Three copper beeches, seven Persian ironwood trees, five pines and twenty bald cypresses: for six days, Parrotia persica and Pinus sylvestris and the other trees as the “Isle of Trees” donate not only shade but also oxygen in the circular courtyard of Hall 2 of the Basel exhibition center. Nature at the heart of the most important fair for contemporary and modern art is a revitalizing loan from Enzo Enea. For the past twelve years, the Swiss landscape architect and collector has been saving and nurturing nature on the extensive grounds of his “Tree Museum” near Zurich’s Obersee, fusing it with works such as the three-metre-tall, lilac-painted bronze sculpture “Nonne” by Ugo Rondinone to create a green, thriving oasis of contemplation and art.
Knowing full well that “fairs are not very environmentally friendly”, as Marc Spiegler admits as Global Director of Art Basel, the fair is now trying to make “sustainable accents” more visible with Enea’s beneficial mini-forest installation. Trees also occasionally play a role in the two halls at one or the other stand of the 289 gallery owners who have traveled from 40 countries. One of the monumental “Trees” by the Chinese artist dominates Ai Weiwei the booth of the Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider, a sculpture made of dead roots, twigs and branches from mountainous regions in southern China, which the artist composed into a Memento Mori homage to the value of nature and culture.
One can speculate that it was sold for a six-figure sum during the preview days – but the gallery does not name prices. Quite the opposite of the giants, but also medium-sized and smaller dealers in the market: According to the published lists and proud reports, the preview days were true million deal rallies! As usual, the sales are prepared in advance. In this way, even XXXL formats from the top-class “Art Unlimited” section could be placed: an art-historically important work by Félix González-Torres went to a collection in Asia at David Zwirner for 12.5 million dollars; Hauser & Wirth brokered an equally important work, Lorna Simpson’s “Wigs II” to an American institution for $595,000 and Peter Kilchmann is negotiating with a museum in the Emirates for Francis Alys’ sensational work, “Border Barriers Typology” for 1, 5 to 2 million dollars.
More must-sees here: Leonardo Drew’s explosive stack installation Chaos of our Time made of painted pieces of wood (Lelong, $650,000) and Jordan Wolfson’s phenomenal high-tech installation Artists Friends Racists, made of 20 3D holographic images that are spaced at intervals light up ($600,000).
A “spider” by Louise Bourgeois for 40 million dollars – already sold
Despite, or perhaps because of, falling stock prices, art is more in demand than ever as a top investment and at the same time as a key value of western democracy. This is confirmed by the 18 percent increase in sales of gallery owners in 2021 to $34.7 million, which is reported in the joint report of the fair with the Swiss bank UBS; this is also underpinned by record surcharges at auctions. The collectors, museum directors, curators, consultants and artists who arrived in pre-pandemic strength – mostly from Europe, the USA and again from Asia – make professional and committed decisions at the same time, and their means seem unlimited.
In light of the Ukraine war, more and more investors are realizing what really matters. In this respect, the work that has the highest price of the fair at $40 million, the “Spider” steel sculpture by the artist Louise Bourgeois from 1996, which spans the Hauser & Wirth stand with seven and a half meter high legs, is already at one European collection sold. The gallery is celebrating its 30th anniversary with its first female artist in the program and is opening a further and thus 16th branch in autumn – now in Paris. In addition, there were probably over 35 sales worth 75 million dollars in the first two days – more is not possible. So the departure of Simone Leigh to Matthew Marks, winner of a Golden Lion at the Biennale, whose sculpture sold immediately for a high six-figure sum, can also be overcome.
Gagosian, Ropac, Pace and Perrotin also boast historical bestsellers and lavish sales. The largest gallery in the world names over 40 sales at prices between around one and 20 million dollars for the first few days, including works by Picasso, Cy Twombly, John Currin and Urs Fischer. Ropac lists several degrees for Martha Jungwirth to (50,000-290,000 €), for Georg Baselitz (75,000-1.35 million €) or Robert Rauschenberg (3.5 and 1.5 million dollars). Pace passed on Joan Mitchell’s early ’60s Bergerie for $16.5 million; Objects from Jeff Koons’ moon phase NFT project also found new owners for $2,000 each.
[Art Basel; Messehalle, bis 19. Juni, www.artbasel.com]
Prices for superstars like Jordan Wolfson or Rashid Johnson have tripled within a few years; those for classics are even higher, such as the narrow, ten-metre-long digital print “930-2 Strip” (2013) by Gerhard Richter at the Marian Goodman booth ($4.8 million). The generally high price level also applies to works by younger artists such as the American painter Bunny Rogers, who ends her sold-out series “Joan” at the Berlin Galerie Société with a triptych (over €300,000). On the other hand, the paintings by Urs Meile by Miao Miao, who was born in Henan in 1986, are worth discovering and are still inexpensive. They depict figuratively stylized everyday scenes with a surreal touch ($10,000-20,000).
As good as the sales are, so are the costs of the galleries for the fair. In addition to the stand rentals of between 15,000 and more than 100,000 Swiss francs, there are costs for travel, transport, installations, hotels, dinners, parties, catering and security, which add up to half a million and more. But the financial input seems to be worth it. It is doubtful whether this also applies to the satellite fairs – Volta, June Art Fair and above all the list associated with Art Basel. With the exception of a few galleries, such as Emalin from London, Capsule from Shanghai, Francois Ghebaly (Los Angeles) and Nir Altman (Munich), the fair impresses above all with its solidarity for Ukrainian artists, to be seen at The Naked Room and Voloshyn from Kyiv. In order to develop a young gallery today, you need wealth and/or a moment, like the Somali-French dealer Mariane Ibrahim brings with her from Chicago with her gallery. She is exhibiting at Art Basel for the first time: stars like Amoako Boafo ($400,000) and Ian Mwesiga. Instead of the hype about African and Afro-American artists, she speaks of a necessary correction.
After the hustle and bustle at the main trade fair, you can hop across Lawrence Weiner’s pictograms applied to the pavement on the forecourt to Design Miami and relax here with exquisite objects by Jean Royère or George Jouve. Also very worthwhile.