Fair Cop: Art Basel 2014 Ben Austin’s Final Words

Art Basel 2014

I met up with the bunch of ‘kunsts’ being Sam Roddick, James Oster Antony Micallef and their friend Lindsay outside the main hall and after unsuccessfully trying to score a VIP BMW to take us to the Fondation Beyeler to see the Richter show, apparently their VIP card was not first tier enough to warrant a car. So, we traipse over to the tram stop and luckily the one we wanted appeared shortly.

The Fondation Beyeler is a stunning museum, set out of town, with a sculpture garden and ponds at the front and rear. It was designed by Renzo Piano to house the collection of Ernst Beyeler and can boast an enviable collection of Monets and Picassos. But we were here to see the acclaimed Gerhard Richter exhibition, with some hundred pictures on show it is the largest show devoted to Richter staged in Switzerland and consists of portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, abstract images – along with two glass objects and sixty-four overpainted photographs.

Richter is one of those iconic artists and has achieved auction records for a living artist, in 2012 his Abstraktes Bild sold for £21m ($31m) and last year his 1968 piece Domplatz, Mailand sold for £24.4m, putting up there with Koons, whose Ballloon Dog (Orange) sold for a staggering $58.4m. Here away from the fair, we had the opportunity to enjoy a serious body of work without thinking too much about the price tag.

In the first room, there was a series of blurred paintings featuring a mother and child, which are based on photographs and these were charming, opposite were large-scale abstracts, with broad gestures and colour layers. This set the tone for much of the exhibition, abstractions followed by delicate portraits, monochrome field paintings and digitally generated compositions. Richter’s work interweaves figuration and abstraction, one could be looking at several artists here, but there is something that ties his practice together. He plays upon original images and reproduction, exactitude and happenstance, whilst blurring the distinctions between various mediums. I was suitably impressed both at the range and quantity of work on show, some work is frankly more successful than others and I find a few of the abstractions a bit muddy and cluttered, but when they work, they hum with a vibrancy that is just incredible.

In one room was a series entitled ‘Annunciation after Titan’, which featured five canvases, in which the original composition becomes more and more diffused and dissolves into a whirling mass of colour and brushstrokes.

Elsewhere were lonely, isolated landscapes of cold empty scene counterbalanced by intimate portraits, technically superb, such as ‘Reader’, which invokes Jan Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window’. Richter’s girl is bathed in a glowing light and speaks of quiet contemplation.

In another room, we encounter the darker side of humanity with a series known as the Baader-Meinhof Cycle, featuring pictures of dead bodies sprawled out on the floor. These are highly charged and emotive, a sad reminder of political idealism and folly, as he said: ‘There is sorrow, but I hope one see that it is sorrow for the people who died so young and so crazy, for nothing’.

I bumped into Sam (as all had agreed to meet at the entrance after an hour) and we popped downstairs into a darkened space, there was a fine Cezanne, a Matisse cut-out, a couple of strong Picassos, next to large scale Tillmans (who apparently hosted a party during Basel), we liked the juxtaposition between the older work and the contemporary.

Outside, we sought to have lunch at the restaurant in the garden, but sadly as it after 3pm, they had stopped serving food, so like gannets we feasted on peanuts and pretzels.

Back on the tram to the Mezzeplatz and hopped onto another taking us directly outside the Kunstmuseum to see the Charles Ray sculpture show.

Charles Ray was born in Chicago in 1953 and now resides in LA, where he teaches at the University of California. He is considered one of the most important artists of his generation and his exhibition goes some way to confirm that. Each room has a stand-alone piece and first off we see fibreglass grey painted wreck of Pontiac Grand Am, which had been in a fatal accident. The sombre colour, the detailed and exact replication of the original car lends this piece an eerie quality with echoes of a tragic past.

In the next room, there is ‘Aluminum Girl’ (2003), beautifully rendered with finely worked facial features.  This girl appears like a modern-day Venus, immediately classical yet strikingly contemporary.

We move on and see a broken tractor, fashioned in a the same way as the car, whereby the artist took the tractor back to the studio and dismantled it and with a team of assistants remodelled each various parts.

Other significant pieces in the show include ‘Young Man’ in polished stainless steel and ‘Boy with Frog’, a larger than life figure dangling a huge frog with every wart on it’s skin clearly visible. For scale and impact this was very impressive indeed. The interplay between the two is highly charged. ‘The meaning of the sculpture resides in the space between the boy and the frog’, writes Charles Ray. ‘I think that this space is the armature of the sculpture’.

The group of us gather and make a dash around the museum collection, rooms full of Picassos, Chagalls and Legers.  On another level were smaller rooms containing lesser-known pieces by Post-Impressionists and a range of work from dating back to the 16th Century. The Kunstmuseum is a veritable treasure trove.

Outside, we said our farewells as the others headed off to the airport, I had one more evening in Basel and after the excesses of the night before I thought it was best to have a quiet as I also had an early flight.

It is impossible to see and do everything in Basel, I know that I only saw a small portion of even the main fair, but enjoyed it none the less.

For me, it is the museum shows that are the real draw, whereby you are treated to a real body of work, which is obviously not for sale. You can see the work within a wider context in a setting that is sympathetic to art appreciation rather going from booth to booth where after a while everything becomes a big visual blur.

 Words/Photo: Ben Austin © Artlyst 2014


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