At Frieze, Women Artists Benefit from Art Market Woes
Frieze London and Frieze Masters opened in tandem on Wednesday morning. This year, some 300 galleries span the two fairs’ tents, located at opposite sides of London’s Regent’s Park. The two Frieze fairs anchor the European art market’s busiest week of the year, which also features the British capital’s major fall auctions and landmark shows across the city’s galleries.
The year to date has seen a decidedly more reserved art market compared to the few years previous. Britain’s dealers have been further slapped with the uncertainty foisted upon them by June’s vote for the country to leave the European Union. And the emerging art sector in particular, which has long been Frieze’s hallmark, has been hit particularly hard. But, whatever you choose to call this period in the art market—a softening, a correction, a burst bubble, or a flight to quality—one particular trend has trumped the rest. Artists of groups that have been marginalized from the art-historical canon, whether due to race, gender, or sexuality, are finally gaining market recognition. At Frieze London and Frieze Masters this week, women artists—though still in significant minority to men at both fairs—are faring particularly well.
Case in point is New York gallery P.P.O.W’s booth, which features four generations of women artists—Portia Munson, Erin M. Riley, Carolee Schneemann, Aurel Schmidt, Betty Tompkins, and Carrie Mae Weems—as well as work by the late artist Martin Wong, whose work often focused on homosexual and transgender themes. “We really wanted to bring up the conversations that are going on right now about feminism,” said P.P.O.W co-owner Wendy Olsoff as Frieze London kicked off. Munson’s Pink Project: Table (1994/2016) quickly captured the attention of passersby with its neatly organized rows of pink products marketed to women, from hairclips and brushes to dildos and kitchen implements. By the end of Frieze London’s Wednesday preview, the gallery had sold multiple works by Wong for $25,000–200,000, multiple editions of the photographic version of Munson’s Pink Project: Table for $15,000 apiece, and a number of Tompkins’s paintings for $3,000–3,500.
“I believe that art can change the way people think,” said Olsoff of the booth’s intent—and indeed that of her program at large. “When we started showing Carrie in the ’90s, the idea that Obama could be president was a fantasy.” Likewise, while the silent film (Fuses, 1965) from which the stills in Schneemann’s work in the booth were pulled was radical in its time for showing sex from a woman’s point of view, Olsoff notes that this perspective is more rule than exception among female artists of Schmidt and Riley’s generation. But, while pleasure may have equalized, the same can’t be said for pay: “Prices for women artists are creeping up,” said Olsoff. “But it will take generations for the predominance to be women. Thirty or 40 years from now, Betty Tompkins, Maria Lassnig, Nicole Eisenman will be the ones who are most influential. But right now we’re still in a lengthy lag time of male dominance and patriarchy.”
Museums have come first in helping close that gap. And throughout day one of Frieze Week, the Guerrilla Girls’ exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery was the talk of the aisles. One artist who in recent years has received significant institutional reappraisal is Channa Horwitz. At the time that she passed away in 2013 at the age of 80, the L.A.-based Horwitz was but a couple years into a significant upswing in attention paid to her work, beginning with her inclusion in the Getty-initiated “Pacific Standard Time” in 2012, The Hammer’s “Made in L.A.” in 2012, and Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale.
It’s only in the past two years that she has received solo exhibitions at major institutions like Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art and London’s Raven Row. “She was a mother and she was living in a suburban environment,” explained L.A. gallerist François Ghebaly of the number of contributing elements that led to the late recognition of Horwitz’s practice. “Los Angeles didn’t have the art infrastructure that it has now; and there is of course also the sexism of the art world.”
At Frieze London, Ghebaly shows eight works by Horwitz, spanning from a 1973 work out of her early, and most recognizable, series “Sonakinatography” to White Subliminal Circle (2006). (A number of the works were featured in recent museum shows.) Four pieces had sold on the range of $20,000–50,000 midway through Wednesday’s preview. But with MoMA’s recent acquisition of a significant group of early works, Ghebaly said they’re “not in a hurry” to make sales, focusing rather on laying the institutional foundation for her estate that wasn’t able to be laid during her lifetime.
Just across the aisle, Cape Town and Johannesburg’s Stevenson is laying much of the same groundwork for South African artist Penny Siopis. The booth features 35 years of work by Siopis, who, despite being taught in art history classes in her home country, has had very little exposure internationally. “That’s what we’re doing here at the fair,” said the gallery’s Marc Barben. “She has shown internationally,” counting inclusion in an upcoming group show at the British Museum, “but it’s time for people to invest the time and energy to get to know the work more broadly.”
Prolific across media, Siopis shows sculptures, such as her early work Column Cake (1983), in which she’s entangled miniature plastic figurines in oil paint, resulting in what looks like a feminist toddler’s Tower of Babel; photographs like the self-portrait with her son Comrade Mother (1994), which invokes resistance movements to apartheid; a video, The New Parthenon (2016), that was commissioned for this year’s Taipei Biennial; and a large-scale glue, ink, and oil work called World’s Edge (2010/2016), which had sold to an American collector for £50,000 mid-way through the opening day of Frieze.
A 15-minute walk north, in Frieze Masters’s tent, Bridget Riley’s Delos (1983) was the first to go from Mnuchin Gallery’s stand, where Sean Scully’s Gate (1997) was also acquired. “I think people are realizing her stature more and more,” said gallery partner Sukanya Rajaratnam. “And I think there is a real trend among collectors to buy true and tested material.” In the case of Riley, due to the art market’s continued stark disparity in the prices between men and women artists, collectors can access significantly more important material, from an art-historical perspective, than they would paying the same amount for works by a male artist.
The same is true for self-taught Italian artist Carol Rama, which Berlin’s Isabella Bortolozzi shows in Frieze Masters’s Spotlight section. “It’s been in recent years where Carol has enjoyed international recognition,” said director Margherita Belaief, pointing to the traveling retrospective Bortolozzi helped organize, which will end its tour in Rama’s home town of Turin, opening next week at Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. Works in the booth span from Rama’s early figurative works such as Betty (1938), painted when the artist was just 20 years old, to abstract works from the ’50s, when Rama was part of the Movimento Arte Concreta, to late pieces like Abito sposa (1984) (“wedding dress”), a long wool sweater to which Rama affixed two textile approximations of a vagina.
Across all the works presented, Rama’s influence on future generations of artists is unmistakable. “She was really an artist’s artist and received recognition from certain curators but did not have a wide international market,” explained Belaief. “Even in 2003 when she won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial, it didn’t happen. It’s only right now that the market is catching up.” (Sales were undisclosed.) Following the artist’s death last year, Bortolozzi now shares the artist’s estate with Dominique Lévy in an effort to push this movement forward, including an upcoming institutional debut in New York next May.
Like Horwitz, Rama suffered additionally from being relatively secluded from the major players of the art world, with her recognition pushed off until many years after it was due. However, for other women artists highlighted at Frieze this year, quite the opposite was true. Take Anni Albers, for example. London’s Alan Cristea Gallery has mounted a large solo presentation of the artist’s prints at Frieze Masters, which count among the most reasonable pieces on offer, considering Albers’s place in art history. Yes, she was married to Josef Albers. But this is perhaps the least important facet of her biography. “She’s truly one of the unsung heroes of 20th-century art history,” said the gallery’s Gemma Colgan. “She was the first woman weaver to have a show in MoMA in 1949; she’s had major shows in museums all across the globe.”
The booth features a significant timespan of Albers’s work, mostly sold in editions of 20 and ranging in price from £2300 for her work Split Wood (1983) to £5300 for Letter (1980). Each print is shown alongside the unique preparatory drawings Albers made, which have been lent by her estate but are not for sale. Colgan said collectors thus far had been most fervently snapping up editions from a 1978 series called “Mountainous” for £2600. “She met Josef in the Bauhaus in the early 1900s. She actually applied to do the art course in the college but women weren’t allowed to do it, so she was put in the weaving course,” Colgan recounted. “So, in a certain way, she was fighting against forces holding her back since the very earliest stages of her career.” Even considering the recent fervor around Black Mountain College, of which Albers was a key figure, her market hasn’t yet responded significantly, according to the dealer.
Of course, Albers was far from the only female artist to languish in her husband’s shadow. Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, is perhaps the most famous among such figures. But, at Frieze Masters, it was another woman painter, Susan Rothenberg, who was having to vie for her proper place in the popular cannon. “People keep coming into the booth and say, ‘Oh, this is the wife of Bruce Nauman,’” said Sperone Westwater assistant director Andrew Lee, standing amidst the gallery’s solo presentation of Rothenberg’s early work. The booth centers on Dos Equis (1974), from the artist’s most famous series of horse paintings, this particular example having never been shown before, held back in her private collection until the fair.
“Everyone wants to make a rediscovery,” said Lee. “In the case of Susan, she’s potentially too familiar to be part of this process of sifting back through to see what we’ve missed. But people have forgotten about some of this groundbreaking early work, not the least of which because some of it has simply been buried in storage for so long.” MoMA owns a work from the same series as Dos Equis, as does the Baltimore Museum of Art. But while some Frieze fairgoers may most readily tie Rothenberg to her husband, the market hasn’t missed her prominence, with works in the booth priced from $250,000–3 million. Thus, the sales cycle was slower for her works: “We’ve sold, but Frieze Masters is not like the other tent. It’s not fast money, fast sales,” said Lee.
Even at that price, smart money this week would be on these women—and others—who lag massively behind their male peers. The market will only continue to follow museums’ recognition that we’ve continually left a huge swath of art history on the margins and eventually, slowly, narrow that gap, rewarding those who were early to take in the full picture. Until then, having better art on your wall for less money isn’t a bad thing at all—especially when the economic and political outlook is hazy at best.