Art Basel

As you may remember I had a contemporary art gallery in San Francisco for 4 years, which (much to my chagrin) I closed a few years ago. I absolutely LOVED it, being involved with contemporary art, and bringing artists and buyers/collectors together was one of my great joys. I am always particularly excited by unknown and emerging artists, and discovering their work. And even now, I keep my hand in and curate an art show once a year for a gallery I love (with a wonderful owner who is very good at what she does) in San Francisco. It is soooooooo much fun finding the artists to include in the (group) show, selecting the work, discovering it with delight when it arrives, and then hanging it in the show in the best way to show off the work. The shows I curate, and my gallery in the past, show paintings and sculpture, many of them abstract, some figurative, and all contemporary. Art is a passion for me, and has been all my life!!

Because of my love of contemporary art, I have always wanted to go to the Art Basel fair in Switzerland every year. It is one of the, or possibly THE, biggest and most important modern and contemporary art shows in the world. It happens in Basel, Switzerland in June every year, and there is another in Miami in December. I have never been to either one, because in both cases, it’s a hard time for me to get away. December is too busy, and the show in Switzerland happens in early June when my kids are finishing their school year, or nowadays graduating. But this year, because of the World Cup Soccer games, the Basel art fair happened two weeks later than usual, and I decided with much excitement to attend. It’s about a 5 or 6 hour drive from Paris, and I decided to stay in Zurich, Switzerland, which is an hour from Basel. Zurich is a small town on the Lake of Geneva, whose main focus is around banking. The surrounding area is very pretty, and I thought it would be a fun break. I knew that Art Basel is a very, very big art fair, but in some ways had no idea what to expect. I also knew that important galleries come from all over the world to exhibit there, and that there would be well known important work, and also a separate building showing the work of new artists (just my cup of tea!!)

So on the day the show opened, off I went by car from Paris to Basel. I arrived early afternoon after a five hour drive, and went right to the fair, after a beautiful picturesque drive through the French countryside, mostly through Burgundy, with endless fields of emerald green grass, and cows grazing. Basel is right over the border from France, and in a short time, I was at the immense halls housing the art fair, and I went in, filled with excitement for what I was about to see. And the first thing I saw were immense crowds of people. To put it in perspective Art Basel is The Event of the art world every year, like the Super Bowl or the World Series or the Olympics of Art. It is a very big deal!!!

The crowds wandering through the halls as I walked in were immense. Throngs of people wandering up and down endless aisles lined with booths that had been taken by each gallery and were filled with art. I heard every imaginable language in the first five minutes, French, German, Swiss German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, some Scandinavian languages and Eastern European languages and some I couldn’t even figure out, and a smattering of English, which was sometimes the only common language as dealers spoke to clients, or to fellow dealers. There was an instant atmosphere of excitement, as people crowded through the aisles to look at the work. Among the first pieces I saw were by the “Big Hitters”: Picasso, Fernand Leger, Dubuffet, and many other very famous artists, whose work was being sold for astronomical prices, in the millions, whether Euros or dollars. It was impressive to see such important work, although what usually makes my heart throb is newer, more recent work, and by artists who are much less well known. I can neither show nor buy Picasso, so all I can do is admire it, and eventually move on to less important galleries, who show more accessible work. (The theory behind my gallery was that I wanted to make the work of unknown artists available to collectors at reasonable prices. It’s not an easy way to make money in the business—-and I didn’t—but I am always enthralled by the work of unknown artists). So while I was certainly impressed to see the beautiful work of Picasso and his peers, I was more interested in seeing the work of other artists, and kept moving down the aisles, stopping at each booth to admire the work. And when I mention ‘aisles’, you have to imagine enormous buildings, that seemed almost the size of airplane hangars, and aisles that stretched as far as the eye could see, with booth after booth after booth occupied by galleries on each side of the aisle. There were three or four aisles lengthwise, and other aisles intersecting them in a grid. And since I have a very poor sense of direction, I was lost most of the time, and just wandered down whatever aisle I was, trying to keep my journey through the art fair in order, and not succeeding most of the time!!! There was art everywhere I looked!!

Of course there weren’t just Picasso’s, there were also very famous contemporary artists like Warhol, Calder, Robert Indiana, and similar artists, all at enormous prices. The work that was shown there were for the most part big ticket items. It was a feast of art—-and if you love art, you could wander there for days. My assistant had come with me, as she is an art fan too (and went to art school, as I did, she has a masters in fine arts, and is a sculptress, and I studied design, so we share a love of art), and we wandered the hall for many hours, and then finally, we were so exhausted we had to leave. We then drove another hour to Zurich, and stayed at a beautiful hotel there called the Baur au Lac, that I had never been to either. I briefly attended school in Switzerland, at two schools in my early teens, but both were in French Switzerland, and I had never been to Zurich, which is in German Switzerland. It is a small, pretty city, on the lake of Geneva, and we spent the night at the hotel, did a little shopping in Zurich the next morning, and then headed back to Basel. Having seen all we really wanted to of the main exhibition hall the day before, we turned our attention to a second hall, where the ‘newer’ artists exhibited. And here we found ‘installations’, usually enormous set-ups of contemporary work, not the sort of thing you can carry home—-and there were many well known video artists exhibited there as well, like Bruce Connor and Bill Viola. Some of the work was very interesting, although I will confess to you that I am not a huge fan of either conceptual or video art, although I did enjoy a video installation of Bruce Connor’s about the 60’s called “Three Screen Ray”, set to the music of Ray Charles. The work in that hall was far more avant garde, a little too much for me for the most part, but it was interesting to see what’s happening on the art scene. And only the best of the best gets exhibited at Basel. My favorite, corny as it sounds, was an installation by an artist called Jack Pierson, who makes words out of old letters. He had a smaller one in the main hall, which spelled out the word “Heaven” in multi colored letters (in letters about l8″ high), which attached to a wall. And in the hall of installations, he had an installation of old letters (that looked like they came from an old theater, with bulbs in the letters, which were not lit up) that spelled the word “Romance”, the letters were set up helter skelter, some lying down, some standing up, some on their sides. The letters were three or four feet tall, and I absolutely loved it!!! I have no idea what it sold for, probably a great deal of money, since the smaller wall installation of the word ‘Heaven” was priced at $350,000. Needless to say, I did not walk out with ‘Heaven” under my arm, at those prices, nor did I drive the installation of “Romance” back to Paris in the back of my car. Neither of them were in my budget, but I loved seeing them!! I have always had a strong attraction for paintings or sculptures that include words in them. (I collect a French artist called Ben, who does paintings with words). And since my original training was in design, before I became a writer, for years I have bought colorful old letters, usually in bright colors, and make words of them—–by sheer coincidence, similar to Jack Pierson’s work, and I have done them for many years, and sometimes make them for friends, and they are always fun and gratifying to make, so I can relate to his work. I’ve never sold them, but love making them, and give them as gifts to friends. For instance, in my tiny office in Paris I have the words IDEA, LOVE, MIND, AND INSPIRED, in old letters in red, white, and blue. In my kitchen, I have the words, HAPPINESS (the letters are red ,blue, yellow, and green, none of the letters I use match, but they all look great together) ROMANCE (in red and gold), BONHEUR (in red and blue which means Happiness in French), ADORED (all red), and BEACH (yellow, green, blue ,red, white, and gold, over a photograph of a beach by Richard Mizrak). In my kids’ playroom, I have JOY, and HOT, and in my kids’ kitchen in Paris, I have FEEL, ACT,YES, NO, and the piece of the Hippocratic Oath I have always loved, DO NO HARM. So you can see why I like Jack Pierson’s work, since some of the art work I still do is in the same vein. And the other art work I still love to do are collages, involving photographs, drawings and words in sayings. Somehow art and words combine for me, and I’ve curated some art shows with work that combines words and art too. I think Jack Pierson’s work was my favorite at the show, along with Robert Indiana’s famous sculpture that spells Love, 3 feet tall, in silver.

So when we had our fill of the hall with the installations, we left. There were several other halls offering exhibits (not for sale) and lectures, but we didn’t visit them. And then we drove back to Zurich, had lunch, picked up our things and drove back to Paris (in huge rainstorms!!). It took us longer to get home, about 8 hours due to the bad weather, but it was a pretty drive through beautiful countryside even in the rain. I’m so glad I went to see Art Basel, although it was a little overwhelming, mostly because of the crowds, and the huge quantities of art being exhibited, but it was definitely worthwhile!!! It was a very serious view of some very important art, some more playful things, and some avant garde work as well. I didn’t buy anything, but it was fun to look!! So that’s my report of the Art Basel Fair. Love, Danielle

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2 Comments so far
  1. Anne-Kari July 7, 2010 7:12 pm

    Ms Steel – I enjoy your blog (and your books!) very much, and I hope I’m not putting this comment in the wrong place, but I would very much like an update on the foundation for your son Nick. The link to the foundation is no longer functional.

    I strongly believe that such foundations are key to helping so many who suffer from bipolar and other mental health disorders – I know, because I am one of them. The story of your son’s struggles and your commitment to this cause are inspiration to so many. Please let us know when the website has been updated!

  2. Amy July 11, 2010 6:09 pm

    I too am interested in learning more about your foundation for Nick. My dearest friend is dealing with a probable early onset bipolar diagnosis for her 5 year old daughter. What they are going through most people can’t imagine and although they are doing all the “right” things, I think it could only help them to know other places and people who have been through this. I am really worried for them. It seems too much to have to handle for anyone.