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I admit that I arrived in Miami expecting to hate the art fairs and all they represent. So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Eager art shoppers await the noon opening of Art Basel Miami and champagne carts (right) await thirsty art patrons craving $14 glasses of bubbly. (click to enlarge)

After getting my press credentials in Art Basel’s media center, I — like most of the media here — did my utmost to ignore the canned speeches by fair organizers and local dignitaries and made a b-line for the “Collector’s Lounge” where champagne and tasty bites were being handed out like life jackets on the Titanic.

I spoke to a few fellow press types and we swapped notes about what to see and do during the week. I was up front. “I don’t know why I’m here,” I remember telling Ben Davis of Artnet but instead of pity he just shared his useful tips and facts about the fairs: this is the biggest fair ever (more exhibitors, more space), you should check out the parties, etc.

The doors open and they’re off … (click to enlarge)

After two glasses of champagne, my buzz told me to get to work and I followed Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City to the front doors of the fair to look for my story. Would their be hoardes awaiting the noon opening? Would this be the high-priced version of a Walmart Black Friday stampede? Sadly there was no drama at the gates, though what I did notice what there were more people wandering the art fair in wheelchairs than I’ve seen anywhere outside of an old age home or hospital — does the ability to walk impair your enjoyment of art or something?

The people entering the fair were an ordered and homogenous bunch, if anything, the press core looked more motley. There was no story yet, and filing a story that art buyers seemed to be mostly of European descent, affluent and apparently well-mannered didn’t seem like a news flash. It was time to look at art.

Uncharacteristic works by Keith Haring at Galerie Hans Mayer both “Untitled” (1988) (click to enlarge)

Wandering the halls of the fair I was stuck by how comfortable and spacious the displays were. Unlike the New York fairs, I didn’t have visions of being a rat rushing through a maze and the atmosphere was remarkably relaxed for an economy still in the doldrums. If I expected to see oodles of work by Warhol, Picasso and Koons, I was pleasantly surprised to see some uncharacteristic work by artists I was familiar with, including Keith Haring, who seemed to be everywhere, and was represented by works that shattered the stereotyped image I have of him. They made me think that his work may have a greater affinity with the art of Raymond Pettibon than I had previously thought.

Mona Hatoum, “Worry Beads” (2009) at Max Hetzler, patinated bronze & mild steel (edition of 5) (click to enlarge)

Some art is well suited for the art fairs and, like open studios festivals and biennials, small work is almost always drowned out by installations or large-scale pieces. Mona Hatoum’s “Worry Beads” (2009) was one such fair-friendly piece. By taking a simple West Asian male accessory and supersizing it, Hatoum ratcheted up its mysterious meaning. The otherwise small, often smooth, and cool to the touch beads appeared like cannonballs ready for an archaic battle. The English term for the object suggests anxiety, though in the languages of West Asia there isn’t the same connotation (in Armenian, for instance, the object is simply called a “counter”). My only concern is that this strategy of art — taking small household items and pumping them up to monumental scale — is becoming an all too common and lazy form of art making. I could probably list over a dozen artists that have used this in some form or another for the last few decades (Claes Oldenburg, Jeff Koons … ).

William Pope L., “The Black Factory” (2002-2009) in the Botanical Garden with a view of the Art Basel Miami venue in the background. (click to enlarge)

After two hours of art watching and hearing rumors of celebrities roaming the halls (Sly Stallone, Calvin Klein) I joined up with my favorite art fag (aka Paddy) and we enjoyed a delightful lunch in the small botanical garden across the street. Surrounded by art (William L. Pope, George Rickey, Cao Guimarães) we chatted about art fairs and their meaning.

“When you see an art fair there’s an unnecessary construction of a story. You only speak to a small group of people and you can’t quite figure out the success and failure of a fair,” Paddy suggested.

“I feel like they’re a blank slate,” I agreed. “I could write absolutely anything about this thing and find evidence to prove my point.” Paddy reminded me that last year the story that everyone was writing was that Art Basel Miami did better than expected, which wasn’t exactly the case but the media promoted the idea. Public perception is an important part of any economy and while galleries, artists and others have an economic interest to make things seem better than they may be, no one is lobbying the press to ensure they are reporting facts and not only perceptions by “experts.”

Media memes are funny things and they start well before the story itself. The only thing left to the imagination is which facts will be used to validate the narrative. Before New York’s November art auctions there were expectations that things would be better, the numbers only partially proved the point (Philips, for instance, didn’t fare as well as Christie’s or Sotheby’s, which were saved by a few major items that went well above estimate).

The Telegraph paints a sunny picture while adding a question mark

London’s Telegraph newspaper started the week asking “Will the sun shine for Art Basel Miami Beach?” which sounds like a trick question since the sun always shines in Miami. They listed facts like there will be 260 art galleries showing 2,000 artists. These numbers, along with others, were piled on to make the case that the sun is already rising.

The secretive nature of the art market makes assessing the claims of the market’s return difficult to confirm. How much are things being sold for? One gallery at Art Basel Miami posted prices beside each painting by Robert Motherwell they had on display. I welcomed this wiff of transparency in a field still ruled by Reaganomics and the expectations that spolia from the superrich is going to trickle down, it never does.

So I am writing this aware of the expectation that I should write THE ART MARKET IS BACK! but I don’t believe it and I don’t have anything to gain by suggesting it. I also don’t have a nostalgia for 2007 when people didn’t talk about ideas as much as monetary values, and frankly, those aren’t the type of conversations about art that interest me.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, “At Large” (1984) at Krugier (click to enlarge)

After our chat and nibble in the park, Paddy and I returned to the fair refreshed, and enjoyed it more than my earlier tour. I realized what a fantastic shopping experience it must be for collectors. All the art on display looked rather nice, though maybe too charming. I spotted one Basquiat that was perhaps the prettiest work I’ve seen by a normally messy artist. It felt subdued and almost polite. I couldn’t tell if it was the work itself or the environment that tamed the painting — probably a bit of both.

I felt a little bored at the fair since there weren’t many new things to be found but it was nice to see works I had only seen and read about online or in print, including Santiago Sierra’s “Los Penetrados” (2008) [link NSFW].

Kehinde Wiley’s commissioned portrait of Michael Jackson at Deitch. (via my iPhone)

I don’t know if I spotted any trends but there were a few images of Michael Jackson, including Kehinde Wiley’s commissioned portrait of the King of Pop as an European emperor (I can’t remember which one) and a few by David LaChapelle. The funny thing about pop culture is that it’s more about time and place and I felt less interested in these works than I would’ve during his lifetime. I wonder if in a decade anyone will even care or will he become the late 20th century’s equivalent of Sarah Bernhardt.

Part of me resented that Wiley had cashed in on the Jackson craze this way and his quote about the work, as reported in the Art Newspaper, made the painter sound egotistical and detached from reality:

“Michael was an extraordinarily talented person with a team who could realise his ideas as much as his performances, and I think that his idea of collaborating with me was something that he really wanted to see through … I felt a responsibility to him to get it done.”

Dude, he commissioned a portrait, he didn’t offer to “collaborate” or write a song with you, get a grip.

I did hear various people saying that galleries weren’t taking many risks this year and there was a lot of safe work on display, then again I can’t remember if that was first reported before the fairs and it was being parroted back to me by others who read the same thing.

I still haven’t found my story in Miami but so far it has been enlightening since I’ve never thought about art fairs so much before.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

7 replies on “Attack of the Miami Art Fairs: Art Basel Miami 2009”

  1. Am immediately struck by your opening comment about people in wheelchairs at the fair, are you having a joke at their expense, or have a misread this and am I (please dear god) mistaken?

  2. Hi Lucy, it was an observation, an indirect reference to the age of the patrons and partly a “thinking out loud” moment. I know there are curators who like to hang the shows while sitting in wheelchairs but I have seriously never seen so many and I simply noticed it. It wasn’t intended as a joke.

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