A Slow and Steady Art Basel

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1954, at Marlborough.


“Slow and steady wins the race” could have been the slogan for the 43rd edition of Art Basel, which opened with a two-day-long VIP preview for the first time this year. The staggered openings consisted of three preview slots (“1st Choice” on Tuesday at 11am, a second slot at 3pm the same day, and a third on Wednesday at 11am) and gave collectors plenty of face-to-face interactions with dealers and more time to make informed decisions.

Evidently, the strategy was a success, as two major deals were closed by the fair’s second preview day: Andy Warhol’s large diamond dust-covered silkscreen Joseph Beuys (1980), by New York’s Acquavella for approximately $10 million, and Gerhard Richter’s large-scale colorful abstract painting A.B. Courbet (1986), by the Pace Gallery, for $20 million. “We had the best fair ever, although it started slow,” representatives of Pace (London, New York, Hong Kong) told A.i.A.

However, not everyone was happy with the new entry system. Fair veteran Paula Cooper described the atmosphere among collectors during the 1st Choice preview as “confused,” and, though happy with this year’s edition overall, Berlin’s Max Hetzler told A.i.A., “I miss the typical first-day Basel buzz.” Annett Gelink, the only regular Dutch participant during the past few years, observed that “there were less contemporary art collectors in the first hours than usual,” and Michael Kewenig (Cologne), among others, criticized that letting the fair organizers invite the collectors, rather than the dealers, “partly impersonalized” the VIP invitations. Some gallerists, like Berliner Ulrich Gebauer (Carlier Gebauer), had to promise their collectors a rare ticket for the 1st Choice slot next year, “almost as a pre-condition for the sale of a work.”

The highlight of the fair was Mark Rothko’s stunning untitled 1954 painting, an over 7-foot-tall orange-and-white piece “from the formative moment of the mature Rothko period,” according Andrew Renton, director at Marlborough. Renton added that he was really surprised to meet a new potential client for the $78-million painting on the second day of the fair. “It’s someone we didn’t even have on our radar. There are only a handful of collectors that can afford this kind of piece.”

Hilde Teerlinck, director of the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais in France, was buying for the collection, but didn’t quite have the budget for the Rothko. Nevertheless, she excitedly told A.i.A. that she had “just bought a series of letters written by Marcel Broodthaers for just over $1,200 from Jan Mot (Brussels).” Gmurzynska (Zurich) reported the sale of Wifriedo Lam’s large painting Figure Assise (Anamu), 1943, for between $2-3 million, and also sold close to a dozen works by lesser-known talents like the Finish artist Jani Leinonen and Rotraut, from Germany.

Tony Shafrazi’s booth also caused a stir. The New York-based stalwart, who in 1974 infamously spray-painted over Picasso’s Guernica, decided to exhibit his own work. So for the first nine hours of the fair he presented a solo booth with works by Tony Shafrazi. He had started out as an artist in the 1960s and “he briefly worked as a building contractor,” New York dealer Brooke Alexander told me. On the second day Shafrazi added a large Jean-Michel Basquiat tarpaulin and a few Andy Warhol prints to the outside of his booth. Had he given in to peer pressure? “The works hadn’t arrived on time” was the answer given by one of his staff when A.i.A. posed this question. Few of his colleagues took his booth as a provocation, with most dealers, like Viktor Gisler of Mai 36 (Zürich) and Max Hetzler, commenting that “Tony is always good for a surprise.” Paula Cooper even called it “a brave move,” and fondly remembered meeting him in London in the late 1960s, “back when he was still an artist.”