Collector at Art Basel: “You have buried the smell of the oilstick…”

In today’s art world the sensorium is focused on the visual. A closer look however reveals that the sense of smell should no longer be neglected. Here is an ethnographic story from hanging out with art collectors at a recent edition of Art Basel that might be more telling and revealing than any systematic survey.

Every edition of Art Basel provides a fascinating journey through the remarkable highlights of 20th and 21st century. Above all however, Art Basel is the internationally recognized barometer of the art market attracting not only private collectors but also curators from leading art museums who are looking to expand their collections. Art Basel is more than just a fair in the commercial sense of the word. It is also manifestation of central problems of the contemporary art scene as this sociological study argues. Over the last few years I have been happy enough to have had the chance of participating in various previews and corresponding activities. Actually, a friend of mine asked me to come with him. En passant, I was able to dive into the world of art collectors and to collect some stories that connect nicely to other posts on the sense of smell in contemporary art worlds.

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Art Basel: Over-serving the sense of smell in collecting art

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” (Im Chan 2013).

“You have buried the smell of the oilstick…”

At lunch, this collector spontaneously recalled his small talk with the gallerist – verbatim: “I like the piece. But you have buried the smell of the oilstick. It is curtained behind the glass”. I was really surprised. The collector, whom I first met a few years ago through other art collecting friends, considered the smell of the material as part of the work.

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In the afternoon, I returned to the impressive booth of the gallery and 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.

Engaging with visual art unfolds on a multi-sensory journey

In the case of this collector there is reason to believe that even collecting visual art unfolds on a multi-sensory journey. And there are certainly more collectors as well as visitors in galleries, exhibitions and museums that reflect on the other senses when engaging with contemporary as well as old art. If you have other observations – confirming as well as disputing, please let us know.

However, for various reasons the olfactory perception can be pretty hidden, unnoticed and confusing in the contemporary artworld as a short anecdote on the cultural sociologist Sarah Thornton reveals:

Imperative of olfactory sterility & the white cube

The Washington Post once reported on Sarah Thornton visiting the Hirshhorn Gallery. The exhibition featured Ernesto Neto who is well known for his use of spicy materials. Yet, even staff members at the gallery do not notice the olfactory dimension. Moreover, the staff member even explicitly insists that the piece has not emitted any smells from the first moment of its conception. Between the lines one learns that the Hirshhorn Gallery fully complies with the imperative of olfactory sterility ingrained in the world of white cubes. How could one dare to question this? Even if you perceive any smells in the Hirshhorn Gallery you can be reassured that the artwork itself is certainly odor free.

My reading of the story might be stretching the point a bit far. But have a look at the story from the Washington Post in the light of my reading:

“Sarah Thornton is in a Hirshhorn gallery, lingering beneath a piece by the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. It’s a massive, bulbous, inexplicably sexual thing that droops down from the ceiling and fills the whole space. “Does it still smell?” Thornton wants to know. A young staff member looks confused. It doesn’t. It never did, he says. Neto, Thornton explains, often fills his saggy sculptures with spices such as turmeric, cumin and cloves. The Hirshhorn’s is more like an innocuous bean bag, filled with tiny foam pellets, and Thornton, though she has written two books about contemporary art, has never seen one quite like it. Perhaps that’s why she breaks the cardinal rule of the museum world — never touch the art — and stretches out her hand to inspect the piece more closely, sending several nervous staff members lunging in her direction. Thornton might be forgiven her faux pas. For the past several years, the sociologist and best-selling author — a breezy presence in a stylishly skinny black pantsuit and comically towering Stella McCartney platforms — has been nosing around the prop drawers of conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman and crunching around on Chinese contemporary art star Ai Weiwei’s“ Sunflower Seeds.” She has been talked to death by Jeff Koons. And she has sniffed her fair share of Netos.”

Smelly retrospective at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Let us come back to Richard Serra and the olfactory dimension of exhibiting his work: When the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a retrospective to Richard Serra’s drawings the smell of the material was a fact worth mentioning as this reference shows:

“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”.

Bitumen odorizing the artworld

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.

New senses in the white cube

To sum up: There is a collector who unpromptedly misses the smell of oilstick and blaming Richard Serra’s gallerist for burying the smell under a the glass. Secondly, there is the staff at Hirshhorn gallery who disputes the olfactory quality of the spicy materials used by Ernesto Neto. And there are various reviews of exhibitions that explicitly address the presentation of the artworks as a special smellscape. What can we learn from this sort of fieldreport? The three episodes link the world of “art production” to the world of its “consumption”. New senses have entered the white cube from both sides. They call for real efforts on making sense of the olfactory in the artworld.

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Claus Noppeney.

Pleae note: An earlier and shorter version of this commentary was originally published in May 2016 on

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