If you made it to Frieze New York this weekend, chances are pretty slim that you managed to see everything the elite art fair had to offer, including more than 200 booths dedicated to “the world’s leading galleries” (or so the fair boasts), countless individual art works, installations, roving performances, and outdoor displays. Between the enormous octopus tentacles, the ultra-defensive IRL Soylent reps, and the live donkey, there simply weren’t enough hours in the fair’s four-day span (or alcohol in their refrigerators) to do so.
But to be honest, the most entertaining part of art fairs like this one rarely seems to be the art. Instead, it’s strangely satisfying to listen to people declare how much everything sucks within earshot of a gallery rep, and to gawk at the insanely wealthy as they prance around with their designer bags and private art consultants, dropping probably millions of dollars after doing little more than casually nodding.
The best people watching happened not on the floor, but beyond the doors of the VIP section, a place you can enter only after a bouncer scans your card and gestures you into a Pepto-Bismol-pink carpeted lounge stocked with champagne, butter cookies, and men in scarves who will shoo you away with limp wrists (and for some reason, you obediently drift aside and mutter an apology). So we can’t blame you guys for not soaking up all the art. Like, seriously, Roberta’s had a mobile pizza oven onsite and personal pies available just beyond a ten-minute line. We understand that you had more important things to do. Here’s our countdown, in no particular order, of all that stuff you might have glossed over in favor of VIP ogling and delicious food gobbling.
1. There were a number of allusions to the bygone (ha ha JK– I mean, never-ending) War on Terror– one painting that took on camouflage print, a fashion-forward mannequin and her translucent pink kalashnikov (David Kordansky Gallery) and ISIS snuff-video inspired collages by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn (“Pixel Collage No 14”) at the Parisian gallery Crousel. Hirschhorn is the same artist who created that “monument” to Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci in the South Bronx back in 2013, and enlisted local residents to help build the pop-up agitprop art piece– the Times called it “another monument to his monumental ego.”
The plastic sheen is part of his commitment to using everyday materials, which Hirschhorn characterizes as a reaction against elitist art world exclusion. “Today, more than ever, I believe in the notions of equality, universality, justice and truth,” he said in 2015. “I use art as a tool or as a weapon.” Fancy digs for an artist of the people.
2. Actually, there were a number of pieces that referenced a kind of Soviet-chic, socialist aestheticism, which taken together with the close proximity of insane wealth, bejeweled Italians, and rosé-sipping recent prep-school grads, transforms into something closer to Yacht Communism.
The ghostly workers’ paradise photographs of grain elevators by German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher– the husband-and-wife collaboration (Sprueth Magers gallery)– are as deceptive in their plainness as they are in their eerie calm. These images are part of the Bechers’ extensive series depicting the quiet visages of heavy industrial structures that reveal a more romantic side of the architecture of mechanized manufacturing and infrastructural muscle, something the duo was committed to capturing for more than 40 years before Bernd’s death in 2007. It’s not exactly socialist realism, but the Bechers’ perspective on the one hand can inspire awe in human capabilites. But by the same token, taken all together, the images challenge the monolithic sameness of the industrial landscape and can actually be sort of horrifying.
Marian Goodman Gallery dedicated its entire stand to South-African artist William Kentridge, whose mammoth works transformed the space into a black-and-red socialist wonderland. His sculptures recalled the angular geometries of the 1920s Russian avant-garde, and look as if they could have been preserved from that era. Using proletarian materials like newspaper and India ink, Kentridge created wall-sized paintings that look more like street propaganda than fine art. But it was harder to discern whether Kentridge’s work qualifies as a Žižek wet dream or Obey-style politicism– the brand of choice for fashion revolutionaries (as opposed to actual revolutionaries). Given the surroundings, I was definitely leaning toward the latter.
At Ratio 3‘s booth, Katarina Burin and Ben Peterson contributed to a display titled “Jugoslavija” that evoked the bleached-out colors of Tito’s fading dream particular to the former Socialist republic through sculptures that resemble Soviet-style brutalist concrete structures and architectural models that look just like the ubiquitous buildings of the Balkans.
Brooklyn-based artist Servane Mary prints appropriated images directly onto Mylar emergency rescue blanks, those insanely rad reflective blankets that you have to survive a plane crash to score. The result are enormous, wall-sized creations like the one on display at Triple V’s booth, which bears the image of a woman working in a factory of some kind. We’d like to think they’re making Proletarian flying machines.
3. Sparkly things were in full force at Frieze, attracting middle-aged gawkers and their dogs as effectively as curbside trash draws in the rats. People would actually swarm pieces like Tomás Saraceno‘s “iridescent cloud,” titled K2-24 b/ M+1, a hovering sculpture made of welded-together, shimmering glass pieces.
4. As you might have heard, Maurizio Cattelan– whose wax sculpture of Hitler prostrated on his knees sold for $17.2 million at auction recently– shoved a donkey and a chandelier into a room and called it a day. But as we learned, this wasn’t just any old ass– Sir Gabriel was the star of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville” and is, as his caretaker graciously explained, “a very famous donkey.” At 15 years old, he’s a seasoned art donkey. And actually, the donkey-in-a-booth trick was a rehashing of Cattelan’s 1994 show: “Warning! Enter at Your Own Risk. Do Not Touch, Do Not Feed, No Smoking, No Photographs, No Dogs, Thank You.” So no need to fret, this wasn’t Cattelan’s first rodeo.
As a seriously hardworking donkey, many people expressed concern for Sir Gabriel’s well-being, which didn’t seem conducive to being crammed inside a small, enclosed space and subjected to halitosis and people undressing him with their eyes for four straight days. Others expressed outright rage– one animal activist told ArtNews, “Animals are not art exhibits.”
We had our own reservations, though less for the donkey’s safety and more for the sanctity of art in general. At least one source of anxiety was settled when we bumped into Sir Gabriel on his “coffee break” outside, where the fellow was grazing on the lush Randall’s Island grass and taking a break from the crowds. His caretaker assured us that he gets a break “every couple of hours.”
5. A rotating performance piece by Anthea Hamilton, part of Frieze Projects, was dedicated to 81-year-old Italian architect and designer Mario Bellini, who has designed some pretty handsome typewriters. It would be difficult, however, to describe the performance as handsome, and it was sort of confusing what, if anything, mimes have to do with futuro-minimal chairs and cushy, ’80s couches. We did appreciate the creepy vibes though. It’s always fun to see people shield their eyes in horror.
6. These bird’s-eye-view renderings of New York City’s five boroughs at the Queens Museum booth were striking, and not just for their tropical-bird color palette and pastel-sherbet glow. Their density also encouraged long staring contests, which could also be owed to the fact that New Yorkers really like seeing their own city from an abstracted perspective like this. From this view, high above the buildings, it’s a dizzying reminder of how immense and infinite our city is. Aw.
7. Sure, at first glance Yayoi Kusama‘s octopus tentacles like they belong in a children’s museum. But, considering that the sewn fabric, wood, and paint creations also contain, according to the display, “urethane” (“a synthetic crystalline compound used in making pesticides and fungicides, and formerly as an anesthetic”), maybe it’s best to avoid putting “The Moment of Regeneration” (2004) anywhere near creatures that are want to chew on anything their mouths could feasibly wrap around.
And anyway, the more you stare at these scarlet appendages blooming out of the floor, the darker they seem, which is an effect that Kusama’s work always seems to have up its sleeve. There’s a sort of madness to her relentless, all-consuming patterns that dare the brain to go to places far beyond everyday comfort, and let’s just say that they’re not fantastical in the Disney sense. That might have something to do with spending 40 years confined to a Tokyo psychiatric hospital. Kusama, as we know, returned to the New York City art world with a bang– a massive retrospective at The Whitney in 2012. And at 87, it still seems that Kusama’s got a lot left to do.
8. Speaking of immersive psychedelic environments, the Lower East Side’s own Canada gallery dominated in this department and easily made the best use of its little booth space by covering the tent’s bland gray carpeting with a rainbow of neon-hued and uber-saturated shag rugs, and installing a lounge chair and a myriad of colorful, weird, and wacky works. “Look, that Pac-Man is eating a taco!” one passerby declared of Katherine Bernhardt’s painting. That was up for debate, but there’s no arguing about the pair of two-dimensional hot pants that graced the wall by Sadie Laska and the presence of Elisabeth Kley’s shapely hand-painted ceramics. The booth was so lovely that we ended our Saturday lounging on the floor at Canada until we were politely asked to GTFO.
9. The occasional dog guest at Frieze inevitably managed to steal the show, including a wiener dog who found the rugs at Canada gallery to be totally irresistible. He flopped around on the candy-colored shag rugs and, finding his pick of the litter, splayed out and refused to budge even when his owner tugged at his leash. “Wow, he really loves this,” the guy said. “I’ve never seen him like this.”
Heather Phillipson‘s pup-centric installations scattered all over Frieze (and outside too) attracted the same sort of enthusiasm albeit from a different sort of lesser creature. The mechanized wagging tails and piles of dog food were especially adept at attracting children (and thankfully keeping them away from the rest of the art), who didn’t seem to notice that many of the installations, especially the exterior one, were hilariously morbid. We can only hope that parents were made to explain to their kids what in the hell all this RIP-me stuff was.
For “100% Other Fibres,” dog limbs stuck out every which way from freshly-dug ground beneath a grave marker reading, “throw me in there with him,” while overhead, ivory pieces of fabric fluttered in the breeze. A hidden speaker played forlorn piano music and the sound of dogs howling at the moon. Phillipson’s own description of the work confirms that, well, she’s a 100-percent genuine weirdo. As the display indicated, “Phillipson imagines the structure of the fair tent as a chopped-up human spinal cord besieged by mutated dogs and screens.” She describes “the intersecting bodies as a ‘clash of nervous systems– dismembered, directed, and flung down on Randall’s Island.'”
10. The artist Paul McCarthy is usually busy making his massive, anti-Koonsian sculptures– inflatable odes to butt plugs and piles of poo– and generally pissing people off. But he took a break from all that to get back to his roots with pervy drawings that offered a potent counterpoint to the baby-blue resin kiddie pools that were hogging all the attention at Hauser & Wirth. Because they were fairly small, you had to get real close for the chicken scratches to align into copulating cowboys, dick-nosed creeps, and castrating broads, which made for some excellent moments including the time when a young dude approached the sketches with his female companion and literally screamed and ran away, dragging her with him before she was able to see the forms in full-focus. All the hubbub actually inspired us to clap our hands with glee.
11. The scatological theme continued with Galeria Fortes Vilaca’s display, which included “Clavo Once,” four gigantic, rusty nails from a Cuban art collective called Los Carpinteros. The lengthy nails, combined with the booth’s brown color palette, made for some unmistakably Freudian stirrings.
12. Fair goers who made their way to Lehmann Maupin were undoubtedly struck by Mickalene Thomas‘s mixed-media painting “I’m Feelin Good” (2014), covered in rhinestones and collage pieces. It depicts a woman, sprawled out on a couch, her legs curled up onto an ottoman, with a come-hither expression on her face. Thomas’s use of collage gives the image a fractured, multifaceted view, indicating her subject’s complexity and strange beauty.
13. Monet? As in Claude? As in, white dude Western art history so elementary that I’m guessing even the Ted Cruz doppelganger is familiar with his work? (Not trying to front, I’m already a fan of her hotly anticipated work.) Well, yes, but Vik Muniz‘s collage homages to Monet (and the inconsistency in which classic works are depicted in art history books) are actually quite nice. We found them at the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. booth.
14. Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed plays with traditional “Eastern” motifs, transforming stuff like the Turkish rug– which has all kinds of connotations for colonialism, and how “the East” is perceived by the West– into a mind-melting magic trick on display at Nature Morte.
15. Another piece at Nature Morte was equally aware of the power of transforming everyday objects. The artist Tallur L.N.‘s seashell and bronze sculpture, “Chocolate Hero,” looks as if it were plucked right from the ocean, a barnacle-covered accident of seafaring. It somehow avoids the gleeful silliness of Spongebob, and instead conjures images of mythical ocean creatures of the ancient world.
16. Paul Kasmin Gallery had no qualms about dedicating their entire booth to Walton Ford‘s bizarro, watercolor/gouache panther paintings that look like they were lifted straight from an airbrush t-shirt commemorating your best spring break ever in Myrtle Beach. One painting was particularly intriguing in that its strangely rendered big cat appeared to be floating above the snow, as if poised on an invisible patch of ice.
17. If Frieze was secretly handing out an award for most disturbing work of art, Laurie Simmons‘s photograph, “The Love Doll/ Day 25 (The Jump)” probably won it. Much of the artist’s work dwells in the uncanny valley, and this piece, whose subject is a Realdoll (the creepy companion dolls that MRM activists purchase as girlfriend replacements) is no exception. The potential for darkness here is infinite, but Simmons gives the Realdoll some agency by handing her a skateboard and leading her to a half pipe where she discovers that she really can do whatever it is that she wants to do.
18. We were really taken with Gina Beavers’s meat cube, a 3-D painting of bulging flanks and bloody meat slabs. If you listened closely, perhaps like us you heard the tortured squeals of thousands of screaming cows on their way to the processing plant.
19. For some reason Societe Berlin decided to troll everyone at Frieze and invite a bunch of Silicon-Valley-dwelling Soylent reps to cart a wall of refrigerators and empty cases of starvation juice into their booth. We watched as people meekly approached the scowling reps and gingerly requested a free Soylent sample, their curiosity getting the best of them. For two days in a row, the Soylent people were out, clearly having guzzled down their meager supply in an attempt to look not so malnourished (they were certainly grumpy and defensive enough to seem like they were starving). But their tude could have been owed to the fact that plebes kept asking why anyone would want to replace food with flavorless death liquid.
20. The enormous pill foils at Clearing gallery were another scene stealer. We thought about what would happen to us if we dragged one of the sculptures over to the nearby Soylent booth and presented them as the latest technology to help us win freedom from the bonds of food slavery, and decided it would end in unnecessary bloodshed.
21. Finally, Canadian sculptor David Altmejd‘s installation (complete with severed wolf heads) made for an experience straight out of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Correction: an earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the panther in Walton Ford’s painting as a “cat,” it’s actually a big cat.