Elena Platonova is an art advisor, writer, and curator in New York, London, and San Francisco. Her Instagram handle is @ElenasArtAdventures
San Francisco’s FOG Design+Art Fair opened its fifth edition this past Wednesday in an atmospheric, waterfront building at Fort Mason, formerly occupied by the US army. With 45 galleries in attendance, what material did local and visiting dealers bring along in hopes of attracting armies of potential buyers?
San Francisco has a fair share of long-time art patrons of a traditional kind. Yet, art and design purveyors are certainly taking note of the major demographic shift in the foggy Albion of the West Coast, home to an increasingly growing number of potential new entrants to the collecting field, who are amassing quick fortunes by harnessing the power of technology.
Some dealers took a fairly straightforward path and displayed work by artists that they know locals already collect, perhaps hoping that they will do so in depth or inspire their social circle to follow suit. Take, for instance, Lévy Gorvy Gallery’s display of photographs by Diane Arbus. The artist is favored by serial start-up founder and member of a deep-rooted San Francisco family, Trevor Traina. Traina once paid a then-record price of $600,000 for Arbus’ iconic “Identical Twins” photo, a well-publicized fact that did not escape the attention of the dealers.
In a similar fashion, David Zwirner Gallery thoughtfully displayed two monumental interior shots by photographer Stan Douglas at the opening section of the fair, which was certainly meant to grasp the attention of Pamela and Richard Kramlich. Work by Douglas graces the home of the local power duo, who are also major collectors of video art.
Yet, numerous dealers cast a wider net and attempted to cater to new prospective buyers from the tech industry. One way to do it was by showing work overtly referring to the field or containing objects associated with it. A notable example was a large-scale horizontal panel by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime offered by James Cohan Gallery. The geometric abstract composition is a collage of reclaimed electronic components, such as circuit boards and wire, which the artist often purchases at a huge open-air market in Addis Ababa. The work exposes the physicality of what makes the virtual possible, as well as a terrifying amount of industrial detritus produced in the West and settling in Africa.
Another hard-to-miss work featuring computer hardware, Mark Hagen’s Homage to Sapphic Modernity II (2017), occupied a prominent place in the booth of Anthony Meier, a long-time local dealer. The centerpiece of the solo-artist booth, the sculpture is comprised of 32 anodized titanium Apple laptop shells stacked to form a metal house of cards in various shades of industrial blue and purple.
One more example of a local gallery displaying eye-catching work that comments on technological change is a series of ceramic sculptures by Berkeley-based artist Woody De Othello. Three old-fashioned landline phones and an out-of-date remote control, immortalized by De Othello, take center stage at Jessica Silverman’s booth. Deformed, as if cringing in protest against being discarded, and rendered in glazed ceramic, the objects form a lyrical visual commentary on the rapid obsolescence of household items that are often invested with meaningful memories.
Tempted to relate to the tech crowd, the fair could not fail to show the following art world’s most notorious utilizers of computer technology who also epitomize its effect on visual arts: Takashi Murakami, with a canvas entitled Enso: Wind (2015) at Blum and Poe’s booth; Wade Guyton, whose Untitled (2017) was featured by Galerie Chantal Crousel; the German photographer Thomas Struth (Marian Goodman Gallery) with computer-enhanced photographs of NASA-produced space-bound equipment; and Christopher Wool, whose work occupies the entire Luhring Augustine booth.
The Wool solo presentation is of notable mention as not only was it lined with his prints merging computer and human touch, but it also featured a cloud-shaped concrete sculpture and an artist-designed rug adorned with an amorphous grey formation that also distantly resembles a cloud.
Clouds were unsurprisingly ubiquitous at the fair. The nebulous notion of ephemeral storage for digital information captures the imagination of many contemporary artists, and it has also been a popular art subject throughout the ages that can now be marketed as if imbued with a new meaning, with Diane Arbus’ 1960 photograph Clouds on-screen at a drive-in movie, N.J., offered by Fraenkel Gallery, being just one example.
Then, there are of course references to space and space exploration, from the most recent examples including the aforementioned Struth photographs, to the ones representing more distant dreams of Moon flight, such Loewy and Puiseux’s vintage photographs of the Moon’s surface from the 1890s at the savvy Fraenkel Gallery. Even Ed Ruscha’s signature word paintings did not escape exposure to potential tech-world buyers as being directly relevant to their lives. Gladstone Gallery’s curators, featuring Ruscha’s work on paper with the blatant title “Car Parts”, obviously took note of the electric car companies’ sizable presence in the region.
Despite all these examples of technology-related art, it actually constituted a relatively small part of what the fair had to offer. This work almost got lost among the innumerable abstract canvases, mid-century furniture, pretty ceramic vases, and various representations of flora and fauna. Perhaps the “design” designation that precedes the “art” in the fair’s title account for the plethora of decorative, “safe” work on view. Landscapes, trees and plants in multiple media, flowers, birds and animals—some of these works, admittedly, relating to issues more serious than their benign appearance—may abound at the fair due to the legendary love of the Bay Area residents for hikes and other outdoor activities.It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the most photographed artworks at FOG was Kohei Nawa’s $500,000 taxidermied deer covered in glass spheres, populating Pace Gallery’s entrance-facing booth. Whether the sales projections of the galleries are correct or not, the deer was still available the day before the fair’s close. It may not really matter, as Pace, one of a few international galleries with an outpost in the area, is intent on promoting an upcoming Kohei exhibition soon to open in its Silicon Valley space.
When asked how Ratio 3 Gallery, a local dealer with over a decade of presence in the city, caters to the local crowd, its director Theo Elliott answered: “Everyone is different. How can we guess what they would like?” So they just commissioned several of their artists to produce idiosyncratic table lamps. The resulting works, executed with varying degrees of success but relatively affordably priced, made for a colorful small booth that put artists first.
Although sales occurred and the fair’s aisles were bustling, an absolute sell out happened in the makeshift conference room designated for public talks. Both Chicago-native artist-activist Theaster Gates and London-based filmmaker Isaac Julien gathered crowds large enough for a mid-sized theater. During Gates’ performance and talk, there were no spare seats in the sizeable room, so people had to wait in line outside. Each of the speakers touched upon issues like today’s America, racial tensions, the fickle power of capital, and the importance of addressing the current moment in their respective practices.
That said, the organizers of the fair have a fine line to thread. Benefiting a major institution such as SFMOMA, FOG is an agglomeration of many interests, which understandably requires tact and caution, along with posing certain limitations on what is shown here. Still, I would dare to speculate that the buying interest in the FOG’s aisles would more closely mirror the stellar attendance of some of the conversations in its discussion room if the dealers, instead of searching for secret formulas to please the local taste, were freer and more open to bring their best and most relevant work conspicuously reflecting urgent social and political preoccupations of the day.