The ABC of Art 34 Basel, June 18-23, 2003, as the traditional sales maxim goes, is to "always be closing." Sales seem to be good at the premier annual exposition of contemporary and modern art, a gathering of 260 top art dealers from around the world, their wares displayed in spacious booths on two floors of the modern Messe exhibition hall in the center of the museum-filled Rhine city.
Last week, the Venice Biennale suffered a kind of esthetic meltdown, morphing from the heat into a thing without happiness or beauty. So the art world heaved a collective sigh of relief when it moved north to Basel, which proved to be much cooler and certainly filled with brighter and more pleasant fare.
Sweetness and light was easy to find, from a small multiple canvas of pink Sweet 'n' Low by the Swiss queen of glamour and glitz Sylvie Fleury to a large canvas of winsome Japanese courtesans graffitied with the word "los" by rising Los Angeles art star Gajin Fujita. The Fleury, a 1994 multiple in an edition of 250, was for sale for 500 euros at Marco Noire Contemporary Art from Turin, while the Fujita, on view in the booth of L.A. Louver, had been purchased by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for $30,000.
Another bit of utopian serenity -- a scene of a shipwrecked Adam and Eve strolling down a deserted island beach -- was included in the otherwise demented, seven-minute-long video DVD by Olaf Breuning, called First (2003) and on view at Arndt + Partner from Berlin. The work, also on view in the fair's "Art Unlimited" section, is priced at 5,000 euros, in an edition of 10.
Of course, not all is goodness and cheer. At the booth of Cologne dealer Luis Campaa is an apt statement of recession-era economics by the provocative South African artist Kendell Geers. Called Title Withheld (Vitrine) (2003), the sculpture consists of a vitrine with broken glass holding a brick. It's 10,000 euros.
Venice was hardly a complete disaster, whatever people might say (and this week, according to news reports, the high temperature there is a balmy 75 degrees). For instance, the French pavilion at Venice, a beautiful installation of photos and painted works on glass by Jean-Marc Bustamante, is practically sold out, according to the dean of French dealers, Daniel Templon, who was able to obtain none of the new works for his booth at Basel. The large photographs, in editions of two, are $17,000.
Similarly, no works by the U.S. pavilion's Fred Wilson were in evidence at the Basel booth of his New York dealer Metro Pictures, though the gallery did say that collector interest was high. One work, a set of five exquisitely delicate glass objects -- four Moor candlesticks and a glass-bulb Molotov cocktail -- is $15,000 in an edition of 10.
One of the five artists in the Dutch pavilion at Venice was the Barcelona-born artist Alicia Framis, who presented a fashion show of rugged but golden garments from her "anti-dog" line in the Giardini. "My collection tries to protect from aggression," the 35-year-old artist writes, "but at the same time be sensual and beautiful." At the Basel booth of Galeria Helga de Alvear from Madrid is Framis' sexy Furniture for Two -- a matching modernist ensemble for a couple that converts into a quite serviceable One Night Tent. The two photos are unique, while the tent comes in an edition of five -- both priced at 15,000 euros.
Vienna dealer Ursula Krinzinger boasted three large figure drawings by Erik von Lieshout, showing animated young people marked with bullet wounds, that were made for the film he showed at the Dutch pavilion. All were marked sold. "They were ridiculously cheap, as low as 2,800 euros," said the fabulous Krinzinger, almost in complaint.
One of the more amusing works at Venice was Motohiko Odani's comically surreal videotape in the Japanese pavilion, which showed a fetching (if slightly genetically altered) young girl sitting on a fecund tree limb, gaily humming and occasionally snagging a passing insect with her long lizard-like tongue. Color photos from the video are a catch at the Basel booth of SCAI the Bathhouse from Tokyo for 4,500 euros, in an edition of 10.
But enough of Venice. For the day-tripper, Art Basel is about strolling through the aisles looking for show-stoppers. Last fall at Art Cologne it was Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman sculpture at Galerie Jablonka that was the thing to see. This time around, the prize goes to Berlin dealer Max Hetzler, whose booth is dominated by a very large, very shiny mirrored stainless steel Balloon Flower by New York artist Jeff Koons. The work is destined to be colored yellow, as it is one of a multicolored edition of five.
Hetzler rolled his eyes when asked the price. "It cost more than one million to fabricate," he exclaimed. Word is that the artist's California fabricator has 20 sculptures of various sizes in production.
A high-spirited and unique bit of the 1960s is on view at the booth of Cologne dealer Heinz Holtmann, who is offering a large and funky altar-like sculpture by the late Niki de Saint Phalle, complete with paint jars and cans shattered by rifle shot. Called Schiessalter TIR, it could just as well be called "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" As everyone knows, Niki made her early works by gunning down paint-filled targets perched on canvases, perfectly capturing the joyous destruction that characterized the spirit of the 1960s avant-garde. The work at Holtmann was actually made by the French art gamine in Milan in 1970, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Nouveau Realiste movement. The price? 480,000 euros.
The fascination with death that characterizes much of the more recent esthetic production of the yBa generation was in evidence at the booth of London dealer Sadie Coles, where rude-girl artist Sarah Lucas had covered an entire full-size coffin with a mosaic of cigarettes. The lid was ajar, and from inside came a fiery red glow. The work, priced at 45,000, is titled Thank You and Good Night (2003). Gotta love that girl's attitude.
When it comes to showpieces, who wouldn't take note -- even though it dates from 2001 -- of Katharina Fritsch's Handler (Dealer), a lifesize, hot crimson-colored statue of an elegantly suited man with a cloven hoof showing beneath one cuff. On view at Matthew Marks, the piece is $375,000 in an edition of four.
On the other end of the spectrum is the booth of Swiss artist John Armleder's Ecart gallery from Geneva, a tiny space that this year is filled with "Bad Time Clocks" by L.A. artist (and former Art Club 2000 member) Patterson Beckwith. Made from the boxes for all manner of supermarket products, from TV dinners and cat food to Tampax and mothballs, the works are irresistibly appealing, especially at the price of 100 euros. "They actually keep good time," said Beckwith, noting that their title came from the expression, "Is this a bad time to be calling?"
Other show-stoppers include the wall of works from 1959-61 by Yves Klein at Galerie Gmurzynska from Cologne and the almost-unbelievable swath of prime graffiti paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Galerie Jan Krugier from Geneva and New York. Very much in this vein is the booth of Doris Amman from Thomas Amman Fine Art from Zurich, which is filled with works by Willem de Kooning.
Last year Amman featured nothing but works by Tom Wesselmann. This year, the choice Wesselmann, a Great American Nude from 1966-67 that features real leopard-skin fabric and curly, appliqud pubic hair, is presented by Achim Moeller Fine Art from New York. "Provenance: Arman," says the label, adding still more panache to the painting, which is priced at about $750,000. It seems a bargain, since the artist's auction record is $944,500, just shy of a million.
Back at the booth of Daniel Templon are several other sexy works, including a large drawing by Pierre Klossowski titled Robert and Gulliver (ca. 1978). It shows Swift's diminutive explorer, holding a whip, perched on the knee of a reclining Brobdingnagian nude -- proof that the famed Swiss erotomane was a pioneer of the fetish known among aficionados as "the giantess zone." The work can be yours for 45,000 euros.
Also on view at Templon is Will Cotton's Sugar Beach, an alluring scene of three young girls in their underwear, feasting on sugar buns, a painting that was exhibited last year at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea. Cotton is slated to show at Templon in Paris in the fall.
It seems ridiculous for a New York critic to fly to Basel to write about New York galleries, but there you are. The booth of Luhring Augustine features new paintings by George Condo that juxtapose the master's comic figures with super-sweet images of boxes of candy ($65,000), and a large new wall sculpture by Reinhard Mucha that mixes ancient linoleum from his grandmother's house with a half-hidden, moody slide show of his children waiting at the station ($225,000).
Also on hand at Luhring Augustine are beautiful color photographs of 1970s America by Joel Sternfeld, who used to show at Pace. "His work is important," said gallery director Claudia Altman-Siegel. "It clearly anticipates Gursky, Crewdson and other contemporary photographers." One photo, which was "found" rather than staged, shows a fireman casually selecting a pumpkin from a roadside stand in Virginia while in the background his colleagues battle a practice fire raging in a wood-frame house. These photos are $20,000 each, in editions of 10.
Last but not least, spotted at the booth of Cheim and Read, the name of the great folk singer Joan Baez spelled out in antique sign letters by Jack Pierson. "It was Jack's idea of an anti-war statement," noted John Cheim. "But I'm afraid only a few people here know who she is!"
* * *
Art Basel's "Art Unlimited" section, which this year features 55 large-scale artworks installed in a warehouse-like hall adjacent to the building housing the fair proper, has now established itself as the best international exhibition of contemporary art in the world.
Ominous works like Santiago Sierra's towering wall of black speakers playing the rumbling, gunshot-dotted sounds of a Mexican New Year's celebration sit next to sculptural bagatelles like Katerina Vincourova's comic New Heroes (2002), a group of gargantuan foam figures -- a carrot, a toothbrush (with striped toothpaste), a cell phone -- sit around an ersatz campfire on tree stumps (with one unoccupied seat for guests).
Hanging from the ceiling is a showstopper by Yinka Shonibare, a life-size team of astronauts dressed in spacesuits covered in a bright print pattern of images of the Platters and the Shirelles, tethered to the U.S. space capsule Martin Luther. Nearby is a soaring wall mural of modernist art stars, from Toulouse-Lautrec to Keith Haring, by Navin Rawanchaikul, with a pair of 3D figures standing out front, one a young man on the cell phone, with a nametag reading "artdealer.com."
Room installations range from the neatly compact and colorful Dispersion (2003) by Yuko Shiraishi, a collection of blue and yellow rectilinear solids that is a rare (these days) exercise in serene formalist balance, to an almost overwhelming floor-to-ceiling array of 100 color photographs of dreck-covered performance props used since 1972 by abject art god Paul McCarthy.
"Art Unlimited" features plenty of film and video installations, as well. Yves Netzhammer has an impressive, poetic computer animation of blood and the body, growth and destruction. Joo Onofre presents his 9-minute DVD of a Vulture in the Studio (2002), previously seen at the Armory Show in New York, in which the magnificent carrion bird pecks and picks and wreaks havoc in an aptly metaphorical performance. And horrible drunken screaming echoes through the cavernous exhibition space from Gillian Wearing's 1999 film I Love You, which show almost endless variations of a violently drunk housewife being dragged from car to house.
* * *
Art Basel's "Statements" section, an aisle of smaller booths featuring 17 one-person shows by young artists from 10 countries, is also a center of wit and adventure. The New York artist Robert Melee has triumphantly remodeled the Andrew Kreps booth into the fair's star destination, covering the walls with parquet paneling that mixes natural wood with decorative marbling done in green and yellow house paint. Among the design accents are the artist's multi-hued bottle-cap paintings, his colorful wall-curtain sculptures and custom shelving cubes (with photos, drawers and televisions). Buyers have already snapped up a painting for $12,000 and a home-entertainment unit for $16,000.
Another great installation is by the California artist Eric Wesley, who has set up a station for sand-blasting jeans, complete with air compressor and spray gun, a jean-form and sand especially imported from Malibu, Ca. "Trying to cheat time," the artist labels a blurry photo of the "Sand Blast Center" at work. Also for sale -- swaths of denim, here and there lightened by sandblasting, stretched like paintings on wood frames in what has to be an esthetic hand-me-down from the nude body prints of Yves Klein.
* * *
Basel promotes itself as "Art City," and the place is truly full of art attractions beyond the fair. The newest addition to a long list is the Schaulager, or "show-depot," a contemporary art museum established by the fabulously wealthy Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation in an impressive new facility designed by the Swiss architectural team of Herzog and De Meuron.
At present the museum is filled with an almost endless retrospective of works by Dieter Roth, which clearly demonstrates the life-long imaginative fervor of the Fluxus artist. Especially lively is the series of "Interfaces" from 1977-79, collaborations done with the English artist Richard Hamilton, in which the two make multiple comic variations on their own portraits. Downstairs is a stunning installation of Robert Gober's Madonna pierced by a pipe, and the white elephant Rat King of Katharina Fritsch that was originally commissioned in the 1990s for the Dia Art Foundation, and which seems to have ended up here.
Last but not least, art collectors in search of "a steal, not just a deal," are sure to take a side trip to Liste 03, the fair of young art ensconced in the former Wartek brewery not far from the Rhine. There, among the 37 dealers, one can find the single work from the Venice Biennale that was about sex -- a 25-second videotape loop by Adel Abdessemed of a kind of orgy performance on a gallery floor, which ends with the watching audience breaking into applause. But at 7,000 euros, the work is not cheap. The 30-year-old Algerian-born artist, who now lives in Berlin, will have a solo show at Laura Pecci Gallery in Milan in September.