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It’s the event the world’s best and most celebrated modern art dealers wait for, the one when they pull out all the proverbial stops and hope to get it right: Art Basel. The number one art fair for modern and contemporary, Basel, which runs this year from June 19-22, has long since established itself as the place where tastes are set and trends established; combined with the major May and November auctions in New York, it is the make and break point, the three short days in which the collectively-held breaths of dealers hoping to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of stock vacuum the oxygen from the air, leaving collectors just that much more lightheaded.
Or something like that.

Abigail 1Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) Sefer Hechaloth (Staircase to Heaven) Executed in 2002. Image Courtesy :: Marlborough

In any case, the great dealers in the field have spent much of the past year preparing for this fair above all others, studying buying trends, gathering consignments, purchasing at auction, and hiding top works in back rooms. And now the moment of truth awaits: did they get it right?
At Marlborough Fine Art, the London arm of Marlborough Galleries, newly-appointed Senior Director of Secondary Sales Alex Platon, who curated the gallery’s booth this year, is certain that he did. And he would certainly be in a good position to know: for the past 14 years, he has headed Impressionist and Modern private sales at Sotheby’s London. Now he handles secondary market sales of works by non-gallery artists at Marlborough – a prime hire for the gallery, since Platon, perhaps better than anyone, knows where to find some of the best works of 20th century art: after all, he’s the guy who sold them.
And he has put that knowledge to good use curating the stand: in creating a presentation of paintings and sculptures that represent, in his words, “where the market is and what I like,” he was able to bring in a 1941 Picasso seated “Dora Maar,” a monumental painting by Miro from 1953, and other major works by Anselm Kiefer, Miquel Barcelo, and others. These he combined with paintings by gallery artists such as Frank Auerbach, with about half of the works on view coming from gallery stock and the rest consigned for the fair. (Prices range, he says, from £20,000 to US $25 million.) The aim, says Playton, is to articulate “what in my opinion is desirable, what is interesting, what is important, in today’s market.”

And that is?

The dealer is unhesitating in his reply. “Works that share a common aesthetic of form and color.” Such works are not necessarily abstract, he explains, though usually they are non-figurative. “I think the aesthetic is more based on form and color in terms of what gives the stronger impression,” he says. “I see today’s collectors first of all looking at the big names of the 20th and 21st centuries, but they are very interested in form and color rather than representation.”

On consideration, he may be pretty close to the mark: think, say, of the soaring popularity lately of Zero art, of Richter squeegee paintings, of Yayoi Kusama’s bright, funky canvases and pumpkins. And what, anyway, could be more paradigmatic of “form plus color” than a Damien Hirst spot painting?

Abigail 2Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)Entwurf für Grund Image Courtesy :: Marlborough

At the same time, it’s worth noting that color has always sold big. On a wide scale, abstract has beaten out figurative art for decades, although the biggest-ticket items do tend to be figurative: Warhol anything, Picasso’s Dora Maars, Munch’s “The Scream,” Cezanne’s “Card Players.”

At the same time, there are no certainties. Any stand at any fair, and particularly at Basel, involves an element of risk; and Platon has had no direct gallery experience, let along experience handling the structure of a fair. And make no mistake: fairs are nothing like an auction. There is room to comparison shop. There are thousands of other choices. There are friends and advisors one meets for dinner, brings by the booth for a second (or third) opinion. Above all, the competitive, testosterone-filled adrenaline rush of an auction, which is not too unlike what goes on at a casino, is entirely absent here. Perhaps, buyers may muse as they wander the 300-plus galleries exhibiting at the fair, they’ve enough pure form and color adorning their salon walls by now; maybe it’s time for an Alex Katz “Ada” painting, or a Rikrit Tiravanija, or Rudolf Stingel. Or it could be they’re ready for a Ron Mueck bust, a Duane Hanson bag lady, a William Kentridge project. Because the exciting thing about a fair like Art Basel is not knowing what you’ll find there, the chance for new discoveries, new ideas, and change.

So while I wish Mr. Platon and his gallery all the best at Basel Art, I have to confess to an underlying hope they find themselves surprised. The art world, after all, can and should be many things: but predictable should not be one of them.

For information on Marlborough, see the website:

For information on Art Basel, see the website:

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