Art of the past has lessons for the present
Modern masterpieces and contemporary works with historic references resonate at Art Basel
By Georgina Adam, Gareth Harris and Riah Pryor. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 13 June 2012
One of the major talking points as Art Basel opened its doors to the first of two waves of VIP guests yesterday was Rothko’s Untitled, 1954, a $78m yellow-and-peach painting watched over by a security guard on Marlborough Fine Art’s stand (2.0/D13).
Such works are rarely offered openly on the secondary market: this piece was charmed out of a private Swiss collection after another work by the late artist, Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961, sold for $86.9m at Christie’s New York last month. “It is exceptional to get a piece like this; it is every bit as important as that Rothko,” said Andrew Renton, the director of Marlborough Contemporary, who is confident that the work will sell at the fair.
Although the economic outlook is worse than gloomy, this did not seem to deter most of the big-name collectors from trying to push their way in before the official 11am opening (none succeeded). Among the early arrivals were the collectors Michael and Susan Hort, Don and Mera Rubell, Pauline Karpidas, Lawrence Graff and Peter Brant; the museum directors Chris Dercon, Nicholas Serota and Anders Kold of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark; and Caroline Bourgeois, the curator for the owner of Christie’s, François Pinault. Other familiar faces included the German collectors Nicolas Berggruen and Christian Boros, the Lebanese retail magnate Tony Salamé and the art adviser Allan Schwartzman.
So how have dealers responded to the economic climate, and what are they showing at the fair this year? Recent auction results have shown that the top end of the art market is doing just fine, as some collectors—notably the mega-rich—seem to be parking some of their fortunes in art.
“Art is portable, and liquid, and can be traded in different currencies,” said Andrew Fabricant, a director at Richard Gray Gallery (2.0/E4). However, offering the sort of works that attract collectors at this level is tough for dealers. “It is harder to get early 20th-century material and, now, even later material,” said Edward Tyler Nahem of New York’s Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art (2.0/F8). “There is great competition, [due to] both scarcity and demand.” As a result, major pieces by pre-war masters, as well as top abstract expressionist, pop and minimalist works, are becoming scarce.
Nevertheless, dealers have managed to extract some major modern works from vendors. Michael Werner Gallery (2.0/B14) is offering Yves Klein’s Peinture de Feu (F89), 1961, for $2.75m. “Such fire paintings are extremely difficult to get,” says Gordon VeneKlasen, director of the gallery. “We did a show of Klein ten years ago, and this came back just last week.” At Helly Nahmad Gallery (2.0/E6), a major stabile by Calder, Trepied, 1972, is priced at $9.5m.
Traditionally, in times of trouble, collectors look to the past. This year, both floors are heaving with examples of art doing just that. The 1980s, in particular, seem to be having a revival. “We focused on Melvin Edwards, who is gaining attention in the US,” said David Cabrera, the co-founder of Alexander Gray Gallery (2.0/G9). “There is less frenzy around emerging artists and less speculative buying, so people are now looking at the influences of 1970s and 80s artists,” he said. The gallery is offering works by Edwards priced between $30,000 and $295,000. Other examples include Mark Wallinger’s Gnomic Verse, 1987, £120,000, with Anthony Reynolds Gallery (2.1/H14), and Clegg & Guttmann’s 1981 photograph Group Portrait of Executives with Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, with Galerie Christian Nagel (2.1/H5), priced at €25,000.
The New York-based art adviser Lisa Schiff sees this as a growing trend. “The public knowledge of Jeff Koons’s personal collecting of Old Masters, the mounting interest of contemporary collectors in visiting fairs like Maastricht, and the forthcoming Frieze Masters: I think there is a desire to look back—way back,” she said. On offer with Galleria Franco Noero (2.1/L10) are two pairs of portrait busts—Self-Portrait as Emperor Hadrian Loving Antinous and Self-Portrait as Antinous Loving Emperor Hadrian, both 2012—by the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, priced at $150,000 and $175,000. Each pair is formed of one antique piece and a contemporary response by Vezzoli. Works by the artist are also showing at Yvon Lambert (2.1/N8).
Also with an antiquarian flavour is Klaus Weber’s Trunk, 2011, a series of masks offered in an edition of three by Andrew Kreps Gallery (2.1/H6). One sold at the opening to an Italian collector for $30,000. “It’s classic with a conceptual underbelly,” Andrew Kreps said. Sies and Höke (2.1/M16) is showing a devarnished 17th-century painting by Fabrice Samyn, Beyond Eros and Thanatos, 2012, priced at €35,000.
Another distinct trend is art that is predominantly white or in a very pale palette. “We started with a minimalist Agnes Martin and designed the booth around it, piece by piece. It is pale, calming—tranquil, even,” said Robert Mnuchin, a partner in L&M Arts (2.0/B12). Among the works he is offering is Martin’s Buds, around 1960, priced at $550,000.
Whatever the state of dealers’ nerves, Art Basel remains the place where they put their best foot forward. David Fitzgerald, a director of Kerlin Gallery (2.1/K9)—the sole Irish exhibitor—summed it up. “Of course there is a nervousness in the economy in general,” he said. “But all you can do is bring your best and not worry about things beyond your control.”
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