I visited this year’s edition of Frieze in New York City on a Thursday, which is a strange day to go to an art fair. For the uninitiated, I’ll explain: Big art fairs like Frieze and Art Basel typically (but not always) host their first opening — known as “first-choice VIP,” in sad art-world lingo — on Wednesday mornings. These are followed by a Wednesday evening opening, meant for people who are also Very Important, But Clearly Not As Important. The “regular” people, those who have no connection to the industry and genuinely love art (bless them), or who want a good TikTok backdrop and a nice air-conditioned space to let their kids loose in, tend to visit the show on Friday or the weekend. Sandwiched between these two categories like a forgotten pickle is Thursday, the art-fair limbo day.
This morning, I arrived at The Shed, the mammoth Hudson Yards multidisciplinary arts center that has served as Frieze’s home since 2021, with bright eyes, an open mind, and an earnest question in my heart: Who is here today? The answer, I learned, is a bizarre mélange of mid-tier art advisors, artists and/or their parents, old-money rich people who think the first-choice opening is tacky, and Chris Rock, who apparently waltzed in around 11:30am wearing dark shades (though I didn’t catch him myself).
My journey began at the booth of a seasoned art dealer, Miguel Abreu, lined with paintings by the incredibly underrated artist Scott Lyall. They’re not the kind of works you might expect to find at an art fair, because they’re practically impossible to capture on a phone camera. Built up of gold nanoparticles and acrylic gel medium on glass mirror, Lyall’s flickering surfaces reflect the light in a magical, golden-hour way that can only be appreciated in person.
Abreu gave me a matter-of-fact take on the day-one versus day-two fair hierarchy.
“’VIP’ is the new plebes,” he stated. “People who actually look at the work in its own terms start coming later in the week.”
“VIPs have a filter built in, they already know what they like and what they want. I like the people who don’t know, because they’re the ones who discover things,” he said. “We often do well later, when people are relieved of the demands of what they’re supposed to like and supposed to look at.”
Buoyed by Abreu’s candor, I perused the fair with a feeling of bouncy possibility and genuine curiosity that did indeed lead me to work I loved. The New York gallery Casey Kaplan presented Matthew Ronay’s “The Crack, the Swell, an Ode” (2022), a 24-foot sculpture on a horizontal pedestal featuring the artist’s distinctive biomorphic shapes in shades of purple, red, and magenta. The abstract yet evocative forms conjured in my mind a frenzy of visual references firing like electric sparks: Luis Barragán, ovaries, cacti, lobsters. James Cohan, another local dealer, also opted for a solo presentation, focusing the booth on the enticing paintings of Naudline Pierre. The centerpiece, a massive canvas titled “The Only Way Out Is In” (2023), depicts a group of devilish figures and fiery swirls against a Kandinsky-yellow background. And at the booth of Mendes Wood, Matthew Lutz-Kinoy’s portrait of a pink figure apparently fornicating with a lion, “Financier” (2019), broke with the self-seriousness of the rest of the show like a glitch in the matrix.
But my sanguine attitude faded predictably quickly. With few exceptions, Frieze was a monotonous display of artwork so drab and forgettable that I can barely recall what, exactly, was so terrible about it. Starved for excitement, I asked an attendant at the Glasgow gallery the Modern Institute whether I could take a short video of the artworks mysteriously concealed by a heavy black curtain in a small project room adjacent to their booth.
“No,” the attendant responded, smiling.
“That’s just not something we would show,” they added cryptically, and I felt more day-two than ever.
Standing nearby was a tall man with an expensive-looking camera. His name was Justin Lane and he was a photographer for the European Press Photo Agency, hired to shoot the show. “It’s an interesting scene,” he told me when I asked him what the fair looked like through his literal lens. “There’s a lot of people who are clearly presenting themselves in a certain way, which I enjoy seeing,” he said. “It’s money, it’s the art world, the galleries — I find it fascinating.” Lane, who self-describes as “not from the art world,” was highly attuned to the social dynamics of this rarefied environment, and I had a momentary out-of-body experience in which I saw the bizarre theatrics of it all from the outside.
After meandering in and out of the booths for a few hours, I finally gave up and wandered to the eighth floor, which houses a small café as well as a number of luxury goods stands selling things like anti-aging serums and tequila and, improbably, a table where you can register to vote. What caught my eye, though, was an Illy coffee pop-up papered over with a swirly design I instantly recognized as the work of artist Judy Chicago — whose name was written in block letters adjacent to a selection of sugars and coffee stirrers. The small shop also featured a framed work and, to my horror, little porcelain coffee cups attached to the wall also printed with the artist’s design. The artist is best known for “The Dinner Party” (1974–1979), an installation once billed as a major feminist work that has since been the subject of critique and re-assessment. How the mighty have fallen, I thought, lamenting the mediocrity of both the coffee cups and Chicago’s recent smoke artworks.
After ravenously inhaling a $17 turkey sandwich, I made my way downstairs forlornly. But before I headed out for the day, I felt compelled to approach an older man standing by the second-floor entrance who was beaming from ear to ear. He said he was a retired lawyer, and when I asked him for his impressions of Frieze, he eagerly walked me to what he said was his favorite artwork at the fair, at the nearby booth of Chapter NY.
“This is a sculpture with a scooter incorporated into a fanning-book sort of thing,” he told me, pointing at a floor work by Ann Greene Kelly that I couldn’t have described better myself. I asked what drew him to the piece.
“Well, I love the shape, I love the color, I love the shades of gray … and I know the artist,” he said. “She’s my daughter.” It was a wholesome and heartwarming moment in a space that is rarely either of those things.