Celebrating Basel Basel

Fifty Years of Stories

  • Jul 26, 2020

Since its founding in 1970 by the Swiss gallerists Trudl Bruckner and Baltz Hilt alongside legendary dealer and collector Ernst Beyeler, Art Basel—known in its first year simply by the one-name moniker Art—has been the queen of international art fairs. On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Hauser & Wirth celebrates the fair’s history and the gallery’s deep involvement for more than two decades with a compendium of stories, memories and personal photographs shared by artists, gallerists, collectors, local Baselers and many more.

Hauser & Wirth booth at Art Basel, 2006. Photo: Georg A. Hermann

Qiao Zhibing and Zhang Enli with ‘Space Painting,’ Art Unlimited, 2015.

Qiao Zhibing, art collector, founder of TANK Shanghai

My relationship with Art Basel began in 2007 and it’s become a fixed annual routine, one that I am very sad will not be part of my life this year. I’ve met tons of interesting people in being involved with it—like Zhang Enli, that very first year, when his work was brought to the fair by Hauser & Wirth. For me it’s not only where I purchase art and expand the collection for my non-profit but it’s a rare opportunity to catch up with so many international friends. Even in difficult times, art can bring us hope.

Roth Bar at Le Trois Rois, 2015. Photo: Yuta Nakajima

Roth Bar at Le Trois Rois, 2015. Photo: Eugenie York

Thomas Huhn, chef de bar, Les Trois Rois

I’ve been chef de bar here for 13 years and I could fill books about Art Basel. I have grown so fond of it. Especially the installation of Roth Bar in 2015 in the lobby. For me, as a barman, it was extraordinary—a piece of art with a bar theme right in your own bar! Even now, five years later, people keep asking me when it will come back.

Young Elias Wirth assisting with a Jason Rhoades installation for Art Basel. Photo: Manuela Wirth

Iwan Wirth and Marc Payot with Pierre Huyghe's 'Cambrian Explosion 11', Art Unlimited, 2015. Photo: Manuela Wirth

Iwan Wirth, co-founder and president, Hauser & Wirth

My favorite day in Basel is the Sunday before the opening. Marc Payot and I have a ritual of driving together from Zurich to Basel to install our booth in the middle of the madness of set-up, surrounded by crates and art handlers. My favorite memory is when, after a brief negotiation at the door, my oldest son, Elias, then a young boy, was given access and spent hours playing around our booth. Most notably, he was climbing and hiding inside aluminum barrels that were part of an artwork by Jason Rhoades. We have pictures of Elias sitting inside there and smiling like the happiest Art Basel visitor ever.

Paul McCarthy’s sculpture outside Art Basel Unlimited, 2007 © Paul McCarthy

Füsun Eczacıbaşı and Pamela Joyner with moderator Mark Rappolt, Art Basel Conversations, Beyond Collecting: What is Patronage?, 2017

Pamela Joyner, collector Art Basel provides an opportunity to see museum-quality work that may not be visible for years to come, as these masterworks are largely headed to private collections. The art world is a community of learners and the gallery dinners, private dinners or sandwiches grabbed on the run allow us all to collaborate with a global community of artists, gallerists, curators and collectors. The process makes all participants smarter and hopefully more attuned to issues of the moment set forth by truth-telling artists. The patchwork of personalities is unparalleled, and I look forward to the rebirth and perhaps reconfiguration of this global village.

Martin Hatebur, president, Kunsthalle Basel For me, I’m born in Basel, I’m raised in Basel. I was always interested in art. So even at the beginning of the fair, it was like an event in my world. It was incredibly difficult to get an invitation at that time. Today as well, I guess. Everybody wanted to come to the opening. What makes it special is that Basel is a town where you don’t have a lot of people living. It’s a population of only about 300,000. And of course very few hotels. So during Art Basel really only the most important curators, journalists, collectors are coming. The concentration of the people is much more than at any other art fair.

Phyllida Barlow with 'untitled: 100 banners', Art Unlimited, 2017. Photo: Neil Wenman

Installation view, Phyllida Barlow, untitled: stage, Art Unlimited, 2011 © Phyllida Barlow

Phyllida Barlow When we installed my work ‘100 banners’ it took 3 attempts to get the right method. The techs were heroic. I remember that in the next space over there was a monumental Carl Andre piece – a floor work, steel plates, 10mm thick, laid flat on the floor. Magnificent! And in contrast to the excited buzz and babble of descending crowds, this work was silent, still, nameless, waiting, its irrefutable physicality pulling the space around into itself. There was an uncanny empathy between the multi-colored layers of my fabric banners and the uncompromising dead weight of the floor-bound steel plates.

Rodney Graham DJing at Art Basel, 2010. Photo: Florian Berktold

Installation view, Jason Rhoades, Untitled, From the body of work: My Madinah, in pursuit of my ermitage, Art Basel, 2011 © Estate of Jason Rhoades. Photo: Karin Seinsoth

Carol Vogel, former veteran reporter for The New York Times After covering Art Basel for The New York Times for more than a decade, I was almost never surprised about who I’d spot at the VIP opening—certainly the world’s top collectors, dealers and auction house executives; often a movie star or two, just to give the proceedings extra buzz. But artists—for many of whom such a commercial event is anathema—were never in abundance. So it was something of an occasion when, in 2008, a month after his 85th birthday, a sprightly Ellsworth Kelly appeared in Basel, intently examining booth after booth and admiring a show of his own work as well. ‘I haven’t been here since 1965!’ he told me. In those days, he added, ‘There were so many fewer artists, and the definition of what was art was so different.’ I asked what he had seen that stuck in his mind and he described works by Robert Gober, including one of the Virgin Mary standing over a storm drain with a water pipe running through her midriff. ‘It was very mysterious and very confounding,’ he said.

Michael Ringier, publisher My favorite memory is from probably 20 years ago, when I bought my first Mike Kelley. It was a sculpture of found pieces, small but very beautiful. I was walking by the gallery, Metro Pictures, and I liked it, and I said to my wife, ‘Look at this beautiful piece!’ She said, ‘What the hell is this?’ And: ‘No, you’re not going to buy it, okay?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So we continued walking and then 15 minutes later, I said to her, ‘Sorry, I have to talk to somebody.’ And I went back to Metro Pictures and asked, ‘Is it still available?’ And at that time, things were still available after 15 minutes! And I bought it. I showed it to my wife only many years later.

Pipilotti Rist installation at Art Basel Unlimited, 2016

Pipilotti Rist at Art Basel, 2006. Photo: Karin Seinsoth

'I often think of Pipilotti, whose point of view keeps revealing unexpected portals to the divine in my own daily life. It makes me happy to be alive.'—Saskia Spender

Saskia Spender, president,Arshile Gorky Foundation June 2016, my first Art Basel: It was like a rite of passage into my new role leading the Arshile Gorky Foundation, keeper of the family flame. Members of the many art tribes queued and I wore my own tribal talismans—flat shoes for going places, an Issey jacket, my mother’s 80s Hong Kong silk shirt and my grandmother’s 1945 Calder earrings. I was not yet an insider. As often happens, the rite of integration happened by chance, when the correct degree of exhaustion had been reached. I was drawn to a small space with charmed lights that seemed magically empty. Iwan and Manuela were there, and Ursula Hauser came by with her companion André. The source of the magic turned out to be work by Pipilotti Rist, which transformed me from a pre-Basel person to Basel person. And I now often think of Pipilotti, whose point of view keeps revealing unexpected portals to the divine in my own daily life. It makes me happy to be alive.

Flying into Basel, 2019. Photo: Cristopher Canizares

Rotunda at the VIP entrance to Art Basel, 2019. Photo: Emily Tsingou

Emily Tsingou, private art dealer and advisor My special memory of Art Basel is really the atmosphere of anticipation each year in the rotunda just before the 11 a.m. VIP opening. The space is like a coliseum almost, with voices echoing all around. This is a moment that I look forward to every year. There really is nothing like it: the galleries know that they have with them their best works and the participants look forward to the chimes that sound as the doors open—always so promptly. All of the participants recognize this moment, which signals the end of the waiting … and the start of the chase.

Technicians installing Pierre Huyghe’s ‘Cambrian Explosion 11’ at Art Basel Unlimited, 2015. Photo: Gabrielle Braun

Installation view, ‘Rashid Johnson. Antoine’s Organ,’ Art Basel Unlimited, 2018 © Rashid Johnson. Photo: Marc Payot

Gabrielle Braun, head registrar, Hauser & Wirth Zürich One of my most vivid memories is the installation in 2015 of Pierre Huyghe’s ‘Cambrian Explosion 11,’ one of his live marine saltwater ecosystems, which included horseshoe crabs. A lot of teams and specialists had to be coordinated, including an official veterinary inspector! It’s not often in the art world that you have to get acquainted with seawater quality, special import documents for aquarium animals and nocturnal aquatic-life rhythms. A whole new world had opened up for me. Another very complex project was the installation of Rashid Johnson’s ‘Antoine’s Organ’ in 2018. All of the parts were shipped from New York except for the plants and the piano. Due to legal regulations, new neon tubes had to be sourced in Europe—not an easy undertaking, since they had to meet not only the aesthetic requirements of the artist but also Swiss legal requirements. The biggest challenge was to find a garden center that would loan us 250 plants for the duration of one week. A team of 5 art handlers and studio members worked for six whole days on the installation. But somehow it worked. Antoine performed every day according to an exact schedule, making the organ come alive.

'These are people who dine at the best restaurants in the world and some even have their own chefs and yet they are crazy for these Basel sausages. They are like children with big eyes waiting for their treat'—Patricia Marshall