The go-to gallery for Russian avant-garde art, Galerie Gmurzynska adds Christo to the mix for Art Basel in Hong Kong, writes Payal Uttam
G’est incroyable. What a show,” coos a stylish European collector clad head to toe in black inside Galerie Gmurzynska’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach. Minutes later, Sean Combs, aka P. Diddy, dressed in a hot pink baseball jacket and sunglasses, saunters in, strikes up a conversation with a gallerist and snaps a few photographs. Meanwhile, near the entrance, Norman Rosenthal, the exuberant British curator, weaves through the crowd and pulls a friend inside. “You see, it’s like a mini-museum,” he says, gesturing proudly at the experimental works by the Russian avant-garde. Next to him sits Pablo Picasso’s son Claude Ruiz-picasso, the booth designer, enjoying a pause before the next wave of collectors descends.
This collision of celebrities, scholars and historic names in the art world is characteristic of the Swiss gallery, which mounted one of the most impressive exhibitions at the Miami fair in December. Titled The Future is Our Only Goal, it was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
For the booth, Ruiz-picasso managed to conjure the spirit at large around 1917, a time of great optimism in the Russian art world. “They did very radical things at that moment,” he says, referring to the artists on view, including Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and Mikhail Larionov. “I wanted to please them with something they could not have done but they would have liked.” So he plastered the booth’s walls with enlarged archival Russian photographs. He turned some images upside down, including a scene of an aerobics-like fitness session so women’s legs are seen as almost flying above artworks, adding a playful element to the space.
“You have to create something a little dynamic that pushes people to come in,” he says of the design, which features several diagonal walls that converge, creating narrow, intimate spaces perfect for viewing the delicate crayon drawings, photographs and architectural studies on display. “The design of the booth also keeps people in.”
The same could be said of the gallery, which has built an insider club of fans that continue to support it. “A lot of creative people appreciate our approach. We have had a strong relationship with Karl Lagerfeld for the last 30 years and we’ve worked with a lot of great architects like Zaha Hadid,” says Isabelle Bscher, who runs the gallery with her mother, Krystyna Gmurzynska. “And Puffy is also a friend... He is a great collector. He has a great eye.”
Founded in 1965 by Antonina Gmurzynska, an émigré from Poland who first settled in Cologne, Galerie Gmurzynska has built a reputation among Western museums and collectors as the go-to gallery for Russian avant-garde art. The gallery has forged longterm relationships with artists and their families, which gives it access to historic works from esteemed estates. “Next year for Art Basel [in Switzerland], for example, we are planning a show featuring Donald Judd and Malevich which will be fantastic because we did a show with Judd in 1993 where he came to Cologne and arranged all his sculptures and paintings himself,” says Bscher. “Now we are doing a version of that show with his son Flavin Judd. It’s these kinds of great relationships that you nurture over time that make the gallery special.”
Gmurzynska will be pulling out all the stops for its exhibition this month at Art Basel in Hong Kong, with a solo show featuring Christo. “He is the most famous artist of our time,” says CEO Mathias Rastorfer. Among Christo’s most notable works was The Gates, a massive installation of billowing saffroncoloured fabric in New York’s Central Park that he created in 2005 with his late wife. The gallery will be showing his early works from the 1960s, including a wrapped storefront and cushion piece. Gmurzynska is also bringing the artist to Hong Kong to give a talk. Rastorfer says this is a rare occurrence: “He doesn’t want to be part of art fairs. His mission in life is to present [large-scale, site-specific] projects, raise the money for them and execute them.” Now 81, Christo is among the most visionary artists of our times, inspiring us to see the world in a new light.
If Gmurzynska’s presentation of his work is anything close to the standard of the Miami exhibition, the city is in for a treat.
SHOUT IT OUT Claude Ruiz-picasso conjured the spirit of 1917 Russia in his booth design for Galerie Gmurzynska at Art Basel Miami