Most art fairs focus on what’s new: contemporary artists showing their latest (and most saleable) work. In a field over-saturated with newness, older works have a renewed capacity to shock and surprise. The 2018 iteration of Art Basel featured several booths exhibiting historical works from the twentieth century, and this change of context allowed them to be seen not only from a historical perspective but alongside works being made today.
Starting from the beginning, chronologically speaking, the Kunsthandel Jörg Maaß booth was devoted specifically to early twentieth-century woodcuts. A pair of prints by German Expressionist Erich Heckel from 1910 stood out from the gallery’s otherwise monochrome offerings. Printed from multiple blocks, the figure in Stehendes Kind stares side-eyed at the viewer, standing against green hills and a vibrant red sky. Less colorful, but similarly energetic, is Karl Schmidt-Rotluff’s Selbstbildnis, a self-portrait rendered with planes of hatched lines. The face resembles an African mask—a cubist cliché—with the eyes hidden in shadow and the mouth resting atop a jutting chin.
While the woodcuts are of modest scale, a pair of monumental canvases by Robert Motherwell dominate Bernard Jacobson’s booth. American Abstract Expressionism has the reputation, deserved or not, of being a pathologically macho movement of painters trying to outdo each other with bigger and bigger paintings. Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 130 features Motherwell’s conventional black shapes lying atop a taupe ground with dashes of color peeking through. The second painting, Untitled (New England Elegy No. 5) has stripes of black paint, and a strange blue and white shape, set against fields of crimson, rust, and orange. Both paintings combine color and monumental scale to overwhelm the viewer, and maybe it’s fortunate that the gallery only had enough room for these two.
Moving from Motherwell’s high-modernist abstraction towards the precipice of post-modernism, Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert’s booth showcased a selection of British pop artists. While many American students of art history likely know about Hockney and Hamilton as Brit Pop’s biggest (or only) names, the movement was larger than what ended up canonized in textbooks. Joe Tilson’s Zikkurat 9 is a brightly-colored pyramid of wooden blocks, a pop perspective on the most ancient of buildings. Allen Jones had several paintings on view, including You Dare, a painting that, like Zikkurat, extends into the third dimension. Metal and plastic steps are attached to the canvas, welcoming the viewer into the world of the painting or inviting the disembodied legs (wearing ankle-breaking high heels) to enter our reality.