Is Frieze Masters another stroke of genius for the Frieze organisers?

“Wow, it is so quiet here!”, I overhear an elegantly dressed lady exclaiming to her husband as I entered Frieze Masters. It is indeed the first thing you observe as you stand in the lobby of this new fair; a haven of peace in comparison with the frenetic activity of the Frieze Art Fair.

Unlike its contemporary, ten year older brother, Frieze Masters is not crowded with people. It is very relaxed meandering through the fair with its wide spaces between the stands and you can easily look at the art being displayed as people are not blocking your view.

The serenity and civilized atmosphere may be due to the fact that this is the inaugural edition of the fair, which has a lot of competition from other art events in London, and has to find and establish an audience. The premise of the fair is to present a unique contemporary perspective on historical art. Ninety galleries showcase work made before the year 2000, ranging from the ancient era and old masters to the late 20th century.

Gagosian has dedicated their entire stand to a selection from Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West 1979-1984’, which documents working-class people of the Western United States. Avedon employed the same techniques that he used to portray celebrities and politicians of using a large-format Deardorff camera, with which he was able to capture an incredible amount of detail. He photographed coal miners, oil field workers, waitresses, housekeepers, drifters and a rattle snake skinner – outdoors, in daylight, and in front of a white background. Avedon captured these people unadorned, showing their lined and careworn faces and the smudges of oil, dirt and sometimes blood on their bodies. Thirty years later these gelatin silver prints, with an average size of 150 x 120 cm, still get under your skin and remain a striking body of work.

Displaying artworks of different eras next to each other can reveal (unknown) sources of inspirations. At Colnaghi Gallery, a delightful painting of the French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Study of the Head of a Woman for ‘Offering to Eros’, hangs next to a photograph of a naked torso ‘Maryanne’ (1988) by Robert Mapplethorpe. Both artists shared an interest in the female human body and one can imagine that Mapplethorpe might have looked at Bouguereau’s renowned work ‘Birth of Venus’ (1879) and considered how he depicted the pale white skin of a naked female torso.

Frieze Masters is filled with discoveries like these with works of artists who were inspired by artists from another era, and common threads between objects from different cultures. We spoke with some exhibitors at Frieze Masters and Pilar Ordovas, the Mayfair gallerist, about their impressions of the fair.

Boris Vervoordt, the son of Axel Vervoordt, the Belgian gallerist, can recall the gallery’s initial reaction when the organisers of the fair raised the concept of Frieze Masters with them some two years ago. “We immediately reacted very positively as it is part of who we are. Our vision is evolving through knowledge of our history and trying to find the common thread between objects from different cultures. That is by what we have always been fascinated”.

In an interview, Victoria Siddall, the director of Frieze Masters, talked about the ambitions of the fair: “I want people to come away energized and excited by a feeling that they just saw some extraordinary masterpieces they would never expect to see at an art fair.” At Vervoordt’s stand the visitors of the fair are at the right address as the gallery exhibits a historical masterpiece – a rectangular stele, Head of a Man, Sabaean Kingdom, Yemen, 3rd to 1st century BC. “This stele has a modern Modigliani / Picasso feel about it and people are amazed when I tell them it is 2,500 years old as it reminds them of something that was made 80 years ago”.

Although the selection criteria for this fair is to showcase works made before the year 2000, Vervoordt says that it was difficult to determine the selection of works to display at the stand as they sought to find ‘bridges’ between one object to another. He points to one of the walls and explains that the three displayed works are about the space inbetween. “These works address the ‘energy’ between every object in a still life. The Japanese have a specific word for it: Ma, which means the gap, the space between two structural parts. Someone like Lucio Fontana, with concetto spaziale, was aware of that. For a painter like Jiro Yoshihara who was renowned for his white circles paintings created by leaving the canvas unpainted whilst painting the background black, it’s about the negative space exercise – what strength can you create by not painting, by leaving it empty. We wanted to link every object to another. It’s not about mixing, it’s about finding a dialogue”.

Vervoordt managed to create dialogues with visitors at his stand, even selling artworks to collectors who are typically buyers at Frieze Art Fair. He believes the cross-over buying between the two fairs is working and qualifies the fair as a success for them. Vervoordt says they will definitely return next year.

Rafael Jablonka, director of the Cologne-based Jablonka gallery in Germany, has been participating in Frieze Art Fair for six years, and decided to made the transfer to Frieze Masters this year. He didn’t have to think long about what selection of works to display at his stand. “You have a limitation before 2000 and you take works that you think will be the best for here. There is not a philosophy that you have to think about. The theme is Masters so you have to look for work that has a timeless quality”. His stand is filled with works by the usual suspects who turn up at auction houses such as Warhol, Picasso and Alex Katz.

Jablonka is very pleased with the first edition of the fair. “It is very generously done, lots of space, great people but not too many”, he observes. “Less ‘tourists’ and more people who are specifically interested in art and not in trends. People who are interested in art works and not in the art world. That is probably the best description”. As to the question whether the fair has been successful for him, he responds “successful enough to come back”.

“The idea to mix contemporary art with old art is something we have been considering for some time”, says José Presedo Gálvez of Coll & Cortes, a Madrid-based gallery filled with Old Masters works,  including a sixteenth century work by José Ribera entitled ‘Aristotle’, which sold at the fair. “The market for Old Masters’ works is changing,” observes Presado. “The traditional collectors for Old Masters works were more scholastic. They were trying to find a piece from a certain period or a certain artist, but this form of collecting is almost over. The four partners of our gallery are between 35-40 years and we understand how difficult it is to live with these kinds of pieces [Old Masters] in your own home – we’re very aware of that. Now, buyers are becoming more eclectic. They can buy an Eighteenth Century Neoclassical sculpture, a Rothko, a Dan Flavin installation, or antique. It’s quite mixed so therefore it makes sense to mix contemporary art with old art at this fair”. I believe Frieze Masters is a good opportunity to include the market of contemporary art into the Old Masters works, although we realise that it is not easy. It can’t be done in one or two fairs, but I believe it will be a very interesting fair in the future”.

Pilar Ordovas, of Ordovas Gallery that programs mainly historical exhibitions, considers it is a good initiative to organize a fair on the basis of a relationship between old and new art. Some people have been comparing Frieze Masters with [TEFAF] Maastricht, but she doesn’t think that is a correct comparison. “In Maastricht, the areas are separated into categories. Frieze Masters, though, is more integrated as there is a contemporary gallery booth adjacent to an Old Master gallery booth. There is a cross section of different categories, which makes it exciting.”

Ordovas confesses that she expected the fair to be a lot smaller. “I was somewhat overwhelmed as it is actually a huge tent”. She is, though, enthusiastic about the ambiance of the fair. “The organizers announced that they were going to make a huge effort with lighting and the installation, and everyone with whom I have spoken has commented that it’s a much nicer fair in which to walk around when compared to Frieze Art Fair. I always found the lighting there incredibly harsh and it is so crowded that you can hardly see the art. Frieze Masters feels warmer, and the lighting is lower – it feels a lot more civilized. All the feedback that I have heard is actually very good, both from collectors, artists and exhibitors”.

In Ordovas’s view, there are too many fairs around the world and she is uncertain whether a fair is the best experience in which a collector can see, learn about, and buy art. She does admit it is very convenient that everyone gathers in one place, which she considers one of the main attractions, but prefers the type of relationship that is built up over time, as in the experience of the gallery as opposed to the fair.

As to the question of whether she thinks that the organizers of the successful Frieze Art Fair have found another gap in the market with Frieze Masters, she is somewhat sceptical. “The premise of the fair stemmed from there being a sort of disconnect between the present and the past. For me, though, contemporary artists always look at the past – it is not a new phenomenon. The organizers are trying to create something new, but it is actually nothing new at all”.

Frieze Masters can, however, provide a context in which art of the present and the past can be connected. Ordovas agrees that such a train of thought might work but remarks that when people start collecting they want to collect the works from their own generation. “They want to collect art of the period from when they grew up and they to which they can directly relate”, she explains. “Later, though, they may start looking at other periods. It helps to give a context – trying to make people understand with a collection of a certain period and certain works that there is a connection to other periods; there is a hope that they become interested in other areas”.

Ordovas believes that the concept of the fair of cross-over buying will work. She recalls that, when she worked at Christie’s, they would show contemporary art, with jewellery and watches, sometimes with furniture and old masters. “Some collectors are very specific and look only at one particular field whereas other collectors are serious in more than one category – so it does work”. Some of the greatest collections include a cross-section of all periods. If you have the greatest quality it always goes together”.

Based on the positive feedback of collectors, artists, visitors and exhibitors, it is likely that there will be a sequel of Frieze Masters next year. Whether it will be as quiet and civilized as this year, though, remains to be seen.

Written by Thierry Somers. Image: Richard Avedon, Boyd Fortin, rattlesnake skinner, Sweetwater, Texas, March 10, 1979, Gelatin silver print mounted on aluminum, 56 1/4 x 45 inches; Richard Avedon, Red Owens, oil field, Velma, Oklahoma, 1980, Gelatin silver print mounted on aluminum, Courtesy of the Richard Avedon Foundation, NY; William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Study of the Head of a Woman for ‘Offering to Eros’; Robert Mapplethorpe, Maryanne, 1988. Courtesy Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; stand of Axel Vervoordt gallery.