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Frieze New York


by Pedro Vélez
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Who will critique the critics? That is the question my pal and art editor of Chicago’s weekly newspaper New City, Jason Foumberg, is always asking. Well, let’s see. A week before Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1899) went up for sale at Sotheby’s and the Frieze Art Fair landed on Randall’s Island, critics in New York rolled up their sleeves, marinated their rhetorical sausages in hate sauce, and yapped away apocalyptic predictions of what could happen if the art world proletariat allowed the unrelenting art market to get away with the banal commercialization of art, as if that were something new.

The excuse here was the Occupy movement. But it was hard to make much sense of their hysteria, since the public discussion was so unfocused, clichéd, extremely regional and full of contradictions.

For example, in an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning about the forthcoming auction of the Munch, Jerry Saltz took a jab at Mitt Romney, saying that he was probably the only rich American who could buy The Scream.  I know Mitt collects delegates but I didn’t know he collects art. Over at the Village Voice, Christian Viveros-Faune, the art critic who used to be an art fair curator and dealer, wished upon a star that Frieze would fall to the occupiers and that the “Occupy kids” would turn the bazaar into the next Zuccotti Park. Needless to say, Frieze scored big with this one. You just can’t buy that type of publicity.

But when it rains, it pours, and even classy critics like Holland Cotter of the New York Times inflicted upon us a stuffy utopian list of things he would buy at Frieze using Munch dollars, while Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker is still tripping, no kidding, on the fancy lavatories in Frieze’s “cloister-like court, whose gracious appointments seemed to congratulate you on having bodily functions.”

Only Art Fag City’s Paddy Johnson actually did something productive, confectioning an online petition asking Sotheby’s to negotiate a fair contract with its locked-out art handlers. At this writing, very few readers have been moved by Paddy’s plea, only 2,387 to be exact, which is not a vote of confidence by any means, considering New York is the beacon of the art world.

As much as I respect my peers I have to say I felt extremely disappointed when I didn’t see them on the picket line at Sotheby’s on May 2. Sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is and take sides. I’m proud I was on the line there when, at the exact time the Munch sold for a record-setting $120 million, a relatively small group of vociferous occupiers and union members chanted and screamed.  

“We will scream one more time for the 99%, for the art handlers or 814, for every worker in this city, that they will know it is our city, and they will know it is our art, and they will remember.”

Minutes later, the so-called “elites,” which is a rather irritating politicized misnomer fashionable today, left the building to the sight of protesters holding signs with the motto, “Sotheby’s: Bad for Art,” and chants like  “Whose side are you on?” Among the vast array of steroidal cops and camera flashes I saw Francesco Bonami running away. It was a beautiful yet lonely moment. And strange, too, since many of the so-called elite did talk to protesters and seemed to be pretty chill.

On the second day of the Fairpocalypse, at the Frieze preview on May 3, the story was different. There, high-strung critics, curators, collectors and other members of the elite lined up in droves to try out Jennifer Rubell’s interactive sculpture Nutcracker. It pretty much consisted of a life-sized naked female mannequin lying on its side, with a small platform on her inner thigh that people could use to crack walnuts by pulling the upper leg down. A bin full of nuts was stationed nearby, so that art aficionados could feast on protein-rich food. Was it as stupid as it sounds? Yes, it was stupid, foul and ugly. But who cares, it sold (for $35,000). It leaves me wondering, what would happen if the art critics went in for real politics instead of trivia?  

But critics are critics, and so they also lined up to eat Rirkrit Tiravanija’s sausages at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, with the help of actor Mark Ruffalo at the grill. Apparently it had something to do with art and, according to some reviews, he is now a generous hero for giving something back to society. If you don’t believe me just ask Jayson Musson (aka The Real Hennessy Youngman), he was there.  

But there is always good art on view at art fairs to cut through the bull. Good thing I found Jim Shaw’s Bone Sculpture at Galerie Praz-Delavallade from Paris (price: $180,000) to cleanse my palette. The large, white resin sculpture looks like a drippy cavernous dreamscape, sort of like a surrealist iceberg. Drawn on one of its central columns is a hyper-realistic image of a mythological muse who is raising an arm to her forehead in what appears to be a moment of intense emotion. Or is it shame? Anyway, I wanted to be inside that dreamy iceberg. Not because I hated the fair, I loved it, but because I needed to get away from those critics, the same ones who predicted the Fairpocalypse yet were strolling so chillin under the tent.

On the third day of the Fairpocalypse, already knowing none of the end-of-the-world scenarios foreseen by the critics would ever play out, I visited the NADA fair in Chelsea expecting to get exactly what I got: A relatively young and sophisticated art fair.  My favorite there was Viktoria Binschtok’s photographic series “World of Details (Flip-Flop + Break),” $5,800 (edition of 3) at Klemm's from Berlin. Binschtok takes images from Google’s Street View in which bystanders look straight into the lens of Google’s intruding camera, and then she visits each location and makes her own photographic image.

The result is presented as a diptych in which the small, appropriated image is juxtaposed with a rather large color print of that same space shown from a different view, as if the artist were trying to provide that particular area with an ethereal identity. For example, in World of Details (round corner + crossing) we see a close-up of a woman’s legs, wearing high heels, anomalously standing on top of a flip-flop on some anonymous street corner.

Those legs seem to be frozen in time, like a statue. Whether this woman is merely passing by or getting ready to change her shoes for something a bit more comfortable, we will never know, but for only $9,000 you can buy it, keep it, look at it forever and figure out the devil in the details. I know I would.

In the end, the works by Shaw and Binschtok illustrate the absurdity of the predicted Fairpocalypse: Good art will always cut through the bullshit. Fairs and money are not the enemy anymore, they haven’t been in a long time. Keep in mind that in 2005, Artnet’s own Walter Robinson gave us the venerable quote, “We don't have art movements any more. We have market movements,” proving that much of today’s blabber has a precedent and that many critics have stayed behind.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.