People come to Basel in June to buy art, sell art and see art, not necessarily in that order. Of late doubts have been raised about the health of the art market, which can now be laid to rest. The market is strong. It is strong not only at the top, where it is very strong, but also in the middle, where it has been said to be soft.
Every day this week the Art Newspaper has published a 12-page tabloid with mildly hyperbolic headlines like "Roman Abramovich brings Basel to life," and "The private museum rewrites the rules of the market." Ace art reporters Georgina Adam, Louisa Buck, Brook S. Mason, Lindsay Pollock and several others work too hard and chronicle the sales at length.
A 20-foot-tall polychromed steel sculpture of a rose by Isa Genzken, priced at €750,000, has sold to a private collector. A Mark Rothko sold for $5.5 million, a Jean-Michel Basquiat for $2.9 million and a Richard Prince joke painting for $2 million. Miami collector Martin Margulies admits to buying three Franz West sculptures, a 1962 Pablo Picasso painting and a photograph by Justine Kurland, but declines to reveal what he paid.
And even Page Six knows that the actor Brad Pitt spent close to $1 million on contemporary design by Ron Arad, Jeroen Verhoeven, Max Lamb and others. Buying furniture for a huge new French mansion.
The art market was the subject too of a brief talk given one evening by Josh Baer, the art consultant and publisher of the Baer Faxt, which he calls an "art industry newsletter." The subject of the talk was "10 New Things about the 2008 Art Market," but his most provocative remark came as a brief aside, when he predicted that both major auction houses -- Christie’s and Sotheby’s -- would be sold in the next year.
Later Baer explained that he thought that the mega-millionaire owner of Christie’s, François Pinault, who he has never spoken to, would want to divest himself of some of his holdings (Pinault turns 72 this August) and focus on his own art museum in Venice. Christie’s is a private company and doesn’t publish its financials but Baer figures that Christie’s has been happy to risk selling big lots at a loss in order to gain market share with an eye on increasing the value of the company. And a Christie’s sale would establish a value for Sotheby’s as well, since both firms are about the same.
Basel has six fairs now. Or seven or eight. As everyone knows, the best is Art 39 Basel, June 2-8, 2008. This is how it is done. Very high key. Outside, huge works on the plaza, a little silly, nevertheless make people happy. A suite of 11 giant-sized grinning goon heads, looking rather Tim Burton-ish, by sweet Ugo Rondinone is available as a set for maybe $2.5 million from Matthew Marks Gallery. And a shiny, upside-down tree welded of silvery stainless steel by bashful Roxy Paine is yours for $1.4 million, said cheerful New York dealer James Cohan, who represents the artist but not this particular work.
Inside, a kind of esthetic delirium, the art and the people all in a whirl, very lively and pretty to look at. "You feel happy and full of high spirits," as John Cheever imagined of Coverly Wapshot at his first hootchie cootch. And so it is here, one thing after another. Astonishingly rich color monochromes by Ellsworth Kelly under astonishingly bright lights. A brand new painting of two naked girls nuzzling in the grass by Lisa Yuskavage, sold for a price, undisclosed but certainly somewhere near her auction record, which is $1,384,000.
And somber Joan Miró abstractions on roughened masonite from 1936, after the Fascists had taken over in Spain, spotlighted in the dark, like in a haunted house. These are at the booth of London dealer Helly Nahmad, and are not for sale. Famously, the Nahmad’s hate to sell, even at a market top.
The natural concupiscence of the art-fair experience is emphasized by a visit to the Fondation Beyeler on the city’s edge. People love the Beyeler, which was designed by Renzo Piano and has his trademark skylights covered with scrim, suffusing the galleries with an even, milky light. The Beyeler is said to be the best museum of its kind in the world. The galleries are perfectly proportioned and stripped of idle ornament.
After Art Basel, though, the creamy evenness takes some getting used to. It tends to neuter things and make their colors a little bit gray. When there are spotlights here and there, you realize the way that a spotlight tends to bring out an artwork’s inherent theatricality and staged seductiveness. But most of the artworks in the Beyeler, and they are great artworks, have settled down. No longer available, they have lost their erotic charge. They’re behind glass, sometimes literally, like Pablo Picasso’s Le sauvetage (1932).
And now we come to looking at art. In one corner of the Art Basel hall is Miguel Abreu, whose gallery is a storefront on Orchard Street in New York. His sales patter is the most ontological you’ve ever heard. A strange geometric sculpture by Scott Lyall, a Cal Arts grad like Abreu, he called the material representative of an immaterial object, a computer file. It doesn’t sit firmly on the floor, like a real object, but is propped up a few inches into an indeterminate space. "If we don’t sell it, we throw it out."
The five paintings in the booth, which are made by Blake Rayne, are all spoken for at $35,000 each. Rayne’s paintings are neo-formalist, their abstract patterns determined by folds in the linen, their frames made of their wooden shipping crates. Selling everything should make a person happy, but Abreu said that his profits were eaten up by his costs. Perhaps he was asking for it. A perfectly balanced closed system should, after all, produce no surplus value.
In one of the many labyrinthine corners of Liste 08, which is held in the labyrinthine Wartek Brewery where art dealers sit on folding metal chairs like alcoholics in a church basement, were several works made from bath towels by Paul Lee. Towels hanging on a peg on a canvas, towels stiffened with cement and propped up like a model Richard Serra, towels sewn or torn and hung on the wall in homage to Blinky Palermo. The esthetic remains abject, though it has an echo of cleanliness. Javier Peres of Peres Projects, which is headquartered in Los Angeles and Berlin, is selling the works for $8,000 to $12,000.
In the space set aside for Cologne dealer Lutz Becker’s seven-month-old Schnittraum gallery is an installation by Peles Empire, a pair of German artists now resident in London, Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff, for which they covered the walls with a color-photo blowup of the imperial apartment of Peles Castle in Romania, and installed on top of the image a group show including two photographs, a sculpture and a kind of Ben-Day photo-collage -- a strategy remarkably similar to the "Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns" exhibition at Tony Shafrazi Gallery that was the toast of New York last month.
Becker reported that the work had been sold for €16,000 to the German government, for the official art collection of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is overseen by a committee of five museum people. "It couldn’t be better," the dealer enthused, imagining the project installed in the presidential offices or perhaps in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin next to the famous Flick Collection.
Three other art fairs -- Volta 4, Scope Basel and Bålelatîna Contemporary Art Fair, are all located along a canal in an industrial section of the city. One highlight at Volta was the Chicago-based performance-art duo Miller & Shellabarger, whose slogan is "Always together, always in public." For the fair, the two men were sitting out on the dock and methodically sewing themselves together along an imaginary seam running up the sides of the clothes (jeans and white shirts) and then cutting themselves apart, only to repeat the process. They are represented by Western Exhibitions in Chicago.
At Bålelatîna was a cycle of seven black-and-white paintings depicting the myth of Che Guevara, a work by the Cuban artist José Ángel Toirac. The series begins with Che as a child and ends with an image of Fidel Castro lighting the eternal flame at Che’s grave. The work is €80,000 at the Galería La Casona in Havana.
These days it seems that no art fair is complete without a performance by an aging rock idol, who nevertheless manages to help the sophisticated art audience recapture its callow youth. At Basel it was Patti Smith, playing with her son Jackson Smith as well as guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer J.D. Daugherty in the lovely Gothic Elisabethenkirche, an event that was co-sponsored by Art Basel and the Fondation Cartier in Paris, where Smith’s photographs are currently on view. Smith seemed very happy, and her songs -- her hymns -- sounded especially good in soaring church.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.