Osman Can Yerebakan
In the heart of the affluent Swiss city of Basel, a UBS bank branch is filled with eight large bleach-washed abstract paintings by German artist Melike Kar. Steps away, a larger-than-life Corten steel comb sculpture by Wyatt Kahn sits on the lush grass inside the light-filled garden of Haus zum Raben. These and 22 other public artworks – overall titled Parcours– spill the new edition of Art Basel into various parts of the quaint but affluent Swiss city.
Running until Sunday, the main event at Messeplatz opened on Tuesday to VIP guests with 284 international exhibitors, in addition to another section dedicated to larger installations titled Unlimited. This ambitious display features 76 of the same exhibitors but gives the opportunity for a more immersive experience, with towering sculptures, installations and video works.
Widely considered the world’s most esteemed contemporary art fair, Art Basel is now a global brand with iterations in Miami, Hong Kong and, very recently, Paris – which was inaugurated last year under the name Paris+ par Art Basel. The grand dame, however, is the eponymous edition which was founded by a handful of Swiss art dealers in 1970 with less than a hundred participants.
This year, the convention centre Messe’s two floors brim with galleries for various collector budgets. The exhibitors hail from 36 countries and include 21 new comers from cities such as Jakarta, Tbilisi, Mumbai, and Cape Town. Besides its international profile, the fair is an essential part of the city of Basel where local contemporary institutions such as Kunstmuseum, Kunsthalle Basel, Fondation Beyeler and Vitra Design Museum join the week-long celebration with special programming, new exhibitions and parties.
After attracting 93,000 visitors throughout its six day run in 2019, this year’s chapter aims to exceed its pre-pandemic figures with its ambitious programming.
The opening of the Unlimited section on Monday afternoon kick-started the show with a massive crowd of collectors, art advisers, curators, and journalists roaming the ground floor venue across from the main fair. “I could build a little town made out of artworks,” Unlimited’s organiser Giovanni Carmine tells The National.
Sorting through proposals from the world’s top galleries did not pose a challenge for the director of Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, “because quality is never an issue at Art Basel,” he says, “but it is rather like building a huge puzzle to decide which installation goes where.”
From James Cohan gallery’s display of British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s colourful collection of books, The African Library, to Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey’s suspended installation of a mammoth tapestry made of plastic water gallon pieces, Sea Never Dries, the displays on view surround, provoke and amuse visitors.
“If you take your time, you can enjoy each and every project – rather than just monumentality, the overall project is about giving the artists the scale they need,” Carmine added.
Although the fair’s booths are much more intimate in scale, Tuesday’s early sales went above and beyond. Evident from the rush of collectors that started to populate the aisles at 11am, the gallerists closed deals in the first hours until winding down the day at 8pm.
International powerhouse Pace Gallery sold a 1976-dated sheet metal, wire and paint sculpture by Alexander Calder, rendered in the artist’s signature suspended format, for US$2.8 million; a colourful abstract oil on linen by Brazilian artist Marina Perez Simao, for $195,000; and Moroccan-Swiss artist Latifa Echakhch’s acrylic and concrete on canvas painting, for €120,000 ($130,000).
Echakhch who represented Switzerland in last year’s Venice Biennale also extends her fair presence with an outdoor installation of a deconstructed concert stage in Messeplatz – which will actually be used throughout the fair’s run for performances by artists such as Naama Tsabar, Rhys Chatham, and Buttercup Metal Polish.
Another New York-born blue chip gallery with international locations, Lehmann Maupin, sold American artist Tom Friedman’s untitled chrome-plated stainless steel humanoid sculpture for $300,000. The sale coincides with the gallery’s announcement of global representation of Friedman, who will open a solo show at its Chelsea headquarters in November.
British artist Mandy El-Sayegh’s two mixed-media linen paintings were also sold by Lehmann Maupin to collections in Puerto Rico and Taiwan for a total of $150,000. “Placements like these underscore the global importance of Basel for our industry – most of our transactions are with collectors from all around the world, including the US, Europe, Asia, and beyond,” says the gallery co-founder Rachel Lehmann to The National.
Fairgoers around the booth of Mexico City gallery Kurimanzutto may hear a curious watery echo – the constant dripping comes from Lebanese-French artist Tarek Atoui’s sonic sculpture that features a stone bowl with bronze cymbal, water spinner, audio amplifier and underwater speaker.
After recently exhibiting his large-scale installations – which he typically activates with sound performances – in Istanbul Biennial, Elevation 1049 in Gstaad and Flag Art Foundation in New York, the Paris-based artist exhibits the intimate floor piece amid artworks by Petrit Halilaj, Danh Vo, Gabriel Orozco, and Nairy Baghramian.
Swiss mega gallery Hauser & Wirth placed the fair’s biggest sale with Louise Bourgeois’s 1996-dated bronze sculpture Spider IV for $22.5 million, in addition to a George Condo painting, which sold for $5.5 million and a Philip Guston painting for $9.5 million.
Brussel’s Xavier Hufkens sold a two-part abstract aqua blue glass sculpture by Roni Horn for $2.5 million. Million-dollar placements were also common in David Zwirner’s booth with sales of a 1968-dated Alice Neel painting for $2.8 million, a Noah Davis painting for $2 million, an Elizabeth Peyton drawing from 1999 for $1 million, and a 1968-dated Josef Albers painting for $1.8 million.
American dealer David Nolan, who has been participating in the fair for 25 years, brought a medley of contemporary and modern pieces to his booth – by Barry Le Va, Robert Smithson, Dorothea Rockburne, and Chakaia Booker. Nolan believes in the value of building relationships with collectors and institutions “who might not always purchase on first viewing but will rather follow the artists, gather intel, and buy in depth after trust has been established.”
He believes this “deeper approach is quite unusual today and has been historically valuable to us.” Booker’s textured cast bronze sculpture of torn apart car tyres is a standout with its hauntingly poetic presence, somewhere between abstraction and familiarity.
Templon gallery, a Parisian fixture with locations in Brussels and New York, started the first day with the sale of Senegalese artist Omar Ba’s new painting to a private foundation for €200,000, in addition to multiple works by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, who is known for her intricately woven sculptures with red thread for between €85,000 and €200,000. “It is interesting to see such synergy between the fair and institutional exhibition,” says the gallery’s director Anne-Claudie Coric, noting that both artists currently have shows in Switzerland.
Another Parisian with spaces across the world – including Dubai – Perrotin nearly sold out its booth on day one. An Elmgreen & Dragset sculpture found a buyer for €400,000, in addition to an Anna-Eva Bergman painting for €240,000 and multiple ceramic sculptures by Genesis Belanger for between €75,000 and €110,000. An oil and acrylic on archival printed canvas work by Brazilian artist Firelei Baez at James Cohan Gallery’s booth was sold for $350,000 to a private foundation based in the UK and the Middle East.
Other high-figure sales include Di Donna Galleries’ sale of a Paul Klee painting for a $3-4 million, an Alex Katz painting sold by Gladstone Gallery for $1.1 million, Spruth Magers’s sale of a 24-second long single-channel Barbara Kruger video installation, Untitled (Our Leader) (1987-2020) to a European foundation for $1.3 million, and Goodman Gallery’s sale of a brand new blue El Anatsui tapestry painting for $1.9 million.