Artists Trends Fairs Switzerland

Artists retain the element of surprise

Recognisable names at the fair are not always matched by recognisable works

It’s Warhol, but not as you know him: Untitled (Mylar Sculpture I-III), 1969-70

A set of vividly coloured rollers wrapped in shiny metallic sheeting is stopping visitors in their tracks at Art Basel. The work, available with Daniel Blau (2.0/D3), seems to have come straight from the studio of Jeff Koons. But Untitled (Mylar Sculpture I-III), 1969-70, is actually by the Pop Art master Andy Warhol, known for his mass-produced silkscreens depicting 20th-century icons and US consumer goods.

Other dealers have also brought works that reveal a different side to artists. Munich-based Galerie Thomas (2.0/F13) is showing a remarkable large-scale slate-grey painting by Gerhard Richter. “When you think of Richter, colour explosions and broad strokes come to mind. This work is just about the grey [paint] and the movement of the painting itself,” says the gallery’s director Jörg Paal. Grau (Grey), 1974, priced at €2.9m, is from the artist’s familiar “Grey Paintings” series—eight of the works are on show at the Fondation Beyeler (“Gerhard Richter: Pictures/Series”, until 7 September)—but “they are rarely seen on the market”, Paal says.

Although dealers tend to take easily recognisable pieces to art fairs, Art Basel, with its informed audience and strong brand, inspires galleries to show atypical works. “People coming to Art Basel expect to see pieces that challenge and surprise them. Many visitors have been coming for more than 30 years and have had plenty of exposure to Western art,” says the London-based art adviser Arianne Levene.

The Norwegian dealer Eivind Furnesvik (Standard Oslo, 2.1/J5) is showing five lamp sculptures by Alex Hubbard (“Untitled” series, 2013, $24,000 each). They are the first works made in this medium by the Los Angeles-based artist, who is known for his abstract paintings and videos. Furnesvik says that “even challenging ‘shelf-warmers’—works that remain in storage for a long time—tend to sell at Art Basel”.

Even so, such works may have a smaller audience, says the London-based collector Jason Lee. “They appeal more to institutions; collectors tend to play it safe.” Art Basel, now in its 45th edition, has always been a mecca for private collectors as well as major public institutions. This week, representatives of the Louvre, the Tate, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas are among at least 35 museum groups visiting the fair.

“Art Basel is the only fair where directors, curators and trustees all turn up together, so they can make much quicker decisions,” says the dealer Thaddaeus Ropac (2.0/B11)—so galleries bring more ambitious works. Ropac is showing an enormous wooden sculpture by the German artist Georg Baselitz (Folk Thing Zero, 2009, €2.3m). A work of a similar scale and medium by the artist has not surfaced on the market for ten years, Ropac says. “Because they are so demanding [to produce], Baselitz has not made many wooden sculptures over his career.”

Massimiliano Gioni, the associate director of New York’s New Museum, is among the key curators in attendance at the fair. He cites wallpaper made by the late US artist Elaine Sturtevant, which forms a backdrop to the stand of New York-based gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (2.1/P2). Gioni says it was “unexpected” for the artist to work in this medium (the piece is not for sale).

Cecilia Alemani, the director of High Line Art in New York, says that she is surprised to see a series of sculptures (“Composition in Space”, 1963, €120,000 each) by the Polish artist Edward Krasinski at Foksal Gallery Foundation (2.1/H9). Krasinski is generally associated with his trademark blue Scotch-tape installations, which he began in 1968. Foksal’s Aleksandra Sciegienna says that the sculptures on the stand have never been exhibited before.

Bringing off-beat works to Art Basel also highlights a pressing issue: the dwindling supply of sought-after works by established, and in some cases emerging, artists. “For a good dealer to get material and keep it fresh from fair to fair is a challenge,” says the New York-based dealer Edward Tyler Nahem (2.0/F8).

Most stands are filled with signature works that meet the demands of the market—and this seems to be paying off. Warhol’s Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986, with Skarstedt (2.0/E14), sold for around $35m, the highest reported sale at the fair so far. The artist’s gleaming Mylar sculpture, on the other hand, is priced at $2m.

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