It's that time again. Top blue-chip art dealers and collectors have descended upon the scenic Rhine town of Basel, Switzerland, to partake in Art 33 Basel, June 12-17, 2002. On hand are almost 270 galleries from Europe, the Americas and the Pacific Rim, all nicely arranged on two huge floors of the Basel Messe exhibition halls.
With works by over 1,000 artists on offer, the fair doesn't disappoint -- at least, not if you're looking for the energy that can only come from a bustling market. "It's clearly the best contemporary art fair in the world," said New York dealer John Good. "Very well organized, with a little bit of everything."
The art bazaar was in full swing during the crowded vernissage. "What's the word?" one dealer was asked, rhetorically. "High prices," he said. "They're shooting at the moon, and we'll have to wait and see if they get any hits."
"High prices, no clients," joked the irrepressible dealer Rafael Jablonka, whose Cologne gallery shows better-known contemporary artists like Mike Kelley and Eric Fischl. He has packed his booth with works by Andy Warhol, including two large dollar-sign paintings from the 1980s that are $750,000 each. Two years ago, such works more commonly went for $275,000. "Prices are high," Jablonka added, more seriously. "But people always come."
Then again, there's the feeling that "the market may be a little too hot," cautioned Michael Findlay of Acquavella gallery. One of the cool prizes in the Acquavella booth is Round Table, a 1962 painting by Richard Diebenkorn. This relatively rare "still life" by the master of Ocean Park shows a tabletop spread with books and a hand with a cigarette, entering stage left and reaching for an ashtray. The price: $2 million.
The collector Steve Shane was spotted hard at work at the opening, going from booth to booth. "My heart is beating," he said. "I've bought something even though I shouldn't have." Shane's collection already numbers many hundreds of works. His new addition is a neo-Surrealist abstraction by Cathy de Monchaux, found at the booth of New York gallery Sean Kelly. "For a gay man, it's amazing how many works in my collection are vaginas," he added. "It's the attraction-repulsion thing."
By the next day, the verdict was in -- collectors are snapping up works by market bellwethers like Picasso and Warhol, and are showing a special appetite for young artists as well, searching them out for their "upside" potential in a hot market. The speculative fever at Basel is further energized by the massive "Painting on the Move" survey organized at three local museums, the Kunsthalle Basel, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst and the Kunstmuseum Basel.
The survey begins with the early part of the 20th century, stretches through the heady 1960s and '70s and ends up with paintings by several new, young, "post-Richter" European figurative artists. Among these are Martin Kasper, who makes large, plastic-looking scenes of empty dining rooms and cafeterias; Wilhelm Sasnal, whose small canvases include images of women and landscapes copied from magazines; and Thomas Eggerer, Johanna Kandl, Lucy McKenzie, Neil Tait and Alesandro Raho, almost all of whom make photo-based works.
Kandl, a Viennese artist whose tempera-on-wood paintings add Communist-era slogans to scenes of daily life ("effective leaders do not travel at reckless speeds"), exhibits with Galerie Christine König in Vienna. Prices range from 1,800 Euros for a small work to 7,100 Euros for a larger one. Another of the younger artists, Raho, who does portraits, is said to have been included in "Painting on the Move" at the behest of Gerhard Richter himself. Raho has shows scheduled at Regan Projects in Los Angeles and Thaddaeus Ropac too.
In such an overheated atmosphere, it's no surprise that California performance artist Skip Arnold decided to entomb himself, naked, sprawled face down on a bed of sand, at the entrance to the Basel Messe. Visitors to the fair's opening were welcome to tread, metaphorically as well as literally, on the artist's prone form. Arnold's performance was part of the Basel fair's "Art Unlimited" section, a group of about 60 large-scale installations in a separate hall.
This part of the fair, now in its third year, tends to bring the artists out in person. During the opening, the Swiss Lori Hersberger created a "painting" by riding a motorcycle on a giant canvas. New York painter Lisa Ruyter was on hand, keeping an eye on her massive "Stations of the Cross" painting installation, as was Beverly Semmes, who oversaw a performance piece in which a young woman posed wearing a gargantuan, bright pink dress.
Artists were also personally involved in the "Statement" section of the fair, a lively row of 17 booths set aside for installations by younger artists. The 20-something Danish artist Jeppe Hein held court at Galerie Michael Neff from Frankfurt, where he had managed to get a thin stream of water to arch through the air from one hole in the wall to another.
Down the aisle was Carol Bove, keeping an eye on her installation at Team Gallery's booth. Bove makes pencil drawings based on 1960s erotica, done with an exquisitely soft touch, and also makes classically proportioned arrangements of books and magazines, some propped open to their sexier pictures, set on wooden shelves. "I think I looked at too many Hans Hofmanns as a teenager at the Berkeley Art Museum," she said. For a work titled Tower of the Prophet, she collected several dozen copies of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, the hippie-era schmaltz-philosophy sensation, which she stacked up in a single column.
Needless to say, the material on view at the booths ranges from classic moderns of the early 20th century to works made earlier this year.
Museum-quality presentations are the watchword for dealers like Joan Washburn, a first-time Basel participant, who installed Surrealist, Post World War II works by Picasso, Rothko and Pollock in her booth. The Paris Galerie 1900-2000 featured a special selection of works by Arshile Gorky, Art Focus from Zurich mounted an exhibition of works by Der Sturm, and Galerie Thomas from Munich installed a desert rock garden as a setting for an ensemble of bronzes by Max Ernst.
At Galerie Heinz Holtmann from Cologne is an irresistible early work by Niki de Saint Phalle. Schießobject (1964) is made of plaster covered paintballs held in a wooden frame that were shot by the attractive young artist with an air rifle, letting the color run down the wounded surface, in a literalization of Pollock's earlier paint drips. This work, which embodies Pop-era French craziness, is sold for a price between $15,000 and $20,000 -- cheap, considering its rarity and historical importance.
Thomas Amman Fine Art from Zürich filled its booth with no less than 15 early works by Tom Wesselmann, many classics from the 1960s, priced between $650,000 and $2.8 million. Perhaps Wesselmann is in for a market reassessment, as Artnet market columnist Richard Polsky predicted a year or so ago (Polsky, by the way, who took a sabbatical from regular art writing to finish a book on Warhol, has handed his manuscript over to his publisher and is expected to return to Artnet Magazine soon).
Works fresh out of the studio were everywhere. At Michael Werner are five new paintings by Sigmar Polke, done with the German Pop artist's trademark Ben-Day "raster" dots. The understated works give luminous, 3D treatment to what seem to be forms based on clay sculptures made by kids -- a bell, a mushroom, a figure. All are sold, at $125,000 each.
Gagosian Gallery presented a large new work by Franz West titled Ditto (2002), a sculpture that is part furniture, part "passtrück" -- the artist's made-up name for sculptural objects designed to be handled as part of their esthetic appreciation (an influence of the Aktionist school of Vienna, where West hails from). The curious assemblage features a pair of evocative male and female figures, made from papiér mâche that has been spontaneously daubed with bright colors, as if to suggest that detail is irrelevant in the face of inspiration. Upon reflection, the work is suggestive of a Picasso or Henry Moore sculpture group, rejiggered for our more louche era. The price: $175,000. West, whose work is too little seen in the U.S., is slated to show at Gagosian in New York in February.
New works by the abstract painter Mark Francis, done in acrylic and oil and incorporating looping lines set against a syncopated pattern of marks made with cracked puddles of pigment, were spotted at several booths. A mid-sized painting from last year, titled Linkage, was available for $18,900 at Kerlin Gallery from Dublin, where Francis, who is from Ireland, has showed since the 1980s. A larger Francis painting was also part of the impressive installation at the booth of French dealer Anne De Villepoix, where also could be seen a huge blue monochrome by Ettore Spalletti and Revolution by Franck Scurti, a kind of cactus garden sculpture incorporating spinning faux gears.
Many dealers go to some lengths to create special booths. Pierre Huber of the Geneva gallery Art + Public, a stalwart at such events, commissioned the British painter Paul Morrison to devise a special zebra-stripe wall painting installation for the gallery booth -- giving the space a hopped-up, psychedelic feel. Huber says he will keep the commission for himself, eventually installing it in his own museum -- when he opens it. Huber says that Art Basel accounts for perhaps 30 percent of his gallery's annual sales.
Swiss dealer and collector Ernst Beyeler also made a special, and striking, installation for his booth, painting the walls yellow-green and dedicating the installation to the Art for Tropical Forests Foundation, which he established last year to raise funds for environmental projects, largely in tropical forests. Several works are sold, including two drawings by Ellsworth Kelly, a glowing monochrome painting by Joseph Marioni and a large and lyrical Anselm Kiefer work that features a ghostly white tree branch attached to a lead-covered canvas dotted with a star map. The price: $380,000.
The avant-garde likes bright colors and shiny things, and Art Basel has no shortage of either. One of the best expressions of pure color is in an "Art Unlimited" installation by Ann Veronica Janssens, who shows at Galerie Micheline Szwajcer in Antwerp, in which a series of brightly colored slides blink on and off, flooding the dark space with all the colors of the spectrum. The appetite for color abstraction -- which has become the baseline of advanced esthetics -- is found all over the fair, especially at Peter Blum (New York), Sarah Cottier (Sydney), Vera Munro (Hamburg), Evelyne Canus (Paris), Gisèle Linder (Basel), Mark Müller (Zürich) and S65 (Cologne), to name just a few.
As for the shiny, few can surpass Sylvie Fleury. At Art + Public, ten copies in her edition of a violet neon sign spelling out the word "Miracle" had sold by the fair's second day, at 7,000 Swiss francs each ($2 =ca. 3 SF). Over at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Fleury's meter-square "painting" made of row after row of large rhinestones is 35,000 Swiss francs. It's unique, but the work comes in several other sizes. By the way, Ropac also boasts a large painting by Peter Halley, in which the New York artist revisits the elementary "cell" structure of early in his career. The price: $150,000.
Hip art likes the trash look as much as it does the gloss. Milan dealer Emi Fontana had three smallish works made of intertwining chains of paper clips and safety pins by the irrepressible anti-architecturist Monica Bonvicini. Dating from 2001, the "sketches" are $3,000 each.
Another funkmeister -- Thomas Hirschhorn -- had works all over the fair, a situation that perhaps reflects his impressive showing at Documenta 11 in Kassel, where he installed a library and a coffee shop in a Turkish district there -- dedicated, somehow, to the philosopher of formlessness, Georges Bataille. Large, painting-like wall constructions of cardboard, foam and plastic wrap go for about 28,000 Euros at the Berlin gallery Arndt + Partner. Arndt's booth also features a Hirschhorn piece d'resistance, a two-story "dollhouse" of cardboard and packing tape called La Maison Commune (2001) and measuring 260 x 350 x 280 cm. It's sold at $100,000.
Also popular with dealers at the fair are the captioned figurative paintings of young people by the Viennese team of Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum. A large untitled work at the booth of Viennese dealer Georg Kargl was marked sold at $25,000. The slogan reads, "Our curse is that we are forced to interpret life as a sequence of events and that when we can't figure out what our particular story is we feel lost somehow."
Photography at Basel seems to be in considerable flux. The younger Germans -- Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff -- are less omnipresent than in 2001, while big color photos by Jean-Marc Bustamante are everywhere -- or at 11 galleries, anyway. Many of the works are examples from the artist's "Fatal Preparations" series, which focus on images of picturesque landscapes spoiled by a rather ugly human intervention. Chicago dealer Donald Young had one such alpine scene, with a commercial development under construction in the foreground, priced at $19,000 in an edition of six. Bustamante's next show is this September at Sollertis in Toulouse.
Film and video is a medium that continues to see sophisticated work. The fair's "Art Unlimited" section features a new film by Annika Larssen, who is represented here by Andrehn-Schiptjenko of Stockholm and whose stately, minimal film esthetic seems to have captured the imagination of the art crowd. Her untitled new work here shows a typically well-tailored mannequin-like actor laboring deliberately at a computer keyboard, creating an animated cyberspace counterpart of himself that is not quite perfected, to judge from some of the painfully flexing finger joints.
Curiously, though kids tend to be absent as subjects of painting and sculpture -- too sentimental, it would seem -- children have a moody, touching presence in the film and video projections in "Art Unlimited." In Salla Tykka's Lasso, a young girl accidentally spies her neighbor practicing a rope trick, which brings her to tears, while in Theresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler's film, a stony-faced eight-year-old contemplates the ruins of a birthday party interrupted by rain. In Slater Bradley's documentary video installation, the subject is a 2000 event in Times Square in which the chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov simultaneously played against 30 chess child-prodigies -- beating all but one (who got a draw).
A report on Art 33 Basel wouldn't be complete without mentioning the three-channel video projection by Mexican artist Miguel Angel Rios, presented by Italian dealer Marco Noire. The artist is seen wandering through Mexico's San Luis Potosi desert, in search of the elusive peyote cactus. The dome of the sky wavers and shakes, the horizon shivers and turns upside down, a mariachi band appears out of nowhere, then finally the magical plant, sacred to the Mexican curanderos, is found. The eight-minute film is titled Ni Me Busques No Me Encuentras. "You don't find the Peyote," the artist said. "The Peyote finds you."