Having attended Art Basel Miami Beach on a number of occasions (I covered the fair for many years for Art in America and other publications) and having traveled to Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, I was eager to finally visit the mother-ship in Basel, which I did in early June. I only spent a total of about 6 hours at the fair, which means I saw a bit less than half, but I was left with many strong impressions. Before sharing a few of my thought and highlights, I must note that although I was in attendance on the preview day of Art Basel 2018 with a “First Choice VIP” pass, the size of the crowd went far beyond anything I had experienced on equivalent days at the previous fairs. That the dealers and other gallery staff working the fair had five additional days yet to experience seemed tantamount to running consecutive-day marathons.
Far and away my favorite discovery at Art Basel 2018 was the wholly magical and immensely moving What If We All Just Stopped? (2018) by Mariele Neudecker, a Dusseldorf-born artist who lives and works in Bristol, England. Isolated and spotlit in the back room of the booth of the Pedro Cera Gallery, Lisbon, the piece featured a meticulously rendered forest in miniature suspended in space and time. The trees, branches, and leaves were all finely detailed. A path led through the woods, with a tiny sign posted on a tree alongside. The whole was presented in a water-filled aquarium. It left me spellbound. Part of its impact upon me is that I was then in the middle of reading Richard Powers’ powerful new novel, The Overstory, a heartbreaking, mind-opening book about the importance of trees. It consists of a series of gorgeously told, character-driven stories that eventually come together to eulogize the trees and forests of our nation that are no more. What if we all just stopped, indeed. Stopped to make note and take action against all in this world being lost.
It was in this spirit that I embraced Heidi Bucher’s remarkable and what seemed to me empowering large-scale wallpiece in the booth of The Approach, London. Without knowing anything about the artist or the work, I was simultaneously struck by how it appeared to be a shaped stain painting in shimmering, iridescent pigments and how the shape was that of an insect. I soon learned that it was entitled Dragonfly (Costume Object) (1976) and was in fact designed as a costume to be worn by Bucher. To Bucher, such costumes represented moments of transformation and liberation from constraints. As she is yet another woman artist who died long before her oeuvre and career were resurrected and admired, I will elaborate. Bucher (1926-1993) was a Swiss artist who moved to California in the 1960s, where she befriended Ed Kienholz. She collaborated with her husband, Carl Bucher, on Bodyshells, a series of wearable sculptures exhibited at LACMA in 1972. She returned to Switzerland in the mid-1970s and began what is considered her most iconic work–latex casts of architectural environments— that look forward to the work of both Rachel Whiteread and Du Ho Suh. In 2014, the Swiss Institute in New York mounted Bucher’s first U.S. exhibition in over 40 years.
In extreme contrast to the two works cited above, but extending and directly addressing questions I carried with me through the fair pertaining to the state of the world, the environment, and more, was Future (2017) by L.A. artist Doug Aitken. A hard-edge, seemingly industrially manufactured relief, it was presented in the booth of 303 Gallery, New York. Constructed of aluminum, stainless steel, and plywood, the piece absorbed the spectator through his or her reflection while spelling out the word “future.” The letters of the word were multi-directional and the reflections fragmented, the whole being impossible to grasp. The implication seemed to be that the future–coolly engineered and certain to occur–remains unknowable.
The current, desperate state of our nation was the theme of very recent work by any number of American artists seen at Art Basel 2018. In the Untitled curated section was the immensely powerful, 4-panel Black Flag (2018) by L.A.-based Frances Stark from Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York. All four panels were painted black and each was a rectangle measuring about 6-by-8-feet with gaps in between, so that the piece occupied a large wall. At the left edge of the leftmost panel, painting in black-and-white, was the image of an American flag on a stand. At the opposite end of the piece in the lower right corner, Nancy from the eponymous comic strip sat in a corner and sobbed. Spunky, powerful, optimistic Nancy was transformed into a “weeping woman” in response to the tenor of the times in the tradition of recent art extending from Picasso to Anne Collier.
In a similar vein, given our topsy-turvy world, Susan Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects exhibited L.A. artist Karl Haendel’s large-scale graphite drawing of the Trump helicopter upside-down. Metro Pictures, New York, exhibited New York-based Robert Longo’s charcoal drawing Untitled (Torn Flag; 2018). British artist David Shrigley chimed in with a drawing seen at the booth of the Copenhagen-based Galleri Nicolai Wallner, which certainly referenced you-know-who (the caption reads: I am an impulsive crazy bastard.”)
It was by no means all doom and gloom at Art Basel 2018. The works cited above popped out at me because of my particular mind set on the day of. There were any number of highlights at the fair of a wholly different sort. Among the historical materials, for example, was a fabulous mini-retrospective of works of plastic by Alberto Burri presented in the booth of the international gallery, Tornabuoni Art; a marvelous collection of early collages by Eduardo Paolozzi at the London-based Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Gallery; and works on paper from the 1930s by Ella Bergmann-Michel at the booth of Galerie Zlotowski, Paris.
Further, while I certainly haven’t done or seen a tally to know the percentage of women artists vs. male, I noted particularly strong work by Shahzia Sikander, Charline von Heyl, Nicole Eisenman, Katharina Grosse, Alicja Kwade, Lara Schnitzer, Deborah Roberts, Helen Chadwick, Simone Leigh, Christina Ferrer, Jana Sterbak, Carol Bove, Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman, Lara Favaretto, Mary Weatherford, among others. As stated earlier, I saw only half of the displays at best. Next time I attend the fair, I will devote more time. And next time, one can only hope, the states of the planet and of the nation we present to the world will assume more positive aspects.