Roman Ó Clef


Left: Brad Pitt. (Photo: James Harris) Right: The Approach's Emma Robertson with Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler and the Approach's Jake Miller. (Except where noted, all photos: Sarah Thornton)

Roman Abramovich is a blessing for the art world,” said one high roller over drinks in the lobby of the Swiss˘tel in Basel after a long day at the fair. Whether or not the Russian oligarch bought a handful of Giacomettis off the Krugier stand didn’t seem to matter. The billionaire brought buzz. According to the Grand Cru grapevine, Abramovich, who is known to have an appetite for Lucian Freud, missed the opportunity to purify twelve million dollars on the artist’s Girl in Attic Doorway as, by the time the newcomer got back to Bill Acquavella with a decision, the classy uptown dealer had already sold it to someone else.

Business transactions at the fair were good and steady, quiet and sophisticated, but some likened the experience to routine conjugal activity—a marked contrast to the rousing, impulsive interactions of the past couple years. “Sales were not accompanied by fireworks as much as by deep discussion,” as one dealer put it. Perhaps the mood had to do with the dearth of Americans, whose passion for shopping always gives the fair extra verve? A New York dealer, who had offloaded nearly everything at his stand, explained the success: “It proves that the European market is solid, and doom-and-gloomers don’t understand our new world.”

Indeed, some art-world players were exceedingly relaxed. At 11:45 AM on Tuesday, less than an hour after the fair began, collector Peter Brant, dealers Alberto Mugrabi and Tony Shafrazi, and actor Owen Wilson could be seen playing liar’s poker at a round table in the corner of the Regen Projects stand. (Apparently, Shafrazi finished four hundred dollars up, but Wilson won the game.) Shaun Caley Regen and her team were so busy making sales that one staff member later exclaimed, “I wondered what they were doing!”

Left: Shala Monroque with dealer Larry Gagosian. Right: Pinchuk Art Centre president and artistic director Peter Doroshenko.

Across the aisle at Victoria Miro, I found the cheery artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset, who will have the unusual pleasure of curating two pavilions at the next Venice Biennale—the Nordic pavilion because Dragset hails from Norway and the Danish because Elmgreen comes from Copenhagen. The pair (an ex-couple) were here to inspect the installation of their Crash . . . Boom . . . Bang!, 2008, a tower of toppled crates out of which spilled what looked like a Hirst spot painting and a Koons silver rabbit. The Rubells, Americans who never miss Basel, scooped up the work with characteristic alacrity.

As I traipsed from stand to stand, I repeatedly missed Brad Pitt. At the 303 Gallery booth, the Hollywood heartthrob apparently expressed appreciation for Collier Schorr and Doug Aitken. “He didn’t buy anything, but he kissed me,” said the gallery’s proprietor, Lisa Spellman. “To be honest, that was better than a sale.” Massimo De Carlo’s baroque ’n’ roll corner location featured John Armleder and Rudolf Stingel bas-reliefs to either side of a large, round Maurizio Cattelan rug. Apparently, Pitt had been here, too, but this time took the plunge on a Stingel (although not the one hanging in the booth, which had already been acquired by a prestigious European collector).

In the high-design, greatly expanded VIP room, I bumped into Peter Doroshenko, the artistic director of the Pinchuk Art Centre, who refused to confirm any rumors about recent acquisitions. Encountering the Ukrainian-American curator reminded me that some of the biggest spenders (like his boss, Victor Pinchuk, or Steve Cohen and Franšois Pinault) were on the phone rather than in the room, so to speak. Doroshenko’s explanation was matter-of-fact: “Victor has educated himself to another level so that he doesn’t have to be everywhere. He isn’t trophy hunting; he values forging relationships with artists.”

Left: New Museum senior curator Laura Hoptman with dealer Paula Cooper. Right: Fondation Beyeler director Sam Keller with Art Basel's Isabela Mora and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, codirector of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery.

Downstairs, among the blue-chip galleries, Matthew Marks’s Ellsworth Kelly mini-retrospective (partly in honor of the artist’s eighty-fifth birthday) and Helly Nahmad’s special exhibition of Joan Mirˇ paintings all made in the summer of 1936 were the most rigorous offerings, but Galerie Karsten Greve’s 1958 Cy Twombly (asking price: $20 million) and Marlborough’s beautiful, unusually minimal 1970 Bacon triptych, Three Studies of Human Body (asking price: $80 million), were the subject of more chatter.

The ground-floor galleries seemed to be competing to see who had the best closet. These small spaces formerly known for storage were converted, in the words of Gagosian’s John Good, into “tight little master rooms.” Gagosian had two Picassos and two Warhols in their large walk-in. Werner had a luscious Picabia and a few sweet Peter Doigs, while L&M won marks for subcultural credibility by displaying, among other things, David Hammons’s predominantly pink Untitled (Kool-Aid), 2006.

In terms of intimate viewing, however, no one could beat the Fondation Beyeler stand, where the personable Sam Keller held court. In a chapel-like side room with a lowered ceiling, dim light, gray walls, and a built-in hardwood bench, visitors could meditate—or perhaps pray for art-acquisition guidance—in the presence of Mark Rothko’s life-affirming Red (Orange), 1968.

Left: Artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. Right: Artist Ellsworth Kelly.

It reminded me of something I overheard at Art Unlimited, the part of the fair that features mansion-size sculptures and installations. “It’s time for belief and transcendence again,” said New Museum curator Laura Hoptman to the gracious Paula Cooper. I wish I had asked Los Angeles–based artist Morgan Fisher for comment, as he was as garrulous and forthright as his installation, The Door and Window Paintings, was splendidly subtle and restrained. The yin-yang combination of artist and work was satisfying: “The paintings are their own curators. Here’s some writing. Boy, do I love to write.” Then he added: “Some people wish I didn’t.”

No one in Basel could have missed the endearing and ubiquitous Malcolm McLaren, whose compilation of twenty-one cut-up old adult films (of people “desiring, wanting, wishing, and imagining having sex”) was on view in a cabin outpost of Art Basel Projects. When I asked the Svengali-turned-artist about its price and whether art was more lucrative than pop music nowadays, McLaren quipped wickedly, “I don’t know if it is up for sale, but it is definitely up.”

This year, there were thirty-one Art Statements booths dedicated to one-person shows by less established artists, two of which were awarded Baloise prizes by a jury one dealer described as consisting of “German curators I’ve never heard of and Gary Garrels.” The winners were Duncan Campbell’s poetic half-hour half-documentary Bernadette, presented by Hotel (of London), and Tris Vonna-Michell’s Finding Chopin, hosted by T293 (of Naples). I managed to track down Garrels, who will join SF MoMA as senior curator of painting and sculpture in September and who explained convincingly: “The winners are the opposite of the flashy showmanship that is so prevalent. They have countervailing voices that add richness and diversity to the fair.”

No trip to Art Basel is complete without at least one late-night foray to the kunsthalle. There, it was good to see Marc Spiegler, codirector of the fair (along with Annette Sch÷nholzer), in a blue pinstripe suit and pointy white running shoes, pressing the flesh with the younger crowd that make this festive venue their nightly home. The opening forty-eight hours of his first fair were over, and there was reason to celebrate. I asked him whether he had a metaphor for his comfort zone. He laughed: “I feel like the Godfather at a family reunion.”

Sarah Thornton

Left: PaceWildenstein's Marc Glimcher. Right: Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum with dealer Daniel Buchholz.

Left: Dealer Jay Jopling with White Cube's Caroline Cohen. Right: Hotel Gallery's Darren Flook with artist Duncan Campbell and Hotel Gallery's Christabel Stewart.

Left: MoMA curator Christian Rattemeyer with Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. Right: Collector Roman Abramovich (left) and Design Miami/Basel founder Craig Robins (right) at Design Miami/Basel. (Photo: James Harris)

Left: Hauser & Wirth's Gregor Muir with collector Anita Zabludowicz. Right: Dealer Barbara Gladstone with Pompidou director Alfred Pacquement.

Left: Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac. Right: James Lindon with writer Marina Warner and artist Conrad Shawcross.

Left: Artists Morgan Fisher and Allen Ruppersberg. Right: Artists Malcolm McLaren and Young Kim.

Artist Gardar Eide Einarsson with collector Stavros Merjos. Right: Elfie Lloyd with Marlborough Gallery director Gilbert Lloyd.

Left: Artists Peter Coffin and Thomas Houseago. Right: Artists Scott Lyall, Blake Rayne, and Sam Lewitt.

Left: Collectors Peter Soros and Randy Slifka. Right: Dealer Karsten Greve.

Left: Dealer Carl Freedman. Right: Collectors Maria and JoŃo Rendeiro with curator Andrew Renton.

Left: Christie's Brett Gorvy and Amy Gold. Right: Collector Eugene Sadovoy with the Modern Institute's Toby Webster.