You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again (Basel Wrap-Up)

Our intrepid art fair habitué, Kenny Schachter, takes on the big daddy of art fairs, ArtBasel. The subject is so vast, so intriguing that he keeps on having more to say. So check back often for his periodic updates:

Got off to an early start this year prior to the onset of the ART Basel fair(s), at 5am very early, and headed off to Zurich for a jump on the proceedings. I received more .pdf’s offering pre-fair fare than on any prior occasion, which can’t foreshadow a good thing for sellers now or in the near future. At a recent lunch, a London property developer showed me agent emails predicting a slowdown for much touted high-end residential on the horizon. Could this all be a red flag for things to come, an indication of distress looming? I doubt it. But here was a prospect even scarier: longtime 1980’s art dealer Tony Shafrazi announced he returned to making art after retiring his spray-can decades ago following his unprovoked vandalism attack against Picasso’s Guernica in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, threatening to show his hand at the fair, and what a hand it was to be (more on that to below).

Basel is the big daddy of international art fairs, though at 43, it’s not the oldest that would be Cologne, which is now on life support. As an attendee at Basel, you even feel compelled to dress differently, like entering a place of worship, where all are dolled up in their Sunday best. But at the same time, many of the characters in and around the art world are smug and righteous who feel both superior and envious to those contributing to drive the art market. Auction and art fair aesthetics may not be definitive, but there is always a degree of underlying logic to a market as broad and far-reaching as art. The New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl recently stated: “Our age will be bookmarked in history by the self-adoring gestures of the incredibly rich. Aesthetics ride coach.” Sorry but I beg to differ as life isn’t as straightforward and simple as us against them (or them against us, depending where you situate yourself).

The VIP opening (has such stupid, vapid terminology any meaning or relevance anymore?) was stretched out over two days in order to avoid a relapse of last year’s billionaires stampede which rivaled a 1970s Who concert in the near death carnage. But everyone still finds reasons to complain about everything—there were too many people, there were not enough people, there was no longer any impetus to make snap, spur-of-the-moment decisions as there was no longer the mad rush of having to pull the trigger prior to the admittance of the hoi polloi. Back to the art market: when you look at the macro macro-economic picture, extrapolating from the bigger trends at large, all the pieces still seem firmly in place to keep this monster fed and roaring for the near future, despite the constant prognostications to the contrary.

Checking into my hotel, the very first person I laid eyes on was a dealer who I had recently concluded a multi-million dollar deal with who then evaporated without a trace for months like a puff of smoke (maybe he was smoking something himself and forgot, but unlikely). Funny the art world manner of doing business, or lack of manners I should say. Such a fortuitous hotel lobby encounter with the New York deadbeat dealer was met with a dumb and sheepish shrug by the offender (who might have ginger hair), which was about all he could muster. Call that misadventure a roadmap for the way in which the unregulated art business is frequently conducted: miscommunications on top of misrepresentations by misfits.

At a lunch before things kicked off, I was going in and out of consciousness during a speech by sculptor David Smith’s daughter when she dropped the most poignant bomb: that her father refused to teach drawing, disallowed coloring books (or anything within an outline) and would not permit the use of crayons. She related that he said, “You need to find your own line.” I thought that just about encompassed the key to the meaning of life. After I explained what I do professionally to the woman seated next to me, she replied that the exclusive party she was due to throw was exclusively for collectors specifically excluding those involved a commercial capacity in art. So like Smith’s daughter, I discovered my own line, which might have involved spinning a few lies, till an invite was presented.

The most coveted dinner invite is not even in Basel but rather Zurich, where the thrower is so reticent each year about hosting the shindig she swears it off every time until succumbing and staging it once again as per usual. Though I bagged an invite I did a quick runner for despite the unimaginable beauty of the setting and plentitude of food, it’s still a meal peopled by hoards of dealers and a smattering of collectors, so how much fun could that be? Answer: not very much, indeed. The following night was an even better story and perfectly exemplifies the questionable high jinks of the art world. How do I dance around this without putting my foot in it—but I can’t help but try. Let’s say I facilitated a show for someone at a prestigious gallery, for which I subsequently received no credit. Over the years, the gallery continued to pursue the relationship, leaving me by the wayside, though the loyal artist always acted impeccably. When the publication from our exhibit was finally premiered at a Basel dinner, not only wasn’t I invited to the launch, but I was also unsure my essay would even appear in the book. None of which stopped me from crashing the party of course.

Art Unlimited opened before the main attraction—a portion of the fair meant for unwieldy, non-commercial scaled art installations, in a world where snot is monetized, that’s a laugh. And let me tell you, in no uncertain terms, this show was an argument writ large for small, dispelling once and for all the concept that bigger is better. The exhibition lowlight was comprised of a mid-sized black Labrador lying prone on a carpet gasping for air directly positioned under a pounding spotlight in an otherwise dark and over-crowded space. Let the artist lie under a scorching light in an enclosed room being gawked at by a countless, never ending stream of VIP’s (Very Insensitive People).  Yes, you didn’t know if the animal was dead, alive or animatronics, and it was certainly startling when the dog was startled back to life by its trainer for a breather. But it was atrocious nonetheless. Are the oh-so-clever art masses thus entertained? I wish they’d have asked me; I’d have selflessly volunteered one of my horrific toy poodles for the hapless job.

With no booth, my business often occurs in the cracks of the fair—the streets, trains, aisles and restaurants of Basel (substitute Cologne, Hong Kong, Miami, London, or New York). In one such instance, a perfect illustration of the inefficient nature of the art market, which makes it such an alluring place to be, was the following. My feet were burning with pain (chronic fair fatigue, a newly acknowledged syndrome) so I plopped myself down on a bench between two dealers I know, an indication of the extent of my suffering. One of them turned to me, interrupting his conversation and stated emphatically: “Let’s do a deal right now.” He proceeded to show me a painting by an artist he knew I admired and quoted a figure he figured to be the retail price (he obviously hadn’t checked for a while—wink, wink) and asked me make an offer from there. I went lower than low and he met me nearby and I was able to scoop up a masterpiece (relatively speaking) for a masterfully cheap price. And so it goes.

No matter your feelings on art fairs, the majors are filled with great art across a vast expanse. And despite widespread skepticism, concern and even mistrust, I am certain the art market is deep and not under threat due to fundamental shifts in global patterns of consumption. There is an undeniable and indescribable excitement in acquisitions that brings to mind the doctor who squandered money funded to secure children’s heart surgeries in order to buy the latest contemporary art; before he went to prison for embezzlement. His property made for one hell of an entertaining auction in the late 90’s when he was forced to dislodge it all by the authorities. The above is a caution to all that subscribe to the notion that the lack of dough is never an impediment to a good collector, rather, a challenge.  Maybe it all just signifies a giant emotional black hole.

A naked man and woman flanked the entrance to the Sean Kelly Gallery necessitating a certain finesse to squeeze through without creating an international incident. The work was a re-enactment of Marina Abramović’s famous performance “Imponderabilia.” Amazing to think that in the Middle East it would not be permissible to stage this innocuous tableau, and even more outlandish that I was thrown off facebook for 24 hours for posting it on my blog. More suppressive then China and Syria, with a flagging stock, fb is a less happy concept then only a matter of months ago.

Gagosian cobbled together 2 sets of Andy Warhol Oxidation paintings from 1978 by grouping 4 8×10 inch works into one frame and 4 16 x 12 inch works into another in an attempt to create something that exceeded the sum of it’s parts. He didn’t succeed and I needed to find one for a client as I believe the series to be undervalued. But part of the fair upside and involving a rare display of camaraderie, is that if you ask enough acquaintances for opinions you will find key information you seek. In the case of the piss painting predicament, I was directed by a private dealer with a Warhol specialization, akin to independent specialists on the floor of a stock exchange, to Per Skarstedt’s booth where he had a larger, more significant work, in stock at the same price as Gagosian. As Diana Ross sang, it pays to reach and touch somebody’s hand.

How hundreds of millions of dollars of business is consummated on the trading floor of a fair is actually an incredible exploit to conceive. A deal is made by agreeing to the financial terms and simply saying ok, I will buy a work at a given level and then boom, the transaction is complete on a handshake (sometimes not even), invoicing to follow, as old a way of doing business as business is old, entailing a nice leap of faith based purely on trust (by both parties) in the process. There you have it, and the result can be a rather intangible experience on both sides of the coin. Another upside is the sheer amount of information that is at hand; with so many whispered gems, among the best reasons to attend a fair, I can hardly remember which ones I’m not supposed to repeat. From the same source that mentioned the $250m Cezanne a year before it was publically announced, came the juicy gossip of a $160m Rothko recently transacted, what better evidence that the news of the art market’s imminent demise is mere premature conjecture. Another unrepeatable tidbit of gossip was that a dealer I had worked with in the past was so hard up for money that he sold a painting 3 times, and more than once; and, now faces an investigation and possible jail term. Desperate times call for desperate actions but I desperately hope I am not sucked into the proceedings. Ugh.

Enough about art business and back to the inimitable social life. When the fair is in full swing, the city of Basel, like Miami, is so taxed by the demands of the rich, famous and not so rich or famous that it verges on bursting. One night for dinner we ended up at a typical art world haunt, freezing outside with no service for miles; the restaurant so dangerously past their capacity, reservation holders were turned away, we had to steal plates not meant for us in order to eat, and in the end were asked for an address so a bill could be sent, they couldn’t even muster the wherewithal to generate a check. And still business cards were exchanged at the table with other art world guests, similarly trembling in the cold. Amazing the art travelers, bordering on clinically cuckoo, that pass off as professionals in the midst of a heated market.

The booths are strategically and hierarchically laid out at ART Basel like layers of an onion. The sweetest (most powerful) rings are situated around the inner courtyard, and they travel outward like waves until you reach the disparate corners. But like chickens moved to a new coop, not all fair-goers travel far and wide, many stay close to the center, until on occasion they peck each other’s eyes out. No patch of turf in the country of Switzerland is immune to the hustle of an art sale, attempted or otherwise, during the course of the fair. God knows I had a few dry runs in various hotel lobbies and other unorthodox venues, including a bizarre encounter with a famous collector I spied leaning against the concierge desk reading the newspaper on his iPad at 1:30am one evening, where I nonchalantly struck up a Richter conversation. No billionaire shall go unturned. What was the hottest commodity at the fair? Not art or money but phone chargers and the juice to run them. What happened to the time when battery life extended longer than an email? But it’s a dangerous thing to leave your phone in the booth of a dealer “friend” even when the device is locked—snakes can get just about anywhere. After running out of batteries more than once, I had to lug around my charger like an artificial organ.

Being in Basel can at times stir an urge to buy that transcends the immediate surroundings of the fair—exposed to so much stimulus can trigger remote buying reflex. For example there were two Frederick Kiesler multi-purpose chairs from Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery from 1942 on offer at €450k each at the Design Fair. Only weeks before I was shown images of two replicas made in the 1960’s for Kiesler’s appearance on a TV show for a fraction of the cost; in comparison to the real things I viewed in Basel, I jumped at the low cost simulacrum. An occasion of arbitrage opportunities that frequently pop up at fairs were two beautiful Bridget Riley drawings from the 1970’s—the examples on exhibit were £90k each which reminded me of the even earlier and equally as attractive pieces displayed in Hong Kong only weeks ago at nearly half the cost. I was hoping to cement a deal before the HK dealer arrived in Basel, for timing counts for a lot.

One of the gripes spreading through the aisles like wildfire was the fact that the fair management demanded collector details from the galleries prior to sending out the coveted VIP cards, which caused nothing short of a revolt. Galleries guard their clients like state secrets and would rather face a firing squad or torture then reveal even to their loved ones who the biggest buyers are (you never know how a relationship will end and who will make a grab for the business). After only a few days of looking, an act more strenuous than climbing, I had seen so much so closely, I couldn’t bear the thought of a single museum visit; yes the true philistine in me reared it’s head, only to retreat in a sea of guilt. And my fair visit ended like it always does, faced with the nagging desire to flee early regardless of cost. Foolishly, I had been staying in Zurich which had the unforeseen effect of keeping me out of the bars and parties in Basel which was an hour train ride away; ostensibly and health-wise a good thing (and professionally), but on hindsight, I rather missed it all. Maybe for my next trip to the Miami fair I should commute from New Jersey.

ART Basel should go one step further than the Cologne fair that hosted an autonomous NADA fair within the belly of the main event but still separated; and, in a seamless and nonhierarchical manner, fully integrate the design amongst it’s happy bedfellow, art. In another move towards abolishing the dull sameness of big art fairs, the second floor of Basel, hosting the more adventurous, less established and canonized art and artists should collapse and mix with its forefathers. We don’t really live or think in a chronological universe where history is linear; the future is a non-narrative zone where we bounce between things, with a little more randomness and chaos—don’t fear, fair organizers, give us a little more credit to make our own associations and juxtapositions without spoon-feeding us the identical line, over and over and over. Call it a dose of creative destruction to cure us from the monotony—I’d much rather see a hodgepodge by way of a mishmash.

Now that all is said and done, I get a phone call that the shit I have been writing on the machinations of the art world has inspired a TV show; I hope that a) I get some credit, i.e. the monetary variety; b) it has the chutzpah of Tony Shafrazi exhibiting his very own art within his very own booth with full knowledge he’d be thrown out on his ass next year as a consequence; and, c) that it doesn’t suck as much as Tony’s show did.

 

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