It’s a truism that Art Basel Miami Beach, which I attended two weeks ago, is the fair we love to hate and hate to love. “It’s gotten too big,” people grouse. “Too many satellite fairs, too much work to possibly take in — it’s crazy-making!” This is the same line of bellyaching bandied about by aficionados of other annual mega-events such as Burning Man, Bonnaroo, and Coachella. There’s something satisfying about donning the mantle of the old-timer and declaring that a phenomenon has jumped the shark and entered its decadent period. This is an easier gripe to level at Art Basel Miami Beach than it would be, say, for Documenta or the Armory Show, because Miami Beach itself — a moveable feast of sun, skin, celebrities, and $18 mojitos — is already something of a caricature.
Personally, though, I have always found the fair a delight. For the four days it’s open to the public, I consider it better than most of the world’s museums. You enter, and within a two-second, 180-degree survey, you’ve already laid eyes on Picasso, Yves Klein, Louise Bourgeois, Marilyn Minter, and Ryan McGinness — all gloriously for sale. Join Morley Safer if you must and pooh-pooh the astronomical prices, but I quite enjoy knowing that very rich people can drop $5-million on a James Rosenquist if they want to. It’s oddly reassuring that not all artwork of note is confined to the echoing halls of museums, but hangs instead in somebody’s kitchen next to the Sub-Zero refrigerator or the hallway leading to the water closet.
Art was always the province of the prince, the Pope, the Medici — why wouldn’t it now reside with the Arnaults, the Broads, the Wynns?For those of us with less change in our purses, there are the more democratic satellite fairs. At Von Braunbehrens’ booth at Art Miami I saw several materially inventive, chromatically daring wall sculptures by German artist Willi Siber for a relatively affordable $1,500 apiece. At Miami Project, San Francisco's Patricia Sweetow Gallery had a knockout Markus Linnenbrink, modestly scaled at 14” x 12” and priced just above $10K. Also at Miami Project, Margaret Thatcher Projects offered an almost edible-looking abstract painting by Colombian artist Omar Chacon for an even $5-grand.
While ogling these and other tempting bonbons by contemporary artists, I was also struck by the proliferation of work by Abstract Expressionists, whose legs are longer and stronger than ever. Art Miami, in particular, seemed disproportionately stacked with paintings by Sam Francis, Hans Hofmann, and Joan Mitchell. As for the other fairs, I found Pulse and Aqua refreshingly unpretentious, although two fairs situated right on the beach, Scope and Untitled, seemed undercooked and laxly curated.
High-end automobile manufactures had an oversized presence this year, with Maserati sponsoring a splashy premiere for the opening of the Perez Art Museum Miami, and Jaguar joining Wallpaper magazine as co-sponsor of the design exhibition, “Handmade.” Besides the car quotient, what else was new and different along Collins Avenue and Lincoln Road? Having not attended since 2008, I was daunted this time around by the omnipresence of cellphones. More people were gazing into their gadgets than at the art. Perish the thought anyone would content themselves to “be here now,” even though “here” and “now” unfurled a kinetic circus of color, glitz, designer suits, altitudinous heels, and conspicuous décolletage.
Equally rare was any whiff of serious aesthetic discussion. “That oughtta be a Rolling Stones album cover!” I overheard a man effuse over a photograph displayed in the PULSE fair. “No,” his friend countered, “more like Elton John!” That was about as good as it got, notwithstanding the “Conversations” and “Salon” programs sponsored by Art Basel to foster the impression that conceptual exchange was as integral as capital exchange to the fair’s raison d’etre. But if the cerebrum was understimulated beneath the undulating palm fronds of South Beach and Wynwood, the retina was not. I went to Miami to wallow in pure visual glut, and when the fair was done, I returned to the West Coast thoroughly, shamelessly sated.