Basel Classics 2

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

 Special note: Those who receive the text of our posts by email should know that the script is often revised, sometimes substantially, after initial publication. Yesterday’s post, for instance, “Basel Classics 1”, was re-written in part after it first appeared.

 24 June 2012


Today we conclude our review of a selection of the modern classics on show at last week’s international art fair at Basel in Switzerland.

Some people think there is not much to a work by conceptual sculptor Fred “String Theory” Sandback – and they are right.

But that’s the point.

Baroque excess is not his thing.

Sandback, who was born in Bronxville, New York State, in 1943 and died in 2003, made work with string. Or acrylic yarn, to be precise. That’s all.

A classic Sandback, untitled, was on display at the Galerie Annemarie Verna from Zürich. A construction dating from 1990, it consisted of three taut strings set across the junction between two walls. Uppermost was a vertical red string, which descended to meet a horizontal yellow string that spanned the corner. From the other end of the yellow string descended a vertical blue string.

And that was it. This is minimalism in the raw.

The height of the work from the top of the red string to the bottom of the blue string was 228.6o cm. No dimension was given for the yellow string, but we would estimate its length at about 25 cm.

Sometimes Sandback made work with only two strings and occasionally only one string.

If you like minimalism – and we do – this is it.

We do not know whether Sandback ever took his work to its logical conclusion – no strings at all.

Think about it.

Quite a different work was the complex bronze “Libro” by Antoni Tàpies i Puig, Marquess of Tàpies, who was born in Barcelona in 1923 and died there in February this year. The 1996 work, on sale at Milan gallery Christian Stein, featured an open book into which various culinary implements were inserted: four forks, two knives, two spoons and a ladle with holes in it. The artist’s signature cross – for the role of the cross in Joseph Beuys’s work, see our post yesterday – was incised in the middle of the book.

Galerie Lelong (Paris, New York, Zürich) exhibited a classic black and grey painting – oil on aluminium – by Sean Scully. Entitled “Wall of Light Angel”, the impressive 2007 work measured 280 x 350 cm. Scully was born in Dublin in 1945. He now lives and works in New York and Barcelona and near Munich.

Galerie Lelong also showed two works by Greek sculptor Jannis Kounellis. One called to mind a giant sandwich. This featured a greyish metal base, resting on the floor, which measured 270 x 40 x 4o cm. The uppermost part of the work consisted of an I-beam (or RSJ) measuring 300 x 12 x 6.5 cm. Sandwiched between the metal base and the I-beam was the filling: five hessian sacks of coal. The work, untitled, was made in 1993/1994. The other Kounellis at Lelong was a much more recent work. Created in 2012 and also untitled, it consisted of a wall-hung oblong grey-blue steel base measuring 200 x 180 cm over which were pinned about six black and dark-blue militaristic greatcoats stitched together in a patchwork with what appeared to be twine. Kounellis was born in Piraeus, the port of Athens, in 1936. He studied art in Greece and at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome.

Politics reared its ugly head again – see our post “Big Brother”of 18 June – in the white marble 2009  sculpture entitled “Flat human (I want more)” by Olaf Breuning  at New York dealer Metro Pictures. This was a stele with heavily chipped back and sides and a flat front proclaiming  the following aspiration: “I want more and more and more and more”.  Well, you can’t say this guy doesn’t make his wishes clear. Seems to us as if he might be a capitalist. The work, created in 2009, measured 170 x 55 x 43 cm. Breuning was born at Schaffhausen in Switzerland in 1970. He lives in New York.

We never thought much of doodlebug Cy Twombly till we saw the 1966 painting “Hill (Rome)” at Galerie Karsten Greve (St Moritz, Cologne, Paris). An alder frame, 190 x 200 cm, encloses a striking blackish oil painting, immaculate save for seven window-like squares picked out in chalk. There is no obvious reference to either Rome or a hill and yet, looking through the windows, can one not glimpse in the distance……? No one can’t, and yet….As it happens, Twombly, who was born in 1928 at Lexington, Virginia, died last year in Rome.

Nor have we cared much till now for scrap metal manipulator John Chamberlain. Yet New York dealer Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art showed the best Chamberlain we have ever seen – a magnificent 2003 assemblage of strips of chromium-plated steel painted green, red, blue and orange, the strips marshalled in off-vertical columns inclining from the top right of the work to the bottom left. Most Chamberlain works we have seen have been irregular in shape, but this was flat-fronted and disciplined. From a distance, it could have been mistaken for a painting. The work measured 231 x 236.2 x 73.7 cm. Chamberlain was born at Rochester, Indiana, in 1927 and died last year in Manhattan.

Staircases going nowhere seemed to be ‘in’ this year at the fair. The Konrad Fischer Galerie (Düsseldorf and Berlin) exhibited one by Wolfgang Laib. Made of wood coated with a blackish Burmesian finish in 2006, it measured 221 x 142 x 52.5 cm. Laib was born in 1950 at Metzingen in Germany. Another by Carl Andre featured at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery. This was a much more rugged affair than the Laib staircase, but led nowhere all the same. There must be a message there somewhere. The Andre work consisted of a “stepped pyramid” (ie staircase) of red cedar timbers. Created in 1980, the overall dimensions were 182.9 x 91.4 x 182.9 cm.  Andre was born in 1935 in Quincy, Massachusetts. In 1988, tried on a charge of murdering his wife Ana Mendieta, he was acquitted.

We conclude this review of Basel art works with a piece with literary resonance. This was “After Kerouac”, a substantial installation created in 2006 by artist Mike Nelson, who was born in 1967 at Loughborough in the UK and who now lives and works in London. The public was invited to enter a seemingly endless circular corridor that wound round and round like the coils in a spring. The walls of the corridor were white but the lower one-third had a continuous dado of irregular skid marks. The corridor eventually ended in an old wooden door with a piece of string hanging from it. You opened it – and were dumbfounded to find yourself unexpectedly in the middle of a scrap yard of old tractor, lorry and car tyres of all shapes and sizes. The work was Nelson’s homage to Beat writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and in particular to his 1957 autobiographical road-trip novel “On the Road”. The skid marks forming the dado in the corridor were a reference to the fact that Kerouac typed the novel on a continuous sheet of paper.

A description of the work provided by Nelson’s dealers at the fair – 303 Gallery from New York and Galleria Franco Noero from Turin – read as follows:

“After Kerouac” is not only a shrine-like homage to the era of American culture that the Beat writer has come to represent, but also a rhetorical question in regard to those ideals. In relation to the genre of Mike Nelson’s own practice, “After Kerouac” succinctly articulates what is often the starting point for many of his works: a literary structure translated into spatial structure. The black marks of the tyres through the spiralling corridor emulate the single continuous scroll of paper that “On the Road” was typed upon, but also the abstract mark-making of the [an?] expressionistic nature redolent of painters of Kerouac’s era. However, the conclusion is as deadpan as the rest, a cul-de-sac or dead end made with the sum of its own ‘happening’ or narrative.

So there you have it.

By way of a codicil to our critique of Nelson’s installation, we include here, for the convenience of readers of a literary bent, Wikipedia’s description of Kerouac’s modus scribendi when he was writing “On the Road”:

Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled “The Beat Generation” and “Gone on the Road,” Kerouac completed what is now known as “On the Road” in April 1951, while living at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan with his second wife, Joan Haverty. The book was largely autobiographical and describes Kerouac’s road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late-40s, as well as his relationships with other Beat writers and friends. He completed the first version of the novel during a three-week extended session of spontaneous confessional prose. Kerouac wrote the final draft in 20 days, with Joan, his wife, supplying him bowls of pea soup and mugs of coffee to keep him going. Before beginning, Kerouac cut sheets of tracing paper into long strips, wide enough for a type-writer, and taped them together into a 120-foot (37 m) long roll he then fed into the machine. This allowed him to type continuously without the interruption of reloading pages. The resulting manuscript contained no chapter or paragraph breaks and was much more explicit than what would eventually be printed. Though “spontaneous,” Kerouac had prepared long in advance before beginning to write.

The novel was not published till 1957 as a result of the unwillingness of publishers to take it on.

This piece concludes our review of the artworks exhibited at Basel.  However, we are planning to write two more posts on other aspects of the fair before bidding adieu to  Augusta Raurica.


 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.



This entry was posted in Art, Switzerland and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s