At Art Basel, the Most Relevant Art Today Is from Decades Ago

  • Installation view of Galerie Gmurzynska’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

    Installation view of Galerie Gmurzynska’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

The 47th edition of Art Basel in Basel opened to throngs of collectors, curators, and others from the art-world establishment on Tuesday. Lines to enter the art world’s most important primary-market event on the rainy morning stretched for several hundred meters along Messeplatz. The strong turnout was a welcomed sign amidst tremors in the art market. However, the line itself persisted in part due to new security measures put in place this year, following a global rise in terrorist attacks.

Both the shifting market and the root of those attacks—ISIS and the resulting migration crisis—wielded heavy influence over the selections made by Art Basel’s 286 participating exhibitors in 2016. Joining the fair from 33 countries this year, dealers showed a volume of modern art unseen at an Art Basel show for at least a decade. “I remember about five years ago, we had the problem that everyone in the modern section of the fair tried to show contemporary art and got scolded for that,” said Mathias Rastorfer of Galerie Gmurzynska on Tuesday afternoon. “Now we have the reversal of that problem.”

The shift to more modern art at Art Basel in Basel was initiated last year, in a major shakeup of the galleries located on the fair’s first floor. At the time, this reflected an increase in demand for trophy modern and post-war works that had just made for an auction week that outstripped all others before it. But this year, with economists predicting that the market will soon crack, buyers who were once out for the hottest new name are looking for works that can serve as a stable store of value based on real, art-historical merit. “In uncertain times you will not sell mediocre work,” said Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler, who has made no secret of his distaste for those who speculate on art. Dealers have responded to these uncertain times.

  • Installation view of David Zwirner’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

    Installation view of David Zwirner’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

Emblematic of the shift in demand is David Zwirner’s booth. Where in recent years there was a Jeff Koons sculpture of an inflatable dolphin or paintings by hot young artists like Oscar Murillo and Michael Riedel, now hangs works by Josef AlbersSigmar PolkeGiorgio Morandi, and Robert Ryman. (The Ryman is a secondary market offer, a space into which dealers are increasingly dipping, particularly in private deals but also at fairs, in order to support the careers of younger artists on their rosters.)

Zwirner recently secured representation of the Albers estate, from which it sold five works on Art Basel’s opening day for $300,000–1.2 million. Two works by Morandi had sold for over $1 million, while two works by Polke, and pieces by Bruce NaumanKerry James Marshall, and Bridget Riley, went for undisclosed prices. “A lot was to Asia,” said gallery partner Julia Joern, who noted Art Basel’s Hong Kong show as having laid the groundwork in the region for Zwirner. “We just signed a lease in a Hong Kong building called H Queen’s, which is now under construction. It’s relatively close to the Pedder Building and the Central Police Station,” she noted, following the announcement confirming the New York and London-based gallery’s expansion to a third city last week.

  • Installation view of works by Julian Schnabel at Pace Gallery’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

    Installation view of works by Julian Schnabel at Pace Gallery’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

“It is brisk,” said Pace Gallery president Marc Glimcher, citing strong performance on opening day despite those market tremors. “I’m not seeing any sign of it. They told me a year ago how the whole Chinese art market was going to go away, that the Chinese economy was slowing down. But our business in China has gone up by 30% in the past year.” By mid-afternoon, Pace had sold three of the five pieces from Julian Schnabel’s “Ascension” series that make up what Glimcher called its “Schnabel Temple” at the fair. (Price: $375,000 apiece.) “We sold half this booth already,” reported Glimcher of additional sales, which included works by Josef Albers, Adrian GhenieAgnes MartinPrabhavathi MeppayilYoshitomo Nara, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Glimcher did note that the pace of sales had slowed slightly (“It wasn’t in five minutes, it was people who circled back two hours later”) and that overall at the moment “people are more interested in the historical rather than the fashionable.” He said that plays well to the gallery’s current strategy of mounting fair booths with half-contemporary, half-historical material. “There’s a more contemplative interest both in art history and culture at the moment and in our place in the universe, that cosmic consciousness side of artmaking,” said Glimcher. “It is a very troubled world. But artists are very engaged in this troubled world. And our collectors are still very engaged with the artists.”

  • Installation view of Olaf Metzel, Sammelstelle, 1992, at Wentrup’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

    Installation view of Olaf Metzel, Sammelstelle, 1992, at Wentrup’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

The presentations best poised to address the particular troubles we’re facing at the moment can be found in Art Basel in Basel’s Feature section of gallery-led curatorial projects. Olaf Metzel’s Sammelstelle (1992), presented by Berlin’s Wentrup, was initially conceived as a response to the influx of migrants Germany received in the early ’90s from Yugoslavia. “It was a hot issue in Germany at the time, but it also has topical relevancy to the current migration crisis in Europe,” said the gallery’s Colin Huerter of the piece. Passing through a giant metal turnstile, visitors enter a holding chamber that feels more fit for cattle than human occupants. In its current context this could be Lampedusa, Lesbos, or even Berlin. In a possible future context, depending on the outcome of the American presidential election this November, it could be the newest series of Trump Towers, erected alongside airport tarmacs countrywide. “It’s a great time to show artists whose work is more politically minded,” said Huerter of Metzel, who was standing like a sentry outside his piece’s gate. “It’s a good time to talk about real issues that need to be contended with.”

Just down the aisle, James Fuentes’s entry into Feature was similarly resonant. The gallery shows 14 photographs from a series of 37 by avant-garde film legend Jonas Mekas. It’s the first and only series of photographs Mekas produced and documents his years in a German displaced persons camp from 1945 to 1949. “It’s a diary of his life during those years,” said the gallery’s Katrin Lewinsky of the series. “It doesn’t show the usual suffering side of victims of forced migration.” In the photographs you see Mekas in a seemingly normal everyday, lunching with friends in the camp’s garden, as much as you see him as a refugee, joining a herd of others into the rear of a truck to be transported from one camp to another. (For an accompanying publication, Mekas couples the photographs with snippets of diaristic passages, their edges appearing to have been burnt away.)

  • Installation view of works by Jonas Mekas at James Fuentes’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

    Installation view of works by Jonas Mekas at James Fuentes’s booth at Art Basel, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Westoby for Artsy.

Both the Mekas photographs (priced at $10,000 apiece in an edition of five) and the Metzel (priced at €180,000) were still available by mid-afternoon on Tuesday. Political art is still not something collectors are most immediately primed to jump on; it takes more time. But if our more troubled times aren’t immediately drawing dollars to these works, they are, at the very least, placing emphasis on the right art.


—Alexander Forbes

Explore Art Basel 2016 on Artsy.