Anyone flirting with the idea of socialism should attend New York’s Frieze Art Fair. Come for the chance to peep-million dollar portraiture, stay to get elbowed by some of the wealthiest shoppers in the world, and leave with a $6 chocolate chip cookie and a strong desire to eat the rich.
The international event, also held in London and Los Angeles, stops on Randall’s Island this weekend. While aboard the short ferry ride from Manhattan, one silver-haired sixty-something woman dressed in pink tweed pointed out Brooklyn to her British companion.
“That’s Greenpoint, where Margaret lives,” she said pityingly. Turning around to face Manhattan, she stared past the Queensboro Bridge. “That’s the Upper East Side, where I live.”
Once on Randall’s Island, attendees spill into the mammoth tents filled with work from over 1,000 artists. The pieces are kept in booths organized by gallery. There are roughly 200 exhibitors. Certain sections spotlight various themes, like work by Latinx or “overlooked” artists, respectively.
Ostensibly, guests could put their map to good use and view the fair in an organized, station-by-station manner. But for the most part, visitors trudge through the sprawling, maze-like tent as if they are on a very cultured forced march.
Like many old guard institutions, Frieze has struggled to make the work more representative of the cities it lands in. Of course, a hallmark of the fine art world has been exclusivity; it would be ludicrous to demand a festival known and loved for its pricey purchases go mainstream. And yet, Frieze is trying to stay modern, and not just in its art offerings.
Sure, there was the perceptible money grab—a 1960 Max Ernst sculpture went for $500,000 and Jenny Holzer’s linen paintings, based on the redacted Mueller report, reportedly sold at $300,000.
But there were also nods toward a newer (but probably still rich) generation. Whether they wanted to be or not, guests were greeted at the front door of the festival by a very Instagrammable installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, a hodgepodge of reflective silver balls.
“Man, there’s a whole lotta spheres in here,” one man sighed as he walked by the piece. According to ArtNews, comedian Aziz Ansari was not immune to the pressure of posing with Kusama’s installation.
“Did you see the bus?” was overheard many times, referencing the 1995 Red Grooms sculpture. For twenty-thousand more dollars than $2.75, the cost of an actual bus fare, guests can walk inside the full-size installation. Worth a reported $550,000, the sculpture also comes equipped with fake straphangers riding inside.
One employee had the very unenviable job of telling people they could not bring their iced coffees onboard.
Lauren Halsey, based in Los Angeles, won this year’s Frieze Artist Award. According to the New York Times, the Yale graduate earned the commission after submitting “Prototype Column for tha Shaw,” two 12-foot columns that include lyrics by the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.
The classical structures are stamped with hieroglyphics with nods to South Los Angeles. Halsey told the Times, “I thought I could sample the function of the hieroglyph—the pharaohs’ record—and remix it into contemporary neighborhood poetics and news to describe this moment for the people.”
In 1974, Linda Goode Bryant opened Just Above Midtown (JAM), a gallery dedicated to promoting African-American artists. This year, Freize honors Bryant and other JAM artists in a much talked-about retrospective section.
Paul Raffin and Aliyah Snisarenko, two New Yorkers who attend Frieze every year, said they felt 2019 felt “more diverse” in terms of its offerings. “It’s doubtful we’ll buy anything,” Raffin said, though the pair had picked up two $20 paintings by artist Steve Keene.
Keene had one of the best-attended booths. His poppy portraits of animals and rock stars like David Bowie, Jonathan Richman, and the Runaways cost between $10 and $50. Unlike other ever-mindful gallerists, lurking around with iPads and waiting to make a sale, Keene set up an honor system slot for visitors to slip in their cash.
“There is a big phallic theme going on this year,” Raffin added. “There are always dicks in art, but there seem to be more. I don’t know why—maybe the Trump effect, I have no idea.”
Snisarenko added, “I don’t like seeing that—I don’t think it’s very aesthetically pleasing.”
“We're in dick avoidance mode,” Raffin explained.
Others were less fazed—even bored—by the fleshy displays. “Yeah, there is a big naked penis and a vagina over there, but yawn,” one attendee said.
Cristina Vere Nicoll, a sales associate at David Zwirner, stood underneath a huge Christopher Williams portrait of a slender matchstick. “I guess you could perceive that as phallic, if you’re in that mindset,” she offered. “I see this more as a stand-in for portraiture. Williams gravitates to everyday objects and motifs and uses them as sights to experiment with.”
Other artists had playful spins on the mundane. One very popular installation by New York-based Olivia Erlanger featured true-to-size washing machines with colorful mermaid tails peeking out.
Michael Seri, from Dumbo, Brooklyn, told The Daily Beast he likes “about 30 percent of the art.” A creator himself, Seri enlisted the model Olya Anikina, who he met on Instagram, to wear a see-through, plastic-looking dress. The mini was embellished with beat-up iPhones and SIM cards and “iPorn” was written on the chest in LED lights.
“I’ve been coming to Freize for a while,” Seri said. “A lot of the art is very commercial, very trendy, redundant, you’ve seen it already. It’s like a high-end mall for art.” Another visitor referred to the event as a “very pretty boat show.”
Two married artists, Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw, got to the fairground around 5 p.m., two hours before the day was to end. Catron said that around five years ago, she took count of how many women were showing in Chelsea’s high-end galleries.
“It was about 16 percent female, which is a shocking number,” Catron said. “But I think things are improving. To call the fair diverse might be a stretch, but is it improving? Yes. From the perspective of an old white man, this year probably seem diverse.”
The two were not planning to buy anything. “We’re about selling [our own work] now,” Outlaw said.
Catron added, “If you have only one home, you cannot buy any of this. Maybe if you have two homes, you can afford some.”
Luis Ortiz, who works at the auction house Christie’s, would not refer to himself as an “insider.”
“I am probably just a 'sider,’” he quipped. Ortiz said he was not in the market for any personal artwork, but comes to Frieze every year to network. “I might shop for someone who is paying me to buy them something,” he added.
Ortiz said he didn’t see anything “too controversial” while touring the exhibits. “There is a [portrait of a] hippo having sex with a manatee or something—that’s kind of cool.”
“I love coming here because you see all the artists, and they’re interesting people,” Ortiz said. “There is definitely diversity in this space, at the fair right now. But the customers? They are still all white men.”