Paris+ Art Fair opens: More corporate, less French

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Paris+ Art Fair opens: More corporate, less French
Karma International. Courtesy of Paris+ par Art Basel.

by Scott Reyburn

PARIS.- Paris+, the eagerly awaited, if awkwardly titled, latest addition to the Art Basel international fair stable opened to VIP visitors in the French capital Wednesday. For almost a half-century, the venerable Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, had been France’s flagship fair of modern and contemporary art. Now the Swiss have taken over. What difference has the world’s biggest and slickest art fair organizer made?

“It’s Swiss-made, so it’s fine. The booth was ready on time and it has very solid walls,” said David Fleiss, director of the Paris-based Galerie 1900-2000, a past stalwart of FIAC. “It’s brought in exhibitors and collectors we didn’t see at FIAC,” he added. Within the first two hours Wednesday, his gallery sold 10 pieces priced from 3,000 euros to 100,000 euros, about $2,900 to $98,000, according to Fleiss. (Paris+ opened to the public Thursday and runs through Saturday.)

The announcement that Art Basel would take over the traditional fall art fair slot, just after Frieze London, certainly came as a shock. But the administrators of the Grand Palais, where FIAC was usually held, insisted that the new fair should retain FIAC’s uniquely French flavor, rather than be branded Art Basel Paris. The French branding agency Yorgo & Co. helped Art Basel come up with “Paris+” (officially pronounced “Paree ploos”).

Because the 122-year-old Grand Palais is currently being renovated, Paris+ was staged, with fewer exhibitors, in a smaller, temporary site near the Eiffel Tower. The event is scheduled to return to the spectacular Belle Époque-era Grand Palais starting in 2024.

For all its less-corporate, French charm, FIAC had a reputation with some international dealers as a less commercially successful fair than its London rival Frieze. At last year’s FIAC, New York dealer David Zwirner told The New York Times that, although he thought Paris was “such a great city for a fair,” FIAC had “tended to underperform” for his gallery.

Enter Art Basel’s global 42-member team that manages VIP relations. It put together a program of exclusive receptions, talks and visits to studios and museums that was more extensive than anything FIAC had ever offered and that drew in a much stronger guest list. The sight of prominent international collectors — such as Alan Lo from Hong Kong, Antonio Murzi from Panama, ​​Rudy Tseng from Taiwan, Sunita and Vijay Choraria from Mumbai, and Don and Mera Roubell from Miami — browsing the fair’s 156 gallery booths was a testament to the promotional power of the Art Basel machine.

The booths might have been fewer and smaller than usual in the temporary space, but international galleries had brought the kind of exceptional works that hadn’t been seen the previous week at the more chaotically crowded Frieze London.

Hauser & Wirth showed a spectacular 1963 Lucio Fontana punctured canvas, “Fino di Dio,” priced at $25 million, according to the gallery. Skarstedt brought a 1992 Martin Kippenberger self-portrait from the “Hand-Painted Pictures Series,” showing the artist upside down, wearing black-and-red shorts. Priced at 6.5 million euros, about $6.36 million, this was reserved for a museum during the early hours of the preview, said Per Skarstedt, the gallery’s founder.

Although it wasn’t exactly a feeding frenzy, other galleries also reported some significant sales at the preview. Zwirner said it had sold a 1989 Joan Mitchell painting, “Border,” for $4.5 million, and Hauser & Wirth said it found a buyer for a 2022 George Condo painting on linen, “The Dream,” at $2.65 million.

“Paris+ is a smarter fair than Frieze London,” said New York-based adviser Wendy Cromwell as she left the event Wednesday. “It’s the Art Basel brand: While there are fewer galleries, there is a broad representation of top works by key artists. It feels like a mini Art Basel in Paris.”

With so much attention — and money — now focused on young and rediscovered artists, Paris+ put particular emphasis on its “galeries émergentes,” or “emerging galleries,” section, as FIAC had done in recent years, placing a selected 16 rising dealerships in the center of the fair. Participants in this area had 50% of their booth fees subsidized by Galeries Lafayette, a French department store.

Tongue-in-cheek dog paintings by young English artist Sophie Barber, represented by the Los Angeles gallerist Chris Sharp, proved popular. At 25,000 pounds, around $28,000, “Renoir Loves Me,” an oversize tribute to the impressionist’s favorite spaniel, was the most expensive of four new Barber paintings sold at the preview, according to Sharp.

The Paris+ director, Clément Delépine, who used to run the highly regarded Paris Internationale satellite fair, said the prime position sent a message. “The emerging galleries are very important to me. I wanted to make them the center of the fair,” he said.

“This is where I come from,” he added.

Under new leadership, Paris Internationale continues to be the week’s must-attend curtain-raiser for those looking for new or overlooked talent.

Paris Internationale, renowned for its quirky pop-up venues, on Monday held the preview of its eighth annual edition at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, where the landmark first impressionist exhibition was held in 1874 — back then, it was photographer Nadar’s elegant studio, now it’s a disused department store. Cinder-block walls, exposed piping and bare concrete floors were more in tune with Paris Internationale’s contemporary aesthetic. Sixty galleries from 26 countries are participating at the event, which is free to attend and runs through Sunday.

In a market dominated by big, brashly colored paintings, the small, intense, predominantly black-and-white self-portrait “Untitled (head)” by Detroit artist Cay Bahnmiller proved a counterintuitive standout on the booth of the gallery What Pipeline, also from Detroit. Made in 2007, the painting was bought by an American collector for $8,500, according to Alivia Zivich, a What Pipeline co-director.

All five of the fantastically surreal and similarly small Jannis Marwitz tempera-on-panel paintings shown by the gallerist Lucas Hirsch of Düsseldorf, Germany, had been snapped up by a collector before the fair for prices between 9,000 euros and 12,000 euros, about $8,800 and $11,700, Hirsch said. Marwitz, a German-born figure painter based in Brussels, uses the meticulous techniques of old masters.

Many visiting collectors and art world professionals were struck by the depth of the material to be viewed, at both commercial and institutional venues, in the French capital. “There’s been a shift from London to Paris because of Brexit,” said New York-based art adviser Christina Shearman. “There’s undeniable energy in Paris.”

With London’s dealers hampered by Brexit, and Britain in political and economic crisis, momentum in the European art trade does seem to be shifting toward Paris. The expansion of the thoughtfully curated Asia Now fair, which also ran in the French capital this week with 78 galleries from 25 countries exhibiting in the grand courtyards of Paris’s historic Mint, only added to the impression that Paris is developing a fall art offering that is a serious threat to London’s long-vaunted “Frieze Week.” (Asia Now runs through Sunday.)

But back at Paris+, Swiss collector Michael Ringier was wondering if anything had really changed. “What is different? It’s an art fair,” said Ringier, looking across the uniform white booths and the aisles of gray carpeting. If it weren’t for the occasional glimpse of the Eiffel Tower through a large window, visitors could have been at an art fair anywhere. More English was being spoken by the VIP crowd than French.

“It’s very difficult to create a new kind of fair,” Ringier added. “But the level of quality is different from FIAC. That’s because of Art Basel.”

Asked if this new Paris fair was missing some of FIAC’s local distinctiveness, Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director, pointed out that more than one-third of the exhibitors had spaces in France. “On the one hand, you want this show to retain its Parisian identity,” said Spiegler. “On the other, galleries want the best possible global promotion.”

Charm is all very well. But international art dealers have businesses to run.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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