Make-Up Dealer


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.

Left: Dealer Barbara Gladstone. Right: Dealer Jeff Poe.

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 stands—sometimes whizzing, sometimes doing a painstaking work-by-work inspection—dealers 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.”

Left: Dealer Paul Gray. Right: Dealer Paula Cooper.

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, 2006—recordings 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: Donald Young gallery director Emily Letourneau. (Photo: William Pym) Right: Artist Ceal Floyer.

Left: Artist Martin Kersels. Right: Catherine Hug with dealer David Kordansky.

Left: Dealer Jake Miller and artist Martin Westwood. Right: Dealer Lisa Spellman.

Left: The entrance to Art Basel. Right: Dealer and Art Basel British Ambassador Anthony Reynolds.