Trends Contemporary art Fairs USA

A tale of two art worlds

Giant pieces take over New York as artists super-size their work—but bigger is not necessarily better

Paul McCarthy’s inflatable Balloon Dog towers over the Frieze tent. Photo: © Casey Fatchett, 2013

Two mammoth sculptures by the American artist Paul McCarthy straddle New York’s rivers this week. The 181,000kg bronze Sisters, 2013, hulks down by the Hudson River, while Balloon Dog, 2013, the artist’s irreverent 80ft-tall take on the Jeff Koons original, squats beside the Frieze New York tent next to the East River. Meanwhile, Koons himself, an artist of huge ambition with the production costs to match, has rival shows opening this week at David Zwirner (C48) and Gagosian galleries (B59).

From Ugo Rondinone’s colossal figures at Rockefeller Plaza to Orly Genger’s installation in Madison Square Park (her work is made from 1.4 million feet of rope, equating to nearly 20 times the length of Manhattan), artists in the city are super-sizing their work to fill public spaces and huge commercial galleries.

“The market, which is much larger than it was ten years ago, has opened the door for artists to scale up their work and realise projects they couldn’t have done before,” says the art adviser Allan Schwartzman.

McCarthy, represented by Hauser & Wirth (B7), “is one of the greatest artists of our time, who went decades without access to money. He scaled up the minute he started to make money—the resources have made it possible,” Schwartzman adds.

As fairs like Frieze proliferate, and countries and collectors around the world pour money into contemporary commissions designed to put themselves on the cultural map, it seems that art, like gas, is expanding to fill whatever space is available.

The trend towards gigantism comes at a price. “We’ve got millions of dollars tied up in production,” says the New York dealer Sean Kelly, whose eponymous gallery (B46) is due to open a show devoted to the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros on Saturday. “Irreversible” consists of three monumental sculptures, one film, two light pieces and a room-sized installation, and is described by Kelly as an “enormous production”. Prices for the works range from $60,000 to $200,000.

Fairs like Frieze New York, which opened to VIP visitors on Thursday, are fuelling this growth. “There is a wheel of hysterical activity focused mostly on auctions and art fairs, which service the upper-tier, hyper-scale buyers,” Schwartzman says.

The sheer quantity of work available in the tent this week puts pressure on dealers to create displays that grab attention in a sea of art—and some galleries have commissioned works specifically for the fair. New York’s CRG gallery (A10) is showing just one work at Frieze: Mix (Americana), 2013, an 8ft by 16ft concrete mixing drum by the artist Alexandre da Cunha. “We approached Alex and asked him to make us a big work,” says the gallery’s director Richard Desroche. “We’ve become aware of the impact of solo shows and large pieces at fairs.”

“If you only see art at fairs, you might have the feeling that art is getting bigger, but that’s because you always need a crowd-pleaser. Large-scale works stick in people’s minds,” says Alex Gabriel of Brazil’s Galeria Fortes Vilaça (C50), which is showing floor-hogging works including Ernesto Neto’s Na esquina da vida com uma planta na mão, 2013, priced at $205,000, and Valeska Soares’s Finale, 2013, a mirrored table-top covered in crystal glasses containing alcohol, priced at $120,000.

Size isn’t everything

This is not quite the full story, however. There is plenty of art at the fair that is more quiet, contemplative and homespun. “We focus on work where the artist is involved with the brush stroke,” says the dealer James Fuentes (D22), whose pared-down presentation of four paintings includes Jessica Dickinson’s Hold-, 2011-13, priced at $30,000, and John McAllister’s days gently embered, 2013, priced at $40,000.

“There are a lot of artists who want to maintain the independence of art practice and not rely on production, so have a more DIY approach,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London. “We have a very complex world now where all of these realities can coexist.”

Marian Goodman Gallery (C7) is hosting a typically subtle performance by Tino Sehgal in which a child actor poses as a Manga character named Ann Lee and asks visitors questions, a personal approach that is the antithesis of the monumental.

Indeed, the trend for ambitious large commissions seems to be fanning a countercurrent. “There’s a real push away from what’s happening in Chelsea, which is becoming a place for blue-chip galleries showing expensive works,” says Loring Randolph of Casey Kaplan (A7). The gallery has a solo presentation of paintings by Julia Schmidt, ranging in price from $14,000 to $20,000.

For fair-goers in search of something less muscular than the giant art on show throughout New York, the Berlin gallery Wien Lukatsch (D30) is showing 49 clippings from Korean real-estate adverts pinned to the wall in a seven-metre installation by Haegue Yang. The work—Flat Utopia, 2004, on sale for €45,000—is so fragile that it has been shown only once before. “For me, it was tempting to show something so delicate and experimental,” says the gallery’s director Barbara Wien. “It’s a challenge for a collector.”

Click here for interview with Rondinone about his work at Rockefeller Plaza

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