El Anatsui’s rippling wall hanging, pieced from golden metal and installed front and centre at Ella Cisneros’ participating CIFO show space, could stand as a metaphor for this year’s iteration of Art Basel Miami Beach: in marked contrast to the earlier bottle-cap hangings that felt scrappy, homeless and broke, it looked glamorous, safe and expensive. Those like myself, who have attended Art Basel’s Miami extension since its rocky inception (its debut, so close to the tragedy of 9/11, was thinly attended), marvelled at the transformation 12 years have wrought: the organised transport, clear signage, crowded programming, in-house eateries, tented satellite fairs rigged like palaces, and sanctioned pop-ups – all now integrated into one seamless podium for art. But those who stopped to take stock were as acutely aware of how the evolving definition of success as great business – not just by the dealers, handlers, advisers and gallerists whose business art is, but by those who buy, covet and make art – has leached the exuberant illusion of the main fair itself as a pop-up that had made those first years so seductive. Advisers on how to best monetise art now swarm at the heels of incipient collectors, prices are dauntingly “on request”, and young artists, traditionally discouraged from attending commercial venues, are hanging out of their own volition, cruising the fair as if it were a mall to check out their value on the secondary market. As they should, said uber-gallerist Sean Kelly, who has lived through three downturns and is not shy about saying he deals with the “1%”. The reality, he will tell you, is that art’s lifeblood is money, and business and art fairs are in service to each other. “Collectors and artists ignore the business aspect at their peril,” he says. It grates, nonetheless, when dealers talk about “branding” artists, and when even artists refer to their work as a “product”.
Happily, for the 75,000 who coursed through the 20-plus exhibition spaces, there was product aplenty, inclining even seasoned collectors to return several times. And the product, by all estimates, was reassuringly impressive. Yes, there were the usual dreamcatchers for start-up collectors – works easy on the eye that reference famous personalities – bannered at Art Miami by David Rosano’s bubbled-glass image of Jay Z channelling Picasso that the dealer wanted all to know had gone viral. But interspersed in the random manner of a souk were museum-quality offerings by Magritte and Man Ray, a small Louise Bourgeois, coveted by Alice Aycock (whose models for her forthcoming mighty Park Avenue installation were showing at Fred Snitzer and Thomas Schulte), and two late Kandinskys, suddenly come into their own (both were on reserve, for $50m apiece, making nonsense of UBS director Rolando Benedick’s assertion that the difference between Miami Basel and Art Basel is that Miami doesn’t exhibit anything over $30m). Tellingly, though, there was no takeaway image to rival such delights of past years as an empty cigarette pack skittering on fishing line around a vast empty booth, or the Beyeler Foundation’s pristine dialogue between black and white Calders. Mostly, everything deeply surprising, cracklingly fresh or wildly rude was shown at the satellite fairs or under the now common rubric of pop-up.
The place was buzzing with fashionistas, tattooed beachboys, young first-time buyers and die-hards on walkers. Arnold Lehman, venerable longtime director of the Brooklyn Museum, toured in a motorised wheelchair: “When I come to Sean Kelly, I come in style,” he announced. Constituting a fair first, art tourists trailed a fair guide like ducklings, piling up behind her when she stopped to single out a work and absorbing her comments through headphones. The preponderance of advisers (many without their clients) checking out name-gallery booths, and burrowing into smartphones to establish provenance and sales history, raised old-guard eyebrows, but was not without cause. Although Pace/MacGill “sold out” an edition of 15 photographs by Chuck Close of a naked Kate Moss (“We’d have had no traffic without it,” said Peter MacGill, only half joking), a gallery at Pulse was offering three others, captioned as artist “proofs” and artist “choice”; and at Paul Kasmin’s booth a poetic photograph of Brâncuși’s Broken Column by the artist himself – which gave lie to the adage: “If you want a Brâncuși photograph you go to Bruce Silverstein” – was displayed next to a seductive Brâncuși bronze that turned out to have been cast posthumously. “I wouldn’t touch it,” sniffed one collector, but it sold to another, from Europe.
Larry Gagosian manned his booth after a four-year hiatus – and for three days, blasting the first-day-only megadealer tradition that Anthony d’Offay is credited with starting. The speculation was that David Zwirner, nipping at his heels with vast new spaces in West Chelsea and London, two Gagosian artists defecting to show with him and a 12-page profile in December’s New Yorker, has awakened the lion from his complacency. He roared to effect, unloading a Jeff Koons Baroque Egg With Bow, bought from Damian Loeb via Sotheby’s for $5.4m in 2009, for $9m – discounted from $10m. Just as startling, the celebrity architect Richard Meier, billed as having designed the perpetually idiosyncratic Gmurzynska booth (“They always get something wrong; the colour of the carpet, the hanging, the lighting,” was one overheard comment), was parked there by the Kabinett exhibiting a selection of collages he has made over 50 years while sitting on aeroplanes (that the theme is vaginas suggests flights of inordinate fancy).
The mood was up across the board as investors descended on bankable art, in some cases aggressively. The top galleries were prepared for restocking, forking out $1,000 an hour to rent spaces across the way for works that are visited in situ then brought in to replace purchases – a Gagosian director said they bring down enough product to stock their walls three times over.
Only a survey of the smaller booths told a different story, one that discloses the mood of the moment; while the top galleries were selling out at eye-popping prices, and the mid-tier galleries were doing well with mid-career artists who have a strong future, younger galleries that hadn’t developed a trending or flavour-of-the-month artist did virtually no business. Most said, though, that networking was strong and that the contacts they had made would work for them down the line.
First-day transactions balanced out between those buying “on reflection”, such as Beth de Woody (who bought a collage), after placing work on reserve for the time accorded (one hour for a new collector, up to three for a veteran, all day for a museum), and impulse buyers such as gallerist Christine Wachter, whose only purchase – a Dustin Yellin sculpture of layered glass on concrete from Miami Projects – was “a complete folly. It weighs more than my house. It will go right through the floor. But what can I say, I love it.” Comments overheard in passing spoke to the rest: “You’ll never believe what just sold at Greene Naftali. A mattress. For $65,000.” “This one I want.” “Too late, I already bought it.” “My phone is dying.” “You know how difficult it is for artists to leave space on the canvas.” “It has wall power, but I’m going to pass – it’s not close enough to his signature work.” From the UK critic Norman Rosenthal: “Don’t go thinking you’re going to a museum. These are trade fairs. You’ll come away with a headache.” From Deborah Butterfield’s dealer, asked whether her horse of found-iron could survive outdoors: “Alas, no. Well, yes. Uh, maybe, I’ll check with the artist.” From Joana Vasconcelos’s dealer to a prospective client: “That touch of kitsch is deliberate, and it’s important you know that she works with a team, which is very much the thing right now.” From Jessica, at the Amelie Gallery, touting the merits of Huang Kai: “He’s already in three museums, and others have been sniffing around” (a promotion made credible by one of the fair organisers stopping by to suggest lunch).
Selling fastest was fashion photography, set-up photography and, to the museums, pristine classics such as a Robert Motherwell drawing. “Risqué” did well: Irma Braman bought a bedspread by Britain’s favourite outré artist, Tracey Emin. “It’s on the bed now, but it won’t stay there – too fragile,” she said, while noting that fellow Miami collector Debra Scholl got one too, “to keep on the bed, and she has dogs!”
What does and doesn’t matter
It still matters which galleries participate (that Pace/MacGill gave gravitas to the maturity of photography as an art form in Miami by its first participation in ABMB was much remarked on), whose collections living artists are in, which gallery represents them, whether they have had a recent museum retrospective or one is imminent, and their latest price at auction.
Some things, though, don’t matter: mass-produced work of the Damien Hirst-model that the artist has never laid hand to; supply – that there are many Warhols still out there doesn’t influence price; commercial branding – just as the basketball player LeBron James lost none of his magic by promoting an Audemars Piguet wristwatch on South Beach, so Jeff Koons was able to launch his Dom Pérignon bottle at ABMB without scratching the shine on the two sculptures that sold there.
Brazil: Miami has ever been the gateway for Latin American art, but recent auction prices reaching $2m for Brazilian artists (led by Lygia Clark, a female artist please note) lifted all offerings at both the large tented satellite space entitled Brazil and 15 more galleries dispersed throughout the fair.
Illusionist art: Chris Engman is in the vanguard of a movement to skew perspective by shaping the canvas or distorting the image.
Manipulated photography: no longer just digitally reworked on a computer, the original photograph now is cut up, collaged, re-photographed and textured with paint, plaster, enamel, fabric or jewels.
Blurring the line between video and still image: Pollock-like action paintings are superimposed and fast-framed; a photograph of a pinup winks at all pausing to admire her; a video of smoke curls behind the cutout of a portrait with a pipe. Speaking to the future, and an expanded definition of art, were two Bosschaert flower paintings, side by side, in carved gilded frames,each a seemingly beautifully shot and lit photograph, until a fly zipped from one to another and back again, revealing both to be iPads.
Who was there?
High-profile collectors included Eli Broad, Agnes Gund, Johnny Pigozzi (sniffing out unique pieces to round out his famous collection of contemporary African art) and Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, who bought more than 25 works (two involving stacked bricks) to stock their 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. The artists included Ursula von Rydingsvard, checking out Lub Tez, her cedar sculpture at Collins Park; Tracey Emin, presiding over the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami opening of her first US solo show; and Hernan Bas, cruising the satellite fairs with a dude pack of four super-cool acolytes, whose new concern with taxes has returned him to Miami from Detroit “for six months and a day”. There was a mixed salad of celebrities. Some, such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Val Kilmer, came to look, and some, such as Paris Hilton, came to be looked at. Others, including Kanye West, were there to participate in the adjunct programmes of “conversations” and performances. Some even bought. Drawn to word pieces, Sean Combs, AKA P Diddy, added Sam Durant’s illuminated There Are No Words! and Haroon Gunn-Salie’s mirrored Turn the Other Way to his shopping cart.
What the dealers were talking about
The unwelcome rash of art fairs (they have mushroomed from three in 1970 to 190 and counting); how to find enough inventory to stock the 40 or so fairs some sign on to (take on 40 artists); whether to engage in a smaller footprint (some say up to 75% of their business is now done at fairs – on the other hand, living artists want to show in palatial spaces); the escalating influence on the art market of Russia, China, Qatar and freshly minted billionaires (2,000 and growing); and the new social nomads – techies, hedge-funders, retailers, developers and entertainers – who use the art fair loop as a club to hobnob with financiers.
What the collectors were talking about
Who makes the best-looking comfortable shoes; which satellite fairs to tag or to bag; whether to go to the Museum of Modern Art’s breakfast at the St Regis or the VIP opener at the Rubells’ show space, and the role of the art fairs in bringing children to art – “It’s like Dylan’s candy bar except that the candy isn’t edible,” said Katrin Theodoli, owner of speedboat valhalla Magnum Marine; “My grandchildren loved the crazy bicycles by Ai Weiwei and Héctor Zamora and the Crayola colours rainbowing through the ice-white tent of ‘Untitled’, and they related to the video art as to YouTube.”
What the dealers and the collectors were talking about
The investment machine: that has turned fairs and auctions into an inverted Fed for converting money into gold bar art to hedge against inflation and the taxman. The effect of runaway prices on young artists: Jeffrey Deitch lamented that those in his stable, such as Raqib Shaw and Kehinde Wiley, who were snapped up by megadealers when he moved to Los Angeles to head the Museum of Contemporary Art, have been pushed too far, too fast and were churning out what he considered to be soulless work. The maturing of Miami from art scene to art bastion now that Frank Gehry has built a concert hall, Zaha Hadid a residential tower and TEN a garage, and now that major artists (Emin) collectors (Douglas Cramer) and dealers (Pace’s Doug Baxter) have established residences there, and as tax concerns relating to New York’s new mayor have inclined those such as Larry Gagosian and Leon Black to buy $30m South Beach apartments in Norman Foster’s extravagantly detailed Faena House, opening next year. All were talking about Herzog & de Meuron’s much anticipated transformation of the Miami Art Museum into Perez Art Museum Miami, a miracle of transparency that opened to universal acclaim, though locals detest the de rigueur name-change (falling back on the acronym PAMM) because it underscores that only Jorge Pérez stepped up to the giving plate, with around $35m in cash and art; they may have the last laugh because many, like Amy Cappellazzo (whose departure from Christies “for richer opportunities” was announced on 12 December) have noted that no funding is available for future programming. “They’ll have to resort to Star Wars exhibits to pull in repeat business,” predicts local gallerist/collector Richard Arregui.
Other concerns nagged. Amid the congratulatory press on “brisk sales”, “keen interest”, “record attendance”, new collectors and quick turnover, there were ominous rumblings indicating that all was not well in the promise of P.A.R.A.D.I.S.E., lettered by Jack Pierson across MOCA North Miami. That museum is soon to shut down after a move roughly handled by its longtime director Bonnie Clearwater, who had failed to raise funding for the projected expansion and, on the very day she assured MOCA’s president that she would stay on, jumped ship to direct the much flusher Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale. Acronyms flew; the rumour rippling through the fair – that MOCA will be absorbed by the Bass Museum – was overtaken by the dire prediction that PAMM will swallow both. Storied show spaces in Wynwood have been closing; first Bernice Steinbaum’s (she has retired), then Fred Snitzer’s, (who has not, but, disillusioned with the area’s future, is seeking a new venue); and, after the developer who snapped up Snitzer’s space wanted the adjacent one too, so has World Class Boxing – a showground opened yearly for Art Basel by the Scholls, who say they will look for another. The truth is that Wynwood may be losing its mojo, pivoting in a different direction as partygoers sweep in from as far away as Brickell to cruise the graffiti-rich streets and bars.
In the end, mojo is the currency of an art scene and, while Miami’s remains strong, the global whirlwind of fairs tugging at its still young roots gives pause. To keep it in play, those buying into its new billionaire infrastructure will have to pay back, in the form of financial support, support of local artists and donation to its museums of serious art.