This May, as one of my first engagements as the new Shape Arts CEO and Artistic Director, I was at Frieze Art Fair in New York. This was a chance not only to see some great art, but also to get Shape onto the international arts stage.  

Frieze New York is huge, and it showcases big themes. One of the themes was the preservation of artists’ heritage – how does one conserve and tell the artists’ stories of struggle, elusive success, and longevity of a career, with that story told after the artist has gone? Google the superb Frieze New York marketing campaign to see the great images showing elements of artists’ tools, photographed in classic top-shot rostrum flat positions, but in which the very flatness on the shots allowed the tools left behind – the paint brushes, the half used paint tubes, the paint-caked easels, and so on – to tell the heritage story. A beautiful rendering of the past for the artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock and other greats of the American art landscape.

A large black and white photograph of two black men in tuxedos dancing together, on a white wall

Frieze continued this heritage theme of the past-preserved by exhibiting some historic works from key artists and galleries. For me, a great sight was the large still from Isaac Julian’s “Looking for Langston”: a moving image work which, when I first saw it in full in 1989, had a profound effect on me concerning what powerful aesthetics driving political content could be like. “Looking for Langston” is about poet and activist Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance – arguably the birth of African-American arts, and a key influence on the story we are telling in the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA), a landmark heritage project which Shape is delivering and on which I am the Project Director.

I loved the heritage arts themes of Frieze. But much contemporary work was powerful too, and disturbing, some of which had barriers-removal, identity and disability elements within it, such as the Gagosian booth, in which the superbly ironic work of artist John Currin featured. Gagosian showed Currin’s “family album” oil painting portraits, in which he deliberately usurps the tropes of painting-by-numbers amateur portraiture: flowers-in-a-pot next to smiling people, but instead created as darker portraits of survivors. Within “normal” portraiture conventions, his portraits show a world of outsiders, all at peace with their differences.

Perhaps the most profoundly shocking exhibition I saw in that week in New York was not at Frieze itself, it was at an outsider artists’ pop-up gallery which was located in a live building site in downtown Manhattan. The artist was the invigilator and gallery guide too, and sat in this pop-up gallery amidst the drilling and building noise, showing his montage works to the few viewers who dropped in, explaining how his work reworked copyrighted materials around Puck, Mad Comics and other standards of American graphic iconography, trying them to quotes from great truth-seeking-thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; as he put it, taking the images and quotes into a critique of truth and lies in American politics today. Again, it was art with heritage but was very much about the way we live now - with fake news, post-truth and the fears of Trump’s intentions for the arts and culture in America, in a pop-up within a building site. 

Image of a very rough-and-ready temporary exhibition outdoors squeezed into a building site space with no ceiling and posters hanging on the walls

The exhibition had no budget and a small audience; it was a show by an unknown artist who wouldn’t give his name, with no discernible funding, in a world of cuts and attacks against the arts.  

I loved Frieze. But, for me, among some great art, art heritage and artistic interventions, this pop-up on a building site was the most profound event of my week in New York: an anonymous disabled artist trying to get around barriers, using art to comment on modern America, and trying to gain some recognition. I hope to see him taken into the mainstream New York Galleries and showing at Frieze NY next time!

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