A decade ago art fairs were more intimate, with displays often exhibiting individual flair. As big business moved in, however, many of these events became generic and simply too big. Hundreds of white-walled booths now show pretty much the same kind of art, even the same artists, at the same price points. A visit can be a monotonous chore.
But strolling through the Pavilion of Art & Design in London during Frieze and then again a month later in New York — where I was a member of the jury selecting best in show — I found myself repeatedly surprised and exhilarated. The spacious aisles and limited number of small, varied booths filled with art, design, and jewelry drawn from the 20th and the 21st centuries made for an enjoyable viewing experience.
In part I liked these fairs because of their manageable scale. (Others may share my sentiment: Armory Show director Paul Morris has promised to cut 50 exhibitors from this spring’s edition.) But another pleasure of the PAD events was seeing the art hanging with and around furniture, ceramics, lighting, and carpets as part of a decorative scheme.
I know this kind of display isn’t fashionable, but it reflects how collectors actually live with art. People who buy modern paintings also buy furniture, and people who appreciate tribal art may also be attracted to jewelry. In this month’s Art + Auction cover story on Old Master sculpture, one expert notes the number of contemporary-art collectors moving into that rarefied field. When it comes to fairs, it makes sense to show different categories together. It is more true to life.
There is something tyrannical about the way in which many contemporary-art fairs limit exhibitors to galleries offering a very narrow band of art. The art world is increasingly broad, messy, and multifaceted, and I’d like to see that reflected more at these events. Local flavor and connections are just as important as global ambitions.
Of course, art fairs are businesses, and in that realm, too, eclecticism can pay off, judging by the number of red dots at PAD New York. A unique curved, red-leather Jean Royère sofa at Cristina Grajales Gallery — probably my favorite piece in the show — sold within minutes of the opening. The terrific Frank Stella painting "Maze," 1966, was snapped up at Paul Kasmin Gallery. I also noticed that in the L&M booth some glass sculptures by Ritsue Mishima and an Ed Ruscha painting had red dots on the first night.
On a personal level, I was taken by an unusual asymmetrical 1963 Agnes Martin painting at the Mayor Gallery, of London. I also fondly recall the stands of the London tribal dealer Entwistle, the Paris decorative-arts specialists Chahan and L’Arc en Seine, and the contemporary-design powerhouse Carpenters Workshop Gallery, which has spaces in London and Paris.
When I spoke with other visitors, even Chelsea-gallery devotees, they had equally diverse lists of favorites. Collectors should demand more than assemblages of the biggest galleries with the most star-studded rosters. These have their pleasures, but so does variety.
Benjamin Genocchio is editor-in-chief of Art + Auction magazine and ARTINFO.com