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BASEL ART DIARY
by Walter Robinson
 
Itís back! The art worldís moveable feast has returned to Basel, the youthful, civilized Swiss city on the banks of the Rhine, for Art 37 Basel, June 14-18, 2006, the 37th annual installment of the incomparable Basel art fair. Tagging along, as has become the tradition, are several other fairs of even more contemporary art: Liste 06, now celebrating its 11th anniversary; VOLTAshow 02, in its second incarnation; and the first BâleLatina, a new fair of "Latin" art.

Art 37 Basel
The art world came, and it came ready to buy. The estimable Art Newspaper, which is once again putting out a daily paper full of fair news and gossip, claimed that Blum & Poe gallery from Los Angeles had sold a Takashi Murakami painting for $1.5 million. "Not so," said a competing art dealer, with a rather tight-lipped grimace. (It was $1.2 million.)

Art 37 Basel has some 300 exhibitors spread over two spacious halls at the cityís Messe. And though not everyone leaves happy -- an American curator based in England sniffed that the Basel bazaar was insufficiently "curated" (betraying his own professional biases, clearly) -- most of us would need a heart of stone to resist the treasures on display up and down the art-fair aisles.

Witness, for instance, three works at three neighboring booths, chosen practically at random. First is a classic Arte Povera construction by Mario Merz, a combination igloo and conference table made of thick glass sheets, willow branches and slabs of granite, all held together by c-clamps, in a comically metaphysical translation of the Fibonacci Series into applied art. Titled Albero Grande Solitario (1995), the sculpture is $1.2 million at Kewenig Galerie from Cologne.

Next door is the stand of London dealer Bernard Jacobson, which has on its wall a great example of 1970s Color Field painting gone "off the reservation" -- Big Purple (1972) by Larry Poons. After his early success with a group of Op Art paintings with dancing lozenge shapes, Poons began his series of lyrical abstractions that are practically volcanic in their flows of pigment and color. Period photos show the artistís studio set up like a kind of coliseum, its central arena filled with buckets of paint and surrounded by a wall of canvases.

Number three in this series is Galerie Hopkins-Custot from Paris, which is filled with a wealth of classic modernism, from School of Paris to New York School and more. On one wall, flanked by a Jean-Michel Basquiat crayon drawing and a Marino Marini bronze, is Francis Picabiaís The Rose Kiss (1926-27), an extreme of artistic iconoclasm that renders a pair of lovers in what seems an explosion of lavender and yellow confetti. Picabiaís garish Romeo forcefully embraces his surprised, sun-eyed Juliet, his left arm pulling her to him while his right holds up a red and white striped flower as an offering. Itís yours for $2.9 million.

Flanking Art 37 Baselís art show is the vast hall containing the Art Unlimited section, an exhibition of 70 overscaled art projects, video projections, installations, murals and more. One popular work is Carsten HŲllerís Mirror Carousel (2005), a life-sized merry-go-round with rows of hanging swings, all covered with mirrors. The carousel turns rather slowly, so itís easy to get on and off, though the subsequent ride is rather less than thrilling. Isnít it always like that? The sculpture, priced at $400,000, is sponsored by Gagosian Gallery, which had previously exhibited it at its new Britannia Road space in London.

Outside on the plaza was a carousel of another sort -- a festive Puerto Rican betting game involving a toy-horse race, or Pica, commonplace at town fairs on the island and brought across the Atlantic courtesy of artist Jesús "Bubu" Negrón and Galeria Comercial from San Juan. The work is lent by the Puerto Rican collector Cesar Reyes, who wryly noted in an email that he had bought the actual pica some time ago. It was expensive enough as a simple folk object back then, he said, but the artist hasnít yet told him what the price of the thing is now that itís an artwork. He seemed a bit worried.

Liste 06
Only a short tram ride away is Liste 06, which features about 60 small but very hip dealers from Europe, the U.S. and points further afield. Liste has a pointedly "young" program -- artists presented must be no older than 40, and the galleries must have been in business only five years or less. The goal is to provide young dealers with their premiere on the international art market.

Housed in the former Wartek Brewery, a labyrinthine yellow brick structure complete with towering smokestack, an external metal staircase and no less than three cafes, one on a roof terrace, Liste has by far the funkiest set-up of all the fairs, giving a sense that the young dealers are actually making sacrifices for all their sales.

The Breeder from Athens has filled its space with several works by Marc Bijl, the 30-something artist who lives in Rotterdam and doubles as a Goth rocker. An insouciant kind of collage painting, done on a surface covered with silver foil adorned with drips of black and silver paint, features a large and glossy sign purloined from the ersatz Gagosian Gallery set up in Berlin as part of the Berlin Biennial -- the real Larry Gagosian wasnít involved -- set next to a large newspaper ad, showing a model in mink and black stockings, for an Amie Dicke show titled "Private Property." Here, real historical relics help inauthenticity to speak for itself.

Bijlís piece sold at the Liste vernissage for €15,000 to an American collector. Bijl is not so well known in the U.S., though he was recently included in the "I Love My Scene" group show organized by Jose Freire for the Mary Boone Gallery in New York.

The Chelsea art gallery Taxter & Spengemann has devoted its corner space to an installation of "cheap art" paintings on cardboard by New Yorker Max Schumann, a sardonic political artist whose pictures have, of late, included their notably arbitrary prices painted right on the surface. Schumann likes to make works in series, with the prices increasing in regular intervals, even though the pictures are essentially the same (a strategy first employed by the brilliant Edward Kienholz in the Pop Ď60s).

By the fairís second day, everything had sold, including a whole wall of paintings that went for an impressive (and not quite so "cheap") $14,000, save for a few larger, masterful portraits of President George W. Bush, caught in an especially goofy-looking walk across the White House lawn, priced at $3,000, $4,000 and $5,000 -- and including as well heartfelt sentiments like "fuck me long and hard" painted in small letters across the image.

For Liste 06, the fair constructed a kind of open-air annex featuring a futuristic black vinyl roof sweeping up to four, chimney-like peaks, designed by the architects UNDEND from Zurich and the HP Gasser AG, Membranbau from Lungern.

One exhibitor in the annex -- Vitamin Creative Space from Guangchou in China, opened in 2002 by Zhang Wei -- managed to bring a certain pink-hued calm to the proceedings with an installation of blossoming trees and a kind of white wax waterfall that suggests a classic Chinese landscape. Titled My Home Is Your Museum, the installation is the work of artist Zheng Guogu, and is only part of a utopian environment that includes a pond, a bridge and extensive ornamental paving.

The London gallery Vilma Gold had converted its second-floor space into a mini-theater, playing a 38-minute-long vid by the 30-something German artist Sascha Hahn called Bach/Gould/Hahn. An archive of found imagery, Bach/Gould/Hahn mixes together snapshots, pictures of well-known art works, photos of celebrities and stills from television, books and newspapers in 30 different sections with apparently arbitrary subtitles like "White Trash," "Space" and "Safe and Effective Medication," all accompanied by a soundtrack of music by, no surprise, Bach and Glenn Gould.†

The piece -- a kind of free-associative cultural history -- seems to have a mesmerizing effect on viewers, and four from the edition of five have already been sold, at prices beginning at $3,500 and rising to $6,000.

VOLTAshow 02
Shuttle buses regularly ply the route between Art 37 Basel and the VOLTAshow 02, which has set up this year in a 30,000-square-meter former paper warehouse in the cityís port area, a district of exotic industrial structures, derelict buildings and vacant lots -- just the thing for a bunch of bohemian gallerists. An open-air café has been installed on the side of the building, facing a canal and a working railway line. Inside, all the galleries have the same sized spaces, spread out on two floors around a central atrium.

Itís neat and very nice, and struck me as full of painting. "Donít say itís only a painting fair," proclaimed Marcus Ritter, who has operated Ritter/Zamet in London with his partner Kate Zamet for almost three years now. "There is sculpture, photography, video!" Of course, his booth is dominated by a striking diptych by the German painter Paule Hammer that metaphorically encapsulates the timeless tension between East and West.

In Hammerís painting, done in a hand that could be described as† "more fluent Philip Guston," a sign reading "EAST" sits in a grassy alcove against a white wall, while the sign reading "WEST" is part of a pitch-black environment. "Itís like day and night," said Ritter.

Ritter said he had sold half of his booth at the gala opening, works by Danica Phelps, Nate Loman, Krysten Cunningham and others. The Hammer painting is €20,000, and is probably on its way to a U.S. museum.

Friedrich Loock from Wohnmaschine in Berlin pointed out that VOLTA had it all, ranging from a blue-chip John Wesley painting at the booth of Chelsea gallery Fredericks & Freiser to the young artists in kimonos busily making art right on the spot at Kaikai Kiki, the New York studio set up by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.

Wohnmaschine had brought portraits to the fair, including a pair of works by the estimable German artist Anton Henning that gave his signatures loopy-line paintings a definite Picassoid feel. "Antonís in a Picasso period," said Loock. Both paintings sold at the vernissage, for $18,000 and $30,000, to a New York collector. "With Anton, sales are easy!" said Look.

BâleLatina
Not far away from VOLTA is BâleLatina, a fair directed by Mariangelo Capuzzo and organized by a group from Miami and designed to give Latin artists and galleries a presence in Europe during the week of Art Basel. With the unseasonable heat, however -- the sun was bright and temperatures in the 80s -- it was easy to forget you were in Europe at all. "Itís more like Buenos Aires," joked one dealer

Located at the cityís marina in a slim, four-story building called the Brasilea Kulturhaus, the fair arrayed galleries from Mexico, South America, Spain, Italy, the U.S. and Denmark on each floor in a single row along a hallway. One of the first galleries in the space is Prometeogallery by Ida Pisani from Milan, the relatively new commercial venture of what was previously a nonprofit organization promoting Latin American art in Europe.

Featured at the booth were vids and photographs by the 31-year-old Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo, whose film installation at the 2005 Venice Biennale made a big impact (and won the Golden Lion) with its injection of harrowing political content into the otherwise personal precincts of Body Art. One new video, titled Limpieza Social (2006), shows the young artist, naked, standing against a wall in the harsh stream of a water cannon.

Less than two minutes long, the work is in an edition of five with two artistís proofs, and is priced at $8,000. "We sold one today to a Swiss museum," said the galleryís Raúl Martínez,

Prometeogallery also represents Ronald MorŠn, whose photos, paintings and installations feature objects of violence, from toy warrior figures to real knives, covered with a soft, white flocking. "He wants to soften dangerous things," Martínez said. Prices for his works range from €800 for a photograph to €25,000 for an entire room installation similar to the one the artist showed at the 2005 Art Basel Miami Beach, which was bought by Miami collector Marty Marguilies.

Among the other exhibitors is Latincollector from New York, which filled its booth with 11 hard-edge geometric abstractions made between 1950 and 1975 by the painter Carmen Herrera, an artist who was born in Cuba in 1915 but who lives in New York. "Cuban artists typically specialize in voodoo, in the figure," proclaimed gallery director Frederico Seve. "Thatís why Carmen is so special!" The works range in price from $50,000 to $80,000.

Also on hand is Casas Riegner Gallery, which, after a four-year run in Miami, has been moved by director Catalina Casas to BogotŠ. "So many great young artists there," she said. "My mission now is to bring them out to the world."

Her booth, however, is dominated by an installation by María Fernanda Cardoso, a Colombian artist who has recently moved to Australia, and who is remembered for her installation at the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art of hundreds of white lilies planted horizontally in holes in the museum walls. The work at the art fair, called Rain, is an arrangement of nylon tubes that creates a visual veil that seems to hover in space. "Tomorrow, everything will be sold out," said Casas.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at Send Email



 



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