June 29th, 2010


Paul McCarthy sculptures, Hauser & Wirth booth

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.

Beyeler Foundation

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.

Felix Gonzales-Torres at the Beyeler Foundation

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.

Felix Gonzales-Torres at the Beyeler Foundation

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

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.

Bruce Connor, "Three Screen Ray", at Art Unlimited

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.

Zhang Huan, "Hero No. 1", at Art Unlimited

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.

Satellite Fairs

Ron Arad chair at Design Miami/Basel

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.

Gabriel Hartley at Liste

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.


Rosemarie Trockel ceramic, Kunsthalle Zurich

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.

Berlinde de Bruyckere at Hauser & Wirth, Zurich

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.

Lake Zurich, view from the Steigenberger Hotel

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!

June 9th, 2010

The Report: Shanghai and Hong Kong 2010

Shanghai World Expo

The Pearl, Shanghai at Night

Having made five trips to Shanghai in the past 15 years, the development of the city continues to astound. The word or concept of globalization is everywhere. Yet the experiential reality and visual witness of it become increasingly more profound as it evolves.

The World Expo in Shanghai, May-Oct 2010, features pavilions from 191 countries, various corporations and several cities, all distinguishing themselves through architecture, product brands, and ideas for the future. It is a feast primarily organized for the benefit of the Chinese and the region. International attendees from elsewhere are projected to represent roughly a mere 10% of the total visitors. I was among them on my recent visit en route to the Hong Kong International Art Fair, HK 10.

View of Expo, Israeli Pavilion in rear

Despite the vastness of the Expo site itself, with pavilions on both sides of the Huangpo River, the major venues were packed. An average day hosts up to 300,000 visitors. With overwhelming attendance, waits up to five hours for pavilion entry, long queues for restaurant seats and use of bathrooms, my visit was both exciting and daunting.

Exit from China Pavilion

China Pavilion, interior

I did attain entry to my top destinations, the Chinese, US and UK Pavilions, among others. These three pavilions represent the essence of Expo. China and the US manifest the great powers of East and West. Their pavilions are selling their different world views, meant to seduce, entertain and invariably compete. The China Pavilion, star of the show, immediately declares the formidable power of the State through its authoritarian architecture. The pavilion interior celebrates collective accomplishment and pride in its progress to-date. Underlining the Expo theme, “Better City, Better Life” the displays encourage consumption and trumpet a siren call to join the world of highrise living, sleek furniture and flat screen TVs. This message, both overt and subliminal, is wrapped up in sophisticated visual presentations, massive murals, Universal Studio-type conveyances that take visitors through remarkable, glittering landscapes, and other sensory devices. No expense was spared; the impact is a huge success.

US Pavilion, exterior

In contrast to the collective emphasis in the Chinese pavilion, the US Pavilion emphasizes the power of the individual, focusing on imagination, creativity, education and cooperation. The experience begins in a staging area where magnificent images are flashing of US icons like the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Las Vegas. A handsome, young Causcasian fellow leads a sort of pep rally, exhorting the audience in Chinese to repeat in English, “I Am Awesome”, “You Are Awesome”, “We Are Awesome”. I admit to wincing on this one.

Then the audience enters a huge visual, multi-screen show featuring all aspects of American society. Eloquent speeches and sincere outreach meant to communicate our values, culture and dreams are made from a host of speakers, from President Obama to Kobe Bryant to Joe the plumber to the kids next door.

The central presentation is a short film about a young girl who imagines building a garden in a decrepit, forgotten space between residential towers in the city. Against all odds, she leads the charge. Fighting naysayers, vandals and obstinate neighbors, the garden eventually blooms with the cooperation and participation of all concerned. (Better City, Better Life) The wow factor occurs when a rainstorm that wipes out the first planting attempt, also mists the entire auditorium, creating a surprising and engaging moment that brings everyone personally into the film.

Then the auditorium empties out into a final room replete with brand identities and products by the various corporate sponsors who funded the effort. The pavilion was done on a limited budget and overall felt too predictable. But of course, I wouldn’t have missed it and hopefully other visitors found it more persuasive than I did.

United Kingdom Pavilion entry

Seeds at end of acrylic rods, United Kingdom Pavilion

In difference to the sociopolitical stance of China and the US, the British pavilion is essentially conceptual. It embraces the other spectrum present at Expo which orients to green technology and save the planet themes. In celebrating the world’s botany, by housing individual seeds inside of an explosion of acrylic rods, the entire building represents the interface of science and the miracle of nature. The presentation addresses some similar themes as the US, such as imagination, the value of working together and the possibility of the future, but without any whiff of British Empire.

Shanghai Art Scene

Isaac Julien installation, Shanghart

Outside Expo, the Shanghai art scene continues to expand. Highlights included the world-class presentation at the esteemed gallery, Shanghart, of Isaac Julien’s latest work, “Ten Thousand Waves”. A nine-screen installation with surround sound, the work premiered at the 2010 Sydney Biennale. The piece examines the motivations of need and desire that drive people to embark on perilous journeys to achieve a better life. Julien’s filmic approach gives a nod to the techniques of the great Chinese filmmaker, Yang Fudong, who is also an actor in the piece.

Fang Lijun, Minsheng Museum, Shanghai

Zeng Fanzhi, Minsheng Museum, Shanghai

Two new museums now enhance the local Shanghai offerings. The Minsheng Museum in Redtown opened with a significant exhibition of the history of contemporary Chinese painting. From the soviet-inspired social realism of the late eighties up to the present time, it is perhaps the first museum exhibition to catalog the activity of the past thirty years. Featuring well-known names such as Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi and Fang Lijun, it gives their work a context and highlights the huge departure represented in their respective imagery and ideas.

The Rock Bund Museum, located on the Bund, opened with a show curated by Cai Guo Qiang. He presents what he calls “Chinese peasant da Vincis”. These exhibitors invented machines, robots and other devices that currently exist or once existed. They were designed to assist in overcoming man’s limitations in daily life. They are simple, innovative and inspiring pieces, making the show a perfect compliment to the themes at Expo.

HK 10

Sevva, restaurant terrace, Hong Kong

Hong Kong has long been a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city. It teems with energy and money. Swank hotels, opulent restaurants and bars, international fashion boutiques and new Mercedes abound. The press is full of stories of the new power of Asian art buying, especially at auction. The recent record sale of $106 million for a Picasso painting is rumored to be a Chinese buyer. Larry Gagosian is opening another gallery branch in Hong Kong and Pace Gallery is set to follow.

Jin Nv sculpture, HK 10

HK 10 was greeted with anticipation. Opening attendance at the Fair was probably 40% non-Asian. The quality of exhibitors was high from booths featuring international favorites like Warhol, Hirst and Nara to emerging talent from Japan and Australia. The opportunity in Hong Kong is to see a different slice of the art market, find an overlooked gem, source young talent and engage with new vendors and participants. As an emerging market, there is a freshness and a clear desire to expose the artists and to educate the audience. Business was very good for some and a groundwork-laying exercise for others. While it is difficult to quantify the sales figure for the Fair, Christie’s concurrent auction of Contemporary Asian Art and 20th Century Chinese Art is public record.

Christie's, Hong Kong

Christie’s sale was previewed and held live in the vast Hong Kong Convention Center in halls just adjacent to the Fair. Like many new buyers, the Chinese are more comfortable buying at auction than through galleries that are unfamiliar to them. Sales proceeds including buyer’s premium from the evening sale on May 29 comprised of 36 lots yielded over $38 million (303,360,000 HKD). I can attest to the ardent bidding and enthusiastic applauding for achieved prices from the standing-room only crowd. The acquisition of fine art, wine and jewels have made Hong Kong the third most important auction market after the US and Europe for Christies and Sothebys. However, Chinese law prevents foreign auction houses from operating on the Mainland or from selling cultural relics in Hong Kong, so revenue growth currently has some limitations.

Folker De Jong, James Cohan Gallery, HK 10

Back at the art fair, the crowds built daily as the weekend approached. Unlike fairs in the West where buying usually happens immediately on the first day, or even in the first hour, sales mounted over several days as buyers contemplated and considered. By Saturday, the audience was dominated by camera-toting Asian youth. Crowds of young people surrounded the artworks everywhere, successively shooting pictures and having their picture taken with an engaging painting or sculpture. No contemplation of the work seemed evident. Capturing the image was apparently it’s own reward.

The Wrap

The international art fairs have grown far beyond being just a marketplace. They are cultural platforms and meeting places. They welcome buyers and sellers, as well as museum directors, curators, critics and even the artists. Through educational programming like lectures and panels, local museum and gallery exhibitions of strength, special performances and installations in the fair and around town, each fair becomes its own nexus. HK 10 inhabits this role most distinctly now for China.

March 22nd, 2010

New York Fairs + Museums

The Armory Show, The Art Show and the multitude of satellite fairs brought everyone to town. The fairs masquerade as an essential art experience.  In reality they are affairs of commerce, with the added seduction of parties, lectures, panels and so on.  Some provide an edifying experience, others disappoint.  Either way, they have changed the way art is viewed and consumed.

The fairs themselves are evolving and are increasingly hierarchical.  By necessity, they need to distinguish themselves and their exhibitors.  Maastricht is the pinnacle because not only are the exhibitors carefully selected, but every single work of art on view is vetted for quality and authenticity.  The Basel Fair in Switzerland is so impressive because the entire fair is comprised of  the most respected practitioners internationally in the field.

The Art Show advertisement

The Art Show advertisement

By contrast, the New York fairs ran the gamut from respectable to chaotic.  The Art Show (ADAA fair) was modestly sized, elegant and offered a number of one-person shows.  It was digestible if not overly exciting.  The Armory Show at the Piers was mixed.  The contemporary section was overwhelmingly large with a blizzard of individual works of varying quality that quickly became anesthetizing.  The modern section benefitted  from a more spacious installation with bigger booths and stronger material.  The satellite fairs such as Volta and Scope were like a bad bazaar.   Pulse was the best of the three.

Browsing the Armory Show

Browsing the Armory Show

Many of the dealers boasted strong sales.  Albeit the activity occurred amidst lowered expectations, a rebound from the previous dismal year and at price points still below the peak.  Dealers report that they can do more business in one week at the fairs than in several months in the gallery.  No wonder the fairs proliferate and everyone wants to be present.

Buying at the Fairs can be daunting, unless you’ve done your homework beforehand or are attended by someone else who has done it.  Otherwise, one must sort on the fly and learn in situ. This requires engagement with the dealer or sales person who can educate, create context and provide the details that contribute to a confident purchase.  What used to take place in the galleries leisurely on a Saturday is now anxiously attempted amidst the crowds at the fairs. Alternatively buyers forgo an investment in knowledge for the appeal of a quick purchase in the moment.

Leslie Vance

Lesley Vance

On the Museum front, I was looking forward to seeing the Whitney Biennial and the collection of Dakis Joannou at the New Museum.  At the Whitney, I did appreciate the discovery of the quirky sculptor Jessica Hutchins.  And I am a big fan of Los Angeles based painter, Lesley Vance.  At the New Museum, I admired Robert Gober’s installation and Kara Walker’s drawings, among others.  But in many ways, the Whitney and Dakis shows felt like the institutional equivalent of the art fairs.  One piece of this and that in a cacophony of different voices and viewpoints that struggle to out-scream each other.

William Kentridge at MOMA

William Kentridge at MOMA

The museum highlight for me was the William Kentridge and Tim Burton exhibitions at MOMA.   Two giant talents are showcased.  They may be opposites in sensibility but they are brothers in their extraordinary imagination and the ability to transcend.

Speaking of transcendence, Jean Clair, the former director of the Musee Picasso wrote a provocative article in the March issue of the Art Newspaper titled “Has Culture Gone to Hell”.  He argues that “once culture lost its connection to the transcendent, its identification with financial value artificially constructed by the market has led to a slide into banality and squalor”.  That sentiment had a ring of truth amidst the blur of the fairs.

Mark Grotjahn at Blum & Poe

Mark Grotjahn at Blum & Poe

However, three days later here in LA, I received some true art nourishment.  Blum & Poe has an outstanding show of new paintings by Mark Grotjahn on view until April 3. I had attended the opening with pleasure, but revisiting the exhibition without the crowds was even more rewarding.  Additionally, upstairs is a striking installation of the unsung Northern California  sculptor, J.B. Blunk (1926-2002).  What a delight to see two great gallery shows.  Faith restored.

J.B. Blunk at Blue & Poe

J.B. Blunk at Blum & Poe

January 5th, 2010

The Wrap: 2009


Trends that have been building for the past several years have reached a crescendo. Taken together they create a picture that didn’t exist ten years ago. Here are ten dynamics that will continue to set direction going forward.


Just a few years ago, our primary focus on art activity was in the US and Europe. Now we are also occupied with China, India, South America and the Middle East. As wealth has spread around the globe, the art world has experienced a huge expansion. Art has become an asset class. The artists, galleries, institutions, collectors, and magazines worldwide engage with and influence each other. The explosion of information and access is unprecedented. Going forward there will be more of everything and the challenge for clarity will increase.


The elephant in the room is the Internet. The ability to present, communicate, research and purchase on the web has rapidly fueled the rise of globalization. Everyone can participate at their own speed, in their own time and in their own depth. Mobile devices, social networking and abundant websites have intensified the dialogue into a 24/7 global marathon. No one sleeps.

Art/Basel, Switzerland

Art/Basel, Switzerland


The Art Fairs have become the venue of choice for viewing and buying by the art-loving public. Sixty thousand people pass through Basel or Arco in a few days, while galleries have weeks that deliver only a few dozen viewers. Institutions can get hundreds of people for an opening, but remain desolate during a regular weekday. Art Fair participation is mandatory for galleries to build their presence, expose their artists and develop new clients. Galleries are frequently doing multiple fairs each year. But brick and mortar still count.


The biggest galleries have adopted corporate business models and now practice branding strategies. The smaller galleries follow suit within their means. Competition plays out at the Fairs and is enabled by multiple gallery locations, same-city venues as well as multi-city venues in different countries.  To site just a few examples, Hauser & Wirth now has galleries in London, Zurich and New York; Arario has major venues in Seoul, Beijing and New York and Gagosian Gallery now operates in five international cities. Gallery branding has developed concurrently with artist brands – those artists commanding big prices and ever-bigger career coups such as Koons exhibiting in Versailles, Hirst staging his own auction, or Dale Chihuly with extravagant hotel commissions around the world, simultaneous museum exhibitions and a new stand-alone store in Las Vegas.

Christie's Salesroom

Christie's Salesroom w/Andy Warhol painting


While the auction houses suffered through 2009, their ambition for market share is undiminished. As business begins to rebound, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have reinstated guarantees. They are now inviting third-party guarantors, a move that ensures high-end consignors are supported while preserving auction house capital. Their private treaty business has grown dramatically, competing head-on with the galleries. Arguably, they are already in the gallery business, witness the purchase of Noortman Master Painting by Sotheby’s in 2007 and Haunch of Venison in London by Christie’s shortly thereafter.    All of the auction catalogues are now available on line.  In addition to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, there are numerous others including Phillip’s De Pury, Bonham’s, Doyle’s and art portal, Artnet.  Christie’s provides live online bidding.  Saffronart, an auction house that specializes in contemporary and modern Indian Art, offers an application for mobile devices that allows on line bidding.


The auction houses are not the only ones blurring the lines. With the desire to create memorable programming, to draw and educate viewers, and to package diminished available inventory, galleries are increasingly mounting exhibitions with museum-like attributes. These may be historic, themed or one-person exhibitions featuring borrowed works from private and institutional collections. For example, Gagosian’s retrospective exhibition in New York for Piero Manzoni was a season highlight. Library-worthy catalogs are produced along with educational programming featuring guest lecturers. There may be only one or two works available for purchase, but the gallery succeeds in building it’s brand and bringing in the crowds.  Gagosian/Manzoni

Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield


While the galleries are rivaling museums, the artists are taking on roles outside the studio. Robert Gober curated the recent Charles Burchfield show at the UCLA Hammer Museum. He was present to give the walk-through to patron members of the Museum. While Burchfield seemed to be a surprising choice for Gober given his own work, his involvement added to the pleasure and intrigue of the show. John Baldessari’s gallery design for “Magritte and Contemporary Art” at Los Angeles County Museum greatly enlivened the exhibition and affected the viewer’s response to the work. Eric Fischl is one of the leading fundraisers for “America Now + Here”, a multi-media, traveling exhibition exploring American identity through art. All of these activities precipitate fresh thinking concerning the role of the artist. Hammer Museum/Birchfield,  American Now + Here

Hirst Auction

Damien Hirst at Auction


It was very big news when Damien Hirst made a record $198 million at a two-day auction of his own work at Sotheby’s in October 2008. The numbers were breath-taking as was the precedent by-passing of his gallery representatives. While he is the standout example, artists have increasingly placed their own work at auction and are being solicited directly by the auction houses. Direct solicitation was prevalent in bringing the Chinese superstars to auction, made easier by the fact that the traditional gallery structure was not securely in place at the time.  Hirst auction review


Fakes, forgeries, and murky provenance have been widely debated in the press. As prices mount, inventory shrinks, and demand increases, authenticity has become paramount. With authenticity comes the matter of clear title. These two elements have become the key components required in consummating high-end sales. Buyers want assurance regarding the history of the work and confidence that the seller has the right to transfer ownership. Hence, the advent of Aris, a company that now underwrites title insurance for fine art. It is a nascent area in the world of art insurance, but a sure sign of the times.   Aris Corporation

Canvas Magazine announcement

Canvas Magazine announcement


Magazines have traditionally reported on the news and exhibitions created by others. More and more they are developing their own content and framing the dialogue. Canvas, the premier arts and culture magazine about art in the Middle East, recently staged a three-part conversation titled “Gender, Wars and Chadors”, exploring themes in Contemporary Middle Eastern Art.  The panels were held at three different art fairs around the globe – at Art Basel, Switzerland in June, at Frieze Art Fair, London in October ;  at Art Basel, Miami Beach in December. The Miami panel was moderated by uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and included internationally renown artists Ghada Amer and Kader Attia. The fact that the conversation took place internationally attests to the global nature of the times. I attended all three presentations and they were fascinating.  Canvas Magazine


Surely the business of art and the art itself are two different things. Yet they are inextricably intertwined in both subtle and complex ways. Keeping up with both means staying wired and joining the global marathon.