Art Basel, held from 12th-18th June 2023, was back in full glory in its home town. Jörg Zutter reports for Arts & Collections
Art Basel, the largest and most important modern and contemporary art fair is back in full glory in its hometown where it was founded in 1970 by gallerist, Ernst Beyeler, and several colleagues.
Its 53rd edition includes 284 galleries (with 21 participating for the first time) from 36 countries.
Basel, Switzerland’s third city at the Rhine knee, is the Swiss Confederation’s only city bordering two European superpowers, Germany and France. It is also the headquarters of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, among them Roche and Novartis, the former recently marking the city’s skyline with its white twin towers designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. For almost a century the pharma giant, still in family ownership, has been the city’s foremost patron of the arts, founding or funding at least four art museums: the Gegenwart museum, the Neubau, both branches of the Kunstmuseum, the Schaulager (the storage and exhibition hall of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation’s contemporary art collection, the founding family’s art trust) and the Tinguely museum (a cultural space dedicated to the art of the Swiss sculptor). Art Basel – now with branches in Miami, Hong Kong and, since last year, Paris – has kept faith with its birthplace.
The Art Basel fair has continuously grown partly due to its fertile grounds for the arts: Basel hosts not only many cultural institutes, but thanks to its first-class museums with its world famous collections, it also remains Switzerland’s number one art hub, always upgrading its cultural value and attractiveness. Indeed, the present director of the Basel Kunsthalle, Elena Filipovic, has just been appointed as new director of Basel’s Kunstmuseum.
Elena Filipovic, from Los Angeles, celebrated nine years as curator at the Kunsthalle and her long career includes sojourns in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. She will certainly be a great asset. However, Filipovic’s very contemporary approach means that Switzerland’s oldest and most famous art institute with strong holdings of Old Masters, 19th-century and modern art will flourish as a centre for the international art of today. The Old Master departments – as far as acquisitions and exhibitions are concerned – will probably be put on the back burner.
For many visitors to Art Basel, the curated group exhibition, Unlimited (proposed and promoted by a selection of the fair’s galleries), staged in the gigantic open space of the Messe Basel exhibition centre and located in the futuristic, aluminium-coated extension conceived by Herzog & de Meuron and opened in 2013, marked the first highlight of their tour. A few stunning examples were among the artists’ contributions: Cornelia Parker has disassembled, and respectively reassembled, the façade of the haunted gothic house of Albert Hitchcock’s Psycho (Frith Street, Ill 1).
The British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare installed the Africa Library containing hundreds of books enveloped in colourful African fabrics (Goodman Gallery). Sea Never Dies by the Ghanaian sculptor Serge Attukwei Clottey consisted of a large curtain puzzled together out of little yellow plastic squares (in fact, maritime waste), poetically displayed like a soaring wave but also citing the increasing pollution of our oceans (Simon Lee, Ill. 2).
Among the other appreciable artists was the Dominican-born artist working in New York, Firelei Báez, who created a large sculpture in the shape of the ruined Sans-Souci Palace erected in 1813 by the first and only monarch of Haiti King Henri Christophe at the island’s north coast (Ill. 3), presented by the gallery of James Cohan whose booth also showcased her large and very colourful watercolour A Taxonomy for Tenderness…, 2023 ($350,000).
There are also many – arguably too many – video installations, often showcased in claustrophobic boxes and overlong, and so hampering the visit by extending it. Among the few exciting installations were those by the Swiss-American Christian Marcley who is obsessed by musical instruments, vinyls and Hollywood cinema. His installation Doors consists of hundreds of short film “quotations” or short fragments of movie stars using doors, all edited to appear as a single, continuous narrative (Paula Cooper, Fraenkel, White Cube). The much-admired German performance artist, Anne Imhof, who won the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion in 2017, attracted plenty of attention with her two-channel video installation, Jester, the footage of a performance held during her show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris (Buchholz, Sprüth Magers).
The main fair was situated on two floors of the historic fair hall with its fascinating central open courtyard which, thanks to its interior glass-clad façade, casts many booths in natural daylight. The ground floor spaces are traditionally occupied by mega galleries, often longstanding participants, proposing works from the early 20th century until today at prices which can reach up to $60 million, as the abstract painting Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) by Mark Rothko of 1955 made evident (with a provenance of Paul Mellon, a descendent and heir of one of the wealthiest banking families) at Acquavella. The interest in high quality was tangible as was the appetite for acquisitions. However, at times this was interwoven by a wait-and-see attitude, which reflects recent auction results or the mood at TEFAF in New York.
The many younger collectors circulating at the fair are certainly a positive sign. At Hauser & Wirth’s booth was Louise Bourgeois’s Spider IV, 1996, a piece of an edition of six sold for $22.5 million, whereas the same piece from this edition was sold a year earlier for $16.5 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Another example, this time of a non-seller, is Picasso’s Femme dans un Fauteuil (Françoise), from 1949, which had a high price tag of $25 million at Robert Landau’s. Admittedly, this is a revealing portrait of the painter’s lover from 1943–1953, Françoise Gilot, who died on 6 June in New York aged 101 years. However, at the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s New York in November 2019 the work had sold merely for $13.3 million (with an estimate of $12–18 million)!
Although it is not necessarily correct to assume that, on the ground floor, the provenance of many works was the secondary market with a higher price offer than many collectors might have expected, nor is the opposite the reality. The painting Four Heads, 1975, by Philip Guston sold quickly for $9.5 million at Hauser & Wirth who holds the artist’s estate: certainly, the present show of the painter at New York’s Metropolitan Museum was favourable for the quick sell. Other sales by the gallery include: George Condo’s Figures in a Garden, 2009 ($5.5 million) and Mark Bradford’s 2000 Acres Listed, 2023 ($3.5 million). Among the other garish works at the booth was a powerful canvas by the Japanese informal painter Kazuo Shiraga ($3.8 million). Pace Gallery instead sold a painting in several parts by the American female painter who worked for half her life in France, Joan Mitchell, Girolata Triptych of 1963 ($14 million).
Among the most revered contemporary artists represented at the fair, 92-year-old German Gerhard Richter stands out. Richter’s paintings are available at several galleries, among them David Zwirner, who also shows him at Unlimited where he attracts attention with his Strip Tower, a three-metre high cross structure, in a way a rehabilitation or reinterpretation of the German “Litfaßsäule” (advertising pillar), coated with a glossy layer of fine narrow vertical stripes referring to both the colours of the rainbow and his earlier abstract paintings and also his glass sculptures ($2.5 million).
Another work (with an undisclosed price) was Fox with Bird, 2016–2023, by Jeff Koons at Pace Gallery (Ill. 4), which presented a range of established artists like Jean Dubuffet, Alexander Calder, Agnes Martin, the Korean minimalist painter Lee Ufan etc. and also younger artists such as the British painter Nigel Cooke. Cook’s inspiring painting Promethean Spring, 2023, – a kind of a psychedelic translation of Pollock’s fluid painting stile – has sold for $750,000 (Ill. 5).
The successful German painter Albert Oehlen working in Switzerland had different galleries representing him, among them Lary Gagosian and Max Hetzler, the latter presenting an early work, Untitled of 1989 (€3.3 million, Ill. 6).
White Cube displayed a piece by the American raising star born in Addis Ababa, Julie Mehretu, of the series Chromatic Light Paintings (Sphinx), 2021–22, not yet for sale, since designated for the artist’s forthcoming exhibition in London. Another unforgettable painting at the booth – already presented at this year’s Tefaf in Maastricht – was the stimulating abstract composition Renyin 002 of 2022 by the Chinese artist Liu Wei based in Beijing (Ill. 7).
Certainly worth mentioning are furthermore: the works of the Italian female painter active in Rome in the post-war years Carla Accardi (who at the moment has a show at the Museo Correr in Venice), painting in a calligraphic abstract style, Assedio Rosso n. 3 (Red Siege n. 3) of 1956 at Tornabuoni Art (€680,000, Ill. 8) and also a fascinating painting by the Romanian-born surrealist painter Victor Brauner, Repas de la Somnambule (Somnambulist’s Meal), of 1942 at Applicat-Prazan (€900,000, Ill. 9).
Many discoveries could be made at Richard Nagy’s gallery which is specialised in German and Austrian art after 1900, among them a thrilling Harbour Scene of 1922 by Otto Dix ($600,000, Ill. 10). Noteworthy on the ground floor is the group of works presented of the grand old lady of contemporary art (with prices up to $8 million), the 94-year-old Japanese multimedia artist Yayoi Kusama, who was represented at David Zwirner’s with a group of conspicuous lively paintings and sculptures (Ill. 11). Another auspicious German painter exploiting especially the GDR aesthetic anticipating Germany’s reunification is Neo Rauch, of whom Zwirner proposed a fascinating monochrome painting Anstoß (Nudge) of 2021 ($1.2 million, Ill. 12).
The youthful work by the Japanese female artist Ulala Imai Memory of 2023 (€125,000) at Xavier Hufkens has been perceived by many as an insider tip, as have the textile canvases or collages sewn together from pieces of cotton by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Polish-Romani visual artist (Frith Street, €35,000).
Gladstone Gallery proposed an installation of floating flags and clothes full of bright hues from the Swiss artist Vivian Suter who since 1983 works in Guatemala (each single piece $30-42,000). The Swiss feminist artist Miriam Cahn who attracted a lot of attention with her recent exhibition at the Parisian Palais de Tokyo instead was astonishingly a bit under-represented but surfaced nevertheless at Meyer Riegger and Jocelyn Wolff.
Inexplicably, however, one of the great superstars of the contemporary scene, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in New York in 1988 at the age of twenty eight and whose paintings regularly trigger headlines at auctions was virtually absent. The reason for this might be that works by him on the primary market sell better at auctions or private sales. The current exhibition of his Modena Paintings of 1982 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen/Basel – which arguably is no accidental coincidence with Art Basel – is surely an indication for this?
On the first floor of the exhibition centre a slightly more contemporary atmosphere prevailed: less cool and more hectic and discovery driven. The visitors, gallerists and artists here were at times slightly younger and the offers often more eclectic. A small section, entitled Statement, contained booths dedicated to individual and often rediscovered artists. Galerie Michel Rein presented a one-man show of the sculptor Piero Gilardi who was active in Turin and a member of the arte povera movement: the life-like relief Zuccaia (Pumpkin), 1966, had a price tag of €120,000 (Ill. 13).
In the main section many examples were put forward of exciting contemporary artistic positions. Among them the brand-new paintings in bright colours by Lubaina Himid, from Zanzibar, working in the UK (she became famous thanks to her recent exhibition at Tate Modern): Fish Seller: Safety or Danger painting of 2023 (Greene Naftali, £500,000, Ill. 14). Blum & Poe proposed works by Asuka Anastacia Ogawa, a Japanese-born artist with stays in Brazil, Sweden and the UK who is currently working in New York and Los Angeles. Her work’s signature is childlike figures involved in domestic narratives (the work Bye, Bye, 2023, was offered for $65,000).
Stephen Friedman exposed a stunning pool painting by Caroline Walker: Training, 2017 (£780,000). Gisela Capitain showed a fascinating canvas by the vital young British female painter Jadé Fadojutimi, Rain, 2023 ($430,000). A real discovery was the work of the Japanese abstract sculptor Goro Kakei, a figurative post-war artist from Tokyo who was represented with a large number of models and a few paintings at Taka Ishii Gallery. The painting Look! of 1980–2020 was offered for €21,300.
Antwerp’s Zeno X Gallery sold works by the New York-based artist Jack Whitten active in New York (1938–2018), among them the painting Escalation I of 2014 ($950,000). The Zurich-based gallery Eva Presenhuber stunned with a new blue installation Humanskysix by Ugo Rondinoni, the athletic body of an acrobat somersaulting respectively hovering from the ceiling of the booth, surrounded by three art deco-shaped blue canvases (altogether sold for CHF360,000). The work was construed from an installation the artist realised at last year’s Biennale in Venice. However, some collectors were a bit sceptical about this new installation of this ultra inventive and prolific artist also infamous for rebranding ideas from artists like Magritte, Bruce Nauman, Jonathan Borofsky or Ai Weiwei. Especially the origin of the work has a bitter aftertaste: it is the result of one of the last publicity stunts of the erstwhile Credit Suisse bank which due to mismanagement and a dramatic slump has been integrated into Switzerland’s giant UBS bank. Also, the fact that the body of the flying star was a cast of tennis star Roger Federer polarised opinion.
On balance, one could conclude: high-calibre works from the secondary market – as examples by Picasso (Landau), Rothko (Acquavella), Balthus (The Landscape of Champrovent of 1941-43 at Luxembourg + Co) and Basquiat made evident – are the fair’s difficult sellers. One reason for this is certainly the most recent auction results for modern and contemporary art sales, which reflect a certain restraint or over-sophisticated buying mood of deep-pocketed buyers. Works of the primary market instead seem to have a much greater chance at the moment, certainly if they come from the artist’s studio or estate, also because here the offers are often extremely versatile, and the price scale diversified and remaining attractive for a broad range of collectors.
Other satellite fairs such as Design Miami/Basel, which took place at the same time but unfortunately had a very reduced offer of predominantly French avant-gardist furniture, could not compete with the Art Basel. At most, the longstanding fair Liste was a successful complementary project, as it offered to many young collectors the opportunity to deal with auspicious upcoming artists under forty, all presented by young gallerists. And last but not least: the dynamic of Art Basel intoxicated many visitors and spread over the whole city, since in an original way and under the auspices of the fair, on both banks of the Rhine, twenty-four exciting sculptures and installations of contemporary artists were placed in open squares, shaded courtyards and hidden gardens.
Text and images – Jörg Zutter
Opening image – courtesy of Art Basel