A booth at Frieze New York (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

A booth at Frieze New York (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Frieze New York is an undeniably nice fair. Even if you generally hate art fairs, or sympathize with the union workers, or a devotee of the Armory Show, you have to admit that Frieze does it right: the spacious, light-filled tent, the excellent food options, the weekend-getaway feel as you board the ferry to Randall’s Island.

And there’s something for everyone! This year the fair has a new education section, where families and kids as well as school and museum groups can learn about color theory and contemporary art. (Don’t worry, it’s still exclusive: “Please note that space is limited, so places are offered on a first come, first served basis.”) Plus Paul McCarthy’s enormous balloon dog sculpture at the north entrance is sure to impress people of all ages, whether kids who think it’s jaw-droppingly awesome or art-world adults who will nod knowingly at the fact/joke that it’s not a Jeff Koons (get it?).

Paul McCarthy's ginormous balloon dog

Paul McCarthy’s balloon dog looms large.

The balloon dog is actually one of the worst pieces of art — if not the worst — at the fair, so it’s unfortunate that it looms so large. Inside, there’s much better work on view, including Marianne Vitale’s big sculpture “Cockpit” (though not nearly the size of the McCarthy), which was commissioned as part of Frieze Projects. The work dominates one of the open center spaces with its charred wood construction and accompanying severed barn wall, and brings some welcome darkness and brooding to an overly shiny event.

One section over, the booth of London gallery Ancient & Modern features recent Hypertransformation sculptures constructed of foam, polystyrene, perspex, fiberglass, and steel by artist Rudolf Polanszky. The pieces are display cases whose abstract contents seem to be enshrined for the sole purpose of creating an aesthetic of decay. Both Vitale’s and Polanszky’s ruinous works resonate nicely with a gorgeous Rauschenberg combine at Gagosian Gallery‘s booth that stands out despite being several decades old and ostensibly something everyone’s already seen. (The Gagosian booth, for the record, has special lighting that makes it extra bright, creating the feeling that you’ve entered a film version of heaven.) Lynda Benglis’s 237-pound sculpture “Wing,” from 1970, also caught my eye, looking amazingly fresh at Cheim & Read.

Marianne Vitale, "Cockpit"

Marianne Vitale’s Frieze Projects contribution, “Cockpit” (2013)

A Rauschenberg combine at Gagosian's booth

A Rauschenberg combine at Gagosian’s booth

The winner for eye-catching-ness, however, is surely Bjarne Melgaard’s installation at Gavin Brown, where the artist has painted the walls light purple, hung several of his colorful, biomorphic abstract paintings, and littered the floor with equally colorful blankets, all culminating in a cozy, tucked-away corner. Mateo Tannatt created a series of colored benches scattered throughout the fair for Frieze Projects, and the press release says they’re based on “the subjective association of color,” but if you want to meditate on that topic, just go see Melgaard.

Bjarne Melgaard's installation at Gavin Brown

Bjarne Melgaard’s installation at Gavin Brown

Other strong solo showings include the booth of Kate MacGarry — an excellent display of wool tapestries and sculptures by artist Renee So that feature seductively whimsical and vaguely creepy characters — and a nook from the Breeder gallery, featuring three paintings by Stelios Faitakis that look like crosses between street art murals and medieval icons. The shape of the tiny space and Faitakis’s style make the booth feel like a church chapel, a place to seek solace off one of the fair’s main aisles.

Work by Renee So at Kate MacGarry

Work by Renee So at Kate MacGarry

Paintings by Stelios Faitakis at the Breeder

Paintings by Stelios Faitakis at the Breeder

Two of my favorite artworks were connected by their embrace of booze — the first, Valeska Soares’s “Finale” (2013), at Galeria Fortes Vilaca, comprises an antique table and many different colored, sized, and shaped antique glasses; my first thought was my mother’s antique perfume-bottle collection. But get closer, you realize that the glasses are all filled with alcohol, giving the piece quite a odor and the beautiful, nostalgic arrangement a shaded reality check.

Smells like booze: close-up on Valeska Soares's "Finale"

Smells like booze: close-up on Valeska Soares’s “Finale”

The second was Liz Glynn’s “Vault,” the by-now much-discussed speakeasy. The piece is impressive for being a lot like an actual speakeasy — you have to somehow acquire a key from someone who has one to share, and only then do you learn its location. Even with the key, my companion and I walked past the unmarked entrance unwittingly and had to double back.

Entering the Liz Glynn's speakeasy, "Vault" (2013)

Entering the Liz Glynn’s speakeasy, “Vault” (2013)

Once inside the dark space, we handed the key to a woman who used it to “unlock” (this was metaphorical) a box, which she brought to a bartender. He then improvised for us a story that sort of made sense involving the items in the box — small plaster sculptures of a glove, a piece of cake, and a staircase; at the same time, with his hands shaking and  sweat clearly rolling down his face, he mixed and poured our drinks. We retired to the picnic table behind the bar to drink them (very strong), and although it was hot in the enclosed room, it was also a welcome respite to sit down and take a break from the loud, constantly moving crowds at the fair.

The scene inside

The scene inside

This was, it should be said, our second foodie-esque/culinary-connoisseur-type experience at Frieze; the first had been our meal at the tribute version of FOOD, Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden’s restaurant from 1971. The food we ate at FOOD that day was curated chosen by artist Matthew Day Jackson, and in two words, it was expensive artisanal hodgepodge: $15 for a tray of Korean throw-in-what-you-can (including spam) stew, a small mound of delicious beef jerky from Washington state, cheese from the Bedford Cheese Shop, dried fruits, and honey drizzled on a hard tack cracker from Massachusetts, a few pickles from Gowanus, and a glass of Tang. Sort of like a collage that never quite coalesces into a unified whole. It wasn’t bad, but I regretted forgoing Mission Chinese, which was another culinary destination at the fair.

The food at FOOD

The food being prepared at FOOD

One of our last stops at the fair was a visit to Marian Goodman‘s booth, where a crowd had gathered outside a small, empty room; inside, a rotating cast of young girls was performing a short Tino Sehgal piece. The Sehgal work could be seen as the antidote to McCarthy’s empty monolith outside, and for that, it deserves credit; being in a room devoid of objects competing for your attention was almost as gratifying as sitting in the speakeasy. The piece features a manga character come to life — a reference to a 1991 work by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno in which they purchased the rights to a manga character and eventually, somehow, legally set her free.

The crowd waiting to get in to see Tino Sehgal's work at Marian Goodman

The crowd waiting to get in to see Tino Sehgal’s work at Marian Goodman

It’s a fascinating idea (both the original and the extension), but I found Sehgal’s work esoteric to the point of alienation. While I’ve been enchanted by his heady, philosophical questions before, many of the ones asked by the girl seemed like obtuse non-sequiturs. (E.g. “What’s the relation between a sigh and melancholia?”) And why did she move so slowly? Alas, one (or at least I) wants to be the person who leaves the art fair confident that the Tino Sehgal piece — the perfomative, ephemeral, least commodifiable work there — was her favorite. Then at least you could say you’ve risen above.

Frieze New York continues through Monday, May 13, on Randall’s Island. Tickets and directions can be found here.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...