The 9 Best Booths at Art Basel 2021: From a Monumental Nari Ward to Pauline Curnier Jardin’s Theater of Intimacy


September 25, 2021 12:01pm

Photograph outside the convention center where
The scene at Art Basel 2021 in Switzerland.©ART BASEL

Earlier this week, Art Basel opened its first in-person edition of its marquee fair in its hometown Swiss city since the onset of the pandemic. The anxiety of attending the fair, including meeting the strict Covid safety protocols required to enter, soon gave way to palpable excitement within the Messeplatz, the convention center where Art Basel takes place. A parade of smart-suited VIPs of some of Europe’s top collectors lined up for the 11 a.m. entry before making their way into the fair. During the fair’s first day, the world’s top galleries reported strong sales across the board and at various price point, from the few thousand to over $5 million.

Below, a look at some of the best art at Art Basel, which runs through Sunday, September 26.

Frontal and side view of a small pink fabric sculpture of a pregnant woman who appears to have no arms.

Photo : Photo: Sebastiano Pellioni/Courtesy Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Louise Bourgeois and Huma Bhabha at Xavier Hufkens

At Xavier Hufkens, two impressive sculptures immediately showed off their artists’ world-making power: Louise Bourgeois’s small yet mighty Pregnant Woman (2003) and Huma Bhabha’s rough-hewn Poet (2021). Pregnant Woman, standing just a few centimeters tall is rendered in hand sewn fabric with arms pulled back into a position of detained prisoner. The figure’s bald head wears an open-mouthed face reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Bhabha’s unapologetically ghastly abstraction in statuary bronze reflects not a nightmare to come, but the syncopated horror of own contemporary moment. The rough, worked over surface, achieved through technical precision in the patina process, shows the grounded presence of a spirit which cannot be consumed in a sculpture that will not let us turn away.

An abstract multicolored painting covered by a gray tarp.

Photo : Darla Migan for ARTnews

David Hammons at Simon Lee

A three-dimensional hanging painting by David Hammons immediately drew visitors to Simon Lee’s booth at the world’s biggest fair. Hammons’s work, Untitled (2009), a mixed-media work on canvas affects a precarious installation, with nearly three quarters dangling off the booth’s wall. Together with work from a more recent series, titled “Orange is the New Black” (including the plinth-elevated Untitled, 2017), Hammons moves seamlessly between sculpture/painting and rococo readymade/found object to interrogate the violent taxonomies of institutions. Simon Lee has created a well-curated affair, bringing together work intended to surprise both the formalist devotee and please the avant-garde fetishist. Sonia Boyce’s Tongues (1997) is a wall-sized photograph in black and white depicting a closeup of four open mouths provokes bodily participation to raise questions of self-ownership. (Boyce will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2022.) Meanwhile, Georg Karl Pfahler presents a bold geometric study in color with its luscious thick blue curve. Both artists make their debut at Basel with the gallery.

A woman stands in front of a monumental mostly blue abstract painting that has bronze nails in diamond patterns at various points on the canvas.
Photo : Darla Migan for ARTnews

Nari Ward in Unlimited, presented by Lehmann Maupin and Galleria Continua

Nari Ward’s abstract work A Brief History of Known (2021) is a rare and a truly monumental work in the fair’s Unlimited section, which is curated this year by Giovanni Carmine. A Brief History of Known busts past its own visual delight (of which it also gives in abundance) to situate itself from within its own historical power. Ward’s ongoing use of construction nails—now clustered in copper bursts of oblong diamond shapes—pulse like oracle orbs seeming to float on the surface of a tumultuous sea of acrid luminescence in swirling blacks and blues. The artist first saw this symbol at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, punctured into the church’s floorboards to create breathing holes for escaped slaves.

A photo collage of a Black woman holding a gun pointed at a snake. It is black and white except for the woman's deep red socks.
Photo : Darla Migan for ARTnews

Stevenson, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Amsterdam

Presenting a talented group of millennial artists—working in portrait photography, color field painting, and installation—hailing from or based in Johannesburg, Stevenson gallery’s intergenerational program is anchored by mid-20th century modernist Ben Enwonwu’s Dancing Girls Yoruba (1950), whose work is shown alongside contemporary conceptual internet-and-lens based collagists like Frida Orupabo, whose art recalibrates art historical references and more familiar antecedents. Also, not to be missed in the booth is artist Meleko Mokgosi’s multimedia work Objects of Desire, Addendum 1 (2019), depicting Winnie Mandela in the poise of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, toting an AK-47. This image is accompanied by painted text that presents a detailed correction on the misreading of tribal symbology—such as the Chamba figure—by Western art historical scholarship. And an atmospheric collage (shown above) in black and white of a woman with red socks pointing a pistol at a snake by Frida Orupabo, who also has work currently on view at Bienal de São Paulo, is breath-taking.

A mixed-media painting that incorporated different textiles to show a Black woman reclining on a green-striped couch. The background is mostly red with pink parallelogram. A silhouette of a figure is shown behind.
Photo : Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Tschabalala Self at Pilar Corrias

Tschabalala Self is an artist dedicated to pushing her own painterly virtuosity forward, while deftly navigating the psychic experience of transposing and reordering the power between figure and gaze. In a wall-sized work, titled Candy (2021), that feels larger in scale than previous works by the artist, Self constructs a complex twist on the reclining nude by using a calculated play in shadow and shape, rendered through pink, red, and black geometric gymnastics. The strength of the central character, shown twisting their torso to look out at the viewer, is bolstered by the fact that the character blocks the viewer from seeing another figure behind them, who we can only detect through a painted shadow. Of her current practice that looks at “the iconographic significance of the Black female body in contemporary culture,” Self writes in an artist’s statement, “I aspire to hold space and create a cultural vacuum in which these bodies can exist for their own pleasure and self-realization. Free from other’s assertions and the othering gaze. I hope to correct misconceptions propagated within and projected upon the Black body.”

A painting of a Black woman holding an object. She is seated next to a white woman who is topless and whose face isn't visible. The work is framed in a blob-like gray frame.
Photo : Darla Migan for ARTnews

Klára Hosnedlová at Kraupa-Tuskany-Zeidler

Klára Hosnedlová usually works in large-format installation (see her 2020 installation at Berlin’s Berghain nightclub) and has her multifaceted works on view both at Kraupa-Tuskany-Zeidler’s booth and in the fair’s citywide Parcours section at a location just a few minutes’ walk from the Messeplatz. Currently pursuing her doctorate, the Berlin-based Hosnedlová’s Nest creates environments of disorienting wreckage that anticipates our need for false nostalgia through blown-up digital images of close exchanges between photographed figures who are then rendered in tiny hand-embroidered stiches that aims show our connectedness in spite of everything. The gallery also brought stellar works by Guan Xiao (in Parcours), Brook Hsu, Ambera Wellmann, and Anna Uddenburg.

Installation view of various sized blue-black blurred images of a Black man by Carrie Mae Weems
Photo : Darla Migan for ARTnews

Carrie Mae Weems in Unlimited, presented by Jack Shainman Gallery and Galerie Barbara Thumm

Carrie Mae Weems’s Repeating the Obvious (2019) in Unlimited stretches out the blur of a single image of a repeated figure printed at various sized portraits, no bigger than school portrait or some as small as wallet-sized. Positioned in a spiderweb configuration at the corner of two walls, the dizzying feeling that accompanies the refusal or heartbreak returned in the attempt to focus on any one print of this image when one cannot, gives rise to the sense of encountering an echo from the bottom of the well. Weems gives visual presence to the feeling of trying to stay close to—and yet failing to hold on to—yet another name of a murdered Black person, hash tagged and quickly fading away.

Installation view of a yellow beeswax sculpture of a round architectural structure in front of pink curtains.
Photo : Courtesy the artist and Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam

Pauline Curnier Jardin at Ellen de Bruijne Projects

A unique booth, eschewing white walls for satin drapery, at Amsterdam’s Ellen de Bruijne Projects is in keeping with artist Pauline Curnier Jardin’s collaboration with The Feel Good Cooperative. At Basel, one element of the sound installation Feel Good exhibits works on paper by members of the cooperative: Alexandra Lopez, Alexandra Mapuchina, Andrea, Gilda Star, and Giuliana, in a soundscape designed by Antonio Gianantonio. Among the floor installation of large candles blessed in Sicily, we hear the clicking of high heels and the swoosh of traffic—paying tribute to Jardin’s collaborators who are sex workers, a group that has been ignored by the state. Jardin, the 2019 winner of the Preis der Nationalgalerie, currently has recent installations on view at two major Berlin institutions (the Haus der Kultern der Welt and the Hamburger Banhoff) that express the lone intimacy of the peepshow or the sharing of space through live sculpture in her colosseum-cakepink-satin brothel, respectively.

A woman draws a blue bead curtain (an artwork by Felix Gonzalez-Torres) to reveal three paintings by Francis Bacon.
Photo : Photo: Mark Niedermann; Art: ©Felix Gonzales-Torres; ©2021 The Estate of Francis Bacon, all rights reserved, Zurich; Courtesy of The Felix Gonzales-Torres Foundation and The Estate of Francis Bacon

Fondation Beyeler

The Fondation Beyeler presentation at this year’s Art Basel, taking place under pandemic conditions, is devoted to two outstanding artists—Francis Bacon and Felix Gonzalez-Torres—“whose art is particularly concerned with the themes of love, loss, and pain,” according to a release. A moment after I crossed the threshold of Gonzalez-Torres’s curtain of translucent green beads to see a Bacon triptych, a costumed art lover, perhaps a performance artist, walked through the booth donning a pope costume of a flowing cape showing prints of long-stemmed cherries toppe with a bishop’s mitre. The anticipation of pulling back the curtain took us over and brought back the quiet wonder of discovering art for the first time with a deceptively elegant simplicity.

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