10 of the Best Artworks at Art Basel 2018
Standouts include a moving Alina Szapocznikow, a striking new direction for Miriam Bäckström, and more.
It remains to be seen whether 2018 will indeed be the Year of the Woman at the polls, but it certainly is at Art Basel, where booth after booth features work by female artists—both established and lesser known—who are unabashedly going for the knockout punch. Not so long ago, you could tour the fair and see artwork after artwork featuring naked women, all served up like canapés; turn a corner now and you’ll find a statement piece that may make you rethink your gender assumptions, and fast.
Here is just a sampling of the best works on view at the fair, with a few men mixed in for parity’s sake.
Marianne Is a Transfeminist (Originally From a Poster for the National War Loan of France, Illustrated by Georges Scott, 1917), 2018
kaufmann repetto – Milan, New York
The forceful artist and activist Andrea Bowers has for years been recreating classic political illustrations on cardboard as monuments to other female activists throughout the ages, showing women as the—often martial—embodiment of heroic moral values. She has celebrated trans icons in the past, but here she finds an inventive way to update the iconography of her cardboard icons series for the first time: Instead of a white woman set off against brown cardboard, Bowers shows her protagonist as a trans person of indistinct ethnicity, coloring around the figure in acrylic marker to leave the brown of the cardboard to shine through. Originally displayed in an outraged group show constructed around a video of Donald Trump’s election and works relating to the #MeToo movement, the artwork is a rousing call to arms.
What If We All Just Stopped?, 2018
Pedro Cera – Lisbon
Born in Düsseldorf and based in Bristol, Mariele Neudecker is inspired by German Romanticism and its heart-swelling depiction of the individual encounter with the strange, numinous sublime in nature—but whereas painters like Caspar David Friedrich often showed figures in such settings as proxies for the viewer, Neudecker likes to bring the sublime directly to her audience, packaged neatly in a box.
That box, displayed at the fair in a darkened chamber illuminated by a single beam of light, is actually a water tank that the artist has populated with towering trees (made of resin) and filled with a mixture of water and chemicals that captures and holds the hazy light filtering through. It’s not quite the Black Forest at dusk, but if you stand quietly alone in the room for a moment and gaze into the artwork, it creates that lonely feeling of being in the woods amid ineffable beauty, with no one to share it with but the spooky presence of some watchful divinity.
The Darkward Trail, 2018
Anton Kern – New York
Kaboom! Nicole Eisenman lands the artistic equivalent of a knockout punch with this colossal painting at Anton Kern’s booth, presenting a towering scene of allegory and modern-day myth: three figures advance across a parched desert, one atop a burro, one guiding a drone that (scarily, hilariously) seems to have taken on a life of its own, and one shining a flashlight forth into an uncertain future. Border security, immigration, surveillance, technology, and a particular brand of present-day American ennui are all touched on in this painting, wrapped up in yellows that emit a mood of queasy calm.
For ambitious collectors, this is the kind of mother load you hope to find at Basel, given the ambition of the work, its rarity (Eisenman is producing fewer and fewer paintings these days, focusing instead on her sculptural work, with a show upcoming in Baden-Baden this fall), and the fact that its price is likely a fraction of its real value over the next decade or so, since the artist is all but certain to break the $1 million mark at auction pretty soon. (Her record so far is $670,000, set at Phillips in May of last year.) Too bad: large and in-charge, the painting went to a European museum.
Morning (2017/18) and Tattoo Elizabeth (2016/18)
47 Canal – New York
Price: $6,000, edition of five
A startlingly assured young artist who graduated from Yale’s MFA program a few years back and is already teaching at Harvard and RISD, Elle Pérez has become a fast-rising star in the photo world through sumptuous photos documenting the LGBTQ and other communities. Pérez, who is gender-nonconforming and prefers to be described with the pronoun “they,” is of Puerto Rican descent, but born and raised in the Bronx. There, they began shooting underground wrestlers in the borough, later fanning out to chronicle the friends and lovers in their life, as in these photos at the fair that show Pérez’s current partner on the left and a friend in black-and-white on the right.
Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, and Wolfgang Tillmans are all influences in the work, but the sumptuous combinations of color, light, and texture that Pérez is evolving have a unique flavor—something that was clear to 47 Canal when the gallery discovered the artist in a Harvard faculty show, giving them their first solo show in March. It was also clear to MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, who is curating a solo museum show of the work next month.
TL; DR, 2017-18
Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver
Price: $200,000 range
A Vancouver-based artist who puts typography and signage to arresting use in his work, Ron Terada has provided one of the surefire Instagram playgrounds of the fair this year with two works spanning the walls at the booth of Catriona Jeffries. Blaring news headlines drawn from the continually expanding tech sphere—from the comical (“Smart Salt Shaker Has Voice Controls But Can’t Grind Salt”) to the frightening (“Disney Sued for Allegedly Spying on Children Through 42 Gaming Apps”)—the tiles are instantly recognizable as being from the New York Times’s digital edition, but seem distinctly off in tone.
As it turns out, Terada has sneakily taken stories from the tech site the Verge and transplanted them into the Times’s Cheltenham font to give them a veneer of authority, then carefully turned the headlines into paintings by first coating the canvas black, then applying the vinyl text, then painting the space around the letters white. The artist has been pulling these tricks since the 1990s, and this installation—titled after the abbreviation for “too long; didn’t read”—certainly found its audience, with one half selling to a private German collector on opening day.
New Enter Image IX (sculpture), 2018
galería elba benítez – Madrid
A Swedish conceptual photographer, Miriam Bäckström may be best known for her work transmuting digital photographs into billboard-sized hanging tapestries, but Art Basel shows her taking a step into impressive new terrain. To create this massive, iridescent cone, the artist took a photograph of an object and abstracted a detail from it, then ran it through a computer program that translates bytes into detailed instructions for the warp and weft of tapestry, a medium long-prized by digital-minded artists for weaving’s similarity to programming code. Bäckström then sent the resulting file to her fabricators in Flanders, who produced a Jacquard tapestry from silk, lurex, and silver thread that she then wrapped around a wooden structure. Finished as an imposing volume that evokes the cone of the eye, the sculpture shimmers and shines like an impossible object, a unicorn horn deposited among the booths.
Eternal Feminine (Hysterisch, Metallisch, Weiblichnach Cézanne, 2. Version), 2016
Galerie Buchholz – Cologne, New York
Jutta Koether has been aligned with punk rock from the beginning of her career as a painter, collaborating with musicians like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Television’s Tom Verlaine, and you get a sense of that noisy, spiky power in this high-volume painting. An homage to Cézanne’s mysterious and rather weird The Eternal Feminine at the Getty, which shows a red-eyed nude woman receiving a retinue of artists and clergymen offering gifts, Koether’s version presents an imposing woman, enthroned and empowered, presiding over some worried-looking anthropomorphic shapes. Cézanne once told Renoir that he painted still lifes because “women models frighten me.” If that’s the case he might be nervous around this painting too.
Lampe, c. 1967
Hauser & Wirth – worldwide
One of the most revelatory rediscoveries of the past decade, the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow came to renewed attention after being included in documenta in 2007 and then ascended to instant heroine status with her 2012 MoMA retrospective—all of this happening several generations after her death from breast cancer in 1973, at the age of 47.
One thinks of Van Gogh, but even he may have had a less tortured life than Szapocznikow, who experienced unspeakable horrors during the Holocaust as an assistant to her mother at concentration-camp hospitals, and who thereafter sculpted self-portraits of amputated features and melting strips of flesh that are often surpassingly beautiful.
Among the loveliest of these are her lamps, which the artist made in the second half of the 1960s, casting her own body parts in colored polyester resin (which some consider a carcinogen) and shaping them like petals at the end of a long, elegant stem. This lamp at Hauser & Wirth’s stand has been included in Szapocznikow’s major museum shows and features imprints of her mouth, breast, and buttocks, all kept alive and softly glowing through the magic of electricity.
Anyone who has ever parked their car under a pine tree in the springtime is well acquainted with the yellowy-blonde pollen that spews from the trees as if from a crop duster, and Wolfgang Laib sees this procreative powder as a thing of wonder. That’s why he spent years gathering it himself by hand, going from tree to tree to brush it from the pinecones—or from dangling hazelnut pollen tubes, or from dandelions—into little glass jars, which he then sifts through a sieve into crisp, geometric shapes on the floors of museums and galleries around the world.
In 2013, he used 16 jars of hazelnut pollen to create a square filling MoMA’s atrium. Here at Art Basel, he dispatched an assistant to create a smaller square in the booth of Buchmann Galerie. Although the dealers took the precaution of covering the air vent above the stand, the shape proved too delicate amid the hyperventilation of the fair, with trails of pollen diffusing out at the sides like solar flares from a rectilinear sun. It’s still one of the most astonishing sights to encounter at Art Basel.
Lévy Gorvy – New York
Price: $14 million
Remember the thing about this being the Year of the Woman at Art Basel? Just look at Joan Michell. Following her $16.6 million record achieved at Christie’s last month—nearly a $5 million jump over her previous best price, set in 2014—work by the celebrated second-generation AbEx painter could be found across several galleries at the fair, with no less than two $14 million paintings selling on opening day. Of those, the orange-yellow one at Hauser & Wirth is an upbeat bouquet of paint, while the one at Lévy Gorvy is a far darker affair, a seething mass of slashes, eruptions, and bloody smears.
Made in Paris during Mitchell’s first year living there with the brooding Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, the canvas picks up a bit on his habit of laying down thick sheets of paint like wet roof shingles, but it also zooms around with the agitated energy of a trapped fly. Looking at it can put one in mind of Chaim Soutine, but the pros at Lévy Gorvy seem to have another comparison in mind, hanging this showstopper of a painting across from one of Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga’s savage red-and-incarnadine abstractions, also from 1959, the period when the Gutai-affiliated artist learned to paint with his feet.
The gallery’s Brett Gorvy had a third artist in mind, too—though from a different perspective. “She reminds me of Guston,” he said of Mitchell. “She’s a very strong female artist, and we’re in a moment where you’re very quickly going to see her paintings selling for $20 million to $25 million, just like Guston.”
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