What we learned at Art Basel

by Art World News

Deborah Wilk rounds up the key lessons (and reminders for even the most knowledgeable insiders) from the 46th edition of the fair

The 46th edition of Art Basel began its pre-game on Monday with the private opening of the fair’s now beloved Unlimited sector, an exhibition of large-scale works curated by Gianni Jetzer of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The parade of VIPs included collectors Robbie Antonio, Richard Chang, Susan and Michael Joey Hort, Jill and Peter Krause, Beth De Woody, Ron Pizzuti, Alan Lo, and Donald Marron who mingled with artists and curators such as Andreas Gursky, the Beyler Foundation’s Sam Keller, the Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong, Takashi MurakamiLawrence Weiner, Gary Tinterow of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art director Philip Tanari.

The ensuing two days of previews witnessed the sort of sales that had dealers smiling when asked, ‘Have you been having a good fair?’ On the first day alone prices in the millions of dollars — which were willingly revealed — included an untitled 1957 oil on canvas by Joan Mitchell for $6 million from Cheim & Read; Marlene Dumas’s Helena, 2002, for $3.5 million, Sigmar Polke’s Skelett, 1974, for the same price, Bridget Riley’s Allegro Red, 2014, for $1.6 million from David Zwirner; and Thomas Schütte’Vater Staat, dressed, 2010, also for $1.6 million from Mnuchin (the artist’s Grosser Geist Nr. 6, 1998, sold for $5 million at Skarstedt the following day).

Pace Gallery had reason to give thanks as its presentation of works by Robert Rauschenberg (honouring the gallery’s recent announcement of its representation of the artist’s foundation, along with Brazil’s Luisa Strina and Thaddeaeus Ropac of Paris) sold out entirely from prices ranging from $1 million to $450,000 to primarily American collectors and one lone Russian buyer. Similarly, five works from the Kitchen Table series by Carrie Mae Weems were sold to a major American institution by Jack Shainman on the second preview day.

By Friday, Christopher Wool’s Painting from 2009 sold for $5.5 million at Van de Weghe Fine Art and Hauser & Wirth reported the sale of Paul McCarthy’s White Snow Bambi (marble), 2013, for $2.8 million and Roni Horn’s Untitled (An otherwise unexplained fire in a dwelling inhabited only by women), 2014, for $1.25 million.

There were, however, plenty of notable lessons beyond the price tags, including these…

Art Basel is not an art supermarket

Contrary to reports that Art Basel is purely a commercial enterprise, the fair offers many opportunities for contemplation, spearheaded by its Unlimited offering. Despite the monumental nature of the gathered works (or perhaps due to their overwhelming size), the show sweeps up visitors, then grounds them in the serious business of viewing, thus bringing an enhanced sense of art’s profound power to the fair aisles next door.

‘It’s not a classic curatorial project in the sense that the curator works from proposals coming from the galleries as well as proposals he recruits from the galleries himself,’ says fair director Marc Spiegler. ‘This allows Unlimited to reflect a true art world zeitgeist because it shows both what the curator finds interesting and what the gallery is most passionate about.’

Organised by Jetzer for the last four years, the show now reads like a partnership between the curator, the fair, and the dealers all working in unison to demonstrate that gallery presentations are not simply a collection of objects for sale, but considered offerings of pieces that speak to the asethetic and philosophy of the gallery itself.

This has long been true in the booths of such storied dealers as Paula Cooper, Lisson, and the late Donald Young and is a concept that has become somewhat lost as the global art fair tour grows more extensive, and soaring prices command headlines.

‘Galleries have a history of promoting artists — and really a responsibility to them — which takes the form of exposing those who are unknown or little known by showing the work and carefully placing it so its historic value can grow,’ says Fergus McCaffrey.  Jack Shainman puts it a bit more bluntly: ‘If you don’t believe in the work you’re presenting, then you can’t do much for the artist.’

VIPs and collectors mingle at the entrance to Unlimited at Art Basel 2015 © Art Basel

It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission

In this same curatorial vein, Speigler holds a hard line with dealers on keeping booth configurations (which are submitted to event organizers for approval) static for the length of the fair. But with gangbuster sales, dealers have a hard time keeping works they believe are equally as good as those that have been sold stuck in their backrooms — or closets, as is fair parlance. (Rather than pieces stacked against the walls, these rooms are often as well polished as the booths’ public spaces and often hold secret allure for VIPs.)

‘We bring three tightly curated shows,’ says Janine Cirincione, director of Sean Kelly, which brought a team of preparators, who worked hard after hours shifting pieces. The scene was much the same at David Zwirner where gallery reps said the changes seemed nearly constant. Fergus McCaffery director Jesse Penridge adds, ‘When a piece drops out, a rehang gives us a chance to showcase a different object that might not have fit in the previous arrangement and the chance for viewers to see the remaining pieces in a new context.’

On the flip side, it’s nice to see the old school red dots, the marker on identifying labels that a piece has sold, more than a few of which were on ceramic works by Lucio Fontana in the booth of Karsten Greve.

The cache at Karsten Greve

Walking by Greve’s booth, few failed to be captivated by two fountains of patinated aluminum — one white, one black — by Louise Bourgeois (Fountain Couple, 1999/2000). ‘They’re part of Mr. Greve’s collection of works he purchased directly from the artist,’ says the gallery’s Maren Kirchhoff, who pointed to a veritable mini retrospective of 2- and 3D objects by Bourgeois. ‘It’s a chance for us to expose those who might only be familiar with her more iconic works to the depth of her practice.’ Of the Fontanas, Kirchhoff says, ‘all the ideas of the slash paintings were worked out in these earlier pieces. They illustrate the history.’

Such, she says, is also the case with a selection of spray-painted works on paper by David Smith, best known for his Modernist sculptures that riff primitive. Indeed, the formal investigations are clearly at play. While viewing them, the soft tinkle of Bourgeois’s water work brings talk back to her and the question of the cost required to take the piece home. ‘Of course, it’s for a very serious collector or a museum,’ smiles Kirchhoff. ‘But the price is only for Mr. Greve to say.’

Robert Irwin, Black 3, 2008. Courtesy of Pace and White Cube. Unlimited at Art Basel 2015 © Art Basel

Where Op Art was born

After viewing Robert Irwin’s Black 3, 2008, an elegantly lo-fi optical illusion composed of a series of room-size white sheer panels stenciled in the centre with a black square, in Unlimited, the collection of works in the booth of Denise Rene appears also to be by fellow light and space practitioners. But a closer look revealed many of the pieces to be by Agam and Jesus Rafael Soto.

‘We had the first show of Op Art,’ says director Denis Kilian, who flaunts a catalogue from a 1955 exhibition, entitled The Movement, featuring the aforementioned artists along with works by Victor Vasarely and kintetic pieces by Pol BuryAlexander CalderMarcel DuchampRobert Jacobsen, and Jean Tinguely (who has a museum dedicated to his work in Basel).

The mesmerizing offerings in this booth might have been the fair’s bargain with nearly all prices in the five- to low six-figure range. New to the fold is Pe Lang, whose delightful Moving Objects, No 1753-1754, 2015, small black rings bouncing along rows of white cable set within a shallow box that hangs on the wall — was on offer for a mere €35,000. 

Keith Haring: Getting hotter

Of course, the hope is always that low prices for so-called undervalued work won’t stay low forever. In light of the soaring prices for works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, growing collector and institutional interest in street and graffiti art, and a resurgence of identity politics, conversation has swirled around the market potential of work by Keith Haring for several years.

Now, it seems the time for the AIDS activist has come. The morning of Art Basel’s Tuesday preview saw Haring’s Untitled (June 1, 1984) sell for $5 million at Skarstedt. The transaction came on the heels of the revered Keith Haring: The Political Line at San Franscico’s De Young museum last February as well as Skarstedt’s own Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell, which was up in New York throughout March.

Although the gallery is a champion of the artist’s work, it is not the official representative to Haring’s foundation, an honour that falls to Barbara Gladstone gallery. ‘It certainly started the fair out with a bang,’ says gallery director James Lavender. But seriously, are there any whimpers in Basel?  

And you thought you knew Anish Kapoor

An art fair must is to view oneself in at least one of Kapoor’s curved, mirror-polished stainless steel wall pieces or peer into the depths of one of his richly pigmented hollows. In Basel, however, those who hadn’t had the opportunity to see the artist’s solo show at Lisson Gallery’s London outlet in April might have been somewhat taken aback by his new work.

At both Lisson and Gladstone Kapoor fans found themselves first surprised and then transfixed by conglomerations of silicon, resin, and pigment that appeared as painterly gestures of raw meat or muscles and sinew. ‘These works are another meditation on the perception and reflection of the body,’ says Gladstone Brussels associate director Maxime de la Brousse. ‘They’re also an homage to such imagery as found in works by Rembrandt and Francis Bacon.’

In other words, they are the very corporeal creations of the highly ethereal Kapoor. But lest fans feel the work is too tough, the £400,000 asking price at Gladstone might persuade devotees to learn to love it.

With special treatment comes responsibility

Fair visitors enjoy the curry on offer at Do We Dream Under The Same Sky? © Art Basel

Stalwart conceptual practitioner Rirkrit Tiravanija offered up another of his homestyle dining experiences at Art Basel. Do We All Dream Under the Same Sky? hired cooks created the food in a make shift kitchen on the Messeplatz at the fair’s entrance and served hungry patrons a simple vegetarian curry dish. The catch? Diners were required the wash their own bowls as payment for the free meal.

The piece was enormously popular with food ‘selling out’ within an hour or two of being offered, and not only did participants willingly wash out their bowls, they stood in a particularly long line to do it.

Naturally those used to lunching after 2pm were disappointed to find the kitchen closed, but Documenta 14 curator Dieter Roselstrate had a friend in the trenches, who scored him a bowl just after the cut off of the cafeteria line. He gobbled his curry happily while chatting about his upcoming show of work by Kerry James Marshall, which he organised for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ian Alteveer, and Abigail Winograd of LA MOCA, all the while watching out for the car that was to take him to the airport.

When Roselstrate realised he likely wouldn’t have time to stand in the line to wash his bowl, he grew concerned. ‘I won’t have properly participated in the piece,’ he lamented. His friend reassured him by explaining he had brought the food, so the bowl was his responsibility. Apparently serving a meal in Basel is akin to saving a life in China. 

The next ‘Big Thing’: Marcia Hafif

Marcia Hafif in front of An Extended Gray Scale, 1973, at Unlimited © Marcia Hafif, Courtesy Fergus McCaffrey, New York / St. Barth

The Monday opening of Unlimited was abuzz with excitement over the never-before-mounted installation of 86-year-old Marcia Hafif’s An Extended Gray Scale, 1973. Taking up 4,000 square feet of exhibition space, the work is a continuous line, set around four walls, composed of 106 22-inch square oil paintings, beginning with a white canvas, ending with a black one, and offering all the perceptible gradations the artist could possibly determine in between.

While the academic nature of the project is about as rigorous as a meditation on conceptual painting could possibly be, the visceral effect of the being in the centre of Hafif’s grand gesture doesn’t merely equal, but surpasses that of her contemporary Robert Irwin’s Black 3, 2008, across the floor.

Such an acknowledgement incites Hafif’s current New York representative, Fergus McCaffrey, to wax eloquently on Hafif’s current little-known status, a situation he is working hard to rectify having been introduced to her work by Viennese dealer Hurbert Winter. The situation even incited him to commit his thoughts to the page: ‘In examining the work of Marcia Hafif, it has struck me again how arbitrary recognition can be in the art world,’ he writes. ‘Factors such as gender, age, being in the right place at the right time, one’s name, the credibility of one’s dealer, and pure luck often appear to have greater effect on the reception of your artwork that the quality of the objects themselves. . . .

‘Thankfully, periodic revisions occur to admit overlooked members into the canon, but how much easier would it have been to shortcut the struggle and be born male . . . and be represented by Leo Castelli.’ But where Castelli — as well as his one-time wife Illeana Sonnabend, who represented Hafif for a short time in the late Seventies and early Eighties — failed, McCaffrey will likely succeed. Not only was An Extended Gray Scale a happening in Basel, it was on reserve with an American museum for $1.75 million by the fair’s close.





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