Left: Tajan auctioneer Wilfrid Cazo. Right: Galerie 1900-2000's Marcel Fleiss and David Fleiss and auctioneer Wilfrid Cazo.
The “Hommage à Julien Levy Part 2” sale at Tajan on June 8 was laid-back yet stately, a schvitzy, slacker minuet. Levy (1906–81) is most famous as the dealer who brought the Surrealists to New York in the ’30s and ’40s. He exhibited Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Frida Kahlo, among others, many for the first time in the US, and “discovered” Joseph Cornell, who was working for him at the time. The transition between Surrealism and AbEx could be said to have occurred in his gallery at 15 East Fifty-Seventh Street.
Why was this material for sale in Paris? According to Marcel Fleiss, who, along with his son David, was the auction house’s hired expert and is the proprietor of Galerie 1900–2000, “The Levy estate gave the sale to Tajan on the stipulation that we be the experts, because we were the only ones who could identify much of the material. They tried Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips in New York, but they just couldn’t do it.” The Fleiss team were also the experts for first part of the “Hommage” in October 2004, which raised €6,500,000 ($8,175,021) and evoked, as the Tajan press material puts it, “the atmosphere of a Wild West showdown.”
Stepping into Tajan’s quarters, located a few blocks behind the Madeleine in a former bank, is like returning to 1925. The two-story space has a big, etched-glass skylight and a double staircase with coiled bronze cobras at the base of each balustrade. All this period charm underscored the Jazz Age strengths of the Levy collection. The sale lasted four-and-a-half hours, with two short breaks during which everyone rushed out to the courtyard and nearby cafes to smoke cigarettes and talk on their cell phones. When I breezed in at about 4:30 PM, the mood in the room was torpid. About twenty people were sitting in the audience and a passel of eight or nine young women in little black dresses was working the phones. Fleiss pere et fils were seated up front to the left of the auctioneer, M. Wilfrid Cazo, who is youngish, bearded, and frisky. “Que dit-on?” he kept saying to a given price. The big event, as Marcel Fleiss told me, was the Pavel Tchelitchew drawing Untitled (Portrait of Joella), 1937, estimated at €1,800–2,000 ($2,273–$2,525) going for €44,000 ($55,557). “The Tchelitchews in the 2004 sale sold for nothing,” he said.
In the second part, devoted to catalogues, magazines, and gallery announcements, the room, already hot from the skylight and lack of air conditioning, began to percolate. But there’s a market for this kind of modernist ephemeraespecially in Paris and at a low-key celebrity sale such as this. Back issues of View and The Little Review were a steal, some going for under €100 ($126). The invitations and catalogues also remain alluring, like brilliant Conceptual Art games. Standouts were Salvador Dalí’s invite card “I sleep in a sensational art nouveau bed from which flows an uninterrupted fountain of milk” of 1936, estimated at €500–600 ($631–758), which went for €1,300 ($1,641). Another Dalí invitation, for a “one-week-only” 1941 Levy gallery show in Hollywood, was estimated at €100–120 ($126–$158) but sold for €800 ($1,010). Appropriators and time-traveling artists, take heed: This stuff is great source material.
The third part, comprising drawings, began at 7 PM, and here the effect was of a slow summer movie gradually coming up to speed. The tall, elegant French decorator Jacques Grange sidled in, and proceeded to peel down to a baby blue polo shirt and slacks. Anonymous jacketed men came and sat next to him, and it was ambiguous whether they were also bidding for him. Grange eventually won a beautiful drawing on blue paper by Eugène Berman and a very expensivefor this sale, at least1929–30 Max Ernst collage titled . . . Et Tout est Inhumain. He may also have gotten more, but it was all done with such supreme understatement and savoir-faire that it was rather hard to tell.
The pack of young people on phones swelled to fourteen or so, and international interestespecially English-speakingrose to a dull roar. Salvador Dalí’s drawing Sperme, 1939, depicting shooting cocks and luscious labia, and a small, fluorescent Matta painting (shown at Levy’s gallery under black lighthow cool!), both far surpassed their estimates. Cazo introduced with “beaucoup d’interet” a classically aerated 1944 Gorky drawing. Estimated at €30,000–40,000 ($37,900–$50,534), it leapt from €50,000 to €100,000 in one and ended up at a whopping €180,000 ($227,390).
Plenty of attention was also paid to to lesser known female Dadaists and Surrealists such Mina Loy and Léonora Carrington. Work by Loy, a poet and painter married to the Dadaist writer and boxer Arthur Craven (and Levy’s mother-in-law), is particularly sought-after these days, and a small drawing sold for over six times its high estimate. I was drawn to strange figurative drawings by Muriel Streeter, who not many people seem to have heard ofnot even the Fleisses. Only Marie Difilippantonio, the curator of the Levy archive from Newtown, Connecticut, could explain: “She was Levy’s second wife and very beautiful. After she divorced Levy, she had a full artistic career, painting cacti in Arizona.”
All in all, the sale was a French reinflection of American material and revealed a great deal about one of the most essential chapters in American art history, which in this period was becoming the dominant narrative of Western art history. Levy’s role in this was central, and the fact that such incunabula is now being dispersed in Europe suggests that the tables have turned yet again.
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 collectorssome worth billions, others just millionsall 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 experimentan inspection of the stands of the six dealers who sit on the all-powerful Art Basel Committeethe 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 standthat of Belgian gallerist Xavier Hufkens. He had quality secondary-market property and remarkably unembarrassing emergent workno 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+ dealersor a lot of everyone come to think of itlooking 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 committeelike everyone elselooks forward to reconvening at the Frieze Art Fair in October.
Left: LISTE director Peter Bläuer. Right: Swiss Award winners curator Daniel Bauman and artist Maï-Thu Perret.
A few blocks away from Art Basel, which had just opened its Art Unlimited and Art Statements sections to the sound of pounding techno, LISTE's preview party kicked off at 5 PM Monday in a rock ’n’ roll style that was more beer-and-wiener than champagne-and-petits-fours. This “alternative” fair now seems out of touch with the expectations of new collectors who associate contemporary art with high-end design, fashion, and the international jet set, prompting most visitors to comment on how very “underground” the event. “Frankly, I wouldn’t know what to choose. At least at Art Basel everything is up on white walls.” No one even thought to ask which artist was behind the live broadcast of World Cup games that drew a large audience of non-art-world localsor how much it was selling for. Looking a little lost, some young investors from Paris asked me repeatedly whether works were trendy or passé. Maybe they would have been better off heading back to the regular fair, as comforting in its way as the Parisian concept store Colette, where even the most avant-garde creations are assimilated into its “lifestyle” selection.
There is neither air-conditioning nor black VIP passes in the old Wartek brewery that houses LISTE, and the galleries and the works they’re showing are somewhat of a change of pace from the sanitized, private-jet-and-corporate-fair world of contemporary art. Easygoing fair director Peter Bläuer told me how delighted he was to host more galleries this year thanks to the “LISTE Annex,” a tent set up next to the main building. I agreed with Marc and Josée Gensollen, highbrow psychoanalyst collectors from Marseille: The annex, which gave galleries like New York’s Foxy Production and London’s Sutton Lane a chance to exhibit in Basel for the first time, is a pleasant space.
From the basement to the attic, walking through LISTE is like making one’s way through a fascinating maze, and finding New York’s Daniel Reich, Warsaw’s Raster, and Athens’ The Breeder giving off a relaxed vibe along the way. Big-ticket sales occur less frequently here than at the main fair, but everyone manages to sell everything just the same. One example is Aloïs Godinat, a new Swiss star in the making. Fresh out of the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne, Godinat won the Prix de l’assurance National, whose jury includes Adam Szymczyk (of Kunsthalle Basel) among others. Godinat isn’t even represented by a gallery, but in the National booth red dots were found next to each of his works.
I couldn’t see everything, though, as I had to run to the Swiss Awards ceremony. Every year, the federal cultural office bestows prizes to under-forty artists, critics, curators, and architects who are citizens or residents of Switzerland. In the hall across the street from Art Basel, a plethora of pre-selected artists presented works to be evaluated by a jury presided by Parkett founder Jacqueline Burkhardt. Seizing an opportunity to associate themselves with young artists, many private companies sponsored the event. There was the Kiefer Hablitzel award, the Prix mobilière Young Art award (which went to Isabelle Krieg), the Rotary Club award, and this year’s newcomer, the Georg et Josi Guggenheim award (to Philippe Decrauzat, who didn’t show up to accept it). Given the somewhat limited selection, some winners received several awards, like artist Maï-Thu Perret and curator Daniel Baumann, and the thirty-award ceremony, presented in Italian, French, and German, Switzerland’s three official languages, dragged on. As in years past, everyone was decidedly tipsy by the end, and the final recipients received only distracted applause.
The truth is that a large part of the audience had already absconded to a nearby side street, where one could drink some local white wine. Only the stalwart brass band was still in place, sounding the trumpet every time a winner climbed up on stage to pick up their certificate. The Oscars it ain’t, but the cash prizes usually amount to at least 20,000 Swiss Francs ($16,295). This year, Marc Bauer, Thomas Galler, San Keller, Marküs Muller, Yves Netzhammer, Didier Rittener, and Elodie Pong presented strong pieces. The market reacts so quickly that some winning artists were already represented by galleries within the official art fair, like Vidya Gastaldona “statement” presented by Paris’ Art:Concept. Ironically, some established Swiss stars like Fischli & Weiss didn’t win. “And I even bought Jacqueline Burkhardt several beers,” confided David Weiss with a laugh.
That evening, I met Sylvie Fleury, Guillaume Sultana (of Baumet Sultana, which has a magnificent selection of Walter Pfeiffer pictures at the moment), and Nicolas Hug from design purveyor La galerie Scandinave, with whom I ended up deciding not to go to the Design Miami fair. We just couldn’t see the point in visiting seventeen known-quantity galleries to stare at €250,000 ($315,664) Prouvé tables, and chose instead to have a drink at the opening of “Improbable Classics #1,” a temporary Prada boutique designed by hometown heroes Herzog and De Meuron. Its concept is to sell special products from old collections that were never put on the marketor something like that, it wasn’t fully clearthat nevertheless exemplify “the very essence of Prada,” as Ezra Petronio put it. Petronio is the director of the Work in Progress agency and was in charge of creating packaging for this occasion along with a series of BASEL 2006 T-shirts. I loved my ten minutes of extreme shopping, during which I looked frantically for the register while listening to an energetic White Stripes/Snoop Dogg remix by Frédéric Sanchez. It was so loud that the police, no doubt alerted by neighbors, came to shut down the event much earlier than originally planned.
So I popped in to the traditional tavern across the street for a quick meal with Suzanne Koller, creative director of the fashion glossy Self Service, before visiting the temporary Comme des Garçons guerilla store situated near the restrooms at the Gare du Nord. But Basel’s relationship to fashion is still problematic, it seems, and a sign announced that the police (always the police!) had closed it for security reasons, bringing our evening to a premature close.
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 café Darwinism, given the fancy company), the fair’s most glittery dinner was, to everyone’s surprise, unseated. I mean, it looked seatedset tables, flowers, restrained guest listbut 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 Alÿs was being fêted 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 Oeriher Hoffman family and its collection has long sustained the Museum für Gegenwartskunstthe 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 Alÿs 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 Alÿs); 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-Josée 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—Alÿs, perhaps out for a walk, was nowhere to be seen.
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 éminence grise of the Swiss art world, is a disarmingly original thinker and talker about artnot 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 Bürgi of the Museum für Gegenwartskunst. Conscious they had been gone for while, Fischli feigned a “just-had-a-joint” dopiness. Are we having fun yet?
Everyone said their goodnights with many jokes about Americans and their early bedtimes, as the likes of Andreas Gursky, Klaus Biesenbach, Fischli, Weiss, Ruf, Bürgi 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.
Right: Dealer Bill Acquavella with Lucien Freud's David and Eli, 2003-04. Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and artist Thomas Struth. (Except where noted, all pictures: Sarah Thornton)
It’s a joy to walk around an art fair before the feeding frenzy begins. With a day to go before the opening of Art Basel, the stands of confident Swiss dealers, like Bruno Bischofberger and Ernst Beyeler, were still stacked high with crates. Other established gallerists were fine-tuning their hang and tinkering with the lighting, while those who’d only recently gained access to this elite club were so completely prepared that they looked ready for Armageddon.
Every year collectors attempt to sneak in before the fair opens to obtain an early grab at the art. Art Basel maintains a zero-tolerance policy and forced French dealer Emmanuel Perrotin to sit out this year because he gave exhibitor’s passes in 2005 to supercollector Francois Pinault and private dealer Philippe Segalot. Rumor had it that this year Segalot had hired a Hollywood makeup artist then roamed the fair bald, without eyebrows, and with a scar on his cheek.
Fair director Sam Keller works hard. In the hour in which I shadowed him, he praised artists in French, cracked jokes in gesticulating Italian, and got into a cool debate with an irate gallery owner in German (she was upset that another dealer had been awarded a much-coveted front-row spot). I believe I even heard him say, “Shalom.”
The politics of booth placement can be arcane. Last year Gemini Editions somehow managed to bribe a technician to reverse the direction of the escalators so that collectors would ascend to their display rather than descend to it from the VIP room. Endeavoring to keep the peace, fair management decided that Gemini should switch positions annually with Cristea, a fellow editions dealer.
Keller had a good chin-wag with artist Subodh Gupta. Apparently the entire Indian contemporary-art scene was descending on Basel in support of Gupta (the first resident of India to appear in Art Unlimited, courtesy of Geneva’s Art & Public) and Nature Morte from New Delhi, making its debut in Art Premiere.
As we wandered through the standssometimes whizzing, sometimes doing a painstaking work-by-work inspectiondealers congratulated Keller on his appointment as director of the Beyeler Foundation. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” enthused Keller. “Ernst Beyeler has always been my mentor. It feels like home. I grew up kissing in that park.”
Amongst the fair’s biggest trophies by living artists, one could see Lucien Freud’s David and Eli, 2003–2004, on the Acquavella stand (asking $7.5 million); a 1981 Jasper Johns crosshatch skull painting on offer for $6.5 million at Richard Gray; Georg Baselitz’s “first upside-down painting,” made in 1969, going for $3 million with Aurel Scheibler; Jeff Koons’s St. Benedict, 2000, up for $2.2 million with Gagosian; Mark di Suvero’s giant Ulalu, 2001, which greets visitors at the fair entrance, offered by Paula Cooper for $1.8 million; and Takashi Murakami’s 727-727, 2006, priced north of a million on the Blum & Poe stand. The forty-four-year-old Japanese artist’s stock will no doubt rise when all hear that he has left Marianne Boesky to work with Larry Gagosian in New York.
I took leave of Keller and headed over to the Art Unlimited building, the biennial-style addition to the main fair where English artist Jonathan Monk told me, “Next week they’ll be flogging tractors in here. But who’ll sponsor their VIP bar?” James Rosenquist was in the room, affably chatting about his monumental painting, while Carsten Höller’s team polished his metal merry-go-round. LA artist Martin Kersels summed up the carnival ethos and pachyderm proportions when he looked tenderly at his Tumble Room sculpture and Pink Constellation video, both 2001, and said: “Buying my work is like acquiring a big pet, probably a pink elephant, because that’s what you see when you’re drunk.”
Just hours before opening to international VIP collectors, drills, hammers, and sanders could still be heard. It took a while to realize that I was listening to Ceal Floyer’s Construction, 2006recordings meant to evoke the process of installation. As I chatted with Floyer, one of her three dealers entered the stand. She introduced him as “one-third of the Bermuda triangle . . . I mean, holy trinity.” Backstage in Basel, artist-dealer relations are a spectator sport.
One heartwarming aspect of the fair is that the placement of Art Statements, the solo showcase of young dealers (who pay less for their stands but face the fiercest competition to get one), is hugely improved by moving it into this hall. More importantly, with Martin Westwood representing the Approach, Mungo Thomson for John Connelly Presents, Terence Koh for Peres Projects, Gardar Eide Einarsson at Team Gallery, and Matthew Brannon for David Kordansky, this may very well be the most mature and innovative Art Statements ever. However, as the twenty-eight-year-old Kordansky quipped of a work over in the Unlimited section, “If I sold that piece and got a quarter of it, it would be the equivalent of two, maybe three good years. The word ‘unlimited’what does that mean? A limitless flow of cash?”
Left: Biennale of Sydney director Charles Merewether. Right: Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. (All photos: Charles Green)
“I can’t relax yet, I’ve got at least eight more venues to open,” confessed a grim-looking Biennale of Sydney director Charles Merewether at a chilly Wednesday-morning press preview as installers and electricians raced across the cavernous spaces of Pier 2/3. Set at one of the few nineteenth-century harborside warehouses not converted into condominiums, this has always been a spectacular but problematic setting for art. Here and slightly anxious artists crouched by their suddenly miniature works. A wound-up Merewether marched off to oversee the last touches: no labels or captions to identify the art as yet, though the postcolonial and global themes of the biennale“Zones of Contact”were obvious. I spotted Scottish art critic Peter Hill, and together we boarded the shuttle bus moving media representatives between venue launches, for this biennale is spread far across the city.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor apologized, “I’m really sorry about the weather.” Sydney, normally sunny and subtropical, was suddenly freezing. Wall labels and didactic texts were complete here; one Melbourne curator noted the absence of artists’ nationalities on these, which gave viewing a quiz-show spin. The exhibition aims “to change the way we see the landscape of contemporary art,” Merewether asserted in his second speech of the day, with concentrations of artists from Central Asia, the Balkans, and the Middle East. I found artist Imants Tillers (about to have a huge retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia) next to his enormous new painting, Terra Negata, which is composed of his usual grid of small canvas boards and a spider’s web of visual quotationsfrom a Gabriel Orozco painted skull to appropriations of Australian Western Desert artists’ cursive designs. According to the usually laconic Tillers, this was the “unpromised land,” and we turned around to face Dutch artist Lidwien van de Ven and her austere photographs of Palestine, the promised land. Director Merewether still looked grim, perhaps anticipating more speeches and openings; “it isn’t finished yet,” he reminded me.
Left: National Gallery of Victoria curators Jason Smith and Kelly Gellatly. Right: Artist Rebecca Belmore.
The buzz by then, though, was almost universally positive. Everyone was relieved the show looked at least interesting and at best very smart, especially after the anemic, universally disliked biennale curated by Isabel Carlos two years ago. Somewhere in the suddenly packed galleries were groups of jet-lagged visiting grandees, including 1990 Biennale of Sydney curator René Block and the next edition’s director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, but I couldn’t see them amid the crush of arriving interstate curators, including the National Gallery of Victoria’s Kelly Gellatly and Jason Smith. Queensland Art Gallery’s Julie Ewington was talking secretively to someone, possibly about of the opening in November of the next Asia-Pacific Triennial in a brand-new museum on the Brisbane River. By now conservators were everywhere underfoot with flashlights and wipes, checking final condition reports and looking for dust. MacGregor’s trademark Scottish tartan shoes were on, her usual focus lost briefly as Merewether gave his next speech; her vacant moment was captured by a young art-world dude with a video-equipped mobile phone. Rhana Devenport, the biennale’s public programs manager and just-appointed next director of the Govett-Brewster Museum (New Zealand’s only serious contemporary art institution), smiled so hard it looked as if she was about to burst into tears.
Another bus, this time to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has a love-hate relationship with the biennale. Well, mainly hate, for Sydney audiences remember rumors that the AGNSW massively truncated Block’s biennale. But AGNSW (called “Agnes” locally) had beautifully installed its capacious lower levels. During Merewether’s third speech of the morning, AGNSW curatorial head Tony Bond grinned broadly; I’d heard that his support for expatriate former Getty curator Merewether was crucial two years ago during the process of selecting a director. Paula Latos-Valier, who has managed almost all of Sydney’s biennales since their inception, looked anxiously at her much-used mobile phone. This is her last biennale. I couldn’t find anyone prepared to tell me her replacement.
Finally, the opening partiesMCA firstwhich are legendary for tightly policed RSVPs. Inside, dealers held court and everyone ignored Federal Minister for Communications Senator Helen Coonan’s speech. Sydney audiences are notoriously unruly; this lot had absolutely no interest in what anyone had to say (least of all a federal minister about to rewrite the media laws in favor of Rupert Murdoch), looking instead at what everyone was wearing. Who were the three underdressed young women in pink gauze and blinking party lights? The dealer Barry Keldoulis was in a benevolent mood. MCA director Macgregor was worrying about the future already, clearly preoccupied with the idea that scarce biennale funds would be siphoned off to pay for the vast upkeep of Pier 2/3. Everyone was drinking very fast. I headed west along the winding harbor-edge back to the supposedly strictly invitation-only artists' party but immediately spotted two young students who’d smiled their way inside. By now Merewether was starting to relax, as even he could see the show will be a success. People were beginning to act over-friendly, slurring their gossip. But without an official pink plastic wrist tag to enter the VIP enclosure and hear more, I chose to make my way into the night.