Skip to content

On Monday afternoon in Basel, Switzerland, a push alert pinged the phones of several art-world VIPs who gathered for the opening of Unlimited, the wing of the city’s eponymous art fair that features large-scale works too big for a booth. Across the hangar-sized exhibition hall, the well-heeled clientele fished phones out of pockets or clutches and saw that the news, for once, was good: The U.S. announced that it would ease travel restrictions for non-U.S. citizens coming to the states from abroad, with proof of vaccination, starting in early November. Many had assumed that, with the delta variant still raging, COVID travel bans would continue until 2022, making Art Basel in Miami Beach—which kicks off in late November—a one-continent event barely worth attending. Now it will effectively be the first art-world gathering open to the world in nearly two years.

The idea of light at the end of the tunnel was an adrenaline shot to the heart for the 51st edition of Art Basel, the most hotly hyped contemporary-art shindig on each year’s calendar, but this year written off by many given the circumstances. Collectors and dealers from countries in Asia were largely unable to travel due to restrictions, and U.S. citizens feared stringent testing requirements. Many collectors who typically make the trek from America to this Swiss town on the Rhine instead decided to skip it in favor of the next edition, just nine months away in June 2022.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Messeplatz. A smaller but serious contingent actually showed up to the VIP Champagne breakfast Tuesday morning, and not just for the endless fresh-shucked oysters and bottomless flutes of Ruinart. They were, imagine this, there to buy art.

“There actually are some very serious collectors here,” Jeffrey Deitch told me in the middle of his booth, his first at the fair since 2009, the year before he took a break from gallery business to run the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “Yes, some people were intimidated by the rules, but art collectors, they’re a special breed, they’re adventurous people. Look, here are some collectors now!”

Deitch darted off to greet an excitable group of English speakers, but later added that in the early hours of the fair, he had sold enough to cover the costs of the whole week, with plenty of inventory waiting for new homes. Most prominently, he had convinced longtime client Dakis Joannou, the Greek Cypriot industrialist billionaire, to part ways with Urs Fischer’s Untitled (Bread House) (2004-2006), a 16-foot abode that was indeed constructed from fresh loaves. It’s on sale for $3 million, waiting for that special someone who has room in their home to install…another, smaller home that is getting moldier every day.

But Deitch was talking on Tuesday, and at that point there had already been a few days of action in the Rhineland. In Zurich, the typically packed pre-Basel days at first seemed relatively muted, with no crowds streaming in and out of the Löwenbräu, the old brewery that’s been turned into a long complex stuffed with galleries, museums, and art-book stores. The shows were excellent. Those who made it to the Luma Westbau, the Zurich outpost of patron Maja Hoffmann’s Arles-based art foundation, saw a nimble and innovatie video work by Ian Cheng, just a few walls away from another stunning video work in Korakrit Arunanondchai’s show at the Migros Museum. Elsewhere in the Löwenbräu, the Kunsthalle Zurich presented a wonderfully tweaked version of the ’90s-tastic Art Club2000 show that was at Artists Space in New York earlier this year.

But the lack of crowds did not mean that the heavy hitters were skipping town.

Longtime Zurich gallerist Eva Presenhuber presented a new show of stunning portraits by Steven Shearer—the king of punked-out opulence who just got picked up internationally by David Zwirner—and fêted him after with a dinner in the pavilion room at the Baur au Lac hotel, the Talstrasse beauty straddling the ancient Swiss lake. The galleries seemed empty, but the dinner drew Presenhuber’s fellow gallery heads Sadie Coles, Barbara Gladstone, Dominique Levy, and Pilar Corrias, as well as the curator Beatrix Rufand artists such as Shara Hughes, Ugo Rondinone, and Liam Gillick.Even more impressive: The event was held at the Baur while Hauser & Wirth hosted an equally starry dinner at the same hotel, in the newly refurbished bar room called Baur’s. Held in honor of Simone Leigh and Glenn Ligon, who just debuted new shows at Hauser’s Zurich spaces, the dinner ended with gallery partner Marc Payot gleefully showing the works that Hauser had given the ancient hotel to kit out its new gilded drinking den: paintings by Louise Bourgeois, a set of Raymond Pettibon drawings, and photos by Annie Leibovitz.

In Basel, Monday brought the opening of the Liste fair, often fertile ground to find fresh talent. The sight of power adviser Patricia Marshall—who’s whispered buying advice into the ears of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnaultand Jumex billionaire Eugenio López—entering Liste was a good sign, and it was encouraging to see young Los Angeles dealer Matthew Brown fill his booth with massive ceramics by Heidi Lau, a rare sight of the medium during a week so heavy with paintings. Brown said he shipped them from Los Angeles only to sell to a collector in Los Angeles—a good problem to have, especially when America was virtually written off before the fairs opened.