It was another terrific year at Art Basel. Exhibitors brought outstanding work and buyer enthusiasm was high. Confidence is evident at the upper end of the market. Pressing global challenges were set aside for a few days as collectors decided that art is its own currency. Sales moved quickly and pricing has firmed substantially.
The visual pleasures at the Fair and around Basel were equal to the commercial activity. The Beyeler Foundation was hosting a major show of Jean Michel Basquiat which was thorough and illuminating. But the thrilling exhibition was the show of Felix Gonzales-Torres (American, b. Cuba, 1957-1996).
Titled “Specific Objects without Specific Form”, the show is meant to defy the idea of the exhibition as fixed and the retrospective as totalizing. The show will have several installation versions, none of which will be the authoritative one. This concept underlines the artists’ practice which put fragility, the passage of time and the questioning of authority at its’ center.
The Gonzalez-Torres works were juxtaposed amidst the modernist masterpieces of the Beyeler collection resulting in viewers seeing both his radical conceptual works and the canonic historic works from an entirely renewed viewpoint. For instance, a Gonzales-Torres work consisting of multiple strands of light bulbs hung down from the high ceiling and pooled onto the floor. It was installed between Barnett Newman on one side and Jackson Pollock on the other side. The strong verticality of the Newman stripes and the skeins of swirling paint in the Pollock echoed in the dangling lights and the swimming bulbs on the floor. It appears obvious, but it was so fresh and created an unexpected bridge between the work of the modern masters and that of the short-lived, influential conceptualist. Other arresting juxtapositions included Gonzalez-Torres’ stacks of striped, sheets of paper with Mondrian paintings and his beaded curtain hung between a striding Giacometti sculpture and several Bacon paintings.
Downstairs was an elegiac installation of a carpet of take-away candies lying grave-like below a foggy mural of soaring birds. The mixed sense of melancholy against the glittering candy wrappers signaling abundance and gratitude set in the sweeping gallery space was heart-stopping.
The current installation is magnificently curated by Elena Filipovic. It will be redone in mid-July by Carol Bove, an invited artist whose own work has been informed by Gonzalez-Torres. The changing versions of the show will ensue as it travels to the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels and the Museum Fur Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt.
Art Unlimited is Art Basel’s exhibition platform for projects that transcend the classical art-show stand. Included are video projections, large-scale installations, oversized sculptures and live performances.
One of the standout video presentations this year was from California-based artist, Bruce Connor (American 1933-2008). He was represented by “Three Screen Ray”, 2006, a three-channel video display synchronized to a live version “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles. The piece features Connor’s film, “Cosmic Ray” (1961) as its central image, with newly edited black and white footage for the left and right channels. It is a winning projection that combines found footage with footage shot by the artist, using images such as bomb explosions, a performance of female sexual liberation, television commercials, cartoons, fireworks, and his signature use of a countdown leader. The piece is completely engrossing, capturing the energy, spirit and historical significance of an era.
Arguably the most exceptional object work was a massive sculpture by Chinese artist, Zhang Huan, titled “Hero No. 1″, 2009. Measuring 16 x 32 x 20 feet, it is a colossus of stature and some menace composed of animal hides, steel and wood. The artist was inspired by the oxen from his childhood experience on the plains of Henan Province in China. He commented, “Hero No. 1 is born from the primitive passions that inform our future and expresses our wish for rebirth. Everybody is his own hero and part of the biologic evolution.” The Art Newspaper reported that the piece, priced at $1.8 million, was sold to Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami…a fascinating transaction of homage, art world sociology and politics.
Among the satellite fairs, Design Miami/Basel, the design and furniture fair, increasingly contributes to the excitement of Art Basel. The quality and ingenuity of the stands is always a pleasure. Collectible furniture has been an especially lively collecting area in the past few years. Growing trends include collectible lighting fixtures and digital elements embedded in the furniture.
Liste was the standout fair for emerging artists. Gabriel Hartley’s paintings and sculpture sold out quickly, among others. Liste was also a source for some better known artists such as Romanian, Adrian Ghenie and Belgian, Jan De Cock. This fair is an incubator and springboard to Art Basel. Gallerists are frequently invited to the main fair, allowing for a constant stream of quality newcomers to Liste.
No trip to Basel can exclude a visit to nearby Zurich. The Sunday before the fair begins, Zurich galleries host special open hours and the museums always plan memorable exhibitions. The Kunsthalle had an outstanding show of German artist, Rosemarie Trockel. Best known for her trademark “knitting pictures”, the show also included her drawings, objects, ceramics, furniture and videos. Although this was an engaging exhibition, the drawing show running concurrently at the Kunstmuseum in Basel was fairly dry.
Hauser & Wirth had a macabre yet mesmerizing show of the powerful Belgian sculptor, Berlinde de Bruyckere. Her work grapples with life and death, pain and pleasure; I channeled Francis Bacon. Later my thoughts were reconfirmed by an installation at the Kunsthaus, where one of her sculptures was installed adjacent to a Bacon painting. They each conjure an unspeakable horror fed by the viewer’s imagination that exceeds the visual evidence in the work. De Bruyckere’s impeccable craft and seductive materials add an additional wallop to her provocative sculpture.
At the end of the afternoon it’s time for a boat ride on Lake Zurich. It was a rainy week, but there’s nothing like getting out on the water to refresh and prepare for another day of art!