Rite of Way

Linda Yablonsky around the 46th Art Basel

Left: Hirshhorn Museum director Melissa Chiu with Art Unlimited curator Gianni Jetzer. Right: Artist Tracey Emin and dealer Xavier Hufkens.

ART BASEL is code for ritual behavior: nightly revels in the bars of the Kuntshalle and Trois Rois, daily treks to the Schaulager and the Beyeler, deliberate runs for the Messeplatz or an ATM. In between, meetings, meetings, meetings. Lunches. Dinners. Drinks. It’s seductive, and necessary. Almost pagan.

Last Monday, returning pilgrims arrived in the rainy Swiss city for Art Unlimited, the kickoff for the mighty fair’s forty-sixth edition. Just inside the entrance, the bearded German artist Julius von Bismarck sat at a school desk on a giant, speedily revolving concave dish of concrete, reading a book and trusting centrifugal force to keep him in place.

A metaphor for a market spinning out of control? Too obvious. But spectacle is the DNA of Unlimited, where curator Gianni Jetzer scheduled several live acts for opening night. Kader Attia smashed the sixteen glass vitrines he’d made to memorialize the Arab Spring, the British singer Ghostpoet (Obaro Ejimiwe) picked up a mic on the platform stage installed by Gary Simmons, and eighty-three-year-old Franz Erhard Walther performed a union of art and artist by climbing into yellow trench coats that he lifted from a huge fabric wall work of the same color.

Left: Art Parcours curator Florence Derieux and Swiss Institute director Simon Castets. Right: Kuntshalle Basel director Elena Filipovic and artist Leigh Ledare.

All of this activity was window dressing for an uneven show of seventy-four grandstanding displays. Some carried actual grandeur, like Sturtevant’s version of a Félix González-Torres candy carpet—in electric blue—and a tour-de-force installation of 106 gray monochromes by Marcia Hafif, no two alike and never seen together before.

“Unlimited’s really good this year,” I heard people say again and again. It had emotional painting—sixty-five from Jakub Julian Ziólkowski alone. It had a lot of film. And it had Italians. “We’re coming back!” exulted the Milanese dealer Gió Marconi, noting the presence of vintage works by Dadamaino, Gianni Colombo, and the Greek-born Arte Povera-ist Jannis Kounellis. Sound was a big factor too, not just on Simmons’s stage but in the vocals wafting through the hall from Shilpa Gupta’s meteor of microphones, from the Tinguely-like instruments that Pedro Reyes made from the confiscated weapons of Mexican drug lords, and from the viewing room where Jacob Kassay made a Cagean marriage from an unspooling projector and a film of a stationary helicopter’s rotating blades.

Generally, though, the opening was a good chance for dealers, clients, and curators to reconnect after the monthlong vacuum between the opening of the Venice Biennale and the fair, an eternity for some. The evening’s dinners further closed the gap. The Gagosian and Zwirner galleries each hosted independent parties, but Blum & Poe, Sadie Coles, Gavin Brown, the Modern Institute, Johann König, Andrew Kreps, Franco Noero, and Anton Kern all joined forces for a convivial feast in the ornate Safran Zunft, a fifteenth-century building that once served merchants of another sort, the spice traders of Basel.

Left: Dealers Chrissie Erpf and Larry Gagosian. Right: Collector Poju Zabludowicz, dealer Iwan Wirth, collector Anita Zabludowicz, and dealer Paul Schimmel. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

The fair opened the next morning to so many early-entry VIPs—nine thousand, I heard—that it seemed as if the usual politics of exclusion had given way to a new egalitarianism. Was there anyone in the art world who wasn’t there?

Actually, yes! American collectors. Only a handful showed up, but the 284 galleries admitted to the fair hardly noticed. On the ground floor, consumers flew like swallows to museum-level works returning to market. “We were sold out in the first fifteen minutes,” one dealer told me. Aisles became impassable and gallery stands were so crowded that it was hard to see the art. It sold hand over fist, but in Basel it always does.

“I think the weather is keeping everyone inside,” offered Paula Cooper Gallery director Alexis Johnson. “It’s all about Albert Oehlen,” said Berlin dealer Max Hetzler of his brisk trade in the artist’s paintings. “There are a lot of new kids in here,” noted April Street, the artist on the arm of curator Philip Kaiser. Recent graduates of Sotheby’s Institute of art advisers, perhaps, or children of collecting families out on dates. Larry Gagosian’s booth was so packed that I couldn’t get in. Nor could the dealer, who sat it out on a bench. “I pop up now and then,” he said.

Dealers like Zwirner would rehang their booths with fresh material every day. Not John Cheim. “I think it’s gross to change the booth,” he said from his own bench, after selling most of his stock. “I like people to see the work.”

Left: Dealer Lisa Spellman, artist Jacob Kassay, and dealer Katy Erdman. Right: Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf.

They stepped over it upstairs at Gavin Brown’s spacious stand, where the floor was covered in colorful area rugs by Martin Creed. Browsers nearly smothered the new marble Paul McCarthy sculpture—sold for $2.8 mil—at Hauser & Wirth, where a newly svelte Paul Schimmel served chocolates as well as art to the entire Zabludowicz clan, and cosplay geishas that Takashi Murakami had brought from Tokyo gave out candies to help advertise his forthcoming exhibitions in Japanese museums, where his work doesn’t often land. “I love it here!” an elated Andrea Rosen exclaimed. “You get to talk about art all day. What could be better?”

Maybe hearing an artist talk about it. That evening, it was Tino Sehgal’s turn in the Credit Suisse–sponsored, Richard Chang/Daphne Guinness–hosted hot seat for a conversation with Tina Brown. With the Kunstmuseum closed for renovations, an audience that included Marian Goodman, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Julia Stoschek, Art Binder creator Alexandra Chemla, Design Miami Basel director Rodman Primack, Andreas Gursky, Liza Lou, Beatrix Ruf, and that crack interviewer Hans Ulrich Obrist filed into the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, hoping for fireworks.

In past years, Brown’s softball questions have dulled many a sharp edge. This time Sehgal took passive-aggressive command. After describing him as an economist, she asked how anyone could tell that any of his constructed situations was art. “It’s not my business to decide,” he replied, before extolling the invention of soap as “one of the great achievements of the West.” The other—apparently there were only two—was the concept of opening hours as the tool of public assembly. Museums can gather millions during the time they’re open. Nations can’t do that, Sehgal said. Nor can theater, where people must show up at a precise time. “That’s an appointment,” he said. Brown took that as her cue to end the interview at twenty minutes in by saying they had an appointment with dinner.

Meanwhile, on the party boat Das Schiff, Emmanuel Perrotin was hosting a dinner for Murakami. AaRON was to perform there at 10:30, but by that time I was jammed into the Roth Bar at the Trois Rois, where Iwan Wirth was hosting a buffet dinner.

Left: Dealers Paula Cooper and Alexis Johnson. Right: Dealer Jeff Poe

One guest was the film producer Sybil Robson Orr, from whom I learned something: that the three-year-old Crystal Bridges Museum built by her cousin, the Walmart heiress Alice Walton, is now the second most popular in America, after the Met. “The whole family is really into it,” Orr said, as heirs to other fortunes, Peter Brant Jr., and Tiffany Zabludowicz, headed to the basement cigar room, where Leonardo DiCaprio was secluded with Gagosian.

Yet Basel does not seem in danger of becoming another Miami. For one thing, it’s too Swiss. Very insular. Take the lunch in the garden of Volkshaus Basel on Wednesday—the one day of the week warmed by sunshine—that the Swiss Institute gave for Swiss dealers, Swiss collectors, Pamela Rosenkranz (the Swiss artist representing Switzerland in Venice), and many of the twenty-six artists that Florence Derieux selected for the last and best of her three turns as curator of Art Parcours, perfectly matching artist and site.

Piero Golia installed a working guillotine in the Basel town hall. Nate Lowman planted three rows of big metal crosses made from parts of NYPD tow trucks in front of the medieval cathedral on the Münsterplatz. (The land, Lowman discovered, had once been a cemetery.) Davide Balula worked with New York pastry chef Daniel Burns to develop ice cream flavors that captured the essence of paintings he made with the help of dirt, smoke, burnt wood, and river water. “Ew,” Lowman said, when he sampled each one. “They really taste like what they are.”

Left: Collector Igor Costa, artist Vincent Fecteau, and Renaissance Society director Solveig Øvstebø. Right: Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois.

Back at the Messeplatz, a performance of The Metopes of the Parthenon, a play written and directed by the succès de scandale Romeo Castellucci, was just getting under way in the raw space of Hall Three. I’d suffered through another Castellucci production before. It involved a realistic portrayal of incontinence. This one posed six riddles, as six actors died horrible, disfiguring deaths. If it hadn’t tried so hard to be profound, it would have been merely pointless.

Well, who said art had to be entertaining? Yet Anna Gaskell’s film Echo Morris—the most talked-about work at Art Unlimited—was an entirely engaging homage to, and parody of, the work of Sarah Morris, whose Strange Magic (about the Frank Gehry–designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris) was playing directly across the hall. The tandem screening spoke to various forms of exploitation, especially of successful female artists, and was the best antidote to poisoning by Castellucci. Or any art overkill. How can it be that Gaskell doesn’t have a gallery in New York?

Dealer Francesca Kaufmann had another question. “Why are we still the only gallery in Basel showing all women artists? People act as if we were a tiny minority instead of half the population. Can’t anyone get a clue?”

There was no time to ponder, not when Juliana Huxtable was reading her poetry in a Turkish bar across town that curator Jeanne Graf had turned into a temporary salon. There, the Balice Hertling and Hannah Hoffman galleries were hosting a book launch for the French artist Isabelle Cornaro. That was a radical change of both venue and crew from the Gegenwartskunst, where a show of sculpture by Martin Boyce happily coincided with another by Joseph Beuys.

Left: Artist Nate Lowman. Right: Artist Pamela Rosenkranz.

The Boyce/Beuys pairing was a world of interiors away from the outer-planetary sculptures by Anicka Yi and Vincent Fecteau that Elena Filipovic brought to Kunsthalle Basel. That put me right where I needed to be—mentally transported and physically at Theater Basel.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house for the Fondation Beyeler’s free 11:30 PM presentation of Victory over the Sun, a Russian Futurist opera performed by the Stas Namin Theater of Moscow. “I hear it’s atonal and nonlinear,” said Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, just before the house lights went down. He was correct.

“They’re singing gibberish,” whispered Maria Baibakova, and left. Though the original scenic designer was Kazimir Malevich, who painted his first Black Square for the opera’s 1913 debut, the best I can say of this production is that Castellucci had nothing to do with it, and the Constructivist costumes were good.

Perhaps the Beyeler should stick to art. All week long the museum’s Marlene Dumas and Paul Gaugin shows had been drawing crowds so dense I was discouraged from going, but I was sure they were good. It’s Basel. Fairgoers on the loose could go there and also to the Schaulager, where they could roam all five floors, including the storage, to see the collection of the family that built the place, instead of the usual solo show by a contemporary artist.

Left: Artist Joe Bradley with dealers Lucy Chadwick and Thor Shannon. Right: Collector Alain Servais.

Despite its romp through the history of Western art since 1933—Ernst, Mondrian, Giacometti, Arp, Artschwager, Gober, Barney, Fischli & Weiss—the outspoken Belgian collector Alain Servais was disappointed. “They had the big names,” he said. “But not the masterpieces.” (Auctioneers, are you listening?) In a room of early-1980s paintings, Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong was more diplomatic. “The art wasn’t very good back then.” Artist Katherine Sieverding was more appreciative. “So many unseen works,” she said. She didn’t say anything else.

Thursday real life broke through the clouds with news that a twenty-one-year-old white racist had massacred nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Weirdly, the Art Newspaper ran a story with the headline, “Black Art Matters,” about escalating prices for works by black artists. “Can you believe it?” asked Salon 94’s Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. “They left out David Hammons!” Her booth in the fair’s Feature section had the artist’s painted elephant dungs—politically charged yet decorative objects, from the early ’80s, as it happens.

Feature was cool. Karma International stepped out with Judith Bernstein. Raffaella Cortese paired photographs by James Welling and Zoe Leonard. Luxembourg & Dayan’s booth was a walk-in mirrored cell by Michelangelo Pistoletto.

Art was fun. Art was money. Art was done. People went home.

Left: Artist Juliana Huxtable and curator Jeanne Graff. Right: Artist Liza Lou and Design Miami director Rodman Primack.

Left: Artist Isabelle Cornaro and dealer Alexander Hertling. Right: Artist-dealer Emily Sundblad and Jewish Museum deputy director Jens Hoffman.

Left: Art advisers Andrew Ruth and Spencer Tomkins. Right: Dealers Chiara Repetto and Francesca Kaufmann.

Left: Dealers Andrew Hamilton, Ash L'Ange, and Nicky Verber. Right: Dealer Andrea Rosen.

Left: Art Insitute of Chicago photography curator Matthew Witkovsky and Arts Club of Chicago director Janine Mileaf. Right: Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell.

Left: Boijmans Museum curator Francesco Stocchi. Right: Peter Brant Jr. and Tiffany Zabludowicz.

Left: Dealer James Fuentes. Right: Dealer Isabella Bortolozzi.

Left: Dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohaytn and art consultant Allan Schwartzman. Right: Dealer Karolina Dankow.

Left: Dealer Jeff Poe and photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas. Right: Dealer Liz Mulholland.

Left: Kunsthalle Zürich director Daniel Baumann. Right: Artist Danh Vo.

Left: Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume. Right: Dealer Pauline Daly.

Left: Dealer Jane Hait. Right: Dealer Gregor Staiger.

Left: Dealer Maureen Paley. Right: Collector Nicoletta Fiorucci and Fiorucci Art Trust director Milovan Farronato.

Left: Souls Grown Deep trustee Michael Sellman with film producer Sybil Robson Orr and financier Matthew Orr. Right: Collector Richard Chang.

Left: Artist Raphael Hefti and dealer Beat Raeber. Right: Dia Foundation director Jessica Morgan.

Left: Dealers Christine Messineo and Hannah Hoffman. Right: Dealer Susanne Vielmetter.

Left: Dealer Tanya Leighton. Right: Dealer Fergus McCaffrey.

Left: Artists Davide Balula and Lara Schnitger. Right: Dealer Esther Schipper.

Left: Dealers Alex Logsdail and Nicholas Logsdail. Right: Dealer Pilar Corrias.

Left: Collector Lori Chemla, Art Binder founder Alexandra Chemla, and collector Alexandre Chemla. Right: Dealers Samia Saouma Hetzler and Max Hetzler .

Left: Artists Martin Boyce and Jim Lambie. Right: Dealer Franco Noero.

Left: Dealer Massimo De Carlo Right: Artist Julius von Bismarck (left) and architect Markus Dochantschi.

Left: Artist Helen Marten, dealer Freddie Checketts, and Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple. Right: Dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth.

Left: Dealer Andrzej Przywara and artist Jakob Julian Ziótkowski. Right: Artist April Street and curator Phillip Kaiser.

Left: Collector Josef Dalle Nogare and artist Nina Pohl. Right: Dealers Jose Kuri and Monica Manzutto.

Left: Dealers Victoria Miro and Glenn Scott-Wright. Right: Dealer François Ghebaly.

Left: Frieze Art Fair director Victoria Siddall. Right: Dealers Emily Jane Kirwan, Rose Lord, and Roger Tatley.

Left: Dealer Jake Miller. Right: Dealers Malin Stahl and Lisa Panting.