the first ever film installation sculptures to be made,” Iles said.

A show of abstract paintings, sculptures and a wall-mounted grid of film strips by the late experimental artist Robert Breer, dating from the 1950s to the 1970s ($65,600-$131,200), on display with the Parisian gallery GB Agency (C51), was singled out by Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum. Adriano Pedrosa, an independent curator who organises the Spotlight section of Frieze Masters in London, which focuses on 20th-century art, also highlighted the show. “It’s interesting to find these artists from the 1960s, 70s and 80s in this contemporary scene. It’s good to take a step back from the now.”

This emphasis on older art is prominent at Frieze New York this year. “I think it’s reflecting… what’s happening in the contemporary art world and the interest of a younger generation of artists. They have a huge motivation to look at what has been done before,” said Beatrix Ruf, the director of the Kunsthalle Zürich.

The internet gives them the means to do that. “Technology gives us unparalleled access to history,” Iles said. “It creates a flattening of time, a compression of history, so we’re seeing a new structure within which to look at ideas. Art fairs provide the opportunity to really see that in action because of [their] random nature. They’re very down, dirty and quick.”

Like the internet, fairs show art from around the world. “They provide an incredible variety in one location,” said Laura Raicovich, the director of global initiatives at the non-profit organisation Creative Time. One of her favourite works, on display with Frith Street Gallery (C44), is a carpet by Raqs Media Collective. Entitled The Great Bare Mat, 2012 (£35,000, edition of three), its image is based on a digital mapping of the electronic communications between the artists in the group.

Fairs provide a “useful snapshot” of what is happening around the world, Cullinan says, but they are “not a place to learn more about an artist. Occasionally there will be an in-depth presentation, but you don’t get huge depth of engagement.” Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, agrees. “Fairs are great for a scan of the pulse of the moment. One thing they are not is ideal for looking at art.”

Iles believes that, far from being a drawback, the fact that Frieze New York is trade-driven gives it an energy that is unique. “Dealers are able to respond quickly because there’s a commercial side that’s not weighed down by a museological reasoning. They are able to be more fluid and free, and that’s the thing I like most about fairs. I always learn a lot, and in a very efficient way.”

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