At Art Basel, Everyone’s Playing It Safe


BASEL, Switzerland – Psychologists call this the “mere exposure effect”: humans like what they already know, whether people, places, products – or works of art.

There was certainly a reassuring familiarity about most of the works featured in the 51st edition of Art Basel, which is open for previews on Tuesdays and runs through Sundays. After three pandemic postponements It was the first major in-person international art fair to be held in Europe since March 2020, with online editions in the meantime, since June last year, when Tefaf Maastricht closed early After one exhibitor tested positive.

“The emphasis is on the step and the predictable,” said Matthew Armstrong, a New York-based art consultant and curator of this year’s edition. “People want assurance of what they know,” he said, adding, like many others, the primacy of modern and contemporary paintings by established names.

Armstrong was among the few American attendees of the fair after the US State Department released Covid-19.don’t travelAdvisory for Switzerland on 30 August. All visitors, wherever they come from, are required to wear a mask and wristband showing evidence of vaccination.

owned by swiss MCH Exhibition GroupArt Basel, the world’s leading art-fair brand, also hosts annual shows in Hong Kong in March and Miami Beach in December (pandemic permitting). The final two June editions of its major European shows Must be an online-only event. but with New York fairs like Chitra Vallarihandjob Arsenal and Freelance Recently returning to the in-person format, Art Basel wanted to showcase the art world – and its new investor, James Murdoch. Lupa Systems Group – that this trade was back in IRL.

“I was missing the energy of Americans in the first hours,” said Glenn Scott Wright, co-director of Victoria Miró, a London-based gallery of 272 exhibited at the fair. “I thought we’d have a long day without him. But in the end we’ve done well.”

Victoria Miro instead showed works by her younger contemporaries, showing works by famous figurative painters: Milton Avery, Alice Neill and Paula Rego. Wright said the gallery sold seven works on the first day for $200,000 to $1.2 million, including Neil’s 1955 portrait of “Julian Brody.”

Neil, who died in 1984, was an artist from Art Basel, which has been the subject of a major retrospective at the time. Metropolitan Museum of Art. His penetrating portraits were also available at the booths of New York dealers David Zwirner and Kem & Reid, as well as at Xavier Huffkens in Brussels, which cost about $2 million.

The Swiss edition of Art Basel has long had a reputation as the main art fair where top dealers offer museum-quality trophies. But this year, wealthy collectors from the Americas and Asia were both absent, masterworks few and far between.

“The galleries have been cautioned,” said Marta Gnipp, an art consultant and dealer based in Berlin. “They haven’t brought in that many knockouts. You keep them for moments when you are 100 percent sure of selling them – there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment.”

That said, the massive Jean-Michel Basquiat blue and yellow diptych “hardware store” from 1983 was attracting a lot of attention at the booth of New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe.

Van de Weghe described the work’s $40 million price tag as “too perfect”, noting that three Basquiat paintings had already sold for high figures at auction this year. But all three of those works included the artist’s trademark Black Skull motif, which was not in the Basel Diptych. On Friday morning, it was still unsold.

As Art Basel and its participating dealers relied on digital channels to sell art during the pandemic, it looked like more works would have been made online than ever before the fair. But while there would still have been a lot of upfront purchases based on the photos, some dealers said they were using Art Basel’s physical return as an opportunity to re-establish personal contacts. Serious buyers, especially from Europe.

“We preferred European institutions and private collections,” said Frederick Petzel, owner of the New York dealership Petzel, which represents many distinguished contemporary artists whose works are currently resold at auction for several times their gallery prices. “If Asian and American collectors said they wanted to reserve the work, we told them they had to come to the fair.”

The 1987 canvas “Fernskind (TV Child),” by Austrian artist Maria Lasnig, pioneer of the painting “Body Awareness”, took place at Petzel’s booth. A companion piece to a similarly themed 1987 work in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, it sold for approximately $1.1 million, along with paintings by Dana Schutz and Derek Fordjour for $1.1 million and $155,000.

But when on-trend dealers like Petzel had to redo their booths after the first day, other smaller, less fashionable galleries would have struggled to cover their costs.

Considering the challenges facing those galleries in 2021, Art Basel announced on 6 September that it was creating a “one-time solidarity fund” of 1.5 million Swiss francs, approximately $1.6 million. The fund is designed to provide a discount of at least 10 percent on booth cost for some for-sale galleries. Successful exhibitors can opt out by increasing the fund’s share, which will be distributed equitably to struggling dealers.

Art Basel’s global director Mark Spiegler told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday that several major dealers had already said they would not claim part of the fund. Art Basel said in an emailed statement Friday that it would not comment on the fund until after the fair and would not disclose the galleries that have dropped out.

Vanessa Carlos, co-founder of the London-based Carlos/Ishikawa Gallery and a vocal proponent of financial support for small galleries at high-spending art fairs, said Art Basel’s solidarity fund “probably won’t make a huge difference, but I would like to make a gesture.” Appreciate it as is.” She said she’ll have to wait until the end of the fair, “when I look at total sales versus total cost,” before deciding whether she’ll claim the fund.

Carlos/Ishikawa was certainly busy on the first preview day, selling two new large oil-on-velvet works by British painter Issie Wood, each worth over $100,000. Like many “emerging” artists whose works were exhibited at Art Basel, Wood has already emerged. His paintings have sold at auction for over $300,000 and he is one of 31 artists to have been featured in “Mixing It Up: Painting Today” Show at the Hayward Gallery in London.

“Fairs now operate for known transactions, not capture the unknown,” said Heather Flow, a New York-based art consultant, one of Art Basel’s usual American visitors, who did not attend this year. “In general, I don’t find fairs a productive venue to discover emerging art,” she said in an email.

The widely held belief by individual visitors that Art Basel’s painting-dominated “Covid comeback” version was somehow conservative or playing it safe also suggests that they forgot what had become the top end of the art market. Thanks to Instagram, WhatsApp and JPG, by the time a dealer shows an artist in Art Basel, the market knows.



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