Trends Fairs United Kingdom

Frieze Masters brings older art in from the cold

The canon of art history is under review by museums and the market

Drawings by Pollock and tribal masks on the stand (F17) shared by Donald Ellis Gallery and Washburn Gallery. Photo: © David Owens

Frieze Masters opens its second edition to VIPs today, safe in the knowledge that its initiative to introduce older art went down well last year. Old has become the new new, as some contemporary art buyers channel their thirst for discovery back through time and place.

As could have been expected, this year’s edition has its fair share of dead, white, European and American male artists from the canon of art history. Works by Alexander Calder (Dominique Lévy, E3; Galería Elvira González, E8), Donald Judd (Simon Lee Gallery, C16), Willem de Kooning (Mnuchin Gallery, B6; Skarstedt Gallery, F1), Pablo Picasso (Edward Tyler Nahem, E11; Edouard Malingue Gallery, F5) and Henri Matisse (Thomas Gibson Fine Art, F3) can be found throughout the fair (not exclusively with the above). Older masters such as Velázquez (Otto Naumann, D5) and Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Johnny Van Haeften, E4) are also on view.

Yet a spirit of rediscovery infuses the tent. As the buyers become increasingly international, so too does the art, which is driving a retrospective aesthetic change.

New-look history

This is core to the Spotlight section, organised by Adriano Pedrosa, in which he again introduces 20th-century artists from further afield to the Frieze crowds. Of the 23 artists with solo presentations in the section this year, 11 are female and 12 are non-Western, including two artists from Africa—Nil Yalter at Espaivisor (S5) and Georges Adéagbo at Frittelli Arte Contemporanea (S15). This is unusual, to say the least, in a historical art fair.

The main fair also has its share of lesser-known but influential 20th-century art movements. These include Japanese Gutai, Russian Constructivism and South American kinetic art. There are also three tribal art dealers—Entwistle Gallery (F2), Donald Ellis Gallery (F17) and Galerie Meyer Oceanic Art (G9).

Donald Ellis has a shared stand with the 19th- and 20th-century specialist Washburn Gallery. The dealers are showing 19th-century Native American masks alongside drawings by Jackson Pollock, to highlight some of the more surprising influences on the famous Abstract Expressionist. Meanwhile, Pop art is no longer the preserve of Americans such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. Alan Cristea Gallery (E10) is flying the flag for the British exponents, including David Hockney and Richard Hamilton.

The shift is not just geographical—Frieze’s “Masters” are increasingly “Mistresses”, as women artists take their place among the greats. The photography dealer Hans P. Kraus (C8) has brought Julia Margaret Cameron’s “Norman Album” of 75 albumen prints, which is on show in the UK for the first time and is believed to be worth between £4m and £5m. Cameron is among several women artists who seem to have been rewritten into art history. Solo booths showing Lygia Clark (Alison Jacques Gallery, S20) and Alice Neel (Victoria Miro, D13) integrate seamlessly into the Modern art mix.

A market-friendly shift

Many point to the limited supply of works by the most famous artists as the real driver behind the market’s new-found enthusiasm for previously overlooked practitioners. These widen galleries’ pool of sellable works—and are also cheaper. At Frieze Masters, Donald Ellis’s Hopi (Arizona) and Yup’ik (Alaska) masks are on offer from €40,000, and he is selling kachina dolls (Hopi religion) from an accessible €9,000, while Brian Washburn has drawings by Pollock priced from $150,000. (There are also huge discrepancies in price between male and female artists. The record at auction for a woman, set this year for Berthe Morisot’s portrait After Lunch, 1881, is $10.9m, a long way off the record for a man—$119.9m for Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1895.)

The shift may suit the market, but it is more than a sales-oriented fad. Museums have been leading the way with their buying and programming, turning rediscovery into an institutional phenomenon. Last year, the Tate created three new acquisitions committees, for art from Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe, and South Asia. Tate Modern is currently showing the first major museum exhibition of the Lebanese abstract artist Saloua Raouda Choucair (until 17 November) and of the Brazilian Modern artist Mira Schendel (until 19 January 2014).

Flávio Cohn, the director of São Paulo’s Dan Galeria (F6), says that exhibitions such as the Schendel show attract important collectors from Brazil and also encourage an understanding of Modern art in a new geographical context. His stand combines British Modernists, such as Anthony Hill and Bill Culbert, with Brazilians, such as Lygia Clark, Geraldo de Barros and Willys de Castro. “The artists may not be brothers and sisters, but they’re certainly part of the same family,” he says.

Despite institutional backing, the question remains over what sells—the crux of an art fair. Victoria Siddall, the director of Frieze Masters, says that tribal and antique works were popular at the fair’s first edition, partly because they were “not hideously expensive”. But it is still a slow-burn process. Amanda Wilkinson of Wilkinson Gallery (showing at Frieze London, C2), which represents Joan Jonas and Dara Birnbaum, says: “Museums are starting to pay proper attention to the work of female artists and to fill gaps from the past century. I have no doubt that this will be reflected in the market, especially now collectors are looking more and more for historical validation before acquiring work.”

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