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.
Celebrating Basel Basel
Fifty Years of Stories
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.
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.
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.
Pamela Joyner, collector
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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
Patricia Marshall, art advisor
Ten years ago, I was walking by with an important group of Eastern European clients when I saw a potential client struggling in the melee. He called out to me asking me to save him! After surviving that experience he became a very important collector. The fair is sometimes like a street fight in a bad neighborhood, except the dress code is Prada and Celine. I never cease to be amazed by the long lines of people who queue for the sausages. 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, and the sausage becomes their reward for the day, along with the art.
Wang Wei, co-founder, Long Museum
Several years ago I was walking around at the fair, and this lone figure in a painting hanging in a booth just jumped out and caught my eye. I felt an immense power coming from the work and an instant connection; it looked like an otherworldly dreamscape. I didn’t know the artist, who turned out to the Swiss painter Miriam Cahn, born right in Basel. Strong art by women has been a primary focus of the museum’s contemporary art collection, so I ended up acquiring two large paintings by Miriam, one figurative and one a landscape. I bought the works totally out of that initial connection, and found out only later she was in so many important collections, like The Broad, and has been widely shown in museums.
Skarlet Smatana, director, George Economou Collection
In 2018, the Schaulager presented the impressive Bruce Nauman exhibition. Both George Economou and myself attended, bewildered, challenged, questioning contemporary humanity and art and exchanging thoughts on where the world was going. We were happily joined by the artist Katharina Fritsch and her student group visiting from Dusseldorf, who were just as full of questions and thoughts as we were. It was a wonderful way to see a show, one that I will always remember.
‘My favorite part of our Art Basel now is the Sunday before the fair, when Iwan Wirth and I drive from Zurich to Basel to install the booth. To see with our own eyes all of the works that we have planned and figure out whether they ‘dance’ together is simply an irreplaceable experience.’—Marc Payot
Marc Payot, president, Hauser & Wirth
Obviously, Basel is a town full of memories for me. Not only did I grow up 20 kilometers from the city, but I also studied in Basel. And my first job after graduating was to help organize Art Basel, between 1992 and 1996, working as the right hand of Lorenzo Rudolf, the fair director at the time. To learn how the art market functioned through that work was one of my most important early experiences. We were only a handful of team members and we organized the whole fair! I personally knew every single exhibitor. My first job after having left the management of the fair was with Bob van Orsouw in Zurich and we exhibited at Art Basel. The level of excitement—and pressure—was so huge that I would not sleep for several days around the opening. My favorite part of our Art Basel now is the Sunday before the fair, when Iwan Wirth and I drive from Zurich to Basel to install the booth. To see with our own eyes all of the works that we have planned and figure out whether they ‘dance’ together is simply an irreplaceable experience. It is a day I look forward to the entire year. (As well as eating at the Donati, one of my favorite places in the world—I would gladly get up in the middle of the night just for a piece of their Saint Honoré cake!)
Zhang Enli, artist
I remember visiting Basel in 2015, participating in the Unlimited section. As I needed to arrive two or three days in advance to install, I had the rare chance to view the art fair much earlier than the public, experiencing what a super VIP would have. At lunch, we all sat at the central courtyard and ate hot dogs, watching people walking by, all the key figures of the art world, collectors rushing to booths to see their favorite pieces. As an artist, seeing all this passion for art gave me tremendous encouragement.
‘Everybody is in another world during the fair. The artists draw on the tablecloths and sometimes burn them with cigars. Some nights everything is taken off the tables and they dance on them. Some artists fall asleep at the table!’—Abdelkar Trabelsi
Abdelkar Trabelsi, chef de service, Kunsthalle
I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years and I retire this year! It’s the very best atmosphere there is. Everybody is in another world during the fair. The artists draw on the tablecloths and sometimes burn them with cigars. Some nights everything is taken off the tables and they dance on them. Some artists fall asleep at the table! I never wake them up until they get up themselves and then I bring them gently to the door. I’ve done this with my entire heart. That one week is not just one week. It’s ten or even twelve days that I barely sleep and still I feel super fit because I love doing what I’m doing. It’s my favorite time in my favorite place in the world.
Thomas Shao, publisher, collector
On my very first visit to Basel, I acquired a work I love, Richard Jackson’s installation with a black dog and a white dog (‘Complementary Colors Face-to-Face (Black/White)’, 2011), and I stayed at the historic Les Trois Rois. I love Art Basel. I can see world-class top works and talented artists. It broadens my horizon and keeps me posted with the art world. There is only one little regret I have about visiting, in 2017, when I missed a Duchamp editioned installation.
Ursula Hauser, collector, co-founder, Hauser & Wirth
I first heard of Art Basel in 1971. My late husband Albert Hauser and I drove to Basel that year to visit what was then the second edition of the fair. It was a revelation. The works of European masters, from Picasso, Matisse and Arp to Léger and my favorite, Alberto Giacometti—I vividly remember to this day. I think it was then that I, for the first time, saw works by a controversial German artist—his name was Joseph Beuys. Even deeper impressions were left by many American artists that I had never heard of—Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman. While we did not buy anything and hardly talked to any of the friendly dealers, I went back to Basel for almost all of the fairs in the years afterward and it is a highlight of my cultural calendar.
Neil Wenman, partner, Hauser & Wirth
One of my most informative memories of Basel came from my first encounter of the work of Lee Lozano in the retrospective exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel in 2006. The satirical paintings of close tools and the bizarre diagrams and gradients of tone left me intrigued. Walking through the show with Nicholas Logsdail he recalled his encounters with this formidable force. The odd subject matter and intense brushwork and drawing technique led me into a new world of powerful imagery and endless questions…. that was to define my very understanding of contemporary art.
Monique Burger, collector
In memory of my son Yves (1988-2011) it has been important to me to bring his friends closer to the art world. After his death, my husband and I created an organization for our son —Thinking of Yves (TOY)—which gathers at art dinners around the world and introduces artists to this circle. In 2018 at Art Basel, we met Nedko Solakov, a prominent artist from Bulgaria and a storyteller par excellence. He made a series of 123 drawings called ‘optimistic stories’ and seeing them, I had an idea: I wanted to give the works away to our circle of friends. The artist was not pleased at the beginning to take a multi-part work apart, but after hearing my story, he was very touched and agreed to the project. Each one of our friends got an original drawing and each drawing will always be one of the 123—together as the TOY family we became the ‘optimistic stories.’
‘I have not missed any Art Basel since the very beginning, which means I have been to 49 of them, if I am counting correctly!’ —Ulla Dreyfus-Best
Ulla Dreyfus-Best, collector
I have not missed any Art Basel since the very beginning, which means I have been to 49 of them, if I am counting correctly! I met so many people over the years. It’s where I first met the big American dealers, like Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis. I have so many anecdotes I would not even know where to begin. But every year for 22 years now I have given a party on Saturday to honor one artist and I always try to have a big surprise in store. The first year it was Jeff Koons and I had two performers dress up like winter bears from Koons’s 1988 piece ‘Winter Bears.’ When Jeff saw the ‘bears’ coming out of the forest toward the party, with flashlights shining on them, he just couldn’t believe it. He was on the lawn crying.
Dino Simonett, artist, publisher, filmmaker
In the 80s I had a booth at the fair six times with my art magazine QUER, featuring collaborations with artists like Keith Haring, Jean Tinguely, Josef Beuys, Meret Oppenheim, Diego Giacometti and many other great artists with now not-so-famous names. I had a marvelous time but decided, for various reasons, not to become a gallerist or art dealer—otherwise Larry Gagosian and Iwan Wirth would be my secretaries now! In recent years we’ve had each summer a project of our own outside the fair—off Broadway as it were—meaning that I have been present but not present. I would ask every visitor to tell me a small story of his or her very own Art Basel—What have you seen? Who have you seen? What were your strongest impressions? In this way I’ve heard all the greatest stories and anecdotes and gossip without having to walk around with the masses. Voilà!
Tanja Wegmann, general manager, Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois
The week of Art Basel is hip here. It’s fun. It’s crazy. We have so many people from all over the world —crazy people, crazy moments, crazy artists. We are so centrally located to the fair and such a destination during it that sometimes we even have difficulties, because so many people want to come to the bar and the restaurant that we have to, at some point of the evening, close the doors purely for security reasons!