Frieze New York offers a new view on Defining the Contemporary

Latifa Echakhch, Tumbleweeds, 2012, part of the Frieze Projects program

In what has been trumpeted as “New York’s Billion Dollar Art Week” (a figure that may need tweaking after  Edvard Munch’s The Scream fetched nearly $120 million alone on Wednesday), Frieze Art Fair New York has been more than holding its own. Not only has it convinced people to make the journey to Randall’s Island (formerly known mainly for its home for the criminally insane), it has been selling out.  And not just the entry tickets.

The newest addition to the fair calendar – sandwiched as it is between ArtBrussels and Hong Kong – has galleries scrambling to come up with saleable inventory. “We just brought pieces that were hard to travel and hard to sell,” Michelle Maccarone offered, perhaps in reference to the log cutting across her booth, courtesy of Oscar Tuazon (a Baibakov Art Projects alum.) “But the thing is, these are the pieces that are selling out first!”

Part of the reason for this success may be how the giant white tent has been customized for optimal viewing. In other words, this is a fair where you actually get to see the art (and not just the crowds, the gallery staff or its furniture.)

Bob Nickas, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Okwui Enwezor, Connie Butler, Craig Garrett, Susanne Cotter, Massimiliano Gioni, Bice Curiger and Daniel Birnbaum at the MoMA launch for Defining Contemporary Art

Actually seeing the art has become something of a novelty, which is why Phaidon’s recent Defining Contemporary Art is such a welcome endeavor. Edited by Craig Garrett, the book charges 8 of today’s most preeminent curators to each select 25 pivotal works from the last 25 years. The title put an emphasis not on a conclusion, but on the process of defining; selected works were not to be seen as “masterpieces,” but rather as entrypoints.

This week, the Friday night book launch at the MoMA was the first time Garrett managed to get all 8 contributors into the same room. Daniel Birnbaum, Connie Butler, Susanne Cotter, Bice Curiger, Okwui Enwezor, Massimiliano Gioni, Bob Nickas and Hans Ulrich Obrist each spoke about the general nature of the book before offering their take on one work selected by someone else.

Susanne Cotter’s text on The Way Things Go for Defining Contemporary Art

Obrist started it off by discussing Fischli & Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1987), a massive Rube Goldberg machine style chain of events. (Indeed, Obrist suggests the work could also be translated as “The Cause of Things.”) Cotter may have written about the piece for the book, but each curator on stage touched on the importance of the duo in recent history, which amplifies the sadness of Weiss’ recent passing. (Obrist’s obituary for the Guardian is a must read, especially as Obrist credits Fischli+Weiss with kicking off his career in the arts.)

As Garrett explained,  one of the rules was that artists were not to be included twice,  but an exception was made for Fischli+Weiss, who have made such varied projects, all of such critical impact. There were other moments of note during the presentation (Nickas suggesting that if Marina Abramovic were serious about her Seven Easy Pieces, she would have ended with Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous), but the constant references to the Swiss duo were the most poignant.

For more information about the book, including bios of the contributors and a promotional video, check here.

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