Art Basel

ART BASEL by Justin Thomas

Inspired by adventures with  ArtScout® - creator of ArtScout ® and New York City gallerist, Beth Swanström. 


I love great cities. Their history, foundations, behaviors, and designs generate the energy and inspiration that springs from the resistance from them. “Art springs from resistance” is a memorable quote from Gene Stavis, one of my professors at the School of Visual Arts on 23rd street in Manhattan. The spreading monotony of corporate storefronts will never defeat the strength of that feeling in your stomach when your flight attendant announces “Welcome to Los Angeles”. The inherent energy of Manhattan generates a specific yet universal feeding ground for inspiration. The incarnate light of Paris is parallel to the passion of the stone sculptures on every building and a fusion of past and future inspiration. There are major art galleries in these world-class cities, and these art galleries make these cities unique. Cities need artists like artists need cities. It’s a bond that has always existed. 

I follow the largest and tallest developments, and each metropolis has its own sculpture going up into its skyline that is going to define that city forever, including Seoul, Korea, the Shanghai Tower, Sky City in china, The Burj Kahlifa, and One World Trade Center. After really becoming immersed in the art world I realized that these landmarks are sculptures that we send up into the sky to define the personality of the culture around it, like the iconic Eiffel tower, and the Empire State building, the most famous of all skyscrapers; a definition of the boldness of Art Deco New York City in the 1930’s. 

The artists who walk the streets observe and interpret - like no one else - the energy and messages that the urban mazes are whispering. A true artist is connected, and is always listening to the whispers that feed inspiration, whether it’s inequality, climate change, collective conscious revolution or any form of social commentary: the true artist translates the ideas into something tangible and visible. 



Beth Swanstrom brought my knowledge of the modern art world to a new level with our trip to document Art Basel Switzerland in spring 2010, the largest modern art fair in the world. In a beautifully preserved old European village in Switzerland, the adventurous creativity seekers – or the adventurously creative with their never-ending bank accounts – swarm to the destination of the annual Art Basel fair situated in a seemingly endless labyrinth of top-notch galleries from all over the world. On top of that, across a pedestrian bridge next door is the best furniture design show in the world, Design/Miami, and next door to that is Art Unlimited, full of installations far too large to fit in MOMA. This experience was overwhelmingly inspiring and eye opening. 

Always with a passionate and driven glow in her expression, Beth led me through every exhibit that stood above and beyond in terms of social commentary and artists who use arduous methods. Beth knew exactly who was in vogue and was working hard to really make a statement in the modern art world. We entered the Design/Miami® Basel show. I was about to be educated about the borderline between art and design, or if it even existed at all. 


One that springs to mind in my memory is a young woman from Shanghai, China, DanfulYang.



She sculpted her one-of-a-kind furniture pieces by hand, combining Ming and Qing dynasty furniture with luxury brand logos like Louis Vuitton and Chanel. She was making a statement about the authenticity of Chinese history, its beautiful sculpted chairs and tables, yet clouded and corrupted with symbols of contemporary name brands that are copyrighted and notoriously reproduced illegally in China today. She claims that every country illegally copies copyrighted materials, and perhaps is her inspiration for including antique European styles into her furniture. They all mesh together in an interesting statement about our past and our present designs; our past is irreplaceable, and our present is reproducible on a massive scale, only to be protected by a piece of paper in a courtroom. (See more at CONTRASTS GALLERY, Shanghai) 



The borders of art and design are breached and redefined at Design Miami/Basel. An interesting furniture designer, Simon Hasan at the Johnson Trading Gallery (New York), included boiled leather on steel in his chair design. Boiled leather is a technique that was once used to make accessories and armor for medieval knights. This brings a middle-age technique to a contemporary use that would look like a work of art in your living room, and be used just like a piece of furniture. 



The excellent sculpted bronze fusion “wonderlamp” by Studio Job, presented in the DILMOS gallery (Milan), was a fun and perfectly functional source of light for a living room, designed to look like a boiling antique pot, or a Jeanie lamp. The luminous glass is made to look like it is liquid or air, and can be a fantastic conversation piece. 



“Addict Us” By Rolff Sachs presented by the Anmann Gallery in Cologne is a functional lamp with a social commentary that really interested me. 



This piece is a glass dome that doesn’t reveal what is inside of it until the light is turned on, and half a skull is revealed, without a brain. In its place is a mountain of assortment of prescription drugs. The title “Addict us” may speak to the velocity that so many people in our modern society are becoming addicted to what have become more extremely addictive as opposed to necessary medications all across the world. Is medicine designed to make us addicts, or is medicine designed to help us? It’s an interesting conversation piece to say the least. 



Beth took me to the Hotel Les Troid Rois after the first workday here to observe the mingling art collectors in the Swiss palace that seemed to be teeming with royalty. I will always remember this trip. On my first night here, I remember going for an evening walk to the beautiful old Mittlere Bridge, constructed in 1226 over the Rhine. I needed to realize that I was really here! I was fresh out of college, in Basel, experiencing an entirely new world. I enjoyed the view and looked forward to the main event, where we would see contemporary art, sculptures and designs from all over the world. 

In 2012, Edvard Munch's iconic artwork “The Scream” sold for $120million. The high-end price of art just keeps going up and breaking records. 


Contemporary art is vastly pre-conceived as slabs of color on a giant canvass, or a shark in an aquarium filled with formaldehyde. Contemporary art has somewhat of a bad reputation, but once you’ve ventured into the underground (as I like to call it) or the chambers of the unlimited galleries in Art Basel, you will leave with a new respect. 


This is Beth in front of the portrait of the late Earnest Beyeler, a top dealer of Modern art (1922-2010) and founded Art Basel in Switzerland in 1970. This was in the main Art | Basel® convention center on the night of 

“Art Vernisage”. Vernisage is French for varnish- a finishing, drying chemical that preserves a painting or furniture. The evening is an event to celebrate the premiere of the works. Only a select few collectors get a chance to claim the ownership of the works before the public even gets a chance to see them. And so Vernisage began and I carefully carried the heavy camera equipment though galleries containing millions of dollars worth of creativity. This was just a preview of what we would see in Miami later in the year. 



Of many works of art and sculptures, the first that springs to mind is the piece “diamond in you” by Japanese Designer Tatsuo Miyajima

--Gallery DesignBoom Cologne, Germany. It reminded me of a multi-dimensional shattered window stranded in a moment in time, reflecting out with the use of mirrors. 



His fascination with numbers (excluding the number 0, which is a negative number to his culture) brought the sculpture to a new level as a functional source of light as electronic displays of single digits count their way up to 9, or down to 1 at different speeds. This is trying to express how we all perceive time differently at different times, no matter what mirror we’re looking in, and seeing life through different angles. 

It’s a busy, beautiful mosaic of electronic triangular mirrors that would be a fabulous focal point for a very minimal modern apartment. Because the sculpture is essentially a mirror, you are also part of the sculpture. 



Most of the booths at Art Basel can house some small sculptures and a few large-scale paintings. Art Unlimited is in a separate, massive building, because it showcases art that is beyond that scale in size. In theory, there is no limit in size for your art and sculptures in this area of the convention. You can only see Art Unlimited in Basel, so book your flights! 

One of my favorite pieces was “Romance” by Jack Pierson. Made of large separate weathered steel letters with broken neon bulbs attached, it spells out Romance with a huge, obvious bittersweet visual animosity. The colorful display, reminiscent of a retro exterior neon hotel sign from the 50’s, speaks volumes about how love and romance ages and rusts. Even memories as strong as steel weaken and tumble, and lose their colorful glow as they topple through years of icy winters, toxic summers and gravity. 



Another great thing about Art Unlimited is the unpredictability of what you are going to see. It’s an amusement park for art lovers, with interactive environments, such as a beach, yes, a beach in the middle of a convention center in Switzerland complete with beach chairs and a wooden hut to view a video installation of a beach. It’s a place to escape end enjoy a rest on your long journey through the convention, until the video turns into traumatizing images of political and social unrest. 

And then, you’re back to the beach. It’s a sort of mind play that puts you in a relaxing environment and is intended to lurch you into a state of uneasy consciousness about what is going on in the world, while you are relaxing at the beach. 

If you would rather not tread in the sand in your expensive shoes, you can interact with Sergio Prego’s long inflated vinyl hallway that takes about 3-4 minutes to squeeze through, not recommended for the claustrophobic. 

Many of the installations at Art Unlimited are inside large closed in rooms for video and light installations. Bruce Conner really put on a show with his triple screen, fast-paced video installation “Three Screen Ray”. This features fast paced, synchronized black and white film cuts of various silhouettes, electric shapes, dots, numbers, upside-down dancing feet, and all kinds of superimposed body figures. I thought this would be perfect for a nightclub. 

You can view some of the video here: 



We also got a chance to see Urs Fischer’s giant aluminum sculptures. The largest one is just floating inches from the floor, seemingly defying gravity. If I were scouting for landscape set pieces for a film set on an alien world, this would be a contender. 

After a weeklong blitz of shooting in Basel, I picked up a couple pairs of slim European shoes and Swiss sunglasses. Later, we were on a flight back to headquarters in New York to continue to explore the art world. 



ART BASEL Miami Beach


Basel, Switzerland may be the home and cornerstone of the contemporary art scene annually. However, it’s harder for Americans to get there or locate it on a map. Miami, with it’s beautiful tropical climate, palm trees, and lines of beautiful art deco Hotels from the 1920’s internally re-designed while preserving there exterior history is a haven where so many designers and artists call home. 

It was December 2010, high season for Miami, there was a larger, more public scene for clientele in a venue that was less pretentious and more welcoming to the public and corporate commerce. 

The introduction to this fair was with Michelle Rosenfeld, an art collector and connoisseur who could teach you more about the contemporary art world in 10 minutes than a 4 year degree could. She was ready to give her tour to a select audience donating to the philanthropic fund of Fisher Island, a residential island with a golf course just south of South Beach, Miami. Every year this “10 galleries in 10 minutes” tour astounds guests to the convention. 

At first glance, there was more of a curb appeal to the designs of the top galleries at the entrance to the fair. One gallery was uniquely designed by the architect Zaha Hadid. He created an open sculpture that drew your eyes into Galerie GMUZYNSKA and drawing you into the best show in town. 



On the right side of the Gallery you will see an Yves Klein “Blue” painting. “Yves Klein is so famous for this particular color, that that’s what they call this. Yves Klein blue. That’s about a million dollars.”-Michelle Rosenfeld says without even raising her voice in surprise. A million dollars in this place is nothing, apparently. To the left of the Yves Klein Blue is the Marc Rothko painting, an orange-yellow canvass with a line of white separating the horizontal frames. “This could be about 10 to 15 million” She says. 

We go further into the gallery where we see a David Smith molded steel sculpture. “It’s millions and millions of dollars.” Rosenfeld says. “It’s not for sale for any of us. Only a museum – Why? Because it is so unusual.” With inspirations from Picasso, Matisse cut-outs, and phallic symbols I didn’t understand. However, when an “art person” invites me to dinner at their house someday with an Yves Klein blue painting on the wall, I’ll immediately be intimidated. 

A Picasso painting was on display in the Helly Nahmad Gallery for 5,000,000. Another right near it for 10,000,000 about the same size and type, so why such a price difference? A touch of color and a little more “abstraction” seemed to do the trick. I’ll keep that in mind. 

A cool highlight was being able to see Andy Warhol’s Marlyn (reversal) 1979. Made of synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen on canvass, 18x14 inches, a good size for1.2 million. It would look great in my bathroom. It’s a good deal, because if it weren’t a reversal, with a green face and a black background, it would be an extra million. 

I got familiar with Frank Stella’s larger works. “A square within a square” Rosenfeld says. “I don’t have to look at the tag, I know this is 1970.” Why? Because the texture of the borders between colors changed over the years. In the 60’s, the colors were tight, in the 70’s, the colors had a white demarcation. These subtle marks of style that instantly tell a knowledgeable art collector the decade a work was created is a good lesson for aspiring artists. 

Robert Indiana, who you may know from his famous LOVE sculpture on Broadway near Wall Street, had a couple pieces there. I learned that he dropped out of the contemporary art scene for years because he was so depressed that he did not copyright “Love” or his specific 

sculpture of Love with the leaning “O”. In a world where love can be copyrighted and sold, and love continues to become a business to sell, or sell the idea of love, to millions of believers in love, how far can we really find where the idea of love really started? Businesses began to mass-produce, print and sell love on anything tangible. This was a tragedy to Indiana. Someone stole his idea, as if a leaning vowel could buy your way into the winning class. Apparently in the world of art and design, it can. 

We concluded the shooting in Miami with Jaclyn Santos, who appeared in the reality TV show “Work of Art” on Bravo. It was fun filming with her, not just because she was so knowledgeable about the scene and famous artists like Jeff Koons, but the fact that viewers of the show and fans of hers kept recognizing her in the crowd and congratulating her made the experience all the more exciting. 

Art Basel is quite an experience. You’ll see the best contemporary art from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and a hint at where the art world is headed next. I recommend checking it out. It’s not exactly the dollar store, but as creativity becomes more global, and artists and galleries more often collaborate across continental borders, what is being created will become more fascinating as it fuses cultures and ideas together - like the works of Danful Yang. Some perceive the convention as an extravagant mindless mall for billionaires to compete and consume superficially, some see it like a day at the fair. I see an evolving subculture, and if no one was investing in this art, innovations from the past, present, and future could never exist. Some critics scorn at the contemporary art world with ignorant disgust. Some ask, is it really worth it? Would you want to live in a world where one shade of blue is indistinguishable from another? Or would you want to live in a world where Yves Klein saw something special in a specific mixture of elements that would eventually lead to a shade of color that has a specific name, a name that came to be recognized and appreciated by others, and is now worth on canvass the value slim short of a budget of a suburban mansion? 



Whether it means something or not, with all of the pretenses and egotistical personalities that come with a show like this, there’s always the glimmer of inspiration in someone’s eye to exceed their potential. As Art|Basel® continues to out-do itself year after year, I’m glad we live in a world where there is a stage for pure creation. This is an evolving world of ideas where anything is possible. From person to person, there’s a life stream of creativity. Not one artist can control what their creation will do to their audience, or for how long that creation will keep us satisfied until we need to see more. Contemporary art is in no one’s control. Here’s a toast to what’s next. 


-Justin Thomas 

A Canadian screenwriter, filmmaker and artist.