One of the things that sets Frieze Los Angeles apart from other arts is that special buzz in the air when a particularly famous celebrity is in the tent.
At the inaugural fair, it was Brad Pitt, who graciously took selfies with practically everyone (including this reporter). In 2020, it was Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, swanning about like royalty amid a swarm of photographers. And last year, I hadn’t walked 10 feet inside the fair before I spotted Gwyneth Paltrow, her blue eyes unmistakable even with the rest of her face hidden beneath a KF94 mask.
This year, Paltrow was back, but I couldn’t find her. Indeed, I spent most of my time at the event fruitlessly crisscrossing the aisles, scanning faces rather than art in an effort to collect celebrity photos for this article. (I never thought I would sympathize with the paparazzi, but four years on the Frieze celeb beat and here we are.)
Margot Robbie was still here, a helpful publicist assured me, along with chef Bobby Flay, supermodel (and secret painter) Heidi Klum, and music legend Lionel Richie.
I got numerous texts attempting to direct me to Jared Leto, who was said to be wearing an Adidas tracksuit from the brand’s collaboration with Gucci. And I learned that Tyler the Creator had complimented Upstate Art Weekend founder Helen Toomer’s chic green jumpsuit. (For her part, she had been more excited to see the man who played Jordan Catalano.)
I tracked down none of those people. I even failed to spot Usher, whose friendliness and willingness to chat and pose for photographs with fans has become the stuff of Frieze legend. (Honestly, he’s just the best.)
I had just Slacked my editor to inform her of my failure when the tide turned. A tipster (I can’t remember who) told me that Owen Wilson and Billy Zane—a talented artist in his own right—were heading up the ramp back into the tent.
At last month’s FOG Art Fair in San Francisco, Wilson declined to pose for press photos, so I strategically approached Zane instead. He agreed to help me out, but asked that I take a candid shot. His favorite booth of the fair was that of Los Angeles’s Sebastian Gladstone gallery, Zane told Artnet News, while Wilson was partial to an Ed Ruscha he’d spotted in the hangar. “It’s great to see his work,” the actor said.
Those kind of polite-but-brief exchanges are what I’ve become used to when attempting to interview celebrities, so imagine my surprise when the delightful Catherine Keener spent more than 20 minutes hanging out with me, earning not only my eternal devotion, but seemingly that of everyone with whom she crossed paths.
When I told her my assignment was to buttonhole celebrities, the two-time Oscar nominee tried to downplay her fame, but literally a minute later a woman in a bright red coat shrieked “I love you!” and begged for a hug.
The two embraced and told each other how beautiful they are in a surprisingly emotional moment. Keener told me she’d been drawn to the women’s aura.
She also said she responded strongly to the work of Ernie Barnes, on view in a joint presentation from New York dealers Ortuzar Projects and Andrew Kreps Gallery. The artist’s market exploded last May, when a version of The Sugar Shack (1976), famed for its appearance in the opening credits of the sitcom Good Times, sold for $15.3 million on a $200,000 estimate at Christie’s New York. (It’s currently on view in a Barnes solo show at Los Angeles’s UTA Artist Space.)
“I love the Barnes stuff,” Keener said. “I was floored.”
She also met the Barnes family, who were rolling deep for the occasion, eight of them arriving in matching black “Team Barnes” sweatshirts. (Yes, it was as endearing as it sounds.)
Three of the Barnes children live locally, but other family members had traveled from North Carolina for the chance to see their relative’s work get snapped up by deep-pocketed collectors. According to a representative for the galleries, one painting sold for over $1 million, plus three priced at about $500,000, and eight works on paper ranging from $60,000 to $100,000.
“We are very proud,” Thaleen Barnes, the late artist’s second wife, told Artnet News, before reminding me the booth number in case I hadn’t visited yet.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t it remember it later when Keener wanted to take a photo with one of the Barnes paintings that reminded her of her Catholic upbringing. Instead, we got turned around and wound up in front of Milan and New York gallery Kaufmann Repetto, where Keener was excited to see a wall of works by Corita Kent, the Catholic nun who made politically engaged Pop art in the 1960s.
“I love Corita!” Keener proclaimed.
Soon, Keener was chatting up the gallery owners, sisters Francesca Kaufmann and Chiara Repetto, who were super impressed to learn that not only did the actress collect Kent, she had first bought the works 20 years ago. (The gallery, in comparison, only started repping the estate in 2019, in a joint arrangement with Kreps.)
The actress continued to prove her art world bonafides when she revealed that she was also a fan of the late Lebanese artist Huguette Caland, and had met with her before her death in 2019.
I asked how she had become so knowledgable about art.
“Luck,” Keener replied. “I’m some street chick from Miami and I think I was just hungry for anything cultural that wasn’t religious. I was undernourished as a child culturally. I think I just developed a real thirst rather than acquiescing to it.”
The actress was also quite taken by the gallery’s works by Andrea Bowers, of which she said, “this is crazy, this beautiful, this is fucking feminist art.”
The conversation then turned to Hollywood, and the pressure women face to appear eternally youthful by undergoing plastic surgery.
“They’ve used that economically to punish and control us. This business is punitive with women aging,” Keener said. “I have a really bad ‘fuck you’ sensibility, but I’ve been lucky. Not everybody has the latitude to say ‘fuck you,’ so we have to fight on their behalf.”
After such an inspiring, pro-feminist encounter, it seemed fitting that the next person with whom I’d cross paths would be activist artist Nadya Tolokonnikova, co-founder of Pussy Riot (and recent guest on the Art Angle podcast).
She gave me a heads up on her next endeavor: curating an exhibition at Sotheby’s to benefit Planned Parenthood. The show will be titled “My Body My Business” after a work by feminist artist Michele Pred, Tolokonnnikova told me, before posing for a photograph with Loie Hollowell’s Heavy Burden, a breast-like epoxy resin relief sculpture at San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman Gallery.
At that point, the fair was winding down, so I decided to reward myself with a glass of champagne at the Ruinart Lounge, where the company was showing off newly commissioned ceramic works and paintings by Stanya Kahn. Apparently the celebrities didn’t know where the free champagne was!
Frieze Los Angeles is on view at the Santa Monica Airport, 3026 Airport Ave, Santa Monica, California, February 16–19, 2022.
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