Globalisation has transformed the art world, and art fairs could be interpreted as the embodiment of the new order. As an ever-increasing number of dealers, collectors, curators, artists, advisors, commentators and celebrities descend onto the planet’s most beautiful cities, art fairs go to greater lengths to establish their identities and express their ambitions: strict VIP hierarchies determine who attends which party, dinner, museum opening or private collection, while pop-up restaurants, champagne dollies and ferocious corporate branding smooth the way round serpentine aisles, past era-defining works and into lounges sponsored by the financial sector.
Frieze has gained kudos with its architecturally designed tents and imaginative projects but Basel, established in 1970, remains the most prestigious contemporary art fair in the world. It is Basel’s US incarnation, Art Basel Miami Beach, however, which takes the prize for glamour. Launched in 2002, it brings more private aircraft to the city than the Superbowl, boasts the most extravagant parties, and lists NetJets, UBS, Absolut and Davidoff among its major sponsors.
What this says about the state of the art world is a moot point and one that was bound to attract the attention of figurative painter Eric Fischl. Having launched his Art Fair Paintings at Victoria Miro in October, during Frieze London, Fischl will show two of these works on Miro’s stand at ABMB this week (see Avenging Angel, below). ‘I’m interested in the same thing I always was,’ he insists. ‘How to connect, to get what you need.’
Fischl rose to fame and fortune in the New York art scene of the Eighties. He was known as ‘the sex painter from the suburbs,’ painting his way out of the psychosexual taboos that underpinned his privileged but ‘toxic’ childhood. Adolescent rites of passage, the hypocrisies of his parents’ aspirational social milieu, denial around his mother’s alcoholism, and unsettling parental nudity all provided material for his ambiguous, erotically-charged paintings.
In his autobiography, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, Fischl explains the melancholic quality of his work, which is reminiscent of Edward Hopper or David Lynch, as containing ‘bone-deep loneliness, a sense of alienation and anxiety that is the…counterpart of boundless freedom, mobility, and self-invention.’
He saw this emotional state as peculiarly American but there is something of the Manifest Destiny philosophy about the competition over new territory between the art fair behemoths. Frieze New York launched in 2012, while Art Basel Hong Kong opened in 2013. Who will be first to plant their flag in China, Brazil, Los Angeles and Azerbaijan?
Navigating this world can be a solitary business. Manic socialising is laced with FOMO (fear of missing out) and the fairs themselves can seem dystopian. ‘There is all this art in the background trying to assert itself,’ says Fischl, ‘but falling on deaf ears. People are on their cell phones, negotiating deals, or checking each other out. They are elsewhere.’
Fischl only started going to art fairs two years ago, focusing on Frieze New York and Art Basel Miami Beach. Although he says he found them ‘depressing,’ he snapped away with his Sony a7 digital camera, creating Photoshop collages, then vignettes and, finally, paintings.
His initial loathing of the fairs partly sprung from a sense of culpability: Fischl is dismissive of the ‘brand art’ that fills the stands, describing it as ‘devoid of emotional content’ and ‘regressive,’ but concedes that the excesses of Eighties New York led directly to what he describes as ‘a constant assault on values, aesthetics.’
Fischl and his contemporaries (David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat et al) ‘wanted to use art to change the world,’ he says. ‘But we opened the door too wide to consumption, the high life.’
Art fairs offer rich pickings to a narrative painter, however, and Fischl’s canvases are so dynamic, so full of dark humour, that antagonism appears to have morphed into fascination. ‘It’s an exciting thing to paint,’ he agrees. ‘The gestalt is sarcastic, but I’m not making fun of the people. This is a complicated world pulling you lots of different directions. The physical structure of an art fair is cubistic, disjunctive, with irrational breaks; you can’t read it. It’s visually complex.’
Fischl’s paintings focus on the people. Bodies dominate; block colours; black suits; men with their backs to us; and mask-like faces. The art they are looking at it isn’t the point; it’s the booty. References to lost idealism abound: the peace sign on a tasseled shoulder bag worn by a collector carrying a cocktail; the girl in a bright yellow dress, with party horns on her head, slumped in a corner; the art student contemplating a Rothko, her integrity mocked by the absurdly sexualised sculpture of a female nude behind her.
Fischl does not paint the generous, open, multi-cultural city of Miami, infused with energy and Art Deco beauty, and lit by neon. This series is about the art world which, in his opinion, represents another country altogether.
Eric Fischl, Art Fair Paintings continues until 19 December at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW