22 October 2015

Frieze Art Fair: Purgatory or hell?

by Marc Masurovsky

To those of us who cringe at being initiated to the ways and means of today’s art world, there is no better confirmation of this steadfast reluctance to embrace the new creativity than spending a day or two at a modern art fair, and especially at Frieze Art Fair which closed its doors in London.

The setting for the fair: the gorgeous, regal estate of Regent’s Park.

The Frieze Art Fair qualified easily as a “Cour des Miracles” for the rich, the super-rich, the “I don’t know that I am so rich but who cares” crowd desperate to be seen and to ogle, a garish display of fashion mavens and their sycophants, less interested in art than they are in themselves and those around them who have come to fawn, croon and chuckle. In some sense, Frieze is analogous to the various iterations of Art Basel, Art Miami, Art this and Art that, whose regular subscribers treat these modern art orgies as one endless party because all of their friends go there, so why not they?

You might think of me as a boor who knows nothing about contemporary art and has no appreciation for what is “in” and what is “out” and what straddles the fence between dreck and stench. That would be somewhat unfair. I am not deaf to today’s art world; I simply do not understand its impenetrable dialects. Mea Culpa! In what feels like a generational swing away from taste and a “full on” embrace of a simulacrum of “art”, there is a growing feeling of despondency among those of us who do “enjoy” “art”, whatever that might be, and who are left wondering: “did we all miss something? Is it really true that we don’t understand what art is any longer?”

This is what it feels like to live on the periphery of the rarefied world of the Frieze Art Fair insiders. They make no attempt to explain, to reach out to us, ignoramini and peasants who cannot get “with the program”. Here were thousands of artists expressing themselves in a variety of media, seeking the attention of a correspondingly small group of art dealers, gallery owners, art critics, investors, museum curators and their bosses and patrons. If one lucks out and gets blessed with the opportunity to display one’s wares at a gallery space at Frieze, that is terrific. Keep in mind, though, that art has become more and more an opportunity to invest, either on a short or long bet (a cross between horse races and the stock market) depending on how long your fortunes last as a”flavor du jour”. This makes for an artificially palpitating existence for art dealers because they have to constantly search for the new talent, the new “goto” artist whom their investors can fawn over and on whom they dispense small fortunes that the artist—blessed she/he be-- never dreamed of before. The public has to wonder if those artists are actually talented or deserving of their attention. If you want to play the game, you have to nod your head and pretend that the talent is genuine and worthy of the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars or euros, or yen or rubles that are being spent by folks who have cash reserves deeper than the Mariana trench. These big spenders have been shaping the “art world” or rather “their art world” in a most aggressive fashion for the past several decades.

Some aficionadas of the art and fashion worlds whom I had the pleasure of meeting but will remain anonymous in these pages, had these comments to describe the fair: “an abyss”, “a sewer”, “garish” (used that word already), “numbing”.

Can anything be done to reshape the content of events like the Frieze Art Fair? Hardly because they constitute privileged hunting grounds and zones of esthetic extension and expression for the nouveaux riches of the planet.

On the other hand, at Frieze Masters, a good 14 minute clip on foot away from Frieze Art Fair, further alongside Regent’s Park, one could find some solace for old coots such as myself, whose eyes could rest—finally!---on some quality, on something that resonated—Dutch Old Masters, German Expressionists, Austrian Secessionists, antiquities, indigenous artifacts, British artists from the past 150 years, modern art (Dubuffet, Picasso, and others). Frieze Masters readjusted our senses, recalibrated our taste buds and saved us from that pocket of inanity and insanity known as Frieze Art Fair. From the Hell of Frieze Art Fair, we went to the Purgatory of Frieze Masters, where we could occasionally get a whiff of Heaven.

Of note:

Weiss Gallery: charming owner with whom I had the pleasure of dissing the French government’s outrageous seizure of a painting lent by Weiss to an exhibit in Paris only to find out that the painting had disappeared from a French museum—the Louvre, no less!—in 1818, not 1918, not 1938, and certainly not 1942!!. The end result was an abominable expression of State-sponsored cultural “cuissage”, during which a sovereign State exerted its right of preemption on an object that had vanished without a trace nearly two centuries ago. That, from a country which cannot --- still!---apprehend the magnitude of its own systemic failures surrounding the Vichy regime and the Nazi enemy that it aided and abetted.

Donald Ellis: interesting display of indigenous artifacts from Alaska, except that, in the United States, his gallery is better known for its ….uh!... displays and trade of Native American artifacts that might be considered by the surviving members of Western and Southwestern tribes as their sacred property. There was one example of their art “in the back room.” Nice…

De Jonckheere Gallery: wonderful Old Masters, mostly of the Dutch persuasion, and two paintings by Abel Grimmer representing specific months of the year. Abel Grimmer painted between the 1560s and 1590s three sets of these series of 12 depictions of biblical scenes representing each a month of the year. One of those sets was stolen from the Schloss brothers in central France in 1943. Not clear what the provenance was for those two charming renditions. One always has to keep a sharp eye open for fluctuations in the history of art objects.

One gallery had an extensive assortment of drawings by Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. Nowadays, the presence of these artists’ works is sufficient to chill your blood as one can only imagine—where did they come from? Curiously one of the items—a Kokoschka drawing--had gone through the collection of Wolfgang Gurlitt, then based in Munich.

Another gallery displayed German Expressionist works, mostly woodcuts, drawings and watercolors. When I asked the gallery representative if any of the works had been deaccessioned from German museums, he did not miss a beat and replied that one of the Schmitt-Rottluff pieces had been restituted by a museum in Rostock in or around 2006.

And the gold medal goes to Johnny van Haeften who was kind enough to mention the full provenance of a painting by van der Heyden which had been plundered from the collection of Alexandrine de Rothschild either from her apartment in Paris or her estate in suburban Paris. Van Haeften carefully noted the role of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in the theft and the fact that the painting had been restituted after 1945. No one turned into a gremlin and transparency prevailed in the reporting of a full provenance which included the tumultuous incident known as “PLUNDER” that affected the history of this painting. A clear example of how small changes in reporting practices amongst art dealers can mean a world of difference in the upholding of strong ethical and moral principles as reflected in the explicit acknowledgment of an object’s history, no matter how twisted and racked by unfortunate events like war and genocide.

It was fitting to end this brief recounting of a long journey from hell to purgatory on a constructive note that should serve as an invitation to other dealers and collectors to follow van Haeften’s example which is to tell the full and unvarnished truth of an object, even on a label.