Some things change, while others stay the same. The identity of Art Basel is shifting: once known as the place for Modern masterworks, the definition of blue-chip art at this Swiss fair has become much more contemporary. Whereas works by Matisse, Miro and Picasso were once the mainstay on the ground floor, the migration towards contemporary art—which started in around 2013 when a number of galleries known more for their primary programs graduated downstairs—is now in full swing.
And yet, whatever the shift in material, Basel has long been the world’s preeminent art fair. It remains the event for which dealers stockpile their best work in the belief that the buyers who come here are primed to receive it: the fair upon which dealers rely for a substantial amount of their annual revenue.
In the event, most dealers reported real success in Switzerland this week. “We were tentative, given the general environment, but have been very pleasantly surprised,” said Mnuchin Gallery partner Sukanya Rajaratnam at lunchtime on opening day. While last year it seemed that a few collectors stayed away, this time around “there are certainly a lot of good clients coming back to the fair,” Rajaratnam said, reporting sales including of works by Sam Gilliam in the range of $1m, a painting by Joan Mitchell for $2m and Fly in the Buttermilk (2002) by Mark Bradford for $3.5m.
This being the biggest event of the year, dealers strategize in advance, taking time to get it right. “We’re so meticulous in our preparation”, said David Zwirner on the opening morning. The gallery had launched “a parallel art fair” on its website to coincide with Art Basel, selling more than $3.5m of art by the end of the second day (with the $1.8m sale of a sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (2015) setting a new price ceiling for the gallery’s online business). Things moved quicker yet on the booth, where big figures were reported by lunchtime on opening day: $20m for Gerhard Richter’s 1966 Versammlung (being sold by the Valsecchi family to fund the renovation of their Palazzo Butera in Palermo), $3.5m for a new painting, Laundry Man (2019), by Kerry James Marshall and a 1969 fabric work by Polke for $10m.
There’s a Swiss saying, Wirth said: ‘The owner is cooking in the kitchen’
Zwirner was not the only gallery upping the pre-fair ante: Hauser & Wirth had published weighty two-volume tomes dedicated to the living artists and estates it represents: “We’re trying to create context, and that gave us a head start,” said Iwan Wirth. By late afternoon on opening day, Hauser & Wirth had sold around 30 works: roughly half from the booth and half from its books, including Philip Guston’s 1968 painting Boot for $2.5m, Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1962-1963) for €2.6m and the $2.5m sale of Jack Whitten’s sculpture Aphrodite’s Lover (2015), which had been on show in the critically acclaimed Met Breuer exhibition last year (“Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2017”).
“It’s been a hell of a day,” Wirth said. “Huge, like never before. It has been extraordinarily successful: but it’s Basel, it’s an exceptional fair. But it takes months and months of preparation.”
There’s a Swiss saying, Wirth said: “The owner is cooking in the kitchen”, and, on the VIP days, gallery proprietors were hustling hard alongside their staff to make the most of the potential Basel business.
By early evening, most dealers were feeling the burn. “All I know is that I am putting my feet up tonight,” said Pace gallery president and CEO Marc Glimcher. “And I’m rewarding myself with a tequila right now.” Pace had sold around 70% of its booth before 6:30pm, including Lee Ufan’s From Line (1977) for $2m and Barbara Hepworth’s Four-Square (Four Circles) (1996) for $550,000.
‘There is absolutely no room for overpriced or overexposed art. Don’t even bring it,’ Glimcher said
There were “very serious people” in attendance, Glimcher said, and the market was strong: “But, on the other hand, there is absolutely no room for overpriced or overexposed art. Don’t even bring it. It won’t sell.” While wallets were deep, there was a sense that buyers brought to Basel the same sense of specificity we have been seeing elsewhere earlier this season. Collectors “seem to have more of a list—and sometimes they can miss things because they’re so focused,” said Eleanor Acquavella of the eponymous gallery, which reported sales including a 1987 mask by Keith Haring for $4.25m. Nonetheless, “there’s a good energy and people seem enthusiastic,” she said.
“It’s been a hectic first day but fun, too. We’ve seen a lot of people we haven’t seen in a while,” said Steven Henry, senior gallery director at Paula Cooper, which had sold works by artists including Rudolf Stingel and Sol LeWitt, as well as a trio of works by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen ranging from $150,000 for the work on paper Two French Horns, Unwound, Entwined, on Ground (2001) to just under $1m each for the sculptures Soft French Horn, Unwound (2002) and Tied Trumpet (2004-06).
At Gladstone Gallery, sales “were very strong across the board” for a wide range of artists including Robert Mapplethorpe, Anicka Yi, Philippe Parreno, Carroll Dunham, Elizabeth Peyton, Rosemarie Trockel and others, said gallery partner Max Falkenstein. Meanwhile, at Michael Werner gallery, there was demand for work by artists including Markus Lüpertz, Enrico David, Hurvin Anderson, Georg Baselitz, as well as Sigmar Polke’s Graphbilder mit schleifen (nach Albrecht Dürer) [Graphite painting with loops [after Albrecht Dürer]] (1986) for around $3m.
The good mood reverberated throughout the ground floor. The fair was “busy right from the beginning”, said Sprüth Magers’ senior director Andreas Gegner, reporting sales including an edition of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #39 (1979) for $950,000. “There’s really an atmosphere of buying,” said David Juda, co-founder of Annely Juda Fine Art, which had sold works by artists including Christo ($310,000), a three-part David Nash ($140,000) and Liubov Popova’s gouache on cardboard Non-Objective Composition (c. 1920) for $320,000 by mid-afternoon on opening day.
‘It’s the single greatest fair we have ever done’ Blum said
There were strong results for many of the dealers upstairs, too, notably Blum & Poe, which reported around $12m of sales by the end of the second day. “It’s the single greatest fair we have ever done,” co-founder Tim Blum said. “We sold a shit load of art which, fundamentally, is what we’re here for—and we sold a lot of great art to new clients. The market at this fair feels broad and deep. It’s hitting every mark. It’s a record year.”
The swing towards the contemporary at Basel this year was a boon, Blum said. “Most of the largesse we’ve felt has been in the primary market—that’s why this feels so important. This isn’t selling a bunch of secondary market material at 5% to 10% commission.” Sales at the gallery included two works by Yoshitomo Nara including Pup King (2000) for $3m, four new works by Mark Grotjahn priced between $750,000 to $800,000, three works by Henry Taylor from $100,000 to $175,000, works by Friedrich Kunath for $75,000, a painting by recent gallery recruit Yukie Ishikawa, Impermanence—Oboroyo (2019) for $75,000 as well as a 1983 painting by Robert Colescott for $900,000.
Basel is too big an opportunity to improvise at the last minute and, like most dealers, Blum said he had done much of the legwork in advance: “I had a singular vision for this fair and worked to pull it together. We convince our artists to give us great works for this fair, which we don’t necessarily do for every fair because it would be dumb to choke the artists that way.”
Other dealers felt the same: “It’s been spectacular this year, but we worked hard in preparation over the past six months—in some cases, over the past year,” said Stuart Shave, founder of London’s Modern Art gallery, which reported strong sales, including five works by Lois Dodd, such as Door Staircase (1981) for $95,000. For example, Shave had been holding onto a work by artist Steven Shearer—who makes very few paintings each year—since January, especially for Basel: and was rewarded for his patience when the work, Forger’s Offering (2019), sold for €270,000.
‘People do want to discover stuff, but not necessarily in the first two days,’ Bellorado-Samuels said
Mixing rediscovered artists with well-known and in-demand artists, such as Kehinde Wiley, was key to success for London gallery Stephen Friedman, which sold multiple works by Denzil Forrester for prices ranging from £150,000 to £450,000 including Fantasy Stitch Up (1990), according to Mira Dimitrova, director of sales.
The artist Peter Doig has first seen Forrester’s work at his Royal College of Art MA show in 1983 (when Doig himself was a student at Central Saint Martins). He had reconnected with it again in 2015, telling Forrester he would like to help show it. In 2016, Forrester had his first solo exhibition in New York at White Columns. He began working with Stephen Friedman in the past year and had a show with the gallery last month. Interest in the work has been building, particularly with institutional buyers including Tate, which now owns Three Wicked Men (1982).
Overall, the tills were ringing fastest for artists that buyers already knew they wanted (or for artists at the galleries which buyers already knew they liked and trusted). Jack Shainman Gallery was showing work by much sought after artists including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Barkley L. Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, whose Untitled (2019) sold for $3.5m—and the entire booth had sold out by mid-afternoon on the first day. “People do want to discover stuff, but not necessarily in the first two days,” said gallery director Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels.
The Swiss Galerie Peter Kilchmann had made a good start thanks to attention paid to the work of Monica Bonvicini—showing in Unlimited this year, as well as in the gallery’s Zurich space (“Bind me! Torture me!” until 26 July). “There were good reviews of Monica’s work, which has carried over to the fair, and we are also showing the work in the gallery in Zurich,” said the gallery’s Fabio Pink, who reported sales of Bonvicini’s work, priced at around €36,000.
Meanwhile, several works by Hernan Bas had sold for prices ranging from $45,000 for works on paper to $150,000 for a painting, while several new works combining ceramic, lithograph and gelatin silver print by Shirana Shahbazi—an artist also on show right now in the Zurich gallery (“New Good Luck”, until 26 July)—were snapped up for CHF16,000.
Galleries trying to show completely unknown or less widely established artists, found a different pace of sales. “It’s going very badly,” said Shireen Gandhy, director of Chemould Prescott Road. “I am sure collectors are around, but they are not around me. It’s not usual. Basel for me is all about the first two days. There has been some positive engagement but it’s not enough,” she said before excusing herself: a major client had just walked onto the booth, so perhaps things were about to turn around.
The Approach gallery was introducing the pink “pyscho furniture” work of the little-known Polish artist Maria Pinińska-Bereś. “We’ve sold some stuff, not others. Certainly, the market feels less pumped up than a few years ago”, said Jake Miller. “It’s a bit of a risk to introduce artists at a fair, but a stage like Basel also presents a fantastic opportunity.”
‘Considering the problems around the world, the market seems to be resilient. People need culture to work it all out,’ Coles said
Dealers hoping for weekend sales potentially have something to look forward to: “The Basel organizers have been making a considerable effort to bring Europeans over the weekend”, said Sadie Coles, founder of Sadie Coles HQ. “It was a nice bump last year.” Halfway through, on Wednesday evening, Coles was very happy with the fair so far: “The people who come to Basel are sophisticated—this is the place to show the breadth of the gallery,” she said, pointing to a conceptual sculpture by artist Darren Bader—less easy to sell, no doubt, than a figurative painting—but which sold to a Taiwanese collector who the gallery had met at the Basel Hong Kong fair. “The market has gotten so broad and so global,” Coles said. “Considering the problems around the world, the market seems to be resilient. People need culture to work it all out.”