It’s only been two months since the last wave of New York art fairs, those crowded hullabaloos that undoubtedly accelerated the spread of the virus that now has us all, if we’re lucky, sitting at home valiantly adapting to all these new and clunky methods of processing art. Even in early March I felt a vaguely apocalyptic air at the Spring/Break fair, as we packed into crowded elevators with strangers to walk the labyrinthine booths and cubicles on the eleventh and twelfth floors of a Madison Avenue office building.
Now it’s May, a truly horrifying number of New Yorkers have died or been hospitalized in the meantime, and the fairs are back once again. I’m currently on my couch in Providence watching the pop singer Roisín Murphy “perform” from her living room, part of a daylong Manchester “rave” called Stay Homo which makes for good background music as I “attend” three more of these art fairs.
I don’t love the experience, largely because I’m not actually shopping for anything, and the internet is full of other art experiences that don’t feel like hastily cobbled attempts to avoid hemorrhaging money. The flattening of physical space in these online fairs means that nothing catches your eye, objects have no real scale or relation to one another, and there’s no one around to answer any questions you might have about the artists or their processes. There’s also no navigational guidance, no one to ask for recommendations, and too often no contextual information.
I gave each fair an hour of my time, and here’s how it went:
Frieze Viewing Rooms
through May 15
Frieze is the biggest of the May fairs. Rather than taking a ferry to Randall’s Island now all one needs is to surrender an email address to gain entry. Organizers hilariously continued the tradition a two-day VIP preview, one in which patrons could look at JPGs of a $5 million Basquiat and a $3 million Keith Haring (pictured).
Price points aside, the newly launched Frieze Viewing Rooms quickly fill the viewer with despair. With over 200 participating galleries, each showing dozens of pieces, click fatigue sets in quickly, and the provided search terms lead to one disappointment after another.
You can search by price point, learning along the way that 32 works are valued over $1 million. (Trendy Japanese nonagenarian Yayoi Kusama is the only female artist in this echelon.) One can also search by gender, with options for non-binary artists (four of them!) and trans artists (of whom there is one, the English artist Patrick Staff, whose nifty-looking holographic silkscreen is selling for just £120.) This is gatekeeping in the guise of transparency, or maybe just bad UX.
You can also search galleries by continent, but not by country or city. Oceania is an option but there are no Australian or New Zealand galleries represented. Africa is represented by two galleries. I looked at the 20 South American options and randomly clicked on one, Embajada, which it turns out is a Puerto Rican gallery showing Mayan-influenced art from the Mexican artist Claudia Pena Salinas. (Despite the clear miscategorization, her work is worth a look.)
To make things worse, most of the galleries are represented by photos of their physical locations, meaning you have to just keep clicking until you find something that you like. There’s a whole section dedicated to a 2-D walkthrough of a VR experience made by druggy Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, though I never figured out how to actually watch it. Melgaard’s attempts at provocation are usually depressing, though, so maybe I dodged a bullet there.
through May 31
I loved the 2018 iteration of 1–54, the Contemporary African Art Fair, both for quality and for its digestible size. Last year it moved from Brooklyn’s Red Hook to Manhattan’s West Village; this year it moved to Artsy, a functional if not particularly glamorous exhibition platform. Unlike the endless scroll of Frieze, 1–54 features 25 galleries and fewer than 100 artists.
The galleries are physically located in fifteen countries, only a handful of which are actually in Africa, though based on the names (Retro Africa, Afriart, Afrinova) those galleries also cater to audiences on other continents. There’s a certain novelty to a contemporary art exhibition where nearly all of the bodies depicted are black, and where those bodies are not presented exclusively as vehicles for trauma or sexuality or the dapper fashions of yesteryear, though if you want you can find all of those in small doses. Cultural Commentary gets its own area.
The good news is that Artsy is searchable by medium and size. If you want large paintings or small sculptures you can click two buttons and immediately see them. And there’s some good stuff here, though the platform has its limits; paintings are flattened, and sculptures become photographs of sculptures. Photos themselves can get lost in the translation from print to JPG, which is what happens with Mounir Fatmi’s panoramic photograph Le Mur (2013). Over five feet long in person, it makes no sense at 640 pixels wide. The Moroccan artist’s autopsy table translates better.
The reverse is also true. The intensely saturated photographs of Ghanaian artist Prince Gyasi pop immediately when you’re selecting from a grid of images to click on, though one suspects that their impact would be lessened significantly on a wall. They’re too Instagrammable. It’s similarly hard to judge the artistic merit of unusual media, for instance the use of nails in the work of French painter Alexis Peskine.
through June 6
Fatigue and boredom setting in, I clicked over to Future Fair, the newest of the fairs. It operates on a model where participating galleries see a share of the fair’s profits. Originally set for industrial lofts near the dystopian Hudson Yards project, the fair instead makes its modest debut online. Like 1–54 it uses the Artsy platform and benefits from its digestible size: 41 galleries in all. The viewer immediately learns where the alphabetically galleries are located. Scroll down a bit and each is represented by an actual work of art, giving the viewer some hint of what they might see upon clicking. I like how the fair keeps you on its own, fairly straightforward site for a while before Artsy took over. I find myself reading more artist bios and gallery statements, something I almost never do in person at fairs.
I’m partial to this one because a couple of reliably good galleries are participating, including Boston’s Samsøn and Chicago’s Western Exhibitions, which is presenting the playful, somewhat sinister drawings of Deb Sokolow. (I still think about her 2017 solo show at PC–Galleries.)
I’m still left with questions about whether a lot of this work is either good or interesting, but the range of projects on display here make it probably the best of the three fairs. It’s also the most accessible. (Where 1:54 features Cultural Commentary, Future Fair has Work Under $5000.) It remains to be seen whether or not this is actually the future of art fairs, though personally I found myself longing for those recent days of looking at garish, self-aware paintings in ugly, overcrowded industrial rooms.