Impressions from Basel art events 2023

June 27, 2023

Art Basel

When we connect the two words “art” and Basel,” most people would think of the world’s largest commercial art fair, Art Basel – this year, 284 galleries from 36 countries, predominantly Western. The Art Newspaper reported on June 15 that after the first two days, sales amounted to a conservatively estimated US$ 245 million – out of a global art market sales of US$ 68 billion. Years ago, Wikipedia says, the art dealers/galleries paid between US$ 750 and 1100 per square meter for their boots. That makes the basic selection and determines the rest, supported by the UBS bank, BMW, and others. A day pass to Art Basel is € 68. 70 000 visitors last year.

Here are some takes on this year’s weeklong art celebrity event – Forbes, Art News, The Art Newspaper and New York Times.

My wife, Christina, and I go there every year. If we did not have a lovely friend from many years back when I taught at Basel University Basel, we would not be able to; a medium-class double room could easily cost € 500 per night without breakfast; all hotels know how to earn money during this annual art week where art enthusiasts – collectors in particular – flock to Basel from all over the world, many onboard their private planes.

Perhaps it’s because we go there every year, but Art Basel has – in our view – become too commercial/market-oriented, too cool, and too posh. With the exception of a few exhibitors we always visit and have a delightful human conversation with – like Gemini GEL and United Limited Art Editions (ULAE), the latter not present in 2022 and this year – this is definitely not the type of event where you spontaneously walk into a boot and open up a conversation with a question like – how did the artist make this? Or why do you think this is a particular good work by this artist? You better ask: How much is it?

The underlying theme of it all is: Prizes, investment, having and showing that you have it: Money. It’s one big show of art money power. It’s about being seen – also for the wealthy Basel VIP high society.

And – somehow, Art Basel is now a prisoner of its own art fashion show style. The global art gallery empire called Gargosian, like many others, has the same space every year, and there are no – artful – surprises in the way it is all launched and presented. If the big gallery guys don’t feel that they get for their money what they want, they’ll go elsewhere. Art Basel will always have to please the biggest, dominating art market players.

So why go there? Well, we enjoy so much seeing works ‘live.’ There are millions of artworks on the Internet, but standing in front of a real canvas or a sculpture, feeling its physicality and structure remains second to none. And there may be new work by your favourite artists that you have not yet seen anywhere.

Here are a few casual shots.

First, it was a veryfine revelation to watch Juan Uslé’s – Spanish born 1954 – small-format photographic/painting works, paradoxically exhibited in the “Unlimited” space for large-size works. All smaller photos below can be enlarged when you click on them:

And I’ve always been drawn to Günter Förg’s enigmatic brush strokes on a deep background:

As well as to two of my favourite artists, David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg:

Strangely – when I walk around these many contemporary exhibitions in Basel, I can’t help asking: Has it become completely outdated to (be able to) paint a good painting? To compose, colour and combine and move the viewer by means of a sublime simplicity that sucks you into the painting instead of making it jump out and impose itself on you?

I mean, look at the above and of de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Alex Katz, John Chamberlain and Robert Motherwell:

Well, not a painting but a small multi-media sculpture with lots of painting-like qualities.

Or Larry Poons, Joan Mitchell and Jenny Holzer – and I could have added Mark Rothko. It’s always a thrill to see such great artists ‘live’:

And then compare with the imposing, shouting or supposedly decorative kitsch like these that I did not even bother to jot down the names of. When kitsch comes to be seen as fine art, what then is left for the concept of art?

It seems to me that Art Basel has too much of this kind of stuff, particularly on the 2nd floor.

Art Basel is now very ripe for a thorough overhaul and change of strategy. Make it smaller, more diverse, more global and less market-oriented – in short, “de-Gargosianize” it. However, it seems like the same US-European – gallery/auction house/artfair – elites circulate in the leadership.

So perhaps only a deep crisis in this art market will bring about some kind of wake-up call and real change.

Thankfully, there is so much more going on in Basel, a leading European centre of contemporary art with exhibition spaces, galleries, museums and other institutions such as Liste, Basel Kunstmuseum, Basel Kunsthalle, the Tinguely Museum, the Beyeler Foundation a bit outside in Riehen, Photo Basel, Volta Art Fair, Schaulager – and lots of other places and events, pop-up and more.

It’s amazing and probably unique, given that Basel has only 165 000 inhabitants. Even if you spend 8 hours a day on your art feet, you won’t be able to see – not to speak of reflect – more than a fraction of it all.

So, let me share with you only three more venues in this article and devote another article to Photo Basel, which I enjoyed the most in town.

The Rappaz Museum

The Rappaz Museum is situated in a small street in KleinBasel – not that far from Art Basel. It’s definitely a gem. Read more about it on the link and see how it has a special orientation in honour of the minimalist-constructivist artist and designer Rolf Rappaz (unfortunately, only in German). It’s an intimate, beautiful old house with creaking oak floors, a fine light, a permanent Rappaz exhibition and changing like-minded exhibitions.

Here to give you an impression:

Liste

For years, the Liste Art Fair was situated in the wonderful, old Warteck Brewery building. Now it is next door to Art Basel; it’s a huge circular pie-like space with smaller, experimenting galleries on the outside and inside – not as fun as the Brewery, for sure. There is nothing posh about it; it’s very diverse in terms of expressions and quality, it’s unassuming, and everybody is open to chat and proud to show their artists’ works.

It’s a young fair that has sometimes catapulted galleries into other venues. So never underestimate what you see at Liste.

This is where you can find galleries from, say, Shanghai, like Gallery Vacancy:

Or from Belgrade, like Eugster.

Or the Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong:

Most of it is mixed-media, installations and experimental works. That’s what makes a fine contrast to Art Basel, and one feels OK with not liking everything. There is always something enigmatic that catches your curiousity.

Volta

A fine surprise this year! A new very fine venue, half as many galleries as before and better selection/curation. The Volte homepage says it all.

Saule Suleimanova is from Kazakhstan. I’ve never seen anybody create – good and touching – art by means of plastic bags only. I warmly recommend her very rich homepage for your further exploration. She alone made the long walk out to Volta worth it all.

My second article from Basel 2023 is devoted to PhotoBasel – text, photos and video interviews with three fascinating exhibitors. Go here!

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Three at Photo Basel 2023 - and a little more - Oberg PhotoGraphics

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