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by Steven Alan Bennett

The Doc and I wrapped our Art Basel Miami tour yesterday and thought it was quite a good group of shows. As we head home, I’m turning the whole thing over in my head. For those of you who couldn’t make it, here’s a report from the front.

The ART BASEL MIAMI show, the “Big Show” at the Miami Beach Convention Center, did not disappoint, with breathtaking offerings by all the big name galleries—Gagosian, Zwirner, Landau, Hauser & Wirth, etc. For the wealthy collector, this show concentrates great, often museum quality work from around the world into a “small” space of a couple of acres under one roof. If you can drop $10 Million on a work of art, there are a dozen galleries here who are ready to help you. Interestingly, if you want figurative realism, the pickings are more modest, the work is expensive and the artist is almost certainly now working at that big art studio in the sky, i.e. he (yes, he) is dead. If you’re interested in contemporary art, the works are invariably abstract and/or conceptual and the artist is more likely to be living, although not necessarily so. Please don’t criticize me. I know there isn’t any brilliance in the preceding observations, but there’s nothing wrong with stating the obvious for those who do not have firsthand experience.

This year, video was less in evidence than in years gone by, but it’s not gone. Dead white guys continue to dominate but not as monolithically as in the past. The show hasn’t exactly warmed up to women, but there is a sense that galleries are considering whether to include women when putting together their offerings. They seem to be doing this to a slight but ever increasing extent, as everyone is beginning to sense the vibe that the women are really about to take off. And, like the men, the money is in the dead artists, so you see works by the deceased just as readily as the living. This year, we saw works by Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, and Louise Nevelson, among others. Photography was also generously displayed, with great works by both men and women artists.

As is the case every year, there were a couple of artists who suddenly seem to be on sale at every booth while others from years past have all but disappeared. So, for example, Josef Albers and Mel Ramos, who seemed to be all over the place a year or two ago, were pretty much MIA this year. Ditto for Basquiat, who seemed to be on every wall last year and now barely showed up. This year there seemed to be an “emergence” of works by Milton Avery and Wilfredo Lam and it appeared that the Lam works were selling. Can’t say regarding Avery. I think there’s something telling here, too, as Cuban artists are hot and getting hotter.

Surrounding the Big Show, on both sides of Biscayne Bay, are the “satellite shows.” These frequently do not have the jaw dropping impact of the main event, but can be incredibly interesting and gratifying. ART MIAMI continues to be the big gem among the satellite shows and, for collectors seeking work in the $20-100K range, it’s the place to be. We saw great work at some of these galleries, including absolutely breathtaking photography by Brit, David Yarrow, at the Maddox Gallery booth. Generally, ART MIAMI exhibitors tend to feature modern and contemporary work by artists in their prime or approaching it, but you might also find work by deceased artists of some renown. The big attraction for us at ART MIAMI this year was the booth of NYAA, which was selling student works curated by David Kratz, the NYAA President, and actress and NYAA board member Brooke Shields, both of whom were in attendance for at least part of the time (and very kind and approachable people). We continue to be impressed with the quality of the student works at NYAA and picked up a wonderful little piece by Deng Shiqing, a Bennett Prize honorable mention artist.

The sister show to ART MIAMI, in the adjacent tent, is CONTEXT, and it is a good show if just slightly less lustrous than ART MIAMI. Just up the street from both of these is the NADA show (the New Art Dealers Alliance) where the younger dealers and their often brand new or unheard of artists show their wares. This show has been a big ho-hum for the Doc and I for the past two years and, although I’m sure we’ll go again next year just to see what is going on, I doubt that we will get our hopes up. The work is frequently poor in execution and derivative in both style and concept.

On the other side of the bay, there are a number of shows, but four are particularly worthy of note. SCOPE is a show like ART MIAMI but a layer below in terms of price and the notoriety of the artists. Work that is reasonably priced ($5-50K) and in a variety of styles can be found here. For this reason, the show is always popular. Similar to SCOPE is a show called PULSE, which is up the beach from SCOPE and features similar work in two tents near Indian Beach Park on Collins Avenue. This year, we thought the “New Precisionism” works offered by Frank Bernarducci and Company were quite eye-catching. Another collection of really striking works were a series of horse mounted knights made from handmade paper by an artist named Kevin Sudeith. These works, called “Knight Errant,” were derived from a stone carving of a mounted knight inscribed on a natural stone formation facing the sea in Iceland. One observation for the works at both SCOPE and PULSE is that the red dots tended to congregate around smaller works that a single person could carry out under their arm. Another observation is that the quickest sales occur among smaller works in the sub-$5,000 range.

Next door to SCOPE is UNTITLED, an art show composed largely of conceptual works and installations that included pieces that made a mess (e.g. dripping or splattering) or created a sort of traffic jam on the floor. We have never fully engaged with the stuff at UNTITLED, but it is important to go because this show provides a glimpse into where conceptual art is or may be headed. Finally, there is the AQUA ART show held in the Aqua Hotel on Collins Avenue, which is a 50’s style two-story motel built around an atrium. For the show, the organizers remove all the furniture and turn every room into its own gallery. This is the least expensive of the shows but a place where one can find some really good and inexpensive art and, if not, see some interesting things that don’t take themselves too seriously. This year, the Doc and I picked up a lovely portrait by an Azerbaijani artist with Down Syndrome named Maryam Alakbarli. The Doc specialized in children with special needs during her professional career and fell in love with the simple honesty of Maryam’s work.

A few utterly random observations….

Why is it that the secondary shows seem to attract gimmicks? The gimmicks this year were lenticular art and infinity mirrors. Lenticular art, originally experienced by half of people now living as a postage stamp sized image from a Cracker Jack box that shows a person with a stare when looked at from one direction but with a wink and a smile when looked at from the other, was on display in abundance. One unique twist had the viewer download a phone app and then look at the work through the phone cam. All of the clothed people attending the baroque banquet in the original work suddenly appear, you guessed it, naked. Oh, boy…. The other gimmick, infinity mirrors, have a box mounted to the wall or on the floor and, as one peers into it, it appears as if the (fill in the blank) railroad tracks, water well, underground tunnel, abstract design, etc., continues into infinity. These are almost invariably combined with flashing lights, fluorescent paint or some other visual come-on and they grow wearisome rather quickly.

One of the conceptual pieces that seemed to attract attention this year was at PULSE. In it, the artist hung a grid of dirty men’s tighty-whiteys from baling twine attached to the ceiling. The effect was that of rotting slabs hanging from a string in a grid pattern that basically kept everybody out. Indeed, nobody wanted to enter the grid although a lot of people were shooting cell phone photographs from the aisle. I admit to not understanding this work on a number of levels. One, most people who are men or live with them can see dirty tighty-whiteys any time although they normally don’t want to. Second, I wasn’t sure if the art was a joke and, if so, who the joke was on. Third, I recognize the making and displaying of art to be, at least to some nominal extent, about selling art to people who want to display it. I can’t imagine anyone spending money to acquire, or wanting to display, dirty men’s underwear. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the curators of some of our leading museums, who undoubtedly see this sort of work as a worthy addition to their collections….. In the case of the tighty-whiteys, I can’t wait to see who bought the work. Then, I guess, we’ll find out who the joke was on……

Finally, if you’ve not been to ART BASEL MIAMI or its satellite shows, you should consider attending. For example, while having lunch in the café at the Big Show, a young artist named Benjamin Shine sat down with us and talked about his work. In the process, we made a new friend and we learned about an art form (“tulle”) that we had never heard of before. This caused us to stop by his gallery’s booth and take a look at his incredible fabric art. As one gallerist said to me, “this art show brings together the entire art world in one place for one week; anyone who is in this business wants to be here.” If you are in this business, you should want to be here, too.