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Last updated: October 16, 2013 6:19 pm
Who needs museums with walls when a pop-up version in a Regent’s Park tent makes art look fresher, brighter and more surprising than it does in any public institution?
Unrivalled among fairs worldwide for its quality, range, seductive displays and scholarly interest, Frieze Masters is an emblem of 21st-century shifts in power, as private galleries rather than museums increasingly determine currents of taste, how we experience art, and historical interpretations of it.
The fair has grown up since last year’s launch. The jumble of top-class works from ancient times to 2000 still delights: a small pink-hued Tang dynasty “Pottery Figure of a Court Lady” at Ben Jannssens, a gorgeous off-kilter Cézanne cupid at Acquavella, and Lisson’s theatrically recreated Richard Long walking piece are formally and emotionally arresting highlights. But the overall feel is more serious, less showy, with many galleries attempting to dig deeper, stake significant positions and juxtapose old and new in revealing not gimmicky ways – Jackson Pollock’s early drawings alongside the tribal masks that inspired them at Washburn Gallery and Donald Ellis; Leon Kossoff’s tensely wrought charcoal/oil versions of Old Master suffering (Titian’s “Flaying of Marsyas”, Rembrandt’s “Blinding of Samson”) at Mitchell Innes Nash.
Last year’s high standards have provoked competition to boast trophy pieces, including Monet’s scintillating “L’église de Varengeville, soleil couchant”, from a French private collection, unseen for more than a century, at Dickinson, and Modigliani’s elongated, melancholy “Bride and Groom”, one of only two double portraits the artists ever made, deaccessioned from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and on offer at Landau. Both galleries are new to Frieze, and Robert Landau’s often important works do not reach public eyes as he neither sells nor lends to museums (“they take too long to make up their mind and send 17 committee members to have a look”). Along with an unusual Fauvish Chagall “Still Life” (1911-14) and a rare 1905 Derain “Collioure”, Landau has the monumental, transitional “The Sleepers” (1965), favourite of Picasso’s dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler – it hung above his desk until his death.
The subject, a naked woman and a black-suited gentleman reclining on the grass, reprises the “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” series but bold facture and slangy language inaugurate Picasso’s late style. The flattened forms and disruptive contrast of curves and angles merging the two bodies were inspired by Japanese erotic prints – such as the elegantly explicit 17th-century woodblock “Scenes of Lovemaking” by Sugimura Jihei, at Sebastian Izzard. Such chancy, do-it-yourself contextualising is a chief pleasure here.
Best stand? Mnuchin Gallery’s mini-retrospective of Willem de Kooning, centred on a sunburst pink/lemon abstraction “Flowers, Mary’s Table”, was the magnet throughout yesterday’s opening. The savage “Woman” series, highly textured sculptures (“Cross-Legged Figure”, “Hostess”) and emptied-out late paintings all excite in London, which seldom sees de Kooning, and missed the reassessments at MoMA’s 2011-12 retrospective.
Running close for erudite reappraisal and tour-de-force display is Mnuchin’s neighbour, Gmurzynska, which precisely reconstructs a seminal 1947 Wilfredo Lam show, with surrealist compositions hung at crazy angles off the ceiling, and mask-like portraits and “Jungle” paintings playing figuration against abstraction, Picasso against Pollock. Lam, the continent-hopping Cuban communist son of a Chinese railroad worker and African mother, embodied globalisation before the word was invented. He embodies too the nerve centre Frieze Masters aims to hit – blue chip but not fully discovered modernism. A Tate show is under discussion.
Who makes history? Increasingly the market – which is why modernism, its nuances still to be negotiated, triumphs in impact and scope here over Old Masters as marvellous as Velázquez’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” (Otto Naumann) and Antonello’s “Madonna” (Moretti), and energises our response to them. Seventeenth-century polychrome wood/silk religious figures at Coll & Cortés look like modern mixed-media installations; austere ancient sculpture at Rupert Wace takes on modern echoes in Hans Josephsohn’s enigmatic stele form (1953) at Hauser & Wirth.
I lost count of the numerous Calders on every aisle – following last year’s sensational six-metre “Rouge triomphante” at Helly Nahmad, Calder is this year’s must-have – but how bizarre to find his abstract metal shapes in primary colours flapping even among the jewel-like Brueghels, Avercamp and 15th-century Master of Schongau at De Jonckheere. Free-floating, upwardly mobile and in august but unexpected company – Calder is the poster-boy for Frieze Masters.
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