Taking a Stand


Left: Dealer Tim Blum with artist Takashi Murakami. Right: Curator Daniel Birnbaum. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)

In the immortal words of John Baldessari, you don’t go to an art fair, you survive one. On Tuesday, just before the VIP opening of Art Basel, I stood with collectors—some worth billions, others just millions—all anxiously clutching their gray, credit card-size passes. When the clock struck eleven and the crowd started to move, avid collector David Teiger half-joked, “Sarah, you’re not shoving enough!”

By 11:30 AM, the upper floor was mobbed and the Rubells were already locked in a family huddle on the atrium stairs. Despite the cliché that an art fair is no place for an artist, the few I encountered seemed to be managing better than most. British artist-filmmaker Isaac Julien, who was taking a gentle stroll with Professor Colin MacCabe, was unflappable: “Basel is serene compared to the Cannes Film Festival.”

Later that day, LA artist Christopher Williams told me, “The fair reveals the arbitrariness of artistic success. The prices are confounding. Man Ray's work is cheaper than mine." Non-exhibiting London dealer Cornelia Grassi also put the morning into quick historical perspective: “If everyone else is shopping, I’m not into shopping. I’m a recession girl.”

Left: Kaspar König with Francesco Bonami. Right: Christie's International Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art Amy Cappellazzo with Carnegie curator of contemporary art Douglas Fogle. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)


Of course, high prices mean protracted negotiations. Many sellers were venting their frustrations about potential buyers, but only intrepid London dealer Sadie Coles would go on the record: “With some collectors, you can see their entire relationship with their mother in a single negotiation.” Many collectors expressed anxiety about dealer rejection. Others effused love. I observed one satisfied customer, Michael Ovitz as it happens, patting a dealer on the back as he intoned, “Your life is like a Richard Prince nurse painting.”

By afternoon, everyone was completely gaga. The professional pressure, the relentless social interaction, and the jetlag-fuelled, alcoholic insomnia had taken its toll. As one curator sighed, “I’m on a twelve-day trustee tour. I need a rest home.”

That evening, I headed to a dinner at a Thai restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking the Rhine and found myself seated with curators Francesco Bonami, Daniel Birnbaum, Massimiliano Gioni, artist Tom Burr, and Artforum senior editor Scott Rothkopf. While the curators complained about the rigors of appreciating art at a fair, Bonami turned to me and quipped, “I trust my eye. It is so good that I don’t need to look at the art.” Bonami was on a roll, entertaining the troops in staccato English. The evening ended with Birnbaum paying homage to Arcimboldo paintings by adorning himself with cast-offs from the communal fruit plate.

Left: Donovan Gilliard with artist Kehinde Wiley. (Photo: William Pym) Right: Gallery Daniel Buchholz codirector Christopher Müller with artist Christopher Williams. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)


I had set aside Thursday morning to conduct a little experiment—an inspection of the stands of the six dealers who sit on the all-powerful Art Basel Committee—the one that decides who is invited to and who is blackballed from this lucrative event. Other dealers grumble about the power and privileges of the holy half dozen, but don’t dare speak up for fear of retribution. Of the six jurors, there was one elegantly-hung stand—that of Belgian gallerist Xavier Hufkens. He had quality secondary-market property and remarkably unembarrassing emergent work—no mean feat on the floor where modern masters rule. By contrast, London’s Annely Juda Fine Art looked a tad Portobello Market, over-hung with smalls and with a 1971 Anthony Caro parked out front. Annely Juda participated in the very first Basel art fair (back in 1970) with a Christo solo show. That’s nice history, but some will surely question the gallery’s continued position between all-powerful Gagosian and all-credible Marian Goodman.

On two of the four remaining stands, I was amused to discover flagrant violation of fair rules. Mai 36 Galerie from Zurich had two abandoned paintings in open boxes leaning against the wall, while Galerie Verna (also from Zurich) let a couple of extra works by Richard Tuttle languish on the floor. Art Basel clearly stipulates that works must be properly installed so, unless it’s a McCracken plank, no leaning is allowed. On Stockholm's Nordenhake stand, a pillar obstructed a full view of a large Spencer Finch painting on paper. If there isn't a rule against such aesthetic offenses, there should be. While at the booth of Berlin's Esther Schipper, in one of the most coveted locations of the fair, works subtracted from each other ruthlessly as a Carsten Höller wall installation, a Ceal Floyer sound sculpture, and a Matti Braun video were forced to fight it out in the same small front space.

As I was leaving the fair, I heard that Larry Gagosian had finally arrived. He touched down from New York in his G5, spent three hours tallying on the stand, and then flew off to London. (Is it me or is he more and more like Howard Hughes?)

Left: Professor Colin MacCabe and artist Isaac Julien. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Dealer Javier Peres. (Photo: William Pym)

“No one loves a free meal more than the rich,” said a stubborn man who wouldn’t let me use his name. After a swanky dinner at the legendary Donati restaurant, the younger half of our table headed over to the bar at the Kunsthalle, where one finds a lot of B+ dealers—or a lot of everyone come to think of it—looking to get laid. Some had just returned from the dinner and “stadium premiere” of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film, Zidane: A Portrait of the 21st Century.

Even though the fair wasn’t yet over, some friends decided to bestow the “Martin Kippenberger Award” for the worst-behaved dealer of Art Basel 2006 to Philippe Segalot. (Last word on that story is that Segalot gave Perrotin $300,000 as compensation for getting him kicked out of the fair last year.) Past winners of the Kippie include Patrick Painter, Per Skarstedt, and Tim Blum. These guys won for completely different, equally heroic reasons: asleep on the stand, superhumanly shit-faced, insane dance-floor pogoing that resulted in a broken foot. The Kippie criteria are officially erratic and unclear. Nepotism may be a factor, but the furtive awards committee—like everyone else—looks forward to reconvening at the Frieze Art Fair in October.

Left: Dealer Michael Jenkins. Right: Terence Koh with the Royal Academy's Norman Rosenthal and Deitch's Nicola Vassell. (Photos: William Pym)