Seen from Paris, in terms of the art market, the end to Britain’s membership of the European Union seems catastrophic. When Brexit was announced, many multinational galleries like Zwirner and Levy-Gorvy almost instantly opened branches in Paris.
Double art fair
This week sees the staging of Britain’s large-scale double art fair, Frieze London, dedicated to current creation (160 exhibitors), and Frieze Masters (130 exhibitors) which is reserved for older artists. Both are housed in giant tents in Regent’s Park from 13 to 17 October. Initial observation: not all the galleries share a pessimistic outlook.
Mathieu Paris, White Cube
At the English White Cube gallery, director Mathieu Paris believes that in spite of the combination of Covid plus Brexit, business is going very well. “Of course, early on in the public health crisis we experienced a drop in demand. Evidently some of our collectors, from the banking sector, for example, left England. But against all the odds they were replaced by new arrivals, often with recent fortunes from the tech world. I didn’t know, a year and a half ago, three of the biggest collectors who I work with now. They’re young, around 40 years old, and they have dedicated time to art over the past year. They come from New York or Hong Kong and they take an interest in artists with established careers.”
Mathieu Paris cites the example of the American artist Theaster Gates (born in 1973) who was the subject of an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2019 (See the report about him here) and is now on display in London at various institutions such as the Whitechapel Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
This unrivalled performer works with subjects surrounding African-American identity, also driven by his personal biography and the time he spent in Japan which made a big impact on him. His works are on sale for between 175,000 and 500,000 dollars. At auction his value is not speculative. The record price for Theaster Gates, attained in 2018, is 711,000 euros.
David Zwirner, who runs a multinational gallery, thinks that during the political and public health crisis in London “the results were ok.”(See here and here video interviews of David Zwirner). During Frieze he chose to display another African-American artist at his gallery who died prematurely, Noah Davis (1983-2015), with only two canvases on sale, each for around 1.5 million dollars. “The gallery’s purpose is not solely commercial,” emphasises David Zwirner.
Daily life in the black community
It is also one of the most beautiful exhibitions on view right now in the British capital, with figurative paintings that depict scenes from daily life in the black American community, in a style that is slightly evanescent but very powerful, animated by contrasting colours. Noah Davis did not produce over ten years and his final wishes consisted of creating a museum, The Underground Museum, in a poor neighbourhood of Los Angeles (see here the report on the subject from 2016). His market is clearly on the up. The record price for the painter at auction was 360,000 in 2020.
However, not all the London professionals share the optimism of White Cube and Zwirner. Bernard Jacobson, established in 1969, who is displaying a still life at Frieze by the frontrunner of cubism Georges Braque (on sale for 2.7 million pounds), among others, found the past two years very difficult. “Londoners are still cautious. They don’t go out much. We’ve been through a very hard time.”
Victoria Siddall, the global head of Frieze who just announced a Korean version in Seoul for next year, believes in the strength of London’s artistic community. (See here and here other interview of Victoria Siddall). Incidentally, this year Frieze is offering spaces to rent temporarily for foreign galleries in the luxury district of Mayfair, at 9 Cork Street. “We want to support the galleries,” she explains. This has paid off since this year the political and public health challenges have not discouraged certain big operators from bringing major artworks.
Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Dongen, Schiele
Acquavella from New York showcases a rare portrait of a man by Toulouse-Lautrec (on sale for 7.5 million dollars), Nahmad from New York and London displays a sumptuous nude by Kees Van Dongen in fauvist hues dating from 1906 (on sale for 5 million dollars), and the Viennese gallery W&K presents a gouache by the legendary Egon Schiele depicting a woman hiding her face (on sale for 1.7 million euros).
The Annely Juda gallery transformed their booth into a remarkable homage to Leon Kossoff (1926-2019), a big name in classic contemporary British art who remains underrated (on sale for between 150,000 and 1 million pounds).
London still exerts a certain powerful attraction through Frieze for actors who are isolated from the art market. This is the case for example of Kavita Chellaram, founder of the Ko gallery from Lagos in Nigeria. She is presenting a one man show dedicated to Obiura Udechukwu, a 75-year-old painter who, in his paintings from the 1960s and 70s, depicts the traumas of the Biafra war.
He remains little known outside of his country. His works are on sale from 5000 dollars for drawings to 200,000 dollars for a triptych. His style at its most accomplished mixes an expressionist verve with traditional figures from Igbo culture in bold colours. four of his works were acquired by the Tate at the beginning of the fair.
On the very contemporary side of Frieze London, several exhibitors seem to have been particularly satisfied from the very first day. This is the true, for example, of Olivia Barker from Château-Shatto who made the journey from Los Angeles, and even Carlos Ishikawa from London.
She has dedicated her entire booth to the British artist Issy Wood (born in 1993). This figurative painter, who often works on velvet, in recent months has created scenes in close-up inspired by the TV shows she watched during lockdown, juxtaposed with references to time.
Larry Gagosian himself
She is the subject of unusual enthusiasm, including on the part of a well-known gallerist who does not, nonetheless, represent her: Larry Gagosian. Her prices have perceptibly increased recently (between 15,000 and 130,000 pounds).
Figuration big comeback
More than ever demand for figurative painters, across the generations, is making a big comeback. The stated desire for representation – perhaps a safer art form – is most likely the consequence of a public health crisis that has upended the way people live on a global scale.
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