A tale of two art fairs

Frieze 2012 is a tale of two art fairs, but only one story counts: the triumph of the old over the new.

For outstanding quality of works displayed in a simple, elegant, welcoming setting, Frieze Masters, a showcase of art made before 2000, is the most enjoyable fair or biennale I have ever experienced. Its trophy stand, Helly Nahmad’s display of a six-metre Alexander Calder sculpture, “Rouge triomphant”, whose black-painted metal leaves float, glide, rotate, alongside a single flash of red to the accompaniment of the music Calder used to play in his studio, embodies the perfect-pitch tone – calm and energising, historic and surprising, intelligent and full of fun – of the entire event.

There is scholarship and provenance here – this unusual piece was exhibited at Calder’s Tate retrospective in 1961. Hanging alongside is Miró’s important “The Sorrowful March Guided by the Flamboyant Bird of Desire”, where the bird leads an anti-Franco promenade of imaginative elements, dancing black/red kites and crescents that echo the Calder. Classic modernism never looked more classic, or more modern.

Frieze Masters was conceived as a spin-off from the contemporary Frieze London, as an attempt to divert the wealth and attention garnered among international collectors in the past two decades by living artists, towards older works whose prices and reputations are less volatile, but which spark fewer parties. Much was made, before the two Friezes opened, about current trends for colliding old and new, and the collapse of chronology – following Tate Modern’s influential non-historical hang of its permanent collection in 2000 – as an impetus for refreshing 21st-century art displays. In fact Frieze Masters, against expectations, is an argument for an opposite trend. History here is consolidated, distilled, sharpened.

Annabelle Selldorf’s flawless design – a light-suffused tent, a uniform pale grey tonality – brings a contemporary, open flavour which enlivens Old Master presentations, notably a luminous Tiepolo, “Head of a Turbanned Philosopher”, and a sensual Dolci, “A Boy with his Guardian Angel”, at Baroni. But a mix of ancient art – a serene south Arabian granite male figure at Rupert Wace, and Chinese terracotta at Ben Janssens, are focuses for two graceful presentations stretching back 4,000 years – with Renaissance (glowing gold-framed tempera Madonnas at Moretti) and crème-de-la-crème 17th- and 18th-century pictures, is standard at Old Master fairs. What is remarkable here is how modernism, which dominates because of this fair’s roots in the contemporary, is packaged with similar gravitas yet lightness of being.

The most revelatory stands in this area are in-depth solo displays offering historical context – “David Smith Points of Power” at Gmurzynska, which includes ceramics and nudes as well as sculpture; Egon Schiele’s erotic drawings and gouaches at Wienerroither & Kohlbacher – or presentations by those with the scope to offer the history of modernism in microcosm, such as Acquavella’s paintings spanning Degas to Freud.

Minimalism looks cool and inevitable – an early Donald Judd painting in liquitex and sand on Masonite is clearly fighting to become a sculpture – at David Zwirner; Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka are superb at Eric Franck. Facile and forgettable, by contrast, are the installations by dealers such as Richard Feigen and Axel Vervoordt who have gone for a potpourri of media, genres and epochs. And in the context of crystalline top-name presentations, attempts to revive the second tier – Dorothea Tanning at Alison Jacques, for example – are also weak.

Clarity and continuity, as well as ruthless editing, are the keynotes of this well-orchestrated fair, which consolidates the position of commercial galleries – rather than cash-strapped museums – as increasingly the purveyors of historical viewpoints. Such success comes at a price, however: Frieze London, twice as big, always baggy, looks diminished. In former years Frieze was helped by 20th-century perspectives throwing light on contemporary work: these have largely disappeared, as most galleries have reacted to Frieze Masters by showing work made in 2012. The result is a provisional and tentative feel, with pleasures – recent Howard Hodgkin, Alex Katz, Callum Innes – spread thin.

German weaver Thomas Bayrle’s brightly patterned carpets and wallpapered entrance corridor, using motifs developed in the 1960s, and his “Laughing Cow” benches, are delightful, and maintain dialogue with the past. In general, though, galleries have opted for a raw anti-Masters look – rough floors; canvases, such as 26-year-old Thomas Sauter’s layered, digital-age abstracts “More Morbid” and “Cha Cha” at Karma International, exhibited on their easels. Space here feels transiently occupied, from Phillip Lai’s assemblages of tyres and light bulbs at Stuart Shave to the Yangjiang Group’s rickety wooden structure housing food performances such as tomato-throwing and a dinner of culled wildlife.

Rare seriousness comes at Hauser & Wirth’s intriguing display of sculpture by the wonderful Hans Josephsohn (small and affordable reliefs, intimate and rapid as sketches) with Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades (“Shelf with Unpainted Donkey”), and at Michael Werner’s understated group of European paintings and drawings: Penck, Picabia, Polke. Both look like lofty refugees from Frieze Masters, which could now become the most popular event in the European art calendar.

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