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This Year’s Frieze Masters Signals the Changing Identity of the Art Fair

Frieze Masters, where art from before the 20th century is for sale, raises questions about the sociopolitical role of art fairs and what small galleries gain by participating.

Dickinson gallery’s “Formed from Nature: Barbara Hepworth” booth at Frieze Masters, 2018, London (All photos by the author for Hyperallergic, all works of art and writings by Barbara Hepworth © Bowness)

LONDON — It may be said that art fairs have traditionally been seen as barometers that indicate current moods or trends in the art market, presenting a snapshot of what may currently be in fashion, or bankable, for collectors. In recent years, however, this function has morphed into something broader and more self-aware; galleries exhibit at art fairs for reasons beyond the simple goal of setting up a stall and selling a product. Several factors at play at this year’s Frieze Masters, where art made before the 21st century is for sale, indicate the changing identity of the art fair — not least the issue of the tighter balance of the cost of exhibiting versus profitability. The fair’s strong emphasis on curated displays, and its acute awareness of social media presence, suggests a reaction to dwindling visitor numbers in traditional art venues, like museums. And perhaps most strongly prominent this year is a hyper-awareness of socio-political responsibility, exemplified especially through the fair’s conscientious promotion of women artists.

Eykyn Maclean’s booth at Frieze Masters, 2018, London

Galleries have long faced the somewhat ironic decision of whether to exhibit at art fairs. It is never guaranteed that the costs of exhibiting — which can be crippling for smaller galleries — are recouped in the immediate to mid or even longer term, yet many galleries feel an obligation to appear at fairs in order to maintain their presence in the active art market. The 2015 TEFAF market report indicated an increase of fairs worldwide, from 55 in 2000 to more than 180 in 2014, upping the strain on galleries’ coffers and calendars. A comprehensive report in Artnet highlights the imbalance of investment versus return between smaller and larger galleries showing at art fairs, indicating such factors as disproportionate profit margins and rates of insurance encountered on this sliding scale. How, then, do galleries who do choose to appear maximize impact within such constraints?

With discussion raging over whether larger galleries will begin to subsidize the appearance of more modestly sized ones, a notably pragmatic development at Frieze Masters is the pairing up of institutions sharing booths, such as Hauser and Wirth with Moretti Fine Art, and London-based Kamel Mennour with New York and London-based Lévy Gorvy, which presented a solo show on French conceptual painter François Morellet. There are still the examples of breathtaking expenditure to create knock-out displays, such as Dickinson’s “Formed from Nature: Barbara Hepworth” booth (more on that later), echoing the ambitious Helly Nahmad enterprises of previous years. But those teaming up demonstrate a forward-thinking attitude that searches out what can be achieved within the traditional fair format.

Robilant Voena’s booth at Frieze Masters, 2018, London

This pragmatic mindset extends through the strong emphasis on academic curating throughout both the exhibits and programs. Contrasted with the Chelsea-based Masterpiece Art Fair in the summer, in which the brightest and most bling purchasables — Rolls Royces, jewelry by Van Cleef & Arpels — sat next to Old Masters, with its thick piled carpets, elaborate floral displays and what felt like as many up-market dining establishments as actual exhibitors, Frieze is a more sober — dare I say, serious — affair, the focus squarely on the intellectual.

Throughout, this Regent’s Park-based temporary structure, designed by Annabelle Selldorf, is a muted grey, with minimum fuss, and copies of the Financial Times, a brand partner, at regular stations. Gallery displays, instead of simply offering up their “greatest hits”, are often themed or specially curated. American artist Adam Pendleton, recruited by Pace, here themes his collection around the concept of the grid. Elsewhere, the Spotlight Curated section this year is arranged by Toby Kamps of the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, featuring a record 26 galleries showing avant garde 20th Century artists with an emphasis on “female, queer, or artists of color, and others chose eccentric media and approaches or worked in places cut off from major art centers.”

There is also a marked adventurousness which seizes on the growing trend for transhistorical display so popularized at recent major auction house shows. Yes, there is an increase in the number of Old Master specialist galleries this year — 14 this year, including newcomers Galerie Canesso, De Jonckheere, Galerie G Sarti and Stair Sainty Gallery — indicating, perhaps, an expectation of a more serious collecting audience than, say, Masterpiece, but the inclusiveness of some displays really do push this display principle to its limit. In one vista at Robilant + Voena, for example, you can see a bust by Canova, a painting by Tiepolo, a Fontana slashed canvas, and a John Chamberlain crushed car from 1963, all next to one another. A more forgiving opinion would admire this as an intellectual exercise drawing parallels across disparate movements and materials. Others may call it a cynical effort to throw everything but the kitchen sink at your booth to cover all collecting bases and grab attention with your daring.

Marking the centenary of women’s suffrage, and one year since the #MeToo movement exploded, both Frieze London and Masters made  a conscientious effort to focus on women artists. (Rose McGowan made a high-profile appearance at Frieze.) The Art Newspaper reported that at the time of Frieze week, 45% of solo shows in public institutions feature female artists, while the figure is at 27% for commercial galleries. Royal Academy curator Tim Marlow programmed this year’s Frieze Masters Talks, which exclusively feature women artists, including Tacita Dean, and the sponsor Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounges were filled with female artists chosen by Tracey Emin.

Eykyn Maclean’s booth at Frieze Masters, 2018, London

This pro-women sentiment was expressed in the choice of works, with prominent examples including a c1480 tapestry made by women in Eichstatt, Germany as a highlight piece at Sam Fogg; a 1969 marble by Louise Bourgeois at Wirth and Moretti, alongside some medieval and Baroque pieces; a 1954 iron sculpture by Lynn Chadwick and a Pelvic Series painting by Georgia O’Keeffe given prominence at Eykyn Maclean; and a full length Cleopatra from 1639–1640, by Artemisia Gentileschi, at Galerie G Sarti. Pushing the holy trinity of feminism, uber-curating, and self-awareness, however, was the headline-grabbing effort of Dickinson, which had to reinforce its booth floor in order to accommodate not only a magnificent Barbara Hepworth bronze “River Form”, but also a ton of rocks arranged around it, complete with plants and captions in gardening-center style slate. A fake seagull topped off the whole grotesquely cartoonish affair, and, of course, the bronze sold. Though the intent — recreating Hepworth’s studio in St. Ives — was admirable, it feels patronizing in its tackiness and unashamed promotion via “#hepworthgarden” labels. Would the same treatment have been applied to Henry Moore?

Frieze Masters continues to offer a fascinating snapshot across the pre-2000 art market, with galleries flexing their ingenuity in an increasingly unforgiving arena in terms of expenditure; this year has been especially creative and demonstrates a consciousness of the changing role of the art fair.

Dickinson gallery’s “Formed from Nature: Barbara Hepworth” booth at Frieze Masters, 2018, London

Frieze Masters was at Regent’s Park, London from October 4th to 7th, 2018. 

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