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While Switzerland may have Art Basel, Paris may have FIAC, and Venice the Biennale, these days there are few comparable peers to London’s dazzling and dynamic Frieze. Around 70,000 visitors made the journey to the fair’s pair of bespoke white marquees in the regal Regent’s Park, which this year exhibited 1,000 artists, represented by 289 galleries, coming from 25 different countries. In the words of Vogue, Frieze is now the “blueprint” for art fairs, yet its peculiar ability to attract hedge funders as well as artists, billionaires alongside art students, makes it tough to replicate.
The 12th edition of Frieze has definitely seen a sharpening-up, as the art fair–founded by Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp in 2003–prepares to enter its teens. In fact, what was Slotover and Sharp’s last year at the helm before handing over the reins, proved as much a mouthwatering smorgasbord of art as ever before. Salon 94 teamed up with The Smile Face Museum for an entire stand devoted to variations on a yellow grin, for example. Even the blue-chip Gagosian presented a sleek, nouveau Alice in Wonderland by Carsten Holler, including a huge climb-through dice, an assortment of large scrabble letters, and an oversized mushroom.
The new Frieze Live section, brought in this year by Frieze Projects curator Nicola Lees, had a significant effect on Frieze London’s ambiance. Even though it always tends to be a sensory overload experience, Frieze was even more of a cornucopia. A group of mysterious people clad in black, connected by an elongated, pink hat, turned out to be James Lee Byars’ Ten in a Hat, which weaved through the halls on behalf of Michael Werner Gallery. Cerith Wyn Evans had a performance over at the nearby ZSL London Zoo, United Brothers served soup from their hometown that had radioactive potential, whereas Tamara Henderson presented a “vacationing” space that offered visitors lots of very strong alcohol. Meanwhile, Sophia Al Maria led one of the most bizarre tours ever, revealing messages around the walls of Frieze London with her ultraviolet torch, while dragging around a television set.
Frieze 2014 certainly had a degree more poise this year. It cannot grow any larger in capacity, due to the size constraints of Regent’s Park, but organizers also decided to start the fair a day earlier and limited the amount of ticket sales, to reduce overcrowding. On top of this, there’s been a redesign by Universal Design Studio, who raised the ceilings and carried out a Haussmann-esque widening of walkways, as Frieze Focus and Frame have been telescoped into the former. It means that what was already a brilliant space for people-watching has improved ad infinitum. Jay-Z and Beyoncé made an appearance, artists Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry were spotted wandering about, as were billionaires like Lakshmi Mittal and François Pinault.
These latter types are what fueled some serious spending. London’s White Cube sold David Hammons‘ 2001 piece Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like…? for $4 million, and New York’s Mnuchin Gallery sold a David Smith statue for around $2.5 million within hours of the private VIP preview. Meanwhile, London’s Victoria Miro sold 12 works, including a large 2009 Chris Ofili painting, for a “mid-six-figure sum,” within the first two hours of the preview. Fascinatingly, more than half of these works had been pre-reserved by buyers who had viewed the works simply as jpegs. Shanzhai Biennial, “a multinational brand posing as an art-project posing as a multinational brand posing as a biennial,” according to its artist statement, failed to sell their nearby $50 million mansion, however.
Elsewhere, Christoph Buchel’s Sleeping Guard at the Hauser & Wirth stand, provoked uncertainty as to whether it was art or real life. It’s a playfulness that spread out into the annual Sculpture Park, where you could find Franz West’s huge pink sausage Pink Sitzwuste, Yayoi Kusama’s bronze pumpkins, or Kristin Oppenheimer‘s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? which pumped out the famous song from eight surrounding speakers, filling every decibel of your listening capability.
Frieze Masters with its pre-2000 work, just a short stroll or shuttle bus away, had a calmer atmosphere. This is a space for connoisseurship, where owners tend to be the foremost experts of the works they own and sell. At Masters, there was some typically brilliant work: Sigmar Polke’s wonderfully warped photocopies, a series of virtuoso pencil sketches by Lucian Freud, and a classic example of Cy Twombly’s genteel graffiti. Also of note: the $5 million Rubens portrait and the $50 million Rembrandt for sale.
The finest offering at Masters, however, was Helly Nahmad’s stand “The Collector.” It was a wonderfully creative and theatrical imagining of a Parisian collector’s apartment in 1968: charming and memorable, it included seamlessly integrated works by Joan Miro and Lucio Fontana.
If anything, it was a microcosm for Frieze this year: tasteful and classic, but also thoughtful and cunning. The only caveat is the question of whether Frieze’s new director, Victoria Siddle, can continue the good work that went on before her.