What Sold at Art Brussels
Art Brussels came to a close yesterday, following the first run in its new home in the city’s historic Tour & Taxis. In its 34th edition, the fair’s last under the artistic direction of Katerina Gregos, Art Brussels shed 30% of its exhibitors and slimmed down its roster of artists—627 compared to more than 2,000 when Gregos came on in 2012. “There’s a lot of gigantism going on in the art world, and it doesn’t necessarily benefit the galleries, the artists, or the collectors,” explained Gregos. “There’s a lot of art fair fatigue. You need time to be able to contemplate art properly.”
“We’re convinced we made the right decision,” added Art Brussels’s managing director Anne Vierstraete on the third day of the fair. Her sentiment was echoed throughout Art Brussels by dealers enjoying the new centrally located space and the sharpened level of quality this concentration of galleries has put forth. Most also reported being surprised by the strength of sales at the fair, in light of the recent tragedies inflicted on the city by the March 22nd terror attacks and the general cooling of the art market. For her part, Vierstraete wasn’t so surprised. “We have a very interested collector base,” said the director, noting that Art Brussels’s price-point in comparison to larger fairs was a particular strength this year. “In a slowdown, it’s the middle market that often suffers most. We’re not a fair with high prices,” she said.
The fair’s success was evidenced by strong sales throughout the week. Leading the charge was Brussels gallery Xavier Hufkens, who placed Alice Neel’s Vivienne Wechter (1965) with a European collection for $550,000 in the fair’s first two hours. The gallery also sold a mask by Thomas Houseago for $160,000; a sculpture by Antony Gormley for £175,000; a Walter Swennen painting, Transformations (2016), for €40,000; and a pair of Harold Ancart paintings for $30,000 apiece. In other five- and six-figure sales, New Art Center placed a sculptural work by William Turnbull with an Australian collector for around €200,000, and Jablonka Maruani Mercier sold a George Shaw triptych for €50,000–100,000.
Across the fair, galleries and collectors responded well to the new venue, a former customs warehouse. “I’ve been coming to Art Brussels for 30 years. I love the new space, and the change of the infrastructure,” said collector Jacques Verhaegen, who runs the modern and contemporary art nonprofit Cookie Butcher in Antwerp. “There’s more room, you can talk to people, the fair is going in a good direction.” Verhaegen was especially chipper, having just snapped up a sculpture by Detroit-born artist Michael E. Smith, Untitled (2015), at KOW in Discovery, the fair’s front-and-center sector of 30 galleries devoted to emerging artists.
Paris and Brussels’s Galerie Daniel Templon took no fewer than three booths in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Jules Olitski showed in the Rediscovery sector, which spotlights artists with overlooked or marginalized practices through work made between 1917 and 1987. And Iván Navarro enjoyed a single-artist presentation in the fair’s Solo section, alongside the gallery’s multi-artist booth in Prime. “We’ve been very successful with mostly younger artists,” said executive director Anne-Claudie Coric on Saturday afternoon. Among these sales, the gallery placed a work by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota with a collector for €10,000–50,000. (Shiota builds on momentum from her 2015 presentation at the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale with works in the Biennale of Sydney and a solo show at Düsseldorf’s K21, as well as an upcoming presentation at Art Basel’s Unlimited and her first solo show at Blain | Southern, Berlin, in the fall.) Four works by new gallery addition Senegalese artist Omar Ba were sold, on the range of €25,000–30,000. And Navarro’s neon sculptures were a particular hit, the Chilean artist’s Pink Electric Chair (2006) finding its way into a private collection in Europe for $55,000–135,000.
Given Belgian collectors’ penchant for championing emerging talent, and the lengths to which Art Brussels has gone to create a platform for artist discoveries, it should come as little surprise that many galleries at Tour & Taxis showed some of the youngest members of their stables. Knokke and Antwerp’s Geukens & De Vil, nearing 20 years as an Art Brussels stalwart, showed all young artists (save for 88-year-old David Simpson). The star of the booth was 25-year-old British artist Finbar Ward. “He’s the hit of the fair,” wagered gallery art director Yasmine M. Geukens, who shared that his sculpture The Wedge (2016) had just sold to one of the most important collectors in Belgium for €10,000.
Brussels and London gallery MOT International saw similar success on the younger side of their roster. Sales director Raphaël Sachsenberg reported a stream of sales including young British artists Dan Rees and Simon Mathers. Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost was the highlight of the booth, however, with her magnificent 2015 tapestry, Swallow me, From Italy to Flander, a tapestry. The first in an edition of three, which was realized following her win of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2011, the piece sold for €60,000 in the fair’s first half hour. “All were to collectors we already knew,” noted Sachsenberg of their sales.
In its first European fair, 11-month-old New York gallery Lyles & King, however, tapped into a brand-new collector base. “Belgian collectors don’t just buy the artist, they buy the gallery; they invest in what you’re doing,” said co-founder Isaac Lyles on Saturday afternoon, relaying insight shared with him by one of the city’s most prestigious collectors. The maxim had quickly proven true. That day, Lyles had sold a painting by young artist Chris Hood to a German couple who’d visited the booth not once, but three days in a row, before making the purchase (for €9,500). “The relationships feel very real; these aren’t one-off things,” said Lyles, who’d sold 8 of 10 paintings of varying size by Hood, for between $6,000 and $16,000. The gallery also showed work by Phillip Birch, the highlight being his dystopian video sculpture, Interventionist Agent #2 (Constantine) (2016), which sold to a Belgian private collection for $8,500 and takes cues from the science fiction subgenre body horror (think: David Cronenberg).
Older artists also found new interest in the fair’s Rediscovery sector, an effort by Gregos to support practices that can sometimes fall by the wayside at art fairs. In addition to a multi-artist booth in the Prime sector, Axel Vervoordt Gallery presented a solo stand in Rediscovery by septuagenarian Japanese artist Yuko Nasaka, one of the only female artists from the Gutai movement, whose work sat well with the fair’s collectors. By mid-day Saturday, an untitled work by the artist from 1963—made with ceramics and car paint to comment on both historical and modernized Japan—had sold for €150,00–200,000. According to the gallery’s Tine De Beck, the sale of an additional work by Nasaka, in the same price range, was moments away from closing on Saturday afternoon. However, overall she noted that collectors had been slower to pull the trigger on higher-priced sales, something “which is a trend that’s going on at every fair at the moment,” said De Beck.
Brussels dealer Sébastien Janssen, founder of Sorry We’re Closed, reported that he’d sold works predominantly on the range of €5,000–20,000. Amongst a booth mixing historical and young artists and curated around the color green, he sold two of three Tony Matelli painted bronze “Weed” sculptures for €14,000 on opening day, a large painting by New York painter Gerasimos Floratos for €10,000, four tapestries by Yann Gerstberger for €12,000, and nine bronze stools by Eric Croes for €5,000 apiece, among others, all to European collectors. A floor sculpture by historical Arte Povera artist Piero Gilardi, Bosco di Casterino, (2011; €34,000), hadn’t yet sold by the third day, nor had American painter Thomas Downing’s 1965 untitled canvas priced at €130,000. “I didn’t sell big pieces,” the dealer noted on Saturday. “But this one’s been waiting since 1965. There’s time.”
Fellow hometown dealer Rodolphe Janssen (Sébastien Janssen’s brother) reported that, despite fears of a sluggish week based on the recent terrorist attacks, he’d been pleasantly surprised by the results this past week. In Art Brussels’s first few hours, the dealer sold two paintings by Cologne-based, Romanian brothers Gert & Uwe Tobias for €42,000 apiece, Davide Balula’s huge triptych Burnt Painting, Imprint of the Burnt Painting (Superimposed Blinds) (2016; €35,000), and two of Dan McCarthy’s playful smiling vases for €25,000, among others; all to predominantly Belgian collectors. “It’s a strange moment. We opened the fair less than one month after the terrorist attack, so I was not expecting a lot, but everybody was here. All the Belgian collectors, the French, the Swiss, Americans. It was a very good fair,” he said.
Gregos, in her swan song, points to art’s uncanny ability to persevere, and to heal, in times of great hardship. “Art is a great way to overcome traumatic issues like this,” she said as this year’s Art Brussels neared its end. (Gregos will be moving on to pursue her independent curatorial practice.) “Contemporary art is an international language that we all speak. It manages to break through nationalities, religions, and borders to send a positive message of coexistence,” said Gregos. Right now, this is precisely the message the world needs.