When Art Reigned Supreme—Art Basel Redux

An overview of what was seen and heard at the international art show in Miami Beach.

Walking into Art Basel Miami Beach, the first thing the visitor saw was not a painting or a painter—it was a stock ticker. Bloomberg’s gleaming white Art Business Lounge provided attendees with up-to-the-minute market reports, terminals with internet access, plush chairs and, most important, a reminder of what Basel is really about: The Sell.

At the opening night Vernissage, the sleeves of well-tailored jackets were rolled up and carefully coiffed hair was mussed as a sea of determined buyers literally elbowed one another aside in their rush to get through the door and call dibs on the most desirable pieces. Miami’s big collectors—Don and Mera Rubell and Marty Margulies, who both opened their extensive private holdings to the public during the fair—were all there, as were heavy-hitters like Michael Ovitz and Eli Broad—but there were plenty of novice collectors, too. At one booth a man stood with cell phone in hand, looking at a delicate drawing of a girl, done on wood board and coated with multi-hued strips of resin. “It’s pretty,” he said into the phone, “isn’t that what you wanted, pretty? Umm, yeah, there’s some red. No, not like the curtains, more like my sweater…yes, that one. What do you think? Should we take it?”

The red dots signifying sales started going up seconds after the doors opened and steadily multiplied throughout the evening, setting the tone for several satellite fairs made up of galleries that weren’t one of the 195 accepted into Basel. Tales of the buying frenzy at Pulse—held in a warehouse in the Wynwood art district, a highway and a world away from South Beach—quickly became apocryphal; the New Art Dealers Alliance (known as NADA) lured collectors with its breezy Ice Palace location (a film studio in its regular life) and promises of quality work in the under-$10,000 range. Scope, a multi-city art fair that drew praise in its first year, was more of a disappointment this year; maybe visitors were confused by a performance art piece in which two women stood at a desk by the door, demanded to check passes to all the fairs, and handed out “VIP” cards. At Aqua, a debut fair held at an upscale motel and made up of West Coast galleries, collectors, artists, and gallerists mingled in an outdoor courtyard and viewed works laid out on beds and propped up on nightstands.

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Also new this year was Design.05, which brought fifteen international design galleries together under the roof of the historic Moore building in Miami’s Design District. The galleries selected all showed post-war pieces—everything from Bouroullec Brothers to Charlotte Perriand—in an open, multi-tiered courtyard under an installation created by the fair’s Designer of the Year, Zaha Hadid. Local real estate developer Craig Robins of Dacra—who also owns a good portion of the district—was a driving force behind the fair, but the entire district opened its doors as Saturday evening became a multi-block street party in which art shows met with design stores and families with strollers mixed with intrepid collectors wandering from store to gallery.

Design.05 spawned its own satellite shows—Soho’s Moss store took over a building across the street, also hosting talks on the intersection of design and art. On the same corner was the Deitch Projects’ show for its book, Live Through This, focusing on young New York artists with a mélange of video, fashion (by NYC collective As Four), painting, and a powerful, sweet installation of street scenes by graffiti artist Swoon.

Basel took advantage of its Miami location with Art Positions, a set of twenty shipping containers arranged around a beachfront park. Each container was taken over by a young gallery; it was one of the few areas of the fair where the goal was more to make a statement than a sale. The Dutch Collective Atelier Van Lieshout created giant heads that opened into bars—the rum-filled drinks that they dispensed fueled the fete atmosphere. Movement was popular at Art Positions—there were spinning heads, simulated plane rides and the Spencer Brownstone gallery’s modernist toy train fantasy, by artist Ian Burns. Peres Projects, an LA-based gallery, festooned its container with black and white balloons printed with “Sodomy is not a civil right”—a slogan that caused more of a stir when a child was spotted carrying one a few blocks away amidst the restaurants on Ocean Drive than it did amongst the statement-weary art crowd. But it was Punto Gris, a gallery from San Juan, that offered the most definitive message—an orange shipping container, completely flattened.

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