Risk-Taking Belgian Collectors Make for Booming Art Brussels
The 33rd Art Brussels came to a close on Monday evening. This year marked the fair’s third edition under the artistic direction of independent curator Katerina Gregos and, as was announced on Friday, the last in its current form. With Art Brussels headed to the city center in 2016 for a scaled-down format, Belgian collectors were quick to mark 2015 as a transitional period for the fair.
That’s not to say it was a slump. Several dealers did point to the very fair-tigue that Gregos highlighted as a principal motivator behind her decision, with Art Brussels managing director Anne Vierstraete, to change up the fair’s format. But plenty of others saw solid success throughout their four days at the Brussels Expo.
Leading the pack was first-time Art Brussels participant James Cohan Gallery, with two six-figure sales across the weekend. First to go was Xu Zhen’s Under Heaven 1136NH1409 (2014). The painting—which, despite its relatively small 55 x 37.5-inch surface, weighs in at nearly 200 pounds due to the sheer amount of oil used to create it—went for a sum in the low six figures. Such is the current demand for works by the artist that the gallery could reportedly have sold it several times over.
The star of Cohan’s booth, however, was Bill Viola’s video work Fire Martyr (2014), which was attracting a steady crowd of onlookers each time I passed the booth. Though new, the work harks back to some of Viola’s most classic pieces and is part of a quadriptych on permanent view at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. One edition of the piece sold to a Belgian family foundation for €190,000.
Cohan’s European director, William Pym, said it was “a very positive first experience at the fair,” noting significant institutional interest in Katie Paterson’s work. Her piece Timepieces (Solar System) (2014), which displays the time on each of the planets in the solar system, was on view in the booth. “Conversation was constant through the weekend,” Pym added.
Where sales volume was concerned, Axel Vervoordt won by a mile. Then again, his most popular pieces, part of a solo project by Sadaharu Horio—the youngest member of the white-hot Gutai group—were priced at only €1 a pop. Horio’s Art Vending Machine was churning out works with abandon throughout the fair, giving buyers a choice between 10 different styles of painting, including a “Whipping Painting,” an “Imitation Painting,” a “Mocking Painting,” and a “Proper Painting.” The booth also included works by 2015 Venice Biennale Golden Lion winner El Anatsui and Kazuo Shiraga, among others.
Meessen de Clercq likely came in at a relatively close second place for sales. The gallery, which had one of the most well-curated booths of Hall 1, reportedly unloaded upwards of 20 pieces on Art Brussels’s first day. Topping that list was Claudio Parmiggiani’s Senza titolo (2015), which sold for €80,000. But the range extended down to new collectors snatching up younger artists’ works for €3,000.
Sales were also swift at Galerie Krinzinger, where Thomas Krinzinger reported having sold works by a representative sampling of his more established artists by Saturday afternoon. Krinzinger was most enthusiastic about the response received for the gallery’s presentation of Greek emerging artist Jannis Varelas, which sold out on the first day to all new collectors, which Krinzinger characterized as the “best” in Belgium.
In Hall 3—noted by several collectors for looking particularly good this year, thanks to a move to mix some of the more cutting-edge established galleries in with young upstarts—sales were less consistent early on in the fair. This largely seemed to be the case with stands that were presenting relatively unknown artists. Belgian collectors are known for their penchant for taking risks when collecting. But they also tend to do significant research into an artist’s practice in order to make a long-term bet, rather than buying impulsively and selling if the relationship turns sour (the more North American way).
Among those polled, Amsterdam’s GRIMM Gallery was having a particularly good fair. The gallery mounted an ambitious presentation that matched large photographs and canvases with even larger sculptures. A Miguel Ybáñez sculpture sold for €22,000 and one of Matthew Day Jackson’s Life Magazine covers went for $15,000. (The artist has a show up currently at the gallery, one piece from which they also brought to Brussels.)
However, the booth’s standout work, which also sold, was Nick van Woert’s Cross section (2014). Priced at €45,000, the piece assembles a slice-by-slice view of every material you might find in a typical suburban home, from the lawn to the roofing, focusing particularly on elements of what the artist calls the “contemporary drunken landscape” in which we create new things (like cat litter) for which there already exists a perfectly good solution (like the ground outside).
Collectors were quick to get behind Czech artist Jaromír Novotný. His solo presentation at Antwerp’s Geukens & De Vil sold out by fair’s end. All of the works on view had been produced this year and were priced on the range from €4,500–10,000. So enthusiastic were the Belgians for Novotný’s work that the gallery began collecting names on a waiting list for new works as the weekend wore on.
Novotný’s success, and that of Krinzinger, is representative of what an Art Brussels gallery experience should look like: connecting a relatively new artist to new collectors. But the fair’s focus on discovery also means it has a long tail. Works like the set of excellent Constant Dullaarts at Carroll/Fletcher, which don’t as easily fit into any given abode, draw a lot of reserves at the fair. And those reserves do often lead to sales—whether of the specific works reserved or others—down the line. The beauty of Brussels is its location in the very heart of Europe, where the fair’s collectors are never more than a couple hours’ train ride from a huge percentage of the galleries in its aisles.