Single-artist stands punch above their weight at Frieze New York

Cautious, conservative, challenging, difficult, safe, selective, uneven, unsettled—the adjective of choice may vary, but the message about the state of the art trade entering May 2024 is the same almost no matter whom you talk to. The conventional wisdom says that dealers operating in this environment would be wise to spread out their bets across any art fair stand they present, foregoing monolithic presentations in favour of offering works by a diverse cross-section of the artists in their programmes.

Yet a noteworthy share of the exhibitors at Frieze New York have done the opposite. Counting the Focus section, which is themed around single-artist presentations, 24 of the 64 stands at this year’s fair—around 40%—are presenting works by only one artist. (The total number of exhibitors is higher because some dealers have teamed up to share space and costs.) This group features ten of the 30 dealers with stands on The Shed’s main floor, including such heavy hitters as Gagosian, Gladstone Gallery and Gallery Hyundai.

Strong demand: paintings in a new series by Alex Katz, at Gladstone’s stand, are priced between $110,000 and $1.5m; several were placed as of Thursday Steven Molina Contreras

The prevalence of solo stands seems counterintuitive more than four months into a year that has provided little of the economic relief that many analysts anticipated. Underscoring this fact was the announcement by United States Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell, just before Frieze New York opened to VIPs on Wednesday, that the Fed’s benchmark interest rate would remain in the 5.25% to 5.5% range, a roughly two-decade apex, for the ninth consecutive month.

Nevertheless, dealmaking at the fair has proven steady, particularly for a cross-section of dealers who went all in with a single artist. It was no surprise that Gagosian sold two of the four large-scale Sterling Ruby paintings anchoring its stand and “a number of” smaller collages by midday on Thursday, according to a gallery spokesperson; sources say prices were $550,000 for the former and in the tens of thousands of dollars for the latter. But Gallery Hyundai also found buyers for “more than ten works” by the Korean conceptualist Seung-Taek Lee priced between $35,000 and $100,000 each, a Frieze spokesperson says, and Kukje Gallery quickly sold out its stand of new works on paper by Haegue Yang, at prices from €27,000 to €42,000.

We want to give our artists a chance to develop a solo body of work in a commercial setting that they couldn’t do in the gallery

Jonathan Horrocks, director, Stephen Friedman

The counterintuitive prevalence and commercial success of single-artist stands is worth noting. But fixating purely on the dollars and cents would obscure the multifaceted considerations leading to their proliferation in a market that casts them as risky.

Strategy beyond sales

“You have to decide what the goal of a fair is,” says Katey Acquaro, a director at Silverlens Galleries of Manila and New York. “Some are great platforms to sell a variety of your artists. Others, like Frieze New York, are great for establishing an artist.”

Silverlens’s stand on the main floor centres on paintings and works on paper by Leo Valledor (1936-89), an important Filipino American painter of hard-edged abstractions. The display of large canvases, on offer for $60,000 to $120,000 each, doubles as both an introduction to the artist and the gallery’s latest touchpoint to advance a larger story about Filipino American Modernism.

At Frieze New York in 2023, Silverlens presented a solo stand of works by Carlos Villa (1936-2013), Valledor’s closest friend who blended Western aesthetic concepts with Filipino and global Indigenous iconographies. The stand, which followed a travelling museum retrospective on Villa, also set up a show four months later at Silverlens’s New York location that put his work in conversation with Valledor’s. The solo stand on Villa one year ago, Acquaro says, “started all kinds of institutional conversations that continue here” at Frieze New York in 2024. She adds: “Every artist needs sales, but they also need a long-term plan, especially institutionally.”

Since institutional projects and acquisitions often take years to blossom, certain fairs can function as vital gears to keep the conveyor belt moving. Frieze New York is one of these, partly because of the high concentration of curators who call the Empire City home. As one dealer (who asked not to be named) said on Wednesday, “Some curators always travel to other fairs, obviously. But so many of them live here. They’re not going to not show up in their backyard.”

Solo stand spectrum

Not all solo stands are created equal, even if assessed in strictly commercial terms. One case study is Stephen Friedman’s stand of new sculptures by the 34-year-old London-based artist Holly Hendry. Since she is best known for large outdoor commissions, including those recently unveiled at London’s Hayward Gallery and Temple Underground station, the gallery “wanted her to focus on domestic works” for Frieze New York, says Stephen Friedman director Jonathan Horrocks. The results were several wall sculptures and one larger, table-based work, all of which incorporate multiple materials to “lift a lid on the body” in a delightfully cartoonish way.

Holly Hendry’s small-scale works sold out at Stephen Friedman’s stand Steven Molina Contreras

At Art Basel in Switzerland, Horrocks says, the gallery typically offers a range of works priced from the entry level “to the millions”. But Friedman tends to present solo stands at Frieze fairs, which the gallery finds to be “a great opportunity to be focused”. This year, the larger conditions in the trade further refined the strategy. “Because of the fluctuations in the market, we brought works at a lower price point than we’d normally bring,” he adds. The wall works were available from £6,500 to £15,000 each; the full complement had sold out by mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

“Frieze New York gives our artists an important platform to develop a solo body of work in a commercial setting outside the gallery,” Horrocks says. “Of course, we want to make money at the end of the day, but this is really a wonderful curatorial endeavour.”

As a counterpoint, consider Gladstone’s Frieze New York stand devoted to a new series of paintings by Alex Katz, a universally acknowledged titan working monomaniacally through his twilight years. In the month leading up to the fair, Katz created the works to investigate the optical phenomena of afterimages, which he believes informed Matisse’s famous The Red Studio (1911). The (mostly) monumental, fiery orange-and-white canvases are “in line with his paintings of trees in the past year or so: extremely reductive, bold, bright-coloured,” says Gavin Brown, now almost four years into his partnership with Gladstone.

Given the enthusiastic market demand and institutional acclaim for Katz’s work, it would be a stretch to consider offering a solo stand of his new paintings at a high-end trade fair a complete leap of faith. The works are priced from $110,000 to $1.5m, and several had been placed by midday on Thursday, Brown says. But neither is it an exercise in calculated strategy.

“Fairs are kind of improvisatory things,” he says. “Often you have an idea, but then when something like this comes around, you throw that out.” He adds that, at age 96, Katz “is not interested in whether people see the work when he’s no longer around”. Gladstone’s presentation at Frieze thus qualifies as “a somewhat unique circumstance, because you have a painter who is not withholding. He has nothing to lose. He says, ‘When’s the next time people can see this?’ The next opportunity was Frieze art fair.”

But what about the notion that, on average, group presentations are safer bets for dealers in an unforgiving economic climate? “That’s totally true, especially if you’re coming from out of town and have a lot of shipping costs and whatever. With a hometown fair, you can take a different approach,” says Brown, whose uncanny talent for turning stands into memorable events was instrumental to building his reputation as a dealer.

“The art fair as an animal is inherently conservative, and if you react to it conservatively, then the next time you have to go even further. It feels like that’s already happened. What I’m more interested in is how we got here.” This year’s Frieze New York suggests that, to go elsewhere, less really may be more.