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  • Source: New York Magazine
  • Author: JERRY SALTZ
  • Date: FEBRUARY 20, 2019
  • Format: DIGITAL

An Art Fair Has Never Worked in Los Angeles.

Why Did Frieze?

New York is the trading floor for the art world; it’s not unusual to see dealers making deals in public, working gallery floors, plying clients, always closing, ringing up sales. I’ve even seen Marian Goodman and Paula Cooper work the sales floor.

L.A. has always been very different. In a certain way, art-wise, it had it all: artists, galleries, collectors. But in L.A. art deals have always been done in private, behind closed doors, in meetings (nobody takes more or better meetings in more locations under more conditions than Angelinos), over artisanal dinners, in limousines, on the road, at spas, in the desert, at Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, Aspen. On Valentine’s Day, at the debut edition of Frieze’s Los Angeles art fair, that changed. I often say about art fairs that they are a spectacle of art having sex with money in public. At Frieze, they went at it like a gaggle of pent-up bonobo monkeys.

And the sex was good. Or so I’m told. I only watch — amazed, jealous, contemptuous, self-hating, you know the drill. Most gallerists I spoke to reported this new racy thing happening to them too, although, keep in mind, dealers are notoriously sketchy at reporting these sorts of things. It wasn’t all happiness of course. A few Brits grumbled about lack of sales. This seems to be a Brit given and may be a mark of a healthy fair by now.

It’s also no surprise. Frieze isn’t cheap; booths cost up to $76,000, and much more when you consider packing, shipping, manning booths, entertainment, travel for everyone, hotels for everyone, re-crating unsold and shipping unsold works back to galleries where they are said to be unsellable, “burned,” having been seen in public but known not to have sold. It’s ridiculous that works of art are worth less because an art-fairgoer didn’t buy them in public, but it is so, and shows you how skewed the system really is.

Work by artist Kathryn Andrews at David Kordansky Gallery’s booth at Frieze LA. Photo: Mark Blower

But the key to its success, I think, was the imported Britishness (Frieze is a British fair that now operates in New York, too). L.A. Frieze only had 70 specially selected galleries; spatially you could see the back of the striped-down tent on entering, which precluded suicidal thoughts and made one think, “Okay, I can do this.” The participants were all hip — a third of them were from L.A. Most of them major. Almost all with some sort of buzz. Americans can’t make fairs this exclusive. As an American I have to include you even if I hate your work and you have to include me even if you hate mine. We’re democratic. Not the Brits, who are able to be amiably cliquish, tribal, and posh. I imagine organizers saying, “Of course the A-listers are in the fair, dear; I’m sure Felix might be able to find space for you, darling.” No American could do that. The Brits know that it’s buzz that attracts money to fairs like bees to flowers.

What’s it all add up to? I surmise a new phase of the L.A. art world has come into being: “L.A. Frieze Week.” Next year at this time the lesser art fairs will be better; other fairs and strange attractors will come into being; galleries and museums will coordinate their schedules and pick up their games. The capitalists who own Frieze will say that they can only make money by making Frieze bigger. Money does what it does — until it ruins things. Next year we’ll probably see an expanded Frieze Fair that the British face of this multinational ownership will claim is all under control. And it will be. For a while. Or as an illusion. Frieze will attract enormous crowds following this year; more money, celebrities, and art will pour in. This phase will last about five years. By then the capitalists will have made Frieze gigantic; other fairs and events will become either rote or overdone. It’ll be another Miami. However, five years in art-world time is an era!

In the meantime, I’m already seeing sinister forces. At the tiki bar by the Roosevelt Hotel pool, I was shivering in the rain talking with some good mid-career artists. One of them said something that sent shivers down my spine and, to me, is a kiss of art-scene death. We were talking about how great L.A. is, how good all this energy was for the scene. Then one of these artists said, “L.A. has the best artists.” The others readily agreed. I cringed and snapped, “L.A. does not have the best artists! L.A. has great artists, yes; however, your peers elsewhere are doing just fine.” This didn’t seem to land; they objected. I said, “Saying L.A. has the best artists is provincial.” It’s like going to Oklahoma City and they tell you, “We have the best smoked grilled T-bone steaks and French fries in the country.”

It goes without saying that all local scenes are prideful and provincial; none more so than New York. I can see why L.A. might have a chip on its art-historical shoulder. When it comes to how most museum collections tell the story of modern art, L.A. has always been woefully underrepresented. Criminally so. Maybe the L.A. boosterism and vanity comes from this. But this sort of provincialism is never becoming and never remotely true when applied to contemporary art. Moreover, if I’m to be completely honest (as nervous as it makes me to say it, fearing certain backlash), this self-regard around contemporary art has been bandied about L.A. for a long time. Too long. But, who knows, maybe it’s a sign of animus and overcompensation (or wanting to keep control of the scene more or less as it is). I understand this; I love the feeling that in the L.A. art world, at least, money hasn’t flattened it all into product (as it has in Hollywood). Maybe now that art and money are finally having sex in public there, this provincialism can come to an end.

I know that after I returned home to 24-degree temperatures at 5:15 a.m. after talking to artists at the outdoor tiki bar the previous day I already looked forward to returning to Los Angeles this time next year for what new energies get cranked up during the next L.A. Frieze Week.