FOR ALL ITS undeniable charm, Aarau is not an obvious destination on the art-world map. But there many of us were early on a sunny Sunday morning, hovering over a very orderly Swiss buffet brunch of käse and brot and kaffee. It’s possible that the art intelligentsia needed somewhere pleasant to cool their heels in between Zurich and Basel, and that Olten (poor Olten) just wasn’t cutting it. But pleasant’s not enough to draw Eva Presenhuber and Barbara Gladstone and Beatrix Ruf to your township. For that you need a kunst-something of some renown—here the Aargauer Kunsthaus—and you need a formidable show, in this case Ugo Rondinone’s “The Night of Lead.”
“You’re going to make Kelley Walker jealous!” joked Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, observing the painted brick-pattern covering the Kunsthaus’s glass-plate exterior. “Well we’re all indebted to Cady Noland,” Rondinone noted convivially, and he should know, having curated Noland into a show at the Palais de Tokyo three years back.
Rondinone was everywhere in Basel this year, his BIG MIND SKY rainbow text soaring above the Ramada on the Messeplatz, a massive wall of colored windows anchoring the rear wall of Art Unlimited. On Monday, the latter section opened at 4 PM, the week’s first real taste of the fair’s carnivalesque spirit. Attendees crammed into the cavernous space, grasping for flutes of champagne from the official sponsor, Ruinart. (“Ruin art, really?” asked a patron. The waiter corrected: “Roonärrt”—or something like that. “Okay, fine,” the patron responded impatiently. “But ruin art?”)
Left: Kunsthalle Zürich curator Beatrix Ruf. Right: Museum Ludwig director Kasper König with artist Katharina Sieverding.
“I’m so glad we’re in Art Unlimited,” said one dealer. “I was getting so bored with all the limited art.” There was a lot to see—too much for a preview, really—though it would have been a shame to miss the roomful of Sigmar Polke “Laterna Magica” paintings, his final project before his death, or the installation of Nancy Spero’s Cri du Coeur. Visitors lined up for film installations by Doug Aitken, Ryan Gander, and Agnès Varda too—while others shuffled out, wide-eyed, from Christian Marclay’s “filthy” (to quote one stunned viewer) video Solo, featuring a woman who undresses and plays a guitar with her…
That evening, everyone, as they say, seemed set for the Gladstone dinner feting Matthew Barney, Rondinone, and Rosemarie Trockel—a tony lineup for feting indeed. Collectors queued around 7 PM behind the Swissôtel Le Plaza, across from the creepy-looking “Crazy Sexy Center” (Basel’s red-light district isn’t very discreet), to wait for the coach service to the Reithalle Wenkenhof in Riehen, an impressive pile on the city’s outskirts, which, in autumns, is also home to the Basel Ancient Art Fair. (You thought Art Basel was the only one?)
Once we’d arrived and passed through the majestic gate, we decided the appropriate word for the mise-en-scène—verdant grounds and pleasingly expensive interiors—was splendid. The place also, somewhat ominously, recalled the set for Dynasty’s season-five cliff-hanger, the so-called Mordavian massacre, though this probably says more about our limited (i.e., mostly televisual) reference points for mansionlike settings, generally.
Left: Art Basel directors Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer. Right: Michael Werner’s Gordon VeneKlasen.
In any case, the crudités were also splendid, as were the guests: Here’s Peter Eleey, new curator at MoMA PS1, and Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, and the charming Nicholas Baume of Public Art Fund. There’s Neville Wakefield, who put together the exceptional (also splendid) Barney show at the Schaulager. (“We finally have an American Beuys,” raved collector Mera Rubell on seeing it.) And then, of course, there was Barney’s wife, Björk, a rather significant artist in her own right, wearing a weirdly elegant pumpkin-y dress. Collector Maja Hoffmann showed up near the end of the cocktail hour. “And now it’s time to eat,” said Team Gallery’s José Freire.
A parade of maybe a hundred walked to the “barn”—more like another mansion—and then to our assigned places. “Is this impressive or is this impressive?” Wachs asked, and we all knew what he meant. Flowers as weird and beautiful as the art lined the centers of the long tables. The aubergine salad was suitably dressed. I sat next to an intelligent Belgian collector, who admitted she prefers to buy art that’s already established. “And I don’t like to meet the artists,” she said sagely. “You might be disappointed.”
The next morning, under a cloudy sky, the crowds amassed, as they do every year, at the main entrance for the 11 AM First Choice view. There is, after all, so much choosing to do, and no one flies here to play seconds. The jostling and waiting to flash your card seemed particularly uncivilized this year. “Isn’t there a VIP entrance?” asked one clueless collector, not realizing that this was it. “Being a VIP on Tuesday is like being a Jew in Israel,” a writer later quipped.
The rich have their rituals, Art Basel among them. They also have “spendorphins,” a new term (not hers, she assured me) that I acquired from writer Sarah Thornton. Spendorphins seemed to be running freely this year. “No complaints—and for good reason!” Hauser & Wirth director Anna Helwing happily announced. (The “good reason” might have been a sale of a set of Paul McCarthy sculptures that sold Tuesday for $3 million.) Dealers weren’t taking low bidders, either. “I don’t bother with them,” one dealer sniffed at a pair of collectors. “Their limit is twenty thousand dollars—they can’t afford anything here.”
Since it’s not a Venice year, this fair was low on celebrity wattage: Bianca Jagger shipped in for her first Basel experience, and Val Kilmer hit the ground running with collector Peter Brant. (“I guess becoming an art collector is a better fate than Dancing with the Stars,” meowed one observer.) But then we spotted Jeanne Greenberg Rohaytn, who now has a reality show on Bravo—that counts, right?
The big advance news, at least for journalists, was the fair’s sophisticated new iPhone application, replete with an (actually functional) 3-D map. “We’re ranked number three in the ‘Productivity’ section,” bragged Art Basel director Marc Spiegler. “But does it show prices?” asked one perfervid journalist. “Look, you have to do some work,” Spiegler said. Demonstrating Apple’s complete dominance of the art market, the new de rigueur accessory on the booth this season was an iPad. Emmanuel Perrotin’s staff brandished them like the high-tech menus for art that they were, while 303 Gallery was slightly more discreet. “We thought we’d be the only ones,” said Carol Greene, looking at hers. “Maybe it’s a bit embarrassing now?”
Left: Metro Pictures’ Helene Winer and Tom Helman. Right: Dealer Gavin Brown with collector Dakis Joannou.
Eva Presenhuber’s booth gave good face. “This looks like a museum,” said one wowed reporter. “You have to be on the committee to get this kind of booth.” Team Gallery’s stand popped, too: “It’s black-and-white and Cory,” observed an artist, referring to Cory Arcangel’s massive Photoshop CS3 prints so bright they hurt your eyes. The big (both literally and artistically) standout of the fair, though, was Cindy Sherman’s strange new prints on PhotoT Tex adhesive fabric at Metro Pictures: just “her” gussied up and printed large on some intriguing new chiaroscuro landscapes of her own design. “She’s playing around with her props, just doing things for whatever reasons she does them,” the gallery’s Helene Winer said blithely. If only we could all play with such panache.
At 9 PM, after ten hours of Olympics-style cubicle-dashing, the fair ended with typical Swiss punctuality. There was still more to see and do—dinners for Marian Goodman and Emmanuel Perrotin, a “BallyLove” (?) party for Philippe Decrauzat. It seemed we arrived either too early or too late for everything, swooped quickly into (and out of) a Gavin Brown dinner around the corner from New Jerseyy’s compact space on Hüningerstrasse, and then on to the Perrotin shindig on Das Schiff. The crowd was dense, but our soles were wearing thin, so we taxied back to the Kunsthalle bar, where dealers danced with unselfconscious abandon in that way only Europeans can manage. I turned in early…ish—after all, the next day was Art Goes Brunch at the Schaulager, and contrary to popular Basel belief, it’s breakfast (not cocktails) that’s the most important meal of the day.
Left: Dealer Xavier Hufkens. Right: Writer Sarah Thornton, artist Ingar Dragset, and dealer Ludovica Barbieri.
Left: Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac. Right: 303 Gallery’s Lisa Spellman, Mari Spirito, Barbara Corti, and Mariko Munro.
Left: Donna De Salvo, chief curator at the Whitney Museum. Right: The cocktails at the Gladstone dinner.
Left: Dealer Anton Kern. Right: Artist Agnès Varda (left).
Left: Producer Carlos Quirarte with artist Nate Lowman. Right: The Breeder’s George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis.
Left: Collector Mera Rubell. Right: Dealer Lorenzo Fiaschi.
Left: Dealer Maureen Paley. Right: Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation.
Left: Jack Shainman gallery’s Katie Rashid. Right: Artist Philippe Decrauzat.