June 13, 2009

Art Basel at 40

It was with some degree of trepidation that I made the bookings for this year's Art Basel / The International Art Show. After all, the art business has been suffering along with the financial and real estate markets and the recent New York art fairs and auctions had not been confidence builders. But book I did, and after a diversion through Heathrow and no luggage when I finally arrived in Switzerland, it was time to go to work. Tuesday morning broke bright and beautiful as I lined up (dressed in my brand new clothes purchased in the Zurich train station!) with a very chic European crowd for the preview of Art Basel '09.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Art Basel, and the 10th of Art Unlimited, the adjacent space for large installation pieces. Originally featuring 90 galleries and 30 art publishers from 10 countries, the fair has expanded to 300 galleries (selected from 2000 applications) representing 33 countries with 4 of the original exhibitors having participated every year.

In the past few years the fair had become almost a circus event with hoards of people circulating through the main fair at the Messe Hall (now occupying 2 full floors), the innumerable satellite fairs for hyper-contemporary art, and the plethora of exhibitions mounted by Basel's excellent museums. But 2009 was definitely going to be different. No one was expecting the huge crowds and frenzied buying that typified the recent past. In fact, before leaving New York I had spoken with a number of regular attendees who declared that they were opting not to visit Switzerland and the fair this year.

The tension was palpable on opening day. Yes, there were definitely fewer American collectors and dealers in attendance, but there was still a very well-heeled crowd of mostly Europeans. The booths were hung with high caliber material as exhibitors opted for safety over speculation. I think The Art Newspaper put it best with their headline "Bye bye to bling: out goes the glitter, in comes the classics". But now was the moment of truth - would it sell? At the end of the first day, dealers breathed a collective sigh of relief as quality works were indeed selling, although not at stratospheric prices.

For me, it seemed a return to sanity within the art market. Purchases were made thoughtfully and carefully with an eye to value and true desirability. Many prominent collectors were there and dealers took the time to speak with everyone and not just the high rollers. Naturally, the appearance of Brad Pitt caused quite a sensation - especially when he made a few purchases - but it was far less a venue for beautiful people than an opportunity to see some really great art.

A few of my favorite pieces would include Andy Warhol's 1979 "Big Retrospective Painting", a bargain at $74 Million, at Galerie Bruno Bishofburger, Zurich, Marcel Duchamp's comet haircut photograph "Le Tonsure" at Galerie Fran├žoise Paviot, Paris, and, Jaume Plensa's 2009 "Song of Songs" a stainless steel curtain of poetry hanging at Richard Gray, New York.

Art Unlimited was hugely entertaining again this year. Some standout projects were Pascale Marthine Tayou's shredded paper woolly mammouth entitled "Le Verso Versa de Vice Recto" (see above right), Tatjana Doll's enormous mural "Container Ship", and, :MetalKLINIK's glitter sucking robot vacuum cleaners in "PuFF". Special mention must go to Matthew Day Jackson's "The Dymaxion Family" (see above left), an installation of four skeletal sculptures made of found objects as a reference to Utopian scientist Buckminster Fuller's "Dynamic Maximum Tension" theory.

While not the unmitigated success of the recent go-go years, Art Basel's 40th birthday is certainly a happy one and I am looking forward to another celebration of art next year!

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