Feb 17, 2024

Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: The Art of Selling Art

The view from a mountaintop is exhilarating, matching the feeling I had after spending two days at the opening of Art Basel in Switzerland, the Olympus of contemporary art fairs.

This year’s event was a wildly successful, with attendees from around the world coming to experience the pinnacle of the art market. With visitors ranging at an average age of under 50, this is the kind of super beautiful crowd that only money can buy. Being of the “Jerry Saltz” generation, I wondered why buff servers with trays of champagne were passing me by. I had been to Art Basel/Miami, but being at the Swiss fair had a distinctly big-league vibe with the refined fragrance of unimaginable wealth in the air.

I’m not a high-level art collector, so I could relax and enjoy the show. As a designer and artist, I was there to be inspired and took a particular interest in the materiality and production of the art. For example, a pound of oil paint applied in a single brushstroke or a wash of acrylic used as a diaphanous veil were among the images I noted. Chainsawed oak, mirror-chromed steel, upholstered foam, silicone, ceramic, corrugated cardboard, marble, glass, fabric, fur, feathers, fiberglass, butterflies, resin, paper, thorns, photos, film, and digital painting are only some of the media being used today. Oddly absent was AI-generated art; given the intense hype about this technology, I found this a welcome relief.

For this review, I’ve selected ten works to share with you:

Maurizio Cattelan, Roma 2023

Thought of as the “court jester of the art world,” Maurizio Cattelan made headlines a few years back when he taped a banana to a gallery wall at Art Basel/Miami. It sold for $160,000. For Roma 2023, he purchased an old master painting at auction and added the taxidermy pigeons to stand guard. Cue the laugh track.

Theaster Gates, In Recognition of Our Bleeding Nation, 2019

The Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates creates work focusing on sculpture and performance that transforms everyday materials and urban detritus found in under-resourced communities. He builds a beautifully striated, textured wall sculpture in this work by tightly wrapping a decommissioned firehose around a wood panel.

Damien Hirst, Butterflies

I’m not a fan of Damien Hirst‘s work. I find the pickled shark or diamond-encrusted skull kind of art to be slick, overtly provocative, and a bore. For this reason, I was shocked to discover that he and his team (and, sadly, some sacrificial butterflies) created this extraordinarily gorgeous mandala.

Imi Knoebel, Once Upon a Time

This painting by German artist Imi Knoebel appealed to the graphic designer in me. The simple, brightly colored, jagged shape attracts attention like a powerful billboard. At 82, Knoebel continues to create large-scale minimalist, abstract paintings and sculptures in his Dusseldorf studio.

Brigitte Kowanz, Lightsteps

In 1963, artist Dan Flavin used commercially available fluorescent tube lighting as sculpture. It became his signature medium and forever tempted future artists to use this technique. Even so, Brigitte Kowanz‘s glowing stair step at Art Basel’s UNLIMITED pavilion felt delightfully fresh as it soared through space above the heads of the attendees. I think Flavin would have approved.

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Environnement Chromointerférent

In this piece, the late Carlos Cruz-Diez offers light, color, and form as a playground. The Venezuelan modernist uses digital projectors to generate geometric patterns of light that interact with white platonic solids, resulting in a kinetic display that invites participation. Viewers take on the dual role of “actors” and “authors” of this chromatic event that unfolds in real space.

Jean-Marie Appriou, Cristal Moon (Orbital Vision) 2023

Like any contemporary art survey, there is bound to be work I find unappealing. Unfortunately, Jean-Marie Appriou’s alien-like astronaut sculpture is a good example. This patinated bronze and glass monstrosity seems better suited for a Florida theme park than an art gallery. The subjectivity of art allows anyone to disagree with me, buy the piece, and proudly display it in their living room.

Trees are a recurring theme in my paintings and drawings that I’ve previously written about in this column. I’m certainly not the only artist with this obsession, so I’m always interested in other interpretations of this subject. At Art Basel, trees were well-represented by many artists in various styles. Here are three that I found particularly beautiful:

Emma Webster, Double World, 2023

This 97″ x 76″ oil painting by British artist Emma Webster features a dreamlike approach to a landscape. I admired her use of dramatic lighting, lyrical brushwork, color, and scale. This painting has the authoritative skill and emotional expression I value in contemporary art.

Eva Jospin, Forêt, 2023

This complex sculpture by French artist Eva Jospin was quietly tucked away in the corner of a gallery. She’s known for her elaborate corrugated cardboard carvings, and I found Jospin’s piece to be a beautifully poetic way to express the natural origins of an otherwise mundane industrial product.

Lucas Arruda, Untitled 2023

One painting that stands out in my memory of Art Basel is a 6″ x 6″ landscape by Brazilian artist Lucas Arruda. Despite its small size, the painting was mesmerizing, boldly confronting the bombast of large-scale works. I studied it carefully and found Arruda’s symphony of brushwork and “sgraffito” marks to be deftly applied. I couldn’t afford the $600,000 price tag, so I must settle for a JPEG.

The frenzy of the fair can be overwhelming, even for an annual visitor. With more than 200 galleries participating, I know that I did not see it all. But post-fair reviews and surveys online provide an excellent overview, and scrolling through Art Basel’s Instagram account is a good place to start.

The contemporary art market is a complex and multifaceted topic that cannot be easily summarized as good or bad. Like any “market,” be it vegetables, fish, or securities, the charged atmosphere of buyers and sellers making deals is palpable. While it provides opportunities for artists and generates economic activity, critics often accuse art fairs of elitism, exclusivity, and prioritizing profit rather than artistic merit.

Ultimately, it is up to artists, collectors, and institutions to use the market responsibly and ethically balance the needs of the art world with the greater social and cultural good. I can appreciate these concerns, but as an artist and spectator, I’m content to close my eyes and cherish the moments I spent with some great art.

Next month: “When in Rome”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TEDX speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.

Next month: “When in Rome”