How does one write about an art fair? Dear reader, I am being sincere. If one is not an art market journalist gleefully scribbling down the cost of a collector or celebrity’s (or celebrity collector’s) pre-preview purchase of huge German neon painting, my question is less rhetorical than the subtext of missives sent off to editors after their anxious writers have made the rounds. For a fair like Art Basel—the high, giddy priestess of art fairs—to say the work hung in the white booths is good is redundant. Of course it’s good. It’s insane. So. Where do we go now? Let’s talk about some works, yes, and I’ll even break it down by section.

Art Statements

It’s the curated section devoted to solo presentations of young, promising artists. Perusing it can help identify specific trends—or not. It is a small selection, after all. Still, I noted a turn away from the spare, chic formalism of past years: there were less white plinths and folded c-prints strewn across booth floors, more vivid color and essayistic video and weird, joyful pomp. If there was one booth that caught my eye and seemed an apt metaphor for the fair’s crush of art, it was Petrit Halilaj’s exceptional Statement for Chert, Berlin. Titled Kostërrc (CH) (2011), the work—which filled Chert’s entire booth, leaving its gallerists to hover in the lane just outside—comprised a perfect wave of dirt about to break. At its crest was a hint of grass, like tufts of green-blue hair.

The earthy smell of the soil (60 tons of it) and the sod was oddly gratifying, and the work simultaneously conjured weight and levity, stillness and speed. The soil was excavated from the hill in Kosovo where the artist was born, then brought to Switzerland on a truck. Like the artist’s larger body of work (he has an evocative earthwork in the current "based in Berlin" exhibition wonderfully titled Astronauts saw my work and started laughing), Kostërrc (CH) limns absence and longing, migration and transnational politics, the natural world and an erotic, corporeal intimacy.

Elsewhere, California artist Jimmy Raskin’s witty, joyous installation of sculptural objects and works on paper for Miguel Abreu, New York, mined Rimbaud’s "Drunken Boat" and thus evoked nineteenth-century Paris by way of aughts-era Los Angeles, and was a real pleasure. So was Kathryn Andrews’s creepy and manic clown antics for David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Traces of a less typically Angeleno noir were to be found in Alejandro Cesarco’s Baloise Art Prize–winning video-and-image installation The Streets Were Dark with Something More Than Night or The Closer I Get to the End the More I Rewrite the Beginning (2011), an essayistic investigation into the mystery narrative both textual and cinematic.

Art Unlimited

Cesarco’s film portion of his work was narrated by Lawrence Weiner’s patient growl, which connected to an odd fact about this year’s curated Unlimited section: it features a strange preponderance of a certain type of Grand Old (Art) Men. The Dia Foundation has a field day, in fact. Many of its vaunted stable—Carl Andre, Fred Sandback, James Turrell, Robert Rauschenberg—had sprawling works, old and new, on view. All lovely, of course, but I was more taken with a spate of recent films that expertly enumerated on history and culture, portraiture and self-portraiture, perception and reflection.

To that end, Sarah Morris’s 35-minute cinematic opus Points on a Line (2010) was perhaps the most accomplished work in the vicinity: a gorgeously shot and paced mediation on Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s high Modernist American buildings and various themes herein. Like a high art Days of Heaven, in which the minutely observed cultural cosmos and elite replaces Terrence Malick’s evocative prairie, the film captures gorgeous glass surfaces, shadows skimming the greenest grass, keys wobbling in locks, hangers trembling in perfect closets, shelves lined with Bauhaus books, and Eames furniture, of course. Its pulsating soundtrack by Liam Gillick manipulates you expertly, providing the narrative line that sees you to the end, when butterflies begin blurring an orchard. Culture, wealth, fragility, aseptic purity—if one remained unsure of Morris’s stance (celebration or critique?), the film was still a triumph, and entrancing.

Less mannered by far was Minerva Cuevas’s Disidencia (2008–2010) whose score and subject stands in exact contrast to Morris’s work. There are few signs of resistance at Art Basel this year (the ridiculous "political" histrionics of Allora and Calzadilla’s Scale of Justice Carried by Shore Foam (2011) notwithstanding), so her film of signs of resistance in Mexico was more than welcome. Its quixotic score and bright palette—blue skies, yellow caps of marching workers, pink flags of marching mothers, vivid political graffiti and trash heaps—was decidedly un-ponderous. Also excellent: Deimantas Narkevicius’s gorgeous music video for his teenage son’s emo band in Lithuania; and Matthew Buckingham’s film installation Caterina van Hemessen is Twenty Years Old (2009), which explores a 1548 self-portrait by Ms. Van Hemessen housed in the Kunstmuseum Basel, and, through its lens, feminism, perception, self-definition, and reflection.

The Fair

As I traversed one of the many lanes that crisscrossed the Messe’s enormous girth, I spotted an armed guard, standing alert alongside some blurry paintings. Always a sign of the spectacular. And indeed it was: the tony Marlborough Gallery had laid down hardwood floors in the their booth and a small Francis Bacon survey. I immediately coveted Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966) as well as a bright tangerine triptych.

Elsewhere, Bortolozzi, Berlin, boasted a booth of greats: Carol Rama, Dahn Vo, and David Hammons’s excellent Cigarettes (1994), a red tapestry studded with hand-rolled cigarettes, evoking a spectral and dissolute smoker in bed. Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, meanwhile, had an adroit constellation of Semina school works by Jess, Wallace Berman, and Bruce Conner that had a notable frisson despite the recent bag of exhibitions showcasing such work. Nearby, the L.A. Louver showcased some lovely blues: a cerulean John McCracken resin slab and a David Hockney pool on paper, in opulent turquoise. In the same color scheme, Pace was showing a fantastic untitled Agnes Martin painting from 2004 that featured thick, even Riviera stripes. I want.

If Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted "studies" (Study for Blue Ribbon, (2005) and Study for Four Corners (2004)) at Berlin and London’s Sprüth Magers also filled me with greed, I was more surprised to be stopped in my tracks by an enormous Baselitz painting at Michael Werner, New York. Adler im Bett (Eagle in Bed) (1982) featured the resting titular figure with a huge yellow beak, the dirty-white bedclothes rumpling the surface of the painting like sheets. Who knew he could be so great? I wandered further into the booth and was struck by the amazing show of painting on view. Most of it hewed to the Big German Painter variety, so I was grateful to come across a last, small, moody Peter Doig painting in wintry oceanic hues. His Surfer (2004) looked down, conjuring melancholic reverie and the smell of salt water. I imagined this figure coming off an early summer session that included Halilaj’s expert wave of dirt in the exhibition hall next door. Such reflexive connection-making is entirely symptomatic of the art fair experience: as in life, the sheer crush of information and art puts your mind in the mode of narrator and narrative-maker. If Doig’s lovely surfer riding Halilaj’s solid break was improbable, still the image—and the neat bow it tied around my last few days—set my art-mired mind at ease.