Fairs Analysis USA

Basel mints the next blue-chip artists

But will the wider market and museums buy in?

Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (568-1), 1984 (above), at Richard Gray Gallery (2.0/E4), on offer for $6.5m

This year’s Art Basel suggests that the definition of “blue-chip” work is changing, which is reflected in the layout of the fair. There are more contemporary dealers than ever on the ground floor, which has traditionally been home to Modern art galleries. This year, Metro Pictures (2.0/B9), White Cube (2.0/C18) and Lisson Gallery (2.0/B12) have migrated downstairs. They join dealers such as Andrea Rosen (2.0/B5), Barbara Gladstone (2.0/E2) and Xavier Hufkens (2.0/B18), all better known for their contemporary, rather than Modern, programmes. “There has been a continuous migration. Some years, more galleries move,” says Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel.

Meanwhile, former specialists in the early 20th century, such as Thomas Ammann (2.0/B13), are now also showing new works of art: on the gallery’s stand, pieces by the late Cy Twombly sit alongside works by the Bruce High Quality Foundation.

“Artists like Picasso, Matisse and Dubuffet used to be the staple here, but [their] works have become fewer as they’ve been dispersed among museums and private collections,” says Paul Gray of the Richard Gray Gallery (2.0/E4), which has been showing at Basel for 20 years.

Diminishing supply

It is not that the demand for Modern art has diminished. On the contrary, some of the most sought-after works at the fair fall within this sector, and they command huge prices. New York’s Helly Nahmad Gallery (2.0/A8) sold Sumac, a 1961 mobile by Calder, with an asking price of $12m, on the first day. “We sold to mostly new buyers—people who want to invest in blue-chip 20th-century masters,” Joseph Nahmad says. But, he says, there is simply “less supply” in this field.

The shrinking supply of Modern art is compounded by the growth of the market. An unprecedented number of people have begun to buy art over the past decade, and the potentially limitless store of works by contemporary (or prolific post-war) artists is driving the redefinition of “blue-chip”. “The nature of buying” has changed, Gray says. “There is a far more diverse market nowadays, especially for artists such as Wool, Warhol, Basquiat and Murakami. It ranges from very serious collectors to those who are just plain wealthy.”

As the number of buyers has increased, “the category of artists considered to be blue-chip has expanded”, says Serena Cattaneo Adorno, the director of Gagosian Gallery, Paris. “There are bound to be artists whom people move towards when they can’t find the earlier ones,” says Nicholas Maclean of the secondary market dealership Eykyn Maclean. Artists such as Warhol (on show at galleries including Mnuchin, 2.0/E9, Daniel Blau, 2.0/B4, and Dominique Lévy, 2.0/F4) and Basquiat (at Gagosian, 2.0/B15, and Acquavella, 2.0/E16) have now almost completely replaced Modern masters, such as Miró, Mondrian and Kandinsky, as the mainstays at Basel.

“The dividing line between what is Modern and what’s contemporary moves with time. History is mobile,” says the art adviser Stefano Basilico. Louise Bourgeois is “the perfect example of an artist who becomes blue-chip over time”, says Florian Berktold of Hauser & Wirth (2.0/C10), which presented a group of the artist’s “Personages” from the 1940s and 1950s. Other such artists include Donald Judd (on show with David Zwirner, 2.0/F5) and Carl Andre (with the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Unlimited, U60).

History might wait to judge the living, but today’s art market moves with more haste. A number of living artists now fall into the blue-chip class and their work is in ample supply at the fair (with prices to rival those of their predecessors). Among them is the German painter Gerhard Richter. A new record for the most expensive living artist at auction was set last month when Richter’s Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan), 1968, sold at Sotheby’s for $37m. Two abstract canvases—a 1992 painting at Dominique Lévy on offer for $20m, and a 1984 work at Richard Gray on offer for $6.5m—are on show at the fair.

Joining the blue-chip club

Artists who came of age in the 1980s are also “now considered truly blue-chip”, says Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read (2.0/C14). “Enough time and art history has passed for people to realise the importance of artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman.” All three are represented at the fair: Holzer’s Truisms: All things are delicately interconnected… ($750,000), which dates to 1987, is on show at Cheim & Read, while Sprüth Magers (2.0/B19) sold Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still, 1979, for $800,000, as well as Kruger’s Made for you, 2013, for $250,000.

Some argue the case for Christopher Wool, whose Untitled, 2001 ($1.5m), and Untitled, 2004 ($845,000), sold at Luhring Augustine (2.0/E13). The market for pieces by Wool, who has a solo exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum this autumn, has exploded over the past three years.

Ultimately, time will tell which artists enter the canon of art history. “You can be contemporary and be blue-chip, but you have to have had an impact on a certain generation of artists,” says Thaddaeus Ropac (2.0/B11), whose sales include a 2013 work by Georg Baselitz, Not yet titled (Kleine Marokkanerin), for €950,000. “A shooting star is not blue-chip,” he warns.

For the moment, however, collectors are enjoying the intergenerational diversity. The Italian collector Jean Pigozzi says: “I want to see new art, not the same old pieces on and on.”


Detail of Louise Bourgeois’s Sleeping Figure, 2004, priced at $1.4m, on Cheim & Read’s stand (2.0/C14)
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