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1pm: The press preview for Frieze New York 2016 on Randall’s Island begins! Or so they say. I am power walking out the door of my office in Williamsburg.
1:17pm: Board ferry #1 of the day, the East River Ferry.
1:33pm: Board ferry #2 of the day, the boat to Frieze. When I get on, the tidy rows of benches are already packed with people, most of them wearing black and sporting perfectly coiffed or gelled hair. All of the benches face forward, which makes walking down the aisle sort of like entering a middle school cafeteria in search of a seat. Some people use their bags to save spots for friends, others awkwardly avert my gaze. A conspicuous number of people are wearing sunglasses, even though New York hasn’t seen the sun in a week. I find an open seat next to a window and proceed to stare out it.
1:36pm: We depart. I think someone just clapped briefly. The man behind me is eating a sandwich that smells like heaven between two slices of bread, and I’m jealous that he had the foresight to bring one. Did the Frieze ferry get swankier? Did it always have blue LEDs lighting the edges of the ceiling?
1:51pm: Still on the ferry. People seem so happy, la-di-da, just talking among themselves on the way to the art fair. I start to feel like we’re on a class trip — I half expect the group to break out in song. Something about this situation is forcing me into deep despair. I breathe and try hard not to hate the art world and all of my life choices.
2:01pm: We’re here!
2:03pm: I stop to snap a few photos of Alex Da Corte’s giant, confounding baby balloon floating out in front of the Frieze tent. “Darling,” I hear, and turn to find that a woman in a fur coat and red platform sneakers is speaking to me. She extends her phone and asks if I will take her photo with the Da Corte. I oblige.
2:10pm: After obtaining my press pass and checking my coat, I finally enter the fair — directly behind an NYPD counterterrorism officer. The first person I see is Jerry Saltz.
2:16pm: I’m standing in Esther Schipper and Johnen Galerie’s shared booth, staring at a huge, bundled cone of wood by Liam Gillick, when a man checks out my badge and asks if he can help. Sure, I say, he can tell me a bit more about the Gillick pieces. He proceeds to explain that this one I’m looking at consists of an unlit bonfire and, in front of it, Coca-Cola spilled on the floor with glitter.
“Why Coke and glitter?,” I ask.
“It’s Liam, you know?,” he responds, and laughs.
2:43–2:53pm: I spend 10 solid minutes entranced by the incredible David Wojnarowicz installation, “Untitled (Burning Boy Installation),” taking up most of PPOW gallery’s booth. It’s ominous and gorgeous and also just the littlest bit hopeful. The piece was commissioned by art collectors Adriana and Robert Mnuchin for the basement of their Upper East Side townhouse in 1985. I overhear a gallerist telling someone that the Mnuchins “hated it.”
3:05pm: I’ve been hovering in Pace Gallery’s booth, within sight of the artist Fred Wilson, for at least five minutes. I want to talk to Wilson about his works in the booth — mind-blowingly intricate glass pieces, flag symbols on unprimed canvas, and more — but for five minutes I’ve been watching him sit down and attempt to eat a salad, only to be interrupted by someone who wants to say hello. I want him to eat. I, too, am hungry. My commiseration wars with my reporter instincts.
3:12pm: Encouraged by someone from Pace, I finally introduce myself to Wilson, who is as nice as all the rumors make him out to be. I ask him whether the grouping represents two different series or is all of a piece. “It’s a conceptual thread,” he tells me. “I’m interested in the color black. I’m twisting and trying to squeeze out meaning from that. … [It’s about] looking at oneself and locating it with this color black as a symbol.”
3:25pm: I stand for a few minutes and watch the performers in Eduardo Navarro’s “Instruction from the sky,” part of Frieze Projects. They’re meant to perform outside and mirror the passing of clouds through the sky, but there are no clouds, plural, out there, just a weighty, never-ending gray mass. I can’t tell how much the piece would hold my attention elsewhere, but here, inside the fair, it’s nice to have a reason to slow down. And to see mirrors being used for something other than selfies.
3:34pm: I get in line to see Maurizio Cattelan’s already infamous donkey, who’s sharing space with a baroque chandelier in a re-creation of an installation the artist did in 1994 at Daniel Newburg Gallery (it was shut down within a day). The line moves quickly, and soon I’m face-to-face with Sir Gabriel, “a very calm donkey,” in the words of his handler from All Tame Animals. Sir Gabriel is 15 years old — “middle-aged,” the handler tells me — and this art fair job is a “piece of cake” compared to his more regular gig: starring in opera productions at the Met. He’s got more space here than in his stall at home, and he gets to stand around and eat all day, with outdoor breaks every two hours — “he’s a union donkey!” I take a photo for Instagram and think of all the people who will see it and get angry about Cattelan’s “abuse” of animals in the name of art. I want to tell them that the only pain being inflicted upon Sir Gabriel is that the artwork doesn’t seem to have any meaning, and he has to spend this much time at an art fair.
3:48pm: I get in another line, this time for lunch at Court Street Grocers. I buy a sandwich, a bottle of water, and a brownie, which costs me $21. While waiting for my food, I realize I don’t have the correct cord to connect my phone to the portable charger I’ve brought. Fuck. Brief panic, followed by resignation.
4:29pm: I wander into Hauser & Wirth’s booth, enticed by a quartet of glass Roni Horn sculptures, which look like kiddie pools crossed with hassocks. I’ve seen photos of these and thought them boring, but in person they’re cryptic and enchanting. As I take them in, I watch a procession of people make jokes about sitting on them and reach out to touch them. It’s then I realize that there’s a gallery attendant whose sole job appears to be to stand here and tell people not to touch the art.
4:50pm: I wander into the CRG Gallery booth and start photographing Jumana Manna’s mysterious sculptures, some of which look like oversize relics. After a couple minutes, a gallerist approaches to tell me more about the work. At the end of our conversation, she thanks me “for stopping and paying attention.”
4:55pm: First video art sighting — two works by Ergin Çavuşoğlu at the booth of Rampa Gallery. I want to stay and watch them, but it’s five minutes until the official end of the press preview, and I’ve only covered about 1/3 of the fair. My phone is at 19%.
5:14pm: I’ve found the good art! Or at least some of it. It’s at Frieze Frame, which features young galleries showing solo presentations of young artists. Cape Town’s Blank Projects has brought Igshaan Adams, whose tapestries are luscious but restrained. New York’s Clifton Benevento features Gina Beavers, whose work I already adored but whose painting cubes of male torsos and raw meat are deliciously visceral. Shanghai’s Leo Xu Projects has covered the walls and floor of its small booth with carpet squares by Liu Shiyuan, who printed riotous patterns and appropriated, hilarious text phrases onto them. I feel profoundly satisfied standing atop the words “The progenitors of modernity have yet to be born!” in the middle of a blue-chip art fair.
5:43pm: I’m intrigued by a wall of puppets at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, but I can’t figure out who to ask for more information because I can’t tell who works at the gallery. So many well-groomed white men in dark suits. I give up and take a few photos. Fairtigue is setting in hard.
5:48pm: People are swarming Société’s booth, which is filled with gleaming rows of refrigerated display cases, people in silvery space outfits, and a cube of boxes marked “Soylent.” Recalling both Soylent Green and that New Yorker article, I figure this must be some sort of elaborate conceptual joke. I worm my way in and begin talking to one of the men in a space outfit. (And I charge my phone — they’ve got phone chargers!). “We’re from Soylent,” he says, and I interrupt him — “Wait, you really work at Soylent?” He does. I look into his deep blue eyes and bask in his intense earnestness as he tells me about his product, a food substitute made from soy protein isolate, isomaltulose, sugar beets, and algal oil — “30% of the calories are from sustainable algae.” Soylent wants to “expand the idea of what’s acceptable as food,” he says, and the artist Sean Raspet — who actually works in R&D at Soylent — is “using our product as a medium.” At this I nearly burst out laughing, but I hold it together as he introduces Raspet, who tells me he’s interested in the “difference between the art economy and the mass economy,” trying to “cross those two wires.” I point out that’s all well and good, but the Soylent here is not for sale — it’s being handed out for free. He concedes that the experiment is not yet perfect.
A man nearby exclaims that Soylent tastes like cereal milk! I have been warily eying my bottle for 10 minutes, but I finally open it and take a swig. It’s the texture of cereal milk, but the flavor is oddly neutral. It’s actually not bad … I think … but I’m hesitant to trust my taste in anything, especially food substitutes, after nearly four hours at an art fair.
6:37pm: I might like Soylent.
6:38pm: I think I have algae stuck in my throat.
6:41pm: I have seen the Gagosian booth full of Damien Hirst works, and it is awful. I rubberneck because I can’t help myself, watching people flock to a ram with gold horns preserved in a vitrine. Can the animal rights activists protest this instead of the Cattelan? A gallery attendant has been tasked with the unfortunate job of asking anyone who’s holding a glass of wine to leave the booth. Pretty much everyone, at this point in the night, is holding a glass of wine. Shit, I’ve been standing near the ram too long. Do I have cancer? I flee.
6:55pm: I watch someone attempt a selfie in a mirrored artwork from three different angles and walk away dissatisfied. I empathize.
6:58pm: My pen malfunctions. The aisles are so crowded I can’t walk. I’m the only person in sight still holding Soylent. What am I still doing here??
7:03pm: Seeing this, clearly:
7:06pm: I’ve told myself I’m leaving, but I can’t help stopping at the booth of Baró Galeria to glance at the work of Felipe Ehrenberg. I approach the two gallerists, who are sitting on a bench, to ask for more information. One of them looks up at me, gestures to a nearby pile of booklets, and, with the kindest expression on her face, says, “I’m sorry, we’re so tired.” They offer to email me more information. This is my sign, at long last, that it’s time to go. I make a beeline for the door, snapping a few more photos along the way.
8:01pm: Board ferry #3 of the day, a three-level vessel with not one but two bars. The Frieze New York 2016 preview is over, and they are shuttling us back to Manhattan on a party boat. People around me buy drinks, look at their phones, talk excitedly about what they’ve seen. I settle into a seat by the window and fall asleep.
Frieze New York 2016 continues at Randall’s Island Park through May 8.
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“The impossibility of reforming Tony [Soprano] bears some resemblance to the crisis plaguing museums and toxic philanthropy today, where a culture of bullying and exploitation belies programming of socially- and politically-engaged art.”