A specter is haunting the art world, the specter of the art-market boom. Critics and curators, collectors and artists, even art dealers fear the unruly power of this boom. And its manifesto is openly acknowledged, in the face the whole world, at Art 38 Basel, June 13-17, 2007.
"I see my job as developing resources for artists," said one dealer at Art Basel, whistling in the wind. "Not providing assets for collectors."
Five or six years ago Art Basel was a sleepy (if large) event of interest largely to professionals. Now, with 300 galleries presenting over 2,000 artists, a vast "Art Unlimited" hall holding 60 large-scale projects, a videotheque and film program, talks and performances by artists and a series of panels, it provides without a doubt the most compelling selection of the best and most important art being made today.
In the "Big Fair," as Art Basel is called by the young dealers
encamped at Liste, Volta and Scope, each booth is more
impressive than the next. For sure, high prices have lured more top works to
market than ever before. But the dealers also love to put on a good show (and
try to show up their colleagues).
Helly Nahmad Gallery from London, for instance, has filled its booth with nothing but paintings by Pablo Picasso. Titled "L’Artiste, le Modèle et la Peinture," the selection largely featured a series made by the 74-year-old painter in 1963, depicting himself at work at his easel (usually painting a nude). But several others are versions of Le dejeuner sur l’herbe.
These late Picassos, still scorned by some connoisseurs, look positively elegant in the age of Martin Kippenberger. The largest painting on view wasn’t for sale. No surprise. "I don’t want to sell," David Nahmad said the other day. "I want to buy!"
Down the aisle, New York dealer Tony Shafrazi had also mounted a solo show, this one consisting of society portraits from the 1970s and ‘80s by Andy Warhol. A painting of the eternally glamorous Debbie Harry was priced at $6 million. Shafrazi even published a 148-page, full-color catalogue of the artwork he brought to the fair.
Especially good was the "Art Unlimited" section, which featured one fabulous installation after another in what has to be the best single exhibition of new art ever assembled. With nary a dealer in sight, and no prices posted, it was easy enough to forget that everything was for sale.
The German artist Katharina Grosse took Color Field
painting to a new level with Atomimage (2007), a 3D installation where
the artist’s trademark spray-painted colors migrated off the walls onto a heap
of large weather balloons.
The Chinese artist Xu Zhen was represented by a 23-minute-long documentary film titled 18 Days (2006), which comically chronicled the travails of the artist and his assistants as they traveled 15,000 kilometers across China in an attempt to "penetrate" the borders into Myanmar, Inner Mongolia and Russia with remote-controlled toy boats, tanks, airplanes and helicopters. What a thought!
Another sophisticated film was the The Casting (2007) by Omer Fast, which is interesting in all its parts. Framed as a behind-the-scenes look at a director and crew auditioning people with stories to tell, the 14-minute-long vid seamlessly mixes two disturbing narratives as if they have merged in the mind of the narrator. In one, he goes on a date with a woman who cuts herself, while in the other he is a soldier in Iraq who accidentally kills a civilian at a roadblock. The film is shot as a series of tableaux -- the actors stand frozen in space, moving slightly -- so that it is both "still" and "live" at once.
Daniel Buren put some of his blue stripes on the escalator, while Galería Nara Roesler of São Paulo and Galerie Lelong of New York collaborated to recreate a blue-lit pool originally designed by Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida. People reclined at poolside, though they seemed reluctant to dangle their feet in the cool water.
The Swiss artist Christoph Büchel may be having trouble getting his work finished at MASS MoCA, but he had an over-the-top installation at Art Basel, including a working bar, a passageway that required visitors to pass through a hole in a toilet, several grungy sleeping quarters and unbelievable piles of junk and debris. It was awesome.
Another popular installation was courtesy of Los Angeles artist Allen Ruppersberg. Titled "The Never Ending Book," the booth was filled with boxes of Xeroxes, both color and black-and-white, of pages from books of poetry, and visitors were invited to select up to ten pages to make their very own version. Plenty of people hastened to take part.
Perhaps best of all was the six-meter-tall bronze statue by Paul McCarthy of a little Santa Claus holding a bell in his left hand and in his right, instead of a festive Christmas tree, a butt plug. This sculpture was placed outdoors on the plaza right in front of the entry to "Art Unlimited," so it became something of an emblem for the fair.
Sure, Santa with Butt Plug (2002-07) epitomizes the general sense of avant-garde irreverence, combining a hallowed holiday icon with something associated with deviant sexual pleasure. But have butt plugs really come this far?
Apparently so. Hauser & Wirth sold the sculpture, which is one from an edition of three, to an American collector for a price the gallery declined to disclose (another dealer guessed the price to be $800,000, though that seems low). The gallery also offered an inflatable, two-meter-tall butt plug multiple by the artist, one in gold and one in silver, in an edition of 75 each, for $4,000 apiece. They sold out.
Plenty of new talent was on view as well. One young artist that everyone was talking about was Warsaw photographer Aneta Grzeszykowska (b. 1974) at Raster gallery from Warsaw. Grzeszykowska had painstakingly remade each of the 70 photographs in Cindy Sherman’s classic "Untitled Film Stills" series, substituting herself for the New York artist and finding clothing, props and settings locally. Compared to Sherman’s cool professionalism, Grzeszykowska’s stills are amateur and hot.
By the end of the fair, all seven editions of 70 photos had sold for prices ranging from €3,000 for groups of five to €30,000 for the entire edition. Though an early version of the work had been shown in a project space in Warsaw, Art Basel hosted its first full presentation.
Coming hot on the heels of the two biggest curated exhibitions on the art-world calendar -- the Venice Biennale and Documenta 12 -- the high quality of Art Basel is sobering news. Art Basel blows both of those shows out of the water. The works on view at the art bazaar in Switzerland, brought by several hundred art dealers, are prettier and more powerful than anything mere curators can devise.
And it’s not just one hyperbolic art critic who thinks so. In a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titled "The Better Biennale," art critic Rose-Maria Gropp suggests that for art lovers, Art Basel leaves hardly a desire unfulfilled. "There is in Basel more concentrated strength than in the Italian lagoon," she claims.
Are we seeing the triumph of Republicanism and Conservatism over the Democrats and the Socialists? Do the curated shows, with their art carefully chosen by public-spirited arts administrators according to a comprehensive plan, correspond to liberalism, while the art fairs, which are dominated by scores of shopkeepers and capitalists, represent the power of the free market? From the evidence here, one would have to conclude that the Republicans have won a round. As Daffy Duck used to lisp, "What a revolting.development this is!"
You don’t have to take my word for it. Artnet has put the entire, glorious fair online at www.artbasel-artnet.com
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.