Published  14/12/2016

Art Basel in Miami Beach 2016

Art Basel in Miami Beach 2016

Palpable relief that the sky was not falling in freed this year’s 78,000 fairgoers to act out Tom McKinley’s masterful triptych titled Complex Human Desires

Art Basel in Miami Beach
1-4 December 2016


Think of it as an exhale. Collectors, curators, gallerists and museum directors descended on the nation’s largest art fair, as they do every year, for an infusion of art in all its translations, magnified in memory by poolside festivities that are joined for the most part by reading about them the next day. This year, though, something changed; a needle moved, the boat tacked. Reacting either to the past weeks of anxiety about a mortal political paradigm shift, or to the overwhelming relief of not sighting a mosquito, the collective we call the art world took a really deep breath, grateful for the sun, the Cuban coffee, hoi polloi’s un-designer rainbow wear and, most happily, the art. Art in all its iterations, from thoughtful to exuberant, minimalist to elaborate, and all of it, with refreshingly few exceptions, still for sale.

Whether fun art, new art, old art or transgressive art, the greater part of the material I came across presented as serious art – work that stood on its own, free of branding, social status and, for the most part, investment. The palpable joy of fresh encounters at the main fair was surprising, given the usual corporate-underwriting of installations, sectors, or, indeed, entire fairs. Speaking to the welcome possibility of fair fatigue passing on to the sponsors, Netjets, BMW, Ruinart, Audemars Piguet and ABMB’s UBS were posted but not noted, the carts wheeling through with free champagne were not the distraction of past years, and every exchange I overheard was directed to art.

All the mega-dealers turned up – albeit, as befitted their importance, for the preview day only. Those I spoke to attributed the new gravitas to the draconian reduction of VIP cards issued for preview Wednesday, and cut even further for the coveted 11am First Choice pass. Slowing the heretofore frenzied cattle-run into a sedate walkthrough of the Convention Center’s confusing layout (being reworked for the expanded venue that will open in 2018) allowed collectors to revisit, reflect and recalibrate. Thankfully, gone were those pre-opening reserves and 30-minute holds that turn mobile phones into egg timers. More critically, gallerists could pause to dialogue with collectors wishing to build on what they owned, or seeking to understand younger work, resulting in a level of sales that even the veteran dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes found surprising.

Credit the more subdued pace for giving the fair itself breathing room, the time inside time to elucidate and educate. A dip into White Cube’s closet revealed a museum-quality Anselm Kiefer; a beautiful posthumous-edition Brâncuși bronze head and a lilting maquette of a Roxy Paine silver tree fronted Paul Kasmin’s space; a row of flashy late Picassos marched down the Helly Nahmad stand; and Sir Norman Rosenthal’s learned, vibrant Russian avant-garde installation took over the Galerie Gmurzynska. Apart from the themed Kabinett immersions, several stands presented as mini-museum shows, suggesting that, in the future, the major art fairs will double as curatorial testing grounds – much like an out-of-town run for a play headed for Broadway. Standouts were grouped works by Wifredo Lam, the David Castillo booth curated by artist-du-jour Mickalene Thomas, the cluster of Rose Wylie’s poignant drawings of the non-internet of things she interacts with every day, and a pristine collection of early Richard Diebenkorn works on paper. Striking, too, the new focus on historic material: responding to the dearth of fresh work, power dealers have been zeroing in on artists’ estates – Paul Kasmin won Lee Krasner’s, Lisson pried out Ray Colmer’s, Hauser & Wirth locked in Arshile Gorky’s.

Sales, solid if not brisk, were on the order of a Kehinde Wiley bronze ($185,000 at Sean Kelly), a new Alex Katz painting ($550,00 at Thaddaeus Ropac), an early David Hockney drawing ($100,000 at Van de Weghe) and a Paul McCarthy sculpture ($950,000 at Xavier Hufkens). The only big-league dealers expressing disappointment were those who had sold wildly last year and were “suffering” by comparison.

Not all thoughts of investment were left at the door. There was urgent interest in artists with flip-value (Mark Bradford, Marc Grosjean, Adrian Ghenie, Hernan Bas, Jonathan Meese), and in those coming off of and positioned for solo shows – Carmen Herrera, now at the Whitney Museum, Erwin Wurm, who will represent Austria at the Venice Biennale 2017, and Rudolf Stingel, whose solo show at Gagosian New York has just ended. And old-time collectors thinking to catch up with the zeitgeist were snapping up everything by the moment’s black artists – Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, Sam Durant, Mickalene Thomas, Nari Ward and Henry Taylor (absent only the much-sought-after painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose new work Victoria Miro is funnelling directly to museums). Tellingly, even though emerging art has been discounted as an asset class (astoundingly, by Art Basel’s director Marc Spiegler, who recently said of it: “When it goes illiquid, it goes totally illiquid”), I noticed several hopefuls carrying a list of the young artists/collectives tapped for the forthcoming Whitney Biennial, chief among them Sky Hopinka, Park McArthur, Torey Thornton, Puppies Puppies and Porpentine Charity Heartscape.

Of the familiar categories, oil-on-canvas dominated, many of the surfaces so built up that they still smelled of paint; the ubiquitous word pieces looked tired, excepting those assembled by masters such as Jack Pierson and Barbara Kruger. Video, under-represented again this year, marked strongly with works addressing immigration, weakly with works blinking on iPads and iPhones, and crassly with Wong Ping’s pop, soft-porn streamed animation attracting crowds to the Edouard Malingue space with toy cats waving penises. There was no dearth of fine photography: Pace/MacGill showed vintage Irving Penn, Howard Greenberg unveiled Edward Burtynsky’s mined-out earthscapes, and Gagosian flourished a major Andreas Gursky. As compelling, at the Pulse fair were a series of street scenes by Gordon Parks (at Nicholas Metivier), and (at Yancey Richardson) a Zanele Muholi ebony portrait and a manipulated image by Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

There were the usual one-off amusements – the weirdest being Anicka Yi’s skinned furs and chicken skins (at 47 Canal), and the most elaborate, Irena Haiduk’s sweet shop selling Balkan confectionery (at Kavi Gupta) – but winkling out what is trending was a challenge. I noted a plethora of work incorporating mirrors (Doug Aitken, Jessica Stockholder and Keith Sonnier) that addressed variously the physics of light, philosophical self-reflection versus the selfie obsession, and the impact of a viewer’s reflection interacting with the work viewed. There was a profusion of mixed-media work, involving canvas sprouting neon tubing, rubber wired with light bulbs (Jon Pylypchuk), ceramic embedded with silk, wood and acrylic (Hayden Dunham), and, for a brilliant conceptual work by emerging Chinese artist Aaajiao, steel panels, thermal printer and printing paper. Sound, generally relegated at satellite fairs to the jangle and wheeze of social meltdown, figured strongly at Marian Goodman with a deceptively decorative work by Albanian artist Anri Sala, which floats a small viewer-activated music box mechanism inside a transparent white glass window frame and, at the always provocative Nova section, with works sculpted to shape sound by São Paulo’s Vivian Caccuri.

Brazil led the expectedly strong showing of Latin American material (Miami serves, before all, as the continent’s holding bank) with such late-to-the market conceptual artists as Lygia Clark and such social investigations as Jaime Lauriano’s reflective analyses of colonial punitive systems. Cuban artists were in abundance, though for the most part not selling, due perhaps to Miami patron Ella Cisneros’s warning against the fakes being churned out there since President Obama’s political pivot. Fewer than expected works addressed war, race and climate, but standouts were Teresita Fernández’s Fire (America), Bob Maguire’s searing photograph of bombed-out housing in Aleppo, William Kentridge’s table sculpture of South Africa’s oppressed, and Simon Denny’s graph outlining the possibilities for borderless societies. There was facile social commentary, too, such as Andrea Bowers’s LED-lit fairground Don’t Touch Me and Sam Durant’s electrified, vinyl, punched-up-with colour End White Supremacy.

Those feeling overwhelmed headed for the cafeterias, better positioned this year for people watching. There were plenty of museum directors roaming the aisles – those affiliated with such as the Pompidou, lacking a budget, were just there to look and network, others with more muscle were buying aggressively. Artist sightings included Tracey Emin (being photographed with one of her neons) Chuck Close (hanging his outsized self-portrait), Hernan Bas (surveilling his sellout show at the Fredric Snitzer gallery), Anselm Kiefer, John Baldessari and Urs Fischer. The celebrities wandering the aisles in the packs dignified as “entourages” included Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Chris Rock, Courtney Love, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jon Bon Jovi, Calvin Klein and Madonna. All the conversation, however, was about two passings – Fidel, from this planet, and Brett Gorvy, from Christie’s chairman to partner of gallerist/art adviser Dominique Levy, in a reprise of the collusion that slid Tobias Meyer from Sotheby’s auctioneer to private adviser, and Amy Cappellazzo from Christie’s to an art advisery business conceived largely to supply Sotheby’s from her power-base Rolodex. What, on the face of it, appears simple profit economics, beneath the surface represents a tectonic shift in how art is moved – think truffles, sniffed out from dormant collections and thrust on the market, via shared guarantees, for hungry consumers.

Though the main fair is always a stand-alone experience, with its inexhaustible resources commanding return visits, spillover to the satellite fairs was rewarding. Of those I visited, Art Miami reprised its welcome survey of Latin American artists; Untitled lit its beach tent with wide, carefully curated booths showing refreshingly unfamiliar material from all over the world; Pulse drew the young to accomplished work by mid-career artists who remain affordable; and the Design Fair played curated interiors of mid-century masters against the technological marvels of space-age lighting and the the largest-ever 3D printed work from sustainable materials – SHoP architects’ outdoor pavilion digitised out of recycled bamboo whose combined airiness and tensile strength stand to revolutionise building. 

So much for the overview; now, let’s talk shock. Not titillation, not arousal, but shock as in a punch to the gut, as in hair stood on end, as in rendered speechless by a fearsome frisson. I am not referencing politics, where the dangers are real and visceral, but rather the visual arts, which are still being manipulated to stop you in your well-mannered tracks. “Defunct,” say the art-historians. “So over,” say the young. Indeed, so much of the material poised to shock at the fairs here looked like retreads of past revolutions: at Fondation Beyeler, the Toiletpaper Collective plopped bunches of freshly cooked spaghetti over a mannered agglomeration of trailer-trash kitsch. The sexual revolution, last-gasping at the New Art Dealers Alliance with Yves Scherer’s steel sculpture entwining Johnny Depp with Kate Moss, was put paid to in the Moore building by the week’s most talked about exhibition, presented by the art market’s most unlikely pairing, Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch. Curated with verve and sophistication by Diana Widmaier Picasso, and seductively titled from a work of Ed Ruscha’s depicting (go figure) an Alp, it nonetheless begged to shock with a flagrance of merged bodies, frontal erection, the fetishist mannequins of pop artist Allen Jones, life-size interactions led by Dirty – Jeff on Top (that’s Koons, entering La Cicciolina), and a recreated modelling studio featuring two stark-naked live models who came off more like strippers. The crowds loved the smut of it, as did much of the art world. For my part, although I thought a few of the works splendid (the Francis Picabia), even masterful (the Jenny Saville), I could not shake off the yawn of erotica on parade, the distrust of sleaze positioned as artistry, and the disinterest in overworked tropes fronting shock as it’s no longer possible to experience it. An involuntary send-up at the Design Fair installed Patricia Findlay’s mirror, lettered like an eye chart, NoSexInMiami. As for the far more seductive appeal of desire, how much more erotic were the handful of works at the main fair by Georg Baselitz, Tom Wesselmann and Ruth Bernhard!

Exhaustion set in by Friday, but the determination to do everything overruled, none faulted the excess, and everyone I encountered had a highpoint; one young collector went around Untitled urging visitors to borrow a surfboard from Thomas Vu’s 14-surfboard piece and head to the water – “the roughened wood surface won’t take you far out, but the experience of riding a piece of art will”; another couldn’t get over the metaphor of Bernardaud’s $9,000 porcelain edition of Jeff Koons balloon dog popping out of its display case and shattering at her feet. My moment was glimpsing the great Jeffrey Deitch wandering through the ground floor of seductions on his mobile phone, briskly selling Desire.

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