Resilience. Since the onset of the public health crisis sweeping the entire planet, this is a word that has been used extensively – and not always correctly. But if there’s a field that truly merits this label, it’s the art market.
Not just online
Because against all the odds the largest modern and contemporary art fair in the world, Art Basel, decided it would go ahead in person (and not just online) and run until 26 September, after its June 2021 edition was postponed and the 2020 show was cancelled. (See here and here other reports about Art Basel)
The number of exhibitors (272) is almost comparable to that of normal times, there are high-level artworks on show and major sales taking place from the very first day, leading us to think that the decision made by the fair’s director, Marc Spiegler, was the right one. (See here an other interview of Marc Spiegler)
To see the artwork in person
“It was a risk that we took, it was also a risk that the galleries took, and from the very first hours of the fair the results have been good, and not just for the big galleries. Certain sales can only happen when the potential buyer can see the artwork in person. In future, however, we intend to hold a physical fair and a digital fair in conjunction, without reducing the size of the event.”
To reassure participants – the Americans seemed especially wary, not least because Switzerland was classed by the US authorities as “do not travel” in terms of Covid – the organizers set up a solidarity fund designed to reduce the cost of a booth for unsatisfied participants by on average 10%.
The Covid certification pavilion
There is a pavilion at the fair whose sole purpose is to check Covid certification. This was the unsettled and doubtful atmosphere in which Art Basel opened.
High quality booths
The first surprise is the standard of the pieces on show. Numerous galleries, banking on the desire to buy following the global art market’s long lethargy, have stepped up their game. Since the fair opened, many high-quality booths have sold a significant number of pieces for considerable sums, such as Gladstone Gallery, Michael Werner and Hauser & Wirth.
The “Art Unlimited” section dedicated to large-scale works is one of the fair’s major attractions. This year, as in previous years, the spectacular artworks were presented there.
The American Pace gallery was showcasing a painting measuring 8.3 metres in length, a spatial representation in purple hues dating from 1975 by the French-Chilean surrealist artist Roberto Matta, on sale for 2.2 million dollars.
Packed in his “suitcase” for Basel, Thaddaeus Ropac brought giant scissors with handles for four fingers, a bronze work by the Austrian feminist artist Valie Export (born in 1940) standing 4.6 metres tall. She has been talking about gender issues for nearly 30 years, long before it became fashionable (on sale for 300,000 euros).
The Salon 94 gallery from New York is exhibiting a highly conceptual painting by the African-American artist Lyle Ashton Harris (born in 1965) which sold immediately for a price that might be in the vicinity of 400,000 dollars. Across a 7.4-metre canvas, painted images illustrate black people and their place within society.
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn
The gallery’s founder, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, recently made headlines when she announced her imminent partnership with three other major players from the New York art world: Amalia Dayan, Dominique Levy and Brett Gorvy (See here and here interviews of Dominique Levy and Brett Gorvy). She claims that the market is very strong and that this decision was not taken as a result of difficult circumstances, but she does not confirm – as was previously announced – that this new firm will be withdrawing from fairs.
The power of big brands
It should be said more generally that we are witnessing the clearly growing power of “big brands” in the sense of globally established galleries like Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Zwirner and Pace. Short-term installations held in numerous places, control of successful artists, soaring prices… They seem to leave little room for medium-size players.
Younger and smaller
But contrary to all expectations, in parallel there are the younger and smaller galleries that give expression to the zeitgeist and who are blazing a trail by promoting artists with relatively modest standings.
For example High Art in Paris – who have also recently opened a space in Arles – enjoy an international reputation. At Art Basel they are exhibiting a laser animation piece by British artist Matt Copson (born in 1992). It’s a kind of holographic opera featuring the figure of a singing baby as a self-portrait. The work sold within the first few hours of the fair for 30,000 euros.
Part of the appeal of Art Basel lies in the discovery of artistic offerings from further afield. The Commonwealth and Council gallery from Los Angeles is driven by a moral ideal, with links to different minorities.
In Basel they are exhibiting the raw, powerful portraits of Rafa Esparza (born in 1981), an American artist of Mexican origin. Depicting his family and friends, these works are painted on red clay (adobe), a material used in traditional Mexican structures. He has a supportive audience on the West Coast of the United States and has exhibited at MOCA in Los Angeles, among other places. His works are on sale for 36,000 dollars.
Christophe Van de Weghe
Lastly, the superstar of the show is a diptych made by the now legendary American painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York dealer Christophe Van de Weghe (See here an other interview of Christophe Van de Weghe) is presenting a double painting by the artist from 1983 entitled “Hardware Store” for the colossal sum of 40 million euros. This may well be the highest price at the fair. He justifies it by saying, “it dates from the period when the artist was in his prime, it’s a masterpiece. It’s never been on the market since it was bought directly from Basquiat in 1983.
At Fondation Vuitton
It was exhibited alongside other works at the Fondation Vuitton retrospective in Paris in 2018.” He adds: “I started working for Larry Gagosian in the 1990s when the market was quite soft. He taught me that during those periods you had to offer paintings of the highest quality.” It’s likely that the owner of the diptych is Basquiat’s main art dealer during his lifetime, the Swiss Bruno Bischofberger.
The artist’s record price at auction dates from 2017 when one of his paintings from 1982 depicting a giant skull sold for 100.6 million euros. The work presented by Van de Weghe has the words “estimated value” emblazoned across it multiple times, written by the artist himself. Dieter Buchhart, the historian and Basquiat specialist who came to see the painting, explains: “It’s a direct reference to auctions. He would sometimes amuse himself in his paintings by poking fun at the mechanisms of the art market.”
Basquiat’s diverse preoccupations have never been so in keeping with the tastes of today.
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