As I wandered around this year’s Frieze Art Fair I played my usual ‘looking for trends’ game - things that feature in the work of a number of artists across different galleries and continents. This year I settled on classicism, a vague but universally understood notion that alludes to or references ancient Greek or Roman antiquities. Some of these references were very direct such as a series of crisp, stark, classical black and white photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe at Alison Jacques titled Italian Devil, Ganymede and Bust and Skull.
|Robert Mapplethorpe, Ganymede and Bust and Skull, 1987-8|
Others were a little less explicit such as Kaye Donachie’s expressionistic painting Secret at Maureen Paley, which features a scallop shell, a symbol of the goddess Venus and a typical motif in Greek and Roman art. Or Patricia Treib’s striking series of paintings at Kate MacGarry, classical compositions in painterly pastels.
|Kaye Donachie, Secret, 2017, oil on canvas, 41x31cm|
Our ideas of what classicism is however do not necessarily originate from ancient Greece and Rome – rather it is an idealised idea of antiquity based upon damaged, repaired, modified and much copied artefacts. This damaged fragment aesthetic is apparent in Enrico David’s pile of untitled heads and what look like bone fragments at Michael Werner.
|Enrico David, Untitled|
This fragment look is mirrored in Susan Cianciolo’s installation at Modern Art, which features a collection of limbs, albeit from mannequins, lying alongside a series of dressed dummies.
|Susan Cianciolo, Platforms 1-4, 1990-2017|
At Mexico City’s Galerie OMR, Troika has sliced up a sculptural figure and reassembled it in a different order in a work called Compression Loss – perhaps a reference to the restoration and modification of classical sculptures.
|Troika, Compression Loss, 2017|
William Kentridge’s Triumphs & Laments Procession Silhouette 25 at Lia Rumma, is a series of black and white drawings of heads (that look like Roman emperors), alongside religious figures, birds, a typewriter and a sewing machine. These drawings relate to Kentridge’s monumental reverse graffiti works along the banks of the Tibor in Rome in 2016, created by power-washing soot and moss around stencils to reveal the white limestone underneath.
|William Kentridge, Triumphs & Laments Procession Silhouette 25, 2016|
The terms classic or classical actually only came into use in the 17th century and since then they have stood for an higher, academic, level of good taste. Michael Williams in his book Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism notes that, ‘each generation has shaped our inherited notion of the classical and used the concept to meet historically specific needs.’
Markus Lupertz’s three painterly, mixed media paintings at Michael Werner all feature figures with classical origins including the suitable fey looking Narcissus I. Another work Life and Death, shows a grey/white naked figure with his back to us alongside a dripping black skeleton, the male painter momenti mori of the moment.
|Markus Lupertz, Narcissus 1 and Death and Life, 2016|
At Galerie Eigen + Art, Tim Eithel’s architectural clean lines in his 2017 painting Tiles, frame a sculptural figure of a woman wearing draped robes, she is seemingly incidental to the composition, small and shadowy and standing upon the precisely rendered tiles of the title.
|Tim Eitel, Tiles, 2017|
Herman Bass’s framed painting Bloomsbury Revisited (Cactus Flower) at Peter Kilchmann is a still life composition – a small Roman-looking bronze head is dwarfed by the surrounding natural forms of a shell and corals.
|Herman Bass, Bloomsbury Revisited (Cactus Flower), 2017|
The pure white sculptural figures of classical antiquity are now known to be a more recent modification. The original gaudily painted Greek and Roman figures were scrubbed of their colour to produce pure white marble, which was more suited to 17th century thoughts about classicism. This original high colouring was returned and examined in a number of works at Frieze including Anne Ryan’s painted card cut outs at Greengrassi which are part of an ongoing series conceived while she was at The British School at Rome. At first glance they appear to be groups of classical sculptures. Closer examination reveals them to also include acrobats and swimmers, some striped, some harlequin patterned – a fashion parade of athletic bodies.
Betty Woodman’s highly coloured work at Salon 94 Wallpaper #15 features flattened glazed earthenware pots against a sketchy room backdrop, creating a cartoonish trompe l’oeil effect – as if from the set of Disney’s Hercules.
|Betty Woodman, Wallpaper #15, 2016|
On the same stand Anton Alvarez’s glazed stoneware piece Alphabet Aerobics has a similarly cartoon-like aesthetic – the small flat shoes and flourishes are akin to fragments excavated from an archaeological dig.
|Anton Alvarez, Alphabet Aerobics, 2017|
The sexual content of some antiquities (such as those in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, which are kept in a separate room with an advisory warning) is reflected in the curated Sex Work section of Frieze 2017, which explores work by radical feminist artists from the 1980s and 1990s often considered too transgressive for feminist museum anthology shows. Mary Beth Edelson has a piece at David Lewis with the now familiar cartoonish aesthetic – cut-out canvas figures from antiquity and art history crossed with the features and bodies of women past and present. These ‘ascend the gallery’s walls like spores carried on a breeze.’ Alongside the collage a naked Edelson mimics pre-classical, ancient sculpture in a series of over-painted photographs. One has fox-like figures escaping from her nipples, armpits and vagina another transforms her into Wonder Woman. The Sex Work section was described as ‘selling well’ in a Frieze post-fair press release with the Tate Gallery acquiring a section of Edelson’s collage.
|Mary Beth Edelson, 1973–2017, mixed media on canvas|
At Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel Paula Rego’s 2015 painting Paradise is also erotically charged and depicts a suggestively positioned couple alongside a figurine depicting a similar looking couple having sex – there are shades of Pompeii brothel murals in both the subject matter and the colouring of the work.
|Paula Rego, Paradise, 2015|
In the Focus section of the fair, reserved for younger galleries and artists, the classical references are still apparent. At Truth and Consequences, Daniel Dewar and Gregory Gicquel’s diptych of stone marquetry has a distinct clean cut classical aesthetic with shells and swirls rendered in pink marble.
|Daniel Dewar & Gregory Gicquel, 2017|
Ciprian Muresan’s The Sculpture Storage at Galeria Plan B features a large number of mainly black and white images - stark and classical by their very nature - that appear to be as, the title implies, a record of sculptures in an archive. In 2016 Muresan, a Romanian artist, had a show at Museo Pietro Canonica in Villa Borghese, Rome whereby he placed bronze moulds he had made of Romanian sculptures amongst Pietro Canonica’s work. A review states that ‘references to the present merge with historical evocations particularly those of his country of origin… in order to look into myths, utopias and contradictions of the modern and post-modern world.’ A film by Muresan at this same exhibition showed painter Adrian Ghenie making a quick portrait of ex-Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, ‘grasping his superficial physiognomic/morphologic features emphasising his role as ‘icon’ belonging to collective contemporary imagination where everything is assimilated, metabolised, reinterpreted with the typical speed of the latest communicative and technological systems.’
|Ciprian Muresan, The Sculpture Storage, 2016|
Lutz Bacher’s ink on paper drawings at Greene Naftali at first glance could be after classic sculpture – however the text underneath the drawings reveals them to be Clark Gable as a Child and The Baby Grace Kelly – more figures from the collective imagination. This brings me back to Michael Williams’s book Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism in which he proposes that early film stars were marketed in a way that compared them to figures from classicism – this gave them class and allowed a space for them to be admired and even worshipped as super humans.
|Lutz Bacher, Untitled, 1980s, ink on paper|
John Stezaker’s work, Tears (Painting, after Joan Miró) 1 at The Approach although not explicitly alluding to classicism disrupts an image of a star dressing room – Stezaker has cut large holes in the images - creating a disrupted image that links the classical motif of the fragment with the star image.
|John Stezaker, Tears (Painting, after Joan Miró) 1, 2006, Collage, 19x21cm|
It seems the influence of classicism is forever with us and if it hadn’t existed we would have invented it. I recently visited The Getty Villa in Los Angeles; a recreation of a Roman Villa nestled in the hills above the Pacific Ocean. Everything in the villa seemed too new and shiny, restored I imagine to the standards of the museum’s benefactor and the Californian visitors. It didn’t work for me but I guess it indicated that Getty and the Getty Foundation have bought into the impeccable taste of Classicism – and made it look the way they think it should look. Classicism says Michael Williams is ‘the Janus-faced art of the new that also looks back to the past. But it is precisely the slippery nature of classicism that gives it cultural agency; historically specific, recognisable, culturally valued. Even elitist and yet somehow also ahistorical, international and vernacular.’
|The Getty Villa, Los Angeles|
Michael Williams, Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism: The Rise of Hollywood's Gods (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pg 7
 Debra Linnard, ‘Mary Beth Edelson at Lewis, New York’, Frieze, 17.03.17 https://frieze.com/article/mary-beth-edelson accessed 11.10.17
 Michael Williams, Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism: The Rise of Hollywood's Gods (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pg 11