Issue #182  8/5/2011
Art 42 Basel 2011: An Artist's View

By Paula Chamlee

To see works by other photographers and artists from around the world is a great stimulation and inspiration for my own work and for the simple pleasures of seeing, absorbing new things and re-visiting others. So whenever possible, we (my husband, photographer Michael A. Smith, and I) try to see museum shows and art fairs around the world in order to absorb what is inspiring, challenging, deeply moving and informing. This year, for the first time, we attended Art Basel.

In the world of international art expos, Art Basel is a "must see" event if you are an art maker, collector, curator, historian or lover of art in any way. From June 15-19, the city of Basel once again hosted this famous international art fair and reported record-breaking attendance of nearly 65,000 visitors from around the globe.

Although Michael and I have attended Art Basel-Miami Beach in Miami, FL, several times, this was our first opportunity to attend Art Basel, and we were in for a greater experience than we had imagined. In its 42nd year it remains the world's largest and most important art fair. With only 300-plus galleries selected for inclusion out of 1,800 submitted requests, the expo was an excellent mix of high-quality and diversity.

Michael and I had been teaching in Paris and so we took a pleasant three-hour ride on the TGV high-speed train to Mulhouse, France, where we were staying. We then took a local train for our 25-minute commute into Basel each day. As accommodations in Basel are booked very far in advance and are generally quite expensive, one can book hotels in outlying areas and still travel into Basel with ease.

The organization for Art 42 Basel had set up a kiosk-tent just outside the train station for visitors' easy access, providing all the necessary maps, brochures and general help to guide you to the main expo halls and the satellite shows in the city contemporaneous with the main event. They also directed you to the correct trams for each site--no small thing. There was plenty to see if your energy and concentration could hold up.

We worked diligently to see all that was possible from opening to closing hours, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. If you haven't been to Art Basel before, put comfortable walking shoes at the top of your packing list. The expo carpeting is thin (or missing) on the concrete floors. No large bags of any kind (even purses and computer bags) are allowed into the expo halls, so be prepared to carry things compactly in your pockets or in a small purse. The Swiss are as efficient as ever and will kindly check your things into a coat-check room and deliver it back to you very quickly even as hordes are descending on this room at closing time. You must observe the rules in Switzerland. I know; I lived there once.

The mighty tome that is the beautifully printed catalog published by Hatje Cantz for Art 42 Basel weighs in at 6 pounds, costs 50 euro, and is well worth it. It is free to VIP attendees. Needless to say, we picked up our catalog at the end of the day. It reminded us of what we saw and what we missed.

As most do, we entered at Hall 2, Floor 1 of the main building of die Kunstmesse (The Art Show), and were a bit overwhelmed. Galleries stretched to the ends of the huge building in all directions. We happened to enter where the Richard Gray Gallery was showing great modernist works by Richard Diebenkorn, Joseph Cornell, Brice Marden, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Georg Baselitz, Picasso, among others. We could have spent an hour there, but had to move on quickly.

At good art expos there is always the dilemma: Do we spend lots of time at certain galleries, or do we try to see everything? Balancing those competing agendas is a challenge. It is really impossible, so one has to choose. Art Basel lasts only five days and to do justice to all the art on display would take several weeks.

To the best of our abilities, we tried to have it both ways: spending a lot of time at certain galleries, and by necessity, quickly stopping at others where the works did not appear to interest us. We realize this was a poor compromise as some artists' works have much substance that is not readily appreciated without careful looking. And since I am an artist and I want to see everything, I never know when my imagination will be sparked with a new way to resolve something I'm struggling with in the studio, and I never know where my influences will come from. All visual artists share the concern of how form fits into space, and since the manner in which this can be resolved is virtually endless, it is important for me to see how other artists are resolving their works in ways that I consider to be successful, and also to see how new or unfamiliar materials and ideas are being used. Pushing toward things that are more demanding is what makes our processes interesting.

As we started in Hall 2, Floor 1, Michael kept a careful checklist of the galleries visited, as the huge expanse of sector after sector could be daunting and confusing. One can experience déjà vu endlessly without a map. Since I am easily absorbed in looking long and fully at works of art and could spend far too much time in each booth, Michael kept me systematically on course. After a previous large art expo where we did not remember which way we had turned in the seemingly endless aisles and spaces, Michael began checking off the galleries we had visited on the show's map. We found it an invaluable method.

The ground floor area was particularly inspiring to us as this was primarily for classical modern and contemporary works shown by many "blue-chip" galleries. It is a rare opportunity to see extraordinary works that will be going mostly into private collections and will perhaps not get to public museums for decades, if ever. Although museums were also making selections there, the fair depends greatly on the private collector. Quality in general was quite high. One could make notes endlessly of the great works one didn't previously know--or make digital snaps as many were doing for reference or to simply make their personal record of "awesome!" I preferred to make sketches and "memory-trigger" notes as it invigorates my imagination and forces me to look and remember more carefully.

The audiences for art are changing and galleries reflected this trend. Art Statements included 27 single-artist projects from young galleries around the world. There were lots of new artists, lots of "cutting edge" work. There is so much to see at Art Basel that it is necessary to go quickly past those works that are obviously of little personal interest. Because there is so much information and imagery available, I find that my skills of "sifting" have necessarily heightened. And as a painter friend succinctly noted, "A discerning mind comes with age."

The important photography galleries were also on this floor (Floor 1 of Hall 2) and were well located among the large painting and sculpture galleries, and were grouped in one particular central area. We found this to be an advantage so that we could visit all of the photography galleries at once and easily go back and forth from one to the other. One photography gallery owner did not like this arrangement and thought that it created a "photo ghetto," but we disagreed.

Among the photography galleries, Stephen Daiter Gallery of Chicago had an impressive collection of high-quality prints. Particularly notable were some unfamiliar works by André Kertész and Geörgy Kepes, as well as works by Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, among others. Daiter also showed several mixed-media collages that included photography by Kepes, R.B. Kitaj and Herbert Bayer. This work was inspiring and the intermingling of photographs with other visual arts added a positive dynamic and worked well in the booth.

The nearby photography booth of Galerie Françoise Paviot from Paris featured a fine selection of vintage and contemporary prints. We especially responded to prints by Gustave Le Gray and a unique and exquisite Man Ray enlargement of one of his most important rayographs.

Bruce Silverstein of New York mostly presented exemplary modern photographers including André Kertész, Edward Weston, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer--including a painting by Sommer--something very unexpected. Also prominently featured at Silverstein was a large contemporary photograph of thrown paint by Shinichi Maruyama.

At Edwynn Houk, New York, paint was also in evidence, although used much differently in two prints by Sebastiaan Bremer, where paint was applied over the photographs. These works contrasted with other works at Houk by Edward Weston, Robert Polidori, Vik Muniz and many other modern and contemporary photographers.

Rudy Kicken of Kicken Berlin had a large selection of high-quality works, mostly from Europe, and he also had the most inventive use of space in his booth--one could move in and around 24 carefully placed walls and experience intimate mini-galleries of varied and complementing subjects as well as a presentation of some very large prints. Amidst photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Frantisek Drtikol and Renger-Patsch, was a memorable and gorgeous photograph by Heinrich Kühn.

Fraenkel Gallery of San Francisco showed high-quality works by modern and contemporary photographers, including Hiroshi Sugimoto and Adam Fuss. One of the outstanding selections was a very beautiful large print by Richard Misrach. It appeared to be one that was stitched from several negatives, but it was so confusing that even after looking at it for several minutes we could not quite figure out how it was made.

Sage Paris was also in this sector and showed Bill Brandt, Helmut Newton and Diane Arbus. Thomas Zander from Cologne had one entire wall filled with the 58-print series of Lewis Baltz's "San Quentin Point."

But many other art galleries were giving photography a prominent place in their booths: Galeria Helga de Alvear, Madrid; GDM, Paris; Borch Jensen Galerie, Copenhagen; Chert Gallery, Berlin; Vintage Galería, Budapest; Ubu Gallery, New York; Sprüth Mager Gallery, Berlin (which showed Andreas Gursky's big-print series "Oceans"); Kerlin Gallery, Dublin; Regina Gallery, Moscow; Galerie m Bochum, Bochum, Germany; Wilkinson, London; Galerie Neu, Berlin; Galerie Schöttle, Munich; Donald Young Gallery, Chicago; Esther Schipper, Berlin; Raucci/Santamaria, Naples, Italy; Galería Joan Prats, Barcelona--to name but a few. Clearly, photography continues to gain attention and importance among the world's art galleries and audiences, and these galleries kept the standards high. Most work was, of course, large and in color.

Other highlights at Art Basel: We were particularly impressed by some David Smith drawings at Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles. These were very inspiring and reflected the same sensibilities of some of my recent drawings with sumi ink and black oil stick on paper. My first exposure to David Smith drawings was at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York during a show from the Thaw collection of drawings. I was surprised to see how much the drawings I had been making recently were similar in rhythm and structure, which gave me some newfound confidence and encouragement.

Another piece I'd seen only in reproduction was one of Giacometti's most elegant and perfect of his early sculptures, an atypical smooth bronze torso reminiscent of the centuries-old Cycladic art.

At the booth of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, a perfect chair by Gerrit Rietveld (whose chairs we have long admired) consumed our attention for quite some time. Lucio Fontana seemed to be everywhere: at some 17 galleries. And there were more Joan Miró works than usual: he could be seen at 23 galleries.

An Anish Kapoor piece in alabaster, circles in a square, was exceptional. It was our second exposure to this piece and it still radiates something magical. Represented by 10 galleries, a wide variety of his works in various materials (those that could be contained within a gallery space) were exhibited. We had just seen and experienced his commissioned piece "Leviathan" for the fourth "Monumenta" at the Grand Palais in Paris, where he had created a mind-boggling and truly amazing work to fit the 13,500 square meter space under the 45-meter high glass dome.

Other inspiring and beautifully-made works included Sol Lewitt's panels of dark watercolors on paper with dense graphite markings and Albert Oehlen's large, lyrical charcoal drawings available at multiple galleries.

Edmund de Waal's small, delicate and ethereal ceramic vessels in groupings within custom-made boxes and vitrines felt like visual music--or a bit of Zen, like reading haiku. I am deeply impressed by the simplicity and power of de Waal's work. The structure and rhythm in his groupings stand for far more than what they are of.

Other memorable sculpture was by the ever-graceful and distinctive Barbara Hepworth (New Art Centre, near Salisbury, England), and an exemplary meditative mass of cut slate by Richard Long, which was somewhat more precise than many of his other circle constructions (Galerie Tschudi, Glarus, Switzerland). It is always a treat to discover great examples, some previously unknown (to us), such as an Alice Neel painting, an Emil Nolde watercolor, and to re-visit the ever whimsical and inspiring works of Paul Klee.

Galleria d'Arte Maggiore dedicated their entire gallery space to a beautiful one-man show of Giorgio Morandi paintings and drawings. For us, it is always a great treat to contemplate the work of this Italian genius with his spare painterly style and endless variations of bottles and other similar still-life objects in subtle colors. Two paintings incorporating a bit of muted blue, green and purple, and two other very minimal untitled drawings were especially eloquent and memorable.

Floor 2 of Hall 2 was a space for more contemporary work. It was telling to see how quickly the crowds, in general, moved through this area. There was some very fine work there, though many things didn't entice for long and careful looking. Some work had great substance, some did not. Although this surely has been true of every period of art, thankfully, the less meaningful works have fallen away over time. In our contemporary art world, how long will it take before that "falling away" has taken its natural course? I do try to give contemporary works a really good chance and find out about the artist's intention, use of materials, context and so forth, but if the substance isn't there, it simply isn't there.

If you are thinking of making your first trip to Art Basel and find that contemporary is not "your thing," be assured that you'll simply have more time for a relaxing lunch, coffee break and a rest on this day. Not a bad thing. And who knows, some challenging contemporary works might stimulate your thinking in ways you didn't expect. Also not a bad thing.

For example, 100 Tonson Gallery from Bangkok, Thailand, featured an ambitious project by Rirkrit Tiravanija, described as "merging two typologies of his oeuvre: cooking-as-event and political drawing." The project invited audience participation: various artists covered every inch of the booth walls with their political statements in charcoal drawings during the show each day, and apparently some cooking was happening at various times, too!

Of special note also on Floor 2 was a section dedicated to 18 galleries who are publishers of limited edition prints and artists' hand-made books. We could have happily spent more time there. We were struck particularly by a very fine Donald Judd grid of woodcuts, variations on his box theme transferred into deep blue inks, which we found to be meditative and demanding at the same time. There were also some lovely prints by Ken Price in his inimitable style (Alexander Gallery, New York), and by Ben Nicholson and Jim Dine at Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

The Art Film program featured an important film recently made by Werner Herzog, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams," but we unfortunately did not know about it in time to attend the scheduled screenings. A large variety of other filmmakers from many countries were featured on this program of curated events from June 14-19. Many galleries were also showing artists' videos in their booths in the main exhibition hall.

The adjacent building, Hall 1, was reserved for Art Unlimited, a space for 62 large-scale projects. This was a great and happy surprise. We expected this could go rather quickly, but we were wrong. This great hall was reserved for special installation works that were created especially for Art 42 Basel along with other huge installations from well-known and not so well-known artists, much of it contemporary and spanning five decades. We spent nearly the whole day in this giant, open hall looking at very fine sculptural works and many fine video works. Thankfully, some pieces were easy to see quickly and we could move on, or we would have needed another day.

Out of the video work, I felt that there were four very fine videos plus three others that were quite good, although we didn't have time to see all of them properly. And a few could be "gotten" in twenty seconds or less. I tried to look at these closely and in wide variety (and with an open mind, I hope), because I am also making films along with my other works. Too often I see video pieces that seem to fit the market requisites: It looks like something might develop, but it never does; or, something is filmed to be so strange and disturbing that it will satisfy your dark side or your very dark side. I find these to be short-lived in terms of their impact; therefore when I see videos with real substance, mystery, hidden meaning, imagination and great craft, I feel it is an opportunity for a meaningful, memorable and inspiring experience with the medium.

For me the really good videos seemed to be Belgian filmmaker Hans Op de Beeck's "Sea of Tranquility" (spectacular), Marianne Boesky Gallery; Lithunian filmmaker Deimantas Narkevicius's "Ausgeträumt," gb agency; American filmmaker Sarah Morris' "Points on a Line," Petzel Gallery; and Mexico City filmmaker Minerva Cuevas's "Disidencia," her multi-year project, kurimanzutto gallery. All were outstanding videos in their own way. There was also a Baldessari multi-channel video installation of an updated version of his 1968 appropriated American films, Marian Goodman Gallery.

One video was presented as entering a "no-space" and "digging into a kind of mental emptiness" so we exited the "no-space" and dug into some mentally challenging works instead. There is something for everyone. Other films seemed noteworthy, but needed more time than we could manage, such as "Kreppa Babies," Gallery Noire, by Italian filmmaking duo Masbedo who presented a five-screen rear projection social documentary. Next year, we will plan extra time for Art Unlimited.

Sculpture in Hall 1, Art Unlimited: The sculptural objects and installations were worth the whole day. Light and sound sculptures were presented in addition to the masses of stone, steel, onyx, clay, wax, bricks, cords, plastics, glass, copper, lead, wood, marble, paper, plaster, fabric, wire and other unidentified materials.

Particularly noteworthy were Carl Andre's "Napoli Rectangle" a 243-unit rectangle of squares of hot-rolled steel plates on the floor, Artiaco Gallery; Christian Andersson's multi-storied Stonehenge "To R.M. for EVER" which stood 800 cm high (26 feet), galleries von Bartha Garage et al; Dan Flavin's light tubes for barred corridors, Paula Cooper Gallery; James Turrell's "Joecar Blue" light projection, Almine Rech Gallery; Fred Sandback's "Untitled" ("Seven-part Right-angled Triangular Construction") of brilliant spatial relationships established with black acrylic yarn (a picture resembles nothing like being in the minimal, powerful space he creates), Annemarie Verna Galerie; Mario Merz's eight "igloos" of stone and metal called 74 gradini riappaiono in una crescita di geometria, Galerie Tschudi; a huge room of 101 strongly colored, yet subtle watercolor squares on white paper by Callum Innes combined with the words of writer Colm Tóibín, Frith Street Galleries; Austrian artist Ernst Caramelle's installation of wall painting and mirror that fascinated with engaging painted blocks of color on parallel walls setting up ambiguous spatial relationships and changing according to where you stood, galleries Mai 36 et al; Serbian sculptor Bojan Sarcevic's precisely worked, single monolithic block "He, 2011" of Persian onyx was very elegant and powerful, Modern Art, London. His equally beautiful companion piece, "She, 2010" was also on view at Modern Art, London, in Hall 2.

Photography was well represented in several spaces: Lewis Baltz's 84-print grid "Candlestick Point," Thomas Zander gallery; Vera Lutter, Gagosian gallery; Louise Lawler, galleries Yvonne Lambert et al; and Mark Wallinger's series "The Unconscious," galleries carlier gebauer, et al. There was a powerful one-person show by photographer Zanele Muholi from South Africa featuring her very sensitive large portraits of lesbians in South Africa who have been, or still are, victims of hate crimes. These were well-seen and well-made prints, from Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The extra large walls of Hall 1 accommodated Robert Longo's enormous and masterful charcoal on paper drawing of "Wailing Wall," Ropac gallery, 304 x 825 cm (12 x 27 ft.); equally accomplished and impressive was Alain Huck's "Tragedy or Position," four charcoal on paper panels at 271 x 400 cm each, (9 x 13 ft. each), Skopia Gallery; a photo-realistic woven tapestry "Lost Forty," an unbelievable expanse of 426 x 1475 cm (14 x 48 ft.) by Goshka Macuga, a Polish artist living and working in London, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

On our fourth and last day, we caught an early train into Basel to see the Beyeler Collection, which is featuring a terrific Serra/Brancusi exhibition on view through the end of August. There was a large collection of works by Brancusi (approximately 40, even more than we had seen at a special Brancusi exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and many examples of his variations on a theme, and how those variations evolved over time. There was a gallery dedicated to many of Serra's black on white works on paper along with his monumental steel works. Serra makes his usual strong statement of force and power within a space, but especially powerful and impressive was a gallery with a 20-foot square steel plate suspended from the ceiling directly above the same size plate on the floor--intense!

Fondation Beyeler is located in the beautiful village of Riehen in the country on the outskirts of Basel, an easy tram ride. This spectacular private museum was founded by collectors Hildy and Ernst Beyeler and designed by Renzo Piano, and is a light-filled space that was carefully planned and executed in harmony with nature. Ernst Beyeler (1921-2010) was co-founder of Art Basel.

Early arrival at the museum (open at 10 a.m.) proved to be essential as it was exceedingly crowded by 11 a.m. The trek was most worthwhile as many pieces from the permanent collection were also on view: a particularly fine Rothko that simply manifested visible vibration in the combination and layering of its subtle colors. I've studied his work for some time and marvel to see yet another fine example. There were two stunning Van Gogh's we also had not seen before and several important Giacometti sculptures in addition to many contemporary works--Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and others. We're very glad our curator-friend, William Morrow, whom we had encountered at Art Basel strongly advised, "You must…" go see this exhibition and other masters in this beautiful and very special private museum, or we might have missed it.

It is enriching and informing for artists to know each other's work, whether it is to their taste or not, since we never know how these things will influence our work, but we simply keep absorbing what feels right and let the work take its course. Artists have always looked at and have been inspired by each other's work. This practice is one that is much easier for us in this century of instant information and image exchange from anywhere in the world. For artists and art lovers, attending Art Basel is one of the best ways I can think of to keep aware and vitalized.

The dates for Art 43 Basel will be June 13-17, 2012. Book hotels and flight reservations early (very early!) and don't miss this remarkable gathering of fine art, artists, gallerists, special events, presentations, and performances from around the world. It is an opportunity to have stimulating new experiences with the art and the people--and to get a peek and new insights into our changing, growing world of art.

About the Author

Paula Chamlee is a photographer and painter living in Bucks County, PA. Her photographs are collected in over 30 museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and are in innumerable private collections. Six monographs of her photographs have been published. She has taught workshops in photography in the United States, Austria, Germany, Tuscany, France, England, Iceland, and Australia. She is co-owner of Lodima Press along with her husband, photographer Michael A. Smith, and they have published the photographs of many notable photographers.

Chamlee is currently working on her newest book, a series of photographs from Iceland and a series of her aerial photographs of the Texas Panhandle. Chamlee made her first film, "Flow", while in Iceland in 2006, and has a number of other films in various stages of production.

Paula Chamlee is a photographer and painter living in Bucks County, PA. Her photographs are collected in over 35 museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and are in innumerable private collections. Six monographs of her photographs have been published. She has taught workshops in photography in the United States, Austria, Germany, Tuscany, France, England, Iceland, and Australia, and has many exhibitions in the works.

She is co-owner of Lodima Press along with her husband, photographer Michael A. Smith, and they have published the photographs of many notable photographers.

Chamlee is currently working on her newest book, "Iceland: A Personal View", which will be published in spring of 2013.