LIKE THE MOMENT before any big storm, Sunday the 12th of June in Basel was quiet. Of course, this is Switzerland, where the atmosphere is so placid that feathers ruffle only at their own risk.
Yet risk is the name of the game in the art business, or it used to be, before big money sent it in the direction of safe bets. Take the work that the New York Times anointed as the most talked-about in all of Art Basel—Hans Op de Beeck’s fictional collector’s home at Art Unlimited. Funny thing about that. Of the several hundred people I spoke with during a rain-soaked week at the forty-seventh edition of the fair, not a single person mentioned it.
That might be because Elmgreen & Dragset made similar hay of collecting mania—twice, at the 2009 Venice Biennale and in 2013 at the V&A in London—though they didn’t make every object in it. Or because Unlimited also had m.A.A.d., a mesmerizing, 2014 film about Compton, CA by Kahlil Joseph; Louise Lawler’s ninety-four, still relevant, piss-cup photos, Helms Amendment, 1989; and AA Bronson’s Folly, a sanctuary of the spirit to allay the considerable chaos of Unlimited’s opening on Monday.
“It’s a little dense,” Art 21 director Tina Kukielski said, opting for understatement while resigning herself to the number of “smelly black boxes” that curator Gianni Jetzer had installed for viewing videos. “Nice to see Tàpies coming back.” dealer Gió Marconi countered as I passed him in another room. “There seems to be an emphasis on undervalued artists who are dead or neglected,” observed dealer Douglas Baxter, nodding toward an Alan Shields maze of paintings. Collector Bill Ehrlich, on the other hand, was still dazzled by an afternoon spent at museums. “Go see the Beyeler,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought of putting Calder together with Fischli & Weiss, but that was really something.”
Something else was the convergence of openings for Design Miami/Basel, Parcours (public art), and the Liste satellite fair at the same time as Unlimited. Art Basel people hoped this ploy would catch more eyes before people left town, midweek, for places like London, where the newly doubled Tate Modern would open on Thursday.
Frankly, no matter how one tried, it was impossible to see all that fair week offered, including the shows at the Beyeler, the Kunsthalle, and the expanded Kunstmuseum. Add to that the biggest Unlimited ever, with eighty-eight different presentations of the ginormous and the extensive selected from gallery submissions, and you’ve got an embarrassment of riches—some more embarrassing than others.
But let’s take up the motto that Cory Arcangel would establish at the Team Gallery stand in the main fair and, “Fuck Negativity.” It was pretty wild to see how many works from the 1960s and ’70s punctuated Unlimited: Joseph Kosuth’s entire debut show of dictionary definition paintings from 1968, somehow for sale once again; Christo’s four sheathed storefronts from 1964/65; a spectacular yellow, room-bisecting and cantilevered beam by Robert Grosvenor that has been unseen since the mid-’60s, remade just for us.
It was also great to see Gretchen Bender’s twenty-four monitor “electronic theater” of war in our own deranged time, post-Orlando. Still, one started to wonder if “the market” was spotlighting underserved artists or propping up overscaled objects.
Those who had not yet tired of art made with piles of old suitcases must have been pleased by Chiharu Shiota’s suspended umbrella of battered luggage. Those who enjoy queuing were also in luck, as long as they considered a long wait for brief immersion in the soothing ether of a work by James Turrell to be the paydirt of the sublime.
“You have to see Pope.L’s performance,” Art Basel director Marc Spiegler told me. It was scheduled for 6 PM. That was now. I ran for the Mitchell-Innes & Nash–sponsored room—and fell in behind a man dressed in a white gorilla suit (the artist).
Followed by an annoying film crew, and watched by expectant iPhone- and iPad-wielding curators, critics, collectors, advisors, and dealers, the silent Pope.L opened and closed a clear plastic umbrella, climbed and descended from a white kitchen stepladder, picked up a white satchel and walked around the space, inspecting the paintings (his) on the walls. When he pulled at one canvas, a thick wad of cash fell into his hand. He put it in the satchel. He repeated this action twice, then took a small white sculpture of a Paul McCarthy–like gnome out of his bag, placed it on the floor, and left the room.
Spectators, including Art Institute of Chicago curator Suzanne Ghez, Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume, dealer Paul Schimmel, and Swedish collector Pontus Bonnier, stayed put. Did they think there might be more money hidden behind the paintings? There was, of course, metaphorically speaking, behind each of the artworks around the hall.
Among them were an unusual number of super-large paintings. A giant James Rosenquist from 1982 was forty-five feet long. Edge to edge, a new Adam Pendleton mural measured nearly seventy feet. A fifty-foot wide, fourteen-million-dollar “protractor” painting by Frank Stella, Damascus Gate, was quickly put on reserve (and later bought) by an unnamed Chinese collector.
By comparison, Chris Martin’s thirty-foot-long cosmological abstraction, suspended from the ceiling, looked almost puny. “It’s the space where the psychedelic and notions of mortality intersect,” explained dealer David Kordansky. “I never actually saw it up before,” said the artist, who made the painting on the floor. He cried.
Another impressive sight was the congestion in Wolfgang Tillmans’s reinstallation of his show from last September in David Zwirner’s New York gallery, in a room of the exact same dimensions, for sale as one piece. At Art Basel, a buyer could actually turn up. People here are serious. They come to put money on art, not to browse or go to parties (though they do), and certainly not for the food. The evening’s repasts, however, were a central topic of the Art Unlimited opening.
“I just now decided where to go for dinner,” said collector Nicoletta Fiorucci, who had to choose from twenty invitations. Pompidou Foundation curator Florence Derieux opted for her first Gagosian dinner in twenty years at Art Basel. In addition to a dinner at the Beyeler honoring Roni Horn, there must have been a hundred gallery dinners that night, from the Donati (Zwirner) and Restaurant Schlüsselzunft (Lisson) to the McDonald’s where Gavin Brown hosted a celebration of Milanese dealer Massimo Minini’s fortieth year at the fair.
Selling art must really work up an appetite! Never have I seen ostensibly mature adults tear into Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets with the savagery of this crew. (That would be Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf; Art Basel Miami Beach director Noah Horowitz; dealers Andrew Hamilton, Taylor Trabulus, and Lucy Chadwick; and Jetzer, who swore off the fries to build a tower of mini-M&M candy boxes.)
Perversely amusing as this was, I departed for the most upscale (and sobering) event of the night: the first UNAIDS gala, “Where History Is Made,” to be held in Basel. Six hundred people bought tickets. Here’s why:
1. UNAIDS, the name for eleven UN organizations jointly dedicated to eradicating the disease by 2030, deserves continuing support.
2. The gala’s honoree was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
3. The hosts were Princess Eugenie of York (youngest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, Andrew and Sarah), Kweku Mandela and Ndaba Mandela (grandsons of the late Nelson Mandela), and Caroline Rupert, the activist wife of Johan Rupert, owner of Cartier, the gala’s sponsor.
5. The entertainment was Duran Duran.
At first, I didn’t see many art people among the overflow of dignitaries and CEOs, until Pioneer Works founder, artist Dustin Yellin, arrived with his BFF, Kweku Mandela. “We met at a TED talk,” Yellin said. “And then we fell in love.”
Together they would present Annan with a special leadership award. They also introduced me to Annan, a magisterial and gracious person who was instrumental in persuading greedily intractable pharmaceutical companies—the most profitable business in Basel—to make AIDS medications affordable for millions of sick people in developing nations unable to pay for their care.
Thus began an evening that could make any bejeweled bigwig feel small. It had a thoughtful warmup speech by the engaging Princess Eugenie, dressed in scarlet Alexander McQueen, and a rousing address from UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé, who asked for a moment of silence for the dead in Orlando the instant he came to the podium. UNAIDS, he said, is about “restoring dignity and establishing social justice.” He was eloquent in the organization’s resolve to “break the bonds of prejudice and exclusion, and to stop the transmission of AIDS from mother to child. Ending AIDS is not just a dream,” he concluded. “It’s possible.”
I believed. “Whatever I’ve achieved I did not do alone,” Annan said in his speech, naming governments, NGOs, non-NGOs, and the drug companies as his partners in reducing the tremendous loss of life that “challenges you to do something.” I was not the only one in the room—an entire floor of the black-on-black Design Miami hall—angrily thinking of what a contrast these speakers made with Donald Trump.
“I feel so guilty here,” said collector Neda Young. “We’re not doing anything! We have to act. Trump has to go!” In fact, said her friend Glori Cohen, brandishing a photo on her phone, someone had put an approximation of Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling Hitler doll, with Trump’s face and hair, in the lobby of the five-star Les Trois Rois.
That was funny, in a lame sort of way, but whoever thought that asking Keanu Reeves and Alexandra Grant to read a poem they wrote for the occasion should be spanked. After truly inspiring speeches, this was excruciating.
Thank God for Julie Lewis, an activist mother of two living in Seattle—and a person infected with HIV by a blood transfusion thirty-two years ago, before effective treatment was available. “The only thing worse than being diagnosed with AIDS is learning you’ve infected your own children,” she said. She was lucky, and didn’t. (One of her kids is the Grammy Award–winning Macklemore producer Ryan Lewis.) Her 30/30 Project is giving women and children with AIDS in remote African villages access to free healthcare she pegged as their right. Summing up, she said, “All HIV-positive women deserve to live this life.”
That put a lump in my throat that didn’t go away, even when the upbeat Simon de Pury banged the gavel to conduct a live auction that went on for an hour. “We’re going to be here till Thursday,” cracked a nearby guest. Still, the auction brought the gala’s take to over a million dollars, with winning bids from the likes of Mick Flick, Michael Chow, and Francesca Thyssen. De Pury kept addressing Thyssen as Her Highness Francesca von Hapsburg, but she didn’t seem to mind. By the time Simon Le Bon hit the stage with Duran Duran, I felt spent. And it was only Monday. Art Basel had yet to begin.
This is the fair where you can meet the wealthiest woman in Poland, the richest woman in Monaco, and the Swiss woman in possession of the biggest and most jaw-dropping art collection in Basel within just a few feet. (Interesting that in Europe so many important collectors are women.) I don’t think I have ever heard more people describe the private museums they’re building in so short a time.
To this observer, both art and conversation upstairs was more compelling than down, where the most safely bankable works resided. As collectors Frédéric de Goldschmidt and Will Kerr put it, “Down here we can relax. We don’t need to have anything explained. Upstairs, you do.”
Give me dialogue! Give me complexity! Darren Bader’s rocks-and-mirrors installation at Franco Noero’s booth was ultracool, and Esther Schipper’s was the closest I have ever seen a gallery stand at an art fair stand come to a curated exhibition. With a black plush carpet on the floor, Gavin Brown turned it out for Kersten Brätsch, Alex Katz, and Brian Belott, and Neugerriemschneider’s plywood warren offered up some eye-catching mirrored cubes with paper bonsai plantings by Rirkrit Tiravanija. Madrid dealer Juana de Aizpuru, meanwhile, sported the best hairdo anywhere.
In the Statements section, artist Sol Calero created an authentic (and tropically themed) currency exchange, where she printed stacks of paper money (delicate drawings) and sold them at prices that fluctuated with actual daily rates. Mine cost five Swiss francs. A day later, it was worth more.
“I’m a happy, proud gallerist,” said Micky Schubert of her solo show of photos and sheer curtains by Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. “Ketuta’s done so well!”
In the Features section, Mendes Wood Gallery sold out its entire stock of terra cotta sculptures by Solange Pessoa, and Dorsey Waxter was ecstatic at the response to her Richard Diebenkorn booth. “Europeans are waking up to Diebenkorn for the first time,” she said. “Which is the reason to be here. It’s very nice.”
Downstairs, I took an informal survey of booth furniture, which illuminated the business style of each gallery. Barbara Gladstone had a table and chairs by Rudolf Steiner. Elvira Gonzalez had Donald Judd. Salon 94 commissioned a table and stools from the team of Kueng Caputo. Taka Ishii installed a gorgeous Japanese library. And when I stopped into the Three Star Books stand, it had another kind of handsome furnishing, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody.
By general consensus, this was turning out to be the best Art Basel in years. Or, as MoCA LA director Philippe Vergne said, “Any day aboveground is a good one.”
Tuesday night, Kurimanzutto, Regen Projects, and Chantal Crousel combined forces for dinner at Restaurant Schützenhaus, a classy gathering where Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick, collectors Anita and Pujo Zabludowicz, Zona Maco founder Zelika Garcia, Whitney Museum chief curator Scott Rothkopf, Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, and Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick were all at one table (Regen’s), while Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin, Hammer curator Anne Ellegood, LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory, Lebanese artist Rayanne Tabet, and collector Nayla Audi populated Kurimanzutto’s, and Crousel surrounded herself with such personages as Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Jay Smith, and Vergne.
Several guests piled into scarce Ubers and made off in the rain-swept streets for Dayana Tamendarova’s birthday party on the tempestuous Rhine in the Salon du Cigare of the Trois Rois. When I arrived, after the Whitney Museum’s Donna De Salvo ushered me past bouncers with collector Charles Asprey and dealer George Newall, the Zabludowiczes were cutting a rug with abandon and Jay Jopling was dancing with Per Skarstedt around an extravagant birthday cake that could have been decorated by Mike Kelley.
Somehow, this was a great, cross-generational, multinational party. Few wanted to leave. Even at 2 AM, it was hard to go.
Eight hours later, I was in Oscar Tuazon’s Zome Alloy, his utopian project for the Messeplatz—a cluster of connected, igloo-like, plywood buildings based on a solar energy house designed in the late ’60s by architect Steve Baer. Inside, Tuazon had fashioned a conference center with sandbag seats and cleverly placed both skylights and angles to provide in/out views in every direction. As Tuazon said, “No one owns the sun.”
That was still scarce by the evening’s benefit dinner for Kunsthalle Basel, which was also unexpectedly inventive.
Perhaps to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Dada, Kunsthalle director Elena Filipovic designed a menu that would send a traditional chef in Basel running for the hills: octopus carpaccio followed by a baked potato topped with a generous helping of caviar contributed by collector Peter Handschin. Dessert was vanilla ice cream floating in olive oil and salt. “It’s delicious,” Filipovic assured her guests, a nice mix of collectors, dealers, and artists who have exhibited at the Kunsthalle either in the past, or in the case of Anne Imhof and Yngve Holen, the present. “You just need very good olive oil,” Filipovic said, “and very good salt.” She claimed to have snagged a romantic partner this way.
Certainly, no one was harmed by the feast and when it was over, most of the crowd piled into the general clusterfuck of the Kunsthalle bar for dancing, drinking, and (in my case) pocket-picking that I didn’t discover till the next day. Such late-night fun!
By Thursday, I was slowing down, but not so I couldn’t make it over to Liste to commune with young, independent dealers who all seemed to have found clients for a wide variety of artists. I got lost in there, and enjoyed it so much that I only just made it to the Hotel Kraft for Maureen Paley and Esther Schipper’s seventieth birthday dinner for the delightfully bearded Bronson, an artist adept at communicating with dead souls. “There are people here from different parts of my lives,” he said, after the birthday cake arrived. “I’ve had three or four, and I’m planning to have three or four more.”
Outside, the rains came once again, but that didn’t halt the progress of some to an after-party for Imhof hosted by dealers Daniel Buchholz and Isabella Bortolozzi at Kult Club. The honoree was hesitant. “Oh, come on,” said collector Shelley Fox Aarons. “We can sleep in our next lives.”