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The dealers who are turning art fairs into more domestic affairs

1 July 2024

From the July/August 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

At this year’s Art Basel, one of the most enjoyable presentations came from the dealer Jeffrey Deitch. This was partly because the art he presented was not hung on a white wall. Deitch had, instead, lined the walls of his booth with 1950s wallpaper designed to imitate a button-tufted wall. There was something thrillingly retro about the wallpaper’s particular shade of butternut yellow, to say nothing of the fairly unrefined drawing of the shadow used to suggest a fabric on the wall. It came into its own in the part of Deitch’s display where a Keith Haring cot and cabinet appeared in a bedroom set-up. In an earlier room, a version of the Mae West red lips sofa gave away the fact that the set-up was supposed to be an homage to Edward James’s house West Dean, where his love of Surrealism and friendship with Salvador Dalí created one of the great 20th-century interiors.

Curiously, this is not the first room set that has appeared at a fair where it might not be expected. In May, TEFAF New York arrived in Manhattan, where a surprising number of exhibitors chose not to display their wares as artworks hanging on the white wall. Of course, galleries such as Laffanour and Friedman Benda put together rooms, since design and furniture are their stock in trade. But even galleries such as Mennour seemed to make their booth into more of a room than one might expect. In 2023 it even called its stand at TEFAF ‘Un goût parisien’, showing off a selection of works among mid 20th-century classic furniture.

Such so-called immersive moments are not the only thing Basel now offers. One of its big successes in recent years is the launch of the Basel Social Club in 2022. Started by a ‘collective of artists, gallerists, and curators’, the club opened in a 1930s villa in the city and this year took place in a field. One gallerist told me that the 2023 edition was ‘the best thing about the fair, by far’. The idea of people being together seemed more exciting than all the art in the conference centre.

Jeffrey Deitch’s booth at Art Basel this year. Photo: Stefan Altenburger; courtesy Jeffrey Deitch, New York and Los Angeles

The director of Art Basel, Maike Cruse, has spoken about ‘a bigger need from a younger crowd to connect, network and have fun’ at art fairs. There is clearly a generational shift taking place. Art fairs are no longer the refuge of the serious collector hoping to unearth treasures. They are becoming a site of gathering and partying as much as looking at art; maybe the room set is just one way of playing into this sensibility. Yet the old idea of the collector, of the person obsessed with understanding the work and getting involved in it to the point of mania seems like something worth holding on to. 

It’s worth saying that there are still quite a lot of them around; collectors willing to spend millions of dollars on serious works snapped up art by the likes of Arshile Gorky, Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin on the first day. But while a younger generation of collectors sees artworks as expressions of personal style, it would be a loss to forego the knowledge of a particular period that collectors used to cultivate. That helped bring real understanding to their collecting – their collections weren’t just expressions of themselves but of how different histories intersected. 

Think, for example, of the extraordinary expression of modernism that was apparent in the collection of Sidney and Frances Brody. Each work spoke to a greater importance than itself. The thing about parties is that they have a way of drowning out conversation. If there isn’t room for different sensibilities at art fairs, what happens when the music stops?

From the July/August 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.