An Art Fair Virgin Visits Frieze

(Courtesy Linda Nylind/ Frieze)

The yellow school bus zoomed up and over the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, through a ragged row of tired factories and lonely playing fields and past an eerily well-kept mini golf course before coming to a halt a stone’s throw from a massive white tent. There, I wavered under the damp East River breeze, anchored a few hundred yards off of Manhattan on Randall’s Island, for Frieze. The cultural Babylon seemed to be erected as a newfound art Mecca, one that the bespectacled Austrian across the aisle from me would now count among his yearly pilgrimages. The behemoth beckoned and we came.

This was my first fair—art fair, that is. Throughout the course of my young life, I have spent my due time in arts courses in both high school and college, and still set aside long days to peruse the city’s offering of galleries, but this experience, beneath a taut white tarp, would be unlike any I had had before. For me, art has always been a separate reality in which anything and everything is true, a reality I unquestioningly accept. It washes over me in a visceral way, as a deep pour of whiskey does. I never try to play the part of a savant, pedantic or otherwise. I’m only there to enjoy.

Walking in, I was instantaneously overwhelmed. The sheer size of it all! Growing up in the heart of the Midwest, I have hunkered down underneath my fair share of oversized tents—rodeos and barbecues, for the most part—but this was a different beast altogether. The labyrinth of galleries stretched on and on with no discernible horizon. The poor temperament of the weather outside cast a gloomy evening-esque light on the afternoon, but that was all forgotten at the door. Men in smart suits, bearded boys with untamed styles in tapered raw denim jeans and women—the women!—behind the clunky frames of their eyewear, adorned in knowing fashions, were hastily greeting one another. I was quickly whisked into the crowd, an outsider unnoticed, a stranger amongst friends.

I’m not quite sure what I had expected, but it surely wasn’t this. I had always observed art in near-hushed silence, whispered conversations barely carrying past the small hand movements that accompanied them—it was as if they were in on a secret that decorum would have them keep quiet, even though I would hardly know what they were talking about. But at the fair, amidst the gallerists and collectors, mothers with agreeing children in tow and twenty-somethings brought up with multimillion-dollar pieces decorating their families’ foyers, I felt let into an inside joke that I had for so long been left out of. There was an accessibility about the space and dialogue that welcomed me with open arms. Maybe the deals would be done later, but it felt as if behind the high dollar marks and jockeying for position with the buyers, there was an outpouring of mutual respect among the gallerists.

There were recognizable bold-faced names attached to the booths, and I was vaguely familiar with a handful of faces, those I had seen on society pages or happened across at the occasional opening, but for the most part I was a newcomer, a partygoer arriving late, after the stale introductions had been made and everyone either knew each other or had already drunk their first few flutes and broken the ice. It’s a world in which value is unashamedly quantitative, tense competition is masked by class, and luxury is unapologetic, or at least that is how I perceived it through my green lenses. In most circumstances, I would have stuck out like a sore thumb. But in the bustling temporary city within earshot of Sotheby’s, where the $119.9 million gun was still smoking, I wandered without hesitation, aimlessly, with no real purpose aside from seeing as much as possible. It was quite different from the calculated intentionality with which I moved around in galleries trying to act in the know—there were too many distractions to look lost.

I came in under the impression that the galleries would be peacocking, but there was a level of self-confidence that I hadn’t expected. Perhaps art is such a common international language that there isn’t a question as to what is worth what—whatever the reason, the gallerists stood in wait, occasionally approaching old friends or frequent buyers, but for the most part gauging interest from afar. Collector Robert Lerhman recently compared the experience of art fairs to walking into a bar and hoping to fall in love in Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker essay, “All Is Fairs.” While I am admittedly not the target demographic, and few (well, none) cozied up next to me, I did leave with a good buzz.

As my eyes grew weary, a happy tired of an exhaustingly visual afternoon, I stumbled upon Gavin Brown’s booth, where the gallery’s namesake manned a grill with Mark Ruffalo, cooking up sausages for anyone who asked. Next to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 2012 (Kramer and Newman Make Sausage), the smell wafted down the surrounding aisles, into the corners of adjacent galleries. Slowly at first, but then at a quickened shuffle, fair-goers congregated. Though the crowd was cut from a different cloth, they shared a similarity to the rodeos I had been to before: a shared spirit for a common cause. But, of course, in place of sauce stains were pocket squares.

An Art Fair Virgin Visits Frieze