Uninsulted: Frieze Art Fair New York

by Jody Lee, May 2012

The silent reference point of Frieze New York is of course The Armory Show, its far less atmospheric and more hard-bitten relative, homegrown on the piers that jut out into the Hudson River. By contrast to the perspiration-inspiring, elbow-pressing Armory, Frieze is an airy country cousin, heiress to the home of a former orphanage, Randall’s Island. The Frieze tent offered significantly more space in which to move that in turn gave rise to more contemplative space in which to consider the work.

The one hundred and eighty participating galleries in Frieze were arranged within a sinuous, wide amoeba-like tent that prevented visitors from having to ever experience the same grid-induced dread and maze panic the Armory Show brings on, which one customarily endures like a day spent in a living diorama of Pilgrim’s Progress. Frieze included no such puritanical equation, thankfully. And the fact that it did things so differently showed up our intensely foolish American complacency in the face of paying a price in physical discomfort before we may allow ourselves to take in a measure of beauty and art’s spiritual explorations. The generosity of Frieze’s indoor and outdoor spaces as well as the availability of sustenance there held together in a single experience that was more reasonable and enabling of contemplation, if in the end not much less dispiriting and leveling off of the works themselves. For just as no animal’s life and consciousness knows its apex during the twenty-second trot around the judges ring at a county fair, no single work of bona fide art is conceived in order to sing its song from the confines of this or that art fair, whose “booths” (they do not qualify as spaces) are not much more than unusually spacious and roofless truck containers.

The presentation at Frieze however, for all of its thoughtfulness and inner flexibility, was nearly too intelligent, if such a thing is possible. Somehow its greater civilization compared to other New York art fairs imbued it with the a priori sense that nothing could really look disagreeable within its confines. There was an assumption of validity and quality of the work presented that seemed to belie the more unpleasant ventures of which artists are fully and roundly capable. Nothing appeared worthless, nothing fell apart under the weight of a viewer’s searching glance. And most of all, nothing could insult you. As unpleasant as some of the superficial risk-taking can be at other fairs, I missed those moments of impact where walking into a booth can be akin to opening a shockingly filthy refrigerator. Though I came away from Frieze interested, curious and impressed at the show’s thorough-going intelligence, I also came away unstirred or better uninsulted, resting on a presumption of the fair’s internationalism that, as it gradually came up in the mind’s developing tray, appeared wider than its actual breadth.