Reading

It’s Hard to Love Art in New York’s Most Hated Non-Place: Frieze 2023

Previous Story
Article Image

Baltimore News: Club Hippo, Baltimore’s New [...]

Next Story
Article Image

The Internet is Exploding: 10 Must-Read Articles [...]

Like a lot of people in the arts, I have carefully positioned blinders in place when it comes to money. I tend to care a lot about how money gets spent—supporting artists, the public good, and culture workers, while boycotting entities, systems, and material streams that are exploitative or harmful.

However, I often (conveniently) don’t really give a damn about where that money comes from. Better a cartoonishly evil right-wing petroleum CEO drop several hundred thousand dollars on a painting than on a hunting safari or SUV, amiright?!? Hell, if I were a museum director, I’d even have a hard time turning down an endowment from the #canceled Sackler family (of pill-pusher infamy) if I knew I could spend that money on a more noble cause than they might—say, payroll for pharma-lobbyists to lubricate their interests at the FDA, or perhaps a carbon-intensive private jet, or another pied-à-terre hollowing out the world’s great cities like maggots in the husks of forgotten jack-o’-lanterns. 

Maybe it’s the dropping pH of the oceans or a spike in undercounted atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons or even fumes from all the shitty bodega poppers in the Chelsea-Hell’s Kitchen gay debauchery corridor, but last week in New York I felt my blinders start to corrode at an acerbic, chemical level. 

A lot of this has to do with Frieze’s decision last year to downsize and move to The Shed—a flashy, billowy, technically “nonprofit” arts venue built to christen the new Hudson Yards megadevelopment as a “destination” neighborhood for something other than luxury handbags or shadowy foreign LLC capital looking for a condo to be valet-parked in. 

 

Mauro Restiffe (L) and Lucia Laguna (R) at Fortes D'Aloia & Gabriel, one of the standout booths of an otherwise dry fair

I’ll be the first to admit Frieze’s original, larger digs in a tent on Randall’s Island weren’t perfect. The British fair’s early New York editions were always a lightning rod for some controversy: unsustainability, labor disputes, privatization of public parks, et al… But arriving there on the East River ferry always felt special in a way shuffling past a creepy mall’s parking garage just can’t.

I also vaguely recall Frieze giving back to their former low-income neighbors in the South Bronx and East Harlem with educational outreach and more public programming. Mostly, it was an event I looked forward to going to and took seriously. At Hudson Yards, Frieze looks like just another purveyor of inaccessible objects of desire attached to an overpriced food court. 

As an enterprise that grew out of an art magazine with critical cachet, Frieze should know better. I would hope fellow art critics and publishers would understand that all art is site-specific on some level, and that planting your high-end fair in a dystopian land-grab complex owned by a Trump supporter—a place so depressing that its star public art installation had to be closed because people kept leaping to their death from it—is a bad look. 

Before I explain why, I’d like to say that there was plenty of nice, decent, or even really great art scattered around the somewhat underwhelming-as-a-whole show. Most of the images in this article are of artworks I liked just fine, or even loved. But I have less to say about the art and more to say about Hudson Yards, its developers, corruption, and the problematic complicity of the art and design world in its legitimization. 

 

Josh Kline, "Stories," at Modern Art
Nayland Blake at Matthew Marks Gallery

A lot of the art at Frieze passed muster, but the most creative act witnessed at Hudson Yards was a radical reconsideration of human geography. Proving that “drawing” can be just as lucrative a tax-evasion medium as oil on linen whisked away to a private museum or freeport, Hudson Yards’ developers convinced politicians to gerrymander their tabula rasa of prime real estate into a new special district, including geographically distant public housing elsewhere in the city in order to qualify as an economically distressed “Targeted Employment Zone,” opening the door to exploit the EB-5 visa program. This allows the developers to essentially sell US visas to wealthy foreign elites in exchange for investing in their “impoverished” neighborhood.

Who is behind this genius work of boundary-busting relational aesthetics? That would be Related Companies, a real estate behemoth that controls a staggering $60 billion worth of property and was founded by former tax attorney Stephen Ross, a friend and fundraiser to Donald Trump, infamous for funding political campaigns targeting New York progressive candidates

Did I mention Stephen Ross was a tax attorney? I like to think of him as conceptual artist, first and foremost, boldly challenging the Western canon’s definitions of words such as “class” or “reality” in his groundbreaking work of #inclusivity to radically invite imaginary poor people of color to his special low-tax Opportunity Zone, where the average income is actually well above six figures—problematic colonial concepts such as “geography” or “physical proximity” be damned! It’s the accounting equivalent of a gesamtkunstwerk, funded by taxpayers to the tune of more than $4.5 billion, when we factor in the tax breaks, publicly-funded infrastructure, and outright subsidies Related’s magnum opus has received. 

 

Farah Al Qasimi, "Six Different Screams," and Max Hooper Schneider, "SEX," at François Ghebaly

For all the low-income folks whose invitations to Frieze’s $206/ticket opening day festivities at The Shed—you know, their community cultural center built for their benefit—must’ve gotten lost in the mail on the way to the projects dozens of blocks away, I’ll set the scene. 

I first ran into an artist friend while we were shivering in the barren, windswept plaza next to the suicide sculpture. We mentioned how bleak the place was, and she was reminded of her confusion upon first arrival to her own exhibition at a contemporary art museum in the basement of a shopping mall in an Asian megacity. She said The Shed was the Western equivalent—but here the art venue was given nominal breathing room from the Louis Vuitton and Coach stores, in the form of a soulless plaza, explaining “New Yorkers would be too embarrassed to go see art in a mall. So they had to separate the buildings. That’s why they make you wait outside.”

Elizabeth Diller’s reputation as a famously civic-minded architect is rolling in its shallow grave. From the porte-cochère (in a subsidized “transit oriented development” LOL) that dominates Hudson Yards’ “public space” The Shed looks like just another luxury handbag dangling off the skeletal wrist of the trophy-wife of a skyscraper to which it’s self-consciously tethered—yes, you can be too rich, too skinny. 

Inside, Frieze felt a bit like scenes from the imagined not-so-distant-future orbital leisure/extremely “offshore” tax havens from the novels of William Gibson—the ultra rich going about some esoteric ritual removed from the poors on the other side of their space age walls. Or perhaps, as we watched the wealthy insert their visages into some bizarre, in-situ laser facial treatment contraption smack-dab in the champagne lounge area, Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”. It struck me as odd that here, in a contemporary art fair in the middle of the newest, shiniest pocket of Manhattan all my cultural associations were from the 80s: Gibson! Gilliam! Glossy-glassitecture! Going to a fucking mall! How retro!

 

Nan Goldin at Gagosian
Nan Goldin at Gagosian
Maybe it's the dropping pH of the oceans or a spike in undercounted atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons or even fumes from all the shitty bodega poppers in the Chelsea-Hell's Kitchen gay debauchery corridor, but last week in New York I felt my blinders start to corrode at an acerbic, chemical level. 
Michael Anthony Farley

All of the above thoughts seemed to synthesize when I stood in front of Gagosian’s booth, which posted a seductive Nan Goldin solo show. Goldin is a photographer perhaps best known for her unvarnished documentation of the eccentricities, queerness, rebelliousness, and heartbreak of New York in the 1980s. Although the work on display here—grids of photos sorted by color—was more recent, it captured the mischief and tragedies of her New York: sexy and seedy and glamorous without being rich. It’s a New York that’s been all but erased by the real estate moguls and neoliberal robber barons pecking the flesh from the carcass of civic life like oligarchs looting the resource extraction rights from some former Soviet Republic. 

That was one of the ironies that struck me by Gagosian’s decision to show this work here of all places. The other was that Nan Goldin is an artist who does care very deeply about where money in the arts comes from. Remember the #canceled Sackler family I mentioned earlier? She’s the one who led the charge to purge their names and board positions from institutions following her own battles with opioid addiction. Given Goldin’s long history of activism, it was both unsettlingly incongruous and necessary to see her work in this context. I think it jolted the dissonant puzzle pieces of my discontent into place. 

 

Nan Goldin at Gagosian
Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, "The Picket Line," Fresco on wooden panel, 2023 (detail) at Arcadia Missa Gallery
Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, "At the Protest," Fresco on wooden panel, 2023 at Arcadia Missa Gallery

I’m also grateful to have encountered the work of Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, shown by Arcadia Missa. The pair created politically-charged frescos on panel earlier this year in London, documenting the ongoing labor movements rocking Britain from a feminist perspective.

Although these aren’t the most technically skilled frescos, I had to respect their immediacy and the artists’ devotion to the medium. It’s a notoriously difficult surface to prepare and work with, let alone crate and ship across the Atlantic.

Again, it seemed an odd but necessary inclusion in a macho complex whose erection was infamously fraught with numerous labor disputes between its billionaire developer and construction unions.

 

Iván Argote, “Setting up a System,” 2017 at Perrotin’s booth

Say what you will about fairs, but I still do love attending them to check out the art world’s zeitgeist. Here’s a totally unexpected new trend: chain link fences are the hot new subject/object du jour. I am unsure if it’s the ubiquitous material’s easy availability or dominance in our built environment, but they are everywhere this year.

As something that’s both a symbolically loaded material with interesting formal qualities and a strong graphic, maybe this makes sense—fences are both objects and images. So at Frieze, in what is essentially a gated community in the (not quite) heart of a metropolis where construction scaffolding is a constant fixture of the streetscape, in the midst of national border anxieties, the defiantly ruptured fence made good neighbors with works in about half of the fair’s strongest booths.

Below is just a small sampling of my favorite fence art at Frieze—not even including the myriad references to the white-picket variety, numerous sculptures comprising hand-woven metals, or more abstract depictions of interlocking circles or diagrids:

 

Matt Copson, "Amputated Flows, Hollywood Reservoir," sandblasted glass and LEDs at C L E A R I N G's excellent booth
Tania Pérez Córdova, "Philodendron Stenolobum (70% chance of rain)" and "Una reja en una reja 5/ A fence into a fence 5" at Tina Kim Gallery
Jasper Marsalis, "Event 35," oil and solder on canvas, 2023 at London gallery Emalin
Elizabeth McIntosh, "Geraniums," oil on linen, 2023

Speaking of zeitgeist, the nascent crafty anatomy trend I noted at the art fairs in Madrid has been fully discharged with a clean bill of health—I mean sale. Matthew Ronay’s intestine-like, epic dyed woolen sculpture spanning Casey Kaplan’s booth sold for a whopping $300,000 last week.

 

Matthew Ronay at Casey Kaplan
Matthew Ronay at Casey Kaplan
KAWS FOR THE POOR! KAWS FOR THE POOR!

Did some other stuff at Frieze sell despite these (seemingly perpetually) uncertain economic times? Yes. The thing is, I’m not really sure I care anymore. I am sure some of these works will look just as lovely in a windowless storage unit beneath the Luxembourg airport as they would on what little wallspace there is in Hudson Yards’ empty, glassy, subsidized condos for the 1%—welcome to the neighborhood, and congrats new homeowners Double Happiness Golden Fortune Securities Investment Fund 3, LLC! I’m sure you’ll fit right in! Just make sure to not bring a jell-o mold to the community potluck: we at the HOA think Qatari Diversified Futures Portfolio 3059, LLC probably keeps halal.

I’m not naïve. It almost goes without saying that the art world has always had a sketchy, problematic relationship with uh, creative accounting and tax evasion. But I choose to believe that when a group of art lovers launched Frieze as a magazine back in 1991, they did so because they valued their subject matter as more than just a hard-to-regulate liquid asset. As an art critic, it hurts on a personal level to see that the seeds they planted three decades ago have grown into a canopy of legitimacy for Hudson Yards’ contrived role in the city’s cultural ecosystem.

Here we are, playing into all the worst stereotypes and accusations about art’s role in shadowy finances, gentrification, and elitism. The optics are bad when the art fair with the world’s most expensive ticket prices for visitors takes over a non-profit art space purportedly built to serve the disenfranchised of a “low income Opportunity Zone” to hawk Swiss watches alongside glossy, selfie-friendly sculptures.

Almost as bad, the fair’s gestures at charity are so cringe-inducingly tone deaf they seem ripped from a hilariously bleak Ruben Östlund satire—the Artist Plate Project selling limited edition KAWS collectible plates, each of which “provides something like the equivalent of ten hot meals for an unhoused person in NYC” in the words of Frieze’s Americas Director Christine Messineo—comes to mind. Get it? Plates? No, not to eat off of. Just to collect, silly! The eating part is for one of the poors in the gutter your Louboutins might’ve grazed stepping out of your black car on 30th Street. When something makes a KAWS face-palm, you know it’s gotta be in poor taste. 

 

Photos by the author

Related Stories
After 180 applicants, Baltimore's last five mayors have selected their choices for official portraits by Baltimore-based artists

The Baltimore Mayoral Portrait Competition has selected Ernest Shaw Jr., Kennedy Ringgold, Gaia, Megan Lewis, and Karen Warshal for $20,000 commissions

A Conversation with the Multimedia Artist and Activist on Her Dear Black Girl Project and the Power of Making Space for Community

"I was raised by a village and grew up in a multicultural environment, so community is the secret to my work's success."

A Book for Art Nerds and Aficionados, as well as the Culturally Curious

Get the Picture: Bianca Bosker’s Journey Among Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Her How to See (February 2024 Viking)

Reflecting on the History of the American Labor Movement while Looking Ahead into the New Millenium 

Forged Together: Collective Action at the Baltimore Museum of Industry Reflects on the History of the American Labor Movement While Also Looking Ahead into the New Millenium    You hear, ...