Then there are art fairs. Gallerists bemoan them but still do four, five, or six art fairs a year. None is cheap. Artists churn out work for fairs. Collectors come and spend bundles of money. Last month there were a dozen art fairs in New York. Next week the first New York Frieze Art Fair arrives, and the NADA fair too.
In the early nineties, when the now-gigantic beast known as the Armory Show started small, cheap, and out of control as the Gramercy International Art Fair, I loved it. I loved watching the then-unknown English artist Tracey Emin in a hotel bed under a quilt of her own making, recalling past lovers; listening to L.A. artist Jason Rhoades, a human Bam-Bam, spew out new sculptural terms; wearing one of Andrea Zittel’s sheath dresses for an hour at the fair, being secretly amazed at how sexily exposed it made my genitals feel and wondering whether women feel this way.
In the last decade, art fairs mushroomed and became all-encompassing, fully comped VIP monstrosities and entertainment complexes for the one percent. So I went off art fairs. Way off. I’ve never told anyone this, but I hit my art-fair bottom at Art Basel, in Switzerland, where I was invited to be on a panel in the mid-aughts. I checked in alone to a hotel and had a meltdown. Feeling alienated, realizing a critic had no business there, intimidated by the socializing yet afraid to be excluded, I freaked out. I made up a story about an imminent death in my family, packed, and flew home early. I’ve been too scared to ever leave New York for an art fair again.
But I’ve made peace with them. Last month I went to seven local fairs. I’ll go to Frieze and NADA in May. I’ll smile. I now like leaving my office and refrigerator, putting on real clothes, facing the larger world. Sometimes good art jumps out at me; most of the time I see bad art, or see nothing at all and just drift, feeling weird, pretending to be fine. We all call temporary truces with these events. We agree the conditions are horrible and overexposed but grant that time speeds up here, people meet each other faster, in the flesh; some dealers report making as much money at an art fair as they make all year. Now I view art fairs as cultural-biomasses: survival mechanisms where galleries act like great schools of fish, banding together in like groups that allow more to thrive, confusing and eluding predators. At art fairs, art becomes like millions of eggs released into water to have a better chance at being fertilized. This means that collectors are semen, but whatever.
And from the looks of the list of galleries participating in the upcoming Frieze Art Fair, which will be held in a tent on Randall’s Island, this event could easily revitalize and redefine the nature of an art fair, returning us again to the idea of fair as tribal powwow. All I know is that this is the first time I’ll happily be crossing water for one since my Basel debacle. Let’s touch whiskers there.
Which brings us back to the ways the art world is breaking down and remaking itself—cannibalizing itself, always hungry for the new. While official, moneyed, and institutional tastes dither, as collectors buy what other collectors buy and teachers teach what other teachers have taught, art has crept into and expanded the cracks, opening vents and secret pathways. With money and academics distracted, different artists, ideas, and activities are getting more psychic time and space to root; older and overlooked artists are getting second chances; artists can grow wild again. They are more and more speaking the passwords primeval.
And the art world is having a quiet, collective Archimedes-eureka moment. We’ve been in this tub of brackish water for a while, feeling frustrated with the business of art, sometimes hopeless and uninspired, wondering what can be done. Now people realize that if we’re all already in the tub (e.g., the system), we’re already displacing water. The spill-off will be as great as what goes into the tub. Everybody in!