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A teeny bit middle-aged: Art Basel 1997

Our correspondent warns against doing what the auction houses do just as well

No visitor to Art 97 in June has regretted having made the journey. The fair was of the highest quality, beautifully organised in calm and elegant surroundings.

Basel is the best contemporary art fair in the world by a long way, and in some respects could be said to have achieved perfection. Nevertheless, during the last few years, I have been wondering if its last remaining spark of vitality has not gradually got lost.

The new management committee holds the reins very tightly and has tailored the fair exactly to suit a certain type of clientele. A portrait of this person would show a man of more than fifty, Anglo-Saxon, an art lover, slightly over-sensitive, disciplined, living in a magnificent residence and possessing a considerable personal fortune.

In these days of cloning, identical stands are popping up like mushrooms: each has its Warhol, its Fontana, its Bacon and its Twombly, all of medium size, neither too big nor too small, all perfectly restored and disinfected, all chosen to suit the taste of our model collector and to fill the empty space above his sofa or his writing desk.

We should not forget, however, that this is only one section of the contemporary art market and it already faces strong competition from Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

All collectors receive catalogues and are therefore abreast of current prices—which must set a limit on the profit margins of the dealers or force them to sell at prices markedly above the sale-room prices, something not easy to do in the current climate.

One of the principal reasons for the change in exhibitors’ behaviour is the present structure of art galleries dealing in so-called “contemporary art.” The traditional group still busies itself defending the interests of the one or more painters with whom they have well defined commercial links; a second group functions as if they were dealers in Old Master paintings, buying works executed some years ago from collectors or at auctions and attempting to re-sell them. This second group has become increasingly important at Basel, and has taken over the management of the fair.

For this reason the stands at Basel look much more like a sales catalogue for London or New York auctions than a reflection of what is going on in art today. This impression is particularly strong on anyone who goes to Venice immediately after Basel.

Very few artists selected by the various juries and committees in Venice are represented in Basel. The exceptions to the rule go by the name of Tony Cragg, Gerhard Merz, Vanessa Beecroft, Jan Fabre and Chen Yifei. Another growing phenomenon can be summed up as “in the manner of.” Conformity of taste seems to be growing. Anyone with a limited budget and even more limited imagination can find original imitations of Freud, Tapiès, Albers, Baselitz, Buren, Rebecca Horn or Judd—signed by other artists, it is true, but perfectly adequate for creating an impression.

Many directors of major museums, faced with the shortcomings (emotional and financial) of their patrons or their governments use Venice or Kassel as an excuse for skipping Basel. They do not wish their inability to purchase to be made public.

It would be impossible (and tedious) to quote all the galleries here. The following selection is somewhat arbitrary, but it is an attempt to illustrate my opening paragraphs, by confirming or denying the central thesis.

In absolute terms, the most beautiful stand of all is Gmurzynska. Their homage to the Three Graces is incredibly powerful and intelligent, uniting Klein, Delaunay, Malevich and other Russian Constructivists around the same theme. Gmurzynska is also presenting a huge stencil on linen by Matisse at $650,000.

The Matisse seems to be the progenitor of a piece of similar size by Keith Haring, presented by Hans Mayer at SFr600,000. As always, Mayer’s stand combines great elegance with dynamic energy. Of interest are a large panel by Nigel Hall painted in 1992, for sale at SFr240,000 and, as usual, the best Paik of the year, “Early birds with hieroglyphics” at SFr340,000.

Art Public (Pierre Huber’s gallery in Geneva) has another fine Naim June Paik, “Main channel matrix,” consisting of sixty-five television screens showing two video programmes. More than three metres high it costs $300,000. On the same stand is a series of works by Flavin, produced between 1964 and 1985, on sale at $50,000-70,000.

The fourth musketeer, Greve from Cologne, has a magnificent Kounellis of 1996—four steel panels at SFr385,000. Here also is the only large piece by Louise Bourgeois in this year’s fair: two immense granite eyes, produced in 1995, on sale at $495,000.

These four galleries all present large pieces, perfectly co-ordinated, which manage to avoid the pitfalls discussed above. Each gallery of the four owners has a certain conception of art and manages to communicate it to the visitor.

The big galleries that helped to found the fair have been superseded by now. The time when great classic masterpieces were brought to Basel is over. Business is tough and it is not worthwhile wasting big expensive works by overexposing them here.

Waddington, for example, in a much less impressive stand than we have been used to expect, is showing a large Nicholson which has certainly been seen at Basel before.

Annely Juda, also reduced in size this year, has some exceptional offerings, for instance a terracotta by Chillida (1992) at $112,000. Juda plays her role as “discoverer” to perfection, as usual, and in the section entitled “Statements,” one-man shows by young artists, presents the only humorous piece in the fair, a Darren Lago. Lago’s witty creations help to save Art from smugness and well-bred boredom—besides, they have the great quality of costing from SFr3,000-5,000, a change from the vertiginous prices that prevail in the rest of the fair.

Beyeler is difficult to judge on his stand. In his gallery in town, however, he regularly every year presents an amazing panorama of the century in painting.

Krugier is showing fewer of his usual high-priced masterpieces this year, but makes some extraordinary conjunctions, from Victor Hugo to Wols and Pollock. He also has a very handsome Lam of 1950 at SFr370,000.

Of this group of galleries, Denise René is the only one to pursue her aim of presenting an artist’s most recent work directly to the public at the fair. Her hang of Soto is exceptional. Soto may not be a discovery as such, but his latest works are remarkably powerful; his colours are limited as always but extremely forceful. “Virtual maluna” is on sale at SFr85,000, “Ecritures en cercles” at SFr170,000, both from 1996.

Other galleries that were previously much more adventurous have turned this year to more established artists, but have produced better pieces in general than their neighbours on the stand. Frank-Shulto comes into this category: he has a Serra of 1991 at $1,250,000. De Bartha has the best Warhols to be found at the fair, including a “Black retrospective” of 1979 at $2,600,000.

In fact the fair shows symptoms of Warholitis this year, with almost nobody spared. The items on show are of such poor quality (like Gagosian’s drag queens) that many of their owners may never recover.

The galleries staging one-man shows are often very interesting, but only when the work of the single artists adds up to a coherent statement. The Cucchis shown by Bischofberger give a feeling of emptiness, and the Disler’s on Kaufmann’s stand a feeling of lassitude. Berggruen’s Légers are perfectly acceptable but make no strong statement.

A number of galleries stick to their brief of selling strictly contemporary work, as might be expected at a fair like Basel. Buchmann, who runs a gallery in Basel, is displaying in admirable fashion three excellent pieces by Tony Cragg. Two mixed media works in plaster, polyester and pencil entitled “Verses” and produced this year have been sold for SFr63,000 and 70,000. Another piece in bronze measuring nearly five metres in length is one of an edition of three and costs SFr350,000.

Buchmann’s advertisement in the catalogue reproduces the large Biennale piece, “Secretions,” covered in dice, on sale for SFr420,000. Another Cragg, a small version of a Biennale piece “Nautilus,” more than two metres high and made of fibreglass, is being sold by the New York gallery Goodman for DM100,000. Goodman are also selling a large work by Muñoz, again related to a Biennale piece, for $40,000.

The Alice Pauli Gallery of Lausanne is one of the few that engages in both of the activities described at the beginning: she works directly with her artists but also sells older pieces bought from collectors or at auction. She has a whole series of Soulages from this year, on sale for between SFr100 and 130,000; a Scully at $270,000, and some ten-year-old Jim Dines, very similar to the ones on show at the Biennale.

Bernier, in Athens, remains the last great gallery in Southern Europe. He has a superb video by Tony Oursler, “Everywhere.”

The nation which demonstrates the best balance of homogeneity and diversity is certainly Great Britain. Gimpel, highly traditional, has a magnificent tapestry by Moore. Lisson, celebrating the gallery’s thirtieth anniversary is showing a Kapoor of this year, in steel, at £150,000. Lastly, Genillard, a newcomer, is showing work by all the artists the gallery supports. Three complementary aspects of the art market.

To close, I should like to mention two little known galleries that are presenting worthwhile pieces at slightly more normal prices. March, from Spain, has a series in cut velvet by Cotanda at SFr4,000. Rabouan Moussion of Paris has a bevy of worthwhile young artists and, in their midst, a beautiful Degottex of 1979 at SFr90,000.

Overall a very fine show. But its successor must really try not to be so conservative and frigidly elegant. A bit of bad taste and boldness from time to time never did anyone any harm.