This week, Dr Nick Gordon voyages into the centre of the art world, from Art Basel’s online viewing rooms to online exhibitions of modern and contemporary art at London’s galleries.

Art Basel online viewing rooms
Luiz Zerbini, Arvore do Viajante, 2020, Stephen Friedman Gallery at Art Basel 2020

Art Basel is the largest commercial art fair in the world, with 280 galleries showcasing the work of approximately 4,000 artists, from masters of modernism to contemporary mid-career artists. A short stroll around the fair gives you the chance to see several museums’ worth of modern and contemporary art.

The range and quality is mind-boggling, and the contents of just a few rooms would make many collectors green with envy – previous years have included rooms of Picasso’s, Modigliani’s a plenty, 16 Egon Schiele’s lined in a row and often one thing by every big name artist you can imagine. This sort of fair is possible because Art Basel is a key event for the galleries at the head of an international art market that has grown to become worth over $US64 billion per year. Bets are currently off as to whether the current global slow-down will have a negative effect on the art world: during the GFC, significant sections of the art market grew because art was perceived to be an investment safer than houses.

The show can’t take place physically this year – which was to be the event’s 50th anniversary – so Art Basel has created online viewing rooms that will be open June 19-27. The online viewing rooms require you to register on the Art Basel website, but they are simple to use and easy to navigate: the galleries are listed on a single scrolling page, with an image and a brief description telling you whose art is on view. Once you’ve entered the room, you can look at each piece at your own pace.

If you’re looking for somewhere to start, then the blue-chip galleries – such as New York’s David Zwirner, Basel’s Fondation Beyeler, L.A.’s Gagosian and Montreal’s Landau Fine Art – are very reliable. A market of this size, however, provides plenty of niches for specialisation and these niches aren’t necessarily fringe interests. Berlin’s Jörg Maass Kunsthandel, for example, focuses on German printmaking before and after 1945, with a strong reputation for Expressionist masterpieces. Verona’s Galleria dello Scudo and London’s Tornabuoni Art both specialise in post-war Italian art – Michelangelo Pistoletto, Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and co. – which has been enjoying increasing attention (and rapidly escalating prices) over the past few years.

Despite its long-standing strategic interest in the development of the Asian and South American art markets (Art Basel’s shows in Hong Kong and Miami are ‘gateway’ fairs for these regions), Art Basel in Basel is weighted towards the traditional centre of the art world, so most of the galleries are European or North American. Nevertheless, there are galleries such as Shanghai’s ShanghART and Antenna Space. These galleries have received plenty of pre-show attention, which reflects the growth of Shanghai as a leading centre for the creation and consumption of contemporary art.

White Cube and Ben Brown Fine Art
Tracey Emin, A Different Time, May 2020, from the I Thrive on Solitude exhibition, White Cube, London

Many of the galleries involved in Art Basel also have their own exhibitions online. London’s White Cube has a fantastic range. To start with, they have a monographic exhibition of works by Tracey Emin, who produced a body of small paintings during lockdown reflecting on her attachment to home.

The Emin exhibition, called I Thrive on Solitude, is an interesting contrast with the retrospective of Minoru Nomata, a Tokyo-based painter whose work is influenced by industrial design, contemporary Japanese urbanism and American precisionism. His distillations of industrial structures possess a meditative solitude. The structures have a levity that stems from his attentiveness to air and light, but Nomata also captures ambivalence in the relationships between humanity, the built environment and nature.

White Cube’s third exhibition – About Time – is more directly philosophical. It looks closely at how different artists have dealt with time as subject matter. The exhibition begins by looking at the use of numbers, repeating cycles and the ways we measure time, and then proceeds to contrast these with the subjective experience of time.

Rob and Nick Carter, Pablo Picasso Robot Painting, 2019, courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Art, London

Perhaps the most fascinating exhibition by a private gallery, however, is Ben Brown Fine Art’s new London show Rob and Nick Carter: Dark Factory Portraits. The husband-and-wife pair works extensively with artificial intelligence, an intriguing field for art because it has the potential to challenge the notion that creativity is a quality unique to human beings. For this exhibition, the Carters have been investigating the potential for a machine to ‘be a painter’. The proposition sounds quite simple: can a robot execute portraits well enough for them to possess “personality”? Enough of this elusive quality is captured in the robot’s work to give the portraits the sense of ‘authenticity’ or ‘intimacy’ that we demand of an artwork – they look pretty much right.

Royal Academy, London
Picasso, Women at Their Toilette, Paris, winter 1937–38. Image Musée National PIcasso, Paris. Photo © Succession Picasso/DACS 2020

While you’re virtually in London, hop on over to the Royal Academy, which has steadily increased the number of exhibitions you can view online. The main show at the Royal Academy is Picasso on Paper, which comprises more than 300 of Picasso’s works that used paper as either a support or a material. The video tour is very well produced, providing shots that give you a sense of the work as a whole before zooming in to look more closely at different techniques and details. The video is not accompanied by commentary, however, so if you’d like to learn more you might like to watch the three-minute curator introduction or this short video of Picasso at work in 1957.

If Picasso is not enough, the RA have re-released a 90-minute “Exhibition on Screen” documentary on Manet’s portraits, presented by Tim Marlow, their former Artistic Director. The exhibition, held in 2013, was the first ever to focus solely on Manet’s portraiture and it brought together more than 50 works from around the globe. In addition to presenting Manet’s exceptionally influential techniques up close, the documentary takes you into the worlds of his circle of intimates as well as the luminaries of the arts in 19th-century Paris.

Manet, The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, which features in the Manet Expressions on Screen documentary

If you’re looking for something more contemporary, then the RA is on that case too. They’ve released PHYLLIDA, a 30-minute documentary on Phyllida Barlow, one of Britain’s finest sculptors. Domestic objects and the experience of places that are utterly familiar often inspire Barlow’s work. Instead of elevating the mundane to the realm of art, Barlow brings art and the everyday onto a common plane through her use of materials: cardboard, cement, brightly coloured paints and fabrics. In this regard she ‘de-monumentalises’ sculpture, a medium that has been used for millennia to immortalise a chosen few people, whose effigies have served to remind common folk of who’s in charge.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
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