The Abu Dhabi Art fair has built on last year's success to present a 2010 event that is truly inspirational.
Abu Dhabi Art fair 'arrives' as a major player
The xylophones tinkled, the flag fluttered in the night air, and the waves lapped at the shores of the Emirates Palace hotel. Amid the lilt and purr of conversation under starlit skies, some of the world's smartest gallery owners were toasting Abu Dhabi's arrival as a major player in the international art world.
Among the rumoured sales was a 15 metre long, US$5 million (Dh18.4m) abstract work by the American artist Frank Stella, entitled Damascus Gate, believed to have been scooped up by one of the city's leading institutions.
Among the roll call of big names adorning the walls, I counted four Picassos, a Matisse priced at $4.2m, a rather exquisite Cézanne, a Fernand Léger, and several Robert Rauschenbergs, in what was probably the highest density of major modern masterpieces of any recent world art fair.
The most striking pieces in the booths of the Palace's ballroom included a green action man standing, gung-ho, outside the Traffic gallery, a series of neon-lit Quranic inscriptions adorning the walls of London's hip Paradise Row, at the Gagosian gallery a large piece of flag-draped Americana, also by Rauschenburg, a roomful of Jean-Michel Basquiat's anarchic graffiti art, and a giant convex mirror of burnished stainless steel by Anish Kapoor that seemed to eclipse viewers in its blind spot, swallowing them up before amplifying them outward, spangled and distorted.
Outside, amid the fountains and aqueducts of the courtyard, silhouettes flitted in the night air, and among the ultra-chic crowd major players from New York, London, Paris and the bigger cities of the region mingled in a meeting of the art worlds of East and West.
In only its second year in its current form, the Abu Dhabi Art Fair has come of age, with the emirate placing itself squarely on the world art map and making its presence felt. Like any art fair, this was an exuberant hotchpotch of stuff, a hit-and-miss mix-and-match; here was a meeting of old and new, masters and moderns, European, American and Middle Eastern; a meeting of the sublime and the humorous, gimmick and shock-appeal, the controversial, the sensational, the absurd and quaint, some good, some not-so-good, and here and there works of indisputable and breathtaking genius.
"The collections being built here are serious, and we brought our best material out of respect for that," said Peter Boris, the vice president of New York's Pace gallery.
"Last year there was a lot of surprise and curiosity. This time people seem to know more what they're looking at. There's more interest and appreciation. People are engaged, and that makes anything possible."
His gallery's pieces included a rather exquisite, understated Picasso, Marie Thérèse, au Beret Mauve et Blanc and an early example of Matisse's groundbreaking windows series, this one a wash of subtle, tentative pale sheets of colour from 1907, entitled La Fenêtre Ouverte. A Rauschenberg photomontage, Anagram (a Pun), featured Cyrillic script emblazoned across an edgy urban depiction of Morocco.
"The pieces we brought along would be appropriate in any museum in the West, and they show a certain standard. We wanted some variety, and to show the gallery in some depth. Part of our intention was to include some regional flavour.
"People may have seen a Matisse or Picasso in a book, and we wanted to give people a chance to encounter their work. These are great examples of each artist - not their fiercest, but rather lovely and charming to look at."
A Giacometti, an Arshile Gorky, and a piece by the Iranian artist YZ Kami were among exhibits at the Gagosian gallery. Its co-director Ken Maxwell said the gallery had tried to rise to the challenge thrown down by the Saadiyat Island projects, particularly following the continuing show of works at Manarat al Saadiyat by Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Wool, from the private collection of Larry Gagosian.
"The Saadiyat show has put increased attention on the gallery, and in view of that, we wanted to bring works by major and significant figures, who can speak to everyone. We're seeing a great energy this year, and a lot of people asking questions about the work. We wanted to bring important examples of work that people can learn from."
The attentive presence of committee representatives of the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi were noted by many of the galleries, ahead of the planned accumulation of a great body of work.
Meanwhile, the scale of local interest, from both casual visitors and regional collectors, had shown a marked rise, with the programme of educational and cultural events that ran alongside the exhibition credited with promoting local interest.
"In terms of visitors, people are much more appreciative," said Rami Farook, the Emirati art collector and owner of Dubai's Traffic gallery. Farook's gallery is showing a dialogue between the American artists James Clar and Abdul Nasser Gharem, a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army, with the work presented as a dialogue between civilisations. Noting how much time people were spending viewing the pieces, Farook said this was "unusual as in the past, we've mostly been exposed to decorative art in the region."
Clar's green plastic action man figure, And They Played For Days, was set against Gharem's stone slab, Untitled IV, its façade made up entirely of embossed reliefs of official Saudi bureaucratic stamps, with the speeches of John F Kennedy picked out in ink.
Standards had risen across the board after last year's mixed performance, said Farook. "There's far less rubbish. There's strong work from the Middle East, and real quality among the emerging galleries. But I've never been to a fair with such a top-heavy presence of major international players.
"The big boys are here. We've got most of the top 10 galleries in the world here, and they are taking this very seriously. As local galleries, it's fantastic to get a chance to exhibit alongside them."
Next door to Traffic, Meem gallery, which specialises in regional masters, presented the first meeting between the two of the region's founding figures in modern art, the Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli and the Iraqi cubist painter Dia Azzawi.
"We feel this is a significant moment in Middle Eastern art," said the gallery's Samar Faruqi. "The two artists have never been exhibited together before. Working in the 1960s, one in Tehran, the other in Baghdad, they weren't aware of each other. Today they are seen as modern masters of Middle Eastern art."
At the time of going to press, two Azzawis and one Tanavoli had been sold, all in the region of $35,000-$50,000. "We're seeing a lot of visitors taking an interest, and a lot of collectors expressing interest," said her colleague Noura Haggag. "There have been grand cultural plans for this city for some time, but you get the feeling that it's all starting to make sense."
Tarane Khan, of Dubai's Third Line gallery, agreed. "People are genuinely curious," she said. "People want to know more about the artist and the whole scene."
Works at the gallery included a pink and lilac-sequinned portrait of minarets by the Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri, entitled A Deluxe Apartment in the Sky.
"Someone will come in, and they'll know who the artist is. They'll say, oh, so that's a Moshiri, yes, I saw their work at an auction, or at this gallery, or that opening.
"And after the recession over the last couple of years, the art market is for once being spurred on by what's happening in this region."
Some of the smaller, edgier galleries of London and New York were a key attraction. At Paradise Row, owned by the London-based art dealer Nick Hackworth, two pieces by Shezad Dawood, who was among recent winners of next year's $1m Abraaj Capital prize, made up one of the most innovative and daring exhibits at the fair.
"We're a young gallery with a focus on showing international contemporary art and we wanted to show contemporary art that deals with issues in the region, and engages with Middle East culture," said Hackworth, whose gallery also took part last year. "The displays are more interesting this year, and the work is hung in a more considered way."
London's trendy White Cube gallery was represented by a display exclusively of early works by the British artist Damien Hirst, including the fish species walled up in transparent formaldehyde, their ethereal colours shimmering, and another with a chair suspended upside down, entitled The Acquired Inability to Escape, Inverted, which was recently shown at the Tate gallery in London.
"The emphasis is on putting down roots just as much as selling," said the White Cube's Tim Marlow. "We want to develop interest in the market, while showing in depth what we can do. This country is becoming a cultural hub, and we want to be a part of that. I've talked to children and adults, Emiratis and expats, and there's a real curiosity and engagement."
Down by the waterfront, beyond the fountains and colonnades of the hotel's courtyard, a tented labyrinthe set the scene for Fabrice Bousteau's "experimental promenade", assembling performers, musicians and photographers for a separate show in itself.
Visitors were led through a maze of corridors as ambient sounds taped from the desert were carried on the night air from the centrepiece, an open-air theatre, recreating the experiences of the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter.
Clouds of bubble-bath foam drifted on the breeze, dispensed by one of the more bizarre installations. Visitors cooed and sighed amid the curiously recreated atmosphere of an oasis. For what is still a nascent art scene, the audience appeared genuinely rapt by the whole experience.