For the last 35 years, Art Basel has been where cash and catharsis collide.
The Swiss town of Basel is the epicenter of the world's pharmaceutical industry, a global market second only to arms manufacturing in sheer profitability.
Drugs have made Basel extremely wealthy, though you would never know by looking at the banal facades lining its immaculately clean streets. There's no bling-bling here. Switzerland is as synonymous with discretion as it is with luxury watches and milk chocolate.
But behind the harsh exteriors a modern form of salvation occurs: cold cash is exchanged for the warmth of human spirit -- fine art.
This year was no exception. The 35th edition of Art Basel lived up to its reputation as the Mecca of the International Art World." Top galleries exhibited spectacular works of art. Sales were brisk.
Held June 16-21, 2004, Art 35 Basel drew 52,000 visitors and a record 1,600 media representatives from around the world. Over 1,500 artists were represented by 270 top galleries from 29 countries -- Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, the United States and Great Britain.
Although Art Basel is the biggest art fair of its kind, many fine galleries did not make the grade. At the opening party, several rejected dealers suffered an attack of sour grapes while sipping the bubbly. Champagne flutes in hand, they were overheard complaining about the selection process to a patiently smiling Sam Keller, director of Art Basel. Could it be time for the fairs organizers to reconsider the selection process?
Those fortunate enough to slip past the gauntlet had the honor of paying $340 per square meter for exhibition space. Galleries were chosen from 870 applicants by the "Art Committee" (Victor Gisler, David Juda, Claes Nordenhake, Esther Schipper, Micheline Szwajcer and Gianfranco Verna) and a board of expert consultants (Florence Bonnefous, Toby Webster, Patrice Cotensin and Alain Paviot).
As Art 35 Basel opened to the public, glorious sun and a clear blue sky gave the "Public Art Projects," a series of oversized sculptures in front of the exhibition halls, a metaphysical feel -- as if they had jumped straight out of a de Chirico painting.
Paul McCarthy's Bound to Fail (2003-04), a blow-up version of a Henry Moore torso, majestically loomed over the square. Costing over $325,000 to fabricate, the inflatable torso was missing its original pedestal -- the Whitney Museum -- on top of which it was first exhibited at this springs 2004 Whitney Biennial.
Distressingly dressed in a $5 seersucker suit and orange-tinted shades, legendary Art Newspaper gossip columnist Adrian Dannatt was caught lurking in a public toilet -- Monica Bonvicini's Don't Miss a Sec, that is. Bonvicinis contribution to Basels public sculpture display was a one-way mirror-glass cube with a working toilet and sink inside. Sitting on the bowl, you can see out through the mirror, though passers-by cant see in -- they see themselves instead. At 130,000 euros, it's the exhibitionist's solution to ablutions!
Plunging through a crowd of 10,000, I made my way through the exhibition hall during the fair vernissage. "I have Ed Ruscha's Hope," I overheard an American collector remark at the stand of venerable San Francisco dealer John Berggruen. "Well, if you have Faith, you don't need hope," replied John's wife, Gretchen, pointing to Rusha's 1972 version of the eponymous work, which was hanging on the wall right next to her. Faith went on reserve for $950,000.
Wordy works were in abundance, with a proliferation of one-liners dominating many booths. Highest up on the laugh meter were paintings by Richard Prince. At Skarstedt Fine Art was his What's New, a 1987 painting of a Sex to Sexty-style cartoon of a buxom blonde. It sold for $600,000. Over at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, his Cannibals and Clowns (2000) sold for $300,000. Gladstones museum-quality installation of Arte Povera star Alighiero Boetti's Ammazzare il Tempo from 1978, a set of 100 embroidered canvases of letters, flew off the wall for $550,000.
Elsewhere, her sculptural equivalent was in despair over a smashed crate with damaged goods, the real Tanya Bonakdar was radiant as ever. Elmgreens and Dragset's Tanya! Tanya! Tanya! (2004) is a play on the dealer selling herself -- for 45,000 euros in an edition of three. All sold -- no wonder Tanyas smiling!
Over at Mathew Marks Gallery, the childhood drawings of Martin Honert jump off the page and into the gallery. Gang from 2002, which is priced at $125,000, is based on one of Honert's adolescent drawings of his young friends. Rendered in sculptural form, the work has bending perspectives that are true to the original drawings.
Hauser and Wirth featured works by the Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere and Paul McCarthy. De Bruyckere's powerful aaneen (2003-04), a horse skin undulating like a Henry Moore, sold at the opening for 95,000 euros. Paul McCarthy's silver silicon Hammer Head (2004, edition of six) sold for $95,000, while Santa Candy Cane (2004, bronze in an edition of five) sold for $175,000 -- a superb stand!
Jay Jopling and his White Cube crew cruised back to London empty handed -- after everything in the booth found buyers. Indeed, his blockbuster display of the "greatest hits" of the YBA's was museum quality. The Chapman Brothers' Turner Prize entry, Sex II, sold for $850,000. Gavin Turk's painted bronze garbage bags, Pile (2004, edition of six), sold for $140,000. And Tracy Emin's blanket, Meet Me in Heaven, sold for $160,000.
Spruth/Magers/Lee also struck gold in the form of George Condo's new sculptures. Crying Girl sold for $25,000 and his de Kooning-like Alcoholic for $30,000. Jeff Koons inflatable Flower (1979) went for $175,000. A new, Minimalist-style Andreas Gursky photo was a feast for the eyes. Could this be the beginning of a new series?
A feast of secondary market masterpieces adorned the walls of the Gagosian Gallery booth. Gogo also treated us to a sneak preview of Jeff Koons latest Celebration series sculpture, Elephant, which sold for a whopping $2.4 million. Koons classic New Hoover Deluxe Floor Polisher from the late 1970s sold for $1.25 million. The pivotal 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled One Eyed, sold for over $2 million.
Bernard Jacobson mounted a selection of Blue Chip paintings by Americans. Pop artist James Rosenquist's Television or the Cats Cradle Supports the Electronic Picture (1988-89) went for $650,000, while Sinistrai -- Red Nail, a manicured hand holding a handgun went for $250,000. Frank Stella's elegant Die Marquise von O (panal 3) from 1998 was on offer for $225,000.
Even film stars where getting in on the action. Outside Hans Mayer's booth, screen giant Dennis Hopper's Andy Warhol 1928-1987 (2002, 100,000 euros), a huge black-and-white memorial to the eponymous god of Pop, loomed eerily over passing spectators. The painting was based on a photograph taken by Hopper, who, I was interested to find out, was once a billboard painter, too -- a regular Renaissance Man!
More musing on death at Luis Campaa. Gregor Schneider's Toter Mann (2001), a stiff in a suit shrouded in black vinyl, sold for 100,000 euros. Juxtaposed with the dead man, Lisa Milroy's Vitrine (2004, 17,000 euros), a series of oil paintings of urns, took on a funerary air.
Things became shinier at Eva Presenhuber, who featured works by Sylvie Fleury, one of the hottest artists at the fair. Her feather boas, Dark and Deep, stood up to their 20,000-euro price tag; 5,000 euros for the wall-mounted version. Her (Gold) Fountain PKW, a smoking golden tire, was transformed into the base of a trickling fountain. Made in an edition of five, this example sold for 35,000 euros.
From down under came Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery with Patricia Piccinini's phallic Speedmaster Pink (2004), a bouffant helmet for a flaming Mad Max, which sold for 10,600 euros. Dale Frank's alchemical mixture of resin and pigment, Fortune Cookie 1, Beauty, is worse than wine -- it intoxicates the holder and beholder, both. It sold for 18,000 euros. Several backroom works by Destiny Deacon left me wanting to see more.
From the Far East came a superb sculpture by Ai Weiwei, on view at the booth at CAAW (China Art Archives & Warehouse) and Galerie Urs Meile. Sold for $70,000, Table is made from a 450-year-old piece of ironwood taken from a Ching Dynasty temple. The contour of the top of the piece forms a map of China. An artist, writer and architect, Weiwei is currently advising the Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron.
With money embedded in his name, it's not surprising Padraig Timoney's Plastic Lumps (2003) sold for a smooth $27,000 at Toby Webster's Modern Institute. One of the hottest young galleries featured in the fair, Webster showed several new works by Jim Lambie. His Shoot Your Shot (2004), an accordion-like zigzagging wall piece made from wooden doors and mirrors, sold for $45,000.
Another young artist leaving his mark on the fair was tattoo master Dr. Lakra, who had a solo show at Kurimanzutto from Mexico City. The buzz about this work was so strong -- his Untitled (Emana) sold to an unnamed institution for $9,000, and every other piece in the booth also found buyers. Unfazed by the clamor, the good doctor spent most of the fair in the gallery's back room, tattooing clients eager to be transformed into moving works of art.
Further south still, Brazilian artist Nelson Leiner puts a rsum of his thinking about art on the shelf at Brito Cimino of San Paolo. A giant photo of the actual bookshelves in his studio, Once Upon a Time (2004) was originally exhibited with the real shelf across the room from the photo.
While this is just the tip of the iceberg, no report on Art 35 Basel would be complete without mentioning the honorary Art Basel board member and gallerist supreme, Ernst Beyeler. His contributions to the art world in general and the fair in particular are incalculable. The exhibition at his booth, featuring works by Alexander Calder and Juan Mir, was remarkable for its sheer power and beauty. Miró's Peinture (1953) was reportedly sold at $5.5 million, while Calder's Untitled (1975) went for $420,000.
Half an hour outside Basel in Riehen, the Beyeler Foundation held one of the most amazing shows I have seen in 36 years Ive been seriously looking at art. "Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art" featured emotionally powerful works by Bacon, some never seen publicly, juxtaposed with exquisite paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez, Van Gogh and Picasso -- an utterly jaw-dropping experience.
Maybe Basel isnt such a quiet town after all!
JOE LA PLACA is Artnets London representative. He can be reached at .