THIS WEEK THE PROFESSIONAL ART WORLD is a house divided—again. The decision is entirely social: whether to leave Art Basel midweek and be among the first to see the new Switch House at Tate Modern, or come to Basel afterward. For collectors and dealers, each choice has consequences.
I stopped in London before Basel and got more than I bargained for, beginning with a June 8 benefit dinner celebrating the Institute of Contemporary Art’s seventy years on the Mall.
Talk about a house divided. Having adopted an “East/West” theme, dinner was in two rooms, upscale and down, separated by a salon where a baroque dance performance conceived by honoree Pablo Bronstein entertained throughout the evening, one table at a time. “I’m more of a punk than people think,” Bronstein told me. “Because I try to do weird things.”
But even he hadn’t anticipated the shouting match generated by the (always) awkward two-room arrangement for an auction that raised modest amounts of money from lots offering dinners with fashion designers and studio visits with artists. However, nothing could tarnish the five years of Gregor Muir’s directorship. He enlivened a sagging institution that has been, as he put it, “the home of radical art in London since 1946.”
As if to punctuate that thought, fireworks exploded outside, over Hyde Park—though, sadly, not for the ICA. Royal firemen were rehearsing for the Queen’s upcoming ninetieth birthday.
Emcee Louisa Buck, bedecked in buttons from past exhibitions, did her level best to keep up the party mood. “You whipped the ICA into a state of gorgeousness,” the Art Newspaper critic told Muir, unaware that the next morning would bring news of his appointment to the position that Frances Morris vacated at Tate Modern earlier this year, when she took over as director.
Optimism was in the air. The following day, Wolfgang Tillmans continued his campaign against Brexit in his eighth solo outing at Maureen Paley, where he gave a haunting, tabletop display of blank paper from British and American workplaces the pointed, and poignant, title, “I refuse to be your enemy.” In Soho, Nairy Baghramian literally lifted up both spirit and body, tooth and neck, in her debut with Marian Goodman, while Whitechapel Gallery curator Lydia Yee did Mary Heilmann proud with a retrospective guaranteed to acquaint the British public with her work in the best, most enveloping way possible. “It’s pretty good, yeah!” the modest Heilmann agreed, as viewers relaxed in the chairs she always adds to her exhibitions.
Weirdly, a show of signal, neon works by Keith Sonnier—Heilmann’s neighbor in Bridgehampton—was opening in an adjacent gallery, and when the two got together it felt as if we’d never left home.
Rarely does a gallery dinner anywhere gather together the concentration of curatorial firepower invigorating Goodman’s dinner for Baghramian on the Boundary rooftop in Shoreditch. It was almost a referendum on the artist—totally sans collectors.
Here was S.M.A.K. senior curator Martin Germann and Walker Art Center senior curator Fionn Meade, who are collaborating on a traveling show of Baghramian’s work with Salzburg Modern Museum director Sabine Breitwieser. Pinault Foundation curator Caroline Bourgeois was also present, as was Art Institute of Chicago curator Suzanne Ghez (a longtime Baghramian supporter), Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong, Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple, and Nicola Lees (the recently named director of 80 WSE Gallery at NYU).
Friday was a day of revelations. The first came with a hard-hat visit to the new Cabinet Gallery in the company of the building’s developer, collector Charles Asprey. Sited in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, it will be the first gallery in London to open in a public park. Though located within view of M16 headquarters, its closest neighbors are the rescued pigs, horses, ducks, and sheep living at the Vauxhall City Farm. Most unusual. But so is the building, a five-story Brutalist decahedron with exhibition space on three floors, two apartments, and a top floor salon for talks, screenings, performances, and conversation over dinner.
“The artists are thrilled not to have to work in a white cube,” Asprey said of the gallery’s ten-sided rooms. Artists have also provided architectural details. Marc Camille Chaimowicz, for example, has designed the window treatments. Lucy McKenzie contributed painted ceramic murals for the terraces. Asprey has reserved the fourth floor for himself, as “a place to show beautiful things,” he said. It’s all very personal and exciting—and when Cabinet moves there in September from Old Street, it will open with a show of new work by Jim Nutt—his first in the UK in decades.
As if that weren’t invigorating enough, my next stop was Tate Modern, where performance curator Catherine Wood let me into the new, Herzog and de Meuron–designed Switch House for a preview.
The opening night party this Thursday, which could attract nearly a quarter million people, may rival the Queen’s birthday for both numbers and glamour. But those who shrink from big events and just want to see art are in luck. The new depth provided by this museum’s recent acquisitions—they comprise 75 percent of the opening exhibition—and their astute display raises the bar for collecting institutions everywhere.
Two fourth-floor bridges connect the Switch House with the older building, now the Boiler House. Seen from one bridge, a giant Ai Weiwei tree installed on the Turbine Hall mezzanine looked puny. Also large is the resplendent orange, Rudolf Stingel carpet that will greet visitors on the wall of one bridge to the Switch House. The new addition has a sweeping staircase from the ground floor, a tenth-floor viewing platform where spectators can absorb all of the high-rise construction cranes in central London, a restaurant, a members’ room, and several social spaces.
The column-free galleries reminded me of the new Whitney. This is becoming standard. What was way above standard was the international scope and high level of the collection that Morris has fostered. She’s achieved a near perfect balance of object and artist. Half of the works on view are by men, half by women. “That shouldn’t be remarkable,” Wood commented. “But it is.”
Most phenomenal, however, is the program of performances scheduled for the Tanks and Turbine Hall during opening weekend. I felt extremely lucky to be present while Tarek Atoui installed the ten invented instruments—sculptures, really—for which he’s created a new composition.
As I quickly discovered, Atoui is not just a compelling performer but an ethnomusicologist of the first order. Artisans in different parts of the world made each instrument using local materials—ceramic, wood, stone, glass, and metal—based only on sounds that Atoui recorded. “No visuals,” he said. Small flat stones from Mexico played with a cow-bone mallet produce the sounds of a xylophone, each stone a different key. “Try it,” he said, handing me the mallet.
It was so much fun, I could have stayed there all day, and nearly did, once rehearsals began for Public Collection, the work that Romanian artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus are presenting over opening weekend. Six dancers acted out a hundred works residing in museum collections around the world, mostly from Tate. I loved their interpretation of a Félix González-Torres candy piece. “Take one,” said a dancer – the instruction that accompanies the artwork. Flummoxed, I grabbed her by the ponytail and up she rose. Also effective was the artists’ version of Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6, even without the mounted police.
By the time I got to the group exhibition opening that night at Kate McGarry, I felt spent—and happy for a fish-pie dinner on a canal in East London. That was my last stop before arriving in Zurich on Saturday for the public opening of Manifesta 11, “What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures.”
The idea conceived by artist Christian Janowski, the exhibition’s curator, was to pair thirty artists with people working in professions or trades ranging from dentistry, psychiatry, ophthalmology, construction, printing, kickboxing, and sanitation and see what happened.
Zurich Load, carried out by Mike Bouchet in collaboration with a sewage plant, smelled to high heaven but looked like a roomful of dense bricks laid out by Carl Andre. It’s just that these bricks are condensed sewage generated by the people of Zurich in a single day. For all that, it didn’t seem so much. “It’s eighty tons of shit,” Jankowski said. (Take that, Manzoni!) “What does it say about Zurich?” wondered dealer Nicholas Logsdail. Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff had the answer. “That it’s very constipated?” he said.
Jankowski’s show includes loans of historical works, among the best of which is a sculpture of a construction crew on a lunch break by Duane Hanson that faced photographs of the same piece (including art installers) by Sharon Lockhart. But for the most part, the show, centered in the Löwenbräukunst complex and two satellite spaces, was something of a misfire—often a problem with theme shows—despite its conceptual brilliance.
It also had to compete with other shows in the building. Galerie Bob van Orsouw let out the stops by combining Old Masters with contemporary paintings, photographs, and sculpture. Eva Presenhuber hit home runs with shows by Walead Beshty and Torbjørn Rødland. And the LUMA foundation sponsored a night café/bar/cabaret designed by Heimo Zobernig, with a performance program organized by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen that opened with a crowd-pleaser of a concert by Emily Sundblad and Matt Sweeney.
This was also Zurich’s annual contemporary art day—and its Gay Pride Day, which helped to stop traffic all around. It was hours ahead of the deadly attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, so the multi-gallery dinner proceeded as usual with five hundred, industrial-strength artsters filling the Restaurant La Salle, a former factory, for chow and chatter.
Orlando still seemed very far away on Sunday morning, especially when you have no wifi and are with collectors on a bus to St. Gallen, and a visit to Ursula Hauser’s collection. It had top-line examples of staples in the Hauser & Wirth empire—like Paul McCarthy, Pipilotti Rist, Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, Ida Applebroog, and Bharti Kher. whose bowl of seventy thousand grains of rice, each bearing a tiny inscription, caused comment, but not as much as the cool Pop work of Nicola L, a badly neglected artist who has lived in the Chelsea Hotel for all of her ninety-three years. That was a big surprise, and a welcome one.
Next stop was the Sitterwerk Foundation, the foundry that produces work by such artists as Urs Fischer, Isa Genzken, and Ugo Rondinone. It’s also a museum of sculpture by the late Hans Josephson—founder Felix Lehner represents the estate—a substantial art library with a unique cross-referencing system, and the home of the Josephson archive. The Hauser & Wirth-sponsored lunch there served the best grilled sausage anywhere, yet I taxied away with collectors Alain Servais and Eva Ruiz, Art 21 director Tina Kukielski, and curatorial advisor Molly Epstein to the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen and “The Proposal,” a thunderclap of an exhibition by Jill Magid.
It’s complicated. Basically, the show revolves around the intricacies of conflicting copyright laws in different countries, in this case Switzerland and Mexico. Magid is determined to repatriate the professional archive of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Luis Barragán, whose current owner is Federica Zanco, wife of Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum. (Barragán’s personal archives are in Mexico City.)
So far, Zanco, an architectural historian, has permitted very few people to see the archive and no one to reproduce any images related to it. (The irony is that Vitra became rich by reproducing furniture designed by the Eameses and the like.) After listening to Magid describe the stonewalling that met her two-year effort to research the professional archive, I understood why Barragán isn’t as well known to the world as Le Corbusier. He should be.
Meanwhile, Magid persuaded the Barragán family to dig up the architect’s ashes and let her have five hundred grams of it. That was enough to produce a diamond for a ring that is the exhibition’s pièce de résistance. If Zanco opens the archives, Magid will give her the ring. That’s her proposal.
It left us thinking about legacies and how to protect them while keeping them vital—and braced us for the social, commercial, and intellectual rigors of Art Basel, if not for the full force of the news from Orlando. Could the fair raise questions as knotty as Magid’s? Offer any frame for the unreason of mass murder? Heading for the train, I grabbed an umbrella—my only protection against the elements—just in case.