Flower Power

Basel
06.14.06

Left: Art Basel director Sam Keller with artist Andreas Gursky. Right: MoMA trustee David Teiger with artist Ernesto Neto. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)


I don’t know if you’re superstitious when it comes to art junkets, but if the first art-worlder I spot is a creep, I take it as a bad omen. The sight of Ann Temkin, fielding a couple last-minute cell calls as she inched her way along the clogged line to the American Airlines check-in desk, was, by this admittedly unscientific criterion, a decided relief. The MoMA curator confessed to being a bit grumpy for all sorts of good reasons, the least of which were a grueling travel schedule and a twenty-five-year Harvard reunion from which she was just returning. Her mood must have accounted for the contrarian edge with which she greeted the perfectly amiable airport banter of Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s International Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art, as we converged at the gate. I enjoyed this early Heathers moment, as Capellazzo discreetly steeled herself for a week of cafeteria Darwinism—then exacted swift revenge as she boarded ahead of us with the front-of-the-plane passengers.

Speaking of cafeteria Darwinism (or perhaps caf Darwinism, given the fancy company), the fair’s most glittery dinner was, to everyone’s surprise, unseated. I mean, it looked seated—set tables, flowers, restrained guest list—but there were no place cards. The evening’s co-host, MoMA director Glenn Lowry bellowed “Dinner is served!” through the Schaulager’s cavernous halls—better than trumpets! Hopping to, I entered the dining hall too early with the always-affable Baroness Lambert at my side. She panicked first: “No cards?! I like to be taken care of and will sit next to anyone I’m told to—except David Zwirner.” Hmmm. Her sentiments were quickly seconded and thirded. Not about Zwirner, the maverick New York dealer whose artist Francis Als was being fted along with Tacita Dean, but rather about open seating. The only one who seemed to approve was Marc Glimcher of the Pace gallery dynasty, who confessed, with an endearingly self-deprecating shrug, that he would be sitting with his parents anyway.

Left: PaceWildenstein's Arne Glimcher and Douglas Baxter. Right: Dealer David Zwirner. (Photos: William Pym)


A little background: In addition to the art fair of art fairs, Basel boasts a number of top-flight public art institutions and (if you include neighboring Zurich) a handful of top-flight galleries as well, all of which inevitably mount their strongest shows in anticipation of the international foot traffic. Schaulager, in its third year scarcely old enough to be numbered among them, is already giving the rest of the art planet a run for its money. Founded by another Basel institution, Maja Oeri—her Hoffman family and its collection has long sustained the Museum fr Gegenwartskunst—the privately funded space, whose name translates to “storage locker,” has turned its Herzog and de Meuron-designed plant over to major retrospectives by the likes of Dieter Roth and Jeff Wall. This year a pair of focused shows devoted to the work Francis Als and Tacita Dean add two points to a still-perfect score, and provide a fitting occasion for the fair’s toniest party.

Who was there? The proverbial everyone—though, strictly speaking, it’s a huge fair and this was not a huge dinner. In the way of dealers there were the heavy-hitting Swiss, of course; the aforementioned Zwirner (for Als); Marian Goodman (for Dean); the Pace clan; everyone from a short stretch of Twenty-Fourth Street in Chelsea; and, oh yeah, at table one, the Acquavellas. Command central also boasted the rest of our co-hosts: Lowry was joined by MoMA board president Marie-Jose Kravis (who has lately filled the very big shoes of her predecessors with aplomb) and her husband Henry, Schaulager president Maja Oeri and her hasband Hans Bodenmann, and board member David Teiger, who scored a cake and candles at dessert for his birthday. And, of course, honored artist Dean—Als, perhaps out for a walk, was nowhere to be seen.

At the fair: Dealer Victoria Miro (left) and dealer Jeffrey Deitch (right). (Photos: William Pym)


I scored David Weiss (of Fischli & Weiss) and super-collector and MoMA light Kathy Fuld as dinner partners. In Fuld’s case, the “super” before collector means great as opposed to just lots, and Weiss, an minence grise of the Swiss art world, is a disarmingly original thinker and talker about art—not only his own but generally. Someone once said that if Tacita Dean didn’t exist Lynne Cooke would have had to invent her, a remark that is unfair to both the artist and the curator—and I cite only to admit that I may have fallen prey to whatever small kernel of truth is buried in the witticism. I have not given Dean’s work the attention it deserves, but after half an hour of Weiss’s suggestive commentary I vowed to use this Basel visit as an occasion to take the overdue plunge. Weiss, to give you the flavor, says things like: “It is very, very difficult to make art that has no irony.” Then he pauses and adds: “It may also be very stupid.” He was not, by then, speaking of Dean. As it happened, he was worrying, like an old-fashioned Greenbergian, about the perils of kitsch. Of course, F & W’s work is not old fashioned, and, indeed, for an artist for whom the tourist snapshot constitutes creative ground zero, his concern constitutes a refinement worth thinking about.

“Fun” is a favorite word in the F & W lexicon, and they use the term with post-Warholian promiscuousness—which implies, of course, that requisite irony. Fischli, speaking of fun, had just then returned to our table with Beatrix Ruf, of the Kunsthalle Basel, and Mendes Brgi of the Museum fr Gegenwartskunst. Conscious they had been gone for while, Fischli feigned a “just-had-a-joint” dopiness. Are we having fun yet?

At the fair: Dealer Lawrence Luhring (left) and artist John Armleder (right). (Photos: WIlliam Pym)


Everyone said their goodnights with many jokes about Americans and their early bedtimes, as the likes of Andreas Gursky, Klaus Biesenbach, Fischli, Weiss, Ruf, Brgi and who knows who else headed for the Kunsthalle and a nightcap or a dozen. I doubled back to say a quick goodbye to Temkin (in a good mood now), and my thoughts turned to our inaugural airport run-in—and an opportunity for literary closure. Cappellazzo, sporting a country blush and (like both of us) in an ambivalent mood at take-off time, was bemoaning the blooms she would miss at her weekend place back home on account of the Basel tour. Despite the glamorous repast, great art, and good company, on day two her sentiment was ringing in my ears. She’s right: If your passion is peonies and your duty Art Basel, you’re basically screwed.

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