It has been a rainy and cloudy couple of days in Basel, Switzerland, but that did not seem to keep away the crowds this morning who arrived bright and early, at 9:30 a.m., for the Champagne breakfast that opens the Art Basel art fair, which is offering up its 46th edition this year.
Though the heavy-hitter collectors at the fair included a few of the usual suspects — Steve Cohen, Donald Marron, Tony and Elham Salamé, Budi Tek, Martin Margulies, and Michael Ringier, to name a few—some dealers said they saw fewer American collectors than in past years, which might be attributable to the Venice Biennale having opened last month, instead of the week before Basel as it usually does every two years.
American museum folks were, however, out in force. Scott Rothkopf, Madeline Grynsten, Philippe Vergne, Jeremy Strick, Richard Armstrong, James Roundea, and Laura Hoptman were among those on hand today.
There seemed to be a real question as to whether the swells would arrive in full force on the Messeplatz this year. The $2.3 billion in auction sales last month sort of overshadowed any other art transactions, and the constant whispers of widespread pre-fair sales can make the initial bum rush of the front doors feel a bit subdued, if not unnecessary. But in general, dealers said that a greater and greater proportion of their sales are happening at fairs.
“There’s no way it can’t make up a large proportion of your sales,” said Sarah Watson, a director at Sprüth Magers. The energy at Basel’s opening was especially high this year, she added. “At 11 a.m. it was like a tsunami, with people coming from all angles. It was relentless. This year feels more intense.” The gallery has already made a number of sales, Watson said.
“In the past few years,” said Justine Durrett, the director of sales at David Zwirner, Art Basel, the world’s most prestigious fair, “has been crescendoing.” But she also pointed out that as the gallery has grown they have been approaching the fair differently. She said more work than ever before went into strategizing the booth this year. There was an elegant arrangement of works by major artists like Agnes Martin, Donald Judd and Yayoi Kusama. Months ago, Durrett said, the gallery requested work from one of its artists, Bridget Riley, and they got a new piece (completed in 2014) which sold early on the fair’s first day for $1.1 million. “In general,” Durrett said, “things are more and more event driven.”
As in past years, there are dealers who go out of their way to do something unique within the confines of the art-fair format. The dealer Gavin Brown stood on a floor piece by Martin Creed, a motley array of various kinds of rugs, some of them (like a foot-shaped blue one) quite kitschy. The piece will run a collector $200,000. In many cases, “galleries just aren’t the way people see art anymore,” Brown said with an air of lament. (An exception must be made for his recent well-attended and well-reviewed Alex Katz show, however.)
Brown was also handing out Joe Bradley buttons to a few booth-dwellers. “Go build in hell,” the buttons say. This line of humor seemed on point for him, as when asked about how his sales were going a few hours into the fair, Brown said, joking, “I haven’t sold a fucking thing. It’s a disaster.”
Mary Sabbatino, director at Galerie Lelong, standing near an Ursula Rydingsvard sculpture in her booth, said that the gallery is unusual these days for the large proportion of sales they do outside the fair context. “Even our bookkeeper remarks on it,” she said. But often the collectors to whom she is making those sales can be traced back to fairs. Attending Art Basel for many years, she has seen it transformed by the increasing presence of collectors from places like China, Turkey and Russia. “This is where we meet new clients.”
Not one but two beret-wearing guards stood at the entrance to Gagosian, flanking a Baselitz painting, a Jonas Wood painting, and a mammoth Dan Colen bubble gum painting, in de Kooning-like colors, from which a gum smell wafted.
The Gagosian booth, packed so tightly with collectors one could barely move, was fronted by a large Ed Ruscha painting from 1997 that featured the words “Bloated Empire” and “Stuffed Regime” as well as the image of what looked like a Weimar-era businessman. The piece seemed a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mega-gallery’s growth, with its 15th space soon to open in London.
Gagosian’s booth features a 1995 John Currin painting called “Entertaining Mr. Acker Bilk.” The painting sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 for $427,000. It came up for auction again at Christie’s in 2010, with an estimate of $2 million to $2.8 million, and was bought in. At Gagosian, a fairgoer was quoted an asking price of $4.5 million for the piece.
The gallery had also closed other seven-figure sales early in the day, like Jeff Koons’s Cat on a Clothesline (Orange) (1994–2001) for $6 million and a Giacometti for $3 million. (Perhaps Steve Cohen dropped a few million on another one of the latter, given that he’s spent $240 million on them in the last year or so?)
Also spotted in the booth was Leonardo DiCaprio, who has become so present at these sorts of things that he hardly requires a mention. Yes, he had a man bun. Yes he had a dad bod, and, yes, he was wearing a beret, not unlike Gagosian’s security. He also apparently felt the need to start pinching Larry Gagosian’s cheeks. A tribal greeting between movies stars and art billionaires, perhaps.
Speaking of big-name players, Hauser & Wirth sold an untitled fabric and stainless steel Louise Bourgeois for $2.5 million, a 2008 Ellen Gallagher with an asking price of $500,000, and a Roni Horn drawing at $600,000. A Paul McCarthy sculpture was on hold with an asking price of $2.8 million. The gallery also said that Jakub Julian Ziolkowski’s 196-painting installation Imagorea (2014), which was unveiled last night at Art Unlimited had found a home with a private collection in Asia for an undisclosed price.
Other major sales: Marian Goodman, of New York, Paris, and now London, sold a John Baldessari for $450,000, and New York’s Mnuchin Gallery moved a Thomas Schutte, Vater Staat, dressed (2010), for $1.6 million. And Pace Gallery said that it sold its entire presentation of works by Robert Rauschenberg from the 1980s and ’90s at prices from $450,000 to $1 million.
The fair continues until Sunday. The sun, one hopes, will make an appearance before then.
Sarah Douglas and Andrew Russeth contributed reporting.