Frieze New York Ices the Competition With Its First Edition on Randall's Island

Frieze New York
(Photo © Ben Davis)

NEW YORK — It's here. After months of hype, Frieze New York at last opened to VIPs this afternoon on Randall's Island. What can you expect if you make the trek?

Well, it's a really good art fair, and most people I talked to seemed already to be giving it the advantage over its New York competitors. The giant Frieze Tent looks smart; the sweeping venue is filled with natural light (even in the relative gloom of a gray afternoon) and pleasant to navigate, despite its immensity; and the roster of exhibitors feels well-chosen. The crowd is lively and Manhattan's millionaires seem to be in a buying mood. The space even feels relatively laid back for such a high-stakes affair. Heck, even the bathrooms look great.

Scads of outstanding, ultra-contemporary art is on view, of course. Gagosian, making its first appearance at a NYC fair, has filled its booth with Rudolf Stingel paintings. Michael Werner has a large Thomas Houseago sculpture, "Head (Black Hill I)" (2010), a striking work that looked something like a decrepit effigy of Darth Vader's helmet. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac has one of Gilbert & George's "London Pictures," which of late have been circling the globe — and happen to also be on view in Alfonso Artiaco and White Cube's booths — out front. It's a tasting menu of the best and most bankable.

There are the inevitable instances of blank art-fair irony. "It's Going Very Badly / It's a Terrible Disaster," reads a David Shrigley sign, in his characteristic scrawl, outside Anton Kern, a statement that might well crystalize the commercial anxieties of the financial high-wire act that is the art-fair economy for many of these dealers. "Too Big to Fail" reads a wall-filling black-and-white canvas by Barbara Kruger at Spruth Magers, referencing the concentration of financial power that underpins the jet-setting art collector class. "This Dream Has an Advantage Over Many Others" — my favorite snippet of text at the fair — blazes in yellow neon at Almine Rech, a bit of lonesome existential musing that might also lament entrenched privilege.   

As usual, the program of the "Frame" section of young exhibitors offers the frisson of discovery, and gives you someone to root for. Los Angeles's Night Gallery was showing a grotto-like, site-specific installation by Samara Golden, inspired partly by Randall's Island's history, partly by her own personal experience. Titled "Bad Brains," the booth was made over to resemble a trashed living room, with fragmented mirrors, TV monitors, a pile of pagan masks, and an LED strip reeling off a set of questions that are supposed to diagnose mental illness: "Do you ever talk to plants?" "Do you draw pictures of people getting violently injured?" And so on. It was a successfully ghoulish interlude in the fair, and sold in the first hours for $15,000.

So: Frieze is well designed and pleasantly appointed. The Frieze organizers are pros, and have done what they do, which is give art commerce a high-brow but also accessible and relatively unpretentious feeling. Curators Tom Eccles and Cecilia Alemani have carried off their tasks of curating the fair's pop-up sculpture park and various special attractions — like the booth where the sublimely intense John Ahearn was hard at work creating casts of willing fairgoers — in such a way as to give the whole thing the appropriate air of class and grace.

It's all so well organized that the one detail that stands out really stands out, and that is the ongoing labor dispute with the Carpenter's Union, which continues to fester. Visitors can expect to be greeted at the shuttle buses at 125th street by a big banner reading "Shame on Frieze Art Fair: Purveyors of Poverty, Hurting New York City" (now there's a bit of text art for you!) As the woman who sat there, holding up one end of the banner, told me, referring to the exhibitors and artists looking to do business, "It's not their fault, they're just trying to sell stuff — it's the organizers. They did this." In a context that reduces political sentiment to kabuki theater, that feels like bedrock reality. There has to be a better way.

To see some of the works mentioned in this article, click on the slide show.