Christian Marclay is a ground-breaking artist who thrives on surprising juxtapositions, so it’s only fair that a dinner in his honor would throw everyone from outrageously comic actor Will Ferrell to low-key Swiss bankers, well-known restaurateurs Michael and Eva Chow, art collector Jean Pigozzi, and billionaire philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen into the same crowded room—and stir the steaming pot into a tantalizing social brew.
So it was Wednesday night in Basel, Switzerland, where Tina Brown, editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, combined forces with News Corp. first lady Wendi Murdoch and Russian-born socialite and art entrepreneur Dasha Zhukova—with co-host Credit Suisse—to showcase the much-honored Marclay’s work and merge art lovers, artists and financiers amid the planet’s premiere visual-arts bazaar.
Art Basel has become, in its 42nd year, an over-the-top carnival of conspicuous, if discerning, consumption, and the dinner-goers converged on the Foundation Beyeler, Basel’s spectacular private museum of 20th Century art that was designed for a maximum wow factor by architect Renzo Piano. The museum is a modernist jewel amid a Swiss countryside punctuated by meadows and lily ponds (along with grazing cattle that, as is traditional for every Art Basel, had been rented for the occasion).
Ferrell, for one, was seemingly transfixed as he and his wife, art auctioneer Viveca Paulin, toured the museum’s exhibition of Brancusi and Serra sculptures—the first elegantly smooth and glistening, the second roughly textured and brutally monumental.
“A daring juxtaposition and combination of old and new together that no one else would have the courage to do,” as Brown described the bracingly odd coupling. The same could be said for the evening at the Beyeler.
After Murdoch and Zhukova touted their incipient Art.sy project—a multi-media, multidisciplinary effort to showcase the world’s best art to discriminating collectors as well as to interested civilians—Marclay presented a musical work, “Shuffle,” in which a violinist, cellist and bass clarinetist took their cues from a series of cards Marclay showed them to improvise a work of contrapuntal complexity.
“That was very rewarding,” Marclay told me after the guests listened raptly and applauded, “because it’s not the kind of music this audience would be interested in. People came to me and were actually moved. That’s the best compliment.”
Marclay, a tall, slim, elegant man who seems the human embodiment of a Brancusi sculpture, added that he wasn’t quite sure why anybody was throwing a dinner for him, but he was happy to be there. At one point, the high-octane Murdoch, apparently worried that celebrity chef Ivo Adam’s delicious creations weren’t being served quickly enough, marched into the kitchen to declare, “I will put on an apron and start cooking myself.”
Nobody went hungry.
Of course, Art Basel is as much—or perhaps even more—about raw commerce as it is about the creative impulse to make things of beauty.
One Los Angeles-based buyer, Rodman Primack, making his 10th foray to the festival, said he was so busy searching out paintings and furniture for his well-to-do clients, “I haven’t even been back to my hotel room to brush my teeth.”
During cocktails on the terrace, I asked Larry Gagosian, art dealer to the stars, if he thought Art Basel was a fair representation of the global art scene. “I don’t understand your question,” Gagosian retorted. “It’s an art fair. I’m here to make money.”
Gagosian said that the high-end market, after a slight dip the year before last during a period of financial uncertainty, has come back strong, with collectors paying record sums. “There was a time when you might have gotten a Rothko or something like that for a bargain price,” Gagosian said. “Not any more.”
Indeed at one point during the dinner, a woman who purchases art for rich clients checked her iPhone and announced that she had just persuaded the dealer of painting by a 20th century German artist to sell it to her for $2 million—which meant a $200,000 commission for her.
“But nothing to fall out of your chair over,” she said calmly.
I felt like falling out of my chair anyway.