The 32nd Art Basel art fair, which set up on two capacious floors of the Basel Messe for six short days, June 13-18, 2001, claims to be "the mecca of the international art world," the "most important annual marketplace for the art world," the "world's largest temporary museum" where "the crème de la crème of the international gallery scene will be exhibiting." Ordinarily, the gods would punish such unabashed vanity, but in this case it happens to be true.
To understand contemporary art and the contemporary art world, the Basel art fair is a must. For this installment, 262 galleries have brought an estimated total of 5,000 works by over 1,000 artists to the fair. Participating are 60 galleries from Germany, 51 from the U.S., 39 from Switzerland, 31 from France, 23 from Great Britain, 16 from Italy, 10 from Austria, nine from Asia, seven from Spain, six from South and Central America and two from Australia. More than 50,000 people are expected to pass through the art fair gates, many of them paying the entry fee of CHF 29 (CHF 15 for children, students and seniors; CHF 5 for a two-hour evening ticket) (CHF 1= $ .55).
The engaging director of the art fair, Samuel Keller, has added new amenities this year, from a spacious gourmet restaurant on the ground floor to a "Wellnesspraxis" center offering massages, manicures and pedicures and an "art kindergarten" for the children of fair visitors. The June weather is fine, and Basel is a young city with several local museums just across the Rhine from the fairgrounds. The Kunstmuseum Basel boasts a retrospective of Arnold Böcklin; the Kunsthalle Basel has a show of film projections by Rachel Khedoori and an exhibition of work by Berlin painter Antje Majewski; the Museum Jean Tingueley presents a Daniel Spoerri retrospective; and the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst Basel a show of drawings by Toba Khedoori and Vija Celmins.
At the fair, business is booming. "Things are selling like hotcakes -- stands change completely from one day to the next," marveled one observer, without too much hyperbole. In addition to its two floors of blue chip galleries, the fair has areas devoted to photography (nine galleries) and prints (19 galleries).
Works by that avatar of the contemporary market, Andy Warhol, are everywhere in evidence. At the booth of Cologne dealer Rafael Jablonka is Warhol's rare Self-Portrait (with Hands around the Neck), a set of 10 16 by 12 canvases with swashbuckling coloration that ranges from tan and Payne's gray to berry and Venetian red. No one knows whose hands reach up to clasp the artist by the throat. The group is priced at just under $2 million. "It will sell, believe me," said the irrepressible Jablonka, who made news last month with his avid purchases at auction of several works from Warhol's "Ladies and Gentlemen" series.
Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger has just published an oversized, 152-page book of black and white photographs by Andy, picturing his beloved celebrities, assorted "art" subjects and many of the young art stars of the 1980s -- Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring. The book itself can be had for CHF 120. As for the photos, 34 of them are on display at the fair, and almost all are sold, at prices ranging from $8,000 to $20,000. Other Warhols on offer in the fair include a six-foot-tall 1970 Portrait of Russell Means sold at Richard Gray for $250,000 and a 1963 Double Elvis at C & M for $2.8 million.
Speaking of Warhol epigones, Paula Cooper has a huge portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald by the New York artist Wayne Gonzales. Done in shades of pink and mauve in a style that is definitely kin to Andy's, the cool pic -- taken from one of the final images of Oswald before his death at the hands of Jack Ruby -- gains special import from the execution of fellow assassin Timothy McVeigh only this week. The 6 by 5 foot painting, done in 2000, is priced at $12,000; Gonzales is slated for a show at the gallery in October. Nearby in Cooper's booth was a small right-angle sink by Robert Gober from 1984, one of the very first of the series. It is sold for an undisclosed price.
Other Venice Biennale veterans included Gregor Schneider, whose small black and white photos of his abject and claustrophobic architectural warrens were available at Konrad Fischer Gallery of Dusseldorf. At a recent visit, Dorothee Fischer, director of the gallery, had just installed a new set to fill the place of another that had sold. "It's $12,000 for 12 photos," she said.
Another highlight of the fair that had people talking was Robert Wilson's installation of Alberto Giacometti works at Art Focus gallery from Zurich. The famed theatrical impressario has designed a series of small dark galleries with gray walls and carpet, each with a few spotlit paintings, drawings or sculptures on pedestals set in little bays. What makes the installation even more remarkable (other than the Old Master lighting treatment) is the theatrical setting of the bays. In one a sculpture sits on a faux tree trunk, while in another the pedestal rests on a snowy bank of what looks like combed sea salt. Another bay is paved with stones, while still another is covered with shredded bark. The effect is not unlike Wilson's celebrated installation of the Giorgio Armani retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum last year.
At Thomas Amman Fine Art, Zurich, was an amazing, fresh late Picasso from 1957, showing the 76-year-old artist struggling to stay afloat in the ocean, limbs flailing, water pouring from his mouth. The canvas surface is striated with linear waves. Called Nageau, the work was first shown at Galerie Louise Leiris in Paris and has been for many years in a private collection and rarely shown. It's priced at $2.8 million.
Sales were brisk, and often came in multiples. Three new video works by Bill Viola were constantly drawing crowds of viewers at the booth of London dealer Anthony d'Offay, and buyers as well. Viola's Catherine's Room, for instance, is a set of five small LCD panel displays that show a woman going about her daily routine in a cell-like space that is a bit of Vermeer channeled through Annie Hall as a Shaker. In an edition of six, all are sold at $220,000 each. Paintings are moving as well. At Victoria Miro, London, Inka Essenhigh's 72 by 74 inch painting, Sudden Arrival of Morning (2001), was snapped up for $25,000. "If we'd had 20 we could have sold them all," said a gallery staffer.
A huge three-panel photograph by Mariko Mori dominates one wall of the booth of Gallery Koyanagi of Tokyo. Called Play with Me and dating from 1995, it shows the gamin artist in a pale blue wig standing in an arcade dressed in futuristic armor. Priced at $120,000, it's slated for a museum, said gallery staffer.
But Art Basel is not content to remain solely a marketplace. Two sections of the fair are distinctly curatorial, with the emphasis on special projects by artists rather than the presentation of merchandise. In the fair's "Art Statements" section, a row of smaller booths arranged along a single side aisle, are 17 installations by younger artists that feel almost like mini-gallery shows. Among the standouts was Andrea Bowers at Sara Meltzer Gallery from New York. In an installation using high-tech light-weight monitors suspended at face level flanked by two speakers with a bass speaker on the floor, the L.A.-based Cal Arts grad presents video footage of California teens intently playing an arcade dancing game. "My work is concerned with the effect on individuals of the spectacle of contemporary culture," the artist writes in her catalogue statement.
Other installations in the "Art Statements" section are dignified yet comical. Annika Larsson, a 20-something grad of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, won the Baloise Prize for her new videotape Dog. In a series of stiff, digitally tweaked tableaux that are difficult to describe, two men, dressed with the Prussian formality of Kraftwerk, pose with a dog -- looking into the distance, grasping its tail, raising a whistle to the mouth. The work is presented by Galleri Andréhn-Schiptjenko of Stockhom, whose directors, Ciléne Andréhn and Marina Schiptjenko, work with a range of mostly Scandinavian artists, but also including Uta Barth, Tony Matelli, Marilyn Minter and Xavier Veilhan.
Gabriël Lester, a Dutch artist who lives in Brussels, presents an empty booth with a bench at one end and an empty stage at the other. In the ceiling are three or four dozen small, colored lights, which blink on and off in a choreography of light and color, accompanied by a soundtrack drawn from movie and television themes. The entire cycle lasts 12 minutes, and creates "all the classical elements of theater -- tragedy, romance, victory, defeat," says Lester. "The viewer finds him or herself confronted with his own imagination."
Even more impressive is the Art Basel "Art Unlimited" section, housed in a neighboring exhibition hall that measures a huge 2,000 square meters. Sprawled about on the concrete floors of this unadorned space are 67 larger projects by individual artists. Large sculptural set pieces alternate with architectural constructions and video-projection rooms in a curious curatorial amalgam that has no equal. The effect is brutally stripped down, magnanimous in space and yet attenuated in interest. Such distances to walk on this hard, cold floor. Perhaps golf carts would be in order.
Several artists have reacted to the garage-like space by designing -- cars. Among these are the Vienna-based team of Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum, the Viennese artist Erwin Wurm and the German artist Hans Hemmert, who provides a Lexus for viewers to sit in while watching a screening of Terminator dubbed with Heidegger in German. Karin Sander, the 40-something German artist who has become celebrated for her computer-generated doll-sized sculptural portraits, parked a huge Mac truck in the hall. This mobile factory, equipped with a 3D body scanner and a 3D ink-jet printer, made 1:7.7 scale models of sitters in solid green paint in only a few hours. Midway through the fair over 50 had been sold at CHF 2,200 each.
In the projection rooms, several pieces have repetitive, declarative soundtracks, leaving visitors wandering through the space muttering echoes of what they have just heard, like tunes that get caught in your head. "Nobody puts a price on my head and lives," say the actors in Promises, a four-minute video by the Albanian artist Anri Sala. "Fuck you ... fuck you ... fuck you," says the actor in Fuck You -- Audience Depression, a 45-minute-long videotape by 36-year-old Berlin artist Johannes Kahrs.
Once again, comedy saves the day. The 30-year-old French artist Brice Dellsperger won many visitors over with his 115-minute-long DVD called Body Double X, in which a drag queen enacts several roles in a remake of a classic French film. It is a careful and serious project, yet nevertheless is not entirely convincing. And who would fail to fall for Erwin Wurm's 12-minute video, the self-described picture of The Man Who Was Carrying a Bowl above His Head for Two Years (2000-01).