Frieze New York evolved out of an art fair in London and attracts collectors of a globetrotting cosmopolitan sort, but after 2 p.m. on Thursday’s VIP preview day, a ripple went through the crowd due to something big happening in America. The U.S. House of Representatives had just passed, by four votes, a health-care plan that would eliminate coverage for millions of the constituents they had been elected to represent.
Many younger dealers and fairgoers were visibly upset over the news, but for older, wealthy American collectors, the potential law is something very different: a big, fat tax break that could be used to buy more art. At one point, a collector went up to a friend, grabbed his shoulders, and said, “Good news—they got the health care bill passed! He’s doing a great job!”
Dealers were extra-fixated on those who pay taxes to Uncle Sam, since the turnout among collectors based outside the U.S.—especially from Europe—was lower than in past years, according to many gallery owners holding court in their booths. Perhaps this was simply a scheduling issue: the Venice Biennale begins next week, and the bellwether New York auctions begin the week after. Even if you have a private jet, that’s a lot of transatlantic whiplash.
“There were certainly fewer European collectors—the Germans, the Belgians, the French, all missing,” said Thaddaeus Ropac, who owns five galleries bearing his name in Paris, Salzburg, and, as of a few weeks ago, London.
But, as Ropac noted, this doesn’t necessarily sow disaster for those at the fair—he sold plenty of work, just only to Americans. In the first few hours of the fair, he had sold Georg Baselitz’s Bergspitze (2010) for $550,000 and Robert Longo’s Untitled (Obama Leaving), 2017, for $500,000.
“America can take a fair like this and make it a success,” Ropac said.
Over at Eykyn Maclean, the gallery founded by ex-Christie’s Imp-Mod department co-heads Christopher Eykyn and Nicholas Maclean with spaces in New York and London, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting Red Rabbit, on sale for $8.5 million, had yet to find a buyer, but Richard Serra’s Joplin (1996) went early in the day. Again, those who showed up ready to spend a potential tax break were based stateside.
“I come here for the American collectors,” Maclean said. “I have a gallery in London, so I know where to find European collectors.”
Victoria Miro had sold 15 works in its booth—including Yayoi Kusama’s Solitude of the Earth (1994), which consisted of chairs, a table, and a cabinet done up in white—for as much as $500,000. When asked who had bought the 15 works, director Glenn Scott Wright responded, “Everything we’ve sold has been to Americans—nothing to Europeans.”
He then clarified that one work had been bought by a collection in Mexico. “But there aren’t many collectors here from Europe,” he said.
Lisson Gallery had sold nearly its whole booth by the early afternoon and found buyers for three works by Anish Kapoor, who has been making the round in New York this week thanks to the grand unveiling of Declension (2017), an ominous black whirlpool installed in Brooklyn Bridge Park courtesy of the Public Art Fund. They were all pretty pricy—Void (1990) for £1.2 million ($1.5 million), Glisten Blue (2017) for £600,000 ($775,000), and Spire (2004) for £450,000 ($581,000).
“Of the European collectors, there are certainly a few I haven’t seen,” said Lisson director Alex Logsdail.
He added that perhaps he just had missed them as people circulated through the cavernous tent on Randall’s Island, and it’s possible that I did as well, but the overwhelming majority of collectors I saw stalking the booths were American, such as Mera and Don Rubell, who have a private museum in Miami that they constantly replenish. Asked if they were finding work to buy, Don Rubell said, “Unfortunately, we always do.”
Rather than seeing her fellow collectors from Europe, Mera Rubell said she had been running into friends who were planning to leave their homes here for a spell in Europe to hop from the Venice Biennale to Documenta to Skulptur Projekte Münster and then Art Basel in Switzerland.
“Everyone’s just excited for the summer, because there’s so much going on,” she said. (She added that she was particularly delighted by the arrival to the Frieze New York fairgrounds of one of the country’s foremost purveyors of smoked fish, Russ and Daughters. “Lox and smoked salmon, what more do you need?” Mera said.)
New York-based collectors Susan and Michael Hort said they had just made the trek over to art bazaars in Europe, but during the less busy month of April. And yet they still had an appetite for more work.
“We were just in Brussels and Cologne and Berlin and we bought a lot, but we’re still getting more here,” Michael Hort said. He added that they had picked up some of the graphite drawings of Milano Chow at the Chapter NY booth, in the Frame sector.
Elsewhere at the fair, El Anatsui’s Ascension (2014) sold at the Jack Shainman booth for $1.1 million, three works by Pat Steir found buyers at the Levy Gorvy booth for between $200,000 and $340,000, and Cy Twombly’s Sperlonga Drawing (1959) sold for $450,000. The John Currin drawings in the Gagosian Gallery booth were selling for between $25,000 and $85,000, making them priced perfectly for impulse buys, a director at the gallery said.
As for the Americans who will not receive a giant tax break if the health care bill gets passed into law, there was one particular work may have haunted them throughout the day: Andres Serrano’s Donald Trump (2004), a portrait of the current U.S. president, who sat for the artist over a decade ago. A dealer at the booth where it was hanging, the Paris- and Brussels-based Galerie Nathalie Obadia, said they had not sold an edition of it at the fair, and in fact hadn’t sold a single edition since the election. It was priced at $45,000, but perhaps it was there just to be juxtaposed in the booth with Serrano’s portrait of a Mexican migrant worker.
A few hours later, I turned a corner to see Serrano himself, walking with his wife.
“I don’t often go to fairs, but I happen to be in this one,” Serrano said.
I told him I had indeed seen his work at the booth—and one work in particular stood out.
“Oh you mean Snoop Dogg!” he joked, referring to the subject of the portrait hung next to the one of Trump. Then he explained that it was for a series of work that would document the state of the country in the years following September 11. Clearly, some element of that time still stands, he said.
“I tapped into America then, and I tapped into America now, with Trump,” Serrano said.
I asked why no one seemed to want to buy it, and if another edition would ever be sold again. He responded, smiling as he walked away, “Someone always buys something.”