Issue Number: 116
The past has great prospects, if the newly extended Frieze Art Fair is anything to go by. Rachel Campbell-Johnston finds out why old is the new new at Frieze Masters
Frieze – or rather Frieze London as it must now be known, after its New York satellite was launched earlier this year – is renowned as a bellwether of contemporary cool. Every October since 2003, when the fair was launched by Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp as a spin-off of their contemporary art magazine, it has set our capital abuzz with gossip about current trends.
Dan Flavin, 'Untitled (to Donna) 6', 1971, is shown by David Zwirner at Frieze Masters. Photo Billy Jim/© 2012 Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS)/Courtesy of David Zwirner. Who’s the hottest new artist? What’s the next big thing? Last year, as far as I can remember, the talk was all of Pierre Huyghe’s installation Recollection, a hermit crab living in a Brancusi head inside a tank; of Michael Landy RA’s Credit Card Destroying Machine, and Laura Lama, an artist from Rio who was offering a cosmetic overhaul that made you look ancient. The last was clearly the most prescient. This year, it seems, that old is the new new. Frieze is launching another art fair, coinciding with the original one and set up within walking distance across Regent’s Park. But it is not an offshoot, its director Victoria Siddall insists. It is a fair in its own right. It is called Frieze Masters and it focuses on the historical.
But don’t rush for your dog-eared edition of Gombrich. In the context of a fair that likes art to come fresh from the studio – Frieze London is all about the primary market, explains Slotover – anything dating back a decade starts to look venerable. And pre-2000 stuff feels positively primeval. A ‘master’, as far as this new fair is concerned, means anything made earlier than the turn of our century.
Almost 100 of the world’s most prestigious dealers in the pre-contemporary – Colnaghi, Acquavella, Hauser & Wirth and the Neue Galerie among them – will be laying out their wares in Frieze Masters. ‘For a new fair it’s a pretty impressive line-up,’ says Sam Fogg, a dealer in the medieval, who has acted as a consultant. Anything from the ancient to the Oceanic, from tribal art to tapestries, is going on display. Though only about 30 per cent of the masters are pre-20th century.
‘We wanted the range to be as wide as possible,’ she explains. Eighteen nations are represented, and the ‘Spotlight’ section focuses on an alternative view of 20th-century art, mixing a few well-known names with unexpected, often little-known artists from eastern Europe or Latin America. Organised by Adriano Pedrosa, who has curated the São Paolo and Istanbul biennials, this section invites gallerists to make a solo presentation. ‘I thought it made sense for the section to challenge the traditional notion of the “master”, looking at artists who do not usually appear in the evening auctions of Christie’s or Sotheby’s, for example,’ says Pedrosa. ‘I thought it would be interesting to look at certain works from the 1960s and ’70s that have become part of our history, but at the same time have very strong links to the contemporary. I want to present not only such artists as Bruce Nauman, who are powerful reference points, but also lesser-known people like the Brazilian Fluxus artist Paulo Bruscky, an influential pioneer of Conceptual art.’
Pedrosa is also proposing new candidates for the title of master: artists from Latin America, from the Middle East and Asia. ‘I wanted to look at art scenes that you don’t find at other art fairs,’ he says ‘and to highlight female artists who, until the 1960s and ’70s were often overlooked.’
Sam Fogg shows gargoyles made for Haguenau cathedral in 1250-83. Courtesy of Sam Fogg. ‘Between the two fairs you will be able to see art throughout history,’ says Siddall. ‘We want to make a week when, whatever you are interested in, you can come to London and see it and an awful lot else as well’ – including, it would seem, the National Gallery which entices visitors on a sort of high cultural treasure hunt. One of its paintings – it would give the game away to tell you which – has been photographed in minute detail. Fractions of it are reproduced on Frieze publicity material. There’s no prize, except a sense of gratification if you identify it.
But will this fair prove just a flash in the pan: a novel twist to get attention as Frieze reaches its tenth birthday? Slotover is unequivocal. ‘For a long time dealers have felt that London lacked an international art fair of this historical sort,’ he says. ‘Over the years, several of them have approached me with the idea of organising something.’
‘But even more strongly’ adds Siddall, ‘the idea came about through discussions with contemporary artists, through hearing them talking about what they are looking at and what inspires them.’ She cites Jeff Koons Hon RA as an example. If you ask him who has influenced him, he won’t mention anyone modern. He will talk about the sort of Old Masters whose work he collects: artists such as Fragonard who shares Koons’ love of mingling the sacred and the profane. Georg Baselitz Hon RA has a collection of Mannerist paintings. Howard Hodgkin is a major collector of Indian miniatures.
Frieze Masters will show us all these sorts of works – but it places them firmly in a contemporary context. So don’t expect dusty art historians or walls of deep crimson. Gallery owners will have three shades of grey to choose from for their stands. ‘The idea’, explains Siddall, ‘is to create a space in which ancient and modern can be seen side-by-side. We don’t want visitors to be distracted by thinking about when something was made. When you juxtapose different things from lots of different periods it makes for a rich way of looking.’
Sam Fogg likes the basic idea of selling art rather than antiques. ‘We sell better when people are seeing our pieces like works of art in a gallery and not as decoration or furnishing’, he says, which is what it can seem like when its jumbled up with jewellery, silver and furniture. And make no mistake, with space at Frieze Masters costing £410 a square metre, selling is fundamentally what this fair is about. ‘We are hoping it will bring us new audiences,’ says Fogg. ‘There must be 100 collectors of the contemporary for every one who buys early art.’
Joan Mitchell, 'Edouard', 1980, at Acquavella. Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries. Frieze Masters participants are hoping that a few will be enticed across. Strong measures will be taken to make sure that their investments are sound in the sense that there should be no risk of acquiring looted or stolen art. There are teams of independent vetters checking all the paperwork and consulting the Art Loss Register.
Perhaps in this increasingly rocky financial climate, a work with the solid weight of history behind it might be starting to look like a safer bet than something still wet from the studio. ‘There is definitely a trend towards looking back,’ says Sam Fogg. ‘People are coming through the contemporary to the past.’
Fogg will be showing 13th-century gargoyles from Strasbourg on his stand. These once adorned the cathedral of Haguenau but were removed in the mid-20th century for fear they might tumble and squash unsuspecting passers by. Copies were put up and the originals sold on the open market. Perhaps these stone monsters might once have seemed daunting. To the past few generations, suggests Fogg, medieval art has felt tough: all those grisly martyrdoms and blood-drenched Passions. But now, in the milieu of Damien Hirst or the Chapmans, such scenes no longer feel so distressing. Rather, he says, they may be seen as ‘a focus for intense emotions, perhaps even violence, and are all the more powerful and interesting for that.’
As for the artists, it’s a case of back to the future – or perhaps forward to the past. The contemporary turns towards history to find a sound sense of purpose. The last Venice Biennale opened with three Tintorettos. Titian is the focus of a collaborative project for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Cy Twombly was shown alongside Poussin last year at Dulwich Picture Gallery and is now at Tate Liverpool’s ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly’ show. Tracey Emin RA’s triumphant return to her home town of Margate is marked not by more madcap antics at Turner Contemporary but a sedate show of her drawings hung alongside works by Rodin and Turner. At the recently re-opened Kunsthaus Zürich ‘Riotous Baroque’ explores the exuberance of an aesthetic that runs from Zurbarán to Maurizio Cattelan.
‘Perhaps we are witnessing the closing of the latest chapter of the contemporary,’ suggests Matthew Slotover. ‘People are beginning to wonder about their place in art history.’ Artists are seeking a sense of instant gravitas. It would certainly lend their work weight at a time when the markets are vacillating. ‘There are people who think that contemporary art is all about hype and marketing,’ says Slotover. As Frieze marks the first decade of its success, it sets out to prove that it’s far more than that.