Importance of being abstract
Abstract art dominates the fair as collectors seek less flashy works and artists begin to update the form
By Charlotte Burns, Melanie Gerlis and Julia Michalska. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 12 June 2013
Abstract art, the form that dominated the 20th century, once again reigns supreme at the 44th edition of Art Basel. As the fair opened yesterday to the great, the rich and the famous—including the man of the month, Massimiliano Gioni, the director of the Venice Biennale, Russia’s power couple Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova, and the actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Lukas Haas—visitors were confronted with a variety of non-representative, non-figurative art.
Historical pieces by abstract pioneers include kinetic sculptures by Alexander Calder (such as Blue Flower, Red Flower, 1975, at Tina Kim/Kukje, 2.0/F6, priced at $2.8m), Minimalist wall pieces by Donald Judd (including Untitled (Ballantine 89-49), 1989, priced at $2.4m with David Zwirner, 2.0/F5) and various large abstract works by Richter (a 1984 example is on show at Richard Gray Gallery, 2.0/E4, priced at $6.5m; a piece from 1992 is on offer with Dominique Lévy Gallery, 2.0/F4, for “under $20m”). In equal abundance are works by contemporary artists who have taken on the abstract mantle, including Christopher Wool (Untitled, 2001, at Luhring Augustine, 2.0/E13, $1.5m) and Albert Oehlen (FM44, 2011, which sold to a European collector for €250,000 within hours of the fair’s opening at Galerie Max Hetzler, 2.0/E7).
“The abstract abounds,” says Lisa Spellman, the founder of New York’s 303 Gallery (2.1/J21). She is showing non-figurative works priced between $150,000 and $250,000, including two large 2013 works by the gallery’s recently recruited artist Jacob Kassay, which were bought together by a European private collector, and six ceramic works by Nick Mauss, which sold for $23,000 each. Sean Kelly (2.1/N2) designed his stand according to “different ideas of abstraction”, centred around Joseph Kosuth’s Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), 1967, priced at €100,000. “There’s a lot of really good [abstract] work being done across all media right now—painting, photography, conceptual—and we wanted to reflect that,” he says. New works on show include Callum Innes’s Untitled, 2013, a large oil and shellac canvas, which sold to a private US collector for £50,000.
The artist Ad Reinhardt famously said that his 1960s “black” abstract works marked the end of painting, but the abstract form “remains wide open to fresh contributions”, says Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art, who is organising a Reinhardt exhibition for David Zwirner in New York this November. It is “one of the great inventions of Modern art that is barely a century old”—rather, it is “a century young”, he says.
Can today’s artist move the once-radical form in a new, meaningful direction? “The problem is, there is a group of lower-tier abstract painters who are good and whose work looks beautiful, but what they are bringing to the table in terms of art history is nothing new. They are not adding to the conversation,” says the New York-based art adviser Lisa Schiff.
She highlights exceptions whom she thinks are “making enough of a formal innovation to stand alone”. These include the US artist Garth Weiser, whose Sedaka, 2013, sold for $55,000 to a private US collector within half an hour of the fair’s opening at Casey Kaplan (2.1/N16). Massimo De Carlo (2.1/N3) has hung three equal-sized abstract works by different artists next to each other, to “explore the possibilities of abstract art”, says Flavio del Monte, the gallery’s institutional relations manager. “We are bombarded by images everywhere today, so it is important for artists to take some distance,” he says. Loring Randolph, a director at Casey Kaplan, says: “The abstract is always relevant; you can have a rhetoric behind it that can be whatever you want.” Today’s practitioners, she says, “think about how the concept [of the abstract] and the process can work together”.
Process is key: artists are experimenting with materials and technology that were previously unavailable, to update the form. Denise René’s stand (2.0/D19) includes works by the Brussels-based artist group LAb[au]. The pieces, such as Particle Springs, 2011, priced at €27,000, use computer algorithms to create moving, smoke-like patterns on monitors. Mitchell-Innes & Nash (2.0/E6) is showing avant-garde masters such as Franz Kline (Provincetown II, 1959, around $10m) alongside younger artists including Keltie Ferris (Laissez-Faire, 2013, $50,000), whose work is inspired by graffiti and digitalisation.
For some, abstract art provides the chance to explore art history in a new way. At Galerie Nordenhake (2.1/P9), the 29-year-old artist Paul Fägerskiöld has used spray paint to create a homage to both Jackson Pollock and the Pointillists in his monochrome Untitled (Yellow), 2013, €25,000, which sold to a private German museum. At Sperone Westwater (2.0/E10), Emil Lukas’s thread-painting diptych panels Curtain East and Curtain West, 2013, which sold for $65,000, are influenced by Sol LeWitt.
The trend is market-led, too. The boom years were characterised by flashy, self-explanatory art, but there has been a return to more thoughtful, abstract forms such as those produced by artists within the European Zero group. “We staged an exhibition of their work in 2008, which raised consciousness for an American audience to whom the work seemed new. The response was strong and has increased,” says Angela Westwater, the co-director of Sperone Westwater. The gallery is showing works by artists associated with the group, including Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, 1958, priced at around €1m, and Otto Piene’s 1975 oil and fire on canvas, Red Matters, priced at €250,000. Meanwhile, post-recession records have been achieved at auction for works by abstract artists, including the $43.8m paid for Barnett Newman’s Onement VI, 1953, at Sotheby’s in New York last month. “Collectors now want quieter, intellectual art with more depth. The years of the loud, funny works are over,” says Bob van Orsouw (2.1/P17), who is showing works including a wall sculpture by the Dutch conceptual artist Ger van Elk (Los Angeles Freeway Flyer, 1973, €125,000).
The fact that much abstract art is easy on the eye (and looks good above the sofa) could be one of the attractions for some of the new buyers who have entered the market since 2008, according to some in the trade. “It doesn’t seem so long ago that figurative art was the latest fashion; now it’s good-looking abstract,” one London dealer says. Others do not see the problem. “Who says that decorative art is not also serious art? Matisse and virtually all of Islamic tradition attest to the fact that it is or can be,” Robert Storr says, adding: “Is Mondrian eye-candy?”
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