LONDON — Originally conceived as an offshoot of the uber-fashionable Frieze Art Fair — where everyone who’s anyone is seen and photographed amid the cutting edge of contemporary art — Frieze Masters has become a major draw in itself, covering, essentially, everything else. The fair, which represents galleries showing ancient to late 20th-century art, is strengthened by collaborative displays with guest curators, who this year include Tim Marlow of the Royal Academy and Sir Norman Rosenthal.
What’s striking about Frieze Masters 2016 is the consistency and boldness of the booths; there’s little waffling going on, and strong pieces are given copious room. The result is less like a traditional “let’s show everything we got” fair and more like an extension of the galleries’ own spaces as they mount temporary exhibitions, business as usual. As such, some have chosen to create single-artist displays: New York’s Sperone Westwater has devoted its booth entirely to Susan Rothenberg, and London’s Bowman Sculpture is given over to Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” (1880–1917). New York’s Castelli Gallery has even done away with wall labels, mimicking more contemporary display techniques.
Indeed, such is the clarity and confidence in how galleries are representing themselves that the fad in previous years for mounting immersive — some say gimmicky — installations seems to have completely fallen away. Helly Nahmad, who famously set the bar high in 2014 and ’15 by hiring art directors to create his displays, has done a complete U-turn, showing only three Picasso paintings and an otherwise empty space. You’ve got to admire his guts. Some galleries have spruced things up by juxtaposing older art with pieces from the 20th century, which, when done right, offers a fresh perspective and makes for a more memorable display. London’s Colnaghi, for instance, is showing modern photography by Horst directly adjacent to work by the 16th-century artist Cesare Procaccini. As one Horst sold, another similarly bright, commercial piece took its place to maintain the striking effect.
There is real consistency of quality this year, with surprising major names appearing: Dickinson’s (London and New York) highlight is a Magritte once owned by Nelson Rockefeller; Johnny van Haeften (London) has some prize Frans Halses; and it’s a pleasure to see two greats, Scottish painter Alan Davie and British painter John Hoyland, appearing at Alan Wheatley Art (London). Of particular interest is Dutch Old Masters specialist Salomon Lilian’s (Amsterdam and Geneva) superb display of still lifes by Willem Kalf, complemented by further excellent Dutch still life examples: you often see these propping up other genre works as filler, but I enjoyed seeing them take center stage. Also a delight this year is an increase in ancient and medieval art, including strong new presences from Galerie Chenel (Paris), Kallos Gallery (London), and Phoenix Ancient Art (New York).
Jonathan Jones of the Guardian gave the fair one out of five stars in his review, disgusted at the price of the art for sale. Yet he’d find that, if asked, museum pieces would command the same prices, if not more. The point is that the works on view here are easily and consistently of museum quality. It’s an aesthetic and historical pleasure to see them in between changing hands. That more international galleries representing earlier periods are keen to participate is an indication that this spin-off show is gaining significance on the world stage.
Frieze Masters 2016 continues at Regent’s Park (London) through October 9.