It was clear from the moment I woke that this would be a poorly defined day, the clouds were heavy and low in the sky and I could already smell the dampness in the air. It would be a Sunday morning full of questions; mostly banal but some profound, but I had to outrun the days melancholy by giving myself a purpose. That’s why I was in a long line of students and hanger-on’s holding a (borrowed) VIP card to board the ferry to the Frieze art fair a mile upriver on Randall’s’ Island. But why stand in line when I have a VIP card? I asked the question to a guard and the cheeky Warholian answer which was delivered in a droll Brooklyn accent “we are all VIP’s now” puts me into a better frame of mind. But the pressing question; why am I going? A city full of art fairs, a modern day souk and do all these impact our culture in any way? Was on my mind. Perhaps it was the youth of the passengers that I felt it necessary to counter their inane chatter and, perhaps also, I was a little envious of the innocence of their enthusiasm for the event ahead.
The truth is that I’m here for two reasons and the first is a little pedestrian, I like the short boat ride up the east river; the gentle maneuvers of the boat, the fresh, salty, thin breeze up from the Long Island Sound and the smell of diesel, it gives me permission close my eyes and be taken back to a comfortable, more secure place. It’s nice to see the New York housing from the river side, a perspective normally hidden, the secret and shy side of these tall buildings, allowing a peek into hidden gardens butting up against the slow swell of the river, empty balconies and sweeping views of industrial Queens. From the front of these buildings there is a frostiness and formality, but the from the back it is something else and I’m fascinated; we can even see inside some of these apartments and they are not the Hollywood version of New York City, the cliché of Bauhaus furniture, wide panes of glass, instead they are cozy, intimate with floral chairs, lace curtains and I felt like I was in Holland. Then while we were going up river the clouds parted and, through a gap, a perfectly blue sky, the color of an egg I once held in my hand, a miracle of color and form in an otherwise unremarkable market town somewhere in Southern Europe, while the store keeper, old as the earth, looked on with amused contempt. Before we could reach for camera’s the portal had closed and we left to the familiar white, grey milky sky as if it happened in a dream.
The second reason is the carnival like feeling of being here amongst the throng, brushing shoulders, jumping the line and squeezing onto the boat and all to look at art! And not just any art, but the most cutting-edge, contemporary, paint–not-yet-dry type of art. Some of the passengers on the ferry are dressed in shinny bright attire, orange hair, inappropriate footwear and when I’m inside the fair I see them posing shamelessly obscuring the brightest, shiniest pieces where their partners photograph them, narcissists all.
A quarter of a century ago, Mary and I attended Air Fair’s quite regularly. In those days Cologne and Basel were the big ones and the Gramercy and Armory in New York were yet to come as we know them today and were to be slightly, and refreshingly, chaotic at first. Now there is a European invasion with TEFAF and Basel on the shores of the USA and a multitude of Fairs that cluster around the Armory like Pilot fish around a shark. There can be an undercurrent of petulance about this coexistence, the satellite fair in Basel being called the “Un-Fair” as a protest. I liked the Cologne and Basel’s fairs best: for the Euro-seriousness of the attendee’s, the urgent but disciplined approach to buying art.
A favorite quote is “collecting art is the only socially accepted form of greed” meaning is it just access to society and a good investment? I will accept the charge of being reductive and cynical; we know there are the high minded and long term collectors, but it unlikely that you will see them on this boat. Is at least part of the impulse to collect art the promise of access to a world that is hierarchical in nature? It’s hardly surprising that anyone with serious jobs seek an escape, to socialize with different thinkers, and harbor a secret desire to live vicariously through those they collect. But there is also the reality; the benefit auctions and galas bringing the same people together, face lifted and publicity shy, events which are strangely and paradoxically alike considering they celebrate creativity. It provides a wealth of material for anyone with an interest in anthropology. The last one I attended was on a balmy evening, I took a yellow cab downtown in an ill-fitting and rarely used suit. On arrival I took a sweet cocktail that was so refreshing it was quickly followed by two more. It was a cavernous venue but everyone gathered around a small area in front of the bar. I recognized no one and preferring my own company I stood by a vast window looking down at lower Manhattan, already slightly drunk. Being solitary at such events is like having Ebola, and I received some disinterested and pitying stares, but I was grateful no one came over, it’s almost impossible to hear in the shouted pitch of these occasions. My goal was to spend some time with a friend, but she was a highly social creature and moved from group to group and by the time we sat at the table she had a fixed smile, as if cast in wax, which told me she would rather be at home in her pajama’s watching T.V.
Mary is wonderful, she remembers past names like a magician, and I see her dinner companions lite up in surprise at a long lost memory. I’m the opposite and repeat a story that I have apparently told the year before to exactly the same person who sharply reminds me turning away and leaving me to ponder a slab of red meat which I ate with purpose while the hubbub of loud voices and the screeches of laughter swirled over my head. There was sound of relief when the guests felt it safe to leave after the dreary speeches and to literally run to their town cars.
How dispiriting it must feel for the artists to see their work this way. Some relish it making work designed for this brash audience. I wasn’t at Venice when Damien Hirst presented his latest deep sea sculptures and reportedly had smart attendants holding i-pads with price lists taking orders. Unlike an earlier fictional Venetian, he didn’t have the dilemma of paying for his misdeeds with a pound of flesh, but apparently offered the reputational equivalent gladly.
Some hope resides in the intellectual artists, unafraid of the market, looking at the formal and informal power structures, sometimes within a loose group calling their work institutional critique. It’s can be a sarcastic take down of the players in the art world and their strategies and pretentions but sometimes it’s heartbreaking too; the artist Andrea Frazier has done both. I’ve laughed at her performance where she sent up one of these opening, the roles played, the speeches from the inarticulate artist to the pomposity of museum and gallery directors. The other side was the offer of sleeping with a stranger and filming the performance for the price of the work, an artwork creating a mirror and exposing so much of the conflict inherent in the market.