Dealers were smiling at the 29th annual installment of the uber-markt of international art fairs, Art 29'98, otherwise known as the Basel Art Fair, June 10-15. And although there were no huge tales of sold-out booths, dealers were satisfied -- sounding happier than did reports in May from Art Chicago. Don and Mera Rubell from Viagra Falls, er, Miami, purchased the Kara Walker installation at Brent Sikkema's Wooster Gardens. Walker's piece was part of the "Statements" section of the fair, in which galleries highlight the work of a single artist. Amidst all of the "merchandise" it is one of the most esthetically pleasant areas of the fair.
Other standouts were Ernesto Neto's installation at the São Paolo Galería Camargo Vilaça. He designed a room with a lycra tule tornado filled with clove! It was said to have been bought by a European museum (no, not the one in the Spice Islands!).
But as always there were complaints that collectors only had eyes for one artist. This condition is now formally called "Luc Tuymans disease." His works were positively flying out of Zeno X Gallery from Antwerp, and were also in stock at Peter Blum (New York) and Galerie Gebauer (Berlin). And again this year David McKee brought two beautiful drawings by Vija Celmins that were mysteriously sold before the fair got underway.
My favorite part was upstairs at Monica Spruth's booth, which featured a superb Alighero e Boetti map and some stunning Andreas Gursky photographs. She was very proud of having installed a spiral piece by Annette Messager all by herself. Bravo Monica!
I couldn't keep away, however, from a dazzling wall of early Yayoi Kusama drawings at Peter Blum. New Yorkers are lucky, since some of them go on view at Blum's SoHo gallery on June 20. Gallery director Arthur Solway kept me laughing, because we both speak "Suisse Deitch." It's a make-believe Kunst dialect that is a cross between Yiddish and the kind of language found in Artforum during the Ingrid Sischy years, before das Bankowski took over as editor-in-chief.
The photography section of the fair had a good portion of 19th-century material. Hans Kraus (New York) was selling a portion of Werner Bokelberg's stellar collection, which contains some luscious Fox Talbots. From my perspective, contemporary photography should be integrated with other contemporary art work, otherwise the photography looks weak and out-of-place. Thomas Ruff at Mai 36 Galerie (Zurich), Seton Smith at Brownstone, Corréard & Cie (Paris) and Richard Billingham at Anthony Reynold Gallery (London) were, for instance, notably elsewhere than in the photo section. Photography galleries should be situated with everyone else. Then maybe their quality would improve.
Downstairs at Michael Werner was a Picasso painting of a pitcher and a skull done during the war years (the 2nd one). According to New York director Gordon Veneklasen, Werner had just found the piece which was upposedly lost for 30 years. He chucked the frame and then hung it so high that it was barely noticed. Nice painting ... but Pablo was definitely having a "blue period" that day!
Beyond the fair there was the Beyeler Foundation. How could an art dealer manage to hold on to so many amazing works -- how could he resist pressures to sell -- over the course of 40 years? Watch out! Beyeler's holdings are impressive enough to make the fair seem like the Home Shopping Network. His museum building outside Basel designed by Renzo Piano is "Zerr Schoen" (very beautiful) -- both the art and the building.
Robert Rauschenberg was spotted making the rounds looking for his painting. No Bob, you are not near the Monet (where I experienced a mild case of Stendhal syndrome) . . . keep going, keep going towards the Robert Morris and the Basquiat. Stop.
Mona Hatoum filled a grand second floor (emphasis on the word "floor," since that is where the piece was installed) gallery of the Basel Kunsthalle with crystal marbles roughly delineating the map of the world. It was so fragile and monumental at the same time, two qualities that seldom go together.
The international art world supped next door, at the Kunsthalle restaurant (it is the "in" place). Victor Giesler from Mai 36 celebrated his birthday there with a slew of international friends including Toronto collector Marshall Webb and Sotheby's modern and very contemporary specialist, bombshell Tracy Williams.
There was so much to see in Basel that a two-day stay is not enough. I missed the Liste, the special art-fair addition of young galleries, and so I will understand if my neighors in Paris -- Jousse Seguin and Praz DeVellade, two galleries that continually show new work -- give me the cold shoulder. But then again I never made it to see the Andy Warhol drawings at the Kunstmuseum nor did I go drinking at the Hotel Teufel or dancing 'til dawn at the Samba club. I need my sleep so that I can brush up on my language skills. Does anyone know what schnooky-pootz means?
See you at the 30th?
DEBORAH IRMAS splits her time between Paris and Los Angeles.