Frieze has officially returned to New York as the first major in-person art fair since the start of the pandemic. Highly anticipated and undoubtedly being scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb, Frieze brought together 64 galleries, far fewer than the 200 of the last edition in 2019, and moved off of Randall’s Island and into The Shed. While the jury may be out, the fact that the fair happened at all is something to celebrate, and some of us may even have enjoyed it.
To visit Frieze, all attendees were required to fill out an online health form and provide proof of having been vaccinated at least two weeks in advance or proof of a negative Covid test. Now-standard safety precautions like masks were enforced, and social distancing encouraged. Even with visitors guzzling the only freebies of Perrier and Essentia water had their mouths hidden behind masks.
To keep numbers down, tickets were limited and timed entries assigned, except for those with special passes. It seems the cost or scarcity of tickets may have scared some people away, with the majority of visitors appearing to be art professionals. The lack of fashion-forward and non-art world culture seekers lent an air of staleness that was a reminder of what art fairs really are—glorified trade shows. Some collectors I spoke to who said they “weren’t interested in Frieze” later admitted they couldn’t find a free VIP pass and refused to pay. Press tickets were also cut-throat and even asking for information at ticketing was like the Hunger Games.
With the constant changes in travel restrictions, as well as the fluctuating Covid rates, international galleries understandably opted out of Frieze or cancelled at the last possible minute. Those exhibitors that were left were predominantly New York-based, as well as a few Los Angeles and international galleries, and the expected blue chip titans. Hauser & Wirth opted to bring some of their heavy-hitters, including new works by George Condo, Simone Leigh, and Rashid Johnson.
Gagosian was unsurprisingly far less-shiny than usual with the departure of Jeff Koons, to the great benefit of their booth. The powerhouse presented a noteworthy selection of crisp Ewa Juszkiewicz paintings that borrow various art historical tropes from the Renaissance to the 19th century, which were paired with Rachel Feinstein’s Baroque- and Rococo-inspired majolica porcelain sculptures. While Gagosian may have lost Koons, the artist’s new steward, Pace Gallery, was more than happy to display his material-defying aluminum pool toys in the shape of a lobster and dolphin hanging from a steel chain.
Refreshingly, many exhibitors opted for well-curated booths and in depth presentations of single artists rather than jam the highest-selling pieces on every inch of their walls. Marian Goodman Gallery staged the most optimistic booth with a generously large, cave-like space carved out for a macabre sculptural installation by Annette Messager. Resembling a cityscape of small, black geometric shapes, hands, and semi-familiar objects with stuffed animals interspersed, the arena of sculptures was lit by lights installed on turntables that slowly spun to cast shadows onto the surrounding walls.
Nearby, Perrotin presented a glitzy selection of new and recent works from some of their big names, including Daniel Arsham’s giant, blue patinated bronze bust of Melpomene with stainless steel crystals below the eroding surface. Behind Arsham was a gold glass installation by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel.
Upstairs, the Frame section brought together solo shows from emerging galleries, all 10 years old or less. Instituto de Visión from Bogotá won the Frame Stand Prize with their presentation of works by Wilson Díaz. Engaging with current sociopolitical issues in Colombia, Díaz’s work explores the roots of conflict and corruption and how violence is represented in mass media. Gallery owner Omayra Alvarado-Jenson said in an interview with Frieze after receiving the prize, “Wilson Diaz is one of the most relevant artists in Colombia and a reference for many artists in Latin America. However, his practice is still mostly unknown outside the region despite being part of many important international exhibitions. For our gallery, it was very important to present his work in New York, and Frieze has given us an amazing platform to showcase such powerful practice. Wilson and us are thrilled to have won the Frame Stand Prize.”
Though scaled back to fit the smaller footprint of The Shed, the proximity to Chelsea made VIP programming more easily accessible. Those without the coveted VIP pass could still visit nearby galleries, of which there is no shortage. However, the buzzing energy and excitement expected of art fairs was virtually absent. Without hoards of collectors flocking to town in need of wining and dining, and without the ability to drink and mingle, there was a formality to the fair. While these events were surely happening in private, the big parties and dinners were relics of art fair past.
In the end, Frieze 2021 was never going to be a wild party. Fair organizers had to tackle the most important issues of health and safety before considering anything else. Ultimately it was up to the exhibitors to bring their best and, for the most part, they succeeded. If anything, we should all be grateful that we’re slowly shifting back to in-person activities and that a major art fair hurdle has been crossed.
Frieze New York is open at The Shed through May 9th, tickets are however sold out.
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Writer, Cultbytes Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer and art advisor. As a writer, she focuses on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, and Artillery Magazine among others. Keenan has worked in several major museums and galleries worldwide, including the Broad Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.. As an advisor, Keenan specializes in prints and multiples, and aims to make the process of collecting art more accessible. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. l igram l email l