Collectors’ Call

Cathryn Drake around the 29th Art Brussels

Left: Artist Harold Ancart and dealer Xavier Hufkens. Right: Artist Michel François. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

THE TWENTY-NINTH EDITION OF ART BRUSSELS was certainly the place to be last week for a breather between the Royal Wedding in London and Pope John Paul’s beatification in Rome. Brussels is elegantly retro and understated, cool and multicultural, and doing just fine without a national government—ironic considering it is the seat of the European Parliament. In any case, the art market here is robust and dependable, and Belgium has some of the most sophisticated collectors in Europe.

Inside the Brussels Expo during the fair preview, the hallways were bustling with an urbane crowd resembling the studious attendees of an academic conference: Groups engaged in intense discussion in the aisles or sipped champagne in one of several corporate VIP lounges. First-time exhibitor Asli Sümer, of Istanbul’s ArtSümer, was already impressed: “The Belgian collectors really know what they’re looking at, which is great.” Although things did not seem to be flying off the walls at first flush, the dealers seemed sanguine, and even philosophical, none of the hysteria of days past, boom or bust. “You can tell they are serious here,” dealer Javier Peres said.

Later we dashed across town to a party for the exhibition “Red Floors, White Walls, Black Corners,” curated by collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt-Rothschild, a real estate developer who lives in one of three raw buildings hosting the show. We spotted Orlan just inside the entrance, before looking through the equally colorful exhibition, which included one of Alighiero Boetti’s small palindromes in primary colors and a strangely simpatico plastic spoon composition by Laone Santos Brasil. After partaking of the delicious fish and chips served from the vintage “Fish Caravan” on the corner, Goldschmidt-Rothschild took us on a tour of his lofty apartment, whose centerpiece was a mirror-framed chandelier by artist duo Ghost of a Dream that employs infinite regress to magical effect. While regarding an anachronistic portrait, the collector confirmed that he had parlayed money from the sale of a family heirloom into a contemporary art collection.

Left: Dealer Catherine Bastide and curator Fionn Meade. Right: Artist Gavin Turk.

The next morning I visited South African artist Jane Alexander’s exhibition “Security,” at the Centrale Electrique, where several dioramas featuring animal-human hybrids touch evocatively on the current security-obsessed climate of discrimination-cum-domination. After, we could hardly resist a tasting tour of the venerable Belgian chocolate shops with artist DeAnna Maganias, which fortified us for the crowded opening of “After Images,” a show curated by Fionn Meade at the Jewish Museum.

The party that night was at the Escheresque Vanhaerents Collection, a delightful standing dinner on a mezzanine overlooking the phantasmagoric exhibition “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was a spectacular show to be sure, the apogee a colossal space devoted to David Altmejd’s dazzling Colossi. On the way out, collector Walter Vanhaerents said, “There are great private collections here, but they are pretty quiet about what they’ve got. The Dutch and French have moved here for the low 6 percent tax on art imports.” To which Hungarian art consultant Anna Bagyo added, “The Belgians are the most intelligent and cosmopolitan collectors in the world, but they usually buy outside the country.”

On Friday, whether due to a royal wedding hangover or the exodus to Berlin, or both, the fair was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop, and nobody seemed to mind much. I was transfixed by The Circle, Eléonore Saintagnan’s video at Elaine Lévy Project portraying a series of distracted young men and women, and Galerie Lelong hosted a solo installation by Barthélémy Toguo, Dreams Territory, showing migrant displacement via colorful totes and things toted to assemble an itinerant domestic space. Barbara Gladstone had perhaps altogether the most tempting selection, with strong sculptures by Anish Kapoor and Thomas Hirschhorn alongside single works by Raymond Pettibon, Allora & Calzadilla, and Wangechi Mutu, and a series of canvases by Ugo Rondinone.

Left: Dealer Rebecca Camhi and artist DeAnna Maganias. Right: Artist Laone Santos Brasil.

That evening Brussels had its own gallery night, decidedly more low-key than the one across the border. Our first stop was Xavier Hufkens, whose show “Everything You Can Imagine Is Real” had, as you can imagine, an appealing mix of works throughout its elegant meandering spaces—a visceral blood-smeared feather-and-crystal head by Altmejd, a George Condo painting, and an entryway evocatively smudged in black by Latifa Echakhch. At Aeroplastics, I ran into American collectors Marion Brenner and Robert Hartshorn Shimshak, who argued that coming here was not just about buying but making contacts. “The Belgian collectors are fanatics, the galleries are great, and there are very good artists here too.”

Saturday brought more openings, and I ran against time itself to see David Claerbout’s retrospective “The Time That Remains,” at Wiels. Then it was on to the inauguration of the posh Maison Particulière, a new private club that will host exhibitions culled from various collections, along with a changing selection of furniture plucked from a local dealer. Afterward, I joined in on an intimate dinner at La Vigne in Brussels’s version of Little Italy, where one waiter spoke Italian and the other French without a hint of irony. Greek dealer Rebecca Camhi mentioned the new jewelry store she recently opened under her gallery space: “It takes the same amount of effort to sell a $100 item as it does a $50,000 work of art,” she advised. That started a discussion about the great shopping we had found in the city, Maureen Paley on chic rue Dansaert and others of us at the more down-market Place du Jeu de Balle. With flea markets to die for and every European capital within two hours, Brussels may be the best bargain on the Continent. That is perhaps why all the connoisseurs who live there are keeping it a secret.

Left: Dealers Jamie Smith and Leigh Conner. Right: Artist Orlan.

Left: Antoine Laurent of Galerie In Situ. Right: Dealer Valentina Bonomo and collector Alain Servais.

Left: Collector Peter de Vries and dealer Wilfried Lentz. Right: Florent Delval of Elaine Lévy Project and artist Steven Baelen.

Left: Collectors Robert Hartshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner. Right: Designer Frédérique Leroy and artist Sven Laurent.

Left: Collector Walter Vanhaerents and curator Pierre-Olivier Rollin. Right: Dealer Asli Sumer.

Left: Dealer Mario Cristiani and artist Moataz Nasr. Right: Maxim Frank of Maison Particulière, Victor Ginsburg, and artist Pieter Laurens Mol.