No more disclaimers this time around, let’s just jump back into the thick of it, starting—where else?—with more dinners and parties, of course. During the relentless march of fairs and biennials, the art world resembles a giant mixed cocktail. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it exacerbates the more questionable tendencies of certain fair-goers’ behavior. One thing is for sure, the intensity of it all can really blind people and drive them to extreme forms of action and reaction. And the art crowd is a high-strung lot to begin with.
I admit to possibly forgetting that I had kids one night at about 3 a.m. at the Three Kings Hotel, where everyone congregates each night after dinners where they seat you dealer-to-dealer, so that there’s always a pair of shoulder blades pressing from behind—a kind of wall-to-wall art-world orgy. Others come directly from the parties, and it’s funny to see well-heeled, middle-aged people with stamps on their hands from the clubs. I may even have the faint remainder of one still, days later.
Back to the raucous bar scene. In walks a prominent U.K.- and U.S.-based contemporary dealer, chest puffed like a reverse peacock, who nearly bowls me over like a pin—of course without coming close to uttering “excuse me.” Minutes later the very same Grizzly Adams-esque man knocks into me again, and says a "hello" in my direction, followed by the lovely comment, “I wasn’t saying hello to you, Kenny.” Sometimes the art world can be really touching (literally).
But it’s always fun to eavesdrop on your neighbors at parties and events—you will never be left disappointed, as I can attest after hearing some doozies. For instance, “My friends said I would meet such interesting people in Basel, but I've found none, just a bunch of schmoozers.” And even more biting, a Gagosian employee dropped this little bomb about an artist who recently flew the coop, “Ha. Does anyone still represent him?”
There was a dinner for Dame Zaha Hadid and her sublime and magical firehouse at the Vitra campus, now 2o years old and looking fresher and better than ever. The building was supplemented for the occasion by a new sculptural furniture element with edges so acute it looked like it could take off, or, more likely, kill someone. All I could think of seated at the dinner in the sleek main hall, where the trucks used to park, was plopping my bed down in the middle of the floor and moving in.
Ok, now on to the art, more or less. The fair is broken down between two floors with the ground level filled with the most established works (I refer to it as obvious things by obvious people), while more contemporary fare is situated upstairs. It’s a good idea to head out with a pocket full of candy, as what's worse than an art dealer or collector with bad breath? Getting past the entrance to the fair can be a contact sport if you get in the way of a starved collector: “I'm sorry, the line starts behind me!” And with my notorious sense of direction, leave it to me to get lost at just about every turn.
Long gone are the days when artists appeared to be more physically involved in the process of making art, rather than farming out the manufacturing of goods—even paintings—to underlings and machines. Artists sometimes seem to be after the creation of formulae rather than individual works with heartfelt meaning.
Traipsing the aisles, you can’t help but make human observations—like that the art world is often more colorful than the art, as in the case of a dealer in a tight dress with a body so contorted as to resemble a John Currin character. Or that other dealer twitching so much I couldn’t tell if he had a tic or swallowed a jar of MDMA.
Another tendency observed repeatedly at fairs are the mega-valued artworks, often at prices matching the GDP of mid-sized countries, enough to warrant their own individual security guards. And then there’s the celebrity count, the art-world equivalent of counting wartime casualties. What’s a fair, after all, without some Jay-Z and Kanye (who, after a brief Basel appearance, declared himself once again bigger than both God and Steve Jobs, who, looking at the glut of Apple products in dealers' booth, may hold more sway here than the former)?
And, of course, a fair would not be complete without tiger-loving LDC (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the prowl. GRRR! Forget the Mugrabis and MoMA, today it’s the celebs who are responsible for market inflation and reputation manipulation. I actually made an artwork about LDC, who hosted the recent $40 million charity sale at Christie’s to save endangered species. I then proceeded (for some reason) to send the image to Larry Gagosian, the purchaser of the $6.5 million Mark Grotjahn (money well spent), the star lot and background for my digital collage. If that wasn't enough, I had to stop Gagosian, after a few, on the stairs of the Three Kings and remind him.
Making yet another appearance at a fair was the first-floor Gerhard Richter painting, bought at auction within the past few years (a typical occurrence), with the remnants of an over-painted candle barely visible from the bottom of the composition. This thing has been dragged to so many fairs that the paint may fall off. If the candle was still there it would be priceless in that size, but without, it’s proven to be unsellable. Maybe they should get a restorer to scrape away the abstraction and relocate the missing candle, just don’t mention it to Gerhard.
The legendary Nahmads, who I revere for their dynastic familial relationship with art (and for buying it en masse!), had a typical double-barreled, high-caliber booth filled with beautiful and significant works by Miró, Calder, and Bacon. There was even an all-white room with furniture and carpet replete with an unparalleled group of Fontana slits, the art world’s take on The White Album. They were all sold for between $2 million and $6 million, not to mention a Calder snapped up for $10 million. I guess the cloud hanging over the gallery from the recent legal troubles in New York is as white as the room.
At one point, a portion of the Nahmad booth was cordoned off to make way for a private viewing, transforming it into a Fontana Fortress to present a single work to what seemed like a very rich collector. When another equally deep-pocked patron appeared, I could not believe that the assistant failed to make the ID of this well-known oligarch and refused him entry. Not the wisest of moves, which she soon came to recognize after being not-so-subtly alerted by his bodyguard. Bet she remembers next time.
A few more notable quotes from the peanut gallery: “The artist has an notable relationship with Gumby and Felix the Cat.” And, “Look at that painting! She's having a giant orgasm.” You can all but hear the jingling sounds of money ringing in the ears of many of the conversationalists. “What did you buy?” is a popular catchphrase encountered again and again, reminding everyone in no uncertain terms why we're all here in the first place.
It is more than amazing to think that, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars of sales are consummated by nothing more than a handshake and a leap of faith. With $2 billion worth of art said to be on show, that’s a lot of handshakes and, with that crowd, it’s best to be equipped with a few buckets of anti-bacterial wash.
I bumped into collector, gallerist, and sometime art writer Adam Lindemann, and we engaged in a long, drawn-out discussion of the market and the many newfangled resources by which price movements and trends are monitored and tracked. That was about classic cars, of course, a shared passion.
Though I won’t divulge what (or even if) I bought at the fair—those are professional trade secrets, you see—there is an undeniable high, a chill-inducing buzz from pulling the trigger. Sure, it’s a materialistic and admittedly sad attempt to fill an emotional void of some sort or another, but a fun temporary fix nevertheless. I guess you can figure the answer to whether or not I bought something.
Here is another popular refrain in today’s art world in general: “This is unique, yes, but she may do some additional versions.” What the dealer fails to mention here is that there will actually be an infinite amount of additional works fabricated and that they will be all but indistinguishable from the very work you just purchased.
Navigating a fair, a more-than-day-long enterprise, is a constant battle against declining phone batteries. These events present incredible opportunities to learn, gather information, and see. Speaking of looking, one New York gallery run by an unnamed German had the title of the gallery printed in giant, boldfaced lettering on its wall labels while you had to squint to see the name of the artists.
The art world is composed of a succession of hierarchical concentric rings of power, in which the most elite dinner is with just four people. Even veterans like me still end up snubbed and drubbed on occasion. But the art itself is largely free to view and accessible to all. Nothing can describe or replace the experience of sucking in all the art on offer at a fair. The common retort that there's “nothing great” at a fair is no more than disingenuous posturing.
All in all, I survived Basel, including a close brush with a tram that nearly flattened me, my nose pressed firmly against the windshield by the time it stopped. I also overcame other blows, such as when I was told that I could increase my business if I stopped talking so much, and that a work I bought was being reoffered (by whom I am still trying to find out) before I was invoiced.
In two decades, I don’t think I’ve ever stayed through a fair without changing my reservation to leave early. Who can blame me? You’d think I’d learn. And now what, after the endless spate of biennials and fairs we have just been through? The auctions, of course! I just got home to a mountain of catalogues. Ready for some more tales from the trenches?
Kenny Schacter's Art Basel Diary, Part 1