This year’s edition of FIAC, Paris’ reigning annual international fair for modern and contemporary art, demonstrated yet again that its organizers are committed to guaranteeing that the overall quality of its visitors’ experience is subjected to the French obsession with maintaining an indifference to hospitality and convenience. Despite numerous possible entrances and exits at the Grand Palais, whose coordinated use would have alleviated the long lines that kept VIP’s and members of the general public standing in a mild, windy rain for most of Wednesday, one entryway for visitors and one exit door were in use with massive security guaranteeing that nothing dangerous, or important, could get in or out without unreasonable delay. Only those with intolerance for dysfunction and bureaucracy found their way stealthily around this idiocy. Once inside, visitors were herded upstairs, (if they could walk; if not, forget it), where younger gallerists were once again corralled into cramped quarters that lack the distinct appeal of the airy, spacious atmosphere of the main fair on the ground floor.
Amenities were in disarray upon arrival. One coffee stand was open to serve several hundred guests and gallerists, many of whom had skipped breakfast to get an early start, only to find the futility of being early to a party in a country where being fashionably late never loses its raison d’etre. Floral crews were still hustling to get their decorations set into earth-filled planters, spilling dirt everywhere and clogging passageways where collectors were jostling for position at the stands and cleaning crews were comically vacuuming and mopping in the wake of wet umbrellas and soggy shoes along corridors still fresh with paint and construction dust.
Many dealers were still getting ready downstairs as intrepid fair-goers bypassed security guards wearing the now-collectible oxymoronic fashion accessory du jour: jackets emblazoned with the FIAC logo on front and ORGANISATION in large type on the back. Despite this unfortunate and unnecessary replay of scatterbrain administration (did I mention the broken WIFI??), FIAC is once again a fair where veteran and virgin collectors and enthusiasts cannot possibly be disappointed by its offerings. There were more galleries carrying the work of younger, comparatively affordable artists this year, and there were fewer instances of galleries showing art whose inclusion in this somewhat exclusive venue defies all logic and rationale. Despite FIAC’s proximity to Frieze London, augmented this year by its inauguration of Frieze Masters, the fair failed to convey a sense of déjà vu both in terms of objects and clientele. Indeed, despite the dark cloud of the French government’s threat to impose a hefty wealth tax on luxury goods like art in the days leading up to the fair, business was steady on opening day and during the days thereafter.
The fair exemplified an industry-wide trend of galleries bringing a broad selection of modern and contemporary masterworks that range comfortably in terms of scale, price, and importance, thus satisfying a growing audience hungry for what they know and what have have yet to discover. While the tangled warren of “younger” dealers upstairs continues to undermine their ability to compete effectively with the main floor, since works of a certain scale cannot be accommodated by its limited facilities and egress, some more intrepid gallerists managed to create show-stopping installations. Chief among them was Turin’s Franco Noero, whose booth was taken over by Gabriel Kuri and Laura Favaretto. Two vertical spinning brushes, like those found in a car wash blockaded the entrance to the stand, not so subtly suggesting that if one could only pass through them, some kind of cleansing of one’s senses might be possible. Only a side entrance to the booth allowed one in, but a configuration of scaffolding pipes arranged in a horizontal cross pattern limited one’s ability to navigate through it and forced one back out to deal with one of Kuri’s wooden and cement sculptures similar to several shown on another stand at Frieze London.
On the main floor, Paul McCarthy managed to outpace artists from either continent or generation, with a monumentally outrageous and tasteless tableau at Hauser and Wirth’s stand of a chisel-nosed George Bush sodomizing an animal coddled by a sullen-faced pig, surrounded by debris and rendered in shit/chocolate-colored wax. In a season just weeks away from a presidential vote in the United States, the poignancy and timeliness of this sculpture was unparalleled at the fair.
Elsewhere one found elegance and art history in full effect. One of the most beautiful installations to my eye could be found at Belgium’s Vedovi Gallery, which boasted a gorgeous trio of works featuring a 1954 black and white Picasso of a woman’s profile (far more graceful than a related work found at Helly Nahmad Gallery around the corner), a 1962 black and white Calder mobile, and a modestly-scaled but no less beautiful green Concetto spaziale by Lucio Fontana.
As one of the few truly accomplished and influential French artists of the postwar period, Daniel Buren is nearly always well represented at FIAC. Often, one finds more recent works using cloth, Plexiglas, mirrors, and other utilitarian materials recombined in his signature DIY manner of somewhat imperfectly crafted objects. His Monumenta installation at the Grand Palais earlier this year turned the grand interior into a sea of color and reflection, but sometimes his more recent small scale works run the risk of being merely decorative as opposed to provocative. Not so at this year’s fair. Several dealers had secured historic material, rarely seen works on canvas from the mid-1960s, which show Buren beginning to map out the contours of his signature use of striped lines in a constrained configuration yet still retaining the vestiges of some kind of pictorial abstraction beholden to the rigors of painting during this period. These works were a surprising feature of the fair and exemplify how dealers are still able to successfully resurrect significant treasures from the past despite the imbalance between supply and demand.
While fewer stands were installed more like exhibitions than stalls at a fair than last year, two that stood out for me were both from New York. Paula Cooper put together a beautiful small back room of medium-scaled gems of similar color and tone, from a red Dan Flavin wall piece, to amber colored works by Rudolf Stingel and Sherrie Levine. The needle in the haystack here, however, was a 1965 floor piece by Carl Andre composed of industrial plastic hinges. Andre has been a fixture at the art fairs in recent years, and his wooden totemic objects and copper and steel floor plate works are well known to most visitors. I did a double take with this piece, however, as it shows just how much of a debt a younger artist like Tony Feher, owes to Andre’s example decades before him.
Greene-Naftali Gallery turned over its entire booth to Gedi Sebony, a thirty-something artist from New York often classified as a sculptor for his objects made from unfinished, seemingly discarded materials. They lack the symmetry or fussiness that one associates with Andre or Buren, conveying a more intuitive and precariously balanced attitude in the tradition of Robert Rauschenberg or Kurt Schwitters before him. Sebony leaves his works raw, letting the material properties inform their overall disposition. The works on the stand ranged from framed works on paper to objects in cloth and wood that cascaded from the wall to the floor. It was a spare, elegant and distinctly memorable grouping of pieces in a sea of booths more concerned with “one of these or one of those” as opposed to an overall achievement of installation.
This is but a small selection of the many worthwhile finds at this year’s edition of FIAC, underscoring how a fair that was once destined for irrelevance has clawed its way back to becoming a required stop for any serious collector scouring the globe for important works. The organizers need to make a serious effort at improving the facilities in the upstairs spaces, so that the younger gallerists look less marginalized and can make a competitive effort at presenting important works by up and coming artists. As for the lackluster amenities and clogged means of egress, one probably has to resign oneself to the French love of tradition.