Get Up to Speed with the “Frieze A to Z of Contemporary Art”

Artwork: frieze, issue 50, January-February 2000. Courtesy of frieze.

In June 1991, frieze magazine appeared on the scene. A slim 32 pages, the pilot issue gave a taste of things to come. Inspired by the great British style magazines like Arena, The Face, and i-D, editors Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover decided to bring the same sensibility to the world of art. In doing so, they revolutionized the art world on two fronts, with publishing leading the way for art fairs on both sides of the pond.

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With the sixth edition of Frieze New York coming up for May 5-7, 2017, we’re celebrating a look back at the magazine’s first 25 years in print with the publication of the handy new guide, Frieze A to Z of Contemporary Art (Phaidon). Drawing on the magazine’s incredible back catalogue of work, the book is organized in a simple to follow collection of essays that take you from Avant-garde to Zeitgeist, with stops along the way in a marvelous potpourri of topics that run the gamut, from Critics, Economics, and Jargon to Nostalgia, Taste, and Visionaries.

Mark Leckey, ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’, 2013, installation view at Nottingham Contemporary, UK. Courtesy the artist, Cabinet, London, and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome

With essays like Glenn O’Brien on Andy Warhol for the chapter on Fame, Christian Haye on Kara Walker for History, and Jim Lewis on “Ren & Stimpy” for Television, there is something for everyone. Because that’s what frieze does best of all: it takes the obscure and the sublime and makes them accessible.

There is a depth and a density to the writing that suggests a seriousness to the work, but the lack of pretension and conceit makes it deeply appealing—because, let’s face it, contemporary art is not always relatable. It can be heavily driven by concept to the point that it pushes far beyond the known, delving deep into an aesthetic that is as unrecognizable as it is uncomfortable.

That’s what keeps contemporary art on the cutting edge; a refusal to rest upon the laurels of the past and a willingness to ask us to look at things that we do not instantly comprehend. In asking more questions than it can possibly answer, but becomes the catalyst for conversation, meditation, and a stretching of the imagination.

This is where frieze comes in, masterfully, with its reflections on some of the most challenging subjects we face in the present day. Consider No Business Like Show Business by Steven Stern, which appeared in the Match-April 1998 issue of the magazine. It appears in the Gentrification chapter, some twenty years ahead of its time. And yet, by the 1990s, we already saw the writing on the walls, with the advent of the Disney store in the heart of Times Square, the popularity of “Sex and the City,” and the fantastical dreams implanted into the minds of future transplants who would have never dreamed of living in Dinkins, Koch, or Beame’s New York.

Stern writes of soul, of sex, and of a certain lack of sophistication that exists when pop culture replaces real life experience. It’s a prophetic essay, all the more timely today, for it prefigures the influx of digital media and the way it mutates perceptions of reality. In this way, like a fine wine, age has done it well—a testament to the spot-on editorial focus that has created a precision sharp publication that understands the inherent link between art, life, and media. It’s an absolute must for anyone looking to get up to speed on world of art.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.