Basel ‘mothership’ fair is bigger than ever

Now in its 45th year, the original Art Basel fair in Switzerland drew record crowds and strong sales. Gallerists hope it’s a good omen for the Miami Beach fair in December.

07/04/2014 12:00 AM

07/05/2014 10:47 PM

Go big or go home. That may well have been the watchword for the 45th presentation of Art Basel in this medieval city on the Rhine, where museum-scale installations dominated both the design and art exhibitions.

Much like Art Basel Miami Beach, the Swiss fair opens with Design Miami a day before collectors and curators descend upon the main art fair, which began in Basel in 1970. For a city with an area of less than 10 square miles and fewer than 200,000 inhabitants, Basel holds bragging rights for hosting the biggest contemporary and modern art fair in the world.

“Basel, Switzerland, is the mothership,” says gallerist Yancey Richardson. “It sets the bar.”

Richardson runs a New York gallery that focuses on photography. She usually exhibits at Pulse, a satellite fair to Art Basel Miami Beach, and was in Basel simply to enjoy the show and learn about up-and-coming artists.

Held the second week in June, the Basel fair was big in all manners of speaking. A record crowd of 92,000 people visited it. That’s 6,000 more than last year, and almost 20,000 more than the number who attended the sister fair in Miami Beach last December.

“We expect that in Miami Beach we will see, as we have seen in Basel this week, the now truly global nature of Art Basel’s audience with new and many more collectors from faraway places,” Art Basel director Marc Spiegler told the Miami Herald by email at the conclusion of the fair.

A new sector at the fair in which galleries present a curated focus on a single artist or one monumental work by a given artist is a harbinger of things to come at the Miami Beach fair this December, Spiegler said.

That new sector was designed to draw an enthusiastic group of collectors, and that was just the kind of crowd that appealed to Steven Sacks, whose New York-based bitforms gallery exhibited a museum-quality video installation by Beryl Korot.

“This fair is by far the highest-quality, densest group of collectors, curators and institutions in the world,” said Sacks, who was looking to place Korot’s iconic work, Dachau 1974, with a European museum.

“I would never bring that to any other fair in the world but this fair because I would never, ever find a client for it,” he said. “It is a tough piece. It’s beyond that. I want it to be in a museum. It’s hard because, one, there’s a limited audience for that work in general, and also I’m limiting the audience by not wanting to sell to a private collector. So, I made it a little more complicated, but this fair allows that to happen.”

The bitforms booth actually felt like a museum setting, with Korot’s eerily riveting four-channel video installation the sole work for sale. The Basel offering, for $175,000, coincided with an exhibition of the work at the Tate Modern in London.

The 24-minute, black-and-white footage depicts how the former concentration camp looked 40 years ago. The ambient sound of church bells and the babbling of a nearby brook, as well as the trudging feet of tourists, all could have been sounds heard during the war years. It was the last of three works available, and at the conclusion of the fair Sacks was in negotiations with an unnamed European museum to sell the video.

While Basel proved to be the perfect arena to exhibit the Korot video, Miami Beach is a better place to show up-and-coming artists, Sacks said.

“The buyers there are looking for things outside of the blue-chip, and they want to find and discover,” he said of the Miami Beach fairgoers. “A lot of times that corresponds to lower prices. I think the work there is a bit edgier. Also, I think the Latin American vs. European tastes are different. The European is more of a traditional. There’s a history there that is very deep in terms of art collecting and art history.”

As a result, Sacks said, he tends to exhibit more works from emerging artists in Miami Beach and keeps the prices below $100,000.

In Basel, prices often soar into the millions. The Skarstedt Gallery, with spaces in New York and London, sold its Andy Warhol Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) from 1986, which had a price tag of roughly $35 million. David Zwirner, also of New York and London, sold a Jeff Koons dolphin balloon sculpture for $5 million, a Bruce Nauman sculpture of wax heads for $3.2 million and a Gerhard Richter painting for $2 million.

Annely Juda Fine Art of London sold David Hockney’s Vista near Fridaythorpe, Aug, Sept 2006, an oil painting on four canvases, for more than $4 million. White Cube of London, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo sold one of Damien Hirst’s glass-enclosed pharmacy cabinets filled with boxes and bottles of pills and palliatives, Nothing is a Problem for Me (1992), for just under $6 million.

“Last year we had our best fair ever in Miami, and this time we’re having our best fair ever in Basel,” said White Cube’s Graham Steele. “The quality of the fairs are of the highest, but they just have a very different cultural feeling. There’s something wonderful about being in Switzerland. You’re in a small town. You’re in a town that’s steeped in culture that goes back a thousand years. You have these institutions that have these phenomenal collections that add perspective.

“What’s wonderful about Miami is, it’s New World. You have a phenomenal energy. There’s a different crowd. It’s a Miami energy. It’s a Miami heat. Here you bring the absolute best; there you might bring something newer and sexier and bigger.”

Galerie Lelong of New York and Paris also had a phenomenal fair, according to gallery vice president Mary Sabbatino. By day three of the six-day fair, the gallery had sold one of Jaume Plensa’s bronze sculptures featuring the elongated and serene face of an Asian woman with her hair pulled back in a bun, as well as works by David Nash, Sean Scully and Ana Mendieta for an undisclosed amount.

Lelong is an institution at the Basel and Miami Beach fairs, exhibiting in Switzerland for more than four decades and in Florida since the fair’s inception in 2002.

As the global art market is exploding, both fairs are improving apace, Sabbatino said.

“The quality here is one of the best I’ve seen, and Basel is always traditionally an art fair where the quality is high,” she said. “Miami also is high in a different way. But in Basel, this particular Basel, it really seems like everyone put on their finest clothes and really are showing wonderful works in all the booths.”

Come December, Miami Beach is also expected to excel, Sabbatino said, explaining that every gallery reapplied to exhibit at the fair — something that had never happened before. Sabbatino serves on the selection committee that oversees who gets to exhibit in Miami Beach, and she said the competition is fierce in both locations. More than 1,000 galleries applied for space at Basel this year, but only 285 made the cut.

The Basel fair differs from Miami Beach’s in that it is slightly larger, with exhibition space on two floors, and a separate hall for showing large-scale works in a program titled Unlimited.

The bigger and bolder works dominated that sector of the fair. Among the highlights were:

• Giuseppe Penone’s Matrice di Linfa (Matrix of Sap), a 2008 work in which a giant fir tree is sawed in half lengthwise and presented like an open book that reveals its age when 80 years old. The tree spans more than 150 feet, with both halves positioned end-to-end. At Tucci Russo Studio, Torino, Italy.
• Julio Le Parc’s Continuel Mobile Sphere Rouge (2013) includes some 3,000 red translucent Plexiglas squares suspended by wire and assembled into an orb measuring 15 feet in diameter. Whenever someone walks by, the air shifts, causing the sphere to move and cast cascading shards of red light onto the surrounding walls and floor. At Bugada & Cargnel, Paris.
• Haegue Yang’s Accommodating the Epic Dispersion — On Non-cathartic Volume of Dispersion (2012) features a colorful array of everyday window blinds arranged in various stages of extension and aperture that immediately captured attention as visitors entered the hall. At Kukje Gallery of Seoul, South Korea, and the Tina Kim Gallery of New York.
• Carl André’s Steel Peneplain (1982), a floor sculpture that goes almost unnoticed by visitors until they are actually walking on it, as the 300 steel plates that comprise the walkway blend into the exhibition hall’s gray floor. At Konrad Fischer Galerie, Düsseldorf, Germany.

In a nearby exhibition hall, Design Miami had its share of monumental works, including:

• Jamie Zigelbaum’s Triangular Series, which set the tone for the show in the anteroom where visitors ascended on escalators to Design Miami. Made of translucent white acrylic and steel, this assemblage of nearly five dozen sculptures hung from the ceiling like a forest of stalactites, pulsating with light and interacting with people below and each adjacent sculpture. Set against a sensory-depriving black background, the inverted and elongated pyramids of light evoked the feeling of ice floes in dark water.
• Konstanin Grcic’s TT Pavillion, a companion piece for the new Audi TT, repurposed the car’s tailgate door as an architectural element that served as one of seven portals into the prefab structure. The installation was part of Design Miami Executive Director Rodman Primack’s vision for the show, to be awe-inspiring and yet remain intimate. Grcic’s mobile home was part of Primack’s new addition to the show called Design at Large, which featured oversize installations by six artists that were curated by American collector and creative director Dennis Freedman.

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