Keeping up with the Joneses, and the Gossip

Published December 8, 2008

 

Benicio Del Toro and Julian Schnabel; Kehinde Wiley. Photography by Linda Yablonsky

 

No one comes to Miami during fair week just to look at art. What people like to do here is talk about it. They look at each other and talk. Not just about which dealer has what picture at how high a price but what it is, who did it and why it should matter. Does anyone buy a Francis Bacon painting because it’s so great to wake up and see it first thing? They want it for show and tell —mostly tell. Whatever they appreciate about an artwork’s form or idea, what collectors (and dealers and critics) love best is explaining it. Out loud. That’s what art is for—bringing people together. To collect is to fall in love. Art fairs are part of the collective courtship.

Grace Jones

Ryan McGinley; Takashi Murakami and Larry Gagosian

Threading through the Miami Beach Convention Center aisles during the Art Basel Miami Beach fair’s opening vernissage on Wednesday night was to become part of a daisy chain of conversations and tete-a-tetes. Here was Takashi Murakami in a bright yellow sweater and baggy jeans selling his own “Superflat” series painting while Larry Gagosian watched. There was artist Donald Baechler whispering in dealer Tony Shafrazi’s ear. And wasn’t that Faye Dunaway turning for photographers at the VIP “First Look” preview?

All the dire predictions that the collapsed financial market would make this a lonely place proved false, though it wasn’t exactly business-as-usual either. “It’s a harder sell this year,” veteran Los Angeles dealer Margo Leavin told me. Angela Westwater said pretty much the same thing at Sperone-Westwater, where a fantastically lacy, stainless steel rendition of a Gothic cathedral by Wim Delvoye could have doubled as a two-million-dollar tinkertoy bulldozer. “It’s slow but we’re doing okay,” said Michael Lieberman, whose Harris-Lieberman booth may have been the best looking in the Art Nova section, where smaller galleries are invited to present one- to three-artist installations. (His walls were lined with a sexy black, fishnet stocking-like perforated fence by Evan Hollway, with Lisa Oppenheim monochrome photos of fading Polaroids and Michael Queenland photographs.)

Terence Koh; Shirin Neshat and Dealer David Ross

“No one’s buying anything over half a million dollars,” Gordon Veneklasen said at the Michael Werner Gallery booth, where there was a knockout Sigmar Polke banner work made of colored fabrics on a painting stretcher ($2.2 million). “I figure you have to try and look important this year —and then be flexible,” he said. That must be why dealer Peter Freeman decided to bring not one but two Michael Heizer volcanic boulders weighing ten and twelve thousand pounds to his booth. And why Javier Peres was doing business with his Dash Snow presentation, where photographs were selling for $2,000 and $4,000.

In the past few years, multimillion-dollar Picassos and Anish Kapoors would go in the first five minutes. Artist Barbara Kruger had it spelled out in black-and-white vinyl text on the floor of Mary Boone’s booth: “We are the slaves of objects around us.” (A quote from Goethe.) As if to answer, Zurich’s Eva Presenhuber hung her booth with a lightbox photograph by Doug Aitken that said “FUCK YOU.” (The image was of the earth receding through a space shuttle’s blasting jets.)

Rashid Johson nd Dia curator Philippe Vergne; artist Hernan Bas

But stuff did happen. Hauser & Wirth managed to sell a 2003 Louise Bourgeois sculpture, “The Couple,” for over a million dollars and a 1996 Mary Heilmann painting for $550,000. Jeffrey Deitch produced a brand-new spray-painted canvas by Julian Schnabel, just to let the world know the painter/director would be doing a large-scale installation at the Deitch warehouse in Long Island City this spring. Two Palms Press was having a hard time keeping the sweatier human kind of palms off its Richard Prince portfolio of new collages. ($200,000 each, in a giant ring binder.) And Berlin’s Aurel Scheibler was offering – for the first time, ever – a 1960s sculpture of cutout mercenaries floating in an emerald-green pool by the very undersung Brazilian/Swedish pop artist Oyvind Fahlstrom. It was one of many museum-quality works I saw, but I didn’t see many museum curators around this year. Maybe they’re waiting to see what’s left over?

Breakfast at the Rubells; artist Isaac Julien with Puma Chairman and CEO Jachen Zeitz

Miami -based contemporary art collectors Don and Mera Rubell never let any moss gather at their feet. Each year, they open a new show of art they have recently acquired, and usually the artists they put in it get a big boost in the market as well. This year they concentrated on African-American artists, only they called the show “30 Americans” and had Puma sponsor it. It’s unusual for a private collection to have a corporate sponsor, but the Rubell Family Collection is a nonprofit that also runs educational programs.

What with Barack Obama coming to the White House, this show could smell of exploitation – except it was three years in the making, they said at a dinner for the artists at Pacific Time on Wednesday night, when high spirits overrode suspicions of anything untoward. “Our real purpose was to find one artist that Thelma Golden hadn’t discovered first,” joked Mera Rubell in her jolly mid-dinner remarks. (Golden is the fashionable director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; in the early identity-politics 90’s, she became famous for organizing the controversial “Black Male” show at the Whitney Museum, where she was then a young curator.)

In fact, many of the artists are well-established: Kerry James Marshall, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley, Mark Bradford, David Hammons. Most of them were at the dinner, paid for by Puma, whose CEO Jochen Zeitz chose this occasion to get his company into art sponsorship. “People ask me what it takes to be a successful collector,” Rubell said. “A bottle of water and a pair of Pumas! We were already a Puma family when this happened—we have a comfort foot fetish. But seriously. You can’t go shopping for art in a fair without wearing Pumas. You can’t find good art without them.” Then she introduced the artists to cheers from the crowd, which included Naomi Campbell and artist Shirin Neshat.

Studio Museum of Harlem’s Thelma Golden and artist Gary Simmons; artist Kalup Linzy

By that time I had missed The Gossip performance at the Raleigh but hooked up with Julian Schnabel, Benicio del Torro and Terence Koh outside the Delano just in time to catch the finale of Grace Jones’s comeback performance in the Florida Room. It was a bit of a shock to see her—same gutteral delivery, but a body well on the way to Aretha size. In other words, still fabulously weird. Del Torro produced a Che-like stogie—he was in town for the screening of the new film about the Cuban guerrilla leader. “I smoked cigars before but yeah,” he said, “I picked these up on the film and now I’m hooked.” He took a puff. In an instant, I was hooked on him. That’s what I love about art fairs. They bring the good stuff to the strangest places.

Click here for Linda Yablonsky’s prior post about Miami.