The 10 Best Artworks at Art Basel 2017

From one of the greatest photographic collections of the 20th century to Nelson Rockfeller's own Léger fireplace, there is great art to be found.

A visitor looks at the artwork by Darren Bader during the press preview for Art Basel. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images.

What does it say about the current moment that at this year’s Art Basel, the first floor—traditionally given over to the most patrician galleries and bluest-chip work—feels more urgent, interesting, and exciting than the young guns on the second floor? For whatever reason, the classics shine with exceptional brightness at the Messeplatz this time around, with old art-historical friends showing new sides of depth and exoticism. Here is a tour of some of the best works on offer at the fair.

 

NICOLAS DE STAËL
Syracuse (1954)
Galerie 1900-2000 – Paris
Around $3 million

Born in Russia in 1914 but orphaned by that country’s revolution, Nicolas de Staël spent his itinerant youth traveling Europe and beyond—including a two-year stint in the French Foreign Legion and a bit of art school—before settling in Nice, where he became aesthetically drawn to the circle of local Modernist mystics led by Jean Arp and the Delaunays. The style that emerged is one of joyful abstraction, where rudimentary blocks of color evoke landscapes glimpsed through a train window, or seen in memory. At the fair, the reliable connoisseurs at Galerie 1900-2000 displayed a painting from the beginning of de Staël’s peak years against a photo of his studio at the time. Is that a blue car in the foreground? “I do see a car,” said a patient gallery proprietor, “but there is no car.”

 

FRANCIS BACON
Study From the Human Body – Figure in Movement (1982)
Marlborough – New York
$25 million

“There’s never a bad time to sell a Bacon,” a dealer at Marlborough Gallery opined. That’s certainly true when you happen to have a stunning painting lying around like this one, which the gallery obtained from the artist directly before he died. Featuring all the elements of a major Bacon—the spooky transparent box (evoked memorably in the new “Twin Peaks”), vigorous coloration, and mutant figure in apparent agony—the painting advances Bacon’s interest in the body in movement, a subject he often painted from photos in sporting magazines. That, in fact, is what happened here: the figure at center is outfitted with cricket pads (which also feature in two other paintings from the same year, one now at the Hirshhorn, the other the Pompidou), and the red arrow suggesting a certain leftward torque that may have been lifted from an illustration on how to improve one’s golf swing.

 

AUGUST SANDER
“People of the 20th Century” (1876-1964)
Berinson Gallery – Berlin
$3.1 million

  

As a young man, to make money, the photographer August Sander would wander the villages outside Cologne on foot to offer his services as a formal portraitist for working-class locals. Gradually, he noticed that his subjects would arrive for their sessions dressed in highly encoded ways, communicating through their attire and posture the ways they saw themselves—or wanted to be seen—in society. This realization gave birth to one of the greatest artistic feats in the history of photography, a series of nearly 700 photos that Sander took over six decades, capturing the full sweep of the social order of his time, from the unemployed laborer to the baker and bricklayer to the banker to the celebrity thinker to the foppish aristocrat.

Establishing a typological approach to photography that was later widely promulgated by the Düsseldorf School, “People of the 20th Century” is represented at the fair in an extraordinary body of work: Sander’s personal collection of his 70 favorite photographs, including his most famous images, printed by his son in a large format at his request. Acquired from the family 15 years ago, the photos make for a powerful wall at the fair, where they are being offered as a set, on their original mounts. As for the timing of the sale? The fact that Hauser & Wirth, which has a much smaller Sander print in its booth, recently took over the estate is a “complete coincidence,” according to the gallery.

 

ANDY WARHOL
Gun 1981-82
Mnuchin Gallery – New York
$12 million

 

Andy Warhol’s haunting “Death and Disaster” series of the early 1960s has found a place in collectors’ hearts for its lurid tabloid drama, but this painting—made two decades later—comes from a very different place. After all, Warhol had in the interim experienced firsthand the explosive power of a gun, when Valerie Solanas shot him in his studio in 1968, leaving him with a scarred body and shaken worldview. In making these stark yet oddly fetishistic paintings, Warhol invited his friends to bring their guns by his studio—which some might consider unusual considering the assassination attempt—so he could shoot them with his Polaroid camera and then monumentalize them on canvas. Chilly in aspect and made larger than life through a subtle doubling effect, this Sentinel revolver serves as an admonition of the extraordinary power of handguns (and might also serve as an uncomfortable reminder that the gallerist’s son, Steven Mnuchin, serves in the enthusiastically pro-gun Trump administration).

 

FERNAND LÉGER
Mural painting for fireplace of Nelson Rockefeller’s apartment – 1939
Galerie Gmurzynska – Zürich
Around $6 million

 

Nelson Rockefeller led a charmed life: born into his family’s Standard Oil wealth, he traveled the world, became governor of New York, and later served as Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford. An energetic art collector, he also happened to be close, personal friends with some of the greatest artists of his time—so, when he bought himself a stately penthouse apartment atop 810 Fifth Avenue and asked a few of his artist friends to decorate it for him, they gladly did. One of these was Léger, who set up shop in the apartment for a time to paint one of Rockefeller’s two grand fireplaces (Matisse did the other), covering the wall in canvas and creating a markedly Surrealist-influenced autumnal landscape.

After Rockefeller’s death in 1979 (from a heart attack, at age 70, in his private townhouse, in the company of his 25-year-old secretary), the painting was donated to MoMA; it is now deaccessioning it to cover the costs of László Moholy-Nagy’s EM 1 (Telephone Picture), which the museum bought at Sotheby’s last November for $6 million. Galerie Gmurzynska, which is handling the sale, expects the Léger fireplace to go to a private collection—hopefully someone who, like Rockefeller, will leave the fireplace unused so as not to soot up the rather impractical backsplash.

 

URS FISCHER
Bruno & Yoyo (2015)
Gagosian – New York
$950,000

 

The Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger has a few claims to legend status: he helped bring postwar American art to Europe in the 1970s and ‘80s, he was played by Dennis Hopper in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat movie, and since time immemorial he has graced the back cover of Artforum with kitschy photos of bucolic peasant life in the Swiss Alps. Now the dealer and his wife have been granted another dose of immortality by the artist Urs Fischer—with a catch. The sculpture, executed in tutti-frutti-colored paraffin wax, is meant to be burnt to the ground as a candle (you can attach the wicks anywhere) and then replenished from the artist’s studio with a refill. (One imagines a very fancy Amazon Dash button.) The edition of two sold immediately at the fair, though a third could be obtained, a gallery salesperson strongly hinted, if one prevailed upon Fischer to part with his artist’s proof.

 

ED ATKINS AND SIMON THOMPSON
Sky News Live (live)
Cabinet – London
$38,000

It’s official: the award for Most Contemporary Artwork at the fair goes to Cabinet gallery for Ed Atkins and Simon Thompson’s Sky News Live. Why? Because, for one thing, it’s a live stream of Britain’s Sky News cable station (on mute) displayed across six large flatscreen monitors—so it’s always changing, always up-to-date, touching on all aspects around the globe of how we live now. Some people might say the work is too political, given that these days its sure to pepper you with images of unrest in the British electorate and all the craziness coming out of the United States. But look on the bright side: there’s also depressing footage of whales suffering in our warming oceans!

Envisioned by art-star Atkins and his friend Thompson as the ultimate readymade, it follows an earlier and less ambitious film featuring 14 hours of found footage from the Science Channel’s hit show “How It’s Made,” consisting of roughly three-minute clips from the program that show you how various ordinary objects are manufactured—but cutting away just before you find out what the object actually is.

So what makes Sky News Live, which is entirely unaltered by the artists, art? “I would imagine it’s the context in which it’s presented and the intent with which it was made,” a gallery director offered. We report, you decide.

 

MARINA PINSKY
The Fable of the Beehive (2017)
303 Gallery – New York
$17,000

  

Born in Moscow, the young artist Marina Pinsky emigrated to the United States and moved to California, where she became enchanted by the kinds of self-service roadside farm stands where you leave money in a box and take the offered produce—a transaction entirely governed by the honor system. (One of these stands does its quiet business outside of the artist’s parents’ house.) Could a trust-based economy like this operate in a famously sharking environment like Art Basel?

At 303 Gallery, Pinsky tests the waters with this gentle sculpture, selling vouchers in 10 and 20 franc denominations—the bills are based on the controversial (and eventually unused) winner of the most recent competition to redesign the Swiss banknote—that can then be redeemed via the artist for a jar of artisanal organic honey. (Alternatively, if you buy the sculpture itself, you get as many jars of honey as can fit into its shelf.) If it’s a big success, who knows? Maybe next year every stand at Art Basel will turn to honor system—just artworks, a money box, and a spirit of old-fashioned neighborliness.

 

SAMSON KAMBALU
Nyau Western: American Psychogeographicals (2017)
Kate Macgarry – London
$10,000 apiece or $57,000 for the whole cycle

An artist and intellectual who has immersed himself in everything from Situationism to advanced film and music theory, the artist Samson Kambalu makes short movies of the kind he watched as a child in Malawi, where low-grade copies were edited to remove the boring bits and speed things to a jumpy clip. This kind of film, of course, recalls nothing so much as the work of early directors like Buster Keaton, so when Kambalu did a recent residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in San Francisco he decided to make a series of short black-and-white silent films that seem rooted in that era. (It helps that the artist favors an old-timey style of dress ordinarily, always wearing a waistcoat and gentleman’s hat.)

In one film, he balances precariously on the back legs of a chair; in another, he boxes the air, smiling in between punches; a third, titled I Run Back to 1877, Where They Came From, shows the artist frantically running across a grassy field. Each film’s projector, meanwhile, stands on a stack of crates branded with important different years in American history: 1492, 1776, 1812, etc. Amusing and surreal, they show an African artist contending with the American past with a certain comic haplessness. One imagines Kambalu, the author of the well-received book The Jive Talker: An Artist’s Genesis, might explain it better himself to his students—he was just made a professor of art at Oxford University’s fabled Ruskin College.

 

MILTON AVERY
Boathouse by the Sea (1959)
Victoria Miro – London
Under $4 million

 

A great American painter of soft landscapes and subtle mood, Milton Avery was an important mentor for the younger and more famous Abstract Expressionists—he summered every year with Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in Provincetown, Cape Cod—but has himself faded from the same kind of prominence, particularly when it comes to the market. This is a perfect time for a comeback, however, with Avery’s long-neglected friend Marsden Hartley now undergoing a reappraisal as a major artist and with collectors looking to rediscover untapped pockets of quality and ambition in the past century. Recently, the Avery estate signed up with Victoria Miro in London to be represented in Europe, and the gallery is doing a full-court press on the artist’s behalf right now, giving him a solo show at Art Basel—the gallery’s first one-artist presentation at the fair—and an exhibition in its Mayfair gallery through the end of July.

This majestic abstraction, evoking a strip of sand by the seaside at sundown, is paired with its preparatory drawing and is being offered exclusively to a museum. So far, there have been several European curators circling, and the gallery expects museum shows to emerge from the fair along with at least modest sales from the booth, where everything is priced between $190,000 and $4 million.

 

CHRISTOPHER WOOL
Untitled, 2014
Luhring Augustine – New York
$2.2 million

 

Some years back, the artist Christopher Wool was walking the wide streets of Marfa, Texas, when he came across an unusual tumbleweed that had formed in the desert out of barbed wire. Looping and gnarly, it reminded him of his abstract paintings—and suggested a new way to translate his painterly aesthetic into sculpture. This piece, a helix of copper-coated bronze and stainless steel, comes from a series the artist debuted at Luhring Augustine in 2015, and is distinguished by overt welds that the artist likens to the place where the silkscreens he uses overlap on his canvases. Somewhat resembling one of Lichtenstein’s midair brushstrokes, the sculpture is both beautiful and menacing. Interested collectors might want to make sure their tetanus shots are up to date.


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