Despite the deepening economic and political uncertainty, London’s Frieze art fairs opened to much enthusiasm this week. Visitors to the temporary tents in Regent’s Park included the American actor Jared Leto, tennis legend Maria Sharapova and Rishi Sunak, the MP who lost out to Liz Truss in the latest competition to become the UK’s prime minister.
Dealers in the Frieze London fair for contemporary art were the most buoyant at Wednesday’s packed VIP opening. “With all that is going on with the economy, I thought that people would be more subdued, but from the start it has been incredibly busy and lively,” said the London gallerist Victoria Miro. Her booth, with work by artists including Paula Rego and Flora Yukhnovich, had mostly sold out within the fair’s opening hours, she said.
In general, this year’s Frieze London still plays it safe with paintings by artists who have been in vogue recently, but galleries here have brought their A-game and have been a bit more adventurous with their offerings. Fabric-based works, including by Tate Modern’s latest Turbine Hall artist, Cecilia Vicuña, at Lehmann Maupin, Zoë Buckman and Dindga McCannon at Pippy Houldsworth and Bruno Zhu at Oslo’s VI, VII, are notable this year.
Some good deals were also made at the opening of Frieze Masters, which has work that ranges from the prehistoric to postwar periods and tends to be a slower-paced fair. Sales at London’s David Aaron included the skeleton of a Jurassic-period Camptosaurus dinosaur (about 154mn years old), priced at £1mn, and a central Asian gold torque (first-second century AD), priced at £265,000, while Johnny van Haeften topped the pops with a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder that went for $10mn.
Joanne Heyler, founding director of The Broad museum in Los Angeles, was among the institutional visitors at the fairs. She too was pleasantly surprised by the lively London activity despite recent turbulence. “Most global [economic] phenomena are more like speed bumps than dead ends in this market,” she said.
Through Frieze, London’s Contemporary Art Society (CAS) has acquired a group of eight photographs by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, which will go to the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery (White Cube, priced at €12,500 each). The 2019 works explore the internal migration of workers in Ghana’s mining industry through images of forearms tattooed with family names or birth locations, often used as a kind of identification in lieu of formal papers. Their backdrops include maps made by the British, who ruled Ghana for 56 years until 1957. Since 2012, CAS has committed to buy “significant” works each year for museums across the UK, in partnership with Frieze since 2016.
Frieze Masters exhibitor Peter Harrington has a story nearly as good as those in his rare books. This month, the gallery sold a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma for £375,000, a record price for the English author, to an American buyer. Its new owner wanted the three-volume book to stay in the UK. So, gallery owner Pom Harrington put them in touch with Chawton House in Hampshire, the former home of the novelist’s brother Edward and now a library of early women’s writing. Chawton House has a collection of more than 10,000 works by early women writers, including a Jane Austen manuscript.
The record-breaking book is one of only 12 presentation copies made when Emma was published by John Murray in 1815, and the only one with a contemporary inscription on behalf of the author (Austen never signed books herself). The Peter Harrington book was originally sent to Anne Sharp, a friend of the novelist and governess to Edward Austen’s children. It will go on public display at Chawton House early next year.
The New York-based Iranian artist Shirin Neshat launches her first non-fungible token (NFT) collection next week. The set of 10 black and white images show palms in prayer that open to spill out fragments of Iranian poetry, handwritten by Neshat. Called A Loss for Words, the series was in the planning before last month’s shocking death of the student Mahsa Amini in police custody, which has led to widespread protests in Iran. Neshat says the new series already reflected that “Iranians are under such a state of oppression, they have no voice, no freedom of expression”. Speaking as the protests went into their fourth week, she says, “To me, it looks like a revolution.”
Of working in the new code-based medium, Neshat says it was in some ways a natural continuation of her photography and video work, but nonetheless “was like learning a new language”. She has ensured that, on platforms that enable permanent royalties, 10 per cent of each NFT’s first sale and 1 per cent of subsequent sales will go to non-profit platform The Brooklyn Rail. The NFTs drop on October 18 priced at 5 ETH each (about £5,800).
In New York last week, Friedrich Petzel opened his new 16,000 sq ft Chelsea gallery with shows by the sought-after American painter Emily Mae Smith, whose work just made an auction record of HK$12.5mn ($1.6mn) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, and by the Berlin-based Corinne Wasmuht, whose new paintings combine her digital and analogue practices (exhibitions run until November 12).
The ability to show more than one exhibition at a time, and on the “all-important ground floor”, were factors in his decision to move to the former recording studio at 520 West 25th Street, Petzel says. His artists’ desire to show nearer their market peers also helped persuade him to move up from 18th Street, he says. The gallery maintains its Upper East Side space, generally used for earlier works by his artists.
Petzel, 59, grew up in Cologne and moved to New York to begin his art-world career in the early 1990s. Since then, he says, “Nothing is the same any more, it has become an industry” — but he is not nostalgic. “The Eighties and Nineties were extraordinary times, but it was a white, male, limited environment,” he says.