“Don’t applaud, just throw money” is the translation of the Latin inscription on the base of a “monument to the unknown artist” in the shadow of the Tate Modern. The request is particularly striking in a week in which collectors have not been throwing money around and, to a certain extent, money has also been burned. While the crème de la crème of the international art scene arrived in large numbers for the autumn fairs Frieze and Frieze Masters in London for the first time since the pandemic, Damien Hirst staged a spectacle that questions the value and meaning of art.
People lined up at the Newport Street Gallery to witness the burning of hundreds of his A4 dot paintings. Hirst completed his project The Currency, in which buyers of an edition of 10,000 of these works, purchased for $2,000 each, had to choose between the original on paper or the digital certificate in the form of a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) after one year. A narrow majority speculated on the physical item, with Hirst securing a thousand NFTs for himself. Over the course of the week, the material works discarded by their owners end up in one of the six kilns, which heat up the hall unbearably and evoke unpleasant associations of which the provocateur Hirst is only too aware.
While Hirst appeared in silver fireproof trousers, his assistants looked like Guantánamo convicts in orange overalls. Making sure each hand matched the NFT before throwing it in the oven, Hirst said many believed he was burning millions of dollars. In doing so, he merely completes the transformation of physical works of art into virtual ones. In fact, he made fun of displaying art as a mere object of speculation on the very week that millions upon millions were exchanging hands.
At the Frieze contemporary art fair, members of the club’s elite and so-called VIPs milled about at the preview, like a woman waiting who confessed she didn’t know what she was in line for, maybe a performance or a glass of champagne. Between gimmicky installations, such as the leather pumpkins by Anthea Hamilton on Thomas Dane’s stand, which are more appropriate for a championship for giant vegetables, monumental canvases fresh from the studio by young artists pushed their way to the fore. They looked as if a command had gone out that painting was all the rage this year. All the better when the artists are female and the themes are postcolonial.
With the American Kara Walker, whose ability is not in question, both meet. Her graphite diptych “Yesterdayness in America Today” is almost four meters wide and is one of the works at Sprüth Magers that sold in the first few hours. Jack Shainman Gallery could have sold Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s fictional double portrait “To Satiate a Satyr for a Saint” with two men, one reading, the other thinking, multiple times for $500,000. There is now a long waiting list for paintings by the British artist. In line with other retailers, the gallery emphasizes that it’s all about placing artists “right”. These fairs, which enabled personal contact with collectors, museums and foundations, served this purpose. Despite the rapid sales, which are also thanks to the strong dollar, there was concern that the Paris+ fair launched by Art Basel, which opens next week, will take some of the wind out of the sails of London’s Frieze.
In the Frieze Masters tent, the buoyancy was lower and the offer more exquisite. But good business was also done here, not only with big names of modernism such as Philip Guston, whose symbolist late work “Letter to a Friend” Hauser and Wirth sold for 4.8 million dollars, but also with those who were less and less strongly represented at the fair old masters. An exquisite rural scene painted on copper with a self-portrait of Jan Brueghel the Elder found a new owner on Johnny von Haeften’s stand for around ten million dollars. As with Frieze, there was a tendency to prefer solo exhibitions to a mixed selection of artists. The Parisian Galerie Loeve stole the show with its presentation of the Italian-Argentinian surrealist Leonor Fini on a wallpaper she designed. Also outstanding are the productions by Prahlad Bubba, who brings precious Indian textiles into a dialogue with Western works of art, and by arms and armor dealer Peter Finer, who show that connoisseurship of arts and crafts has not gone entirely out of fashion.
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