- September 29, 2021
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‘The mother of all art fairs’ is a hybrid of sorts, but the emphasis is on the in-person presentation in Switzerland.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, art fairs have gone through several permutations, from online only to fully in person, along with several varieties of hybrids.
To many in the art world, the format and fate of Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, the fair scheduled to take place from Friday to Sunday, is especially important, given that it is “the mother of all art fairs,” in the words of the London-based dealer Pilar Corrias.
“There are too many fairs around the world, and not all will survive,” Ms. Corrias said. “But we need Basel.”
The fair first took place in 1970 and now has editions in Miami Beach and Hong Kong.
More than 270 galleries are scheduled to show inside the Messe Basel exhibition hall — the first such gathering in Basel since 2019 — and, like the Hong Kong fair that took place in May, this one is actually a hybrid, with a concurrent online viewing room.
But the focus is on the return of the real-world event.
“The online component is limited to galleries who are physically at the fair,” said Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director. “The logic is that we want to extend the fair digitally rather than having two fairs.” (Art Basel will also have a purely digital event in November.)
Given the circumstances, Mr. Spiegler was especially proud of the robust number of galleries — 33 countries are represented — especially in the Parcours sector, which takes place around the city of Basel, and in Unlimited, the section for large-scale projects.
“Both require an extraordinary effort on the part of galleries,” he said. “The fact that we have 62 projects for Unlimited is especially impressive.”
For organizers, exhibitors and collectors who want to attend the fair, there are pandemic-related precautions. In addition, the hall’s capacity has been reduced and masks are required.
The upshot: “We’re running a safe event,” Mr. Spiegler said.
He noted that the precautions may encourage a more local crowd.
“We assume the fair will have a more European flavor,” Mr. Spiegler said. “I think the audience may be younger this year, too.”
For an event that once derived at least part of its appeal from its social scene, the tone may change as well.
“We’re expecting a pretty focused crowd,” Mr. Spiegler said. “People who come to an art fair under these conditions are really there for the art.”
He added, “It’s more about seeing art than being seen.”
The American philanthropist Pamela Joyner, known for her collection of works by Black artists and those of the African diaspora, said she planned to attend the fair “to talk to collectors and galleries who I don’t talk to all the time.”
There are some things, she said, “you can’t get online.”
Ms. Joyner, currently based in Nevada near Lake Tahoe, travels frequently and serves on many corporate and cultural boards, including that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“I have a particular fondness for Art Basel,” she said. “I think of it as part of my collecting tool kit.”
Among other benefits, it helps her stay ahead of the curve. Several years ago, Ms. Joyner said, she bought a work by the painter Jordan Casteel “before she was in the limelight.” (Ms. Casteel had a survey at the New Museum in New York last year.)
“It was figurative painting,” said Ms. Joyner, a frequent buyer of abstract works. “And I don’t buy a lot of those.”
Ms. Corrias, who has two gallery spaces in London and plans to expand to Shanghai next year, will be showing, among other works, a sculpture from Philippe Parreno’s “Fraught Times” series; it resembles a Christmas tree left out past its prime.
“It’s intricate and delicate, and it took him more than two years to make,” Ms. Corrias said, making it one work that needs to be seen in person. Hence her participation in the fair.
“It’s made of stainless steel but it looks real,” she said. “You cannot see that in a photograph. You have to stand in front of it.”
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the founder of the gallery Salon 94 in New York, agreed, saying: “Putting art in front of people is key. People are starved to look at art and stretch their eyes.”
Ms. Rohatyn will be showing art by Lisa Brice, Lyle Ashton Harris and Huma Bhabha, among others. Her booth will include photographs by Kwame Brathwaite, including “Untitled (Model who embraced natural hairstyles at AJASS photo shoot)” (circa 1970).
Mr. Brathwaite helped popularize the phrase “Black is beautiful.”
“He has a very precise eye,” Ms. Rohatyn said, adding that it would be fresh material for the Basel audience. “Europeans haven’t seen a lot of this work.”
Ms. Rohatyn recently announced that in January she would merge her business with that of three other top dealers, creating a hybrid gallery and art advisory called LGDR. Salon 94 will close out its fair slate at Shanghai’s West Bund fair in November and at Art Basel Miami Beach in December.
A less dramatic and disruptive collaboration is planned for the Basel fair by Sperone Westwater and David Nolan Gallery, both of New York. They are splitting a booth and creating provocative pairings from their respective exhibitions, under the title “Dialogues.”
“David Nolan and I were having lunch, and we said, ‘What are we going to do, how can we make this interesting?’” said Angela Westwater, one of Sperone Westwater’s founders. “So we’re playing a game and challenging each other.”
Some of the pairings are linked by aesthetic and medium, as with Susan Rothenberg’s “Red” (2008) and Georg Baselitz’s “Cebe” (1993), two oils on canvas that employ the color red.
Others, like a combination of a Bruce Nauman video and a collage by Barry Le Va, are connected thematically in that both look at the psychological effects of architectural spaces.
“We hope it’s as mesmerizing and challenging for others as it is for us,” said Ms. Westwater, who has been attending Art Basel since the 1970s.
In addition to veterans like Ms. Westwater, there are 24 galleries at Basel for the first time this year, including Isla Flotante of Buenos Aires, founded in 2011.
It concentrates on younger and midcareer artists, said one of its two directors, Leopol Mones Cazon.
The gallery has shown at Art Basel Miami Beach. “Now we want to deepen our ties to Europe,” Mr. Cazon said, a process that began in early 2020 but was “canceled by the pandemic.”
The gallery is showing a mixed media installation by the Bolivian artist Andrés Pereira Paz called “Ego Fvlcio Collvmnas Eivs [I Fortify Your Columns]” (2020).
The work — incorporating bird sounds, lights and thin metal sculptures, some in the shape of stars — addresses both environmental degradation and colonization. It was inspired by the 2019 appearance of a guajojó bird in La Paz, Bolivia, fleeing the fires destroying its Amazon habitat, and gained much attention in the media because it is traditionally thought to be a bad omen.
“The bodies of outer space are in a sad mood, looking at this destruction,” Mr. Cazon said. “It’s an apocalyptic scenario. But at the same time, it’s poetic.”