"You should do what you do exceptionally well!" This is the confident credo Amanda Sharp takes on to explain the secret of success behind London's Frieze Art Fair. In addition to Art Basel and Art Basel Miami, the after only five years still relatively young Frieze is one of the world's most important art fairs - with a program exclusively focusing on contemporary artistic positions. Each year in October, the Frieze Art Fair performs the feat of being both a visitor's fair and one of the year's most important events for collectors, artists, and denizens of the scene. Last year, nearly 70,000 people visited the trade fair's tents. For this reason the fair - alongside which the most important London auctions tooke place - became a touchstone for the overheated art market's current developments in face of the threat of a global recession. Just a few weeks before, Damien Hirst had had his spectacular Sotheby's auction and raked in record amounts. But was the bubble now about to burst? The forecasts fluctuated between moods of utter disaster and dampened hope. In fact, the optimists were right. Not only was there a high number of visitors again, but also - although the collectors' reserve was clearly apparent and some important collectors did not show up - the sales exceeded the expectations by far. While an American collector acquired an arced steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor for 875,000 £ at Lisson Gallery right after the opening, Hauser & Wirth completely sold out their stand, and even smaller galleries reported solid sales figures.
There was also an excellent mood in Deutsche Bank's VIP Lounge, which this year was devoted to the topic "Artists as Teachers." At the center of the minimalist ambience was Tony Cragg's sculpture Secretions (1998), consisting of thousands of dice. The sculpture normally welcomes visitors in the foyer of Deutsche Bank's London headquarters. Between the works of Damien Hirst, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, and Candida Höfer, the guests from both the art and the financial worlds engaged in an exchange. The relaxed atmosphere in the lounge, conducive to conversation, has become an outstanding feature of the Frieze.
The fact that Londoners have come to call the week of the October fair "Frieze Week" just goes to show how firmly anchored the Frieze has become in the British capital's cultural life. This is partly because the fair and the city's galleries and museums cooperate exceptionally well. London's most important exhibitions are scheduled for the fall. Even long after the trade fair ends, the benefits of this cooperation are apparent. Two iconic artists are being celebrated in outstanding exhibitions at the Tate. Besides the Mark Rothko show at the Tate Modern the absolute highlight of this fall is surely the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Tate Britain. No one captured the pain of human existence better than Bacon. The show leads chronologically through what is probably the most idiosyncratic painterly cosmos of the 20th century, which is characterized by Bacon's view of an existence in which there is no god and no redemption, in which man is nothing more than another animal guided by instinct and drives. Even his early work in the 1940s, which was influenced by impressions from the Second World War, displays unsparing brutality and corporeality and illustrates the uniqueness of Bacon's position. In an era marked by abstract art, Bacon amassed an arsenal of mass-media and reproduced images as basis for his paintings: catalog pictures, photographs, cut-outs from newspapers and magazines, film pictures, and private photographs. Those who think they know Bacon may learn otherwise if they visit this retrospective. A great merit of the exhibition is the fact that an entire section is devoted to this source material and, in addition, includes rarely exhibited privately owned works. Among them is the legendary, almost religious tryptichon May-June 1973, which Bacon painted in memory of his life partner, the boxer and East Ender George Dyer, who took his life in 1971 in his hotel room, shortly before the first Bacon retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris was to open. Bacon once said that his painting directly penetrated the nervous system. Indeed, a visit to the exhibition is an absolutely touching experience.
That the Tate Modern sets high standards in the landscape of international art, and that this is not a matter of swank and prestige, but of pioneering or even controversial curatorial positions, gets proven by several exhibitions at the former Turbine Hall. Some visitors may remember the gigantic crack that the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo had hewn in the impeccable concrete floor of the hall. Her work Shibboleth (2007) was an allusion to the dark side of modern art, to which global violations of human rights and exploitation belong as well as the worldwide growing cleft between rich and poor. A trace of this work still runs over the concrete like a scar - a heavy legacy of Salacedo's successor Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, who presents her work for the Unilever Series this year. At first glance, the contribution by the French artist is an overwhelming experience and looks phenomenal. But the saying that less is sometimes more is true: in comparison to Salacedo's reduced intervention, Gonzales-Foerster's use of the space is stylistically and poetically overcharged and somewhat feeble. With her installation TH2058 she creates a kind of artistic science fiction. The text that welcomes visitors to the hall forms the prolog to the story: for years it has been raining incessantly in London, and that changes the way people live and think as well as their culture.They come to dream of endless deserts. The rain also has a strange effect on the sculptures in the city - they grow like plants and become bigger and bigger. To stop this development, they were put in the turbine hall of the Tate Modern, which at the same time serves as emergency accommodation for rain victims.
Thus visitors can stroll around between hundreds of colorful bunk beds and over-sized imitations of Louise Bourgeoise's steel spider and of sculptures by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, or Claes Oldenburg. To complete the apocalyptic scenario, Gonzales-Foerster laid out books such as J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World, while a giant screen shows snippets of apocalyptic classics such as Planet of the Apes, Solaris, and Fahrenheit 451. You truly feel like it is the last days of the human race, withering away under giant sculptures. Perhaps you will also contemplate what will be left of modern art after ecological and social systems collapse. Fundamentally, however, the installation is like a rollercoaster for the educated class, an extremely pleasurable, spectacular Disney-like exhibit that is rather harmless in face of the real catastrophes. The superlatives continue on the upper floors of the Tate Modern. Alongside the conceptual-poetic installations of Cildo Meireles, who is among the most important contemporary Brasilian artists, a spectacular Mark Rothko retrospective is on view that already had critics and audiences in Hamburg enthused. The exhibition concentrates on the American's brilliant late work, showing, among other things, the Seagram pictures - the epic legacy of Abstract Expressionism.
Another larger-than-life artist is shown at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre, the art venue on the south bank of the Thames next to the Royal National Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe. Even those who think they know Andy Warhol inside out will learn something at the show Other Voices, Other Rooms. In an elaborately designed exhibition Warhol's films and his rare video documentaries can be seen, documenting for instance Liza Minelli's, visit to the Factory. The real surprises, however, are contributions to Warhol's TV program that flicker on countless monitors - extremely funny and clever interviews with legendary greats of US (pop) culture, including Diana Vreeland, Henry Geldzahler, Blondie, John Waters, and Larry Rivers. On the top floor the Street Artist Robin Rhode is showing new works. The Berlin-based South African uses streets, pavements, and walls as his canvas to negotiate ethnic and geopolitical conflicts.
Other London institutions are also mounting exhibitions, which alone are already worth a weekend trip to the city. While the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End is presenting four films by upcoming American artist Ryan Trecartin, the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is showing the new grid paintings by Gerhard Richter. The 49 paintings of 4900 Colours, developed especially for the Serpentine, explore painting's most intricate boundaries in kaleidoscopic color fields. The gallery's temporary pavilion is truly spectacular. It represents Frank Gehry's first project realized in England and the venue for "Park Nights", a series of concerts and talks. The Saatchi Gallery, of course, maybe London's best-known commercial exhibition space whose founder Charles Saatchi once had a considerable stake in the fame of the YBAs, is currently concentrating on propagating one of the youngest art scenes in the world. Its protagonists could soon become as well known as Damien Hirst and his colleagues. It's telling that the PR magician Saatchi has just opened his new space in Chelsea right in time for Frieze Week with The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art, thus guaranteeing the young Chinese artists twice the amount of attention. Zhang Xiaogang's grey paintings of families and the canvases of Yue Minjun with their broadly grinning figures do not, however, count among China's most innovative art. A revolution looks altogether different, more like Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's bizarre wheelchair ballet, perhaps. Hyper-realistic, life-sized figures of old men who moved the world, including Castro, Brezhnev, and Arafat, steer their chairs like bumping cars, feebly ramming into each other in the process. But a visit to the show is more than worth it. Any exhibition would be an event in the elegant rooms of the freshly renovated former military villa of the Duke of York. Even if the hype surrounding Chinese art were to suddenly and unexpectedly cool down-and the competition isn't napping in the meantime - the British capital will not lose its power to attract the international scene all that soon. Because London definitely rules!