An insider's look at Art Basel Fair

This year, the fair has implemented a sliding scale price model, allowing smaller booths to pay less per square meter.

At the preview on Tuesday, 11 June, Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler acknowledged broad art market challenges, including the opposition that smaller, younger galleries face. “We live, let’s be honest, in a difficult time for galleries,” he said. “It’s a time of consolidation. It’s a time when the market often focuses on a few galleries and a few artists.” There’s still hope, though. The fair—with 290 galleries from 34 different countries—kicked off with a strong first day of sales.

Below, McCaslin Art Advisory is pleased to share 10 highlights from this year’s fair.

Hauser & Wirth

Hauser & Wirth announced worldwide representation of Annie Leibovitz this week, and its Art Basel presentation features a new work by the artist, comprised of 63 photographs taken from 1970–84, of people in cars—including famous personalities such as Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Mick Jagger, and Jane Fonda. The gallery also recently began representing the estate of John Chamberlain whose sculptures are on view. Other highlights include a striking, red Lucio Fontana  painting with 24 slashes, Concetto spaziale, Attese (1965).

Galerie Thomas

Galleries Section, Booth H13

Galerie Thomas presented a surprising and ultimately winning pairing of paintings by Chaim Soutine (priced at $850,000 to $2.5 million) and Edvard Munch (ranging from $100,000 for certain prints to several million for a painting). On the surface, the two artists had little in common. The former was French-Russian and famous for gory depictions of animal carcasses; the latter was Norwegian and renowned for the world’s most famous depiction of existential dread: The Scream (1893). Yet gallery owner Silke Thomas views the pair as two of the “great painters of early 20th-century art.” She believes that each had “the courage to paint,” and shared in common their stubbornness. They were both “possessed by the idea of expressing themselves.”  


Metro Pictures

Galleries Section, Booth B3

Attachment theory is hot right now. As your therapist would love to tell you, the psychological model helps explain why some of us continue to pursue unavailable romantic partners. 

Camille Henrot’s new series “Systems of Attachment” (2019) riffs on these ideas. According to the gallery’s Alexander Ferrando, the artist is interested in “the need, the necessity to actually separate, to individuate, from the parent or romantic relationship.” Her moody, cartoonish figures are awash in reds, yellows, and blues.

Nearby, a busy mixed media–on–wood panel piece by Mike KelleyMemory Wave #41 (2003), provided an exuberant celebration of kitsch. The artist stuck beads, knick-knacks, smiley faces, and hearts against an acid yellow backdrop (the piece is priced at $2.3 million). And there was a fun Cindy Sherman print, Untitled (1989), which featured the artist wearing a fake bare chest and a furry white mask.


Neue Alte Brücke

Statements Section, Booth N12

An RV took up most of Neue Alte Brücke’s booth—a strange sight in the middle of the Swiss convention center. It’s part of a work by the collective Nancy Halt, a play on “Nancy Holt,” the name of the major land artist responsible for the iconic Sun Tunnels (1973–76). The trio (two artists and one art historian) once wanted to include a Holt work in an exhibition they were curating called “Land Art for Aliens.” They couldn’t get it from the foundation (Holt died in 2014). Instead, gallery founder Mark Dickenson explained, they decided to “build a new artist onto an existing artist.” Nancy Halt was born.

Recently, Nancy Halt decided to drive out in the RV to  Michael Heizer ’sheavily guarded, long-in-progress land artwork City and give the artist a letter written by “Nancy.” He wasn’t available. The collective was eventually able to break in, and documentation of their trip is on view, along with the vehicle (the installation costs $50,000).


Taka Ishii Gallery

Galleries Section, Booth L11

An impressive wall of the Taka Ishii Gallery booth displayed 74 photographs by Japanese artists, made from the 1960s through the present. They ranged from Nobuyoshi Araki’s sexy provocations to Ishiuchi Miyako’s shadowy streetscapes. Other pictures showed public transit, destroyed buildings, and a man throwing clothing off a roof. The most famous of the bunch was hanging in the back room: Ihei Kimura’s Basement Tavern, Vienna (1955), which showed two figures at the back of an otherwise empty, dimly lit bar.

Vadehra Art Gallery

Feature Section, Booth J5

Artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, who emerged from the Indian counterpart to the Weimar Bauhaus, went blind in 1957. He continued to make work that was perhaps even stronger than his output from when he could see. No longer able to paint, he turned to paper cutouts. His works on view at Vadehra’s booth, all from this late period of his career, were vibrant compositions of found paper and bright, simple shapes. The works evidenced the artist’s indomitable drive to create. The Tate Modern has acquired similar pieces and positioned them as heirs to  Henri Matisse’s famous cutouts.

Standard (Oslo)

Galleries Section, Booth M9

Seeing Standard (Oslo)’s booth, you might ask: “Who made the Keanu Reeves meme work?” The answer is Gardar Eide Einarsson. The Norwegian artist has turned the “Keanu conspiracy” meme into a series of prints. The texts across Reeves’s headshot offer insightful questions, such as “What if the reason we haven’t gotten visitors from the future is because we have no future?” and “What if there are hot singles near me?”. The gallery is also debuting Torbjørn Rødland’s amusing, crisp photograph of a very large sandwich, entitled The Thousand Dollar Sandwich (2019). 

Julia Rommel, who just closed an excellent show at New York gallery Bureau, was also exhibiting a candy-hued painting, entitled Woman with Long Fingers (2019). Bold patches of negative white space discomfort and challenge the viewer—a feeling at odds with the welcoming, pastel hues of the border.



Statements Section, Booth N12

Artist Rose Salane acquired 94 rings at an unusual auction—a sale of unclaimed property found on the New York subway system. “The MTA kept them for one year, with the hope of repatriating them,” gallerist Robert Liddiment said. Then, in Salane’s hands, they became mysteries to solve. In 2018, the artist asked an “intuitive reader” to guess the backstories behind the rings.

“It’s very strange what I am getting,” the psychic medium noted of one gold ring with red and green stones. “I feel like this ring belongs to a woman who was trying to lose weight.…She was obsessing about time.…The person isn’t searching for the ring really; they are like a closed book. In their mind this ring is a closed chapter.”

Salane also analyzed the DNA on the rings and asked jewelers to appraise them. She’s mounted the rings and silk-screened information received from all three tests onto a white background; there were six rings and captions per page. Altogether, they formed a lyrical game of lost and found. 


But again Larry Gagosian upstaged them all. On the evening of the fair he opened what was initially billed as a pop-up show at a space in Basel’s Old Town. But as the billionaires queued on the Messeplatz Tuesday morning, jostling to be the first inside the fair, word spread that it was actually a new permanent gallery—Gagosian’s 17th space. The tasteful three-room space is a few steps from the Grand Hotel Trois Rois, the preferred local accommodations for dealers and collectors of the mega-variety…