Art Basel 2015

Basel or Bust: The Art World Catches the Early Train Out of Zurich for Busy Art Fair Sunday

The view from Zurich's George Bar & Grill.

The view from Zurich’s George Bar & Grill.

“Was that a…gunshot?” said the young director of a prominent London gallery.

We were sitting on the terrace of one of the nicer hotels in town for the occasion of Zurich Contemporary Art Weekend, with collectors coming in and out of the building, stopping to say hello. There had been an ominous pop.

“Ah, the mean streets of Zurich, Switzerland,” I said.

Compared to the squeaky clean Calvinist ethic that washes over Geneva, and the constant presence of the well-maintained coffers that line the Rhine in Basel, Zurich can seem like a downright dangerous place. Though it’s said to have dimmed in recent years, the city’s notorious red light district—home of cheap hotels perfect for art journalists staying just a night—still boasts plenty of dank, dirty places to consume the world’s oldest fermented beverage while purchasing the product of the world’s oldest profession.

It was a popular choice to leave Zurich early this year and train over to Basel—not due to the fear of murder, exactly, but more like the fear of missing out. To accommodate the ballooning amount of programming during the jam-packed Swiss jaunt to Art Basel, which is simply in step with the ever-expanding art bubble, there was enough of a Sunday draw to get people out of Zurich before the weekend had ended—or, in some cases, started. Tolga Albayrak, the host of the globe-trotting art party Tolga’s Fair Club, said he ran into Rirkrit Tiravanija in Paris; he told him there was a champagne reception for his new work on the messeplatz in Basel Sunday at 5:00 pm, and that was that, auf wiedersehen, Zurich. A few attendees at an informal dinner at the very formal Zurich rooftop restaurant George Bar & Grill said they were leaving that evening, on Saturday, and forgoing even an overnight stay. Undoubtedly there was a scene at Maja Hoffman’s Sunday night dinner, but perhaps there was also some ambivalence.

“Is she even having a dinner this year?” the London director joked.

And so, after a visit to the Kunsthalle Zurich—where among the many excellent shows the standout has to be “Transparence: Calder / Picabia” at Hauser & Wirth’s upstairs space, a stunning blend of some indomitable Calders with the “Transparences” paintings of Picabia —it was off to Basel, where the bar at the Grand Hotel Trois Rois—basically the only game in town—was already filled to the brim. A few artists and dealers—among them Marianne Boesky and David Zwirner—were milling about, looking jetlagged or drunk or both.

Later in the night, I saw Tico Mugrabi sidle up to the bar to order an amaro—a digestif made from artichokes. Given that Art Basel was still two days away from officially opening and the late nights had already kicked in, this seemed like a downright visionary idea.

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