IT’S CURIOUS HOW OFTEN the international art caravan skips Vienna. With its Baroque palaces, splendid museums, luscious Sacher tortes, and an artistic legacy that stretches from the Wiener Werkstätte to Franz West, this imperial city has all of the elements that usually attract visitors to an art fair from far and wide.
Yet on the eve of Viennafair’s September 19 opening, Russians made up the core of a formal VIP dinner in the Albertina’s opulent Hall of the Muses. Chief among them were developer Dmitry Aksenov and art-investment enthusiast Sergey (“Skate”) Skaterschikov, the pair who bought what had been a sagging regional fair and rebranded it VIENNAFAIR The New Contemporary, installing former Pace Gallery director Vita Zaman and ex–ArtMoscow artistic director Christina Steinbrecher at the helm.
Lighted signs planted on the Ringstrasse to promote the fair featured these two stylish optimists in a photograph that anyone could have mistaken as an ad for a high-end escort service. Though they were nominally the soiree’s presiding figures, it was Gisela Winkelhöfer, an imposing woman with low décolletage and upswept brown hair, who greeted the tuxedoed and bejeweled guests. “I’m an arts hostess,” she said. “I connect people.”
It took only one table to seat the smattering of young New Yorkers—Nicola Vassell, Vito Schnabel, and two Bruce High Quality Foundation members—with the lively Viennese artists Christian Rosa and Alex Ruthner. The evening’s Three Graces—Zaman, Steinbrecher, and Winkelhöfer—all gave pep-talk welcome speeches and brought on the between-course entertainment, the hoodie-suited French artist Theodore Fivel backing the exotic singer VaVa DuDu and the poet Azzedine Salek, who provided a taste of the fair’s performance program to come. After dessert Rosa led the Americans to (naturally) the American Bar. The cabinet-size boîte, which serves whiskey sours over ice in large tumblers, is better known as the Loos Bar, after Adolf Loos, the architect and designer who gave it onyx walls and a marble ceiling. “I’m here every night,” said Rosa, who suggests a latter-day Basquiat. “It’s my club.” And so it soon became for all of us, including Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman and dealer Maureen Paley, in from other parties around town.
The following day, two BHQF animatronic union rats, one a bit droopy, greeted VIP collectors arriving at the Messe Wien for the fair’s exclusive preview—so exclusive that the wide aisles provided clear views of all 122 booths. Many represented the non-EU eastern, central, and southeastern European galleries on which Zaman and Steinbrecher smartly focused the fair, instantly setting it apart from the usual models, which it followed in other ways. A special section, Vienna Quintet, featured art from post-Soviet Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine that wasn’t so novel. Another project, DIYALOG, gathered a half dozen galleries from Istanbul and was sponsored by the Austrian oil and gas company OMV (for which Turkey is a major market).
The fair also had a complement of nonprofits, one of them—the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts—run by New York dealer Irena Popiashvili. James Lindon and Ezra Konvitz had a booth to introduce ArtStack, an Instagram-style collecting game that was just the thing for a fair. Next to them was a stand for the Dorotheum, Vienna’s three-hundred-year-old auction house. Rosa and Ruthner had paintings at Zaman’s old stomping ground, Ibid Projects, where Ruthner was handing out complimentary bottles of wine with copies of Eine, an annual picture magazine reminiscent of an early Maurizio Cattelan–Massimiliano Gioni–Ali Subotnick book, Charley.
Unlike larger fairs, this one made room for galleries less than five years old. My favorite presentations were in two of them, both Italian. P420 was established in Bologna two years ago by Alessandro Pasotti and Fabrizio Padovani, who gave up careers as engineers to deal neglected European Conceptual art of the 1970s, like the Morandi-ish drinking glass paintings from Peter Dreher’s series of five thousand, each one slightly different. Turin’s Galleria Glance showed videos and photographs by Russian-born performance artist Polina Kanis. Right off the bat, she sold a four-thousand-euro video to Art Vectors Investment Partnership, a fund that seemed to command all of the fair’s early sales.
Perhaps summoned to life by Skaterschikov, author of Skate’s Art Investment Handbook, the Vectors had a five-man selection jury that included Istanbul Modern curator Levent Çalıkoğlu, Moscow Biennale director Joseph Backstein, and Kunsthalle Vienna’s newly appointed director, Nicolaus Schafhausen, formerly of Rotterdam’s Witte de With. They cherry-picked the fair throughout the afternoon and into the evening vernissage, when the aisles filled and the energy picked up. “You wouldn’t believe how many collectors here have never been to Vienna,” Skaterschikov told me, allowing that they didn’t know a whole lot about contemporary art but wanted to be part of the scene. “And this,” he said, “is a non-intimidating fair where they can enjoy it.” I spotted Zaman and Steinbrecher flanking a tweedy man with steel-gray hair, followed by television news cameras. He was Heinz Fischer, the president of Austria.
“I love New York,” he said. “I’m going there on Sunday.” Me too, I said. But first I wanted to see “Impeded Time,” the Lawrence Weiner show opening that night at Hubert Winter’s gallery, where I was hoping for scuttlebutt on the fair. Instead I got artists and curators like Gabriele Schor, who wrote the catalogue raisonné of Cindy Sherman’s early work. Ed Ruscha was just leaving. “He can’t take the smoke,” Weiner said, lighting a cigarette. Later in the week, the two artists would be doing a talk at the glorious Kunsthistorisches Museum, where Ruscha was putting together “The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas,” thirty pieces of art and artifacts he culled from the museum’s deep collections. “We’re finishing the install tomorrow morning,” said Jasper Sharp, commissioner of the Austrian pavilion for the next Venice Biennale. “Come and see. It’s brilliant.” (As it turned out, that was a huge understatement.)
After dinner at the gallery, a stop at Francesca von Habsburg’s party for the Bruces, and the nightly revel at the Loos, I was getting the idea that Vienna was not quite as conservative a city as its traditionalists might believe. But tradition returned the following night at the Versailles-like Upper Belvedere. Winkelhöfer reappeared to welcome Viennafair bigwigs and dealers to the stunning Klimt retrospective that Belvedere director and curator Agnes Husslein organized to honor the Wiener Secession founder’s one hundredth birthday. (At the Secession itself, Kerry James Marshall and Anne Hardy were opening shows of their own work, while Alejandro Cesarco was touted at MuMOK.)
This time, the between-course entertainment was an all-male string quartet from the Vienna Philharmonic playing Schubert and Haydn, allowing some in the room time to check their phones, though not Aksenov, formerly a biochemist. “In the Soviet years,” he said, “everyone was a scientist. And we still have a lot of catching up to do, culturally speaking.” Vienna’s central location, he added, made it the perfect place for east to meet west.
And west I soon went, to Amsterdam, for the September 22nd opening of the expanded Stedelijk Museum after eight long years of construction delays and funding crises. This was a tremendous occasion for the museum and for director Ann Goldstein, formerly a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Because the ceremony would take place in the presence of Beatrix, the Queen of the Netherlands, security was tight.
To get in, the one thousand invited guests had to arrive an hour ahead of the 4 PM start, bring their passports, and wait—even Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum, Guggenheim Foundation director Richard Armstrong, Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, and architect Rem Koolhaas. No Russians in sight, just a lot of Dutch people and artists like Rineke Dijkstra, Louise Lawler, Christopher Williams, and Albert Oehlen. “We grew up at this place,” Armstrong said of himself and Serota. “It was always the reference.”
At last, the queen arrived and sat through many speeches, including a few by the Blikopeners—teenage museum docents hired to inspire their peers—expressing their hopes for the future. Her highness and Goldstein unveiled an artist-made tapestry that said ALWAYS REMAIN OPEN. And the doors swung wide.
From the outside, the new addition to the building, by architect Mels Crouwel, looked like a white, aircraft carrier–size bathtub; the galleries inside it worked beautifully. And it quickly became clear that during her four-year wait for this day, Goldstein had been busy sifting through the Stedelijk’s superior collection and also adding to it. Downstairs in the bathtub, Barbara Kruger had wrapped the floor and walls surrounding the temporary exhibition galleries with a knockout text piece in black, white, and bright green. Each of those galleries was devoted to an installation by a single artist, Joan Jonas, John Knight, Steve McQueen, and Diana Thater among them. LED-lighted escalators brought visitors directly up to the permanent collection floor, where Goldstein and her team of curators created the best narrative of contemporary art I’ve ever seen, signaling every new moment in art’s advance with a dazzling array of artworks, including Ed Kienholz’s The Beanery, pulled out of longtime storage, and Dan Flavin’s light installation, created for the central staircase, at last taking its proper place.
The hang was brilliant. It started with Malevich and went up to Danh Vo. In one room, a pink reclining figure by Philip Guston was adjacent to a blue reclining nude by Picasso, with a vintage Franz West bench in between. In another, a 1988 Cady Noland (Strapped to a Narrative) lay before a Warhol “Disaster” painting. It was all there, the whole story, with a sprinkling of works by Dutch artists (Willem de Kooning, Daan van Golden, Mondrian). I spotted Serota taking notes, and Marlene Dumas (a featured artist) swanning through. Current Witte de With director Defne Ayas toured with the Dutch dealer Fons Welters and Jennifer Tee, a young artist included in a separate show with a group of her peers, “Beyond Imagination.”
The restricted opening melted into the public opening, which included performances by musicians and dancers at points around the museum. The party went on till 11 PM, with cocktails and food passed in the courtyard outside. “Everyone is here because they love Ann,” said artist Piero Golia, who had flown in from LA. “It’s very romantic.”