Some dealers had expected the worst at the 41st edition of Art Basel. But, happily for them, it showed that collectors have a renewed interest in buying art.
The art market is lively again, although not to the sizzling levels of 2007 and 2008, as was evidenced at last week’s 41st edition of Art Basel in Switzerland.
When the recession hit in late 2008, the art market soon followed, causing foreheads to furrow and faces to frown. Some collectors cancelled orders and pulled the breaks on building their collections. Young collectors who had made their money through hedge funds disappeared. It was worrying times for dealers, especially for those who were experiencing a financial crisis for the first time and were anxious about how they would continue. So, the success of Art Basel http://www.artbasel.com/ last week has been reassuring.
“The market has rebounded,” exclaims Jill Silverman Van Coenegrachts, a director at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac http://www.ropac.net/ in Paris and Salzburg. “We have sales in excess of 2007. Collectors are making swift, decisive decisions and they feel fearless and optimistic about the general financial climate. People would rather acquire great works than put their money in the stock market perhaps.”
While not all dealers expressed the same level of enthusiasm, the general consensus was that the market was faring better, the fair was busier and there was a renewed interest in buying art. Although there were fewer American collectors, perhaps because there was no Venice Biennale this year, there was a good turnout of Russian, Middle Eastern and Asian collectors.
“It’s a return to a new normalcy because of the seismic economic shift since 2008,” says Barbara Conti from 303 Gallery http://www.303gallery.com/ in New York. “Last year it felt like a shock wave. But Art Basel was good for business last year considering what was going on but there were only European collectors since the Americans were reeling. Now there’s a super accelerated energy and we escalate from here.”
Many people see Art Basel as a barometer for measuring the state of the market. “Basel is the top art fair and you always go with reasonably high expectations as it’s a benchmark,” says Tim Marlowe, a director at White Cube http://www.whitecube.com/ in London. “This year was pretty exceptional from our point of view and I saw a lot of high quality stuff. Does this mean that the market has bounced back? Personally, I never thought that it was as hammered as much as people said. But it’s not back to the level of 2008.”
For many, this edition of Art Basel came as a relief. “People didn’t know what to expect as we didn’t know how the financial situation would affect Art Basel,” says photography dealer Edwyn Houk http://www.houkgallery.com/ from New York. “The opening started with a bang and we’ve certainly observed stronger sales than last year and have seen huge crowds of international collectors and curators.”
Other dealers expressed the sentiment that business had improved but was not worth raving about. “Sales are slow but steady and it’s better than last year,” says Michael Short, director of Sperone Westwater http://www.speronewestwater.com/cgi-bin/iowa/index.html in New York.
So what are collectors buying? “The pieces selling are those by established but undervalued artists,” remarks Philomene Magers, co-owner of the Berlin-London gallery Sprüth Magers http://spruethmagers.com/home in Berlin and London whose sales on the opening day included George Condo and Thomas Demand. “People are looking at safe investments,” she adds.
“Safe investments” means artists who have professional recognition and a strong biography of museum exhibitions. For instance, Hauser & Wirth http://www.hauserwirth.com/ sold two sets of an edition of five of Paul McCarthy’s new series ‘White Snow Dwarf’ (2010) for $3 million on the opening day. On the gallery’s stand, there were five dwarfs in red, black, silver, brown and white representing Doc, Happy, Dopey, Sleepy and Sneezy. The deformed sculptures by the Los Angeles-based artist are a comical spin on the Brothers Grimm fairytale ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and the Walt Disney film.
Works by Andy Warhol and Picasso were in abundance and offered by 28 and 23 galleries respectively. Art Basel remains the champion for selling and buying works by masters like Egon Schiele, Miró and Matisse, and by contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and the late Louise Bourgeois.
This year, there were more Basquiat paintings, with works on show at seven galleries, partly due to how the Fondation Beyeler http://www.beyeler.com/fondation/e/html_11sonderaus/01_aktuelle/intro.htm has a large-scale retrospective to mark what would have been the artist’s fiftieth birthday.
The eleventh edition of Art Unlimited, an exhibition of large-scale installations and videos in a third hall next to the main fair, showcased 56 solo projects. Renewed interest was brought to two artists that had been part of historic movements in the 1970s: the American conceptualist Dan Flavin and Michelangelo Pistoletto, a leading figure of Arte Povera. Flavin’s room piece of three sets of curved white lights and Pistoletto’s ‘Labirinto e Grande Pozzo’ – a maze made from rolls of corrugated cardboard, were both shown for the first time in 1969. Forty years later, they set a cerebral, sober tone at Art Unlimited.
“This edition of Art Unlimited was a lot more cerebral,” says Kader Attia. “Two years ago, it was a lot more bling bling. Now it’s come back to being more historic and intellectually ambitious”.
The French-Algerian artist was showing a minimalist piece, ‘Couscous Kaaba’ (2009-2010), which employs grains of couscous to evoke the desert. A drawing of the Kaaba, the cubic, sacred building in Mecca, lies in the centre. “The starting point was how Le Corbusier began to make Modernist work after travelling to Algeria and Turkey, where he was inspired by the vernacular architecture in the desert,“ Attia explains. “It’s about immersing the spectator in the experience of entering a black room and stepping into another world.”
Other installations included ‘Ville spatiale’, a huge chain structure of circular rings by the Hungarian-born, French architect Yona Friedman, and ‘Space Elevator Tea House’ (2009) by the Japanese artist, Yuko Shiraishi. Shiraishi’s imaginary, architectural project offered a moment for contemplation away from the crowds.
The talking point of the numerous video works was Doug Aitken’s enigmatic, six-screen architectural installation ‘Frontier’, starring fellow American artist Ed Ruscha. It follows Ruscha as he moves in a solitary way from rugged wastelands to a Las Vegas-style casino and is the second part of a trilogy that started with ‘Migration’ (2008). Also captivating was Christian Marclay’s ‘Solo’ (2008) in which the actress Tree Carr starts touching and eliciting sounds from a guitar. As she strokes the guitar with intensity as if it’s a sexual partner, Carr starts stripping off, keeping on only her socks and plimsolls. By the end, she is rolling naked on her back in the throes of passion, her legs wrapped around the instrument.
But galleries were applying a low-risk strategy. “The general opinion is that galleries were taking fewer chances,” says Claus Robenhagen, a director at Nicolai Wallner http://www.nicolaiwallner.com/ in Copenhagen. “I found that Art Basel was very focused on safe products and artists already on the market,” says Marta Gili, director of the Jeu de Paume http://www.jeudepaume.org/ photography centre in Paris.
Galleries selling art that was less known had a hard time at Basel. “These early works by Robert Smithson are difficult to sell because they’re not the iconic works that he’s well known for,” says Elyse Goldberg from James Cohan Gallery http://www.jamescohan.com/gallery/ in New York which had a solo presentation of Smithson’s ‘Ikons’ (1961) – works on paper about religious figures priced from $35,000-55,000. “It takes somebody savvy to know why they’re important. They transcend time, and always appear fresh, so people think that they’re by a young artist.”
Some dealers referred to a slight change in the air, and how a desire to discover new things is returning. “People are waking up to looking for new things again,” says James Lindon, a director at The Pace Gallery http://thepacegallery.com/ in New York, adding: “There’s a real curiosity that has been lacking for the last year.”
Curiosity certainly applied to the crowds staring every day at Evan Penny’s hyper-realist sculpture of Michael Short, a director of Sperone Westwater. Sold to an Austrian museum for $250,000, it gives a dramatic, heightened sense of Short’s bald head, eyebrows, lines and chest hairs. “My feeling is amused indifference that it’s me,” Short says. “I thoroughly enjoyed the process of working with the artist on the sculpture. It involved posing with the photographer and some computer work. He’s done sculptures of friends of his that are artists and of himself, but not of a gallery director before.”
The next time art lovers will see the work will be in a museum context. Indeed, this is the kind of sale that galleries will be hoping to make at Frieze, FIAC and Art Forum Berlin in the autumn when the art market comes under the spotlight again.