Art Basel 2010: From Switzerland, With Relief

I was sitting with Brooke Alexander in his stand on the second floor at Art 41 Basel when a youngish man approached. The veteran Soho dealer arose and entered, head bent, into a muttered discussion. A FedEx delivery was shortly organized to the Gulf. And a Jenny Holzer would soon be off the wall. Mr. Alexander resumed his seat, smiling. “You see,” he said. “There are real sales.”

Trying to make sense of an art fair, either as a business system or as a window into cultural change, is like sailing through a fog, straining to interpret the noises and flashing lights. Toward the enervating end of a fair, though, the fog lifts somewhat, dimness hardens into substance and rumors either dissipate-or crystallize into fact. Many of the 303 art dealers who arrived at Art 41 Basel last week had approached the huge annual event with caution, or worse. They suspected that the spring’s auction successes were fragile, generated by a handful of trophy hunters, and did not represent a more widespread clambering onto firmer ground.

By the close of the event Sunday, well, it was not as it was a few years ago at the world’s largest contemporary art fair. But compared with last year’s ill-concealed gloom, it was up, up, up. The organizers claimed a record 62,500 visitors, nosing ahead of the Miami sister to this fair, held every December. Those who could be spotted traversing the Messeplatz and the subsidiary events included Dasha Zhukova, Peter Brant and the Rubell clan, actor Val Kilmer and Bianca Jagger; museum honchos like Nick Serota and the metamorphosed Jeffrey Deitch; auctioneers like Brett Gorvy; Manhattan mega-dealers Marc Glimcher, David Zwirner and Tony Shafrazi; and artists Christo, Richard Phillips, Agnes Varda, Gavin Turk and Rob Pruitt.

In that company, some of the keenest signs of art-world health are unsubtle, a mixture of gossip and business news. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, for example, seems to be redecorating. “It’s gone superbly well for us. Roman Abramovich bought a huge amount. In front of everybody,” bubbled Subhas Kim Kandasamy of Carpenters Workshop, which was showing wares at the design fair. (A buzzing sculpture that incorporated live bees by sssss, among his choices.)

He’s redoing his home?

“Moscow. Not London anymore,” he said, then led me to You Fade To Light by the design collective Random International 2009. It captures the image of whomever wanders within its force field with a system of light-emitting diodes.

What if the system gets cranky?

“We’ll come around to anyone’s house. Anywhere in the world. For two years,” he promised.

So, back to the main fair, where the flash did not fizzle after opening day, Miami-style, and the crush, if anything, intensified.

“Nobody was haggling this year, nobody,” marvelled Chelsea’s Carolina Nitsch. “They really want something, Anthony. Or they don’t.” Ms. Nitsch, who deals largely in works on paper and editions, said, “We have sold at all price levels between $5,000 and $250,000.” By day three of the fair, White Cube had sold five Antony Gormleys at about $250,000 apiece, and had sold two of Damien Hirst’s new canvases.

But, as always, what dealers say is less compelling than what they do. It was nice, for instance, to hear Sarah Watson of Upper East Side Gallery L&M say that they had sold a Paul McCarthy and some William Kentridges-“Several large drawings and a tapestry”-but it was more convincing to learn that Ms. Watson would shortly be heading up a new L&M space in Venice Beach. “We open in September with a Paul McCarthy show,” she said. “The same week as LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)” opens a show.

So, blue chips sold predictably well but there are more interesting symptoms of the system’s health than sales. There has been some feeling that the art world has has become just a system for trading brand-name luxury goods on its high plateaux with little benefit to the cultural eco-system at large. But, at Basel , there were plenty of signs that the klieg light was also falling on younger, or lesser-known, artists.

Maxime Falkenstein at Barbara Gladstone Gallery showed me a line of watercolors by an artist unknown to me, Cecilia Edefalk: delicate watercolors of breasts. “We just started working with her. She’s from Sweden,” he said. “We sold them all.” Ms. Nitsch showed me some work by another artist I had never heard of, Alyson Shotz, who had some small metal pieces on the wall. “She’s not known in Europe at all,” she said. “They are magnetic. I have to tell people, don’t go too close if you wear a pacemaker.”

Anthony James, a new recruit to Los Angeles gallery Patrick Painter and the gallery sold five of birch-trunk-and-infinity-mirror installations at between $75,000 and $125,000 apiece.  Well, yes, James is a friend but he’s in some notable collections. Other semi-known artists to get thoroughly appropriate attention were the Spanish artiist Alicia Framis for her funny/poignant installation-cum-video, Le Petit-Prince-like Lost Astronaut and the terrifically talented Nathalie Djurberg, a Swedish woman artist, whose darkly comic animated movies, seen in the skeleton-packed Natural History Museum, were for me one of the stand-outs of the entire event.

There are even subtler signs of health, too. Day four, I asked Bernard Jacobson, the Cork Street gallerist, how he was doing.

“It’s been fantastic!” he mock-exulted, adding: “I sold two Motherwells. But I bought three.”

I misunderstood. “Brought?” I asked.

“Bought!” he said.

When dealers buy, well, that is a good sign.

As the Basel furor wound down, I lunched in the VIP Room, which was still busy, but not as it had been on opening day. “We did 1,200 lunches on Tuesday,” the barman told me.

And today? Four hundred?

His hand descended like a helicopter.

“Less, I think,” he said.

Closing days are closing days. And nights. On Saturday night, the thrumming and gossipy Kunsthalle had metamorphosed into a drably faceless noise machine. On Sunday morning, there were still latecomers getting credentials but an end-of-term-at-boarding-school melancholy hung around the corridors of the main fair, and the only energy was generated by dealers trying to pump one last sale through their iPhones. (“I can go down to 1.1. 750,000? Sorry, m’dear! Let’s meet in the middle!”) Yet, some of these eleventh-hour discounts proved successful. Happily, everyone, or seemingly almost everyone, packed up and moved onto Simon de Pury’s glorious wedding party.

It is, of course, possible that hard times will return. Brooke Alexander, just for one, believes it may be a double dip, and he’s been around long enough to have a sense of such things. But overall, dealers at Basel were just too exhausted to force the smiles, and, yes, they were smiling. The general sense was that the future was looking rosier. The recent auction results had not been generally trusted as reliable indicators, but now there was a second round of fair sales (and some good auctions in Paris and London). Art Basel had been good. So, too, may be the fall.

Art Basel 2010: From Switzerland, With Relief