ART BASEL: Over-serving the Sense of Smell in Collecting Art

Once again, the most recent edition of Art Basel provided a fascinating journey through the remarkable highlights of 20th and 21st century. It was hardly surprising that the sensorium was focused on the visual. Yet, there is a little anecdote that connects nicely to other posts on the sense of smell in contemporary art worlds and our ongoing re-examination of the collection at Kunstmuseum Thun. The first exhibition in Thun shifted the attention to the material and techniques of art making, which are often smelly, yet widely neglected.

Chatting with a collector over lunch at Art Basel I mentioned my interest in the sense of smell in contemporary art worlds. He then referred to a work on paper by Richard Serra at Anthony Meier‘s he just saw before lunch. For more than 40 years Richard Serra has been creating massive structures that guide and coerce the space around them. But alongside these sculptures, Serra has produced a large body of drawings whose specific material qualities and processual execution on flat surfaces suggest a material density and a physical presence comparable to sculpture, as a recent exhibition on Serra drawings argued. The piece on sale at Anthony Meier was paintstick on handmade paper (75x85cm). The black material used on the paper is very thick. It evokes the impression of gluey and viscous bitumen. Yet, oilstick serves as “the generic name for a medium often called Paintstik (the Shiva brand of Jack Richeson & Co.), composed of pigment, linseed oil, and melted wax, and molded into large cylindrical sticks.” To my surprise, the collector considered the smell of the material as part of the work. At lunch, he spontaneously recalled his small talk with the gallerist: “I like the piece. But you have buried the smell of the oilstick. It is curtained behind the glass”. When I later asked the gallerist about the smell and the glass he referred to very practical conservatory issues. Accordingly, the glass protects the piece against dust and touch. As I know from previous encounters the collector and the gallerist have known each other for quite a while. Thus this comment is certainly part of an ongoing friendly small talk context. The comment certainly reflects humor and irony in the art world. Yet, it is also telling. It raises the question whether the smell of the material used in artistic practices might be more relevant than the dominance of the visual suggests. In the case of this collector there is reason to believe that even collecting visual art unfolds on a multi-sensory journey. In fact, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a retrospective to Richard Serra’s drawings the smell of the material was worth mentioning: “The smell of oil stick is strong in these labyrinthine galleries, adding a visceral quality to the exhibition, much as when you stroll through Serra’s sculptures, and you can taste the metal on your tongue”.

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Moreover, the smell of bitumen takes us to Bregrenz in Austria (next to the Swiss border). The smell of bitumen transforms the entrance hall at Kunsthaus Bregenz. In his solo show Black Archive, the American artist Theaster Gates installed a wall of bituminous roofing paper. His father’s work as a roofer might have initially inspired the use of bitumen. In the context of the exhibition bitumen epitomizes blackness in a multi-sensory manner. What is fascinating about the exhibition is how visitors openly indulge in the smell of bitumen upon entering the building.