Just as a king, in the political theology of the Middle Ages, had, like Christ himself, two bodies—a corpus naturale and a corpus mysticum—so today an ambitious art gallery has two manifestations in the world. One is a fixed location in a given city; the other, more elusive, can appear one day at a fair in Europe, only to vanish forty-eight hours later to make preparations for its reincarnation at the next fair in a different time zone or hemisphere.
The newest “next fair” is Frieze New York, which was held in early May on Randall’s Island, a tract of land in the East River more familiar to weekend athletes and summer music festival fans than gallery-goers. New York, of course, is not without art fairs. The most important one is the Armory Show, which has been held in recent years on a couple of Hudson River piers; but the scale and situation of the Armory Show have sown dissatisfaction among artists and gallery owners, which the publishers of frieze magazine—who have been running a successful fair in London since 2003—saw as an opportunity to pitch their tent in New York. Many of the galleries that touched down on Randall’s Island alighted to Art Hong Kong a few weeks later, just as some of them had surfaced a few weeks earlier at Art Brussels.
Presumably this globe-trotting is all to the benefit of the biggest galleries, which can now market their wares to an extent hardly possible before. Dealers with mid-level galleries are rueful at best. Maintaining the parallel organizational structure and staff to work the fairs can sap energy and boost overhead, but the dealers fear that skipping the fairs would only harm their own sales and reputations. Moreover, applications are usually vetted by a committee composed of prominent dealers, an arrangement meant to guarantee the quality of the galleries admitted; yet many dealers quietly resent being judged—and sometimes rejected—by colleagues who are also competitors. A risk, then, for the fairs is homogenization, because committee members may be more concerned with endorsing their own ideas about contemporary art than with ensuring that a broad view of its possibilities is represented.
Art wasn’t always marketed this way. The first contemporary fair was started as recently as 1967, when a group of galleries in Cologne seized on the concept as a way to reinvigorate the sluggish local market. Their success soon found imitators, most notably Art Basel, which started in 1970 and quickly surpassed Cologne as the pre-eminent contemporary fair, a crown it still wears. The success of fairs in small cities like Cologne and Basel raises the perennial question of whether New York needs fairs of its own. Isn’t the city, with its hundreds of galleries, an art fair in itself, nearly year-round? The question is surely relevant, but only for those of us who don’t look at art with our checkbooks. These days, it seems, collectors prefer to do their shopping at the fairs. It’s a lot more efficient, apparently, to find everything under one roof on the same day, like buying the week’s groceries at a supermarket on Saturday. The tail is wagging the dog. The fairs don’t exist to promote the galleries; the galleries exist to get into the fairs. In a book published in 2008, the Spanish curator and critic Paco Barragán dubbed this arrangement “the art fair age,” one in which fairs are “taking up functions as well as resources from other artistic institutions”—edging them out, to some extent. The fairs are, as Jack Bankowsky proclaimed in 2005 in Artforum, “the moment’s rawest, rudest manifestation” of the art system itself.
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Artists are ambivalent about art fairs, too. Not having work displayed at one means either your dealer didn’t make the cut or your work didn’t pass muster with your dealer. And having your work in demand still presents problems: the incessant pressure from galleries to make more pieces to show at the fairs, on top of the work produced for exhibitions, is hardly conducive to the creation of good art. Churning out pieces that will be shown only for a few days and then disappear into a private collection, not to be seen again for years, can be dispiriting. Most artists cherish the notion that their work can have a broader resonance among a mixed community of fellow artists and art lovers who have experienced it under reasonably good conditions and, with any luck, more than once. And only when the work is exhibited in a gallery or museum can it attract the formal equivalent of this public hearing in a published critical response.
Yet published criticism is the last response an artist can expect of a work displayed at an art fair. If fairs create headaches and opportunities for the galleries and artists, they leave the critic on the outside looking in. When a critic walks into a gallery, the dealer may treat her with respect, but at a fair the same dealer will chat with her only in the disastrous instance that there is no collector within eyeshot. The critic is not unwelcome here, but she has no real place. Critics do attend the fairs—we’re doing research, trying to catch glimpses of work by artists we’ve heard about but never seen, or just catching up with acquaintances from around the world—but we almost never write about them. While what counts at the fair is the price of things, we critics maintain there is a value to things independent of price—even though we might hope, quixotically, that price and value can be more fairly coordinated. But we don’t know how to make that calibration, the proof being the absence of critical response to fairs, despite their importance to the contemporary art world, in magazines of art criticism such as Artforum or Art in America. For coverage of the fairs, one must turn to the daily press, to blogs or to publications like The Art Newspaper that specialize in reporting on the art market.
Another reason critics don’t cover fairs is that they show too much art, by too many artists, and for reasons that are too various. With a one-person exhibition of an artist at a gallery or museum, one can hope to ascertain the artist’s intention and understand to what extent it was fulfilled. One can approach a group show with the aim of comprehending the curator’s intention and whether and how it accords with that of the artists included—and this remains the case even with large exhibitions such as biennials, which, especially given the prevalence of long video works, may well demand more time to see in full than any one critic is likely able to devote to them.
Fairs, by contrast, are essentially authorless. Even though each participating gallery will hype the individuality and the inimitable qualities of the particular artists it represents, the effect of the fair as a whole is the opposite: as one walks the endless aisles lined with booth after booth filled with thing after thing, it all tends to look more or less the same. “I hate art fairs,” the painter Chuck Close is supposed to have said. “I think that for an artist to go to an art fair, it’s like taking a cow on a guided tour of a slaughterhouse.” What metaphorically kills the artist at the fair is this leveling of individuality, of distinctions. There are always exceptions, but in general each work tends to look more like one more approximation of a prevailing period style than the expression of a deeply personal project. It’s like a shopping mall, where the sheer quantity of merchandise on display obscures any hint of variety. You’d be more likely to find something unusual or eccentric by walking at random through the streets of any good-sized city—and if you stepped into a gallery on one of those random streets, the particular qualities of the art on display would be recognizable, and you could be a critic again.
In their chockablock form, fairs also resemble the Salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the very ones that gave birth to art criticism as we know it. In principle, a critic at a fair could emulate the encyclopedic comprehensiveness of Diderot’s accounts of the Salons of the 1760s, still unparalleled examples of the critic’s art; but Diderot had six weeks, not a long weekend or short week, to study the works on display, and as much time as he needed to craft his responses. For the Salon of 1767, he took more than a year. The members of Diderot’s minuscule, exclusive readership could afford to wait for his tips about the best works to acquire for their collections, for theirs was a world in which communication and trade were conducted far more slowly than today. Nor could Diderot publish quickly and widely, even if he had wanted to. In the eighteenth century, print journalism was subject to severe censorship, and so Diderot wrote for the Correspondance litteréraire, a sort of samizdat journal that circulated in manuscript, not among dissidents but rather among titled noblemen who received their copies by diplomatic pouch. These days, an article like this one, published weeks after the fair that occasioned it has passed into history, can have no effect for good or ill on the fate of the works that were shown there.
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Still, a broad overview is not impossible. The mood at Frieze New York was low-key. The sort of flashy Pop trinkets that have brought riches and notoriety to artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami were mostly absent. There was little of the self-aggrandizingly contrarian “art fair art” that Bankowsky described in the heady pre-crash days when, as he wrote, one could apparently earn a dividend by making or displaying art that “‘performs’ the fair by donning the guise of the carnival shill,” thereby rendering “the usual mercantile, critical, and social exchanges strange and even (who would have thunk it!) magical.” Those shenanigans never seemed magical to me, but there’s no accounting for taste. In any case, while the auction houses continue to profit from the steep inflation for certified artistic trophies, Frieze New York indicated that in other strata of the market, a more chastened mood prevails.
But what of the art itself? One way to approach it would have been to evaluate various dealers’ booths as if they were curated shows, but most of them weren’t that. Even when they featured the work of a single artist—mimicking the one-person shows viewers are used to seeing in galleries, as in the Frame section of Frieze, devoted to new galleries presenting individual artists—the hangings were thrown together in a way that never would have been countenanced in a gallery. And besides, unlike a curated group show, the displays at the fair kept changing as sales were made. Alternatively, one could have zeroed in on individual works, but only by making a somewhat arbitrary personal list of greatest hits.
My way of proceeding critically through Frieze New York was different: I sought to construct from within it not anything as ambitious as a musée imaginaire, but at least a galerie imaginaire, consisting not necessarily of favorite pieces but rather of works that seemed to form among themselves a kind of constellation, a set of family resemblances unremarked upon by the various galleries that displayed them. The correspondences didn’t coalesce into the fair’s dominant style—there was no such thing—and I’m not prepared to say they are typical of the moment or even of what was marketable at the fair. But they do exist, and seem to make some kind of sense as a form of expression in the present.
Call the style retromodernism, a term meant to be oxymoronic. At a purely descriptive level, retromodernism would mean a synthesis between figuration and abstraction (mostly geometrical rather than gestural) in a manner that evokes the spiritual and intellectual strivings of classic modernism, but elides—some might say, betrays—a modernist faith in progress, replacing it with nostalgia. It’s as if these artists see history as stuck in a holding pattern, and so seek sources of hope in the past. I’m thinking of artists like Benjamin Butler (whose works I saw at the booths of Gallery Tomio Koyama, Tokyo and Kyoto, and Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna); Uwe Henneken (Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and the Breeder, Athens); Sanya Kantarovsky (Marc Foxx, Los Angeles); Allison Katz (Johan Berggren Gallery, Malmö); Florian Meisenberg (Kate MacGarry, London); Ryan Mosley (Alison Jacques Gallery, London); Anna Parkina (Wilkinson Gallery, London); Qiu Xiaofei (Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing); Peter Stauss (Carlier Gebauer, Berlin); David Brian Smith (Carl Freedman Gallery, London); Alexander Tovborg (Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen); the team of Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor (Andreiana Mihail Gallery, Bucharest); Emily Wardill (Altman Siegel, San Francisco); and Thomas Zipp (kaufmann repetto, Milan, and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, among others). There was even a street art version of retromodernism (too cute for me) in some of the paintings by Joshua Abelow at James Fuentes, New York City.
Most of the aforementioned artists are painters, and among them are a few whose work I already knew. But I never would have noticed these family resemblances had I not seen their work in unexpected propinquity. I might not have given some of them a second look, to be honest, if I hadn’t found myself on the trail of this theme at Frieze New York, and in most cases I was glad I did. To the extent that a stylistic connection represents a thematic one, I’d define it as the unsettling, enigmatic tension between objective and subjective ways of seeing the world. Retromodernism is not postmodern pastiche, though at first it might seem so. At best, the mixing of styles here feels purposeful, not arbitrary. The potential richness of such work lies in the way that figuration and abstraction can each take the position of the objective or subjective pole in the dichotomy.
Do the shared traits among these artists strengthen their work or weaken it? Have they tapped into something profound in the zeitgeist or simply found a facile way of avoiding it? Does their work have a future as well as a past? A fair won’t help answer those questions; only a deeper acquaintance with each artist’s work will. I can’t say I’ve figured out yet how to approach an art fair as a critic rather than as a journalist, but at least now I can issue a promissory note to myself: one of these days I’m going to write an essay that comes to terms with retromodernism. I don’t know how it will end, but I’ll know where it started—at an art fair, of all places.