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Buyers galore but a bit of a bore: Art Basel 1999

Collectors came out in force, but much of the art on show was not as exciting as that seen at Venice or offered by the auction houses

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“Art Basel” remains the world’s premier art fair, but is it the best place to look for innovation in contemporary art? Is it still the great ephemeral museum of modern art that it was in the past?

The Basel Fair is the showcase par excellence for international art dealers. However, this year Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales of Modern art offered such high quality Modern works from top private collections that few of the stallholders at Basel could compete.

Comparison with the Venice Biennale gives anyone who has visited both events a feeling of dissatisfaction with Basel. The previous Biennale (1997) was well in the swim with the fair, in the sense that work selected for Venice was on sale in Basel. The dealers played their Biennale card brilliantly, some of them offering the actual pieces exhibited at the Biennale and using the Biennale catalogue as if it were a sales catalogue!

This year, a clutch of artists taking part in the Biennale were present in Basel, but much fewer than usual. What was lacking in Basel was any breath of fresh air from Venice. The exhibitors at the fair presented a version of contemporary art which seemed conventional. In the case of artists present at both events, it was rare to find work in Basel that was as strong as their work in Venice.

Previously, the organisers of the fair have tried to promote video art, but it is almost entirely absent from this year’s fair—it is all happening on the Lagoon. Venice offered visitors a creative vision, while Basel told an all-too-familiar story.

This conformity did not seem to affect business, however: European and American collectors came in droves, many sneaking into the fair with dealers’ passes a day before the official opening of the fair in order to see and buy work. By the evening of the private view, many of the best works had been snapped up and deals were being struck at a breakneck pace.

The organisers of Art Basel gave a boost to galleries with large installations by providing a marquee opposite the fair, “Art Sculpture”, to display large pieces. The dealers who used it, managed to create a space equal in quality to the best of the pavilions in Venice.

It is easy to identify why certain stands were of lower quality this year. In 1998, we pointed out that many galleries are hesitant to exhibit important items publicly at fairs. Their best weapon against the auction houses is to offer their clients paintings that are completely unknown—and are therefore more sought-after. Christie’s has taken this on board: they have just opened a special department for private sales of modern art, making things even more difficult for dealers.

All this notwithstanding, top stalls belong to Swiss dealers Beyeler and Krugier, with Miró and Arp on offer at the former and Picasso at the latter. As usual the paintings were beautifully and intelligently hung.

“Art Basel” has always favoured American galleries, reserving the best sites for them. One cannot say that they were rewarded for their pains this year because the Americans were among the weakest and most conventional stands to be seen at this fair. The success of the American economy and the strength of the dollar did not favour to Basel; the American galleries kept their best stock for exhibitions in New York.

One stand showed eminently good taste, however, namely Mitchell-Innes & Nash with a very handsome Rothko of 1949 ($1,800,000). Another exception was Matthew Marks, one of the few galleries to stock both American and European artists and to show works which link up with Venice; he showed the best piece at the fair by Katharina Fritsch: “Monk and Doctor”, a striking parable about life and death in black and white. Appropriately enough, it recalled Cranach, who loved Basel.

American painting is ubiquitous, its emblem being Andy Warhol’s self-portrait of 1986: Beyeler used it on their poster for the exhibition, Shafrazi had it in black and white for $775,000; D’Offay in green; Gagosian had it in parachute version, others in a smaller format. Bernard Jacobson had the largest painting in the fair, a Frank Stella more than thirteen metres long with the evocative title “Marquise von O”; price $1 million.

Here, as in Venice, the Far East was inescapable. Yan Pei Ming, Chen Zhen and their compatriots were everywhere. Such enormous exposure is not invariably a success. The work of Chen Zhen changes constantly and was one of the strongest presences in Basel. Sometimes he appeared a bit too derivative of Tony Cragg, as in “Exciting Delivery”, a pile of black plastic tubes and miniature cars (at Art Beatus, $25,000), which looked like a direct quotation from the English sculptor’s large-scale bronzes. However, his “Cocoon of the Void” in Chinese abacus beads and beads from a Buddhist chapel, presented by Krinzinger, was a defining poetic moment of the fair. Yan Pei Ming reappears constantly, on the walls of Bernier, Jaussen, Art Beatus, Art & Public and Durant Dessert—the same figures, same landscapes, same techniques and colour schemes, and same prices too: $15,000-35,000 according to size. The five galleries listed above were the ones that stuck most closely to what is on show in Venice.

In the “Art Sculpture” area, Wang Du’s enormous “Strategy in Chamber” is a gigantic aerial attack of plastic aeroplanes against mountains of daily papers monitored by Clintons and Milosevics made of papier mâché; it was the only work to engage with the current political climate.

Art fairs generally contain a saccharine version of the real world. Political preoccupations could upset collectors and are therefore excluded by dealers. The Hyundai Gallery presented artists like Kim Kwang Young, Ham Sup and Shin Sung Hy: they displayed astonishing technical bravura but little more than decorative content. All the Far Eastern artists mentioned above represent a force in the art world. It is to be hoped that they do not experience the same meteoric career as the Russian artists of eleven years ago—hyped at all sales and fairs and now completely forgotten.

The English galleries expressed the current cultural and economic strength of their country perfectly. Waddington offered the best work by his artists, including “Sculler”, a bronze by Flanagan in an edition of eight (£115,000, $184,000).

Marlborough showed Manolo Valdès, whose paintings were shown at the Spanish pavilion of the Biennale, with his big portraits mixing (slightly incongruously) the influences Alberto Burri and Van Dongen ($65,000-75,000).

The Nahmad brothers have for decades dominated the free port of Geneva, selling and buying at auctions, with no gallery of their own and almost no private clients. Their London-based nephew, Helly, was at Basel for the first time with the family stock, always of high quality, and mainly purchased at auction. Lisson, a paragon of the contemporary art world, showed the best Kapoor of 1999 in aluminium and lacquer at £75,000.

Steven Friedman brought some humour (terribly absent this year) in the shape of characters by Yinka Shonibare: a couple of life-sized figures of dandies and another of elegant Victorians dressed in traditional African fabric, answering to the names of “Gay Victorians” and “Affection of a Man” ($30,000 per pair).

The New Art Centre is a British foundation located in a field near Salisbury; it looks after the Barbara Hepworth estate and presented an admirable survey of her work in Basel, offering “Two Forms in White” at $360,000. This was one of the very few single artist shows at the fair this year.

A recently established London gallery, Laure Genillard, showed the remarkable work of an artist from Turin, Elisa Seghicelli: photographs on light boxes in an edition of three at SFr6,000 ($4000)

The French dealers remained more loyal to individual artists. Denise René continued to shiw Agam and Soto, as well as a new generation of artists. Chantal Croussel allowed Tony Cragg to respond to his Asian imitators with two Buddhas back to back, entitled “Silent Conversation” ($73,000). Durand Dessert showed the photographer Balthasar Burkhard, one of the most interesting discoveries of the Biennale; two of his photographic diptychs were on offer: “Mountains” and “Mexico City, both at SFr24,000 ($16,000).

The Swiss provided some of the best stands. Buchmann offered the best of Cragg and Chamberlain at the same price as in recent years. As noted, Art & Public presented a selection of artists from the Biennale, with the addition of a hilarious self-portrait as “White Marilyn” by Yasumara Morimura at $25,000.

Hauser and Wirth went the whole hog with a maxi-installation by Dieter Roth, an artist also seen at the Biennale: 34,000 slides called “Reykjavic Slides”. The ever-elegant Bartha showed one of the best Richard Deacons, a wooden table at SFr65,000 ($42,800). Stampa had a video by Pipilotti Rist, otherwise conspicuously absent from this fair. In the sculpture section, Pauli had one of the best installations: Jaume Plensa’s alabaster boxes.

The rest of Europe was divided between innovators like Bernier, with a good Juan Muñoz, and classics like Mayer, loyal to Nam June Paik and Robert Long. The Dutch gallery Zakirova showed a series of photographs by the Russian Rauf Mamedov, showing the life of Christ re-enacted by Down’s syndrome children—a powerful statement in this sanitised fair.

The Italians did well this time, although the management did them no favours location-wise. No Italian galleries were in the first circle, and some were impossible to find. The best classical stand was Lo Scudo with an admirable selection of Marini and Melotti. It is rare for Italian gallery owners to take important works of art out of the country, so this was unusual. The most elegant was Christian Stein with a magnificent “Efeso” by Luciano Fabro, 1990. Giorgio Persano’s stand was divided between Susy Gomez, a young Spanish photographer, and a large steel frame by Gerhard Merz, plus classics like Pistoletto. Artiaco offered a large selection of Perino & Vele, the other great revelation of the Biennale. Tega had his Picassos and a good Paladino, “Parade”. Bonomo continued to promote Richard Tuttle.

Finally, it is interesting how the big galleries continued to offer works of art at affordable prices. Blu had a one-man show by Medhat Safik, from SFr5,000 to SFr14,000 ($3300-9200). La Città had paper sails by Hashimoto at $5,000; Gian Ferrari offered a “Venus” by Enrica Borghi at L1 million ($545). Minimi continued to earn its reputation as the largest international gallery for contemporary art with a splendid Kapoor in black granite at $120,000 and a series of photographs by Vanessa Beecroft.

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