As the international art world flocks to London for Frieze week and PAD London, Catherine Milner reports on the highlights, from a little-known Rembrandt portrait to Rashid Johnson's zebra-skin day bed
For those interested in buying art, this is one of the most exciting weeks in the calendar. Frieze Masters and Frieze London, the twin peaks of the international art scene, is at Regent’s Park until Sunday, as is PAD, the Pavilion for Artistic Design in Berkeley Square.
What people collect and how they furnish their houses has changed in recent years and this is reflected in these fairs. Although the undisputed star of this year's Frieze is a portrait by Rembrandt being sold by the Otto Naumann gallery for £48 million, the sheer lack of good-quality stock in many fields has forced collectors and dealers to explore new avenues to plunder.
Thus at Frieze Masters are stands selling ‘scholars stones’ from China – weirdly shaped natural stones from caves and mined from the ground that have been used as a focus for contemplation for centuries (£8,000 - £80,000 at M D Flacks) and drawings by Native American Indians for between £9,000 and £75,000 at the Donald Ellis Gallery.
An exciting new development in both Frieze pavilions this year is the presentation of art for sale in a pseudo-domestic setting. At Frieze Masters the dealer, Helly Nahmad, has created the scruffy flat of a fictional art collector in 1960’s Paris on his stand, in which paintings by Magritte, Miro, Giacometti and Picasso compete with stacks of washing-up, tired copies of L’Oeil magazine and bowls of half-drunk café au lait. Televisions blaring out contemporaneous news clips and French films are lost among gallery invitations, newspaper cuttings and postcards from museums spewing out of drawers and over shelves. The only thing missing is the heady waft of some Gauloises cigarettes.
“It’s got to the point where no one is in control; there is a pointless kind of mentality going on,” says Nahmad of the art market today. “Even dealers who were cutting edge ten years ago are too slow in this digital cyber world.”
Different, but equally feverish in feel is a version of Sigmund Freud’s study as imagined by the artist Mark Wallinger that appears on the stand belonging to the dealers Hauser & Wirth in the contemporary art pavilion at Frieze. Hanging on its vermillion and viridian walls are brain-like labyrinth drawings by Wallinger coupled with green-faced women by Ida Applebroog. Central to the show is a large couch upholstered in zebra-skin by Rashid Johnson.
Reflecting the increasing wealth and ego of contemporary artists and perhaps their collectors too, works are getting bigger. Size, it seems, matters. The Gagosian Gallery is selling a dice as big as an elephant along with an equally huge mushroom by Carsten Holler both of which, it has to be said, entrance children and adults alike visiting the fair, who can dive in and out of the black holes of the dice like Alice down a rabbit hole.
Other stands worth visiting include that of Anthony Wilkinson who is selling a rather cheerful photograph of a woman dressed in a huge glove by Laurie Simmons for £49,000 but in general the contemporary section of Frieze does not fail to disappoint in the ennui it generates, alleviated only by the striking trend this year towards art that is scatological.
Freud would have a lot to say about the fact that this week in Paris a huge butt plug by Paul McCarthy is being erected in Place Vendôme. At Frieze, a photograph at Anthony Wilson’s gallery entitled Mountain of Shit is for sale and a teddy bear with a funnel shoved up its backside by Richard Jackson is being sold by Hauser & Wirth.
If much contemporary art seems as flimsy in execution as it is in concept, modern technology is exploited to the full in the area of design where objects are crafted with an exactitude that would have impressed those working in Renaissance Italy.
A range of porcelain from Sèvres designed by Aldo Bakker at the PAD fair are masterpieces in mini engineering; some quartz tables by Nucleo have the wonder of ossified smoke. Light boxes by Dominic Harris being sold by Priveekollektie feature pictures of birds moving so subtlety they seem alive.
Equally, works by the ancients offer a refreshing antidote to the brutalist fare of much in the contemporary sphere. At the Phoenix Gallery, for instance, a 3rd century fragment of a female statue, as arresting as anything made by Jeff Koons or Marc Quinn, costs just £130,000.
The fairs are only a part of what is now an art festival that runs throughout London in October and it is also worth going to see the multitude of exhibitions on at the same time as Frieze in private houses and public galleries. Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, a gifted painter who takes inspiration from the Old Masters to create modern ones, has a show at 9 Grosvenor Place, just off Hyde Park until October 25.
Equally impressive is an exhibition of contemporary French design hosted by La Maison Parisienne at the top of Mallet’s building at 37 Dover Street that features some wonderfully exotic creations including two 6ft-high egg-shaped bureaus laminated in fragments of emu and ostrich eggs. One for an Australian collector perhaps or simply a generous Easter present – they cost £90,000 a piece. For those who have everything, London this month is a font of new inspiration.
Catherine Milner was the arts correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph for ten years and has written about contemporary art for a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Financial Times, The Economist, Apollo magazine and Art Review
Main image: Steve McQueen Ashes 2014, courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, Marian Goodman Gallery © Steve McQueen