WOULD THE AMERICANS who went home after Venice return to Europe for Art Basel? That was the elephant in the room among dealers shuttling to Zurich last Saturday for the exhibition openings, symposia, and dinners that made up this year’s Contemporary Art Weekend, the amuse-bouche of the selling feast to come. Yet anyone in Zurich who wasn’t British, Swiss, or German appeared to be from New York, Los Angeles, or Dallas.
John Baldessari, for example, was celebrating his eightieth birthday with a show of tasty new paintings at Mai 36 Galerie. Fresh from opening their current show at Sean Kelly, Los Carpinteros installed new body-related sculpture (large rusty nails, a “hairball” of poodle-like fur), drawings, and a decidedly pornographic film in Peter Kilchmann’s space. Two floors below, Eva Presenhuber presented a new group of bluestone primitives by Swiss-born New Yorker Ugo Rondinone, slightly smaller siblings of the sculptures that he had previously debuted at Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea. On the mall outside were new sculptures by Mark Handforth and Eva Rothschild, two of the thirteen works in this year’s “Guest Rooms,” Zurich’s public art program.
“Check out RaebervonStenglin,” said Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, flying the flag for the young Swiss gallery tucked within a complex of industrial warehouses around the corner. Here, I found a completely engaging show of small paintings by Ivan Seal—a Brit based in Berlin.
“Having art in the streets changes a town,” city councilwoman Ruth Genner told the hundreds gathered in the Maag Event Hall for the annual Zurich Art Dinner. She didn’t say what kind of changes. Looking around, a bewildered brother from another planet might have concluded that this one was populated solely by educated, well-to-do white people who routinely leave their businesses and families to follow art wherever it lands.
Seated at long tables hosted by each of the Zurich galleries were collectors, museum curators, and directors, artists, dealers—anyone who wasn’t attending the Barbara Gladstone/Jean Bernier/Marina Eliades/Christopher Müller/Daniel Buchholz dinner at Kronenhalle for Cameron Jamie, another contributor to the public art program and the subject of a retrospective opening at Kunsthalle Zürich the next day.
Talk centered on the Venice Biennale, the rainy weather in Europe, artists in favor, and, in the case of collector Mera Rubell, news of the hotel that she and Don Rubell recently took over in Baltimore. “Baltimore has great architecture,” she told Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick, “and fabulous museums. It’s exciting.”
Over an entrée of veal steak with organic beef ragout—so Swiss—Rothschild spoke of her admiration for Scottish artist Cathy Wilkes with such stunning reverence that it (happily) made me put down my fork. As dinner went on, the praise for Massimiliano Gioni’s “Encyclopedic Palace” in Venice was so close to universal that it seemed something had to be wrong. How often does it happen that everyone likes such a sweeping show?
Opinion was more divided the next morning at the Löwenbräu art complex, where Beatrix Ruf introduced her retrospective for Jamie. “I’m not convinced,” I heard more than one person touring the exhibition say. “Mike Kelley was the first to recognize that Jamie was really special,” said Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. “He’s turning the inside out and the outside in,” Ruf said. “I wish everyone a lot of insight with this show.” But insights were not limited to the show. “The Turkey I left to go to Venice was not the same country I came back to afterward,” said Füsun Eczacibasi, the Istanbul-based chair of the SAHA art foundation. “It’s great,” she added. “The optimism is huge.”
Jamie’s two dark-underbelly-of-suburbia videos led the popular vote for the show, which included photographs, masks, wall-mounted and freestanding ceramic sculptures, drawings, and books—enough art to fill galleries on two floors. Meanwhile, drawings by Lee Bontecou and paintings by Wilhelm Sasnal at the two Hauser & Wirth spaces barely earned a glance, though the very curious stopped into a sculpture show by Canadian Geoffrey Farmer at the Migros Museum.
An exhibition of new sculpture and a video by Trisha Donnelly in one of Eva Presenhuber’s two satellite galleries baffled some and enthralled others (like Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist). But the black-and-white gouaches and photographs by Jay DeFeo in the other Presenhuber space were gorgeous and sadly neglected by too many rushing to the buffet lunch preceding “POOL,” an exhibition and four-hour-long symposium on collecting and public/private curating hosted by Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Foundation.
At the same time, Gigi Kracht, the curator wife of hotelier Andrea Kracht, was seating guests (Guggenheim Foundation director Richard Armstrong, dealer Kenny Schachter, and many collectors including the Swiss Willi Leiman and the Bangalore businessman Ash Kakkar) for a lunch at the fabulous Baur au Lac. It celebrated “Art in the Park XI,” a sculpture exhibition in the hotel gardens and the first European exhibition in sixty-three years of works by the virtually forgotten Australian artist Robert Klippel. It was André Breton who had organized the late Klippel’s debut in Paris, said Kracht, who put the current show together with Galerie Gmurzynska. “He was a recluse,” explained Andrew Klippel, the artist’s far more gregarious musician son.
Other troops priming themselves for Basel—Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, Marguerite Hoffman and her dealer daughter Hannah Hoffman—were lunching in the hotel’s garden at a table opposite the one where David Maupin was meeting private dealer Kim Heirston and her husband Richard Evans, seemingly unaware of the POOL symposium unfolding across town. Conceived by Ruf with Zoe Gray and Fionn Meade, it included a pilot exhibition of works from the collections of Michael Ringier and Hoffmann organized by Bard CCS grad Gabi Ngcobo. Speakers included Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, De Appel director Ann Demeester, Bard CCS director Tom Eccles, and artist Mario Garcia Torres. Opinion about this was divided too, among those who wanted to hear more from artists and those who thought it was an important platform to consider the future impact of private collections on those of public institutions.
Afterward, vans shuttled everyone to Ringier’s modernist house in the hills for a sunset viewing of the collection that he and his wife, Ellen, keep in every room. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. Curator turned dealer Paul Schimmel held court on the terrace with Baldessari as Wexner Center director Sherri Geldin, Stedelijk director Ann Goldstein, independent curator Simon Castets, artists Sean Landers and Angela Bulloch, former auctioneer Simon de Pury, dealers Andrea Rosen, Lisa Spellman, and a hundred other guests poured through the house.
This entirely pleasant hour, which felt a bit like a Continental Gatsby, led up to dinner at Hoffmann’s Marcel Breuer–designed home on another hill, where there was more hanging out and some glances exchanged at the sight of LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch and Schimmel in the same room. Once the bountiful food was served, everyone got down to the business of social maneuvering, speaking of art in Switzerland’s three languages and feeling suitably prepped for the front lines in Basel, where Art Statements and Art Unlimited would open the next day to more mixed reviews. But that’s another story.