Supermarket Sweep


Left: Collector Michael Ovitz and dealer Barbara Gladstone. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Dave Muller. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

“How many people have had their picture taken with Paul McCarthy’s Santa with Butt Plug?” asked artist Dave Muller as we looked at the giant bronze sculpture outside Art Basel on Monday evening. The art-market boom is such that works previously considered “difficult” are now perceived as family fun. It was 7 PM, and we’d been ejected from Art Unlimited, a cavernous showroom of the kind of large-scale artworks that were once called “museum pieces,” back when public institutions could afford such things. For Muller, who was exhibiting in Art Unlimited, the most exciting works—Stephen Prina’s Monochrome, 1989, Jeffrey Vallence’s Cultural Ties, 1978, and Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s Cosmococa—Programa in Progress CC4 Nocagions, 1973—weren’t the most recent. Indeed, everyone seemed tired of the vampiric pursuit of the young and the new. With a few exceptions (Kate Davies, Jordan Wolfson, Alexandra Bircken), “blah” was the hasty consensus about the twenty-six solo shows of younger work that go by the name “Art Statements.” After the visual onslaught of Venice, people were attracted to coherent, singular statements and, rightly or wrongly, relieved to dismiss the rest. As one dealer quipped, “It doesn’t take time to look at art.”

Barbara Gladstone is one of my compass points. There is north, south, east, and Barbara,” said one collector, as we entered the Restaurant Stucki Bruderholz for a dinner hosted by the classy superdealer with London counterpart Sadie Coles. Upper-echelon collectors expressed their qualms about jet travel between Venice and Basel. “I feel too decadent if I am on the plane all by myself,” said one sweet New Yorker. “So I was relieved when curator Laura Hoptman agreed to a lift.” People tried to decide what they felt about the Biennale and quoted the wise words of Robert Storr: “Money talks, but it doesn’t have anything to say about art.” Every conversation eventually led back to the market. “I’m feeling bearish. I’ve only spent—I don’t know—two million dollars since January,” said a gent who has been collecting for fifty years. A few marveled that consultant Philippe Segalot had once again snuck into the fair early and reserved key works by phone. Unlike last year, however, no one seemed to spot him or know the details of his Hollywood-caliber disguise.

Left: Art Basel's new directors, Marc Spiegler, Annette Schönholzer, and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. Right: Art Basel director Sam Keller with NetJets Europe chief executive officer Mark Booth. (Photos: David Velasco)

On Tuesday, the main fair opened, as it always does, at eleven. Collectors and consultants shimmied through the turnstiles as quickly as their dignity allowed, then beelined from stand to stand. Jeffrey Deitch, sporting a cream-yellow suit and matching eyeglasses, was giving a lecture on the ABCs of the art world to a crew from Shanghai Oriental Television. The dealer patiently explained: “There is a difference between what the market pays attention to and what artists look at.” The Chinese crew nodded and offered their business cards. And what attracted the eyes of artists this year? Yoshitomo Nara dropped €36,000 in cash on Hans Bellmer at Galerie 1900–2000. Artist Christopher Williams was keen on Josephine Pryde at Galerie Neu, Cosima von Bonin at Daniel Bucholz, and Merlin Carpenter’s readymade with three Mercedes mountain bikes at Christian Nagel. “Merlin’s been under the radar doing weird work. It is his time,” said Williams wholeheartedly. Apparently, Lucien Freud didn’t zero in on anything in particular. “It was his first fair, and he hardly ever leaves London. He was sort of stunned by the whole affair,” said his dealer, William Acquavella.

Sometimes the sales pitches were footloose. “This artist is my hero!” said one dealer as he hotfooted from one artwork-client combination to the next. Others waded knee-deep in earnest expositions that quoted Badiou and Foucault. Eva Presenhuber’s stand was “smart, with commodity,” as a neighboring gallerist put it. Designed by Urs Fischer, it included a series of large cast aluminum and steel doors, suggesting portals of possible escape.

The fair saw both frustrations and triumphs. “These people are so rich that they don’t want to take up space with inexpensive works,” mused Per Skarstedt about a George Condo domestic-scale bronze sculpture called The Trapped Priest, 2005, that had yet to find a buyer. After eight years at the fair, Paula Cooper had moved to the much-coveted front row. “I have never complained about my location, never played politics. If I thought that way, I would have shot myself years ago,” said the adroit dealer. Provoked by the sight of a round gold Damien Hirst butterfly painting on the Gagosian stand, I wondered aloud: “When is the bubble going to burst?” Dealer Perry Rubenstein’s reply: “We can’t answer that question here. We are in the midst of a macroevent that is uncharted—a scale of expansion unseen since the Renaissance!”

Left: Curator Andrew Renton and dealer Carol Greene (facing camera) with collectors Max and Muriel Salem. Right: Dealer Eva Presenhuber. (Photos: David Velasco)

Samuel Keller, the outgoing president of Art Basel, was on a “walk-through” with his new directors—Cay Sophie Rabinowitz of Parkett, Marc Spiegler of the Art Newspaper (among other publications), and Annette Schonholzer, already employed as the brains behind the fair’s logistics—three well-dressed, intelligent people who looked seriously uptight. Keller told me that he would spend two hours a day introducing the directors to dealers. “I want to help create some intimacy by making a personal introduction. I can save them one or two years.” Without skipping a beat, he then turned to a Belgian dealer and said: “Je vous presente nos directeurs.” Next up was the Pace Wildenstein stand, where Douglas Baxter greeted the foursome. As if to ward off speculation of a three-headed managerial monster, Keller asked Baxter, “So how many directors do you have?” Baxter tilted his head reflectively and counted staff members on his fingers. “Seven,” came the reply.

It was time to head to Chez Donati, Basel’s best Italian restaurant, with two consultants and four dealers. Having spent an intense day caged in their booths, the latter went a tad bonkers. One sat with a good view of the entrance and categorized restaurant patrons according to their role in the art world: “Jackass,” “Pump ’n’ dumper,” “Good collector,” “Jerry Speyer, number one at MoMA—yeah, he’s in a league of his own.” After dinner, someone lit up a joint, and the conversation disintegrated into Bruce Naumanisms. “Run from fear, fun from rear,” said one. “Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence. Pete fell off; who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence . . .” rejoined another. And on it went all the way to the kunsthalle.

Sarah Thornton

Left: Art Statements artist Kate Davies and dealer Sorcha Dallas. Right: Collector Eli Broad. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: PaceWildenstein's Arne Glimcher. Right: Hammer Museum chief curator Gary Garrels and MoMA board president Marie-Josée Kravis. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnik with independent curator Sylvia Chivaratanond. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Dealer Daniel Buchholz. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Dealer Per Skarstedt. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Alexandra Bircken and Herald St.'s Nicky Verber. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Standard (Oslo)'s Eivind Furnesvik with artist Rosalind Nashashibi. Right: Artist Christopher Williams. (Photos: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Fondation Beyeler's Raphael Bouvier and Pia Kuchenmüller. Right: Dealer Bruno Bischofberger. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Dealer Sadie Coles. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Dealers Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Artist Jordan Wolfson, artist Manfred Mehr, and Estarose Wolfson. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Matthew Marks's Jeffrey Peabody. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Dealer Patrick Painter. Right: Collectors Don, Mera, Michelle, and Jason Rubell. (Photos: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Cheim & Read's John Cheim and Adam Sheffer. Right: Dealer Richard Feigen. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Dealer Marian Goodman. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Dealer Ivan Wirth. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Left: L&M Arts's Robert Mnuchin. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Mike Nelson. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Dealer Alison Jacques. Right: Dealer Yvon Lambert. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Dealer Thomas Zander. Right: Dealer Gisela Capitain. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Zero Gallery's Paolo Zani and colleague. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Artist Jim Shaw. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)

Left: Melissa Tominac, Daelyn Short, dealer David Zwirner, and Kristine Bell. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Artist Aaron Young. (Photo: David Velasco)