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Dealers spark intrigue at Art Basel 2013 as 20th century masterpieces jostle alongside the contemporary

Art Basel '13 fair report

The organisers of Art Basel stepped up their game to meet a more measured market for the fair’s 44th edition (13-16 June). Business was good and the mood upbeat as the travelling art crowd seemed relieved to end the fair season in the familiar Swiss city. “There’s a good, intelligent crowd here, as ever. We brought a tough [to understand] booth, and then sold well,” the London-based dealer Thomas Dane said.

Keeping the business of art alive, particularly in the midst of nationwide austerity drives, is no mean feat. Buyers have matured—as have the artists previously known as young—and the fair, the oldest of the major international shows, reflected this coming of age while managing to keep visitors’ interest alive through some structural changes.

Herzog & de Meuron’s new Messeplatz, extended to link up the halls of Art Unlimited and Design Miami Basel, gave the fair a more united, if corporate, feel (the addition of shops and restaurants added to the “mall” effect). Staggered VIP entry, introduced last year and extending over two days, meant that the fair had less of the fervour of the market’s previous boom years, although come the first public day, a sizeable crowd filled the Messeplatz. “It was a feeding frenzy before 2008, but now it is different,” said Peter Nagy, the director of the New Delhi and Berlin gallery Nature Morte. ­“People now come here to buy things that they already know or are thinking about.”

Despite this, fairgoers were kept on their toes. Organisers have been gradually blurring the previous distinction of “traditional art on the ground floor; emerging art above”, by increasing the number of contemporary dealers on the lower level (this year, Metro Pictures, White Cube and Lisson Gallery moved downstairs). This was accompanied by the shuffling-around of more galleries within the floors than in previous years (a further 37 of the 304 exhibitors).

Shifting emphasis

The art on display also showed a marked shift away from Art Basel’s previously dominant 20th-century masters towards newer art by contemporary artists (“they’re not so young any more”, said Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read). This mix livened up the booths, while also reflecting the supply restraints in the Modern market.

Sculptures by Thomas Houseago from 2013 were shown alongside a landmark 1949 work from Louise Bourgeois’s “Personage” series at Hauser & Wirth. At Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Franz Kline’s heavy Abstract Expressionist oil, Provincetown II, 1959, hung near Virginia Overton’s huge scratched light-box, Untitled (Mirror), 2013.

As well as increasing the potential supply pool, mixing works from the two centuries gave buyers options in terms of price points: the Kline (unsold during the fair) was priced at $10m, the Overton (sold early on) at $45,000.

The sense of discovery—previously offered by artists emerging onto the scene—is now more about revisiting unloved masters and older practitioners. Women artists, including Lygia Clark, Dorothea Tanning and Joan Mitchell, were notable beneficiaries of this backward-looking trend during the fair and, again, offer a lower price option than their male counterparts.

What this year’s fair—together with the record-breaking auctions held in New York in May—also underlined is that while everyone (including the Art Basel team) is putting tremendous effort into capturing the potential of the growing economies in Asia, the Middle East and South America, the bulk of business is still to be done in the traditional European and North American markets. June’s World Wealth Report 2013 from Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management showed that North America had reclaimed its position as the continent with the most high-net-worth wealth, overtaking Asia Pacific.

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Shanty town hotspot: Although the well-heeled Art Basel crowds rather enjoyed slumming it in style at Tadashi Kawamata’s Favela Café, 2013, the artificial shanty town—the centrepiece of the new Messeplatz designed by Herzog & de Meuron—was not to everyone’s liking. An anti-capitalist “intervention” on 14 June was initially permitted by the fair organisers. But, according to a spokesman for MCH Messe Basel, “from 7pm, the event turned into a party with loud music and with numbers growing to around 100 people. [We] made repeated requests for the music to be turned down, but these were ignored… in the end, as the event had turned into an illegal party, the police intervened.” YouTube footage (which is age-restricted) shows protesters throwing debris at officers, who then open fire with rubber bullets. Later, after chairs have been thrown at them, the police respond with teargas.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Measures of maturity at Art Basel'