At Art Basel, Everyone’s Playing It Safe


BASEL, Switzerland — Psychologists call it the “mere exposure effect”: Humans like what they already know, whether people, places, products — or works of art.

There was certainly a reassuring familiarity about most of the works on display at the 51st edition of Art Basel, which opened for previews on Tuesday and runs through Sunday. After three pandemic postponements since June last year, with online editions in the meantime, this was the first major in-person international art fair to be held in Europe since March 2020, when Tefaf Maastricht closed early after an exhibitor tested positive.

“The emphasis is on the staid and the predictable,” said Matthew Armstrong, a New York-based art adviser and curator, of this year’s edition. “People want the reassurance of what they know,” he added, having noted, like many others, the preponderance of modern and contemporary paintings by established names.

Armstrong was among the fair’s few American attendees after the U.S. State Department had issued a Covid-19 “do not travel” advisory for Switzerland on Aug. 30. All visitors, wherever they come from, are required to wear masks and wrist bands showing proof of vaccination.

Owned by the Swiss M.C.H. exhibition group, Art Basel is the world’s premier art-fair brand, with annual shows also held (pandemics permitting) in Hong Kong in March and Miami Beach in December. The last two June editions of its flagship European show have had to be online-only events. But with New York fairs such as Frieze, Armory and Independent recently returning to in-person formats, Art Basel was looking to show the art world — and its new investors, James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems group — that it was back in business I.R.L..

“I was missing the energy of the Americans in the first hours,” said Glenn Scott Wright, a co-director at Victoria Miro, a London-based gallery among the 272 exhibiting at the fair. “I thought without them we’re going to have a long day. But in the end we’ve done quite well,” he added.

Rather than show works from its stable of younger contemporaries, Victoria Miro showed works by well-known figurative painters: Milton Avery, Alice Neel and Paula Rego. Wright said the gallery sold seven works on the first day ranging from $200,000 to $1.2 million, including Neel’s 1955 portrait “Julian Brody.”

Neel, who died in 1984, was Art Basel’s artist of the moment, having just been the subject of a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her penetrating portraits were also available, priced up to about $2 million, on the booths of the New York dealers David Zwirner and Cheim & Read, as well as at Xavier Hufkens of Brussels.

Art Basel’s Swiss edition has long had a reputation as the main art fair where top dealers offer museum-quality trophies. But this year, with wealthy collectors from America and Asia both absent, masterworks were few and far between.

“Galleries have been careful,” said Marta Gnyp, an art adviser and dealer based in Berlin. “They haven’t brought many knockout works. You keep them for moments when you’re 100 percent sure of selling them — there’s too much uncertainty at the moment.”

That said, the large-scale Jean-Michel Basquiat blue and yellow diptych “Hardware Store,” from 1983, was attracting a lot of attention on the booth of the New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe.

Van de Weghe described the work’s $40 million price tag as “very correct,” given that three Basquiat paintings had already sold for higher figures at auction this year. But all three of those works included the artist’s trademark black skull motif, which didn’t feature in the Basel diptych. On Friday morning, it was still unsold.

With Art Basel and its participating dealers relying on digital channels to sell art during the pandemic, it seemed likely that more works than ever would have been presold online before the fair. But while there would still have been plenty of advance buying based on photographs, some dealers said they were using Art Basel’s physical return as an opportunity to re-establish personal contacts with serious buyers, particularly from Europe.

“We prioritized European institutions and private collections,” said Friedrich Petzel, owner of New York dealership Petzel, who represents several coveted contemporary artists whose works are currently reselling at auction for many times their gallery prices. “If Asian and American collectors said they wanted to reserve works, we told them they had to come to the fair.”

The 1987 canvas “Fernsehkind (TV Child),” by the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, a pioneer of “body awareness” painting, took pride of place on Petzel’s booth. A companion piece to a similarly themed 1987 work in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, this sold for about $1.1 million, alongside paintings by Dana Schutz and Derek Fordjour for $1.1 million and $155,000.

But while on-trend dealers like Petzel needed to rehang their booths after the first day, other smaller, less fashionable galleries would have struggled to cover their costs.

Mindful of the challenges facing those galleries in 2021, Art Basel announced Sept. 6 that it was creating a “one-time solidarity fund” of 1.5 million Swiss francs, about $1.6 million. The fund has been devised to provide a discount of at least 10 percent on the booth costs for galleries that make few sales. Successful exhibitors can opt out, increasing the share of the fund that will be evenly distributed to dealers who have struggled.

Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director, told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday that many major dealers had already said they wouldn’t be claiming a share of the fund. Art Basel said in an emailed statement on Friday that it would not comment on the fund until after the fair and would not be disclosing the galleries that opted out

Vanessa Carlos, a co-founder of the London-based Carlos/Ishikawa gallery and a vocal proponent of financial support for smaller galleries at high-expense art fairs, said Art Basel’s solidarity fund “probably won’t make a huge difference, but I appreciate it as a gesture.” She added that she would have to wait until the end of the fair, “when I see all total sales versus all total costs,” before deciding if she would claim from the fund.

Carlos/Ishikawa was certainly busy on the first preview day, selling two new large oil-on-velvet works by the British painter Issy Wood, each priced at more than $100,000. Like many of the “emerging” artists whose works were exhibited at Art Basel, Wood has already emerged. Her paintings have sold for more than $300,000 at auction and she is one of the 31 artists featured in the “Mixing It Up: Painting Today” show at the Hayward Gallery in London.

“Fairs now function for known transactions, not catching the unknown,” said Heather Flow, a New York-based art adviser, one of Art Basel’s usual American visitors, who didn’t attend this year. “In general, I do not find fairs a generative venue for discovering emerging art,” she added in an email.

In-person visitors’ widely held perception that the painting-dominated “Covid comeback” edition of Art Basel was somehow conservative or playing safe also suggests they had forgotten what the top end of the art market has become. Thanks to Instagram, WhatsApp and JPGs, by the time a dealer shows an artist at Art Basel, the market is already in the know.



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