La Fée Culturelle in Art Basel, Basel

I hear lots of criticism of art fairs, but to me it’s a great forum to see as much art as possible under one roof, usually well curated. Two years ago I set out to explore them. I’ve been a regular at Frieze, the London Art Fair, Art14-15 and Masterpiece thanks to their London locations. Further afield, I made my first trips to Art Basel Miami, Mi-art (Milan), Art Brussels (my favourite so far), and Art Paris. A few weeks ago I added Art Basel to the list.

I was looking forward to Basel as my art acquaintances had insisted that Art Basel in Basel is the “real thing”, the quality art fair, of the Art Basel shows (as opposed to sister fairs in Miami and Hong Kong).


Day 1: Art Basel, Kunsthalle Mulhouse (Jorge Méndez Blake)

I had a day off work and took an early flight on Friday. Right from the start it was clear the show hadn’t been overhyped. “Art Basel Basel” had attracted higher-quality galleries. Approximately 300 galleries, with examples from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa show artworks, in eights “sectors”. ‘Galleries’ (>200 modern & contemporary leading art galleries) presented the top names, while ‘Statements’ presented young/emerging artists, and the immersive Biennale-like ‘Unlimited’ section. I tried to squeeze in as much as I could and visited about 76 gallery booths and the full Unlimited sector.

I think the quality bias may result from a high share of modern art on sale. There was more modern art vs contemporary art than I expected: plenty of kinetic art, Zero artists, Gutai (modern/contemporary incl. Kazuo Shiraga), plus Picassos and Calders. Some of the contemporary pieces made me ask: is there an inverse relationship between price and cost of production? Looking at Carol Bove’s works at David Zwirner, it seemed like the answer was yes. 

My cynicism evaporated once I saw the captivating works by Robert Longo. The fair had some unusual examples of his work, like Untitled (New Cross), 1991, a sculpture made of lead on wood, at Gallery Hans Mayer. Louise Bourgeois’ Fountain Couple at Gallery Karsten Greve was also a refreshing surprise.  

   Robert Longo, Untitled (New Cross), 1991

 Louise Bourgeois, Fountain Couple 

I also enjoyed seeing works from, amongst others, Francis Bacon (Man in Blue VI 1954, at Van de Weghe), Robert Gober, Ugo Rondinone (neununtermarzzweitausendundfunfzehn 2015, Gladstone), Dan Flavin (Untitled, ‘to Bob and Pat Rohm’, 1969, Acquavella), and Maria Lassnig (Iron Virgin and Fleshy Virgin at Petzel). I enquired about only one work but ended up not buying it: Karl Haendel ‘Orrin (M/S #1)’ at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (25,000$).

 KARL HAENDEL Orrin (M/S #1) 2015  

At the Gisèle Linder booth, I felt more confident in my previous acquisition of a painting by Luo Mingjun (b. 1963) after seeing Dans le temps 1 on show at the Basel-based gallery. Finally, I took a selfie in Martin Kippenberger ‘Mary Wigman’ 1987 with in the reflection François Morellet ‘Grille se déformant par mouvement électrique’ 1965.


On my way to the shuttle to Kunsthalle in Mulhouse, I heard my name called and had a pleasant surprise… it was my art fair friend A, who I met in Art Brussels! We caught up on our respective art adventures and she offered some hot tips on Art Basel sightseeing (and parties) since she had arrived a few days before.   Just across the border to France at the Kunsthalle, we saw a solo exhibition by Mexican artist Jorge Méndez Blake (born 1974) ‘Projets pour une Possible Littérature’ (until 23 August 2015). The artist was there to explain to us how architecture is a significant influence on his works, having practised architecture earlier in his career. In his Mulhouse exhibition the influence was obvious as he cleverly blended architecture, literature and art.


Jorge Méndez Blake, ‘Projets pour une Possible Littérature’

I ended the evening in the bad-food/slow-and-rude-service/but-place-to-be Kunsthalle in Basel with A as well as Mr BB who arrived from London later in the evening. 


Day 2: Art Basel, Unlimited, Louise Bourgeois (Salon), Claire Morgan

Two questions as I started the day: why do so many visitors dress up like they are going to a party and what are gallerists doing on their phone all day? I pondered the questions before going to Unlimited, my highlight of the fair. Unlimited aims to be an exhibition platform challenging the classical art-show stand. I believe it is unique to Art Basel Basel, and I like the way it feels less like an art fair and more like the Venice biennale. The show is highly immersive and displays immense sculptures, paintings and installations, as well as videos, which I warmed to. I lost track of time and ended up spending several hours there.

I was hypnotised by Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, a seven-minute triptych film on the 60-70s counterculture and queer iconography. Not far away, Spencer Finch had a smart work on show, recreating the play of light and shadow on his studio’s walls Light in an Empty Room (Studio at Night).


 Spencer Finch, Light in an Empty Room (Studio at Night)

I interrupted my Unlimited viewing to listen to a talk on Louise Bourgeois in the Salon nearby (panel: Jerry Gorovoy, President, Louise Bourgeois’s Easton Foundation, New York; Ulf Küster, Curator, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen; Moderator: José Lebrero Stals, Artistic Director, Museo Picasso Málaga, Málaga). Louise Bourgeois is one of my favourite artists and I feel a connection with her, even more so since the exhibitions of her Insomnia drawings at the Fruitmarket Gallery and Louise Bourgeois, A Woman Without Secrets at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Louise Bourgeois is an apt choice for Art Basel Salon as she links modern and contemporary art. She is truly both French and American, sometimes using French and English in the same sentence, well educated in French literature, while embracing American freedom to do “un-French” works.

Louise Bourgeois is a feminist artist but distanced herself from political pieces which would not hold universal meaning, explained Jerry Gorovoy, her long-time assistant and friend. It was an extraordinary opportunity to listen to him (or to try to listen to him; he needs to learn to stand nearer to the microphone!). Louise Bourgeois received recognition only late in life, as in addition to a male dominated art world, she faced mental health issues which prevented her from getting close to the public, according to Gorovoy. He also believes that the absence of “signature” style made Bourgeois more difficult to comprehend. He also added that Louise Bourgeois also tended to look ahead to her next work rather than trying to manage market perception of her current works.


I was surprised to learn that she was a gallerist, although this was short lived. She sold mostly prints, including works by Bonnard. The panel highlighted that she was fond of Bonnard and liked his domestic settings. The latter could have inspired her Cell works. Separately, Gorovoy said she felt conflicted about being a mother, often felt guilt for being a bad mother, and in fact looking for a mother. This resonated with me and I understood why maternity were such an important recurring topic in her works. Tracey Emin attended the talk but didn’t ask any questions, which is a shame as I would have been interested to hear her take on these issues.  

I went back to Unlimited. Kader Attia Arab Spring recollects the failure of the Arab Spring, as well as the new hope at the time. Pascale Marthine Tayou presented tree branches carrying plastic bags instead of flowers to show the harmony between nature and device. 

  Kader Attia, Arab Spring, 2014

  Pascale Marthine Tayou, Plastic Tree, 2014

Later in the evening, Mr BB and our art fair friends went to Fondation Fernet-Branca in Saint-Louis, France, which was hosting a solo show of Irish artist Claire Morgan (born 1980) Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better (until 15 November 2015). I was very excited about her show after I enthusiastically discovered her works at Art Basel Miami at Galerie Karsten Greve, the gallery that represents her. I also went on a recent Paris trip to see her show at Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, though that show was disappointing in the low number of works shown and dark settings. 

  Claire Morgan with ‘If you go down to the woods today’

Claire Morgan was present at Fondation Fernet-Branca and I was probably the visitor asking the most questions, encouraged by her charm and lovely personality. I loved every piece in the show. Morgan was interested from the first by the disturbing aspect of insects, although her initial ideas were not as complex as her works are now. When asked the reason behind her interest in animals, she spontaneously answered “Human people are not nice!” and most of all, she is interested in the world around us: we [humans] are animals. She conceded If you go down to the woods today is her most complicated work, as she doesn’t use any computer and makes dots on sheets of paper instead. 

  Claire Morgan, If you go down to the woods today

I noted she used the word “sculpture” when describing her works, as opposed to installation and anecdotally, that her works “fold” easily for transport – she has not had any entangling problems to date! Some drawings were also shown although she insisted her drawings were not necessarily preparatory. She came to drawing later – after sculpture – and both can take different directions. 

  Claire Morgan, Gone to Seed

Day 3: Fondation Beyeler (Gauguin and Marlene Dumas), Schaulager 

We started the day with Gauguin (not on view anymore), his “fauve” colours and Nabi contouring. I noted the lack of depth in his paintings, only shown by the size of his characters, and the shadows and moves of water depicted by colour planes as well as Cezanne-like touches.

Gauguin aimed to represent the idyllic and symbolic Tahiti. I had seen many Tahiti works from Gauguin previously – a number of which are owned by Russian museums – at the Grand Palais exhibition ‘L’Atelier des Tropiques’ in 2003-04, in addition to his Brittany paintings at Musée du Luxembourg in 2003. I saw those exhibitions before my first trip to Cambodia and Gauguin’s tropical skies reminded me of my origins. 

Paul Gauguin, Horsemen at the beach (II), 1902, Private Collection

Seeing Gauguin at Fondation Beyeler felt like catching up with an old friend. In addition, a few works from private collections made the exhibition worthwhile, including Pape moe Eau mystérieuse; source mystérieuse and Cavaliers sur la plage (II)

I decided against seeing Marlene Dumas (until September 6, 2015), also on show at Fondation Beyeler as we had limited time and had already seen in London. However, I couldn’t resist having at least a peek at the exhibition, “version Beyeler”.

I was surprised at how many works were not in the London show (for instance The Sleep of Reason and Brain Drain) and wondered if Tate may have censored some works. Although it felt like a different exhibition to me, the exhibition bears the same title «The Image as Burden» and was realized together with Tate Modern and the Stedelijk Museum.  

The exhibition subtitle The Image as Burden is taken from a small painting replicating a film still showing a dying heroine carried by her lover. It symbolises Marlene Dumas’ relation to her source imagery: “the challenge of working with an image that becomes an artwork”. Read more…
A flammkuchen later, eaten in a taxi, we arrived at Schaulager, a warehouse for the open storage of contemporary art designed by Herzog & de Meuron, which currently holds works from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation (until 31 January 2016). 

Works bought by Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin became modern art classics and show how she was a visionary collector, for instance favouring Joseph Beuys at an old age. The monumental and unexpected installations from Katharina Fritsch and Robert Gober (similar to the installation in the MoMA show) constituted the “pieces de resistance” – it is worth visiting just for those two! 

  Katharina Fritsch, Rattenkonig

I also saw an artist recalling Noemie Goudal, Thomas Demand, who began as a sculptor and engaged in photography to record his ephemeral paper constructions.

I will be back! Next year’s Art Basel will be held on June 16–19 2016.

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