Issue #163  8/3/2009
Art Basel, Still The Art Show For The World, Despite Lack of American Collectors

By Alex Novak

I left Paris by speedy TGV train to Mulhouse, France, where I had my hotel room for excursions into nearby Basel for the 40th edition of Art Basel.

My friends in the rain in Mulhouse.
My friends in the rain in Mulhouse.

Mulhouse is a medieval Alsace town with a beautiful central square (Place de la Réunion) flanked by the 16th-century town hall and towering 19th-century "cathedral" (actually the Protestant Temple Saint-Étienne), although legend dates the establishment of the town to as early as 58 B.C. The city (pronounced in French "mul-loose", but in German just as it looks) is by far the most populous in the Haut-Rhin department. Its close proximity to the Swiss, French and German borders has meant that its sovereignty has often been a matter of contention in the past among the three countries. The town has its own SNCF train station and connections to Basel are very frequent and quick. And, better yet, despite being a very cute town with easy, cheap proximity to Basel, the hotel and restaurant prices are nowhere near Basel's--often 20% or less than its nearby neighbor. During Art Basel, Basel's hospitality vendors often hike their rates four-fold. No wonder Mulhouse is where I've chosen to stay for the last two years that I've been coming to Art Basel.

After checking into the hotel in Mulhouse, I took a 30-minute train ride into Basel to meet a Swiss collector friend, Giovanni Monti. We took the tram over (there are tram systems in both Basel and Mulhouse) to Art Basel.

Art Basel has segregated the photography dealers into two specific and close-by areas on the first floor, although many of the "art" dealers also show photography--usually much more overpriced photography, in my opinion.

Sculpture in front of entrance to Art Basel
Sculpture in front of entrance to Art Basel

Over the next three days I visited with each of the photography galleries exhibiting here and wandered the art gallery booths around the show, along with just over 60,000 other dealers, collectors, curators and artists. There are over 300 exhibitors here--many in gigantic booths, with work on display by well over 2,500 artists. Yes, it is definitely an event--thankfully without much of the excess hoopla of Miami, although I kind of missed some of the insanity of that venue. Here the insanity is just trying to get a table in a restaurant or a hotel room under 600 euros a night, or to avoid one of the many horrendously long lines for everything.

Despite a serious dearth of Americans at the fair this year, Brad Pitt, with his new buddy art collector Eli Broad in tow, plumped down nearly a million cool ones for a Neo Rauch rainbow-colored racetrack painting, "Etappe", during the show. Many photography dealers here would have loved to have had a small part of that largess, and pointed out that Pitt could have had his pick of a dozen or more top pieces of photographic art on their walls for that amount of dollars.

In fact, except for Hans Kraus's booth, you could be hard pressed to find too many other mid six-figure pieces on the walls of the photo dealers here--just one more indication of photography's high ceiling for potential future growth.

Speaking of Hans, he had on display some serious 19th-century pioneers in his exhibit, which he titled, "A 25th-Anniversary Selection". I am always impressed with the work that Hans shows. The Talbots, as usual, were stunning and museum-level (at least for those very top institutions), but so was the work by so many other top 19th-century masters, including Teynard, Le Gray, Vigier, Robert, Fenton and others on the booth's stately gray walls.

Nearby, my friends the Paviots (Francoise and Alain) had another terrific booth. I really was tempted by many of the images here. The group of 40 large albumen prints of the Forth Bridge construction by Evelyn George Carey on one wall was a knockout. So was the series of moon heliogravures by Loewy & Puiseux at 2,000 euro each. The 100 portraits of the camera-shy Cartier-Bresson were a revelation.

Fraenkel Gallery showed the very newest work by Richard Misrach, a huge 93-1/2 x 119 inch pigment color print of a color negative of a dune. Set in a welded metal frame, the photograph was the dramatic set piece of the Fraenkel booth and was the most interesting new photography work at the fair in my opinion. My friend Giovanni agreed. The asking price was $90,000, as I recall. But if I had money to burn like Brad Pitt, this is what I would have bought here at Art Basel. All I can say--like some stoked '60s hippie-- is "Wow!" Richard Prince be damned. This is what should be in museums and on the walls of serious contemporary collectors.

Jeffrey Fraenkel and Frish Brandt also had some great Avedons, including a 56-1/4 x 135 inch triptych of miners from "In the American West", and a large four-panel panoramic by Robert Adams, "South from the South Jetty, 1990/printed 1995". Fraenkel likes to go big here at Art Basel.

Frish gave me her take on the show: "Results--everyone has said it was better than expected. True. The other part of it is that real collectors continue to make such shows a must-see on their travel calendars. The distractions that were present for a number of recent years have subsided, and people are really looking and thinking, and acquiring the work that fits their collecting integrity."

"Art Basel is by far the most important art fair that we do," Chicago dealer Stephen Daiter told me just after the fair, "and is one of the best art fairs in the world." Steve reported that his experience at Art Basel was good and but still a work in progress.

"Attendance seemed a bit down, though the official report was that there were more people at Basel than in previous years. We saw very few Americans and only a modest group of British collectors. The Europeans were out in force and a number bought from us--generally pieces in the $10,000-$20,000 range. Our more expensive pieces, including an exceptional Chicago Moholy-Nagy ($65,000), a great Welch Miners image by Robert Frank (Price on Request), an important Heinrich Kuhn ($30,000), a vintage Penn of Capote ($30,000), Abbott's "Exchange Place" on a 1940s MoMA mount ($45,000) and Callahan's "Trees, Chicago, 1951" ($65,000), all got serious looks but not enough serious interest to buy, unlike similar pieces in previous years.

"We sold four vintage Kertesz prints (three from the catalog, which we did for AIPAD several months earlier). We produced a catalog "Teachers of the New Bauhaus" for Basel and sold several 16 x 20 inch-plus Arthur Siegel 1940s photograms and 1950s vintage Siskinds and Barbara Cranes. There is a Gary Schneider "hand" commission that is the result of the fair. We also had serious interest in other Institute of Design work (Siskinds, Kepes and Callahans) but have not yet completed sales on them. In addition we have clients seriously considering multi-print purchases of 1980s Polaroids by Barbara Kasten and Kertesz prints."

The Daiter Gallery sold two of the very largest Siskinds to contemporary art photographer Thomas Ruff. My opinion of Ruff went up exponentially, especially since I was interested in buying one of them myself. A Swiss collector was the other disappointed party, but his wife bought an excellent Kertesz print that was a little gem.

Steve, his associate Michael Welch, my friend Giovanni and I all went out to dinner at a nearby popular Thai place that was packed. It was friendly (communal tables), if loud. But then every restaurant in Basel is jumping during this week. After dinner, I fled to the train station and grabbed a late train back to Mulhouse.

The next morning I resumed my gallery crawl at Art Basel. I took in the surrealist sights with friends Adam Boxer and Hendrik Berinson of Ubu Gallery and David Fleiss of Galerie 1900-2000. These are two of the best galleries in the world for such work, in my opinion. Their mix of photography, paintings, sculpture and more is what helps make Art Basel so interesting to me--the interchange between all the arts.

I also find that Art Basel's mixture of modern (even 19th-century on occasion) and contemporary provides an important historical and educational foundation for art collecting, something that many other contemporary art and photography shows do not have. Some of those shows had started out with a better sense of balance, but have recently lost their ability to see how important this is in their rush to an all-contemporary (or at least nearly all-contemp) exhibition. I hope Art Basel and its management never loses sight of the perspective that makes their show so unique, important and such a ultimate success.

Rudy and Annette Kicken's booth also mixed up material in much this way. I always find their exhibit to be one of the more interesting and eclectic ones at any of the fairs that they do. I missed them at AIPAD this year, and hope that they return for 2010. For this year's Art Basel, the Kicken's produced an exhibit on "90 Years of Bauhaus". Many of the artists from this movement and their contemporaries were included, from Moholy-Nagy to Lerski to Renger-Patzsch. I particularly liked Lerski's self-portrait in the eye of his subject. There was also a group of photographs of and by Magritte.

The Kickens told me that they sold vintage works by Rudolf Koppitz (Movement Study), Man Ray, Drtikol, Becher (Typology of Water Towers), Renger-Patzsch and the Bauhaus School, but very little contemporary work this time (although they did sell pieces by Goetz Diergarten and Hans-Christian Schink). The focus of collectors here seemed to be on safer vintage masterworks.

As Daiter mentioned and the Kickens reiterated, "There were almost no American collectors (we did sell pieces that were exhibited at Basel after the fair to one American collector, however)." They also noted that buyers were slower to make decisions and were taking their time in doing so. "It was a good, serious, quiet atmosphere. The European market seems strong for good works; however, we did not do a show in the U.S. since Art Basel Miami last December, so it is hard for us to judge the current situation in the U.S. and compare."

The Kickens noted that they still had some great pieces still available from the show, including Otto Steinert "Black Nude" (120,000 euro); Bauhaus vintage prints, such as Peterhans' "Karfreitagszauber" (60,000 euro); Erwin Blumenfeld, "The Dictator" and "The Hitlerfresse"; and Frederick Sommer, "Arizona Landscape", circa 1945 (provenance: gift of the artist to Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, 46,000 euro).

The Kickens also pointed out that you can see these and their other Bauhaus works that they showed in Basel in their current exhibition "Happy Birthday Bauhaus!" currently on view until the end of the year at the gallery and on their website at http://www.kicken-gallery.com/ .

Edwynn Houk's booth at Art Basel
Edwynn Houk's booth at Art Basel

New Yorker Edwynn Houk and I stopped to chat about the state of collecting. He too agreed that the Europeans seemed more serious at this point about buying. He showed two of the popular Robert Polidori's Versailles images, including "Galerie de Pierre, Chateau de Versailles". Of course, Edwynn also brought numerous classic photographs from Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz and Brassai. A couple of the Brassai and Kertesz images were real knockouts.

Bruce Silverstein, another New York City gallerist, had some great Aaron Siskind prints and other traditional photographs on display, but what really caught your eye were the large-scale images by Shinichi Maruyama--what the artist calls "paintings in the sky". These works record the artist taking a pail full of black ink and swishing it up into the air, while at the same time recording this action. The results, which he calls "Kusho", are fascinating.

I stopped by to say hello to Kasper Fleischmann and Claudia Coellen Helbling at Galerie Zur Stockeregg's booth. The walls were loaded up with major vintage work, including a Pierre Dubreuil of Venice, a Brett Weston of a Steam Locomotive, an oversized Brassai nude, an Avedon of Charlie Chaplin and an 1864 triptych of Dr. John Murray's three-panel panorama paper negative of the Taj Mahal.

Several major photography items sold at the show. Thomas Zander sold a group of 25 unique vintage Lewis Baltz photographs of Maryland for well into six figures. He also sold a grouping of Walker Evan's African Masks. Larry Sultan's "Antioch Creek" was an interesting large-scale color work in the booth that drew interest. Henry Wessel's vintage black and white also had more than a few looks. Zander also had a few Atgets left over from his Atget show that were priced competitively.

Reportedly 303 Gallery sold a large-scale black-and-white photograph by Hans-Peter Feldmann of his own bookshelves for 60,000 euro (nearly $90,000) to Don Marron, the chief executive of Lightyear Capital and a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Frankly I find Feldmann's work, which sometimes combines photography and three-dimension objects, to be simplistic and contrived visual jokes, rather than art that has any emotional power or intelligence. But then that's what I see in much of the contemporary art market of the last ten to 20 years or so: a dumbing down of what we've considered artistically important or even art itself. That may come across as a bit pompous. It's not meant to be. I can enjoy visual puns and jokes, but they don't seem to me to be of the caliber of artistic material that has helped make up our civilization's foundations or belong in serious collections. I realize that much of this is the premise of postmodernism, but I also think that postmodernism is passé and self-negating. But that's a discussion for another time.

I was not the only journalist at this art event. Actually there were 2,800 of us, so why not quote at least one such source. According to The Economist, "Art Basel's buoyancy this year has several causes: the return of fervent collectors who prefer to buy in a down market; the swift reaction of dealers willing to lower their prices to ensure a sale (collectors were in a good mood because '$100,000 means something again'); the perception that art is more solid than some other asset classes; and the keenness of many buyers to divert savings out of their Swiss bank accounts."

The magazine went on to say, "The fair tends to see bigger crowds and higher sales when, as happened this year, it is preceded by the Venice Biennale." On top of the Venice Biennale, the publication pointed to what it termed "the Dogana-effect", or the opening of François Pinault's Punta della Dogana in Venice that acts as a museum for his collection of contemporary art. Pushing the envelope of credibility, The Economist noted that "the building, whose opening was one of the highlights of the Biennale, raised the bar for private museums and many collectors were reassured by the confident display of new masterpieces by artists such as Maurizio Cattelan, Mike Kelley and Cindy Sherman." Ah, journalists.