Sunday, October 14, 2012


Ah, the art fair!  What started to take root perhaps twenty years ago in a couple of places like Basel and Chicago is now a veritable forest.  Every major city seems to have adopted one, along with a lot of minor cities, too.  The art fair is loud, unabashedly promotional, heart-rendingly commercial.  At least the more reputable art galleries have maintained some semblance--or pretense--of interest in the quality and intentions of the art they show in their home spaces.  They put on exhibitions where the viewer has a good chance to actually see the artist's work.  At an art fair, as in a forest, it's virtually impossible to see any individual object because there are just too many of them.  Walk down one row in the vast labyrinth of booths and the eye has already begun to glaze.  You start to wonder, first with sympathy then with something more akin to pity, where all these thousands of artists came from, how could they possibly hope to distinguish themselves from the thousands of others.

These thoughts came to me, inevitably, as I walked through the maze that is Frieze, London--one of the big ones.  Of course there was much of interest there.  Too much.  It becomes impossible to sort it all out.  Occasionally, there would be a still point in the madness, a moment of entrancement.  But for the most part, it's a confusion.  People claim to detect "trends."  Good luck to them.  I saw none.  (Nor, actually, do I like them.)  Art, as I understand it, does not like too much noise around it.  It likes to be quiet and solitary and, in quiet and solitude, it glows.  In an art fair, for the most part, art works just become a blur.  And yet, sadly as I see it, dealers tell me that these events have become an essential part of their business.  They could not survive without them.  It's the globalization of art.

I did learn something, though, at Frieze.  Perhaps I should say, I re-learned it.  I was reminded that there is a particular quality in art that I most fully respond to--both emotionally and physically, since I experience a physical response to art, as well as intellectually.  The word that most clearly identifies this quality for me is "modest."  I don't mean that in any negative or diminishing sense.  It may have to do with scale--though a large painting can be as modest as a small one.  It may have to do with means or medium.  It may have to do with the territory it lays claim to or stakes out.  It may have to do with the personality of the artist, his approach or her intention--insofar as this is expressed in the work I'm looking at.

It's a quality I was more likely to find at Frieze Masters, definitely the quieter of the two parts of the expo, separated by a fifteen minute walk along the lovely avenues of Regents Park (made more lovely, Friday, by the afternoon sunshine...)

But it always surprises me how works with the kind of modesty I admire are able to make their quiet presence known in a crowd.  My eye will be snared, for example, by the subtle horizontal lines, gray on gray, of an Agnes Martin painting; by a simple circle created of natural materials byRichard Long...

(all snapshots my own, with apologies to artists and galleries) a gallery devoted to the small, unassuming canvases of Morandi...

... whose subdued palette and severely reduced subject matter--a few jars and bottles--bespeak an eloquent obsession that appeals to me; or by a painting by Sean Scully...

...or by the few stretched wires of a Fred Sandback sculpture...

Or my eye might be taken as compellingly by a tiny pencil drawing or a small-scale reductive abstraction by an artist I have never before heard of.

What appeals to me about the modesty I'm talking about?  I think it has something to do with integrity, the refusal to be taken in by trends or fashions, the rejection of the notion that an artwork is a thing of other than intrinsic value.  These works that speak to me are personal, intimate, deeply human actions, the simple making of a mark without hope for recognition or admiration, simply to say that I, a human being, have been here; this is the trace I choose to leave behind me--without taking up too much space or imposing too much on the environment or my fellow beings.  But I felt the need to make it, if only to assure myself of my own presence, here and now.

The rest, for me, is noise.  Forgive the haste.  I have no doubt that I'll find more to say about Frieze in less hurried circumstances, on my return home.

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