6-9 December 2012
by JILL SPALDING
Most galleries participating reported sales that, if not stripping the walls with the frenzy of the boom-boom years, were good to satisfactory. Traffic was well-directed and there was high praise for the immaculate layout of galleries and aisles in the ABMB Convention Center that let people move, look and greet in comfort. Why then the griping? Complaints of “flat”, “too safe”, “nothing new” and “outrageously commercial” were flying like the fallout from Hurricane Sandy that had left the New York dealers at a distressing disadvantage. And yet, with over 250 galleries from five continents presenting over 2,000 artists, only the seriously jaded could have left unrewarded.
On view was an entire history course of art; important Legers, Picassos and Moores that were close enough to touch; installation art, pop art, minimalist art, silver print and C-print photography and an abundance of happening-now abstract art. There were fine teaching moments – a rare, early, Robert Indiana, a grouping from Cy Twombly’s The Last Painting series, a room of Duchamps. And who will forget where and when they came across the Beyeler Foundation’s sensitive installation of two Calders, one white one black, whispering to each other in the air stirred up by passers-by?
The problem as I see it was one of expectation. The very crowds who pour into a museum to be educated descend on a fair – especially one in the tropics – to be titillated. Fun, though, is not in the job description. An art fair by definition is a business – a transaction with a contract to provide work of high quality, which the visitor is challenged to view, discuss and hopefully take home. An established art fair is expensive – for a dealer the space, transport and travel can run to $100,000; for management the marketing, venue, staff and labor will total ten times that – so, while an art fair’s subtext mission is to illuminate, its stated goal is to sell.
To market is to attract, and we live in fast times. The shortening attention span engendered by the current proliferation of art fairs demands a frisson, a visual treat that grabs the eyeball with the quick stab of a neon WOW! Surprise is not a serious mission, but it is marketing, and the fair that does not supply one is deemed drab. No fireworks or ten-ton work-on-paper to punctuate the tenth anniversary of Art Basel Miami Beach? The palpable disappointment extended to the art. And right there was the problem. I remember one yesteryear show-stopper – an empty cigarette pack that skittered capriciously on a fishing line around a gallery’s entire show space: it enchanted, but it’s doubtful that it was art.
This year’s real problem began outside the Convention Center, in the great sprawl of the ancillary self-designated “art” exhibits. Famished expectation poured down the streets to the five beach hotels converted for the week into myriad clusters of show spaces, then across the bay for a sane interlude at private collector museum spaces reimagined for Art Basel Miami Beach week with thoughtful shows in context (this year’s standout was the de la Cruz presentation of black artists who have moved the vocabulary beyond “black”). Then to the pop-up collectives and collaboratives who import manipulated materials tagged “art” in the back of a truck, and straight on to 20 more satellite fairs – all but the entrenched (Art Miami, Scope, Pulse, Red Dot and NADA) shamelessly appropriating Basel’s aura – even name.
For those with energy, transportation and walking shoes there were glad moments: Daniel Arsham’s white bulbous cloud tenting the Design show; five wall-reliefs by the reclusive Banksy; soundcasts on the wall of the New World Symphony; an artist-driven soccer match on sand shaped to simulate the lunar landing pad; Theaster Gates’s factory installation of “skilled makers” producing found-art objects; grafitti’s Blade (Steve Ogburn) creating a mural live at 150 NW 24th; artist-painted Steinway pianos scattered about town; five-minute music videos screened in shipping-containers; a 65-foot-long rollercoaster forged by Peter Anton from pastel sculptures of cakes, candy and all things that are sweet, making his point that art should be fun. But should fun be art? There was the problem; expectations of surprise that are defining art too broadly. While art has long been peddled at outdoor spectacles alongside sports events and food vendors (think the first Olympiads, where philosophy, poetry, painting and music were hawked on the streets) who now but Damien Hirst calls stuff that is shown at an art fair “art” by definition? Take Wynwood’s star attraction murals; moving out from Kenny Scharf’s cartoon-fest and Shepard Fairey’s showman homage to Tony Goldman were wildly uneven displays of spraypaint – each signed of course. Or the frosty cocktails brewed by the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros – fun for sure, but art for sure not.
What then was this year’s takeaway? It’s understood that, after networking, an art fair’s usefulness is fingering trends. Art-wise at the Convention Center nothing screamed “this is now” other than a solid representation of abstract canvasses and a notable drop in photography from last year. However, as the influential Miami gallerist Fred Snitzer pointed out, what is shown is what’s now. And, that the selection committee has come to be virtually the sole arbiter of who exhibits, points to who now holds the power. Power in the days of monarchy and the Medici, manifest in big commissions, resided with the collecting classes of kings and merchants; Revolution brought the artists to power; the Gilded Age empowered king-maker dealers like Duveen and Berenson – who designated and placed masterworks.
The 1950s crowned a handful of macho artists like Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning, then bounced the powerball back to the collectors – Robert Scull’s trove defined his era – and over to the dealers again, with Larry Gagosian leading the new power pack. But small cracks in the gameboard that played out at Art Basel Miami Beach revealed a new power dynamic that may prevail for years to come. As uber-gallerist Larry Gagosian tried to neutralize the public defections of Hirst, Koons and Kusama with an uncharacteristically high-visibility presence, and uber-collector Steven A. Cohen lay low after accusations of insider trading against one of his team, and the Rubells pushed back against penis-envy, it became clear that who is holding the power reins now is the art fair itself. While important fairs can’t survive without blue-chip art, they now arbitrate whom they will show and where they’ll be placed. Less photography? More German dealers? A position up front? The decision, whether deliberate or instinctual, is theirs.
There’s no arbiter for the ancillary exhibitions of course, no curbing what junk in the name of art and Basel spins out to the pop-ups. So Art Basel Miami Beach will remain a street carnival; the fun will be to taste the offerings; the challenge will be to locate the art.