It was thrilling and reaffirming to see two extraordinary exhibitions dedicated to the work of two exceptional artists last week on my way to Art Basel [see fair report here]. Each, through its curatorial rigor and flawless installation, made clear just how great each of these artists is.
With the art market scrambling to broaden what had become an overly narrowed scope, the art world has been accelerating into something of a crisis lately. Is too much art being made for too many galleries spread across too many fairs? Has the hunger for product surpassed the appetite for greatness? Has the proliferation of venues led to watered-down art? Is the market, in its reexamination of overlooked artists of the past, sometimes elevating average artists (and further confounding our definition of greatness)? And is the market coming to a grinding halt for many of those artists that have not been anointed?
Time and circumstance evaporated at the Schaulager in Basel, where the impeccable retrospective “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” is on view (until 26 August; it opens at MoMA and PS1 from 21 October-17 March 2019). For most of us in the field of contemporary art, since Andy Warhol there has been no artist more important than Nauman. In his decades-long practice, Nauman has captured the complexity of art and the psychology of our times incisively; even when the art seems to have been made from a side-glance, it is so head-on. The spirit and content of his art have influenced generations of artists who have followed. And yet, he has remained almost invisible to many collectors who have emerged in the last decade. This is partly due to the nature of what today’s art market currently values, and partly because most of the important Nauman works that have changed hands over these years have done so privately, bypassing the attention that comes with auctions and art fairs (mostly, they have sold to museums and private foundations).
This was not an easy exhibition to do well; capturing the spirit, complexity, and great material range of the work Nauman has created in more than half-a-century of art-making. And so this brilliant portrait of Nauman brings about the deepest sense of satisfaction. It reignites one’s faith in the triumph of art over product and in vision over quantification.
It feels like poetic justice to have Nauman’s achievements as an artist—and of our culture over more than 50 years of change and continuity—fulfilled by a team of curators led by MoMA’s Kathy Halbreich, who co-curated the last great Nauman retrospective in 1994.)
This exhibition walks us through almost the entire life cycle of one of the most far-reaching visions of art history, in all its material range from sculpture made of traditional and non-traditional materials, video, drawing, and installation. It charts the emergence of Nauman in the 1960s as one of the leading artistic voices to come after Minimalism—yet who benefitted from its clarity of certainty—all the way through to his recent re-visitation of one of his most important early video works from 1968, Walk With Contrapposto. This new 3D version, is a hauntingly disjointed yet characteristically prosaic work—literally an out of body examination of the self and one’s place in the world (or out of it) by an artist nearer the end of life than its beginning. One hopes that it will be part of a magical finale by Nauman, who seems to have much more yet to say.
From the very beginning of the exhibition, through its integration of drawing with sculpture, the show sets the stage for the bifurcation of body and mind in Nauman’s work. Notions of “the artist”, of human touch, of the body as tool and as human essence are presented in work made throughout an artistic career defined by being both physical and psychological, always with rigor, in matter of fact ways.
The exhibition highlights so many of the iconic Nauman sculptures (iconic, that is, for an iconoclastic artist) with both measure and wonder. It precisely and profoundly defines the critical flip that takes place in Nauman’s work in the late 1970s from the body as tool to the body as psychological vessel (a profound and fundamental shift that ordinarily takes place not within a single artist’s work but across generations of artists), bringing this into grand scale with some of the most confounding sculptures of Nauman’s life.
These works consist of linear and circular trenches; they rest upon or are suspended above one another; they bear so many of the characteristics of monumental sculpture yet also have the deliberately tentative materiality of models and studies. It takes a lot of precision and discipline to make curating this fluid and clear.
Meanwhile, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, in just about the only medium Nauman hasn’t worked, there is a major survey of paintings by Tomma Abts which is, well, spectacular. In so many ways, Abts’ practice is the opposite of Nauman’s: it has been purely focused on painting and, with two most recent exceptions, always in the same size (that of an icon painting), always in the language of geometry.
Yet within her precisely fixed restraints, one finds a breadth, complexity and razor-sharp perfection—not like the perfection of Judd or Vermeer, but a transporting transcendence, where the rational and the impossible are fused into a visual and mental checkmate of space, color and form.
Abts, a cult figure to those of us who cannot get enough of her work, may not be a household name to those whose who collect by the market. She produces little work because of how much singularity, paint and transformation goes into making a single painting. Her work rarely appears on the secondary market, and when it does, it gets snapped up quickly and hardly ever at auction (where one is more likely to find, on occasion, one of her drawings, which are an equally complex and fulfilling corpus of work).
This show, so exquisitely selected and precisely installed, yields a multiplier effect where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Amidst all the noise of the many voices of contemporary art, the rigor, clarity, complexity and beauty of Abts’ work makes it so incredibly fulfilling to see such a consistent vision displayed in all its glory, depth and invention.
Every painting is a surprise; even the ones I know well, I see here as never before. The individuality of each work—their palettes, often quirkily dissonant and yet impossibly convincing; forms, linear in some, planar in others; surfaces, commonly covered in the scarred pentimenti of each painting’s past; their nimble twists of space that pull on every trick of spatial illusion without ever being tricky, but only ever truthful—is brought into full view by the impeccable sequencing of works. The nimble and gentle soulfulness of her work echo in abstraction the work of Piero della Francesca. I can think of no other contemporary artist for whom seeing this much work might bring to full bloom that artist’s greatness.
These shows are why we look at art. They cause wall labels and notions of “worth” to evaporate.
Articles in This Issue
It was business as usual for most dealers at Art Basel this year, which some felt was part of the problem. While the works expected to sell well did so, there was little by way of surprise. The sense of urgency that characterized the market a few years ago has dissipated, leaving in its place a sensible, but perhaps unexciting, market. As is the case across the industry, buying is now more than ever focused on investment over risk; potential upside over passion.
Many things about this edition of Basel remained the same as most other editions of Basel. It is still far and away the world’s pre-eminent fair of Modern and contemporary art and, beyond the fair, the city hosted the kind of spectacular museum exhibitions that can restore one’s faith in art.
It’s peculiar that there would be fatigue with Basel of all fairs
This is the event for which dealers have always saved their very best works, but this year it became clear that many who are active in the secondary market have been making more significant transactions outside the fair. These less public deals may have as much to do with the discretion required by sellers as with the effectiveness of private sales in achieving maximum prices. On a related note, many of the galleries which have in the past been responsible for some of the most beautiful booths, this year had less special material, which speaks to the problems of sourcing.
There was a nagging sense of disquiet among some dealers. There were some noticeable absences at what has long been the one fair no self-respecting collector would miss. American attendance was down (and, as one dealer lamented, “Americans spend money”). Diminished in number, too, were the kinds of people who used to shop at the weekend: Belgian collectors; Rhineland buyers from the professional classes, such as doctors and lawyers; Italians, in the days when they were buying more than selling.
There were some headline sales (several carefully choreographed for maximum press attention) but seemingly fewer multi-million dollar sales than has been the case in previous years—there were simply fewer works for sale above $10m.
“I know there are all these reports saying it’s the best year ever but I frankly don’t believe it — I am calling that bluff. We sold well and consistently, but there wasn’t the same fast-paced environment as years past,” said Alex Logsdail, executive director of Lisson Gallery, which made sales of works including Carmen Herrera’s Arco (2018) for $550,000; Stanley Whitney’s Untitled (1999) for $400,000; Mary Corse’s Untitled (Yellow, Black, White, Beveled) (2013) for $375,000 and Anish Kapoor’s, Glisten (Oriental Blue to Cobalt Blue to Wild Cherry satin) (2018), which had an asking price of £1.3m. “There were fewer Americans this year but far more advisors. It is possible that there is fatigue—but it’s peculiar that there would be fatigue with Basel of all fairs.”
The market is mannered, methodical and specific
Overall, the fair was “mannered, methodical and specific. That’s just the market right now,” said Tim Blum, co-founder of Blum & Poe, whose booth included a great installation of works by Robert Colescott, Carroll Dunham, Tony Lewis and Henry Taylor, all of which sold (the Colescott, A Winning Combination (1974), sold to an American collector for $200,000; Dunham’s Hers (Finding Water) (2006-10) to a European collector for $350,000 while Lewis and Taylor’s works both sold to French collectors (Lewis’ Transition, 2017 for $45,000;Taylor’s OXXO-Somewhere in Mexico but close to the BORDER, 2015-2018, for $175,000).
“The dearth of American collectors might just be general burn out,” Blum said. “It’s a shame, because this fair remains the absolute high bar. But the explosion of fairs is obviously hitting some major speed bumps; I think you’re going to see changes at those fairs which have developed entitled expectations of how things should go. People are finally realizing that they don’t have to participate in the charade.”
This was the consensus: the bifurcation between the fairs has become increasingly evident this year. This edition of Basel “threw the spotlight on the weakness of other fairs”, as one major New York dealer of contemporary art on the secondary market said. Several dealers openly discussed which fairs they are considering dropping out of, or reducing their footprint at. Many of the smaller and more regional fairs can expect fewer applications while two large North American events, Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze New York, are coming under particular scrutiny.
Maybe we shouldn’t spend a few million dollars doing art fairs each year
“The costs of doing the fairs is out of control and there is no margin for error,” said one director of a gallery that has always made a point of having a substantial presence at fairs (and was on the ground floor at Basel). “We’re thinking that maybe we shouldn’t spend a few million dollars doing art fairs each year; maybe we should cut back and do other things instead.” He added: “It is a bad business model. You are relying on people being engaged all of the time and it’s just not possible. People can’t pay attention to everything all of the time.”
Most galleries did solid business, and some reported very strong sales. The opening day was “mad” for Thaddaeus Ropac. “We sold a few dozen pieces in the first morning to collectors from all over the world: Switzerland, Germany, the US, China, Malaysia.” He noted the absence of Americans but said he had seen more Asian collectors, an observation echoed by others. “I’ve been able to continue some of the conversations I started in Hong Kong in March,” said one New York dealer.
The Swiss Von Bartha gallery reported its best fair ever, selling out by lunchtime on the first day while the South African gallerist Liza Essers of Goodman Gallery was happily surprised at “selling so much within the first three to five hours of the fair—like the old days!” Sales there included drawings and sculptures by William Kentridge for $285,000 and $300,000 as well as TLDR (2017) by Candice Breitz, on show as part of Unlimited, for €250,000 and Mikhael Subotzky’s Ponte City (2008-14), also at Unlimited—which sold to SFMOMA. And, at around 3pm on the second day, LA gallerist Susanne Vielmetter was “just working on the last few things,” having sold her the entire booth, including a suite of works by William Pope.L to a private collector in Canada for $195,000 and a painting by Nicole Eisenman for $160,000.
I am still sore from the exertion of yesterday
In the primary market now we are seeing a bigger divide between those artists whose work could sell 12 times over and those whose work does not sell at all. A lot of artists seem to be dropping off collector’s lists while taste consolidate around a handful of names. Dealers representing in-demand artists could barely keep up. “I am still sore from the exertion of yesterday,” said a beaming Jack Shainman on the second day. The gallery was showing work by artists Barkley L. Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, among others, and opening day activity had been “so intense; we were non-stop busy. At art fairs, if you bring work by artists who have waiting lists then you can’t just sell to the first person who walks into the booth,” Shainman said. “But that’s a first world problem to have—and I like it.”
Sam Gilliam, whose work is on show at the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum (“The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973“, until 30 September), was selling well at galleries across the fair. “We had very good sales, ranging from $500,000 to $1.5m for work by Gilliam, Jack Whitten and Melvin Edwards” said Alexander Gray, whose gallery, Alexander Gray Associates, graduated to the main section this year. Gray was also showing a selection of works by feminist artists working in roughly the same period, for which there was less outright demand. “We have a way to go with their markets still,” Gray said.
Buyers headed to Victoria Miro as soon as the fair opened to snap up works by Yayoi Kusama for prices ranging from $600,000 to $1.9m. “The people who come upstairs in the first hour know exactly what they want,” said gallery partner Glenn Scott-Wright. “Otherwise people work their way up here gradually.”
Noticeably absent from this year’s fair were true top-end works priced above $15m. The lower and mid parts of the top end was where sales were happening, but the air started to get thin above $6m. “It’s less busy than last year but we sold a few things,” said one major private dealer of Modernist masterworks on the opening morning. “People are taking their time and that’s ok: we’re not dealing with $4,000 works of art here.”
Speed is often not a friend of art
Luxembourg & Dayan, which had a beautiful presentation of works by artists including Domenico Gnoli, noted a similar pace. “Lots of conversations were happening, which is good,” said Amalia Dayan. “There is not a sense of urgency. I think people are just exhausted. They are taking their time and we actually view this as a very good thing, since speed is often not a friend of art. We had a strong week with a lot of post-fair follow up from major collectors and clients. We’re happy.
It seems that change is coming for every art business, even the most prestigious. Art Basel has managed to both grow and maintain its reputation for excellence since its founding in 1970 by Swiss gallerists Ernst Beyeler, Trudi Bruckner and Balz Hilt, when more than 16,000 people came to see work presented by 90 galleries from ten countries. Last week’s event attracted around 95,000 people to presentations of work by 290 galleries from 35 countries. Basel has managed to change with the times over the course of its history; now, as the art market shifts in new and profound ways, this fair—and all others—may need to once again adapt.
Harry Lime, the antihero played by Orson Welles in the 1949 British film noir The Third Man, was a harsh art critic: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance,” observed Harry. “In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
In honor of the pilgrimage last week by many in the art world to Basel, this column aims to redress the balance by celebrating three books that detail a few dynamic artistic achievements of the Swiss.
The Orson Welles of the Art World
Today, everyone is a curator, but in the mid-20th century, curators were an exotic breed. None more so than the Swiss pioneer Harald Szeemann, one of the few to have curated both Documenta (1972) and the Venice Biennale (1999 and 2001). Cigar-chomping, bearded and bulky, he was the Orson Welles of the art world. “Harald was like a movie director,” recalled the artist Christo. “He would sell his vision like a movie director, and then everything would be part of his movie, his exhibition.”
Seeing Szeemann in a gallery was like finding a sommelier in a vineyard. In the foreword to the kaleidoscopic homage Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions, Thomas W Gaehtgens, Director of the Getty Research Institute, describes the Fabbrica Rosa—an archive that Szeemann created in a former watch factory in Maggia—as the “laboratory of a visionary”. Szeemann was a fanatical collector of the arcane paraphernalia connected to exhibitions. His rooms were an “almost incomprehensible mass of books, brochures, photographs, boxes of papers, piles of documents, and rolled-up posters”.
This volume has all the esoteric charm of its subject: it is a jumble of pictures and scribbled notes, records and logs, floor plans and letters. It also includes interviews with collaborators, such as the Arte Povera veteran Gilberto Zorio and performance artist Tania Bruguera, which provide personal insight. Although produced by the Getty Institute to accompany a travelling exhibition of Szeemann’s archive, this is, appropriately, less of a catalogue than a cabinet of curiosities.
*Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions, edited by Glenn Phillips and Philipp Kaiser, with Doris Chon and Pietro Rigolo is published by the Getty Research Institute
A World Away
A beguiling new monograph on Christian Tagliavini, an art photographer working out of an atelier in Lugano, proves as dramatic as the Reichenbach Falls. Tagliavini’s highly stylized portraits blend historical detail, contemporary styling and creative staging. Having been educated in Italy as well as Switzerland, Tagliavini draws heavily on Renaissance imagery. To this he adds elements of sci-fi cinema and epic 19th-century novels. His photographs are enigmatic worlds unto themselves.
Tagliavini is an old-style auteur. His work owes more to the films of Wes Anderson, Luc Besson and Tim Burton than any tradition of fine art portraiture. A self-confessed jack-of-all-trades, he has worked as an architect, engineer and graphic designer. As a photographer he is involved in every stage of creating his images, from devising sets to conceiving costumes: “I want to be able to do everything and do it all myself—woodworking, design, handicrafts.”
His shots, reproduced beautifully here, deliver wacky mises-en-scènes. His “Carte” series (2012) frames figures within Alice in Wonderland playing cards. And in “Voyages Extraordinaires” (2014-15) Tagliavini creates a retro-futuristic narrative in the style of a Jules Verne adventure (characters peer through portholes and don beige spacesuits). The book also includes sketches of his ornate props, such as an astronaut’s neck-brace fitted with spotlights.
These portraits are dreamlike in their brooding beauty, subtle eroticism and overall sense of mystery. A crepuscular palette only adds to the sense of a story just out of sight. Yet, each image is meticulous in its composition. The result is a fusion of Italian drama and Swiss precision. A combination, no doubt, that would have totally confounded Harry Lime.
*Christian Tagliavini is published by teNeues
Gruesome and Dazzling Histories
Looking through the other end of the telescope, 26 Things: A Time Travel Through Switzerland uses objects as evidence of a national rather than personal history. The titular items, all plucked from the collection of 850,000 artifacts kept in the Swiss National Museum, represent Switzerland’s 26 cantons (the member states that make up the Swiss Confederation). The selection is as varied as the topography.
Basel puts its best foot forward—literally—with a 15th-century silver reliquary. We learn that “it is shaped like a foot to reflect its contents—what were believed to be the foot bones of a little boy murdered in Bethlehem on the orders of King Herod”. It is gruesome and dazzling—its surface decorated with gemstones and pearls and a window of colored rock crystal for viewers to peek through to the bony bits.
Timepieces appear as regularly as clockwork, including an Omega wristwatch manufactured in Bern and later taken to the moon by Buzz Aldrin. Some regions are represented by ornate objects (a whitework embroidery made for the 1851 “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” in London), while others are purely functional (the geometrically accurate 19th-century Dufour Map of Switzerland).
This slim book illustrates how a cultural artifact can provide “an entrance ticket to the past”. It also provides a tantalizing flavor of the pleasures to be had in exploring the repositories of yesteryear.
*26 Things is published by Scheidegger & Spiess
At the start of his celebrated career, the pioneering conceptualist Bruce Nauman turned his attention to the perfect working-class object: a beer sign. Rather than reading “Schlitz”, “Budweiser” or “Dos Equis XX”, his window-sized display spelled out a head-scratching phrase in blue neon wrapped around a red spiral, the symbol of infinity.
It read portentously: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”. Instead of frosty brew, what the artist art-vertised was the paradoxically ambiguous nature of his job: to find deeper meaning in clichéd signs (among them, art and language) and reveal it.
Flashback to 1967: Nauman has just completed his MFA at the University of California, Davis. Shortly thereafter he sets up his first studio in a former grocery store in San Francisco. A neon beer sign installed in a nearby window inspires him to fashion his own light-filled statement.
Hung facing the street, Nauman’s Window or Wall Sign (1967)—which is equal parts irony and self-help romanticism—initially befuddles passers-by. In time, it is understood to be a cornerstone of a massively influential career concerned with, among other things, excavating gaps that open up gold-bearing veins between signs and their messages.
“I had the idea that I could make art that would kind of disappear—an art that was supposed to not quite look like art,” Nauman told curator Brenda Richardson in 1982. Asked whether the work is sincere in its message, he responded: “It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it.”
Nauman went on to say that the statement was “a totally silly idea” in which he nonetheless truly believes. “It’s true and it’s not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself.”
This seminal work, which is part artist statement and part riddle, is one of more than 170 by the 76-year-old Nauman now on view in a major retrospective at the Schaulager, Basel’s football-field-sized Herzog & de Meuron-designed museum, art storage facility and research institute
Titled “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts”, it is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist in more than 20 years and spans five decades of his work in multiple media—video, drawing, print, photography, sculpture, sound, installation and neon. (On show in Basel until 26 August, the exhibition then travels to MoMA and MoMA PS1, where it opens from 21 October until March 17, 2019.)
Organized by Kathy Halbreich, curator and advisor to the director at MoMA and executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (who co-curated the artist’s last survey at the Walker Art Center in 1994 with Neal Benezra), the exhibition centers on the idea of disappearance “as an act, concept, perceptual probe, magical deceit, working method, and metaphor” in Nauman’s art. Few creators inhabit the Houdini-like act of disappearing, and reappearing again, like Nauman.
Of all major living contemporary artists, Nauman is the one most likely to be described as both essential and mysterious in the same sentence. But if his importance is unquestioned, his artistic presence has faded from view during the last few decades.
The reasons are simple: “His recent artistic production has been relatively infrequent and of a more introspective nature; there have been no major shows; and there has not been enough significant work on the market for a new generation of collectors,” said Allan Schwartzman in a recent newsletter [In Other Words, 7 June 2018].
A lot of that is about to change. The long-awaited Bruce Nauman retrospective is packed with decades of artistic revelations, or appearing acts—along with mystic truths delivered by a true artist.
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