Surveying Frieze New York

Fact #1: New Yorkers are more allergic to bridges and tunnels than plants and trees. Fact #2: Manhattanites generally enjoy exploring other boroughs as much as they like the Times Square subway platform in the stew of summer. Therefore, when Frieze Art Fair–which has thrived in London’s Regent Park for a decade–chose to debut its American counterpart May 4th through 7th on Randall’s Island, a geographical curse seemed in the cards. (“Who is this Randall and how do you get to his island?,” and so on.) Luckily, the one thing Manhattanites enjoy more than schadenfruede is a pleasant cultural surprise. 

Frieze founder Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover prayed to the weather gods and were paid off with indulgent sunshine and pleasant breezes throughout the four-day fair last week. While VIPs were whisked to Randall’s Island in BMWs equipped with sound inputs from artists Martin Creed, Rick Moody, and Frances Stark, we took free ferries from the East River waterfront at 35th street. After about 30 minutes, we were deposited on the island’s shore. Like its location, many voiced apprehension about the $1.5 million budget for Frieze’s Randall’s Island project, designed by Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu of Brooklyn firm SO-IL, whose structure was beautifully thought-out and seamlessly implemented (and, one may argue, overshadowed the art itself). 

Unlike fairs like the Armory–in which closely-packed booths can feel dense and claustrophobic–Frieze’s winding, snake-like tent with highly arching ceilings felt like a breezy, bright artery, ideal for exploring the 180+ gallery booths. And while the common spaces at many art fairs can feel forced (Miami Art Basel’s astro turf lawns and flower box seating arrangements come to mind), Frieze’s common spaces were large, charming, and inviting, with pop-up cafes boasting food that real New Yorkers eat: Fat Radish, Frankie’s Spuntino, and others.

The space highlighted the bold and colorful, such as Liz Cohen’s Eastern Bloc Lowrider at Salon 94 (which, rumor has it, is actually driveable, and sold for $250,000). We also liked Lisson Gallery’s display of multiple works by Ai Weiwei and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s sculpture of hanging steel sausages at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. 

Much of the temporary building's glory is found in the details. Liu and Idenburg added some “carnival”-like forms to the ceiling with strings to cover mechanical elements from below, and they raised the floor so that the entire tent was level. Thanks to decisions like these, the space felt crisp and clean, and the 1,500 square feet of floor was even high-heel friendly. Though tranquil is a word rarely used to describe an art fair, it’s the best adjective we can think of to describe Frieze. For those who missed it, mark it on the spring calendar for next year.  And remember to take the ferry.

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