THE CITY-DEVOURING international art fair Frieze Los Angeles has reached a new level of charisma and credibility. Since its inception at the Paramount Studios backlot in Hollywood (2019–20) and its third-year iteration at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills (2022), Frieze has migrated even further west to the Santa Monica Airport and grown by 25 percent. Landing on Los Angeles’s Westside was not without advantages: many collectors, the raison d’être of art fairs, reside on the affluent Westside—possibly more than artists do, although the most seminal chapter of L.A.’s art history unfolded nearby. The sprawling airport complex allowed for the expansion of gallery booth space and outdoor projects, with the fair’s 120 galleries from 22 countries housed at a capacious main tent and in the vintage 35,000-square-foot Barker Hangar. There were also big crowds, newly unmasked, at the satellite fairs, including the casual room-by-room stroll at Felix Art Fair circumscribing the Hockney pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the edgier and uneven SPRING/BREAK in Culver City, and the more populist L.A. Art Show in Downtown’s L.A. Convention Center, in its 28th edition, that attracted over 60,000 visitors.
The mantra repeated every year of the 21st century that “the L.A. art scene has finally grown up” sounds especially convincing in 2023, now that major international galleries from New York, Paris, and London (respectively, Luhring Augustine, Perrotin, and Lisson, to name the most recent) have lined up to rent L.A. commercial space for lucrative outposts, having discovered a widening reservoir of collector money here. The entertainment sector used to keep to itself until its younger generations, raised on image-driven social media, realized that art is both intellectually cool and a status-enhancing investment game with the potential for easy killings. Market reports aside, suffice it to say the galleries were mostly upbeat about brisk sales, some high-profile booths selling out in the first hours of opening day for stratospheric prices. This amped deal-making, and the packed crowds, gave the fair an electric air of having soundly beaten back fears of a recession. The question that remained was whether Frieze L.A. had finally found its permanent home, as Frieze London did 20 years ago at The Regent’s Park.
It’s always a high-stakes guessing game, and scavenger hunt, for collectors and editorial observers to spot trends at art fairs. This year, while the conventional market remained resolutely fixed at the basics—painting and sculpture—one notable trend was that many collectors now also embrace—and, indeed, seek out—the provocatively textured surfaces of manipulated clay and fabric, the fired and the woven. Galleries have clearly picked up on it.
The so-called domestic crafts that have evolved into ceramic and textile high art aren’t at all new. In California’s Bay Area, fired-clay creations were a prevalent industry as far back as the 1960s. But what we saw at Frieze L.A. this year was an abundance of it, suggesting a profound reaction to our over-digitized lives, a craving for the tactile.
Fittingly for a fair so close to Los Angeles’s 1960s roots in Venice, there were quite a lot of works on view by L.A’s old-guard artists—including Chris Burden, Larry Bell, Wallace Berman, Richard Jackson, Ken Price, Lee Mullican, James Turrell, and Robert Irwin. Paul McCarthy’s decade-old 8,800-square-foot installation WS White Snow lured intrepid visitors out to a warehouse in East L.A. to see an artificial forest and a replica of McCarthy’s family home filled with detritus and viscerally alarming mayhem, along with a seven-hour, four-screen video projection of a 2012 performance that lasted a month. (Google it for a description, unless you’re easily grossed out.)
Despite all the buzz and angst over AI’s latest advances in image-making and society’s slide into total enslavement by our uncannily smart devices, high tech—or any tech at all—was almost completely absent at the fair. These were the three exceptions I noted (which can be seen in the accompanying video segment), just in terms of requiring electricity:
- The Dutch art duo Drift, who produced a mesmerizing multiple-drone performance piece at the Venice Biennale, showed a digital interactive screen—Coded Nature 1-1 (2022)—at Pace Gallery’s booth that was virtually defeated by a fair tent flooded with light.
- Pipilotti Rist’s 2022 piece Ein charmanter Kompass (A Charming Compass), at the Luhring Augustine booth, is a 10-minute round-flatscreen video installation with a translucent handmade front hood. Rist’s work was seen last year in a crowd-seducing multimedia exhibition at MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary.
- Jennifer West’s 3D Hologram Phantom Limbs (2023) included a spotlight salvaged from a LACMA exhibition.
This is not to say that there isn’t a volatile boom-and-bust parallel marketplace for NFTs and such, but a longtime L.A. dealer told me that digital media just isn’t where established dealers make serious money at their pricey booths. AI-generated art is everywhere except in the gallery-centric art-fair circuit, for now. Video was a conspicuous comer at fairs in the recent past, as was virtual reality at several photography fairs; now, one sees almost none, at least not on this campus. One dealer spoke of artists seeking to get beyond their training in painting and drawing (pushing a brush or pencil onto a flat surface is as close to writing as art gets) and into something more manually playful, more sensory and dimensional in the process. Artists leaned into the elemental, of the natural world, and the material—more the pithy object than picture. Ceramic art bends toward architecture, fiber art toward couture—both of which have long since made their way into the minds of artists, and these worlds have been reciprocally inspired. Many are blithely balanced works that play with the lines between formal beauty, symbolic resonance, and the quotidian functionality in which these media have their roots.
Another dealer observed that collectors coming from younger generations are looking for something that feels newer than painting yet still rich in history. These newer collectors more familiar with gaming and augmented reality may have a more abiding interest in the 3D aspect of art that is not entirely flush with a gallery wall. And the recent development of immersive presentations of iconic painters such as Klimt, Van Gogh, and now Hockney—though often derided by critics as a kind of exploitative kitsch—point to an appetite for expansions beyond the smooth flat surface, and into the concretely spatial. Perhaps the pandemic lockdown encouraged art lovers, made hyperaware of their living spaces, to focus a bit more on the domestic-comfort nuances of these works.
There’s also the idea that these skills that were once conventionally the province of women, who were kept for centuries from the “masculine” pursuits of academy-endorsed or ecclesiastical painting and sculpture, are now fully liberated and re-claimed as being powerfully expressive beyond the merely utilitarian—as profound as any other art. Such works have been increasingly validated by museums. Sheila Hicks’s textile art, seen in a few Frieze booths, has been around since she moved to Paris in 1964 (she’s about to turn 90), but it was only in 2018 that the Centre Pompidou honored her with a full-scale exhibition. Permission by critics has likewise been fully granted, it seems, so why not explore?
Michael Kurcfeld is a journalist, originally from the print world, but since 1990 working in electronic media. He produces the Photographer Spotlight series for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Featured thumbnail: Ken Price, Ghosted, 1998. Still from the video, courtesy of Michael Kurcfeld.