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  1. Wealth
August 31, 2007

Swiss Arty Life

By Spear's

For a small country, Switzerland punches above its weight in the art arena. Anthony Haden-Guest on the Helvetican hard-hitters.

For a small country, Switzerland punches above its weight in the art arena. Anthony Haden-Guest on the Helvetican hard-hitters.

ShContemporary, the art fair which was launched in Shanghai in August, is China’s first full-fledged contemporary art fair. It is the brainchild of a Swiss dealer, Pierre Huber. A former ski instructor, Huber, opened a gallery called Art & Public in Geneva in 1984 and represents leading Minimal and Conceptual artists, including the Swiss Olivier Mosset and the married couple John Armleder and Sylvie Fleury.

Hubert, who is himself a collector of Chinese art, had the notion of the Shanghai fair four years ago and proposed it to Art Basel, the 400-hundred pound gorilla of art-fair circuitry. He was turned down, so decided to go it alone.

It should be noted that Huber is an art-world entrepreneur and a controversial one. A sale of work from his collection at Christie’s at the beginning of the year was blasted by David Zwirner, the Manhattan mega-dealer. ‘I think as a result of the sale Pierre Huber should be banned from Art Basel,’ Zwirner told the essential, nuts-and-bolts online newsletter, Baerfaxt. ‘He is just too much … I don’t want to share an artfair with such a cheat and opportunist.’ He added that Huber’s gallery was ‘the size of a shoebox.’

Hubert, needless to say, robustly defended himself. Indeed, in 2004 he told Marc Spiegler, now one of the triumvirate running Art Basel: ‘I don’t need a 5,000-square-foot space to deal secondary market Andreas Gursky photos.’

Those whose views on the Swiss and the arts may have been influenced by the famous Orson Welles/Harry Lime put down in The Third Man concerning chocolate and cuckoo clocks might well be startled. So indeed would former generations of art lovers for whom Switzerland wouldn’t even make it into the second eleven of art-making, art-supporting or art-marketing nations. Including the Swiss themselves, that is.

‘As I see it at present, there seems to be little prospect that art in Switzerland will ever have a bright future, despite the best exhibitions with fine lighting, etc., since, in general, interest in art is too slight,’ wrote the painter Arnold Bocklin to a friend in 1881. ‘Were Switzerland a larger country it would not matter so much. As among millions of people there would always be enough for whom art and the possession of works of art are necessities, but at home the heads of such lovely people can be quickly counted.’ Bocklin, who wrote this from Florence, lived in Basel for a while, but hoofed it to Germany and ended his life in Fiesole.

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But Modernism’s bracing hurly-burly clearly agreed with the burghers of Switzerland rather well and the Swiss have been active in its engine-rooms from early days. Simon de Pury, of Phillips de Pury, a Swiss national and himself by no means risk-averse – he soldiered on after his operation was dumped by Bernard Arnault, billionaire owner of the luxury conglomerate, LVMH – observes that there were major collectors of Impressionist and Modern paintings in Switzerland between the wars.

‘After the second world war Basel was the first place where they showed Abstract Expressionist paintings in the ’50s,’ he says. ‘The most up-to-date contemporary art happening internationally was shown first in kunsthallen in Basel or Zurich or Bern, in the German part of Switzerland.’

It is, of course, all down to a handful of individuals. Ernst Beyeler was born in Basel. His career began in a shop that sold antiquarian books and prints, but in due course he began dealing pictures. A man of huge negotiating skills and considerable charm, he developed close personal relationships with many of the great Moderns. Picasso showed him around his Mougins studio and simply said, ‘Take what you want’. He was the only dealer ever granted this permanent access.

Beyeler and his wife Hildy became art world grandees and Beyeler kept so many of the better artworks that passed through his hands that in 1997 he established a private museum, the Fondation Beyeler, at Riehen, just outside Basel. The building covers 5,900 square meters and Beyeler’s architect, the Genovese, Renzo Piano, who also built the Centre Pompidou, sheafed the structure in blocks of red porphyry. It stands in a garden landscaped in the nineteenth century. So, unsurprisingly, the parties at the Fondation are the hottest of hot tickets at Art Basel.

The collection of 1,800 works includes strong work by Cezanne, Matisse, Miro, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Baselitz and Kiefer and there are whole galleries of Picasso, Giacometti and Rothko. They are are set off against tribal arts from Africa and Oceania. Beyeler also mounts museum-standard single artist exhibitions there – at last Art Basel it was Edward Munch – and he is still keeping a hand in the dealing game, at a gallery in a Basel town house.

Bruno Bischofberger and the late Thomas Ammann have been to the contemporary art market what Beyeler is to Modern: indispensable men. Bischofberger, a former Cresta Run champion, opened his first gallery in Zurich in 1963. Two years later he helped introduce American Pop Art to Europe with a group show that included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg and Andy Warhol.

In 1968 he secured a ‘Right of First Refusal’ from Warhol, an arrangement that endured until the artist’s death and which proved to be as advantageous to the dealer as the entrée to Mougins had been to Beyeler. The following year he and the artists co-founded the magazine Andy Warhol’s Interview which, disguised in sly Warholesque fashion as an ingenuous fanzine, was, in fact, quite a radical journalistic endeavour, a hard-copy forerunner to celebrity/reality TV (which Warhol was also doing, of course). And the year after that Bischofberger produced Warhol’s movie, L’amour.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, the years when Manhattan ruled the art-world roost, Bischofberger was one of the New Yorkers’ principal gallerists of choice overseas. He showed the Minimalists and Conceptualists, like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman. And he both showed and frequently published books on Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, George Condo, Peter Halley and Mike Bidlo.

He commisioned the collaborative canvases that Warhol made with Jean-Michel Basquiat and with both Basquiat and Clemente. Warhol’s career had been dulled by too many formulaic portraits. These kicked it back into high gear. In Julian Schnabel’s movie, Basquiat, Bischofberger was played by Dennis Hopper.

Thomas Ammann was 18 when he took a job with Bischofberger. He worked at his galleries in Zurich and St Moritz for several years, then set up on his own as a dealer in Impressionism and Modern art in 1977. He was still in his twenties, but was well-liked and famously discreet, and by the end of the 1980s he had become enormously successful. From Zurich, Gstaad and a suite in New York’s Pierre hotel he dealt with a client list that included David Geffen, Stavros Niarchos, Gianni Agnelli and Baron Thyssen.

Ammann not only resembled Beyeler in the scale of his operations but in his personal passion for collecting. He had become close to Warhol while he was still with Bischofberger and developed close friendships with many artists of his own generation. He died in 1993, aged just 43, and left a huge collection. His Zurich gallery is now run by one of his sisters, Doris.

Another Swiss who has had an enormous effect on the actual shape of the contemporary art world, the way it conducts its business, was Harold Szeemann. Szeemann organized shows at Dokumenta and Kassel. He was capo at two Venice Biennales. Szeeman created a position for himself, and he was the first of the star curators, international rovers, contributing to the viral spread of the art market. As such, he was the first of many.

And tellingly the best known today is another Swiss, Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is now at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and who last August mounted a hugely successful art fair in Manchester. Frank Cohen, the Mancunian collector, who sponsored a performance at the Opera House, still bubbles over the Obrist effect. ‘They flew in on private bloody jets,’ Cohen says. ‘They came from LA. There were about 300 people. It was like being in the centre of New York. I’ve never seen a night in Manchester like it.’

Another Swiss who has had a huge and continuing influence on the shape of the art world is Uli Sigg. Sigg first visited China in 1979 as the representative of a Swiss company, Schindler, and he helped put together the first joint venture there. In the mid 1980s he was appointed Swiss ambassador to China and was soon watching the developing art world there with a keen eye. He began buying and now has a collection of some 1,200 pieces. Both the growth of the art world within that country and the current giddy boom in Chinese art owe a great deal to Uli Sigg.

Another Swiss diplomat features too, the late Paul Jolles, who was the secretary of state in charge of trade negotiations for the Swiss government, who moved on to become chairman of Nestle. ‘When he was going to Moscow he was visiting all of the artists, like Kabakov and Bulatov, who are now the most sought-after Russian artists,’ says Simon de Pury. ‘He is the person who basically more or less discovered them. And promoted them and collected them.’

Which brings us to Sam Keller, who is one of the most powerful figures in the art world today. It was Keller who took over Art Basel in 2000 and turned it into a powerhouse. Two years later Keller took over a somewhat fuddy-duddy American fair and turned it into Art Basel Miami Beach. It was supposed to open in the fall of 2001 but was postponed for a year because of September 11th.

Now the twin Basels have not only become dynamos in their own right but have had a ripple effect, setting up the crackling art fair circuitry which has transformed the way the art world does its business. This year Keller resigned. Next year he will have nothing to do with the operational management of Art Basel, though he will remain as chairman of the board. He has been appointed head of the Fondation Beyeler.

Which is more or less where we came in.

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