In mid-June, during the annual art fair here, an enormous banner hung opposite Basel’s convention center. The banner listed the current exhibitions in the canton’s museums as if to say, “Remember us?”
Art fairs, with their frothy nimbus of money and celebrity, have lately been stealing fire from museums. But this year was different for Basel’s cornerstone institution, the 80-year-old Kunstmuseum, which had just completed an ambitious expansion in April. The elegant extension, designed by Basel-based architects Christ & Gatenbein, lacks the flexible room dividers so ubiquitous in other new museum buildings such as the Whitney. But as art historian Mechtild Widrich points out in her essay for a book devoted to the new building, the real contrast here is with the art fair, that most ephemeral of exhibition spaces. Couldn’t our jittery, pack-up-and-go-to-the-next-place art world use a dash of permanence?
Aptly, the first exhibition within the Kunstmuseum’s unbudgeable walls was a survey of sculpture, the medium that, due to space limitations and shipping costs, you are least likely to encounter in great quantity at art fairs. A sequel to the Kunstmuseum’s 2002 show “Painting on the Move,” “Sculpture on the Move 1946–2016” followed sculpture as it came off the pedestal, abandoned the museum, and finally embraced materials and techniques that rendered the term “sculpture” itself insufficient to describe it.
Giacometti’s small 1950 bronze L’homme qui chaivre (Falling Man), a figure that seems about to tumble off its base, made a clever start to the exhibition. Nearby is the artist’s La jambe (The Leg) from 1958, which sits squarely on its pedestal but hints that sculpture will soon be standing on its own two feet. Answering it, past a room of Arp and Calder, was Louise Bourgeois’s 1949 Pillar, a totem in blue-and-white painted wood whose support has shrunk to a small metal plate; the piece appears to rise directly from the floor.
In an appropriately transitional space—a stairwell gallery presided over by Christ & Gatenbein’s huge oculus, perhaps a nod to the one gracing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York—followed a quick segue to the 1960s. Here were two key sculptural disruptions: A film by D. A. Pennebaker captures Jean Tinguely’s sculpture-as-performance Homage to New York (1960), in which a jury-rigged machine violently self-destructs in MoMA’s sculpture garden; in a photograph of Allan Kaprow’s 1961 Yard, a riotous pile of rubber tires in the backyard of Betty Parsons’s gallery that famously blurred art and life, Kaprow’s jubilant expression as he shows it off to a colleague is worth the price of admission. Nearby sat an impassive stack of 1964 Warhol Brillo boxes, the very same ones that had a tough time passing through Canadian customs for a Warhol show in 1965 because the Canadian National Gallery’s director refused to grant them the status of “sculpture.”
The 1960s and ’70s, the decades that saw sculpture get its groove on, were the heart of this show. The street came into the museum: a wall was given over to George Segal’s ghostlike 1970 plaster figures of Bowery bums, one leaning against a section of boarded-up storefront, smoking, the other passed out in front of it. So did the supermarket: over in a corner, Claes Oldenburg’s colorful 1961–62 Stove with its droopy groceries played the funk to Segal’s folk. In the show’s most arresting juxtaposition, Duane Hanson’s hyperrealistic 1975 Man With Hand Cart shared space with Ellsworth Kelly’s elegant 1963 fold of painted metal, Blue Red Rocker—proof that in these decades anything went, from the sublimely abstract to the incontrovertibly gritty.
And what would such a survey be without the jaunty movements of Gilbert & George (who introduced neo-Dada song and dance in their Signing Sculpture, 1970) or the broad sweeps of Robert Smithson (whose Spiral Jetty of the same year represented Land Art’s adieu to the museum)? Trumping all of it, though, was Eva Hesse’s Untitled (1970), a group of translucent fiberglass and resin shapes that rose like alien life-forms higher than a human.
The unnerving corporeality of Hesse’s work found more definitive expression in a gallery devoted to sculpture from the 1980s. Aside from some small Franz Wests and Jeff Koons’s classic stainless steel Rabbit (1986), the exhibition largely focused on the latter part of the decade and its concern with identity politics and the body. Standing sentinel in the middle of the room, Charles Ray’s life-size Male Mannequin (1990) appeared to be a perfectly ordinary store mannequin save, crucially, for its genitals, which are modeled—meticulously—on Ray’s own. Where, the piece asks, does stock imagery of bodies end and real bodies begin?
Two works in this section of the show took advantage of the corner, usually sculpture’s dead space. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1990 pile of candies—taken by visitors and continuously replenished by museum staff—is the exact weight of his late lover’s body at the time of his death from AIDS. Martin Kippenberger’s 1989 self-portrait has the artist facing the junction of two walls as if in shame, his face hidden from view.
A short walk down to the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart (formerly known as the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, it was rechristened when the expansion opened) the show moved into the ’90s and beyond. Beyond, indeed. Sculpture is now so thoroughly unmoored from its base that Rirkrit Tiravanija can park a car in the museum and show, next to it, a film made by sticking a camcorder out one of its windows during a journey.
Taking center stage at the Gegenwart was Cellule no. 5 (1992), one of the live-in sculptures that the Israeli-born French artist Absalon completed a few years before he died of AIDS at age 28. A cylindrical bunker with narrow windows—he intended to dwell in these himself, in various cities—it resonates with today’s interest in tiny houses. Concerned with architecture in a different way was Monika Sosnowska’s insect-like handrail toying with the conventions of Soviet-era buildings, a piece that brings me to my one real complaint about “Sculpture on the Move.” Out of 59 artists in the show, only 7 were women: 12 percent is a poor grade in 2016. Any number of women could have had a place here, from Niki de Saint Phalle, Louise Nevelson, Lee Bontecou, Alice Aycock, and Barbara Hepworth to Roni Horn, Doris Salcedo, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lynda Benglis, Lygia Clark, Marisol, and Meret Oppenheim. Whenever sculpture’s on the move, women do a lot of the moving.
Danh Vo’s 2011–14 We the People was as good a note as any on which to end. Here was a re-created actual-size fragment of the Statue of Liberty. One imagines Lady Liberty in full, exploding out of the room, out of the museum, out onto the street, tipping toward the Rhine, heavy, both physically and symbolically, too expansive to fit in any space. Where does sculpture go from here? What’s its next move?
Perhaps sculpture’s next move is applying the ’80s interest in the body to our interactions with technology, as in the work of Yngve Holen. The 34-year-old German made a splash at the Kunsthalle Basel with abstract pieces constructed from items with which our bodies regularly interact: sections of fencing, parts of MRI machines, scooter headlights. A Porsche Panamera sliced in four, while impressive, was somehow less affecting than the sliced teakettles—called Parasagittal Brains—Holen has shown in the past. But truly new for the artist was an actual representation of the human body, a collaboration with the musician who has renamed himself Aedrhlsomrs Othryutupt Lauecehrofn (AOL), which consisted of 3-D digital prints of the artists’ faces and vocal chords lining a small room and emitting long, dissonant “A” and “O” sounds.
If sculpture’s next move is a reconsideration of 20th-century history, then it’s being made by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch and Belarusian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Alexej Koschkarow, who teamed up a third time for an exhibition at the Schaulager consisting of just five sculptures and a few drawings installed in a specially designed structure. Fritsch’s Day-Glo coffin and maidens (the latter based on traditional corn husk dolls) met Koschkarow’s ceramic stove (which doubled as an exploding grenade), as well as one sculpture evoking a Nazi guard tower and another, smaller, one of a Jewish ghetto that seemed to limp away on rickety legs.
Or maybe forget about whose move it is, and just savor the pairing of Fischli/Weiss with Alexander Calder in the marvelous, why-didn’t-someone-think-of-this-earlier exhibition “Alexander Calder & Fischli/Weiss” at the Fondation Beyeler. Beyeler curator Theodora Vischer has given these artists, as familiar and beloved as good books, an entirely fresh reading. The underlying theme was precarious balance, whether in Calder’s delicate hanging arrangements of wood, metal, and wire or in Fischli/Weiss’s photograph of a warty carrot atop two others, the whole propped up by two forks and a cheese grater.
Snoozing outside the first gallery were Fischli/Weiss’s recumbent Rat and Bear, stuffed costumes (worn for a film) equipped with animatronic technology so that they appear to sleep, their tummies rising and falling. Above them drifted a Calder mobile. The last time many of us saw Rat and Bear, they were lying in the atrium of the Guggenheim as part of the recent Fischli/Weiss retrospective there. They looked more comfortable at the Beyeler; Calder’s gently fluttering mobile could as easily have been the breeze-rustled branches of a tree as the motion of the cosmos.
Next, a group of Fischli/Weiss’s 2009–12 “Walls, Corners, Tubes” (exactly those shapes, made of unfired clay or cast black rubber and mounted on plinths) led, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to Calder’s spindly 1936 sculpture Tightrope, a wire supporting four vaguely anthropomorphic metal forms. Beckoning one onward was Fischli/Weiss’s tiny, pedestal-mounted sculpture of a drunken mouse leaning against a streetlight, the one example here from their celebrated series “Suddenly This Overview,” and a friendly warning that this show was going to be more than a little tipsy.
Tightrope was a clue that the circus had rolled into town, and there it was in the next gallery, where a film showed Calder manipulating the tiny wire-and-cloth performers he made for his tabletop Circus, 1926–1931 (sadly, the real thing is too fragile to leave its permanent home at the Whitney Museum). A few of the little figures, including a dog with a clothespin body, shared space with a crude crayon drawing Calder made at age nine of himself surrounded by tools—a coping saw, a hammer, a brace, a pair of pincers. The artists came from different worlds and eras—Calder, born at the tail end of the 19th century, earned an engineering degree and worked as a fireman in a ship’s boiler room before becoming an artist; Fischli and Weiss met in the late 1970s Zurich punk rock scene, when they were both around 30 years old—but they shared a tinkering sensibility, and a sense of the studio as a workshop or laboratory.
This sensibility is perhaps best exemplified in Calder’s work by his Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/33), in which displacing the larger, iron sphere causes the smaller, wooden one to move around the space, banging up against the objects arrayed around it (including a box, several bottles, a can, and a gong), and in Fischli/Weiss’s by The Way Things Go, their 1987 film of a massive Rube Goldberg–style chain-reaction contraption they set up in their studio (a sparkler sets fire to a fuse and releases a tire, which rolls down a ramp and knocks over a ladder before hitting an oil drum, setting in motion a toy car with a candle on it, which burns through a fuse—and so on).
All that tinkering had to lead somewhere, though, and the artists, in their different ways, pondered humans’ place in the universe. Calder collected bits of wood and other materials to create what Marcel Duchamp and James Johnson Sweeney called “constellations.” Fischli/Weiss projected hundreds of questions (“What good is the moon?”, “Are my feelings correct?”) in white against a black backdrop in a dark room. The exhibition concluded at its most its sublime. In Fischli/Weiss’s Rat and Bear (Mobile video), 2009, Rat and Bear have effectively become a Calder: they drift through the air, silhouetted against dust motes that approximate stars.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 138 under the title “Around Basel.”