A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, June 14, 2007 under the heading "An Annus Mirabilis for Art"
Art Basel, Etc.
Stephan Balkenhol Banlieue 2007
Art Basel — a key destination for dealers, collectors, professionals, and yes, artists and art lovers, too — opened this week days after the Venice Biennale, and will be followed in quick succession by two other major art events in Germany: Documenta, which takes place every five years in Kassel, and Sculpture Project, held every 10 years in Münster. This is the first alignment of all four events — officially called the “Grand Tour” by their organizers — to occur with the cooperation of the four sets of organizers. It is an annus mirabilis for art gluttons, an annus horibilis for anorexics.
Where Venice, Kassel and Münster are independently curated scholarly and artistic enterprises, Basel is shameless trade. The fair, in its 38th year, takes place at the Messe, a sprawling complex of exhibition halls that are a major source of income for this city on the Rhine at the borders of France, Germany, and Switzerland. Art Basel is stupendous in scale, with 200 galleries from around the world showing in a mammoth building on two floors. For many exhibitors, their Basel booth is as big as their premises back home. As for the traffic … well, that explains the trouble and expense exhibitors will have taken to be here.
Like Art Basel’s American installment in Miami, Fla., in December, the fair spawns satellite and — for want of a better term — parasite events: officially sanctioned collateral fairs like Art Unlimited, where galleries already in the main fair can present a single project by one of their artists in a more expansive setting in an adjacent hall; Print Basel, for graphics and multiples; and Design Miami/Basel. Spin-off fairs for younger galleries tired of waiting or not able to afford a spot in Art Basel are benignly listed in the official Art Basel brochure, and this year include Scope, which was also to be seen at Miami, LISTE 07, and Volta.
As if visitors to Basel won’t have seen enough, the town’s museums make an extra effort to present modern and contemporary art during the fair. Schaulager, for instance, a Herzog de Meuron designed gallery and art storage facility, has a full scale retrospective of the American Robert Gober until October 14 that reconstructs many past installations from a thirty year career that explores issues of Catholic and homosexual identity with bizarrely near-meticulous fabrications, by hand, of such recurring motifs as sinks, drains, plastic furnishings and hirsute body fragments.
If this and an exhibition of early works by Jasper Johns at the Kunstmuseum (from the National Gallery of Art) conspired to present a glum view of American art, there was plenty by American artists to cheer visitors up at the fairs. Characteristically large, stylish, upbeat figurative works by Alex Katz, for instance, were to be seen at PaceWildenstein, Jablonka, Thaddeus Ropac, Richard Gray, Timothy Taylor and Bernd Klüser. His triple portrait of members of the experimental theatre troup, “The Wooster Group” (2007) hung at Ropac in proximity to a younger German scuptor often compared to Katz, Stephan Balkenhol’s “Banlieue” (2007), a shallow relief carving in wood depicting a Corbusian tower block.
The invisible hand of the market produces very different results from the named celebrity curators responsible for Venice or Documenta. At Kewenig, a Christian Boltanski piece first seen at an earlier Venice Biennale offers a skewed kind of moral warning about the relationship of art and life. A sprawling expanse of small, evenly sized and spaced black-and-white photographs in standardized black frames, “Venice Biennale 1938-1993” (1993), juxtaposes reproductions of works seen at Venice during the fascist years with images of political leaders visiting the 1938 event, and political and military reportage of the period.
Inevitably, visitors coming or going between the stages of the Grand Tour look for recurrences. The Rhine is a good place to discuss works seen on the Adriatic; collectors catch up with the dealers representing Venice exhibitors. Guillermo Kuitca, who represented Argentina in a show of neo-cubist paintings staged at the Ateneo Veneto, a historic academy in San Marco, could be seen at Hauser & Wirth and Sperone Westwater; the Belgian Raoul de Keyser, whose quirky, touching abstractions shared a gallery with Thomas Nozkowski — with which they are akin — at the Italia Pavilion, the curatorial heart of the Biennale, could be seen with his New York dealer David Zwirner and with his original Antwerp dealer, Zeno X; the American conceptual artist Lawrence Wiener, a text piece by whom occupies the Italia Pavilion façade, could be seen at Marian Goodman; the pioneer Pop Artist Richard Hamilton, the subject of a show in Venice at the Bevilacqua Foundation, had ink-jet digital prints of images from that show at Alan Cristea at Print Basel; and Merlin James, the Glasgow-based artist who represented Wales in Venice, could be found at the Dublin gallery Kerlin.
Art Basel, however, is about more than tracking ascendant stars. In contrast to the Miami installment, galleries often hold back choicest works for Basel, especially historic pieces. Standout shows this year included a display of late Picasso paintings at Helly Nahmad, focusing on his reworkings of Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” and his variations on the motif — explored years earlier in the Vollard Suite of etchings — of a painter and nude on either side of an easel. Beyeler, the prince of Basel dealers, which for 10 years has also run a private foundation (designed by Renzo Piano and currently showing a Munch retrospective), had two masterful Picasso paintings from the Spaniard’s Surrealist period.
Surrealism is a family affair at London’s Mayor Gallery, where the movement was presented in the 1930s. It had nice pieces by Picabia, Masson, Ernst, and Matta. Picabia, meanwhile, featured in a gorgeous, saucy display at Galerie 1900-2000 of pictures of young women, which focused on the pedophiliac early Neue-Sachlichkeit period drawings of Hans Bellmer and also included photographs by Raoul Ubac, a collage by Georges Hugnet, and Pierre Molinier’s photographic self-portrait in drag as a dominatrix. Also in the mix was a contemporary artist, Frédéric Leglise, whose drawings in colored pencil of young women marry the sensibilities of Bellmer from the 1920s and Mr. Leglise’s American contemporary, Elizabeth Peyton.
Ms. Peyton was seen at Richard Gray, the Chicago dealer, hung with Dana Schutz and Will Cotton. Interestingly, these are artists handled by galleries not present at the fair (Gavin Brown, Zach Feuer and Mary Boone, respectively, although Mr. Feuer was at LISTE); for Mr. Gray, this was an opportunity to showcase younger artists who interest him and test the water for future shows in Chicago.
Marlborough, unusually, had presences at Art Basel and at Scope. As the London branch of this international gallery does Basel, New York does Miami. At Scope, Marlborough Chelsea — itself an offshoot of the New York operation, opening on 25th Street this fall — showcased Will Ryman’s goofy figural sculptures. (Mr. Ryman is the son of Venice Biennale exhibitor Robert Ryman.) The London branch’s stand in the main fair, meanwhile, included a major, late Francis Bacon, “Triptych” (1986-87), featuring portraits of Woodrow Wilson and the artist’s lover in cricket pads. There was also a mini-solo show for the expressive realist Frank Auerbach, a useful point of reference for someone buying the parody of his work by the British neo-conceptualist painter Glenn Brown from Thomas Gibson. The younger artist made a meticulous copy of a color reproduction of an Auerbach that focused on the flatness of the photo rather than the impasto of the painting.
LISTE was staged in a former brewery close by the Messe fairground, a rawer space that provided opportunities for collectors with braver appetites and smaller budgets. The roughness of the ambience was often matched by artwork: a sculptural installation by Graham Hudson at Zinger Presents, Amsterdam, had light bulbs turning on old portable record players set amid smashed up, cheap office desks, while the young British artist Lucy Stein, showing with the New York gallery Broadway 1602, included cigarette butts in her angsty landscapes. But there were works of considerable refinement, too, including a witty, enticingly crafted “Modernist Bird House” by the Romanian Cristi Pog?cean at Plan B, Cluj, Romania. Perched high on the wall, the piece is at once a deft dig at purism and an essay in it.