At the height of Art Basel – the international art fair currently in full swing – it’s nigh-on impossible to get a table at the Volkshaus in the city. Built in 1925, on the banks of the Rhine, this handsome building has been many things over the years: a concert hall, library, hotel, restaurant. Since its revamp in 2011 by We Are Content (the art-centric property developer also responsible for Zurich’s Helvetia hotel) its sleek bar, brasserie, tree‑covered courtyard, hotel and exhibition spaces have been a hot spot for creative folk.

Imi Knoebel in his studio
Imi Knoebel in his studio © Ivo Faber
Basel Fenster 3 Ed. (Entwurf Nr 7 von 12), 2020, by Imi Knoebel
Basel Fenster 3 Ed. (Entwurf Nr 7 von 12), 2020, by Imi Knoebel

The venue hosts an ever-changing series of large-format artworks curated by the Von Bartha gallery – guests are greeted by a sculpture by Barry Flanagan in the lobby. But this weekend, in its biggest coup yet, it is marking the return of Art Basel by unveiling a permanent, 6m work created specially for the bar by the German conceptual artist Imi Knoebel. Knoebel is probably best known as the creator of the abstract stained-glass windows in Reims’s Notre-Dame cathedral. And it’s to stained glass that he has returned for Basel, which occupies four huge windows in Volkshaus’s listed façade.

“I once heard a famous architect saying that after a cathedral, the second most complex thing to plan is a bar,” says the artist. “So for me, a bar became some sort of cathedral, just different with a different function.”

Knitted together from 240 different pieces of reclaimed glass, the work’s four panels are a patchwork of colour and light. Each panel comprises 12 squares, and each square is made up of five contrasting hues – a reference to Knoebel’s almost Matisse-like Anima Mundi series. Set against the bar’s monochrome, zinc-topped interior, it pops with colour and texture; each piece of glass is distinguished by its own unique pattern of swirls, bubbles and flaws.

Imi’s – Bar im Volkshaus Basel, 2021
Imi’s – Bar im Volkshaus Basel, 2021 © Andreas Zimmermann, courtesy the artist, von Bartha and Volkshaus, Basel

“It changes depending on the light and time of day, which is what makes it so interesting,” says We Are Content co-founder Leopold Weinberg, who has renamed the bar Imi’s Bar in the artist’s honour. The fact that the piece will be enjoyed over morning coffee or a late-night Negroni, rather than in a state of hushed reverence, is all part of the plan, he says. “We have always tried to put art where, in my opinion, it should be which is in the midst of everyday life.”

It’s the first time Knoebel has created an artwork specifically for a bar, but the artist is no stranger to creative dives – he met his wife and manager, Carmen Knoebel, when she was running Dusseldorf’s Ratinger Hof, a bar that was a fulcrum of Germany’s punk scene in the 1970s.

“What struck us during the first visit at Volkshaus were the spots you don’t normally see. The big spaces for concerts in the back,” says Carmen. “I immediately wanted to start planning some concerts as there is so much charm to these rooms and spaces, and they have a great proportion and history.” Imi insists that this commission was a one-off – but maybe the Knoebels are not done just yet. 

 @alicelascelles

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