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Art Basel


by Linda Yablonsky
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I started hearing about Rudolf Stingel’s project for Art Unlimited this year before I even got in the door. People said it was beautiful. That it made them cry. That it was the single most profound work of the 61 projects in the show.

This was surprising. Art Unlimited is the section of Art Basel, June 14-17, 2012, for unbound ambition. For sheer spectacle, it’s the best reason to visit the Swiss fair. The fair’s 43rd edition was a serious business. Art Unlimited generated serious money too, but because it has a curator -- currently Gianni Jetzer, director of the Swiss Institute in New York -- and an open-plan design, it feels more like an exhibition than a merchandise mart.

Art Unlimited’s outsized installations are also bigger, more of-the-moment, and more extravagantly produced than anything a dealer’s stall in the main fair can contain. Taken together, they’re also more fun. But profound? At an art fair? Seldom in this context does an artwork take on great meaning.

Stingel’s Untitled (Paula) did. Its centerpiece was an enormous, black-and-white painting of a young Paula Cooper -- the artist’s dealer since 1991 and a pioneering figure on the New York art scene. It was hung like an altarpiece in a serene white room that felt like a private chamber. The fuzzy white wall-to-wall carpeting that covered the floor produced a hush, while a ceiling of white mesh fabric softened the light from above.

Stingel made the painting from a photograph taken in the early 1980s, during an interview Cooper gave to an unnamed journalist in a café. Casually dressed in a white sweater and smoking a cigarette, she gazes into the distance, lost in thought. The image is quite touching, as much for Cooper’s melancholy expression as for the implied relationship with Stingel, whose last show in New York was with Larry Gagosian.

Though Stingel is still represented by Cooper as well -- this installation, presented by her gallery, was meant to make that clear -- the room instills a powerful sense of loss, though more for time past than anything else. Priced at $3 million, the work immediately found a buyer (rumored to be François Pinault).

Other moments in this Art Unlimited also gave me pause. Franz West’s ginormous Gekrose -- a mountainous sculpture of sinewy and perversely sexy lacquered aluminum tubes, painted with baby-pink enamel, that ballooned like an upset intestinal tract -- made me laugh. Jeremy Deller’s 3D nature film of life in two Texas caves, where no less than 20 million bats cohabitate and swarm, was a bit sickening.

A locked room where Israeli artist Ariel Schlesinger placed two gas tanks, and a gas jet with a burning flame in its glass door, was really alarming. Richard Jackson’s glossy pink sculpture of a pig’s head with breasts for eyes and snouted flutes for arms was as stupid as it was sexist. Another dumb work was Revoltage (2011), a lighted sign by the Raqs Media Collective that spelled out the title and blinked so that it said “Voltage” one minute and “Revolt” the next. Black and red wires trailed off it. An explanatory text said it was about electrical energy. Who cared?

So Jetzer’s first outing as Art Unlimited curator was pretty uneven, but the job comes with limitations. The works on show are selected by committee, from proposals that dealers submit, that Jetzer had to sift through and present. Once the selections were made, it was up to him to organize them within the convention center’s 10,000-square-foot hall.

His Unlimited had its share of the required monumentality: Phyllida Barlow’s sloping red platform of overlapping and irregularly shaped shingles, supported by a forest of rough timber; Sterling Ruby’s four billboard-sized, spray-painted, after-Water Lilies abstractions; Olivier Mosset’s pair of 31-foot-tall striped paintings, and the West are a few examples. Hauser & Wirth sold Barlow’s Stage for £150,000 to an unnamed private collector.

There were also a couple of odd live performances: Nina Beier had a dog play dead on a Persian rug, and Germaine Kruip supplied a whirling dervish who twirled in a black business suit. But Jetzer’s show generally was quieter, less carnival-like and more varied in scale than past Unlimited displays.

It also had a number of short films. One of the best, a collaboration between Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Tristan Bera, was projected in a mini-cinematheque complete with movie posters in its small “lobby.” Titled Belle Comme le Jour, it starred a Catherine Deneuve lookalike in a 13-minute-long episode that meshed the actress’s life with Luis Bunuel’s Belle du Jour and Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours, dramatizing the double life of a troubled and masochistic woman. For me it had overtones of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as well, and was certainly a cineaste’s wet dream. It sold for €85,000 in an edition of five.

Most charming was Fish and Chips, shot underwater by Shimabuku, a Japanese artist who lives in Berlin. Its protagonist was a potato. It floated deliriously on the currents, and skipped along a sea bottom to lulling electronic music. Now and then fish swam by, as if courting the tuber. It was all quite romantic. The installation included a neon sign from an actual fish and chips shop. I liked that too.

Another room was so dark that I felt as blind as one of Deller’s bats as I edged toward a small screen that promised another film, David Claerbout’s Orchestra. It turned out to be a small light-box photo of a symphony conductor looking up from his podium, really annoyed by the viewer’s intrusion. Embarrassing! I got out of there fast.

Douglas Gordon’s Henry Rebel was projected on two large, double-sided screens placed on top of each other at an angle. One walked around the space, watching the actor Henry Hopper (son of Dennis) writhe on a floor in apparent agony, slowly tearing off his clothes and scarring his flesh. Gorgeously filmed by a swirling camera, it was as lyrical as it was strange.

Not all the works here were new. In a nod to historical perspective, the show included an update of Anthony McCall’s 1972 Circulation Figures and a recapitulation of a Robert Morris metal and felt scatter work that was exhibited in 1969, but disposed of by a janitor who wasn’t so up on his avant-garde art.

The McCall was another dark room with shredded newspaper on the floor, mirrored walls and lighted photos of the original performance. The installation had photographers and filmmakers shooting each other, confusing subject and object. Unfortunately, the work had none of the magic of McCall’s light sculptures, and the Morris just looked tired.

For obsessiveness, Hanne Darboven’s free associations on the word “sand,” from 1979, was hard to beat, though Jitish Kallat’s photographs of round Indian breads, each piece with a progressively larger bite taken out of it to represent phases of the moon from 1936 to 1998 (his father’s life span), gave it a run for its money, as did the 144 texts of Art and Language’s Portraits and a Dream -- too much for me to absorb.

I’d already seen Bruce Nauman’s video, Combinations Described (Chicago) and Robert Irwin’s All That Jazz fluorescent light sculpture in shows at Sperone Westwater and L&M Arts, and they didn’t look better here. On the other hand, Damian Ortega’s sculpture did -- Architecture without Architects, an installation of suspended found furniture made in 2010 for the Barbican Center in London. But the six bound and refrigerated mattresses by Pier Paolo Calzolari, 1970-94, predate those in his recent Arte Povera show at Marianne Boesky Gallery, which priced the work at a not-so-povera €1 million. (At this writing, its sale was still under discussion.)

A hanging wrought-iron serpent by Valentin Carron, who was named during the fair as the artist who will represent Switzerland in the next Venice Biennale, was so simple that it was almost invisible here, though the Presenhuber and 303 galleries sold it for a slithery 90,000 Swiss francs.

Another new piece was Nikolas Gambaroff’s anti-decorative The 4-Hour Bodies, overlarge lampshades positioned on rugs like wallflowers at a party, priced at €90,000 for the set. Ugo Rondinone’s Primitive arrayed 59 small lead bird sculptures, marked with fingerprints, across a broad wood floor. And Walead Beshty’s large copper plates, which bore the blemishes of their handling, looked quite handsome.

Still, by the time I left the hall, I felt at sea in the context of no context other than money, the driving force of Art Basel. In the end, it wasn’t the art that was so unbound but the economy of the art world, which clearly has no limit.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.