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Arts feature

Back to the future

Contemporary art collectors in London for Frieze now have the chance to look to and buy from the past, says Susan Moore 

13 October 2012

9:00 AM

13 October 2012

9:00 AM

Two pop-up art fairs border Regent’s Park in London. To the south is Frieze London, an edgy fair-cum-fairground offering the thrills and spills of the latest and most innovative trends in global contemporary art. Launched a decade ago, it was unique among ambitious international art fairs in proving an instant and overwhelming success. Last year some 68,000 visitors walked through its doors.

This year sees the launch of Frieze Masters, sited at the northern end of The Broad Walk, also running 11–14 October. Frieze Masters sets out to offer a fresh perspective on historical art — paintings, works on paper and sculpture — by highlighting the eternal dialogue between the old — at times extremely old — and the new. It is an intriguing initiative, not least for what it tells us both about the art market and contemporary art.

According to fair director Victoria Siddall, the venture was prompted by dealers and by artists. The dealers, some, but not all, of whom were existing exhibitors, wanted a platform from which to offer older art. Frieze London, after all, confines itself to the 21st century, a sliver of time for any gallerist with a large inventory or who also deals in the secondary market. How can this not be in part a reflection of today’s harder times? We have seen the withdrawal from the market of many collectors of new art or emerging artists and the retreat of others to the safer ground of blue-chip modern masters.

Frieze’s response might well have been to stage a modern and contemporary art fair like Art Basel, or any of the myriad international art fairs. That, of course, would have been dull. Instead, encouraged by conversations with artists, their idea was to extend the fair to embrace the kind of art from any period or culture that might be relevant to today’s practice. It is no coincidence that, in what could be described as our post-conceptual age, an increasing amount of contemporary art is referencing the art of the past.

The past few years have also seen a number of exhibitions linking old and new. The Kunsthaus Zurich, for instance, recently showed Riotous Baroque from Cattelan to Zurbarán. Its curator, Bice Curiger, is quizzing artist Glenn Brown about his appropriation of historical art as part of the Frieze Masters Talks series, which also includes Cecily Brown in conversation with Nicholas Penny, and Luc Tuymans (who currently has an exhibition at David Zwirner’s new gallery in Grafton Street) with the Louvre’s Dominique de Font-Réaulx. Now on show at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas, curated by the American artist Ed Ruscha, while the Royal Academy in London’s Bronze juxtaposes ancient and modern from across the globe.

Of course, the idea of an all-embracing art fair is far from new. What is potentially, crucially different is the fact that most of the fair’s visitors are likely to be looking at the art of the past with a sensibility honed almost exclusively by the formal language and concerns of the present. Much of the material on view will be entirely new to a large proportion of Frieze London’s constituency of contemporary art collectors, practitioners and enthusiasts — if, of course, they take the 15-minute walk or shuttle service up to Frieze Masters. The experience may well prove revelatory. ‘Frieze is known for the discovery of emerging artists,’ says Victoria Siddall. ‘We want to maintain that sense of excitement and buzz at Frieze Masters, and I think most people will discover something from a period that they did not know before.’

Dealers in antiquities, tribal and medieval art in particular have experienced ‘cross-over’ buying for several years, finding contemporary art collectors drawn to the formal and expressive qualities of these objects as well as to prices that seem modest in comparison to much modern and contemporary material. At auction, we have seen these markets skewed by contemporary collectors dipping in and competing for visually arresting objects of no particular historical merit. An increasing but still small number of contemporary art dealers and collectors are also buying Old Master paintings and drawings.

It is this fair’s potential to expand horizons and markets — not to mention the considerable wealth of Frieze London’s international VIPs — that has attracted an impressive line-up of 90 of the world’s leading dealers. Among them, for instance, is Acquavella of New York, one of the biggest names in the business and a gallery that has never before exhibited in London or shown in the first year of any art fair. Others will wow with solo shows featuring, among others, Calder mobiles (Helly Nahmad), Giacometti (Thomas Gibson), William Eggleston (Victoria Miro) and early Warhol drawings (Daniel Blau). Old Masters range from a meticulous early 15th-century gold-ground Madonna and Child to a Jordaens tapestry cartoon and oil sketches by Rubens and Constable.

Less expected, perhaps, are the likes of the three fantastical and monumental Gothic gargoyles carved in pink Vosges sandstone around 1275–83 and flourished by Sam Fogg. These extraordinary, expressive beasties, made for the church of Saint-George, Hagenau, include a man-like figure tearing open his mouth with his hands, a grotesque head rearing up between his legs.

Others have selected objects that more literally prefigure the modern and contemporary. Antiquities specialist Rupert Wace, for instance, brings stylised Mesopotamian duck weights of the 2nd millennium BC that might almost have been hewn out of the stone by Brancusi, and a limestone slab with text in Sabaean script — the language of the Biblical land of Sheba — that suggests the kinetic art of Tinguely and Calder.

Tribal art dealer Entwistle offers the kind of 19th-century Kota figure that inspired the likes of Picasso’s ‘Buste d’Homme’ at Acquavella, while Donald Ellis presents one of the finest surviving early Navajo blankets, dating around 1840. Its off-white ground striped horizontally with bands of black-brown, blue and red, it seems to anticipate the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950s and 60s. Bernard Jacobsen reveals one such Abstract Expressionist, Robert Motherwell, not only absorbing the specific ‘threatening menace’ of an Old Master — Goya — for his ‘Spanish Painting with the Face of a Dog’ but also looking to tap the primeval power of Stonehenge, Lascaux and Altamira. And so it goes on.

Artists have always looked to the art of the past. The question here is whether today’s contemporary art collectors will want to do so, too.; 

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