Basel Classics 1

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23 June 2012

And so to the Modern Classics, the Modern Greats.

Some reports at the international art fair just ended in Basel, Switzerland, suggest that in the current grim economic climate collectors are eschewing avant-garde contemporary art in favour of tried-and-tested examplars of modern 20 C art.

Thus the most talked about work at the fair was unquestionably the 1954 untitled orange-and-pink oil-on-canvas rectangle (222.3 x 176.2 cm) by Mark Rothko (1903-1970) at the stand of Marlborough Fine Art (Barcelona, Madrid, New York and Monte Carlo). This was a standard Rothko of excellent quality but its notoriety derived from the fact that at $78 million it was the most expensive work on sale at the fair. It is to be assumed that the elderly beret-capped uniformed private security guard straight out of Dad’s Army stationed alongside it was there simply to emphasize the gravitas of the painting rather than provide effective protection in the event of an attempted heist by today’s equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde.

For our money, however, the show-stealer was the magnificent 1940 black mobile entitled “Eucalyptus” by Alexander Calder (1898-1976). The work (created using metal, wire and paint) was on loan to Basel’s Beyeler Foundation from the Calder Foundation in New York. The presentation of the work was all the more dramatic from being displayed in the dazzlingly-lit white cube-like Beyeler stand. In addition, by way of contrast, the Beyeler Foundation had found in its collections a modest-sized 1912 black-and-grey oil-on-canvas entitled “Eukalyptus” by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) to hang on a wall of the same stand. No doubt a fine work in its own right, it was completely upstaged by the Calder. Unfortunately, no doubt to the disappointment of most of those who saw it, the mobile was not for sale.

Two other works at the fair also provided a striking contrast.

One was the much-photographed “Gekröse” by Franz West, who lives and works in Vienna, the city where he was born in 1947. Gekröse is German for “tripe” and the monumental 2011 work resembles nothing so much as a sausage-like cat’s cradle of huge pink entrails or puffed-up inner tubes. The medium looks like rubber, perhaps the sort of material used to make bouncy castles, and as a result the work has a light feel about it, but in fact it is made of lacquered aluminium. This is what the dealer, Gagosian Gallery of New York, has to say about it:

“Gekröse is a leviathan of a sculpture, simultaneously monumental yet playful; imposing in scale yet whimsical in its cheery rose hue and dynamic sense of movement. The complexly intertwining pink coils are reminiscent of any number of diverse forms, perhaps a gargantuan primordial cephalopod or an enlarged model of the human digestive tract. Often West designs sculptures as functional furniture-like sites of social interaction.”

Amen to that!

By contrast, nothing could be more solid and durable than the massive grey chisel-marked stone cross – “Das Liegende Kreuz” – by Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) at the stand of Düsseldorf dealer Galerie Hans Mayer.  The work was executed in 1971 and 1972 in Belgian granite.

The gallery cites a commentary by Friedhelm Mennekes:

“…nowhere does the cross prove to be as encompassing and fundamental in the plastic arts and a driving formative force as in the work of Joseph Beuys. It holds its own as a form of creation dominating the entire career of the artist…..In Beuys’s works the cross is a steadfast formal concept not just derived from art history but striving to form a wider conception of art and to formulate an ‘enlarged notion of art’.”

Mennekes goes on to quote Beuys himself as saying that for him the cross serves “mainly as a symbol of orientation in the natural sciences. Today science is unthinkable without the notion of a coordinate grid system, which means without the notion of space and the underlying problems of time. They are being dealt with in a systematic way by means of the grid. Even in weapons one has this guideline as in the cross-wires of machine-guns. Thus the cross has become part of our culture.”  

Rather surprisingly, the dimensions of this massive lapidary cross were not easy to pin down. We pointed out to the genial dealer, who had attended the fair every year since it opened in 1970, that the dimensions of the work given in the wall label – 234 x 61 x 237 cm – were implausible if one looked at the cross carefully, at which point he obligingly provided us with a new set of dimensions 234 x 45 cm x 254 cm.

So that was that then. But not quite. We then read in Mennekes’s commentary that the work “follows the concept of a Greek cross with four equally long beams”.

Now the Oxford  English Dictionary defines a Greek cross as  one whose four arms (“beams” in Mennekes’s terminology) are of equal length.

The two transverse bars which intersect a cross at right angles each consist of two arms. In other words, two arms constitute a bar. These two bars, if you are still with me, are supposed to be of equal length in a Greek cross.

However, according to the figures given to us by the Galerie Hans Mayer, the length of one bar is 234 cm, the length of the other is 254 cm.

Now unless mathematics recently effected a quantum leap which has escaped our attention, 234 cm is not  normally equal to 254 cm.

Which is to say that, unless we are a Dutchman, the bars of the cross are not of equal length. Hence, Das Liegende Kreuz cannot be a Greek cross.

But wait a minute.

Here is Mennekes again:

“In the dimensions of its large-scale implementation, the work violates the mathematical rules of an exact materialization. However, the character of this imprecision enhances the sculptural quality and renders it a weight of its own.”

So that explains that then.

Mennekes goes on: “While,  from the point of view of historical form,  the ‘Roman’ cross reminds us of historic incidents, the ‘Greek’ form takes on a rather symbolic and graphic character. It can easily be surrounded by a circle like the spokes of a wheel. In the context of Byzantine culture, it symbolically refers to the resurrection and the light of the new world, graphically to motion and cycle, on a metaphorical level to philosophical poles of dialectics as well as cognitive superimpositions and a combination of highly different perspectives – a characteristic of the keen mind of Joseph Beuys.”

Who could disagree with that?

We desperately need to take a break at this point.

Hence, our classical trail through the highways and byways of the Basel art fair will continue tomorrow.

Same time, same place.

Good night.


You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

 1. Why? or How? That is the question(3 Jan 2012)

2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich(6 Feb 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices(2 Feb 2012)

4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat(31 Jan 2012)

5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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