Kenny Schachter is a London-based writer, curator, and dealer who is currently curating shows at Pace London, Sotheby’s S2, and Fred Mann Gallery. He is also the author of books on Zaha Hadid and Vito Acconci. The following is Schachter’s dealer’s diary of the second-annual Frieze New York.
One of the main reasons I took this trip to New York was to meet a prospective client, who recently—prior to having ever purchased a piece of contemporary art—decided to open a museum. But, just before takeoff, he called to cancel. Welcome to my world, where you are always at the behest of the wanton and capricious. Here is a diary of my whirlwind four-day trip.
DAY 1: WEDNESDAY, MAY 8th
Unlike most installments of the Basel fair (and there are many), there wasn’t the usual cluster of art insiders onboard my flight with whom to chat and gossip, which was a tad disappointing. Mid-trip a flash and a boom just outside my window caused me to gasp out loud, but no one else on the sparsely filled aircraft seemed to notice. Once the fear of death subsided, I wondered what ominous fate the noise—which turned out to be thunder and lightning—might foreshadow.
Sure enough, after landing I arrived at the entrance to my hotel to find a notorious New York attorney, with whom I had a dramatic falling-out some years ago. Despite owning three paintings together, we haven’t spoken in years. Let's just say that, due to art world omertà, little is spoken about the inner workings of art transactions, other than what turns up in the depositions of Larry’s latest lawsuits.
Unruffled, I hit the ground running and paid a hastily arranged visit to a semi-private dealer, who is a newly independent auction specialist. Though I am not keen on the auctions per se, their employees possess a mother lode of insider information. I am curating a Gerhard Richter vs. Sigmar Polke exhibit at Sotheby’s new selling space in London this October, and no stone can remain unturned. These sessions with other professionals, and the ad-hoc stream of consciousness that arises, are invaluable for rooting out information.
I was just out the door when I had another fortuitous encounter with a London-based dealer. I was reminded of what the artist Rosemarie Trockel once said to me while she was slightly miffed about some drawings I had offered and sold in a 1990 show: “The world is small, and the art world miniscule.” Though the art universe has grown exponentially since the early 1990s, her maxim still rings true.
I paid a few more gallery visits—to Blain DiDonna, where there was a mostly non-selling Paul Delvaux show populated by as many uniformed guards as people painted on canvas. It was more surreal than the Surrealism that is a new trend at gallery after gallery.
Jeff Koons was ubiquitous, as were artworks made about him, including two omnipresent examples at Frieze by Paul McCarthy. Outside of the first opening at a David Zwirner outpost (it’s as hard to keep track of their number as the Basels), a line snaked around the block. Once allowed in, a scrum of would-be photographers formed in front of the largest work, their phones in hand to experience art the way most are wont to these days: via social-media-enabled devices.
The works themselves looked like minor plaster casts from the Victoria & Albert sculpture galleries, each balancing a soccer-ball-sized reflective blue sphere that resembles a yard globe. Two or three editions of each work had been sold by the opening for prices ranging from $2 million to $6 million.
Next up was a high-profile group show in a roughhewn temporary venue that, if anything, reminded me of the countless hit-and-run shows that I organized during the recession-plagued 1990s—an annoyingly overlooked facet of the New Museum’s 1993 exhibition (despite extensively interviewing me on the topic beforehand). Back then, we had no money, no resources, nada. The difference between this new mega-exhibition and the DIY mindset of the old days is that a chunk of the younger artists now are already flying first-class—and have first-rate auction records. Still, like my shows then, most of the art sucked.
At night I had dinner with Ted Bonin of Alexander and Bonin, representative of the Paul Thek estate. I went largely to get his blessing to curate a Thek show at Pace Gallery in London, because, although I already have access to enough of the artist’s works, relational upkeep is an essential component of life in art land.
DAY 2: THURSDAY, MAY 9th
What time you are allowed to enter Frieze—or any fair, for that matter—on opening day is an exclusionary exercise in high-school politics, starting with entrée at 11 a.m. for the perceived VIPs and later for the lessers. The plan was to meet Rachel Corbett, my delightful new Artspace editor, and then head over to the tent ahead of the time permitted by a press invite.
I have a history of writing unflattering articles about the proprietors of Frieze, including a drink-fueled outburst to the effect that they behave as though they were curing cancer instead of running a sales convention. Sometime after it was published we sat elbow-to-elbow at a charity lunch, speechless throughout the meal. (I guess my pass to the current event came via another art charity I happened to assist with. By any means necessary.)
Though the fair was on Randall’s Island—an example of no-cation rather than location, location, location—people seemed generally happy to be somewhere unfamiliar. The scene under the airy, well-lit tent felt something like a mix between a casino, a Scientology seminar, and a speed-dating event. Filled with an uncharacteristic sense of community, albeit one that's 99.9 percent rich and white, the fair is evidence that the art world has expanded more in breadth and vastness in the past 10 years than in the previous 100.
At the entrance to the fair stood the much ballyhooed, 80-foot-tall inflatable Balloon Dog by Paul McCarthy, who seems to take the piss out of a Jeff Koons piece every ten years. (Michael Jackson and Bubbles being the last time I remember.) Then, inside, there was the living-room-scaled version of the Balloon Dog, available in 40 colors and displayed via a swatch of vinyl samples like at a furniture store. At $25,000 each, they were soon all sold. Who let the dogs out?
Wading through an art fair’s aisles is an exercise in accidental encounters and chance visual delights, but my problem (one of them) is that I seem to lose all power of judgment as I drift from booth to booth, falling in love indiscriminately. Perhaps I should open a rehab center in place of a gallery, and situate it near one of the Basel bases.
For lunch I visited one of the overpriced and overcrowded restaurant kiosks and sat at a table filled with a fascinating cast of art insiders: patrons, writers, and even a cute little old lady who made me recoil when she said she was an artist (shudder at the thought). But she was also a Palm Beach gallery owner and dealer, the former wife of a renowned New York lawyer and the mother of an equally famous movie director son. Then she pulled out a dog-eared Xerox trying to sell her triplex penthouse. Only in New York! I thought maybe I’d remain for the rest of the day at the café, as these events are as much about collecting collectors as collecting art.
One of the few problems with Randall’s Island is that you need an exit strategy, as there is practically no way out but by ferry. And you don’t want to get stuck in the position I found myself in: feet aching, making casual convo with strangers in hopes of hitching a ride. After initial rejection by the only viable contenders waiting for a car, the couple relented when it became apparent that we were staying at the same hotel. Amazingly, they went on to tell me that they were refused early admission, despite disclosing the depth of their collection. More remarkably, they invited me to dinner the following night. One rule of thumb on the fair footpath: embrace the propitious and go with the flow.
That night I tried to blag an invite to the Dasha Zhukova dinner after spotting her boyfriend Roman Abramovich’s ginormous yacht, the Eclipse, docked on the Hudson. (Perhaps it’s so named because it blocks your view wherever it passes.) But I ended up with an old friend and video artist whose career I helped launch over a decade ago. After morosely relating that he thought we got along so well because we shared a tendency to burn bridges, he scurried off to relieve his babysitter. Upon exiting the restaurant, I bumped into and old friend and ended up sitting for another dinner. Lo and behold, my original dinner companion reappeared at the very same restaurant with comedienne Chelsea Handler and hotelier Andre Balazs, who proceeded to ask me what made me think anyone was interested in what I was saying. Nice. I’ll remember that when I see his daughter next week, who happened to contact me to help her assimilate in her move to London.
DAY 3: FRIDAY MAY 10th
This was a non-fair day, comprised of dealer meetings and a search for information. The words “off the record” seemed to crop up time and again—I guess my methods of operation are well known by now. At this point, my friend the museum man decided to show up, so we were back on track for Saturday. My favorite New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, who rarely misses the mark, did so in her Frieze piece, in which she said she pined for a “a time before the mixed blessings of mega-galleries and art fairs." I must admit that I found the new Hauser & Wirth megalith breathtaking, and I happen to adore fairs. So shoot me.
At Zwirner number two (or was it three?), there were historic Richard Serra sculptures scattered around, accompanied by the admonition: “Artworks are carefully balanced. Please do not touch.” Talk about stating the obvious. Still, I had visions of texting on my phone and accidentally knocking over a heavy scrap of metal. For some reason, Gagosian had James Rosenquist paintings on view and shinier, happier Koons sculptures. Too late, I was sated. Though I did recognize
François Pinault and made a kamikaze beeline for him to introduce myself and press a card firmly in hand.
I had a meeting with a wealth manager who loaned money on art, based on taking collateral worth 150 percent of the underlying value of the transaction. Sounds like a new crime in the making: art usury. That night’s dinner was with my freshly acquired carpool buddies, as well as an accompanying dealer. We noted how the word “colonialism” popped up in many galleries’ explanations of their art, and discussed which artists did and did not make art by their own hands anymore, like Kiefer and Richter. Idle conjecture or the truth—does it really matter? Another frequently heard refrain was: “I’ve never taken mine out of the box." "Oh really? Me neither.”
DAY 4: SATURDAY MAY 11th
I awoke to an email from the previous evening’s dinner guests: “X and I had a wonderful time and look forward to seeing you at Basel. I'm sure you understand that we enjoy our privacy and ask that you do not share our conversations. We love discussing art and life among friends, but always on a personal level. Have a safe trip back.” Am I capable of such a thing? It only cements the adage: don’t let strangers into your car (especially at an art fair).
With my client and family in tow, I visited the auction previews at Phillips, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s. What a contrast there is between the houses! Phillips seems to have spent so much on its premises and securing the art that they couldn’t afford a single salesperson to usher potential punters through the galleries. At Christie’s, there was a woman hunched over on the floor next to a group of traffic barricades, drawing feverish compilations with pencil on paper, which I joked was an actual artwork for sale. Actually, it turned out to be the reclusive artist Cady Noland herself, fastidiously reconstituting an artwork that was indeed for sale.
Reading the online newspapers from back home in London, I discovered that the first couple ever convicted of hoarding narrowly avoided jail, even though they collected so much junk that their children had take their meals on the stairs. We collectors had better take notice. A famous collecting couple invited us to their downtown home—something that has become an art fair tradition—with the proviso: “No strollers or carriages are permitted. Children under 10 are discouraged from attending, and no children before 11:30 a.m.” So much for the educational component of art, and to nurturing younger audiences.
On another note, after being ignored by Charles Saatchi’s gatekeeper for years, I received the following email after bombarding him with articles I have written:
“Thank you so much for sending me your pieces. They are wonderfully entertaining. Personally, I find it easier to remain sane by no longer fretting about the unpleasantness of the art world. I just simply concentrate on enjoying looking at the art I like and feeling lobotomized about the rest. Kindest regards, Charles.”
To keep my brain whole, I enjoy the art world in all stripes and won’t stop admiring and complaining. One person’s repulsiveness is another person’s joy.
Next up, the 44th Art Basel fair in Switzerland opens in a month, and I'm already ready.