With thousands of artist and works and hundreds of galleries, Art Basel offers a data-rich snapshot of the contemporary art world. We looked at a selection of the booths at the current edition of the Swiss mega-fair, which opens to the public on Thursday, sifting through more than 800 artists and 2,400 artworks to boil down a sampling of trends. Not surprisingly, the fair skews male (77%, the same as last year based on our sample set), and the timeframe is relatively broad: French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne is the oldest artist (born in 1839) at Basel this year, and Afghani painter Tamina Amadyar is the youngest (born in 1989, exactly 150 years after Cézanne), although the most represented cohort is artists born between 1975 and 1980. Drilling down, we noticed three other groups making a mark.
Mid-Career Female Artists Continue to Balance the Scales
If this headline sounds underwhelming, it’s meant to be. (The contemporary art market is still far from gender parity.) As it stands, 1965–70 were the best years to be born a female artist, at least by volume of presence in our preview of Basel. This group has the highest relative level of gender equality at Basel, with the ratio of male to female artists in the group at exactly 2:1, compared to just over 3:1 overall. Not surprisingly, this group includes a number of well-known, critically acclaimed female artists, such as Elizabeth Peyton, Cecily Brown, Mariko Mori, Monica Bonvicini, Kara Walker, Andrea Bowers, and Goshka Macuga.
Following a general market trend, a number of female artists whose careers took off in the 1970s but were subsequently curtailed are being reappraised at Art Basel. Three European artists illuminate new planes of the post-minimal, conceptual, and language-based developments of the late ’60s. Two are Italian feminist artists, getting their due for their prescient language-based practices: Ketty La Rocca (presented by Kadel Willborn gallery) created visual poetry, seeking to identify forms of languages for women other than the domestic.
La Rocca’s caustic performance Sono Felice (I’m Happy) (1965) attested to the globally oppressive circumstances of women an entire decade before Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) came along. Irma Blank (on view at Alison Jacques Gallery) hasn’t really seen the limelight since her inclusion at Documenta 6 in 1977. In addition to crafting artist’s books and language-based work, Blank embraced the paintbrush during an era rife with conceptual investigations. In her series “Radical Writings,” she extended the brushstroke into a visual sign in pursuit of the intersection of written and visual language, considering stroke and canvas as metaphor for text and page.
In the sculptural arena, there’s Slovak artist Maria Bartuszová (also at Alison Jacques Gallery), who was recently rediscovered in Documenta 12 in 2007. She produced hundreds of plaster biomorphic sculptures from the 1960s onward, subjecting pure ovoid forms to various processes of deformation. Their surfaces often bear the imprint of the artist’s hand, a commitment to haptic engagement that recalls the series of workshops that she co-organized for visually impaired children in the late ’70s.
Breaking the Grid
With painting as dominant as ever at Basel this year, it’s worth assessing where the medium has headed. Cynics might be expecting a parade of the market-friendly abstract art that critic Jerry Saltz described as "the visual equivalent of muzak.” But a more intriguing host of abstract painters seem to be less interested in this vaguely New York School-inflected, all-over abstraction. Instead, these creators are revisiting, in rigorous fashion, questions of space and geometry left unanswered by Concrete Art and Minimalism.
Heimo Zobernig (on view at Galería Juana de Aizpuru, Galerie Nagel Draxler, and Galerie Micheline Szwajcer), one of the best known of this group, has long confounded viewers with his mercurial combination of humor and minimalist aesthetics. He currently represents Austria at the Venice Biennale and is in good company at Art Basel, alongside Nedko Solakov (at Georg Kargl Fine Arts), Latifa Echakhch (at Dvir Gallery and Galerie Eva Pressenhuber), Jean-Michel Sanejouand (at art:concept), Haleh Redjaian (at Arratia Beer), Markus Selg (at Galerie Guido W. Baudach), and José León Cerrillo (at Andréhn-Schiptjenko).
Solakov, for a 2009 exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunsthalle called “The Making of Art,” created a latticed, house-size wooden frame (interestingly, Zobernig has also experimented with creating his own gridded exhibition structures). The frame is filled with personally and collectively significant images—a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, a pile of gift boxes. In two pendant works at Art Basel, Optimism and Pessimism, Solakov brings his self-effacing, personal introspection to an imperfectly drawn abstraction, in which a stack of shaky rectangles creates a precarious column. Haleh Redjaian creates textiles and works on paper in which geometry seems to disintegrate. Her framework is highly structured, but her lines diverge and reflect a human hand, and her textiles conjure cultural and gender stereotypes, perhaps revealing a certain freedom in breaking from the grid.
Raw Materials / Material Minimalism
One less obvious, but no less striking, trend we spotted this year was a use of nontraditional materials (be they ephemeral, organic, or rare) to create unassuming, pared-down sculptures that bely only a hint of their material backstory. Cerith Wyn Evans has a sculpture of three Obsidian disks attached to a wall at Taka Ishii Gallery. And Davide Balula’s River Painting at galerie frank elbaz—by all appearances a brown, abstract wash painting—was created by throwing a canvas, weighed down by pebbles, into a river and letting it sit for a few hours. Balula is interested in painting as trace and has made similar riverbed paintings of the East River and the Seine.
Clare Kenny creates what she calls “photographic objects” that push ideas of photographic medium to a scultural breaking point. One of her series of prints on glass is on view at Galerie Gisèle Linder. The delicate sculpture takes a fluid shape and lies flat. The titles of the works in the series draw from car models (Fiat 500, Datsun Sunny), evoking the puddles one finds underneath them, where oil mixes with water to create a rainbow effect. Glass negatives were some of the earliest used in photography, and thus Kenny’s use of the barely-there materials speak to the collective history of the medium.
The Conceptual Contemporary
Roughly a third of all contemporary artists at Art Basel are what we would characterize as “contemporary conceptual” artists, making this less of a trend and more the underlying assumption of art today. It deserves to be made explicit. This year, there are about twice as many artists who use installation in their practice as there are who make abstract paintings. The latter in turn barely outnumber artists who have created performance art in their careers. Even though the artists at the fair skew conceptual, the works presented, not surprisingly, tend to the sellable in their medium. In order of prominence, painting, works on paper, sculpture, photography, and mixed media take the biggest share, with only a few percent points each for film, video, performance, installation, textile arts, and everything else.
Take Belgian artist Carsten Höller. This year, his works at Basel ranges from a sleek neon wall sculpture at Galerie Micheline Szwajcer to a series of editioned photogravures of birds at Niels Borch Jensen Gallery and Editions to the more challenging Top Mode Africa (2013) at Air de Paris. Top Mode Africa draws on the carousels the artist has been making for some years and represents a model of a stage set for a Congolese singing contest. A bizarre, playground-like explosion of color, it places the viewer in the position of voyeur, like watching the empty setting of a reality TV show. It flaunts political correctness, creating an experience that is both fun and discomfiting—but ultimately unforthcoming in its message.
Conceptual artistic practice roams free in Basel. Artists are engaging not only with questions of language, like the first generation of Conceptual Artists did in the ’70s, but also with popular culture, politics, and everyday life. Simon Fujiwara has a series about lactose intolerance and a shaved fur coat at Dvir Gallery; Elisabetta Benassi has installed a modified Mondaine clock, titled Arreter la Jour (or “stop the day”) at Magazzino; and IRWIN’s Red Monochrome (2004–11), on view at Galerija Gregor Podnar, is a lavishly framed monochrome “painting” made of legos. Javier Téllez’s Schering Chess (2015), on view at Galerie Peter Kilchmann, is a surreal chessboard, with eggs as pawns and ethnographic figurines with museological inscriptions on their base as the pieces. It is a (playful) indictment recalling both Duchamp (a famous master of the game) and the institutional critique of Fred Wilson.
Other highlights include Cildo Meireles (at Galeria Luisa Strina), Danh Vo (at Niels Borch Jensen Gallery and Editions), Ragnar Kjartansson (at i8 Gallery), Walead Beshty (at Thomas Dane), and Amanda Ross-Ho (at Mitchell-Innes & Nash). The latter two have combined collective or personal histories with investigations of a precise medium (Beshty with photography as a documentary artifact, Ross-Ho with the wall of the artist’s studio itself). In a particularly novel investigation of medium specificity, Swiss artist Andrea Wolfensberger (at Galerie Gisele Linder) physicalizes acoustic waves by modeling sculptures using the sound components of the human voice: timbre, harmony, rhythm, pitch, etc.
If anything, though, these artists’ creations show the weariness of the term “conceptual,” heir as it is to not only Conceptual Art but also to the so-called Neo-Conceptualism of the 1980s and ’90s (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger). To speak of a second revival of this relatively recent movement would miss the mark. Conceptual art is, quite simply, the order of the day.