Jonathan Levy’s Art Basel Diary

General Impressions

Art Basel, now in its 49th year, can be described as the grande dame of art fairs. It is the event in the international art calendar for which galleries reserve their best and most valuable works. This year, Art Basel drew over 93,000 visitors from 80 countries, many of whom combined their trips to central Europe with a visit to the concurrent Biennale in Venice.  It is no surprise that some commentators wrote of a Venice effect, whereby galleries used their Art Basel booths to showcase works by artists currently featured in the Venice Biennale.

Throughout Art Basel gallerists reported strong sales, perhaps best illustrated by one American exhibitor who sold three quarters of his booth by 5pm on opening day. These strong sales are also, in part, due to galleries’ increasing use of digital technologies, such as web-based showrooms and comprehensive digital previews that are sent out to prospective buyers ahead of the fair.

Monday: LISTE & Art Basel Unlimited

After an intense Zurich Art Weekend and with a busy week ahead, I headed to Basel first thing on Monday morning to catch the opening of LISTE Art fair, which is commonly known as Art Basel’s waiting room and the place where young talent – whether artists or galleries – can be found. Working my way through the maze-like building, I discovered wonderful mobile App-activated works by the the LA-artist Martine Syms (Bridget Donahue, New York), x-ray skeleton photographs by the German-Korean photographer Heji Shin (Galerie Bernhard, Zurich), hyper realistic paintings of spaceships by the Swiss artist Mathis Gasser (WeissFalk, Basel) and wall-mounted cabinets by the German LA-based artist, Mathis Altmann (Truth & Consequences, Geneva), whose installation at Deutschordenskappelle in Basel’s old town was a personal highlight of the Art Basel Parcours.

Both: Martine Syms at Bridget Donahue. Photo: Jonathan Levy

After a short break and the obligatory sausage at LISTE, I headed over to the opening reception of Art Basel Unlimited, where I was particularly impressed by Bruce Conner’s recently restored Report from 1963-67, in which the experimental American filmmaker critically probes mass-media coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Another major focus of Unlimited was Lucio Fontana’s Ambiente spaziale con tagli from 1960. Dramatically lit and mounted on the ceiling above the visitors’ heads, this breath-taking installation demonstrates how gallerists can pull out all the stops for their Art Basel presentations.

Lucio Fontana, Ambiente spaziale con tagli, 1960. Photo: Jonathan Levy

Tuesday & Wednesday: The Main Fair

Starting from 11am, visitors began to pour into the sacred halls of Art Basel to inspect, negotiate and acquire works by the world’s most sought-after artists (Hall 2.0) and rising stars (Hall 2.1). As expected, Gagosian made waves with an impressive display of household names, including Ed Ruscha, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and an Andy Warhol Dollar sign, which, installed next to Jeff Koons’ Sacred Heart, stressed the gallery’s imperative to sell the large-scale sculpture, which was priced at US$ 14.5m.

Jeff Koons, Sacred Heart Magenta/Gold), Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/afp/Getty Images

Aside from the amazing displays of art market heavyweights, the fair also offered plenty of opportunities to discover and re-discover works by less well-known artist: Gallery Frank Elbaz installed a solo-presentation of Verifax collages by the Californian beat artist Wallace Berman, and transported the visitor into a 1960s LA gallery setting, while Project Native Informant showed works by the conceptual American photographer, Hal Fischer, accompanied by a display of historic publications that are normally the remit of major museum retrospectives.

Wallace Berman at Galerie Frank Elbaz. Photo: Jonathan Levy

Another highlight of this year’s fair was the booth of LA-based gallery Philip Martin, presenting a solo exhibition of the Californian artist Carl Cheng, who between 1966 and 1981, created fascinating Nature machines using the corporate pseudonym John Doe Co.

Thursday: Around Basel

As rain gave way to sunnier skies, I was ready to venture out and see some of the great exhibitions in and around Basel. At the Fondation Beyeler visitors had a chance to catch the end of The Young Picasso – Blue and Rose Periods, an epic assembly of early Picasso masterpieces known to most of us only from our art history textbooks.

Next door, a major retrospective dedicated to the Italian artist, Rudolf Stingel, assembled various large-format works that invite visitors’ participation and sensually explore both the physical and conceptual possibilities of painting.

Rudolf Stingel at Fondation Beyeler. Photo: Jonathan Levy

My last stop for the day was the SALTS project space, owned and operated by Art Basel Parcours curator Samuel Leuenberger. Now in its 10th year, Leuenberger invites local and international artists to create site-specific commissions across several pavilions in the backyard of what used to be the family’s butcher’s shop. One intervention that stood out in particular is the early co-collaborator Tobias Spichtig’s deadpan installation Fridges & Mind Again, which will continue until the end of August.

Tobias Spichtig, Fridges & Mind Again, at SALTS. Photo: Jonathan Levy

Cover image © Art Basel 2019
Author: Jonathan Levy, Head of DACH-Region

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