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Put your feminist foot forward

There are plenty of pieces to be found at Art Basel by older female artists, whose work is increasingly valued

The top ten auction prices for the American artist Alice Neel (1900-84) have been made within the past six years. Elizabeth, 1983, a portrait of the artist’s grand­daughter, is one of two paintings by Neel with David Zwirner gallery (2.0/F5; priced at $600,000). A show of her work is currently on view at Sweden’s Nordic Watercolour Museum (until 8 September)

Has the art market found its feminine side? Women artists, particularly those of an older generation, occupy considerable space at Art Basel this year. New York’s Alexander Gray Associates (2.0/G4) has devoted its display to the octogenarian painter Joan Semmel, while Cheim & Read (2.0/C14), also of New York, sold a nine-foot-long untitled painting by Joan Mitchell, which dates to 1956, for $6m within the first 20 minutes of the fair. At Alison Jacques Gallery (2.1/P18), an aluminium sculpture by the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, Bicho Contrário II (maquette), 1961, is on reserve at $1.5m. Her profile, like that of many women artists from the mid- to late 20th century, is rising quickly. A similar work sold in 2010 for €200,000—vastly less than today’s price.

Some dealers attribute the growing interest in older women artists to recent international biennials, which have opted to rediscover overlooked talent rather than forecast future stars. “Those exhibitions have told us that it is OK to show artists from all eras,” Jacques says. “Artists don’t have to be young—or even alive—to be contemporary.” Jacques is presenting two paintings by Dorothea Tanning ($65,000-$150,000), who is included in Massimiliano Gioni’s “Encyclopaedic Palace” exhibition at the Venice Biennale. The Beirut- and Hamburg-based Sfeir-Semler Gallery (2.1/P13), meanwhile, is offering work by the 88-year-old artist Etel Adnan and the 67-year-old Cairo-born artist Anna Boghiguian (€10,000-€20,000), both of whom gained wide notice last year at Documenta 13.

The growing visibility of these artists is no coincidence. Curators who admired their work as students are now old enough to advocate for them. “My generation, which is coming out of the 1990s, was really interested in this work,” says Connie Butler, the recently appointed chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She organised the first major museum show of early feminist art, “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2006. “It does take time for a new generation to be in power. It’s hard to imagine now, but ten years ago, you couldn’t see this work anywhere.”

Despite the growing interest, many older women artists remain less expensive than their male contemporaries. At Galerie 1900-2000 of Paris (2.0/D6), a small sculpture by the Fluxus artist Alison Knowles can be had for as little as €500, while a work of similar scale by Erik Dietman, Nastan 1 m Plaster runt en miljofordarvare, 1964, is priced at €3,000. “The truth is, [the Knowles] is still unsold, which means it is not easy to sell,” says Marcel Fleiss of the Parisian gallery, adding that he has not raised Knowles’s prices since the 1980s.

The dealer Hendrik Berinson of Galerie Berinson (2.0/C11), who is showing drawings by the artists Unica Zürn (€30,000-€40,000) and Meret Oppenheim (€22,000-€32,000), distinguishes between the market for overlooked women and that for young, flashy, (often) male talent. “They are parallel, but don’t really intersect,” he says. “The audiences are different.”

Basel’s museums still resemble something of a boys’ club when it comes to exhibitions coinciding with the fair. Matthew Barney showed at the Schaulager in 2010; Steve McQueen is on view this year. The Fondation Beyeler has a Max Ernst, Maurizio Cattelan and Andy Warhol treble bill. Theodora Vischer, the Beyeler’s senior curator, calls the lack of shows of women “a shame”, but notes that the Beyeler mounted a Louise Bourgeois show in 2011-12.

“You still don’t see parity if you look at private collections and museum collections,” Butler says. But “there are more than a handful of collectors focusing on women. People are making the case that representing a diverse history is more interesting. It is also more reflective of what the history actually was.”

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