At Art Basel, everyone plays it safe
BASEL, Switzerland – Psychologists call this the “simple exposure effect”: humans love what they already know, whether it’s people, places, products or works of art.
There was certainly a reassuring familiarity to most of the works exhibited at the 51st edition of Basel Art, which premiered on Tuesday and continues through Sunday. After three pandemic postponements since June of last year, with online editions in the meantime, this was the first major international in-person art fair to be held in Europe since March 2020, when Tefaf Maastricht closed early after an exponent has tested positive.
“The emphasis is on the staid and the predictable,” New York-based arts advisor and curator Matthew Armstrong said of this year’s edition. “People want to be reassured by what they know,” he added, noting, like many others, the preponderance of modern and contemporary paintings by established names.
Armstrong was among the few American attendees at the fair after the US State Department released a Covid-19 “don’t travel»Notice for Switzerland on August 30. All visitors, wherever they come from, are required to wear masks and bracelets with proof of vaccination.
Swiss property MCH exhibition group, Art Basel is the world’s leading brand of art fairs, with annual exhibitions also held (if pandemics permit) in Hong Kong in March and Miami Beach in December. The last two June editions of its flagship European show must have been online-only events. But with the recent return of New York fairs such as Frieze, Armory, and Independent in in-person formats, Art Basel sought to show the art world – and its new investors, James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems group – that he was back in the IRL business.
“I missed the energy of Americans in the early hours,” said Glenn Scott Wright, co-director of Victoria Miro, a London-based gallery among the 272 exhibitors at the fair. “I thought without them we were going to have a long day. But in the end, we did pretty well, ”he added.
Rather than showing works from her stable of young contemporaries, Victoria Miro showed works by well-known figurative painters: Milton Avery, Alice Neel and Paula Rego. Wright said the gallery sold seven works on day one, ranging from $ 200,000 to $ 1.2 million, including Neel’s 1955 portrait “Julian Brody”.
Neel, who died in 1984, was the artist of the moment at Art Basel, having just been the subject of a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His penetrating portraits were also available, priced at around $ 2 million, on the stands of New York merchants David Zwirner and Cheim & Read, as well as at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels.
The Swiss edition of Art Basel has long had a reputation as the premier art fair where the best dealers offer museum-quality trophies. But this year, in the absence of wealthy collectors from America and Asia, masterpieces were scarce.
“The galleries have been cautious,” said Marta Gnyp, Berlin-based art consultant and merchant. “They didn’t bring a lot of knockout works. You keep them for times when you’re 100% sure you’re selling them – there’s too much uncertainty right now.
That said, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s large blue and yellow diptych “Hardware Store” from 1983 drew a lot of attention on the stand of New York merchant Christophe van de Weghe.
Van de Weghe called the work’s $ 40 million price tag “very decent”, given that three Basquiat paintings had already sold for higher prices at auction this year. But all three of these works included the artist’s signature black skull motif, which did not appear in the Basel diptych. Friday morning, it was still unsold.
With Art Basel and its participating dealers relying on digital channels to sell art during the pandemic, it seemed likely that more works than ever would have been pre-sold online ahead of the fair. But while there would still have been a lot of advance shopping based on photographs, some merchants said they were using Art Basel’s physical return as an opportunity to reestablish personal contact with serious buyers, especially Europeans.
“We have given priority to European institutions and private collections,” said Friedrich Petzel, owner of New York dealer Petzel, who represents several coveted contemporary artists whose works are currently auctioned off at several times their gallery price. “If Asian and American collectors said they wanted to reserve works, we would tell them that they had to come to the fair.
The 1987 canvas “Fernsehkind (TV Child)” by Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, a pioneer of “body-science” painting, was in the spotlight at the Petzel stand. Complementary piece to a 1987 work on the same theme in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, it sold for around $ 1.1 million, alongside paintings by Dana Schutz and Derek Fordjour for $ 1.1 million. dollars and $ 155,000.
But while trendy merchants like Petzel had to remodel their stalls after day one, other smaller, less trendy galleries would have struggled to cover their costs.
Aware of the challenges these galleries face in 2021, Art Basel announced on September 6 that it was creating a “one-off solidarity fund” of 1.5 million Swiss francs, or approximately 1.6 million dollars. The fund has been designed to offer a discount of at least 10% on stand fees to galleries with low sales. Successful exhibitors can opt out, increasing the portion of the fund that will be distributed evenly to distressed dealers.
Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that many large dealers have already said they will not claim a share of the fund. Art Basel said in an emailed statement on Friday that it would not comment on the fund until after the fair and would not disclose which galleries have pulled out.
Vanessa Carlos, co-founder of the London-based Carlos / Ishikawa Gallery and a strong supporter of financial support for small galleries at expensive art fairs, said Art Basel’s solidarity fund “is unlikely to make a huge difference. difference, but I appreciate it as a gesture. She added that she would have to wait until the end of the fair, “when I see all the total sales versus all the total costs”, before deciding if she would claim funds. .
Carlos / Ishikawa was certainly busy on the first day of the preview, selling two new large works in oil on velvet by British painter Issy Wood, each priced at over $ 100,000. Like many “emerging” artists whose works have been exhibited at Art Basel, Wood has already emerged. Her paintings have sold for over $ 300,000 at auction and she is one of 31 artists featured in the “Mixing things up: painting today” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London.
“Fairs now operate for known deals, not for catching the unknown,” said Heather Flow, a New York-based art advisor, one of Art Basel’s regular American visitors, who has not attended this time. year. “In general, I don’t find fairs to be a generative place to discover emerging art,” she added in an email.
The widely held perception by in-person visitors that the paint-dominated Art Basel ‘Covid comeback’ edition was somehow conservative or cautious also suggests that they have forgotten what has become of the high end of the market. art. Thanks to Instagram, WhatsApp and JPG, by the time a merchant presents an artist at Art Basel, the market is already in the know.