Manuel Mathieu: Has the Figuration Bubble Burst? Abstract Painting Dominates the Booths at Frieze London

Julia Halperin, ArtNet News, October 13, 2022



"People are a bit fed up—they want more freedom to interpret as they wish," one dealer said.


The first thing you see upon entering Frieze London, which opens to the public today, is a suite of monumental abstract paintings.


For the past half-decade, figuration has dominated the conversation in the contemporary art market. Even in the first half of this year, eight of the top 10 ultra-contemporary works (which we define as work made by artists born after 1974) that sold at auction were representational. But at Frieze this week, the winds of the market appear to be shifting.


Of course, the work on offer at an art fair is less a reflection of what artists are making than what art-market players believe will sell. Many dealers were quick to point out that artists have always worked in and across these two styles. But walking down the aisles at Frieze, the number of large abstract canvases on booths’ exterior walls—presumably placed to draw people in—was notable. 


“The form of abstract painting feels unexpected—it comes off as a historical form that could be adapted and resuscitated,” noted Karen Archey, curator of contemporary art at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. “Artists have been doing this since the dawn of time, so it’s not surprising that such work would now cycle into our view.”


Just as there is a vast spectrum of figuration, abstraction is no different. The fair offered a flavor for every taste, from psychedelic (Tyra Tingleff at Chert Ludde, with a painting aptly titled, I have come to like you more in your absence (2022), and Kyungah Ham at Kukje Gallery) to geometric (Odili Donald Odita at Jack Shainman, Sam Moyer at Sean Kelly), to mottled, gloopy, and inspired by nature (Manuel Mathieu at Kavi Gupta, Francesca Mollet at Grimm).


Everyone seems to agree there is plenty of bad, or at least meh, abstract painting out there. What makes a good abstract painting, however, is more difficult to articulate. Most dealers we spoke to at Frieze initially responded to the question with a deep exhalation following by a squint. 



of 1339