Dealer Ernst Beyeler (seated) in his booth at Art Basel
I’ve always wanted to go to Art Basel. Now I have.
But I left the cavernous Swiss Exhibition Center with the same reaction I had at the Armory Show in New York last February:
I JUST CAN’T LOOK AT ART THAT WAY!
I got there a week ago Saturday, several days after the VIPs had come and gone, so most of the art I saw probably constituted second or third hangs, with the gallery booths, in many cases, staffed by second- and third-stringers. So my poor impression may be partly a function of my poor timing.
But what most alarms me is that the sea change wrought by the growing importance of art fairs and auctions means that most purchase decisions are now being made under these frenetic, crowded conditions, far removed from the undistracted, unhurried contemplation that subtle, complex and profound pieces require to produce their effect. Under such harsh conditions, works that lend themselves to being easily comprehended in a brief glance are the species most likely to survive and thrive.
We are entering the era of Snap-Judgment Art.
Or as Todd Levin, hedge-fund manager Adam Sender‘s art curator, recently told Bloomberg‘s Linda Sandler:
There’s been a proliferation of ‘art fair art’ produced specifically for art fairs. It has a certain kind of wall power and can be digested and consumed very quickly.
Veteran art-market writer Souren Melikian recognized the same sea change in his report for the International Herald Tribune on the recent Impressionist/Modern art auctions in London:
The sale revealed a striking shift away from complexity and nuances to simple overall effects that allow instant apprehension. When enhanced by easy name recognition, the impact on paintings or sculpture was phenomenal.
Although my sightings of artworld luminaries at Art Basel were few, I did get to chat briefly with legendary Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler (above), presiding over his eponymous booth, which displayed not only his gallery’s wares, but also works belonging to his Fondation Beyeler (whose enchanting Renzo Piano-designed exhibition space, in nearby Riehen, I also visited).
Beyeler’s latest acquisition: Basel-born Sam Keller, outgoing director of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami, who next year will take the helm at Fondation Beyeler. The dealer said he did not foresee major changes, but Keller had previously told Sandler: “He wouldn’t have taken a young guy like me if he’d wanted the museum to be a mausoleum.”
But even as presently constituted, the Fondation Beyeler is no mausoleum: Now drawing large crowds: a sprawling Munch retrospective that seems larger, but not as well chosen, as the Museum of Modern Art’s recent show devoted to the same artist.
Getting back to the fair: How did Art Basel do? Before it opened, its organizers had predicted 56,000 visitors and $500 million in sales, according to Sandler. The post-fair press release touted up 60,000 visitors. Here’s all it had to say about the fair’s financial results:
Its outstanding sales results give impetus to the art market. Art Basel has impressively confirmed its undisputed position as the world’s premier art show and done justice to its reputation as an art event with international impact.
Whatever the numbers, the effect was numbing.