An Art Fair Has Never Worked in Los Angeles. Why Did Frieze?

Work by artist Kathryn Andrews at David Kordansky Gallery’s booth at Frieze LA. Photo: Mark Blower

New York is the trading floor for the art world; it’s not unusual to see dealers making deals in public, working gallery floors, plying clients, always closing, ringing up sales. I’ve even seen Marian Goodman and Paula Cooper work the sales floor.

L.A. has always been very different. In a certain way, art-wise, it had it all: artists, galleries, collectors. But in L.A. art deals have always been done in private, behind closed doors, in meetings (nobody takes more or better meetings in more locations under more conditions than Angelinos), over artisanal dinners, in limousines, on the road, at spas, in the desert, at Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, Aspen. On Valentine’s Day, at the debut edition of Frieze’s Los Angeles art fair, that changed. I often say about art fairs that they are a spectacle of art having sex with money in public. At Frieze, they went at it like a gaggle of pent-up bonobo monkeys.

And the sex was good. Or so I’m told. I only watch — amazed, jealous, contemptuous, self-hating, you know the drill. Most gallerists I spoke to reported this new racy thing happening to them too, although, keep in mind, dealers are notoriously sketchy at reporting these sorts of things. It wasn’t all happiness of course. A few Brits grumbled about lack of sales. This seems to be a Brit given and may be a mark of a healthy fair by now.

It’s also no surprise. Frieze isn’t cheap; booths cost up to $76,000, and much more when you consider packing, shipping, manning booths, entertainment, travel for everyone, hotels for everyone, re-crating unsold and shipping unsold works back to galleries where they are said to be unsellable, “burned,” having been seen in public but known not to have sold. It’s ridiculous that works of art are worth less because an art-fairgoer didn’t buy them in public, but it is so, and shows you how skewed the system really is.

In the past, art fairs in L.A. were showcases of that kind of failure. L.A. collectors didn’t show up and buy at them. Which meant out-of-towners didn’t show up either. This seemed normal, actually, no matter who was throwing the fair. L.A. collectors are notorious for going to New York and elsewhere to buy the same artists their local galleries show. Several major L.A. dealers report that some L.A. megacollectors have never written them a check and buy the same art elsewhere. That’s the bad local economic medicine. Last year Team Gallery’s Jose Freire pulled back the curtain on the whole collector sham, telling an interviewer that in four years of participating in an L.A. art fair he didn’t make one sale.

So why did this one held at Paramount Studios work? First were some great artist projects on the back lot behind the tent, organized by the sharp-eyed former Hammer Museum curator, Ali Subotnick, and peppered along the fun fake streets where Seinfeld and hundreds of Hollywood movies were filmed. I gave psychic readings in the project by too under-known artist Lisa Anne Auerbach. The one I gave to 20-something art adviser Meredith Reed made me feel that the near future of Los Angeles is in passionate hands. The last time I felt this kind of electricity surging through an art scene was in 1997 when Klaus Biesenbach staged the first Berlin Biennial. It was instantly obvious to all that great things were already happening in Berlin and would only mushroom spectacularly. Oh, he’s now in L.A. too — the new director of MOCA.

But the fun was bigger than Frieze. At the seedy Roosevelt Hotel in the deepest, darkest heart of Hollywood tourist country, another new art fair came into being: Felix. It took place in a warren of rooms on the hotel’s 11th floor and in the famous cabanas surrounding the swimming pool that David Hockney painted with blue squiggles in 1988, which is still there in all its faded magnetism. In this coven of small spaces — some mildewed, others with holes in the carpet, and on outdoor patios — dealers sat on beds and couches casually displaying their wares. This in the rain, which helped, first because it stopped the most boring conversation you can have as a visitor in L.A.: “How about this beautiful weather.” But the rain also concentrated the energy. Felix felt as good as any art fair I’ve ever been to (although I probably missed a third of it).

Importantly, Felix has deep roots and is modeled after one of the most beloved self-made art organisms of the last 30 years: the original 1994 Gramercy Park Hotel, the fair started by a group of beautifully desperate New York dealers in little hotel rooms in the eponymous hotel. That fair was a Hail Mary pass made in hopes of reinvigorating an art scene thriving artistically but dying on the vine financially. This enterprise was so successful that it grew into the hateful gargantuan we all know: the Armory Show. Which is a good reminder that, in the art world, what we love and what we hate are often the same thing: success.

At Felix dealers talked about low costs of under $10,000, bringing art in suitcases, driving the work around town. Without the financial guillotine casting its shadow more risks were taken, more fun was had, and good art was shown, talked about, and sold. In public. I stood next to someone I thought I was just jawing with when they casually turned to the dealer and said, “I’ll take that.” Lowering the economic stakes heightened the results and the love. Everything multiplied out from there. Young artists chatted with famous dealers; people looked at each other’s work; older artists brought students around. Sentimental educations were in the offing. This is what art fairs ought to be.

Critics will snipe that I haven’t talked about the art. First, I don’t think fairs should actually be reviewed. They’re not exhibitions. They’re sales. Ditto auctions. Second, I confess my being constitutionally unable to focus on works of art in these sorts of souks — opulent, in hotels, storage sheds, old schools, or not. I hate art fairs but I love that they make more artists and galleries money. Still, for whatever internal shortcomings, I shut down in these environments, get instantly overwhelmed, go art-blind, start to drift, and just people-watch, absent-mindedly touching objects, nursing private resentments about money, eating too much, and feeling sorry for myself for not being better at mixing well with others. This is why I don’t really know what I saw. I didn’t go to the fair for looking closely at art. (An absurdity.) I came to perform a critical vivisection on the current situation. My conclusion is that I beheld the rising of a fascinating new Franken-L.A. monster.

But the key to its success, I think, was the imported Britishness (Frieze is a British fair that now operates in New York, too). L.A. Frieze only had 70 specially selected galleries; spatially you could see the back of the striped-down tent on entering, which precluded suicidal thoughts and made one think, “Okay, I can do this.” The participants were all hip — a third of them were from L.A. Most of them major. Almost all with some sort of buzz. Americans can’t make fairs this exclusive. As an American I have to include you even if I hate your work and you have to include me even if you hate mine. We’re democratic. Not the Brits, who are able to be amiably cliquish, tribal, and posh. I imagine organizers saying, “Of course the A-listers are in the fair, dear; I’m sure Felix might be able to find space for you, darling.” No American could do that. The Brits know that it’s buzz that attracts money to fairs like bees to flowers.

What’s it all add up to? I surmise a new phase of the L.A. art world has come into being: “L.A. Frieze Week.” Next year at this time the lesser art fairs will be better; other fairs and strange attractors will come into being; galleries and museums will coordinate their schedules and pick up their games. The capitalists who own Frieze will say that they can only make money by making Frieze bigger. Money does what it does — until it ruins things. Next year we’ll probably see an expanded Frieze Fair that the British face of this multinational ownership will claim is all under control. And it will be. For a while. Or as an illusion. Frieze will attract enormous crowds following this year; more money, celebrities, and art will pour in. This phase will last about five years. By then the capitalists will have made Frieze gigantic; other fairs and events will become either rote or overdone. It’ll be another Miami. However, five years in art-world time is an era!

In the meantime, I’m already seeing sinister forces. At the tiki bar by the Roosevelt Hotel pool, I was shivering in the rain talking with some good mid-career artists. One of them said something that sent shivers down my spine and, to me, is a kiss of art-scene death. We were talking about how great L.A. is, how good all this energy was for the scene. Then one of these artists said, “L.A. has the best artists.” The others readily agreed. I cringed and snapped, “L.A. does not have the best artists! L.A. has great artists, yes; however, your peers elsewhere are doing just fine.” This didn’t seem to land; they objected. I said, “Saying L.A. has the best artists is provincial.” It’s like going to Oklahoma City and they tell you, “We have the best smoked grilled T-bone steaks and French fries in the country.”

It goes without saying that all local scenes are prideful and provincial; none more so than New York. I can see why L.A. might have a chip on its art-historical shoulder. When it comes to how most museum collections tell the story of modern art, L.A. has always been woefully underrepresented. Criminally so. Maybe the L.A. boosterism and vanity comes from this. But this sort of provincialism is never becoming and never remotely true when applied to contemporary art. Moreover, if I’m to be completely honest (as nervous as it makes me to say it, fearing certain backlash), this self-regard around contemporary art has been bandied about L.A. for a long time. Too long. But, who knows, maybe it’s a sign of animus and overcompensation (or wanting to keep control of the scene more or less as it is). I understand this; I love the feeling that in the L.A. art world, at least, money hasn’t flattened it all into product (as it has in Hollywood). Maybe now that art and money are finally having sex in public there, this provincialism can come to an end.

I know that after I returned home to 24-degree temperatures at 5:15 a.m. after talking to artists at the outdoor tiki bar the previous day I already looked forward to returning to Los Angeles this time next year for what new energies get cranked up during the next L.A. Frieze Week.

For the First Time, an Art Fair Worked in Los Angeles