June 06, 2008

Art Basel

For 11 months of the year, the small industrial city of Basel sits sleepily on the banks of the Rhine and exudes the kind of tranquility and order the Swiss are famous for. All that changes every June, however, as 55,000 dealers, collectors, curators and art lovers of every ilk descend for the annual extravaganza that is Art Basel. Now in its 39th year, this edition promised to be more than the usual marathon of 300 galleries showing modern and contemporary art, the super-sized installations at Art Unlimited and the various special exhibitions mounted by the city's fine museums. What made the 2008 Art Basel a little different was the near simultaneous opening of the Euro Cup - the continent-wide soccer tournament hosted jointly by Austria and Switzerland.

In order to accommodate the 160,000 rabid soccer fans expected in Basel for the Cup's opening match (Switzerland vs Czech Republic), the organizers of the art fair opted to move up the opening by a week. The city's 62 hotels responded with major rate increases, but the die hard art world types were not deterred and gamely shared over crowded trams, buses and restaurants with soccer fans dressed head to toe in their team's colors!

Neither the sad state of the U.S. dollar, nor the unsteadiness of the stock market proved a problem for fair participants. Sales were generally declared to be "solid" and "very satisfactory" though without the "urgency" seen in prior years. An increase in exhibitors and visitors from newly wealthy economies, such as India, was noticeable and contributed to an even more global atmosphere at the fair.

There was a lot of great art to see at Art Basel, but a couple of booths really stood out. Helly Nahmed, London, featured the complete series of 27 paintings on masonite done by Joan Miro at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Many were lent by museums and foundations and it was the first time that these works had been reunited since 1936. Also impressive was the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, who dedicated the entire stand to a "Special Exhibition Celebrating the 85th Birthday of Ellsworth Kelly".

In the more contemporary galleries exhibiting upstairs in the main hall were several outstanding works by emerging artists. Among the notables were Carmen Perrin's cut out chairs on the theme of "Motifs de porosité (Porous Motifs)" at Galerie Gisèle Linder, Basel, Rashid Rona's huge "Red Carpet 4" photograph of an oriental rug composed of a mosaic of thousands of tiny photos on the stand of Nature Morte, New Delhi, and the beautifully scented hanging sculpture "Before I Swallow You Carrosselflower" by Ernesto Neto at the Galeria Fortes Vallaca, Sao Paulo.

Several of the massive installations exhibited next door at Art Unlimited were also impressive. I especially enjoyed the "viewer participation" pieces such as "Penetrable BBL Bleu" by Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto, "Garden III (Pine Trees)" by the Yangjiang Group from China, and the showstopper "Staring Into Amnesia" by Qiu Anxiong featuring an original antique passenger train car from China with video clips playing in each window. I know it sounds strange - but you really had to be there!

As usual, the city's museums have mounted their most important special exhibitions for this international audience. The Kunstmuseum's dual presentations of Robert Delaunay and Chaim Soutine, though both artists who worked in Paris in the early 1900's, couldn't have been more different.

"Robert Delaunay - Homage à Blériot" presented a very few carefully chosen works that packed an enormous punch. Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) was a pioneer of the avant garde and one of the first modern artists to complete the step from neo impressionism to abstraction via his theory of color effects called "Simultaneous Colour Lyricism". This theory of "Simultanisme" was a collaboration between he and his wife, Sonia Delaunay, and proposed a new language through the representation of of readily recognized images by abstract pictorial concepts created in pure color. The results are visually stunning.

"Soutine and Modernism" is visually stunning as well, but in a totally different way. His heavily worked portraits and still lifes seek to capture the "condition humaine", warts and all. There is a lot of color, but it is more horrifying than beautiful. His paintings of slaughtered oxen are true to life and rather gory in their directness, but fascinating at the same time.

A 15 minute ride on the #6 Tram will take you to Riehen, a small town on the border with Germany and since 1997 home to the Fondation Beyeler. Housed in a Renzo Piano designed building overlooking pastures and quaint Alpine scenes, is an incomparable collection of modern art, the life's work of Hildy and Ernst Beyeler.

Just opened in time for Art Basel is the special exhibition "Fernand Léger: Paris - New York", a look at one of the most significant French modern painters with special attention to the American aspects of Léger's art and his impact on major American artists. Fernand Léger traveled to the United States several times and spent a lot of time in New York completing commissions for American patrons such as Nelson Rockefeller. His fascination with American themes of modernity, architecture and dynamism is clearly reflected in many of his works such as "The Divers", 1943, and "The Construction Workers", 1950.

His is also credited with influencing American artists, particularly of the Pop Generation. To illustrate this point the curators have juxtaposed various of Léger's paintings with works by other artists. For example, Léger's "Les deux cyclists, la mère et l'enfant", 1951, is hung next to Ellsworth Kelly's flags "Blue, Black, Red, Green", 2000, Léger's "Composition architecturale sur fond bleu", 1952, is paired with Frank Stella's sculpture "The Grand Armada", 1989, and the clearest comparison, "La partie de campagne", 1952-3, is mirrored in "Stepping Out", a 1958 work by Roy Lichtenstein.

It's been another art-filled few days here in Basel. Despite the cool, cloudy weather the art world continues to shine and the excitement of participating in this "Carnival of Art" is undimmed. Now it's on to Paris where more adventures await! A bientôt! Bis bald! See you soon!

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