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Commerce Meets Culture at Art Basel

“It’s not just about buying,” she said. “It’s about talking to people at the galleries. It’s commercial, but it’s also a cultural event.”

The Unlimited sector, for large-scale works, has 76 pieces this year, including the last work by the artist Chris Burden (1946–2015), who is most famous for “Shoot,” the piece for which he was shot in the arm by an assistant. Fairgoers will have a chance to see Burden’s “Ode to Santos Dumont” (2015), an operational airship inspired by the aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont.

According to Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, a particular strength of this year’s fair is the secondary market, or older works that have already been bought and sold.

“In Basel, history is a key part of the equation,” Mr. Spiegler said. “The fair traces 12 decades of art, and that’s one of the things that makes it great.”

He cited Di Donna Galleries of New York, a Surrealist and Modern specialist, as an example of a newcomer to the fair that is contributing to this historical context. Di Donna will show works by Alexander Calder, René Magritte and Willem de Kooning, among others.

“It’s been important for us to support the next generation of secondary market dealers,” Mr. Spiegler said. “They are going toe-to-toe with the auction houses.”


“Untitled,” a 1976 painting by the German artist Sigmar Polke.

2017 The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne/ARS, New York/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photograph by Uli Holz.

Auctions may indeed be on the minds of attendees this year, given the strong performance of the market at the May sales in New York. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982) sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, a record for the painter and for an American artist.

Some were skeptical of the work’s boosting power. “Maybe the Basquiat reinforces confidence, but one painting doesn’t change the market,” said Dominique Lévy, a dealer in New York, who added that the current market was “strong and healthy.”

Ms. Lévy, an Art Basel veteran, will exhibit at the fair for the first time this year under the banner of Lévy Gorvy, her new partnership with Brett Gorvy, a former Christie’s specialist.

“My approach to exhibiting is quality and surprise,” she said. “We are looking for a dialogue in the postwar art of America and Europe.”

Ms. Lévy said that her “masterpiece” on offer this time is “Untitled,” a 1976 double-sided painting by the German artist Sigmar Polke that depicts herons. “It’s never been on display in public, and the other works in the series are in institutions,” she said.

Jenkins Johnson Gallery of San Francisco, exhibiting at the Swiss edition of the fair for the first time, will show a selection of images by the African-American photographer Gordon Parks in the Survey sector.

The gallery’s founder, Karen Jenkins-Johnson, said that the images, from Parks’s “Segregation” series, make viewers emotional. “I have seen people stand in front of them and cry,” she said.

“History is repeating itself,” she said. “The current tensions surrounding civil rights around the world are reminiscent of past conditions.”

The Basel fair is a good place for such material, Ms. Jenkins-Johnson said: “Europeans are very knowledgeable about art and art history. You can push the limits.”

Also pushing limits is the larger European context of Art Basel. The 2017 edition takes place amid other high-profile exhibitions on the Continent, a confluence that happens only once a decade: the every-other-year Venice Biennale (on view until Nov. 26); the every-five-years Documenta (through July 16 in Athens, and from June 10 to Sept. 17 in Kassel, Germany); and the every-10-years Sculpture Projects Münster (from June 9 in Münster, Germany).


“Department Store,” by the American photographer Gordon Parks.

The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery

That means that art dealers, collectors, curators and appreciators will be shuttling around the Continent to see it all. “This year is a crazy caravan that moves from one city to another,” said Ms. Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, sounding not a bit put-upon, but rather delighted at the prospect. When she spoke, she had already been to Athens once and Venice twice this year, and she was gearing up for trips to Basel and both German venues.

Casual conversation about what is on view at the shows is a crucial driver of the marketplace. “The art world is still very viral,” Mr. Spiegler said. “People compare notes, and it becomes very clear the six or seven artists you have to see at all costs.”

“It’s amazing how quickly artists can go from firmly in the middle of the pack to being incredibly sought after, and shows like Documenta are part of that,” he said.

The dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who has galleries in Paris, London and Salzburg, Austria, said the packed itinerary had its charms.

“I like this 19th-century sense of the grand tour, and traveling for culture,” said Mr. Ropac, who will show works by Robert Rauschenberg, Gilbert & George and Robert Mapplethorpe at Art Basel.

“It has an old-fashioned sound,” he said. “In the old days, you took a train across the Alps and you’d have three or four weeks. But today of course, you have to do the whole thing in a week.”

For grand tourists who need hand-holding, there is The Cultivist, a members-only arts club that provides access to special events, especially for a packed month like this one. Its motto is: “Art Unlocks Life. We Unlock Art.”

At Documenta, for example, one of the curators will guide members on a tour of the contemporary art show. In Venice, the group staged a luncheon with the dealer and decorator Axel Vervoordt.

“People know that if they come with us, they will get more out of it,” said Daisy Peat, one of The Cultivist’s founders. “Even finding hotels and places to eat is not easy.”

But even the staunchest art pilgrims have their limits.

“Some people are complete aficionados and will do all of the events,” Ms. Lévy said — including herself. But her approach was decidedly one-thing-at-a-time.

“I’m not doing Kassel and Münster just yet, because that will have to wait,” she said. “I am going to have vacation like a normal person.”

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