Art Basel 2014
Frieze art fairs are for young, hip art. Things that are just so hot right now and come with plenty of wall punch. Miami Basel is for sleazy, glitzy, cheesy art and well suited to the collectors who flock there. Both of these fairs pretend to subdivide the galleries into young, younger and younger still, or blue-chip and blue-blue-chip sections. But the reality is that touring these fairs is a visually daunting experience: Whether we are talking about a $5mio Koons, a $400K neo-pop painting by a savvy New York graduate of the last two years (yes, they can easily sell for that much), or, indeed, a weird thing by an up-and-coming Latvian hipster vaguely reminiscent of a sculpture, what is paramount for artist and dealer alike, is the desire to appeal to the market. The lamentable fact that this work aims to satisfy the superficial and gaudy tastes of the new self-made billionaire collector does not seem to worry anyone much, given that by the time when this particular market crashes and burns (and it does so all the time, but that never makes the press because stories of auction flops are only interesting at the very top), those involved have made so much money out of the thing they can afford to spend the rest of their lives in retirement at Martha’s Vineyard.
Art Basel, the original one in Basel that is (yes, in Switzerland!), was different. It used to set itself apart from the rest by a three-pronged system. First and foremost, the vetting process for galleries was extremely strict. Even some very successful and high-profile galleries were turned down; often on the grounds that they were too commercial, too uninterested in ‘art’, too superficial in taste. Second, by insisting that the galleries that did make it, only displayed the best available work by the artist represented. Difficult, museum-worthy pieces were favoured over cheap and commercially orientated editions. And, last but not least, by creating a two-tier fair where the upper floor was reserved for younger contemporary galleries exhibiting work by living artists and the ground floor dedicated to more established modern art dealers, the Art Basel retained a degree of focus and thus making the viewing more manageable. The ground floor was where you could buy a Bacon portrait, a Picasso or a Warhol, as well as a collage by Grosz, or a photograph by Kertesz. This division was reflected in the cost of a booth, and, of course, in the footfall of collectors. The filthy rich rarely bothered with upstairs, whereas the merely very rich didn’t wish to be seen on booths where even they couldn’t afford to buy, and so were happier and clearly more comfortable upstairs. Moreover, the ground floor had a distinctly ‘connoisseur’ feel to it, with expert collectors hunting for obscure 20th century collagists or the stranger works of Picabia and Duchamp, whereas it is upstairs where the museum curators headed to find out more about a living artist in greater depth they might well consider for a future exhibition. You would encounter curators pawing through books, talking with artists as well as younger collectors simply scrutinising the works on display. All of this was finely balanced. Powerful collectors from all over the world hunting for trophy pieces as well as the refined collector wishing to be educated and exploring an environment that offered a genuinely wide range of exhibits..
And here lies the crux of the matter. Over the past two or three editions of the fair, there have been subtle changes afoot. The ground floor has ceased to be the protected enclave of the old and venerable dealers. The new mega-galleries, seemingly unstoppable and swimming in cash, are beginning to challenge the old order, invading the territory of the accepted and long-established. It is, of course, true that many of these galleries also represent the ‘consecrated’ artists and may well show their work there, but increasingly, they will show what the market wants: Poppy, slick and lightweight painting that is nonetheless reassuringly outrageously overpriced. Can a rare Andre Breton photograph compete opposite a giant three colour graffiti doodle made by a 23 year old? In market terms it can’t, but no mercy is shown and it increasingly has to, given the exorbitant price of wall space. Space for rare art that wasn’t seen anywhere else is being lost to ‘objects’ defining themselves by their premeditated relationship with the ‘everywhere-right-now-market’. To some extent this is indicative of new collectors coming to the fair, but also of dealers willing to give collectors exactly what they want now, rather than what is good (as previously defined by museums, publications, curators, critics, peers, the public, as well as collectors). This move away from the small and medium contemporary art gallery and towards the mega-sized contemporary ‘art corporate’, has been the subject of much discussion recently. But what rarely gets mentioned is that contrary to their snooty image as the caterers to the ultra-rich and famous, these large galleries are, in fact, very interested in ensnaring young, less wealthy collectors. Whereas before the rich would buy in Mayfair, and the less rich would travel to the East End, or Williamsburg in NY, these mega galleries now aim to accommodate both by offering work at a more affordable price level (note: they are never shown at fairs, or in shows, but they are kept ‘behind-the-counter’ so to speak). And so, back at the fair, what about upstairs? Much to their chagrin, the more challenging and risk-taking galleries have been confronted with a new harsh reality: Why, if you can buy and look at ‘young’ art on the ground floor and with all price ranges covered, bother going up at all?
The venerable Art Basel Switzerland, previously a bastion of quality, has become increasingly indistinguishable from all the other fairs – emblematic of the triumph of cash over connoisseurship.
© Shirley House