Art Basel Miami (pre-Covid edition): A primer for newbies

A looker-maybe-collector guide to that great big art happening by the beach

NOTE: As I prepare to attend the first post-Covid 2021 fair next week, this story covers a pre-Covid (2018) edition to give armchair booth-hoppers an insight into the machinations.
Check out what's happening at Art Basel Miami 2021 here

A pre-reading quiz:  Is the above painting of... 

a. An art collector on discovering they paid too much for a Christopher Wool?

b. How Liu Yiquan felt after someone else bought that $450m Da Vinci?

c. "Russian Roulette" by Eric Yahnker at The Hole, spotted at the Untitled Art Fair?

So much art, so little time ...

She: "WANNA stay at my apartment and do Art Basel Miami"? 

Me: "Does a chicken have hard lips? 

CALL ME LATE to the party: my first-ever pilgrimage to this seaside artfest with decidedly "Suisse" cachet comes more than 6 years after the birth of this blog. What's my excuse?

First, I live smack dab in the Chelsea gallery district of New York City, so there's art a bagel's throw from my door (this has got to make up for living in the smallest studio in the country).
Second, a full palette of art fairs: Frieze, Armory Show, Untitled, Pulse, NADA, Volta, Scope, ADAA, Collective, WANTED, Independent, Spring Break, Affordable, Art On Paper, Outsider, even Documenta - did I miss anyone? - pass through the city each year, some a whole bike ride away...

Getting right into the art at Untitled

But Art Basel Miami - technically, Miami Beach (for the snowbound, Miami Beach is a tautology) is something else: a big chunk of the abovementioned palette crammed into a single week, with glitzy parties, street happenings and dips in the Hockney-blue ocean to give your feet and eyeballs a break from traipsing the endless labyrinths of canvas-crammed booths.

What's not to love?

Taking it to the streets:
The Betsy Orb, a sculpture that conceals a passageway connecting the Betsy Ross and Carlton hotels.

In fact, the entire city arts up, and opportunism abounds: in one hotel lobby I saw some really sophomoric, 6' tall canvases that channeled Pollock, Basquiat, Richter en masse, each marked $10,000, clearly attempting to cash in on some drunken Asian hedgefunder staggering back from a beachside bashe.

Even the local SIXT car rental office becomes a defacto gallery for Art Miami

The background color: 72 and artsy

Before getting into the art, here are a few still-lifes to set the stage:
Sun, surf and cool ways to get around, like these artsy electric bikes

Cute art deco ambience and even cuter cars

Even fancier cars with cuddly passengers

Arted-up Ubers and cabs. (Cars, cars, cars - this is Florida, OK?)

Lots of rooftop bar action

Lots of great seafood like this affordably sharable platter from Peruvian restaurant Chalan on the Beach

Lots of glitzy parties, most of which we stumbled upon vs had QR codes for...

... which you may get to crash depending on who you know and your ...


Planning the booth crawl

"Whaaaaat, you haven't planned your itinerary?" gasped urban-streetscapes artist Valerie Larko, who was exhibiting with Lyons Weir Gallery at the ginormous Art Miami tent.  According to Valerie, you need at least 2 weeks to work out what you want to see, as there is immesurably more art than hours in the day.

The first step for an arts blogger,  is getting the coveted Art Basel press pass which would admit me to most of the fairs without an arm wrestle. This I achieved using my creds as a bonafide collector, author of this blog, founding blogger at FastCompany and co-editor of a planned, forthcoming tome on the 128 fellow scavenger hunters who completed the Damien Hirst Spot Challenge (Ok Spot Challengers, now we have to stop talking about it and do it).

The "golden ticket" that allows you to enter most of the fairs as Press 

Next, find a map that tells you what-where-when - surprisingly tough.  For $8, I found a handy PDF at that listed events by day (it reminded me of the handy "never miss another show" listing), though it lacked information beyond that. Googling "art basel miami google map" pinpoints where the fairs are located, but it's awkward to keep zooming and losing your place on a smartphone.

The best one was the freebie spread in the Miami New Times, which I still had to mark up with the actual names of the art fairs as shown:

New to the fair were free shuttles courtesy of the city, that shunted you up and down the peninsula to the satellite fairs. This enabled you to get from Scope in the south, to Untitled mid-beach, to the somewhat far-flung PULSE up north,  to the mothership, Art Basel, at the Convention Center area.

Free, feet-saving shuttles to dodge the parched concrete. 

Clustered around the Convention Center were satellite fairs like Design Miami (furniture), Form (sculpture), Ink (independent smaller galleries and publishers) and Aqua (regional galleries with big and upcoming names) - the latter two a treat for their quirky setting in art deco hotels, where exhibitor booths were in quaint hotel rooms clustered around a planted courtyard. Unfortunately, PULSE, which I have attended numerous times in NYC, was just a bit too far north to get to.

Ink and Aqua Art Fairs: Like a "cappadocia" of art treasures

How often do you walk into a hotel room and see an original Warhol, Stella or Motherwell? Only at Ink!

From here, shuttles transport you across the causeway to the "mainland" where more big white tents beckoned - Art Miami, Context, Spectrum, Red Dot, NADA and other quirky fairs, like Fridge, a fair of artsy fridge magnets. A bit further out is the lauded Wynwood urban art enclave. Then, there are all the museums, the Bass, the Perez, the Rubell ..none of which you can't hope to see in a long weekend letalone in addition to the fairs.

Hence, the need to plan very well, as deep in these endless labyrinths of art, the daubing of your dreams could be right around the next aisle...

SCOPE: Paradoxical art rules

First fair off the rank was SCOPE, the nearest to my lodgings. This fair features art that seems to showcase the wonders of modern machining, 3D printing and other post-canvas-and-paper mediums, attracting a lot of millennial collectors with cash. One exhibitor was particularly enterprising,  offering samplings of fancy nut snacks - her side business -  to whet your appetite for art:

Naked Nut anyone? Then how about the nude photolitho behind me for $2500? 

This could be a new genre in headshots for your LinkedIn profile

With a 3D printer you can freeze a motion blur! 

There's a lot of "paradoxical art" at art fairs like SCOPE, that is, crashing two "opposites" together. Superhero dwarves, knitting-bombed soldiers... you get the idea. I put Jeff Koons' Puppy and all his giant balloon sculptures in the "paradoxical" bucket.

Superherism meets dwarfism 

The hard edge of war softened by a knit one, pearl one... 

 UNTITLED: More edge, more depth

UNTITLED has more edge than SCOPE (though less than NADA) and had nicest floor layout of all the fairs, organized in spacious diagonal aisles. Visitors were warmed up outside by CHROMA, a freestanding shipping container arted up by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz Diaz. Inside, three rooms bathed the viewer in a single hue of light, red, blue and green. It was like stepping through a Bridget Riley painting and into a Doug Wheeler Infinity room (yes, Kusama is not the only purveyor of those)...

CHROMA by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diaz

Inside CHROMA: rooms of a single, luminous color

Inside the fair,  an execution of Gordon Matta-Clark's Garbage Wall had pole position. It's a 6-foot high block of actual garbage compressed and help together with concrete. Artnews wrote a nice explanation of it here.
What kind of trash is on display at Untitled? Expensive crap!

A real crowdpleaser was a slew of what I can only describe as Picasso-meets-crazy-wallpaper presented by Kleindienst gallery. As wallpaper, they reminded me of the riotous backgrounds of Kehinde Wiley.

Eye-popping graphics by Christoph Ruckhäberle for Kleindienst

One exhibit had me oddly captivated: 3 guys sitting around in deckchairs, doing not a lot. Conceptual art being what it is,  I couldn't work out if their studied lounging was the performance, and/or if the "store" behind them was actually selling stuff (a bit like Damien Hirst's Pharmacy). I mustered the courage to ask - it was both. I'm embarrassed to say I lost the card, telling me who they were. (Please DM me on insta @chelseagallerista if it's you!).

The group hailed from Puerto Rico, which had been ravaged by 3 hurricanes in the past year.  On the wall hung 3 stunning towels printed with the weather pattern of Irma, Jose and Maria.  Nearby were a series of postcards for $5, one showing a what you get with a Google image search of "Puerto Rico." The point being, that contrary to the popular sun, sand and pina-colada vacation imagery of their country, there are a lot more serious things they're dealing with over there.

Puerto Rico: more than just a beachy Google Image search showing beaches... 

These typhoonic towels were $1500 each. 

At that price, they were not designed for towelling yourself off. 

As you can seem I'm obsessed with these towels. Irma, Jose and Maria - not necessarily in that order. 

UNTITLED: A very comfortable floor layout

Some art was barely there, a la Fred Sandback

BYO tornado to the next BBQ...

A strikingly simple work that would be ideal for kid's parties: helium balloons anchored by blue tape

John Wesley's minimal works at Fredericks and Frieser channeled Homer Simpson pre-take one

Sometimes a cool, mid-century-like composition is all you crave. Nice one by
Julian Prebisch at Galerie Machete

FORM: Sculpture 

form, across the road from Art Basel, is a smaller fair dedicated to sculpture of the decidedly decorative kind.  The riotously embellished vases and wall reliefs demonstrated brilliant craftmanship, but were a bit "safe" for my taste. The crowdpleaser was a wooden sculpture called KO-TONE Spiral Xylophone from Japanese collaboration alamak!/Invisible Designs Lab. A wooden ball placed it at the top of the structure plinkety-plonked its way to the bottom,  triggering a performance of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." A gimmick? It was too charming for that, though you wondered who might buy it, given that you couldn't change its tune unless you got handy with a saw.

The Mother Ship: Art Basel Miami

I want this Robert Mangold: a cool $230 million (give or take)

The stylish ambience extends to the cheap seats

And so to the main event. Art Basel has a serious, classy, Credit-Suisse vibe due to the gasp-inducing names of artists lining booth after booth, the ones I knew by heart growing up with the P volume of World Book Encyclopedia hugged to my chest every night. There's substantially less shlock at this fair, and I can only imagine it's the most expensive to exhibit in - so you better have your Basquiats in order. Let's pay a silent homage to some of the greats I spotted:




Corbu, with my matching leggings of his "Modular Man" print








Now of course, apart from all these Old White Guys, there's a ton of new stuff too. One thing I noticed was Lego renaissance, stating with Ai Wei Wie's self portrait (more about the fair's Lego fetish later).

Ai Wei Wei's self portrait (x4) in Lego

Another favorite artist of mine is Sadie Benning, whose "canvases" are actually carved wood cutouts, re-assembled like child's puzzles, and have a thrilling presence. I learned that this technique is related to a retro vinyl upholstering style a la the Naugahyde vinyl-coated fabric company: 

Blow Up 1 & 2; Sadie Benning at Suzanne Vielmetter Gallery 

Detail of Blow Up 2, Sadie Benning at Suzanne Vielmetter Gallery 

As with most of these fairs, some art was just eye candy with a mind-boggling technique, like this portrait of a dilapidated dodgem car embroidered with a zillion glass beads. It channeled Tara Donovan, and was as impressive - and exhausting - to look at:
Winter 1, Avanish Veeraraghavan 

Detail of Winter 1. Are you amazed and exhausted? I am! 

Think you can't paint or draw? Can you throw your dirty laundry on the floor in an artful manner? This work shows that you can make an artistic statement with anything at hand. All you need is color, texture, energy: 
Inspiration for budding artists working in the sorting department at Housing Works

Detail of Ode to Housing Works (not actual title)

DESIGN MIAMI: more than mid-century

Design shows are often a mixed bag, mostly showcasing the ubiquitous mid-century and Shaker classics (will there ever be a day when those are considered tacky?) and yet another variation on how to stylishly park your butt or stow your stuff. Design Miami was somewhat small, with a nod towards some impressive printing technologies. (For cutting-edge design you should check out the ICFF/WANTED design fair which goes to NYC and LA, and Collective, which started out cutting edge, but has gotten decidedly decorative in recent years).  Heres's a sample of said seat variations: 

You always dreamed of being a toucan's cud...

The Nakashima effect

This will make my studio into a "junior 1-br"

This felt like watching one of those sci-fi movies with a brain in a jar...
Rapid Liquid Printing by Patrick Parrish Gallery

Voila! A rapidly liquid printed shopping bag

AQUA and INK: the "Cappadocia" art fairs

As mentioned earlier, these two fairs are holed up in art deco hotel rooms and have a wonderful, intimate vibe compared to the airport hangar fairs. Visit Aqua for a young, party atmos and youthful art (and modest prices) to match, and Ink for more serious stuff, like Stella and Motherwell editions.

Richard Gorman's MDF cutouts from Irish gallery Stony Road Press

At the intimate Aqua and Ink art fairs you can get up close and personal with the artist or gallerist

Rock Therrien for Galerie LeRoyer

An interesting find at Aqua was a photobook of Andy Warhol's funeral by Christoph von Hohenburg. Can't afford a Warhol? Love celebs? This is the next best thing: 

Slow Moving Luminaries: here comes hell and high water 

This mesmerizing sculpture deserves a blog post all on its own, in fact, there are several. On a raised platform by the beach, LA artist Lars Jan built a monumental statement about global warming, overdevelopment and all associated ills, in the form five stylized, scale model "high-rises," strikingly illuminated by night. Set in a suspended infinity pool, these enigmatic apparitions slowly descend, disappearing below the surface of the water, only to rise again like sphinxes.  It's all done on an asynchronous timer so the overall effect is meditative and disquieting. Watch the video.

The sculptures in full flight 

The video playing on the lower deck shows the stylized building engulfed by the sea

The machinery underneath shows how it all works

Meanwhile, raging below was the invite-only party.

A rowdy, wristband-only party raged below, bankrolled by Audemars Piguet, the classy watchmaker that commissioned the work. Now and then partygoers would stumble across the screen to be momentarily silhouetted, drink in hand, oblivious to the climate change doom depicted thereon. I have no doubt this interaction was designed as part of the work. My friend and I sat watching in a couple of empty deckchairs outside the velvet rope. We were eventually offered delectable little snacks by the starched waiters, who must have taken pity on we of the cheap seats outside. Fortune favors the not-so-bold... 

Intermission: Checking out the BASS

Miami Mountain by Ugo Rondanine

A quick hop across the road and you're at the Bass, a newly expanded contemporary art museum. On show was a room full of lounging clowns, startlingly realistic. Once we worked out they weren't real we could relax. It was a very unsettling piece called Good Evening Beautiful Blue by Ugo Rondinone, who was also responsible for Miami Mountain, the day-glo rockpile outside.

Plenty of audience participation allowed in Rondinone's creepy clown exhibit. 

A giant nose ring channeled Anish Kapoor's "Bean" in Chicago

Art Miami, Context, Red Dot and Spectrum: for all collectors (and apartments) great and small

Best bang for buck: Art Miami

Detail of Flash Eye - Peter Combe for Andrea Schwartz  Gallery
One of the many "pixelation" works at the fairs

Flash Eye, Peter Combe for Andrea Schwartz  Gallery

Cross the river and you're in the realm of art for the rest of us. Make no mistake: Art Miami has all the big names too, but huge helpings of everything else. It's almost as if all the fairs were put in a blender, whizzed together and a single fair poured out - that's Art Miami. This theme is continued at a decidedly lower price point in 3 fairs connected to it via a walkway, namely Context, Red Dot and Spectrum. 

What's with the Legos? 

Every year you notice a trend that pops up in many booths. Sometimes it's lenticular prints, sometimes its infinity mirrors, eternally it's riffs on Damien Hirst's Spot paintings. This year it seemed to be pixelation, specifically with Legos:

Matt Donovon's Green Honeycomb

Ladybugs, Matt Donovan

Hirst's pill popping prices 

Being a Spot Challenger, I'm always interested to hear how earth Damien Hirst maintains a respectable rage for his oeuvre. Paul Stolper Gallery, hailing from the UK, had lugged a ER room's worth of Hirst's giant meds sculptures.

So how much do they sell for? 

"$4000 for the cheapest item - a single Valium, Viagra or Levoxyl." (The last one familiar to those with thyroid issues including Hashimoto's). 

So who buys these pills?

"Everyone.Young people in their 20's put it on lay-away."

Wow! Back when I was poring over the P Volume, I wish I'd had the foresight and pocket money to lay away a Lichtenstein...

At $4000 a pop, the real thing is cheaper, even without insurance. 

Context and Red Dot: wheeling and dealing 'til the price is right

If Art Basel Miami is like MOMA with a cash register, these two fairs are more the bratwurst stand at a county fair. (Note: not hotdog, but slightly classier - bratwurst). Walking the aisles of art stacked up against boxes in some cases, I almost expected to come face to face with a set of laughing clowns in the next booth. Many were manned by the artist themselves, others, I learned, were wholesalers who supply many of the starchier galleries in neighboring fairs.

And in fact, one in particular, Great Dane Auctions, supplied many, many of the others. 

Artist Felton Weller had his own, affordable take on Bridget Riley, Gene Davis who starred in the other fairs. 

Can't afford Warhol? You can afford Yoshikazu Kajikawa's tactile take

"He's one of the biggest wholesalers in the country, " said a small affable man surrounded by a hotchpotch of prints, including some of his own personal artworks. "At at the end of the day he knows people like me are going to write him a check to supply our customers." 

At the next booth I was offered a pen. "You see this pen?" A burly gentlemen flicked the pen around and shone the LED directly into my eyeball. "This is for you to write me a check for that Warhol."  

In another booth, I spotted what the dealer claimed to be an original Lichtenstein oil. It was not his usual style, and because of that, I liked it immediately (which goes to show I'll never make money selling art). 

The lonely Lichtenstein at Red Dot/Context, $50K

"I'll give it to you for $50,000," he said. "It's the real deal." 

"How do you know?" I asked. He shrugged. 

Earlier in the day, I'd seen a doodle of two pyramids in Art Miami asking $250,000k. So... how does that square with the mysterious oil?  

Pyramids (Study), A doodle by Roy Lichtenstein, $250K

"The doodle for $250K is the bargain," said John Graves, a dealer I once bought a modest Corbu print from, when I told him about the two Lichtensteins I'd encountered. He told me that the oil had been "kicking around for years" and "everyone knew about it" and "no way to know if it's authentic."  

... and money

More art nutdom reading:

My First Auction aka On Not Getting Hammered at Auction


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