‘Future Present: The Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation Collection’ at the Schaulager
Those visiting Art Basel this week are in luck: the city is rich with impressive museum shows. There’s an illuminating Frank Stella survey at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst (the Museum of Contemporary Art), a thrilling presentation of new work by Anicka Yi at the Kunsthalle Basel, and a treasure-filled Gauguin exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation—though the less said about the foundation’s interminable retrospective of the perennially overrated Marlene Dumas, the better. The main building of the Kunstmuseum Basel, the jewel in the city’s art crown, is closed for renovations, which means that much of its permanent collection, one of the finest in a country filled with them, is off limits at the moment.
Thankfully, other spaces in the city are offering up some of that work. The Museum für Gegenwartskunst, which is part of the Kunstmuseum, has filled one of its floors with modern and contemporary works—Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Richter—from that collection. The Museum der Kulturen has taken on some of its Old Masters, for a show called “Holbein, Cranach, Grünewald.” And, best of all, the Schaulager museum, the Laurenz Foundation’s hulking Herzog & de Meuron–designed art fortress, has stepped in to present an overview of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation’s collection, which has been on permanent loan since 1941 to the Kunstmuseum Basel, where many of its works are typically on view. The show is titled “Present Future”; the art in it astounds.
Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin began the foundation in 1933, following the death of her husband in a car crash. He was only 36. In his short life, though, Emanuel, who led the Belgian arm of the F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG chemicals company, had become a powerful advocate for art of the present moment, serving as president of the Basel Kunstverein and collecting art with his wife. Maja, an artist and mother of three, charged the foundation with supporting contemporary art and declared in its founding documents the importance of “believing in the future.” She would be actively involved in the foundation for half a century, and her descendants have kept it active while embarking on their own careers in patronage. (Her granddaughter Maja Hoffmann, the founder of the LUMA Foundation, just became chair of the Swiss Institute in New York.)
The show opens with a row of portraits from 1980 of Hoffmann, looking radiant and determined, by Andy Warhol, and then jumps back to the beginning, when she was picking up the work of the Belgian avant-garde, whose participants are seen infrequently stateside, like Floris Jespers and Frits van den Berghe, whose punchily colored works here from the 1920s—respectively, a dandyish scene in a cafe with burning red walls and a terrifyingly gigantic floating above a rainbow—look curiously on point with what so many of today’s mischievous young figurative painters are up to today.
And then the big guns start appearing—major works, and some masterpieces, by Joan Miró, Georges Braque, Piet Mondrian, and Robert Delaunay, the latter with a shattering painting from 1910–11 of the Eiffel Tower that so enchanted him, followed by Jean Tinguely and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Dieter Roth and Joseph Beuys.
What’s remarkable about the collection is the restless curiosity it evinces, the fact that they just kept buying, leaping from one development to the next. One room highlights work purchased out of Harald Szeemann’s storied 1969 exhibition of Post-Minimalism, “When Attitudes Become Form,” at the Kunsthalle Bern. There’s a fabric wall work by Richard Tuttle, a delicate string arrangement by Fred Sandback, and—a welcome inclusion—a sheet of fence mounted on the wall, by Bill Bollinger, whose contribution to the movement, long marginalized, is finally coming back into focus thanks to recent exhibitions.
The Foundation chose to celebrate plurality over restrictive critical judgments in making acquisitions, and so it offers a fairly broad view of artistic developments in the 1970s and 1980s, even though some of the inclusions can feel jarring, even contradictory—a room of quiet, conceptual works by On Kawara and Rémy Zaugg, for instance, is situated not far from one of the big-brushed behemoths by Martin Disler, Rainer Fetting (more rare names), Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente.
Elsewhere in the Schaulager’s warren of rooms, one finds more recent works, many ambitious in scale, all immaculately installed. There are suites of sculptures by Fischli/Weiss and Matthew Barney, videos by Anri Sala and Steve McQueen, photographs by Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.
Many of these contemporary works are well-trodden classics by this point, but seeing them in the context of nearly 100 years of art lends them a certain poignancy, especially during a fair week, when so many of the products being sold seem unlikely to endure for even another decade. Other work, we are reminded here, will survive. “Future Present” could be taken as an invitation—an inspiration—for everyone in town for the big fair to think, and choose, wisely.