The annual Frieze New York art fair is generously stocked with women in their 50s and 60s, shouting out three figure prices and authoritatively mispronouncing artists’ names.
They mill around the tent on opening day, buzzing and squawking at the thrill of spending their husbands’ money.
Dressed in their finest, their faces nipped and stretched taut like a snare drum, they look more labored over than most of the art on display.
“I love this. How much? Around $60K?” one woman shrilly asks a gallery attendant, eyeing an aluminum sculpture by a Danish art collective. The attendant quietly and politely corrects her: $100K.
“In New York people steal everything,” the prospective buyer remarks half-heartedly, seeking reassurance about her purchase. “They’re not going to steal this,” the attendant promises, securing a sale.
It’s a Kobuki dance I’ll witness again and again at Frieze. Indeed, there’s an amusing tension between the unbearably pretentious art world natives and the Real Housewives, who don’t speak the language of art.
They point at works on display like children in a toy store, referring to artists’ methods and materials as “this” and “that.” These clueless collectors have democratized art fairs, where there are fewer snobby intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals.
But then they would never be allowed in without oversized Birkin bags.
In a clear indication that Frieze knows its audience, the fair is distributing free copies of the Financial Times. The booths themselves are prohibitively pricey: $815 per square meter.
At the Parisian gallery Mon Charpentier, installed in one of the fair’s smaller, peripheral booths, a young foreign woman is assured that she’s looking at a “very, very important piece.”
But she cares less about its cultural significance than she does about how it will look in her living room. “Can it be built on site?” she asks.
Meanwhile, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise—one of the larger booths and more well-known galleries—artist Jonathan Horowitz was commissioning Frieze visitors to participate in his work, 700 Dots.
Fair attendees are asked to paint a black circle eight inches in diameter on a 12-by-12 inch white canvas, instructed on their technique and told to spend at least 30 minutes on their masterpiece. Each square is then mounted on the wall in groupings of 100, priced at $100,000.
Participants are paid a $20 profit, but their black dot is worth $10,000.
When I pressed Brown about the artist’s vision, he mumbled that Horowitz was “exploring a way to make a painting,” and that each dot is a “self-portrait.”
“High art is labor,” he adds, begrudgingly. "And here he has distilled a painting down to its elemental particles. Despite the very straightforward, reductive template, each one is unique. “Inevitably, when you ask someone to make a perfect geometric circle, it’s not going to be perfect.”
By Thursday afternoon, they had already sold three or four groupings, Brown told me.
Collectors are quite literally paying for the Frieze 2015 experience. But in contemporary art, the concept is never as impressive as the Gavin Browns of the world make it out to be.
It’s the interactive art that draws the most attention at Frieze, along with the most shocking, the largest in scale, and the most of-its-time. Gagosian reserved its entire booth for Richard Prince’s uninspiring, $90,000-a-piece New Portraits—blown-up ink on paper screenshots of other people’s Instagram posts that he has commented on.
Gallery owners like Gavin Brown, aloof and enigmatic, are sought after by both artists and collectors.
In the contemporary art world, there is no benchmark for what’s “good.” There is only a social structure, an attitude, that determines which works and names are most valuable. And, of course, all that taut skin, decoratively clothed, pointing at “this” and “that”—the women knowing not what they want, but that they want something. They’re shopping, after all.