European Pilgrimage: On the Well-Worn Art Route, from Paris to Basel

The annual summer art tour is finally over. It was bookended by the Venice Biennale and the mega-fair Art Basel

Leviathan (2011) by Anish Kapoor.

The annual summer art tour is finally over. It was bookended by the Venice Biennale and the mega-fair Art Basel and included a few stops in between. Basel was packed with collectors and dealers and was very successful, with art changing hands at the fastest pace we’ve seen since ’07. If the art market isn’t 90 percent back to the good old days it’s damn close.

But I don’t obsess over art fairs; instead I go to museums where there’s nothing to buy but plenty to learn.

In Basel, the Beyeler Foundation is always my first stop. Director Sam Keller followed up last year’s Basquiat blockbuster show with a tag team extravaganza: “Constantin Brancusi-Richard Serra.” The show included so many rarely seen works that it wowed everyone … everyone except me.

Brancusi defined the abstraction of form that announced the beginning of modern sculpture, and the show presented multiple versions of signature works like Bird in Space and The Kiss. My favorite was the five-foot-high wood sculpture Adam and Eve, in which two abstracted gaping mouths over a phallic form sit on top of a zigzag pedestal that combines Coptic architecture with influences from African Lega sculpture. Unlike some classic works that are overexposed, Brancusi’s sculptures never look kitsch, not because they defined history, but because their sober reduction of form gives them a powerful religious aura. Mr. Serra, too, is an artist I grudgingly love. Although his work is somewhat repetitive, it succeeds in being at once heavy and light even though his scale is monumental: he makes you feel like his art is designed to last forever, and it probably will—the beautiful Corten steel it’s made of weighs tons.

Despite being shoved into the Beyeler’s low-ceilinged galleries, the amazing Serra works looked good, but the pairing of these two great artists didn’t work for me. I see the benefit of refreshing century-old works by mixing them with those of a living master, but with these two I don’t understand what was achieved. I asked several dealers this question and read the exhibition catalogue but the only affinities I could find were the medium—sculpture—and the fact that both artists’ sculptures involve precarious balance: Brancusi’s Bird in Space looks like it’s just on the verge of tipping over and Mr. Serra’s huge, twisting, steel slabs appear like they are just about to topple over, like giant dominos.

On the whole, the pairing reminded me of last year’s failed blockbuster The Tourist, a film starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in Venice: both stars were hot, but they had no chemistry. If a fresh dialogue was the point of the show, I think a Brancusi-Carl Andre match would have worked better. Mr. Andre’s still the dark and unsung hero of American minimalism. He was tried and acquitted of murdering his artist wife, Ana Mendieta, in 1988 and most museums won’t touch him, but his works are sober and powerful, the wooden railroad ties he uses are no doubt directly inspired by Brancusi, and his metal floor pieces wouldn’t tower over Brancusi’s more delicate scale. Apparently Mr. Andre even knew Brancusi in the 1950’s. Mr. Andre’s moment in the spotlight will have to wait until 2013, when the Dia Foundation gives the 76-year-old his first American retrospective in 40 years.

Paris is my favorite city, so everything there looks better to me. This was sadly not the case with “l’Art de l’Automobile” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, an exhibition dubbed “masterpieces from the Ralph Lauren car collection.” I’m a vintage car lover and I’ve owned some pretty nice Italian and French pre- and postwar rust boxes, though nothing as good as what Mr. Lauren has. I drive mine every weekend, and his look like they haven’t been started in a decade: the collection is probably the most overrestored and underdriven group of blue-chip collector status symbols in the world.
Unlike their European counterparts, American collectors are known to buy only perfect examples of just about everything. They won’t buy an African sculpture with a broken arm or a Khmer torso if it’s headless. They don’t want imperfections or aging in their Art Deco, or a Mondrian painting with its original cracks and patina. And so, when selling to the Americans, dealers restore the arms and fill in the paint on the Mondrians. Like them, Mr. Lauren has overrestored his cars, with chrome shinier and leather more supple than any car offered in the past century, including those of the great Ettore Bugatti. The fact that American collectors have favored the overrestored stuff for decades says something about our American culture: we refuse to accept things, as the French say, “dans son jus”; instead we clean them up and present them devoid of aging and wrinkles (think face lift).

European Pilgrimage: On the Well-Worn Art Route, from Paris to Basel