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Dealers at Art Basel play it safe in response to art market uncertainty

Return to the classics as galleries keep their eyes on selling

The effects of the crisis in the contemporary art market have, paradoxically, been good for this year’s Basel Art Fair, the twenty-fifth such event.

Dealers on the main floor of the fair, where “classic” modern art is traditionally shown, opted for the durable, not just in aesthetic but physical terms: there were few installation-type pieces and a notable return to the materials of art: bronze, stone, oils and canvas. Thus, while the mood of today’s artists might be grim (much shared preoccupations with death, bodies, latrines, AIDS-awareness, bleeding wounds and so on), that of the dealers seemed relatively buoyant.

Without doubt the fair had a revitalised air in comparison with the last two years, inspired by the return of some big public and private buyers. It was the Americans above all who sensed this mood, bringing along with them major names and serious works of art. New York gallery C&M were taking part for the first time, specialising in Abstract Expressionism. The gallery decided to come to Basel following the upturn in the American market and declared themselves very happy with the results. Their stand contained two of the best works of the fair, a Rothko and a Twombly.

There was classic American fare from the Aca gallery, displaying a Hopper interior of 1920-23. Gray offered “Gambadeuse d’asphalte” by Dubuffet from 1954 for around $420,000. Janis, next door to Beyer, offered a selection of paintings and bronzes by Giacometti. Beyeler himself, the eminence grise of the fair, was unfailingly cheerful, noting that in two days his gallery had sold a Picasso from 1940 and a Lichtenstein.

Gmurzynska undoubtedly had the best stand, showing a sumptuous Picasso of 1918, “Les baigneuses”, painted for a Biarritz bedroom and one of a series of five, all of which are now with the gallery, and a large Delaunay oil of 1926 of runners, asking price $1.2 million.

Marlborough, back at the fair after a few years absence, had a monumental Henry Moore from the 1961 “Knife edge” series at $2 million. Their neighbour Waddington was offering a $1.5 million Matisse, “Jeune fille à la robe rose” which once belonged to Giacometti. At Pace Wildenstein a fine Dubuffet “Théâtre de chairs” could be had for $550,000 while Blondeau was asking $425,000 for a 1958 topography by the same artist. The conclusion to be drawn from all these prices must be that, like last year, they are much more in line with auction results than previously custom.

The galleries offering particularly outstanding examples of an artist’s work had prices to match. Beyeler was asking $5 million for a marvellous Léger female bust of 1929 and $2.5 million for a Picasso “Femme au corsage rouge” of 1940.

Among the best contemporary work, Hans Mayer showed a magnificent piece by Paik, “Vertical gardens”, an electric sculpture more than four metres high, priced at $200,000. At Franck, a Rebecca Horn sculpture of 1992, “Erika”, was priced at $65,000. By new artists, the large stone, wood and steel staircase by Israeli artist Averbuch was worth noting at Littmann.

This year’s fair, celebrated with much panache, was not an event of great note. While Basel remains the premier contemporary art event it cannot singlehandedly remedy the crisis which reigns in its domain, both among the creators of contemporary art and its vendors.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Art in crisis: dealers play it safe'