Buzz Words


Left: Christoph Büchel, Fliegender Händler, 2005. Right: Blair Taylor with artworks by Nate Lowman.

Art Basel is all about word of mouth—collectors and curators alike seem driven by it, as they spend four frenetic days running from booth to booth and show to show, to see/discover/consume the hottest thing. Cell phones fuel the buzz: my first SMS communiqué, received upon touching down in Basel Monday evening, read: “It’s so much better than the Arsenale!” The surging hoards had arrived from Venice, famished for some aesthetic stimulation and further art schmoozing. As I tried to make my way through the crowd at the Art Unlimited opening to see if my text-message tip was true, I realized that the Venice-Basel comparison is particularly warranted this year. Not only is the cavernous size of Art Basel’s special exhibition hall reminiscent of the Arsenale, its scale poses a similar curatorial challenge. The cacophony of artistic wares created a sense of uninspired curating similar to this year’s Biennale. There was a smattering of painting, some performance, a few monumental sculptures, and even a feminist statement or two (though thankfully no Guerilla Girls installation), while outside on Messeplatz, the public art projects ranged from the ridiculous (Tunga’s gigantic outdoor chessboard with “teeth” as pawns) to the vaguely-amusing-yet-anecdotal (Atelier Van Lieshout’s Bar Rectum) to the conceptually sublime (Allan Kaprow’s Fluids piece, reenacted courtesy of Hauser and Wirth).

Given the maximum-density crowd, it was impossible to have a rigorous look at any of the artworks, and soon it was time to scoot off to dinner at the Gundeldingerhof, Basel’s foodie mecca. Generously hosted by Barbara Gladstone, the seventy or so guests were representative of Art Basel’s target audience: A mix of well-informed, gregarious collectors (I had the pleasure of chatting with Matt Aberle and David Appel most of the evening), museum trustees (e.g. MoMA’s Harvey Shipley Miller), celebs (e.g. Marc Jacobs), and curators (e.g. Beatrix Ruf, James Rondeau, Richard Flood, Douglas Fogle, and Olga Viso). The evening’s conversation oscillated between the Michael Jackson verdict and the collective disappointment with the Biennale. As expected, there was a bit of social one-upsmanship when it came to discussing what everyone did during the two-day break between the end of the professional days in Venice and the opening of Art Basel. Those who attended the opening of Paul McCarthy’s “La-la land parodie paradies” megashow at Munich’s Haus der Kunst emphatically raved about it; others opted for the private view of “Bidibidobidiboo” curated by Francesco Bonami for the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. There was also the opening of MADRE Napoli, a new museum of contemporary art, that featured installations by Francesco Clemente, Anish Kapoor, and Jeff Koons. The intimate circle of Benedickt Taschen spent the weekend at the Villa d’Este on Lake Como attending his nuptials to Lauren Weiner. Jeffrey Deitch later reported that it was a beautiful, tasteful ceremony; the only risqué touch was a lap dance by “International Burlesque Star” Dita Von Teese (a wedding present to Mr. T from Mrs. T). And a few of the art-weary (myself included) as well as the real jet set had opted to squeeze in a mini-break over the weekend.

Left: Allan Kaprow, Fluids, 1967/2005, installation view. Right: Atelier Van Lieshout, Bar Rectum, 2005, under construction.

After dinner most of the serious collectors headed home for a good night of sleep. The old adage “the early bird gets the worm” is borne out in Basel, though at dinner rumor had it that über-collector François Pinault and private dealer Philippe Segalot (disguised as art handlers, according to a report published this weekend in Le Monde) had already preshopped the entire fair—something that happens every year, natch. A few of us (the nonshoppers) took a cab to the Kunsthalle’s bar to inaugurate a week of serious partying.

Tuesday morning, I decided to avoid the stampede into the fair’s vernissage to see a few shows in town in relative peace and quiet. The summer lineup at Basel’s contemporary institutions was varied and high caliber—from the Jeff Wall retrospective at the Schaulager to Simon Starling at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst. Having adored Karen Kilmnik’s show at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice, I turned off my cell phone for the first time in two weeks and made my way to the Haus zum Kirschgarten (a jewel-box historical museum dedicated to Swiss domestic life), where Kilmnik had hung her divine paintings and made deliciously subtle interventions in the museum’s period rooms. The next stop was the Kunsthalle Basel for a sneak preview of their June lineup from director Adam Szymczyk and assistant curators Silke Baumann and Simone Neuenschwander. I loved Carl Andre’s “Black Wholes” show (featuring a massive new floor sculpture and a selection of his text/poem pieces) and an exhibition of works by Artur Zmijewski, the artist representing Poland at the Biennale this year. It contained an excellent selection of early video and sound projects, but the tour de force was the creepy room-size sculpture used as a set for Repetition—Zmijewski’s riveting documentary film, now showing in Venice, that features a timely (think Abu Ghraib) recreation of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

Left: Installation view of Artur Zmijewski's exhibition. Right: Installation view of Carl Andre, 44 Carbon Copper Triads, 2005. Both exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel. (Photos: Serge Hasenhöhler)

After a leisurely lunch in the sunny Kunsthalle garden, I was prodded into making my way to the Messe to determine the veracity of my latest text messages. (One read: “Leipzig painters on the decline!”; another, “Poland is the new Scotland.”) I breezed through the blue-chip offerings on the first floor and made a beeline up the stairs to see the winners of this year’s Baloise Prize, awarded annually to one or two artists in the fair’s Art Statements section, an enclave of younger galleries and artists. While former Forcefield member Jim Drain (presented by New York’s Greene Naftali) and London-based 2005 Beck’s Futures Prize nominee Ryan Gander (presented by Amsterdam’s Annet Gelink Gallery) were the winners this year, my hands-down favorite was Nate Lowman at Maccarone, inc. His punk rock aesthetic combined with politically pointed work was absolutely apropos in such a setting. The most context-specific work—and the only one not for sale—was a t-shirt (obtained by the artist from Kenneth W. Courtney's “Ju$t Another Rich Kid” website) that read, “I fucked Richard Prince.” Worn during the inauguration by gallery director Blair Taylor, the t-shirt subtly acknowledged the current market infatuation with Dick Prince as well as his uncanny ability to maintain his mystique in the eyes of the young and hip.

Left: The (GBE) Modern booth, with a sculpture by Anselm Reyle and a neon work by Martin Creed. Right: Jeff Koons, Diamond.

After taking in the Statements section, I began to wander around the various other contemporary offerings on the second floor. Belying the view that art fairs are morally corrupt and devoid of soul (e.g. Jerry Saltz’s post-Miami Village Voice missive), the quality and variety of art on display at this year’s fair was extremely edifying. It seems that galleries and artists alike put maximum effort and thought into assembling top-quality works in relatively well-curated displays. There was almost too much good work to digest—so much so that the fair might deserve a “serious” review. In the handsome-booth category: Gavin Brown’s surprisingly coherent and grown-up presentation of his stable (with a superb new abstract sculpture by Anselm Reyle, who also looked good at The Modern Institute’s booth), David Zwirner (great Chris Ofili triptych and Iza Gensken sculptures), kurimanzutto (Mexico City’s usual suspects along with a good new Gabriel Orozco sculpture), Massimo de Carlo (exquisite minimalist “paintings” from Manzoni to Pivi), Gladstone Gallery (loved her Fontanas and Boettis), as well as Sadie Coles, Regen Projects, and neugerriemschneider (to name but a few veteran exhibitors). There were also excellent singular works. A few of my favorites included: Wilhelm Sasnal (the word “WARSAW” burned into the wall of Foksal’s booth), Christof Buchel (9-11 Muslim prayer rug/car sculpture/installation at Hauser and Wirth), Jeff Koons (P-Diddy-size green diamond sculpture from the “Celebration” series at Gagosian), Urs Fischer (a new series of photos/drawings at Galerie Eva Presenhuber), and Reena Spaulings (a flag sculpture by the fictional artist/gallerist/heir apparent to John Dogg, shown by Galerie Chantal Crousel). The list could go on and on. But, having spent most of Tuesday afternoon at the fair, I started to OD, so at six o’clock, I unplugged altogether and made the pilgrimage to Munich to see the McCarthy exhibition for myself. After thirty-six hours in Basel, McCarthy’s “La-la land” sounded like paradise.