Is the live hermit crab inhabiting a shiny replica of Brancusi’s sculpture “Sleeping Muse” in Pierre Huyghe’s aquarium project “Recollection” an artist overwhelmed by history or a dealer imprisoned in the golden cage of Frieze Art Fair? At Foksal Gallery, is Pawel Althamer’s dejected skeletal goat, mourning one lost trainer in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker”, a collector who has missed the boat – specifically the yacht that prankster Christian Jankowski is trying to sell for €80m as an artwork?
And what about the chimpanzee stretching vainly for a banana from a plinth of coffee table books including the Bible, On the Origin of Species and An Introduction to the Chinese Economy? Called “The Fruit of Knowledge”, Elmgreen and Dragset’s installation at Victoria Miro symbolises every frustrated punter at Regent’s Park.
The fun of the fair as usual, is in the aisles, with wrestlers battling between booths, their grunts orchestrated for Frieze Projects by artist Paul Simon Richards of Peckham collective Lucky PDF, and victims queuing for Michael Landy’s credit-card gobbling machine at Thomas Dane. Inside the gallery stands, the tone is notably more sober and classical than in previous years, reflecting market uncertainty. With big London retrospectives of Wilhelm Sasnal at Whitechapel and Gerhard Richter at Tate, German and eastern European painters look like secure bets and feature strongly – Sasnal and Luc Tuymans are on several stands, Neo Rauch’s “Haus des Lehrers” at David Zwirner fetched $1.35m on the fair’s first day. Throughout, the plethora of paintings – always easiest to sell – is remarkable and pleasurable, as is the scarcity of video and film.
Most stunning stand is newcomer Pace, showing US Modernism as if it were the freshest thing in the world: my favourite room in the fair features a Calder mobile swaying before taut, shimmering abstractions by Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin, opposite a gaudy, freely painted Willem de Kooning. Pace also has a great Zhang Huan ash painting and a crystalline new mirror, wax and plastic installation of cocoon-like forms, “We Are On Our Own, Darwin Series”, by Loris Gréaud.
By contrast, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, which won Frieze’s award for best stand, looks conservative. Joe Bradley’s fashionable, messy, dusty, abstracting canvases too closely echo Dubuffet and art brut, Martin Creed’s abstract paintings – lined or stacked tubes of colour – are derivative, minor, and irritatingly ubiquitous (they are also at Hauser and Wirth and Berlin’s Johnen). The best thing here is Alex Katz’s lean, clean “Flowers”, displayed opposite Elizabeth Peyton’s winsome portrait of an androgynous youth, “After Giorgione, Portrait of a Young Man (Giustiniani Portrait, ca 1505)”.
This joins a trend for historical quotation – from Huyghe’s and Althamer’s witty takes on modernist sculpture to the Chapman Brothers’ vapid faux-gothic Madonna and Child installation “The Milk of Human Weakness II” at White Cube – so prevalent that it looks desperate.
Frieze Masters launches in 2012, featuring work before 2000 and hoping to attract “crossover” collectors of old and new – an audience already targeted this year. An old hand at such juxtapositions, Hauser and Wirth offers an intensely curated pitch for older and dead women artists – a 1960 Eva Hesse painting, a Louise Bourgeois fabric piece, the tormented canvas “Mourning” by Maria Lassnig (aged 92) and a fresco-like work about the ages of women “after Giotto” by Ida Applebroog (aged 82). Isa Genzken’s dire, tin-foil-swathed mannequin-patient, about to give birth, lies at the centre; Henry Moore’s serpentine 1923 “Mother and Child” adds blue-chip gravitas.
More unpredictably, Berlin’s Aurel Scheibler has a sober green-pink Ad Reinhardt (1950) and Alice Neel’s unusual depiction of fragments of a brownstone façade, “Windows” (1965), complementing Michael Wutz’s perversely ornamental etching of a dolls’-house interior of horror. And alongside “Man, Art and Gold”, an installation including a fake Giacometti by Slovakian conceptualist Roman Ondak – Deutsche Bank’s 2011 “Artist of the Year” – Johnen has a revelatory mini-retrospective of modernist Florin Mitroi (1938-2002), a singular, reclusive Romanian painter in tempera of stark portraits and disconcerting still-lifes.
Mitroi stands out for his moral/ political energy – in scant supply in this play-it-safe year. I wonder if that absence is the real subject of Matthew Brannon’s smart solo show at Casey Kaplan: a movie-cliché spy’s office, with murder weapons, silkscreens of exotic locations, a comic narrative, shelves of foam bottles called “Gentleman’s Relish”, all in pastel colours and retro designs. This is history lite, art self-mockingly without bite – and it sold out on day one.