Frieze London, 2017. Photo by Tom Carter for Artsy.
If London’s 15th Frieze Week is any indication, the top of the art market appears to be humming along, while dealers in other sectors feel stuck in some sort of limbo, much like the country that hosted them this week.
The uncertainty that characterized the period between Brexit and the U.S. election was less explicit in London this week, but nonetheless present. Frieze’s opening day, Wednesday, coincided with a widely panned speech by Prime Minister Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference, leading some Tory colleagues to clamor for new leadership. What will Brexit look like? When will the financial markets give out? What will U.S. President Donald Trump tweet next? Is nuclear war a near-term possibility? What should I hang on the walls of my Mayfair townhouse?
Dealers, who between the contemporary Frieze London and the more historically focused Frieze Masters numbered some 290, sought to make answering that last question easier for collectors than usual, bringing a wide range of works at many price points, heavy on works on paper and photography.
That was evident at Lévy Gorvy’s booth at Frieze Masters, which featured mostly items under $1 million, an Alexander Calder sculpture for $1.9 million being one exception. The booth was heavy on works on paper, and smaller gems that gallery co-founder Dominique Lévy said were meant to show that “bigger isn’t always better, and paper doesn’t always mean a study.” Her partner Brett Gorvy also noted that the (relatively) modest price points were intended to spur decisionmaking during a week that’s oversaturated with art.
“This is the kind of fair that has quite deep buying, but you have to remember that people have to make decisions on the spot,” said Gorvy. “Yes, you can hem and haw in front of a $1 million [Philip] Guston, but what people are generally doing here is they’re focusing and spending quite quickly.”
Lévy Gorvy had five confirmed sales after the first day, including a sculpture by Calder, a significant work on paper by Frank Stella, and Devotion no. 1 (1955), a rare early work on paper by Agnes Martin. By the end of the fair, they’d also sold Distant Mist (1998) for $585,000, a pale, large, and lovely painting by Pat Steir, the subject of a current show at the New York gallery.
Installation view of Acquavella Galleries’s booth at Frieze Masters, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby. Courtesy of Benjamin Westoby/Frieze.
London gallery Alison Jacques took a similar approach at Frieze London, offering a broad selection of works at different price points, with a focus on photography. It seemed to have paid off. The booth was consistently crowded in the first few hours of the fair; by 3 p.m., one French-sounding man asked the dealer plaintively, “What’s left?”
Jacques sold more than one of Juergen Teller’s photo of an adorable wet dog, Pettitoe, Suffolk (2011), at £28,000 each, and a couple of paintings (Rose and Painter, 1987, and Open Book and Blue Dishes, 1984) by Roy Oxlade, the husband of the rediscovered artist Rose Wylie, for £25,000 each. A group of works by Maria Bartuszová were sold in the range of €50,000 to €150,000 and two paintings by Dorothea Tanning went for $220,000 and $80,000. A red-and-orange panel by Sheila Hicks, similar to the one in the booth, sold for $150,000. Jacques said Hicks’s work, which is also currently on view in the gallery, was proving popular with collectors, the joyousness of her work offering respite from headlines about mass shootings or governments in chaos.
“It’s a way to get away from the doom and gloom of what’s out there,” said Jacques. “The world out there is a bleak place, and people are finding Sheila’s work to be a breathing space; she’s an artist who’s just delighting in color, form, and texture.”
Installation view of Lisson Gallery’s booth at Frieze London, 2017. Photo by Tom Carter for Artsy.
At the booth of Lisson Gallery, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, international director Alex Logsdail said 10 to 12 works had sold within the first few hours of preview day, again with a broad price range from $21,000 for Laure Prouvost’s Metal Woman looking higher (2017), to an asking price of $1.5 million for Carmen Herrera’s Blanco y Verde (1962), which sold to a U.S. collection. Brexit, in his view, was less prominent a factor this year as it was the last Frieze go-round, when the “Brexit discount” gave American buyers an edge and Britons were still coming to terms with the vote.
“If it’s affected anything, it’s very hard to measure,” said Logsdail.
Lisson also sold one of Daniel Buren’s striped canvases, Peinture acrylique blanche sur tissu rayé blanc et bleu (1974), with an asking price of $350,000. Buren is currently the subject of a solo show at Lisson’s London gallery. Constellation E (1968) by Leon Polk Smith, who is currently showing at Lisson’s New York space, sold with an asking price of $250,000.
Aileen Agopian, a New York-based art advisor, said her clients were in acquisition mode, but only “for the right things.”
“They’re definitely actively looking, they’re studying what’s going on in the art market, they’re seeking choice works of art, and they’re strategizing in terms of their collections,” she said.
“Selective” was a word that came up on a near hourly basis in London—the right pieces could conjure a sale, even at top dollar, but there were few takers for high-priced works that weren’t of top quality. That feeling was bolstered by a mixed set of auction results, including the stunning flop of a £60 million Francis Bacon painting at Christie’s, which nonetheless managed its best-ever single-auction October sale, at £99.5 million, including fees. Thursday’s evening sales at Sotheby’s were also mixed. Its contemporary sale, the house’s highest-ever Frieze Week sale to date, brought in £50.3 million, including buyer’s premium, but its “In Context” sale of Italian post-war art saw nearly a third of the lots fail to find buyers.
David Zwirner appeared to have selected appropriately for the Frieze crowd; the gallery’s Frieze London booth of roughly 30 works sold out by midday, the first time that’s ever happened at Frieze, they said. Highlights included Jeff Koons’s Gazing Ball (Giotto The Kiss of Judas) (2015–16) for $2.75 million, Himalayan streamers (2017) by Oscar Murillo for $400,000, and Baroque (2017) by Luc Tuymans for $900,000, and a new Kerry James Marshall painting, Untitled (Two Eggs Over Medium, Sausage, Hash Browns, Whole Wheat Toast), went to an important European Foundation.
Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Giotto The Kiss of Judas), 2015-2016. © Jeff Koons. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Two Eggs Over Medium, Sausage, Hash Browns, Whole Wheat Toast), 2017. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London.
“As a gallery we have sort of a collective memory of what people were excited about before, and since this fair is getting stronger and stronger, we can ask major artists to give us brand-new work, such as Carol Bove, Yayoi Kusama, Kerry James Marshall, Luc Tuymans,” Zwirner said. “Those were all works that were made for the fair, and that’s exciting.”
At Frieze Masters, sales were slower (as is typically the case, since works tend to be higher priced), but still notable. Thunderhead (Spread) (1978) by Robert Rauschenberg sold for over $1 million. A Josef Albers painting sold for $2 million, not far off the £1.89 million auction record his Homage to the Square: Temperate (1957) set at Sotheby’s on Thursday. A John McCracken sold for $1.5 million, as did a couple of Giorgio Morandi paintings, said Lucas Zwirner, the dealer’s son and editorial director of David Zwirner Books.
“It’s a very big day for us,” Lucas said, giving credit to Frieze for bringing the right collectors to the fair. “I think everyone’s kind of in shock.”
The gallery’s booth at Masters had several works of historical importance with higher price tags, from $3.8 million to over $6 million. Those included Dan Flavin’s first-ever fluorescent sculpture, The diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) (1963), which Lucas Zwirner happily pointed out had not been consigned to an auction house, reflecting an ongoing trend of collectors turning to top dealers to sell trophy-level material.
Thaddaeus Ropac also had booths in both tents. At Frieze Masters, the theme was 1984, with a curated selection of works from that year meant to offer an opposing view of that era to the one of George Orwell’s dystopia. At Frieze London, where Ropac greeted fairgoers for the first few hours of preview day, high-priced lots had sold quickly, including Rauschenberg’s Glut in Jest (1987) for $1.1 million and Orange Squeeze (Urban Bourbon) (1992) for $1.5 million; Sigmar Polke’s Laterna Magica (1988/96) for $2.5 million; and a Georg Baselitz sculpture for €1.1 million, as well as a work by young British artist Oliver Beer, for £35,000.
Despite the loud clanging of the cash register, Ropac described himself as “conservative” in his approach to art fairs, noting he prefers to do the bulk of his business in his five spaces across Europe, where he programs around 40 shows per year and where collectors can better get to know the artists and their work.
“We really try to do the fairs differently, and not just say, ‘Give us new work for the fair,’ which for a while we did,” he said. “But then I felt we should keep the new work for the gallery shows. We still can do a great booth with eclectic works, and of course we do accept new works…so it’s not written in stone, but we want to do something special and unexpected.”
“Also,” he added, “The artists don’t like it so much, to call them up and say, you know, ‘We want all of these things!’”
Installation view of Skarstedt Gallery’s booth at Frieze Masters, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby. Courtesy of Benjamin Westoby/Frieze.
At Frieze Masters, Skarstedt Gallery also brought a mix of media and prices, starting with historical drawings from Martin Kippenberger and George Condo in the $300,000 to $350,000 range, to an Eric Fischl painting from the Norman Braman collection. Skarstedt’s London director Bona Colonna Montagu said Frieze Masters was a fair well-suited to the gallery’s specialization in important historical pieces.
“We love this fair,” said Montagu. “It’s very considered, it’s more museum-like. People take their time, they come here, they have a lovely meal, they look at the art.”
A Cindy Sherman sold with an asking price of $850,000, as did one of Yves Klein’s “fire” paintings, for which the gallery was asking $950,000. Works by Martin Barré, Kippenberger, and Condo also sold.
Also at Frieze Masters, New York’s Acquavella Galleries sold a Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs avec arbre (1949–50), to an American collector for $14 million, said partner Alexander Acquavella. He described Frieze Week as more than ever a “destination art week,” thanks to great museum shows on in London, which had also informed his booth. He had brought a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, still unsold as of Friday afternoon, and a Jasper Johns painting; both artists are currently the subject of retrospectives in London.
Francesca Piccolboni, director of Tornabuoni Art, which has galleries in Florence, Paris, and London, among other locations, said Frieze Masters was occasionally a challenging fair for Italian art dealers, since it coincided with the Italian auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. But this year, she said, collectors were far more decisive, which she credited to having fair prices for works that buyers could see were a good value for the quality. She gave the example of the painter and colorist Piero Dorazio, whose work, she said, was relatively affordable compared with some of his post-war contemporaries such as Lucio Fontana or Paolo Scheggi.
“We have a lot of competitors here in London, especially the Italian sales, so in the last years, the collectors, they took their decisions more slowly, because they want to evaluate all the different options,” said Piccolboni. “But this year we were very impressed, they arrived here and within the first half an hour, one hour, they confirmed different pieces.”
The gallery sold a Dorazio to an important American collector, and an Enrico Castellani to a French collector. Other works that weren’t present in the booth also sold, including a Scheggi, and works from the Giorgio di Chirico retrospective currently on in Tornabuoni’s London space. Prices in the booth ranged from €200,000 to €3.6 million.
Kim Williams, associate director of Luxembourg & Dayan, said the gallery’s collaboration with Milan’s Gió Marconi, yielding an immersive booth featuring the work of Enrico Baj set in a recreation of his countryside home, arose naturally, after gallery owner Amalia Dayan visited Baj’s widow Roberta. Marconi, whose father Giorgio had been Baj’s first dealer, brought Italian collectors, while Luxembourg & Dayan brought its own client base. The result was “quite a few good sales and a few reserves,” said Williams.
“He’s quite new to a U.K. audience, and there’s a number of Italians who are very happy to see him again,” Williams said, adding that the buyers had mostly been people who collect things “in and around post-war Italian” art. Works in the booth ranged from €45,000 to €200,000.
Installation view of Luxembourg & Dayan and Gió Marconi’s booth at Frieze Masters, 2017. Photo by Benjamin Westoby. Courtesy of Benjamin Westoby/Frieze.
Back at Frieze London, Andrée Sfeir-Semler of Sfeir-Semler Gallery had a few early sales, with an important purchase by the Contemporary Art Society. The London-based organization acquired a large-scale installation work by South African artist and 2017 Pinchuk Future Generation Art Prize winner Dineo Seshee Bopape, which will be donated to Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne. Sfeir-Semler said the fair seemed slightly less crowded than in previous years, perhaps because Frieze Masters was diverting some foot traffic, but she had seen good collectors from the U.S. and Australia. The hanging for the newly beloved nonagenarian Etel Adnan had been changed three times, said Rana Nasser Eddin, a director of the gallery, which has locations in Beirut and Hamburg.
The mid-sized Antwerp gallery Zeno X, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last year, came to Frieze London with a wide selection of works, selling everything from a Tuymans painting, Presence (2017), to a Brazilian collector for over €1 million, to works by two of its youngest and newest artists, priced from €3,500, said gallery director Benedicte Goesaert. Zeno X also sold Jack Whitten’s painting Clocking for Stanley Kubrick (1999), an homage to the director; wood and pressed-flower works by young emerging artist Grace Schwindt; and pieces by the Romanian artist Mircea Suciu, whose works are on view at the biennial Art Encounters in Timișoara, curated by Ami Barak.
“Nowadays, people tend to collect more established artists, so for us it was a very nice experience to see the sale of pieces we had by Grace Schwindt,” said Goesaert. “In a way, we still feel Frieze is still a context where people like to discover. I think that’s part of the identity of Frieze.”
Many of those discoveries were waiting in Frieze London’s younger section, Focus, as exhibitors in the main section increasing play it safe with known artists. London gallery Arcadia Missa had a three-channel video installation by Berlin-based artist Hannah Black. The Tate collection had been interested in it, but instead purchased an earlier single-channel video work by Black that was not on view at the fair, Intensive Care/Hot New Track (2013), through the Frieze Tate Fund.
Installation view of Arcadia Missa’s booth at Frieze London, 2017. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy of Mark Blower/Frieze.
Ruth Pilston, Arcadia Missa’s manager, noted that Frieze is expensive to participate in for younger galleries, and offers “quite a traditional format” compared with newer pop-up or collaborative models that have emerged in recent years, such as London and New York’s Condo or Okey Dokey in Germany. But the traditional fairs also offer a chance for exposure to a certain caliber of collector, Pilston said.
At the booth of Gypsum Gallery, an up-and-coming Cairo gallery that participated in Art Basel in Basel for the first time this year, three paintings by Tamara Al Samerraei sold for between €7,500 and €8,500 each. Gallery founder Aleya Hamza said participating in Frieze was useful for plugging into London’s large base of Egyptian and Middle Eastern collectors, and that she made “a number of valuable institutional contacts.”
It remains to be seen whether high-cost fairs like Frieze, which rely on younger galleries to give them a sense of frisson, will take further steps to ensure these smaller galleries don’t wind up in the red. In the wave of gallery closures this past year, commentators and the gallerists themselves cited “fair costs” again and again. Fair directors are no villains—surely they love art as much as anyone, and understand the importance of smaller and medium-sized galleries to the industry’s functioning. But nor are they philanthropists; several describe themselves as “realtors.” Still, it would be refreshing to see more concrete steps taken by fairs to ensure they are a catalyst for smaller galleries’ success, not the cause of their downfall.