Report From Art Basel: A Frenzied Race to Move Monotonous Art

by Corinna Kirsch and Whitney Kimball on December 5, 2013 Newswire


Back-pats were flying at yesterday’s VIP opening of Art Basel Miami Beach. Several booths had already sold out by midday, and there was no shortage of interest from swarms of bees collectors. The fair’s success was summed up by a dealer from Andersen’s Contemporary—a six-year ABMB veteran and Frieze and Armory exhibitor—when he told us, “Art Basel is just the biggest. End of story.”

For the most part, art was selling fast and early. By midday, “Devil’s Gate,” one of Damien Hirst’s cases of insect specimens (art fair stalwarts) had gone for $1.9 million at White Cube, and a large pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama (who has a show up now in New York) for $600,000 at David Zwirner. Other exhibitors fresh off the boat from NADA like 47 Canal and Bureau were reporting strong sales at accessible lower price points. At 47 Canal, all of John Finneran’s Matissean nudes had sold in the ten to eleven thousand range.

Damien Hirst's "Devil's Gate" at White Cube

Damien Hirst’s “Devil’s Gate” at White Cube

And as usual, if you’ve been to any major art fair, the work smirks of familiarity: Anish Kapoor wall-reliefs, Koons chromes, Hirst spins and dots. Like any Fordist good, art can come back every season, and be just as reliable as last year’s model, updated with a new coat of paint. The sameness extended well into “Nova” and “Presentations,” with Mathieu Malouf’s luxurious coppery-gold wall reliefs at Brooklyn’s Real Fine Arts (sold out by midafternoon).

Ella Kruglyanskaya/ Jonathan Horowitz sandwich at Gavin Brown's Enterprise

Ella Kruglyanskaya/ Jonathan Horowitz sandwich at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

In this climate, all deviation looks groundbreaking. Cue Gavin Brown. In his booth, Jonathan Horowitz’s “CBS Evening News/” cleverly combines a blown-up photo of Katie Couric’s upper half with Britney Spears’s bottom. Compared to the rest of the machine, a bald pussy is practically revolutionary.

Among those making multiple appearances was a 2013 series of Christian Marclay screenprint canvases with comic book outbursts like “flopppp” and “squish.” At White Cube, the canvas was selling for $300,000 and at Paula Cooper, the painting had already been sold for $325,000. That gap may seem negligible, having to do more with loyalty to one gallery’s brand. But some collectors at Basel are unwilling to split the difference. One couple scoffed at the current selling price of a Sherrie Levine; they bought a similar work at Basel in Switzerland a few years ago for tens of thousands less than its current selling price.

Several have started showing up repeatedly at the art fairs, too. Earlier this year at the Armory, for example, we spied Tony Tasset’s snowman in Kavi Gupta’s booth. Sold in an edition, this weatherless snowman arrived at Art Basel with an impressive sales pitch: The snowman could be installed indoors or outdoors, the dealer told one inquisitive buyer, though it would need an additional epoxy finish which might lessen the sculpture’s overall definition. “How funny would that be,” she added, “to have a sculpture like that all year long.” Answer: moderately funny.

Pumpkin and paintings by Yayoi Kusama, the subject of a few major recent retrospective shows in New York

Pumpkin and paintings by Yayoi Kusama, the subject of a few major recent retrospective shows in New York

More than ever, the fair offered various exorbitantly-priced offerings fresh off the museum and gallery circuit. On the heels of Isa Genzken’s retrospective at MoMA, for example, Zwirner brought several of her works—from a notebook-size graphite drawing to a human-size sculpture, the majority of works had already been purchased. But, one Zwirner associate mentioned to a potential buyer, a similar work currently on view at MoMA would be available for $450,000 after the exhibition’s close. The showroom now extends past the gallery, and past the fairs; not even non-profits like MoMA are safe from the edict of all sales all the time.

We’ve yet to test the consequences of treating the museum as a showroom. Skate’s researcher Anna Lipskaya predicts that without passing “the art history test” (or without making much of a real-world impact beyond a quick blockbuster) much of this could devalue. This seems likely.

Botero at galerie gymurzynska

Botero at galerie gymurzynska

Perhaps one of the more inventive sales packages came from Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery; they gave over their space entirely to the work of the reclusive Antiguan artist Frank Walter. It looked smart, and it was one of the more welcoming booths at the fair. But the packaging was undeniable; the gallery, with the help of the artist’s family was able to recreate the artist’s last resting place, a quirky single-room shack, with added bonuses like a vitrine housing his personal writings. The gallerist told me this mini-museum was meant to be sold to “an institution, not just anyone.”

Maybe this is the beauty of ABMB; for endlessly deep pockets, there’s an ample choice of pickings. Immediately near the entrance, Fernando Botero’s 2012 fuschia-filled painting “A Party” was priced at $1.3 million. We can only hope this means the sort of person who’d buy this could walk in, finish their grisly business, and walk right back out.

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