BASEL IS THE KIND OF RELENTLESSLY PLEASANT small city in which, returning late from a party, one might encounter (as I did) a lone police car pausing to allow a pair of injured, wayward ducks to cross the road. There’s a lovely circus, the Knie, on the Messeplatz, and discerning art executives make a special point of reserving rooms in the Ramada that look down into it, so that they can wake up and contemplate the zebras. There are places called Don’t Worry, Be Happy Bar and Friends Bar, the latter decorated with posters from the eponymous television show. Where is the traction for cynicism, irony? (Consider: This is where Nietzsche fell ill.) Perhaps this is why such attitudes have to be regularly imported, in large doses, in the form of a giant modern and contemporary art fair.
On Monday night, the eve of the fortieth Art Basel, the collecting class and its attendants made the annual pilgrimage to the city’s leviathan convention center for the vernissage of the fair’s “curated” project sections, Art Statements and Art Unlimited. There were no particularly prominent fetes scheduled for Art Basel’s ruby anniversary, yet the mood seemed remarkably sanguine. (Champagne will do that for you.) Marc Spiegler, sporting spotless white Swear shoes (he buys a new pair every Basel), and Annette Schönholzer, the fair’s directors, greeted guests at the gate. Spiegler was alert and upbeat. “With this job, it takes a lot for me to lose sleep.”
Of the two sections, most saved their praise for Art Unlimited, the part of the fair that features large-scale solo projects. It did have some exceptional moments. A beautiful collection of Roni Horn self-portraits sat in a room across from a complete, 126-photo set of Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” Another room was dedicated to tawny new “Cloud” paintings by Sigmar Polke; a single Nubian meteorite sat in the middle, anchoring the space. “You’d be surprised how many meteorite connoisseurs there are here,” noted Michael Werner director Gordon VeneKlasen.
“I usually sneak into the fair early, but this year I thought, why bother?” said an art adviser that night at a dinner for Yoshitomo Nara hosted by galleries Blum & Poe, Marianne Boesky, and Tomio Koyama. The next morning, though, at just a little after the fair’s 11 AM start, the same adviser complained that they’d just missed nabbing a new Robert Ryman at PaceWildenstein. It seemed an auspicious sign; the spirit of competition was in full force, and word of more sales spread throughout the day. Brad Pitt (being led around on an “educational” tour by collector Alan Hergott) bought a large Neo Rauch at David Zwirner for nearly a million dollars. Christoph Büchel sold a spare set of keys to his home in Basel for $140,000 at Hauser & Wirth. (The buyer can use the house whenever they like, for life.) The first collaboration between Takashi Murakami and pop star Pharrell Williams, a sculpture of a manga-ish monster gnawing on jewel-encrusted detritus (a bag of Doritos, a Magnum condom, and the like), was picked up for $2 million at Emmanuel Perrotin.
Signs of the market in recovery, perhaps, but who can say? The fair affords a view of the plumbing, but not the specific circulations of its contents. “Not spectacular, but not bad,” was dealer William Acquavella’s take. Tim Blum noted that his gallery had nearly cinched the deal on the giant $600,000 Nara house in Art Unlimited, and that otherwise they were selling roughly a piece every hour. It sounded as though the wheels were turning, and faster than they had at the last Frieze or Art Basel Miami Beach. “It’s important to stay positive!” jested Swiss curator Giovanni Carmine. An apotropaic bowl of cherries at Anthony Reynolds gallery echoed the sentiment. (Then there was the young freelance adviser who spurted that it all seemed “just like 2007!” At the time, of course, she was seated across from Pharrell Williams at an HSBC dinner at the Restaurant Schlüsselzunft—not exactly the view from the ground.)
BYE BYE TO BLING read the kick-off headline for the daily Art Newspaper report. The statement was positioned directly above a detail of Andy Warhol’s awe-inspiring, $74 million Big Retrospective Painting, to which Bruno Bischofberger had dedicated his entire booth. (The roughly thirty-six-foot-long canvas, made in 1979, is surely too large to meaningfully reproduce in print.) “This is the sort of work that people would travel to see in a museum,” Bischoffberger stated. “It’s another Guernica.”
Even if “glitter is out,” snobbery still prevails. “I never remember artists’ names until they show at Barbara Gladstone,” one artist was told. Some of the best works at this fair, though, were those that were skeptical of commerce. Damien Hirsts were less conspicuous, but the venerable collective General Idea seemed to be everywhere, with “Achromes” at Esther Schipper and an Art Premiere project (the group’s first film, God Is My Gigolo, made in 1969, before they were even officially a group) hosted by Galerie Frédéric Giroux. Their 1989 AIDS Sculpture was also being “honored” with a Public Art Project on the Messeplatz. “It’s strange to see the work here, within the circumference of the market,” one of the group’s cofounders, A. A. Bronson, admitted. “But then General Idea was always about being critical and complicit simultaneously.”
Two low-key personal favorites harked back to a particularly salient art/fashion moment: Karen Kilimnik’s 1996 fangirl video collage Kate Moss at 303 Gallery offered a nice parallel to Bernadette Corporation’s 1995 video Fall Winter ’95 down the hall at Greene Naftali. The latter comprises actual footage from the art collective’s fashion show that same year at CBGBs; coincidentally, for those who keep score, trendsetter Carol Greene wore Bernadette Corporation to the opening of her space in Chelsea in 1995.
Art Basel isn’t for schlubs; it’s typically a good-looking crowd. But by 8 PM, after nine uninterrupted hours at the fair, most everyone was feeling ragged. One all-male clique trotting down the aisles looked too pretty and pulled together, then, to be just another gaggle of collectors—and anyway, these ones had guards. Without warning, the sea of men parted to reveal a familiar visage, replete with iconic black sunglasses and white ponytail. Otherwise soigné gallery directors gasped and pulled out their camera phones. (Brad Pitt was a “sighting”; Karl Lagerfeld constituted an event.) The venerable designer paused at Gavin Brown’s booth long enough to consider Rob Pruitt’s wall of deadpan paintings featuring “celebrity” signatures (Mike Bloomberg, Rachel Harrison). “Look,” Brown said, leading Lagerfeld toward a canvas. “We put yours above Claudia Schiffer’s.”
Spent from our brief brush with legend-hood, we split the fair with all intentions of heading home. But a forty-dollar taxi ride later and we were at Das Schiff, a large boat-cum-restaurant/club on the river. We’d just missed the dinner for Murakami and Pharrell Williams, but the Le Baron afterparty was hitting its stride. There were a few recognizable collectors (Jason and Michelle Rubell, Maria Baibakova) and dealers, but the crowd appeared to be mostly random rich Baselistas. Le Baron put on Pharrell’s pop classic “Frontin’,” which seemed cheeky until Pharrell himself grabbed a microphone and began to sing along. The crowd cheered and an impromptu concert began. Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling exchanged high-fives. Pharrell played the audience with shout-outs to Murakami and his dealers. “When Art Basel’s in the house, drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot . . .” Party like it’s 2007.