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Jerry Gogosian’s First Impressions of Art Basel in Basel

Jerry Gogosian
Sep 23, 2021 6:04PM

Installation view of Karma International’s booth at Art Basel, Basel, 2021. © Art Basel. Courtesy of Karma International and Art Basel.

Dear reader,

I hope this article finds you well in these strange and interesting times. Yesterday, along with a select few thousand of my closest friends, I had the honor of attending the single most exclusive art world event in the universe: Art Basel in Basel’s First Choice VIPers boozy breakfast at 9 a.m. As art fairs go, achieving these calories was a pilgrimage. Daily changing COVID-19 restrictions created a complicated nebula of submitting documents to the Swiss government, the airlines, and the fair. I’ve been proving and reproving my vaccination status and negative tests on repeat since I bought my flight a month ago. According to the Swiss government and Art Basel, I’m Swiss triple-air-kiss ready (with a mask, of course). By the time I reached this breakfast reception, I felt like I deserved the gratis croissants, strawberry smoothies, cubed pineapple, etc. I must humbly ask, though: Did I come this far to be withheld the legendary free oysters? Apparently.

On this day, every visitor is flashing a black ribbon wrist bracelet clamped with a piece of metal bearing the words “Covid-19 Certificate Checked. Access on all days.” You can’t take it off until you leave the city or maybe ever. It was put on with pliers. No joke. I just now found out that I need another test to go home.

Simphiwe Ndzube
Hintsa, 2021
Stevenson

Portia Zvavahera, Ndibuditsei ipapo (Take me out of there) 2, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson.

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The fair opened promptly at 11 a.m. with a beautiful robotic female voice announcing “Art Basel is now open” followed by a stampede of eager art buyers. I’ve never seen so many old people run with complete abandon besides lining up for an after-church buffet. This demonstration of elderly athleticism was not only impressive, it was inspiring. Art will keep you young! I guess it is “essential.”

Apparently not many Americans made it this year, but the crème de la crème of the European art world is strongly present. (I’ve never felt more American.) This led to a very important question: How do I present myself for my Basel Basel debut? Should I look like an artist? An art advisor? A dealer? A lady who just popped over from Gstaad for the day? When attending an art fair, one must decide whose admiration or envy they wish to glean. I’m from Los Angeles, so I chose my theme: casual arrogance. I wore a matching heather grey Alo yoga set with my actual running shoes and a Chanel jacket to virtue signal to the Europeans that Americans can be classy, too. (Of course, we all know this is impossible.) Pro tip: Never wear heels to an art fair. Besides being uncomfortable, you’ll stick out as a novice or paid company. Orthotics, Crocs, trainers, Birkenstocks, etc. will instantly elevate your status to sage fairgoer, and perhaps a gallery will consider making something available.

Art world legends and collectors were enthusiastically catching up in every corner. It was hard to focus. I saw vanilla ice cream–loving super curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, her royal highness Amy Cappellazzo, and smooth operator Graham Steele milling about in their natural habitats. Someone said they saw Klaus. Maja Hoffmann was around and wearing the most fabulous Gucci jacket and talking up her new mega-baby Luma Arles. I spotted Emmanuel Perrotin buying a little raspberry tart with pep in his step and a big-kid smile on his face. Basel Bob was present and decked out in his beautifully tailored costumes, custom hat included. A new figure in the realm of sartorial art-fairers was a wandering pope/wizard. Does anyone know this man? One of my favorite Instagrammers, @raven_smith, was all over the fair, hopefully making something entertaining for Hauser & Wirth. Zoes and Chloes were out in droves throughout the fair in their very expensive and enticing, yet conservative (for Basel), black gallerina costumes, complete with perma-frowns on their faces. It felt…like…an art fair.

Zanele Muholi
Vika II, The Decks, Cape Town, 2019
Stevenson

Ben Enonwu, Dancing Girls Yoruba, 1950. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson.

I started on the second floor as advised by seasoned vets. This is where you’re likely to find emerging art and works being sold on the primary market. As an elder millennial, this is slightly more my vibe. I was drawn into Stevenson’s booth by what reminded me of a loose, abstracted Gustav Klimt. As I approached, I found a scene of transcendence, a baptism of one figure cradled between two loving stewards. The painting was by Portia Zvavahera and it was entitled Ndibuditsei ipapo (Take me out of there) 2. Painted in just 2021, the work resists any literal interpretation and felt highly relatable given our collective last year and a half. Who didn’t want to transcend or dissociate from 2020? The door of their closet was cracked open, and inside I discovered an exquisite and fierce black-and-white photographic self-portrait by Zanele Muholi. Who is this amazing artist? I want to know more. To the right of the closet, I spotted a Degas ballerinas-esque masterpiece of African modernism by Ben Enwonwu MBE entitled Dancing Girls Yoruba (1950). Stevenson gallery is an incredibly important amplifier for the voices of African artists in the global contemporary art scene. I see them at many fairs and love what they do.

Thomas Dane Gallery was showing a beautiful Cecily Brown painting with figures hiding in a floral gradient of reds and pinks. I fully stan Cecily Brown; she is an excellent painter and wild woman. This is where I first noticed the private FaceTime selfie-stick tours at the request of absent VIPs who could not make the fair. This is what I call good service, and bless those selfie-stick holders who were the stand-in proxies. “Get close to that Cecily Brown. Does it have figures in it? OK, now stand back. Walk up to it again. Touch your toes.”

Installation view of Perrotin’s booth at Art Basel, Basel, 2021. Courtesy of Perrotin.

As I expected, the frenzy on the main level was concentrated in the booths of the mega-galleries, seemingly swarmed by those needing to be seen specifically in those booths. I have no business downstairs other than to see upcycled secondary blue-chip art. Alongside Maurizio Cattelan’s iconic taxidermy pigeons at Perrotin—another fair favorite—in an exhibition also spread across MASSIMODECARLO and Marian Goodman Gallery, I paid silent witness to collectors and dealers talking casually about impressive sums of money in throwaway terminology like “It’s only 850” as in $850,000. There is no sign of recession here. The market feels strong.

It was hard to make it down the halls to see the art without getting sucked into salacious pockets of rumors—who’s in, who’s out, who’s richer than who, which financial criminals showed up, whose daddy is a warlord, who bought what, and what the hell happened last night at Hotel Les Trois Rois.

Eventually, I put on my Leonardo DiCaprio–esque baseball cap and a pair of subtly foreboding “do not talk to me” AirPods and intentionally ignored everyone so that I could ceremoniously look at the art. For this exercise, I recommend just putting your AirPods on noise-canceling mode so as to not get sucked into the amusing secondhand conversations that make you wonder things like, “Did she just say the artist is post-race, post-gender? Huh?” Do not make eye contact with the art dealers or their assistants. Just focus on the art. In the end, this is why we supposedly all came here.

Olive Allen
SummerBlueBubbly Bear #7/10, 2020
G○C△ - Gallery of Crypto Art

I met up with an elated Olive Allen in the collector’s lounge who once again reminded me that NFTs are the future. When she says it, I believe her. I’m still confused by the whole thing. I get it. It’s a tool, not the art. The works in the NFT “kiosk” mostly came with a physical object to tokenize the digital work.

Naturally, I’ll be leaving Basel the day this affair opens to the public. I would never be seen here on any other day than today.

For a full account of my trip, sign up for my newsletter, where I’ll get granular on both Art Basel and Zurich Art Weekend, and share more standout booths and artwork. Until then….

I hope you and your family are well,

Jerry Gogosian

Jerry Gogosian
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019