The first Frieze Art Fair in New York takes place on Randall’s Island, which is tucked away between the East and Harlem Rivers under the shadows of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and the Manhattan Psychiatric Center. Knowing that – and the yellow school bus ride that brought me there - already marked a unique beginning to visiting this fair. My next surprise was the architecture of the venue itself. Designed by relatively young Brooklyn-based firm SO – IL (a Dutch/Chinese partnership between Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu) the white tent seemed to rest in the natural surroundings of the island and riverfront. Less impressive were the commissioned works in the surrounding park. The expanse of the lawn along with the wide river as a backdrop resulted in that even a strong work like Jeppe Hein’s Geometric Mirror I became disarmed.
Back to the fair. Once inside, the many windows and high-tent roof allow for a grand entrance and a feeling that one has all the space in the world to see the art on display. And with 180 galleries, 10 Frieze Talks, 8 newly commissioned Frieze Projects, Frieze Sounds and the aforementioned Sculpture Park with 10 works there is plenty of art.
But the main event are the galleries, and the question most people have had in the build-up to this edition is how the fair positions itself in regards to the Armory Fair that has been criticized as having lost its edge. Frieze is seen as the new kid in town and that makes it exciting. In all honesty though, the galleries chosen for this fair are quite the usual Euro/American suspects showing a somewhat modest – thereby I mean ‘safe’ - selection of works. The edge that Frieze has at its London venue by including and commissioning more provocative artists and works is not present in New York for this first edition. But that does not mean that the works on display are lacking in quality. The big players like Lisson Gallery showed their stars and sturdy museological works like Ai Wei Wei’s Marble Doors (2006), or Anish Kapoor’s Untitled (2010) that was oddly reminiscent of Olafur Eliasson’s Tate Turbine project. Other bigger gallery names like Yvon Lambert did take on a bit more risk by showing the work of the (very) young artist Ariel Schlesinger – a fascinating sensual embrace between two large sheets of cardboard entitled Two Good Reasons (2009) - or their neighbors Eigen + Art that reserved the entire booth to Olaf Nicolai who lined its walls with a rainbow washed textile curtain, placed a bench in the middle and gave the whole the somewhat provocative title Why women like to buy textiles that feel nice.
At this year’s edition the risk was to be found in the Frieze Frame section of the fair, which funny enough was located in the heart of its floor plan. Here was a conglomeration of young galleries (all started in or after 2001) that each showed the work of a single artist. The best of the bunch was Meessen De Clercq from Brussels with a fascinating display of drawings and sculptures by Mexican artist Jorge Méndez Blake based on the life and works of Jorge Luis Borges. In the Frieze Frame section were also more bold statements like Chinese artist An He’s destructive I am Curious Yellow, I am… strewn throughout the booth of Tang Contemporary Art, or L.A. based Night Gallery's total display by Samara Golden entitled Bad Brains which looked like a post-modernist tornado had hit American suburbia and all it contents.
People often complain about fairs because there is so much art to see – most end up going anyway. Indeed after hours of meandering through the seemingly endless booths filled with works calling out to you it becomes more difficult to discern essential matters of taste let alone distinguish mere commercial hype from actual vision or ideological urgency. However, to approach it like that only leads to a headache. An art fair is a commercial enterprise and anyway you look at it must lead to an economic result. Depending on how the galleries will have fared will determine Frieze New York’s success but the opening day looked promising in this regard. Either way the art world once again came together in New York for a weekend of consumption: art, conversation, networking, food and booze. The fact that this all took place on an island under the roof of a beautiful white tent hopefully says more about Frieze New York as a unique destination than about art’s own destination.