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My Weekend Binge Online at Frieze

An experienced art dealer can recite the cities in order, like the Stations of the Cross: January in Taipei, February in Mexico City, March in Hong Kong or Maastricht, May in New York and on down the art market Via Dolorosa to Miami Beach in December. These cities’ art fairs — Art Basel, Frieze, TEFAF and the rest — have become the stopovers of the global art cavalcade, bringing contemporary painting and sculpture to new audiences, clogging the local airports with private jets, and dragging along an auxiliary band of couch-surfing curators and critics.

Yet as galleries cautiously reopen in art capitals like Berlin and Beijing, the future of the art fair is far from assured. With flights grounded and large indoor gatherings barred, fairs may be out of commission until next year — and that has been a body blow for art dealers everywhere. In a report this March, the economist Clare McAndrew estimated that these bazaars accounted for $16.6 billion in sales in 2019, and that the average art gallery now earns 45 percent of its annual gross at fairs.

And so the art fair, like everything else, has migrated online. Art Basel Hong Kong, which was to have taken place in late March, was the first major fair to pivot to online viewing rooms — where galleries from around the world displayed images of their wares in virtual white cubes. (In an interview with CNN, the dealer Dominique Lévy called it “an interesting experiment that doesn’t work.”) Frieze New York, running through this Friday, has brought its whole fair online: not only art for sale from 160 galleries, but noncommercial showcases, conversations with artists and even its famed food court (in the form of links to donate to shuttered restaurants). Smaller, specialist events like the Outsider Art Fair have also launched digital initiatives.

At these online fairs you’ll find art at high cost and low … well, a little less high. In contrast to the offline custom, prices are publicly posted. Yet the fairs’ main selling point — as a time-limited compression chamber for the discovery and sale of art from all over — diffuses into the endless scroll of e-commerce, and other parties are taking their chances. Jeffrey Deitch has spearheaded a consortium of 60 galleries on the west coast to launch its own selling platform, Gallery Association Los Angeles, which will go live this week. David Zwirner has offered free space on his website to smaller galleries in New York and London. Sotheby’s is hosting online private sales from major New York galleries such as Sperone Westwater and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. And the artist Darren Bader has just launch an innovative site, Inventory 19, where artists and dealers offer Crazy Eddie reductions on unsold work.

What interest do these initiatives hold for a general audiences of (noncollecting) art lovers? I spent several days clicking through Frieze New York’s online edition, both on desktop and in a dedicated app. It has a slightly more robust interface than Art Basel mustered for its Hong Kong edition, and the tone is pleasantly balanced between the high gloss of the art market and the let’s-put-on-a-show expediency of the pandemic days. (Loring Randolph, the fair’s director, used her cellphone to shoot an introductory video for visitors.)

The price transparency is also good for new collectors, who can sort by bracket and see, for example, only works under $10,000. Many of those are found in a section of the fair called Frame, where young galleries present work by a single artist: Check out the Dallas dealership And Now, showing tender and fragile paintings of young dancers by Michelle Rawlings, or the New York gallery Lyles & King, who’ve brought the challenging not-quite-abstractions of Erica Mahinay.

Still, there’s no denying online fairs are a commercial stopgap measure. If you’re not shopping, it can be hard to muster the attention you would bring to looking at art in person, and everything dissolves into the infinite scroll familiar from clothing emporiums like Vestiare or Grailed. (More prosaically, it gives a big advantage to galleries early in alphabetical order. Mr. Zwirner was lucky that the website sorts by first name.) The virtual white walls are repetitive, although a few dealers went the extra mile: Axel Vervoordt Gallery is displaying the minimal paintings of Chung Chang-sup with videos shot in its Antwerp space, featuring a cat running across the gallery floor.

In-person art sales can benefit from juxtaposition, montage, serendipity. On the phone screen, what’s required is focus, narrowness, clarity. At Frieze you should therefore concentrate on the single-artist presentations grouped under the Spotlight heading — for example, the lesser-known Georgian painter Vera Pagava (1907-1988), who made stark, geometric still lifes of champagne glasses and melons before World War II, and shifted to muted, pithy abstraction in later life. (Nearly a dozen of her paintings are in the booth of Galerie Kornfeld, from Berlin.)

Still and all, remember why we are pausing here amid the infinitude of the web: Artists need money, galleries need money, we all need money. Frieze’s online edition is free for visitors (whereas it cost $57 plus transport to attend in person last year), and it has made the honorable decision to refund dealers their booth fees for the canceled fair, and no further charge to exhibit in the Viewing Room this first time.

But even that will not keep all the galleries and artists afloat. Enter Darren Bader — whom you may remember as the author of the rebarbative fruit salads recently offered on the top floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art — who wasted no time launching Inventory-19, a web platform that allows galleries to sell discounted works of art that were sitting in the storeroom.

The initial crop at Inventory-19 includes some of New York’s most intelligent young artists, such as Davide Balula, who models erosion and climatic instability through sculptures made of coiled straw, dried weeds and sprays of synthetic liquid. Shana Lutker, from Los Angeles, has contributed free-standing stainless steel sculptures in the form of giant interlocking hands or anthropomorphic vases, that offer a feminist riff on Surrealist games of perception. The financials are admirably transparent: The artist gets a third of each sale, the gallery a little more than a fifth, and the biggest share, 40 percent, goes to “Covid-19-related charities and/or needy peers of the artist’s choosing.”

For those of us not buying, these virtual sales platforms are of interest principally to remind ourselves that artists need audiences as much as they need cash. If fairs do us the favor of collating art from all over into a single landing page (and lessen the ecological damage of shuttling artworks across oceans), they also, of necessity, dissolve art into the formlessness of the web, and erase many of the distinctions that the art world has relied upon to produce financial value.

The handsome if repetitive virtual spaces of Frieze’s viewing room look a lot like the handsome if repetitive virtual spaces of the world’s major art galleries, which have all launched their own online platforms in the last few months. And like the handsome if repetitive virtual spaces of the auction house websites.

Standing in Frieze’s tent or at Basel’s convention center, your eye may roam from something you like to something you didn’t expect, from the head-turning fair-goer to the painting behind him.

Online, there is little to no distinction between a fair, an exhibition, a buy-it-now auction and a pop-up artists’ initiative — and all of these have to compete with the countless other distractions on your screen. Art lives in the context of whatever else you were looking at in your browser: a pharmacy delivery, tonight’s takeout, The New York Times or the New York State unemployment office.

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