MIAMI BEACH — This city’s biggest art fair is upon us once more, and this year, 267 galleries from 32 countries have flocked to the massive Miami Beach Convention Center to fill the space with paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, photography, video art, and more. The 14th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) offers its expected share of conventional, cheesy, captivating, cool, and curious works, but it would be impossible to discuss everything worth a mention. Since we’ve approached previous fairs by picking out some of the bests and worsts in zany categories, we decided to bring the system to Miami. Below, some booths and individual works that stood out among the crowd, for better or for worse.
Best Booth for Decorating Your Hotel Lobby: Mnuchin Gallery
Minimalism looms large at ABMB, as it does at many contemporary art fairs, but Mnunchin’s booth seems especially catered to filling the walls of luxurious waiting rooms with safe crowdpleasers. That mustard John McCracken would look great strategically placed above a couch of a complementary color, while Hantaï’s textured pistachio painting is just large enough to offer visual simulation without inviting too much lingering in the lounge.
Most Normcore Booth: Vistamare
If you’re not familiar with the term, “normcore” refers to a fashion movement characterized by apparel that’s wholly ordinary in style and muted in tone. Vistamare has devoted its booth to Italian minimalist Ettore Spalletti, and, presented here in an otherwise empty space, his solid pink and blue pastel works pretty much fade into the walls, especially when vying for attention with the fair’s usual eye-popping offerings. If chairs were present, this would be a good place to sit and meditate (or snooze).
Best Ventilated Booth (That Doubles as a Cooling Station): Maxwell Davidson Gallery
A gentle breeze greeted me as I stepped into this booth, filled with gracefully spinning, abstract steel sculptures by artists including George Rickey and Pedro S. de Movellán. At first I thought the gallery just had powerful AC, but then I noticed the kinetic sculptures were powered not by electricity but by wind, courtesy small rotating fans affixed to the walls. I enjoyed watching the works dance on their pedestals, but I also learned that Maxwell Davidson is where it’s at when you’re feeling flush from the crowd (or the champagne).
Most Expected-at-an-Art-Fair Art: Damien Hirst at Paul Stoper Gallery
At least three booths — Paul Stoper, Paragon, and Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert — are showing Hirst, so picking one body of work was a challenge. While a taxidermy dove enclosed in formaldehyde and, of course, the dot paintings come in as close seconds, the pill bottles and tablets are overgrown, gleaming, and garish objects, making them perfect fair fodder.
Most Delightfully Surprising Art: Joaquin Torres Garcia at Galeria Leandro Navarro
Made in the early 1920s, these painted wooden toys by Joaquin Torres Garcia (who currently has a retrospective at MoMA) are small and unassuming, but I found them incredibly evocative. Enclosed in boxes, an American soldier, ducks, a parrot, a pig, and an elephant are displayed like precious childhood memories, and it was refreshing to see an embrace of crafted models to which everyone at the fair will probably relate.
Most Encouraging Art: Jeppe Hein at 303 Gallery
I usually prefer Jeppe Hein’s mirrored floor installations over his hanging, aphorism-filled, neon works, but this one presents a pleasant surprise encounter. It’s always nice to read something positive just as you feel like you’re about to be engulfed by the black hole that is Art Basel Miami Beach — even if the message lacks a heartfelt source.
Most Unfriendly-to-Short-People Art: Adrian Villar Rojas at Ruth Benzacar Gallery
The glowing objects on this five-foot-tall pedestal caught my eye from a distance, but even on my tip-toes, I couldn’t make out what they were up close. Perhaps that’s part of the mystery Rojas is trying to invoke, but almost everyone around my height whom I observed try to get a good glimpse simply surrendered, or had to use their cameras to get a better look. I’m still not really sure what’s on the pedestal, aside from some bowls and an arm. Couldn’t you have lowered it by just one foot, Adrian?
Art Most Likely to Be Swept Away by the Cleaning Crew: Michael St. John at Andrea Rosen Gallery
As recent news proves, throwing out art on accident does happen. These newspapers simply rest on the floor of Andrea Rosen’s booth, as if they’d sailed in naturally or were tossed by a careless fairgoer, and most people stepped gingerly around the works without paying them much attention. But a closer look reveals that the pages are collaged and painted with acrylic, and they’re actually quite beautiful. I much prefer them to this year’s earlier best-possibly-trash art, Gavin Turk’s bronze trash bag at the Armory Show.
Best Art That’s Out of This World: Matt Johnson at 303 Gallery
I approached this verdant work from the back and assumed it was a large cactus leaf. I’m glad I walked around and took another look — Johnson has transformed one side of this painted bronze prickly plant into an eerie extra terrestrial, which surveys the scene with as much solemnity as silliness. Levity is a rare find at ABMB.
Best Female Magic Realist You’ve Never Heard Of: Ruth Ray at Hirschl & Adler Modern
This Surrealist painting of the ancient Greek statue is gorgeously rendered — look at those folds, the wisp of smoke, the crevices of the mountain! — and offers a quiet, melancholic scene. One might expect the creator to be a household Surrealist name, but it’s actually a lesser-known woman: Ruth Ray, who usually chose horses as her subject.
Most Banal Art: Adam McEwan at rodolphe janssen
It’s small, it’s made of graphite, and it’s empty. Let’s move on.
Best Art Made of the Most Unconventional Material: “Untitled” by Eugene von Bruenchenhein
This miniature decorative chair already has a rad design, but it definitely takes the cake for most unusual material at the fair as it’s composed of chicken bones that Bruenchenhein, a self-taught artist from Milkwaukee, then carefully glued together and painted. This one is small enough to fit a chick, although it may not be a terribly comfortable seat.
Worst Art to Install and Deinstall: Jimmie Durham at Peter Freeman, Inc
Durham’s black Chrysler crushed by a grinning volcanic stone is easy fodder for Instagram, but installing it could not have been an easy feat. The sculpture is probably one of the largest and heaviest works at the show, an exemplar of contemporary art’s passion for gigantism. Godspeed to whoever buys this one.
Most Questionable Art Devoted to Serial Killers: Villa Design Group at Mathew Gallery
Each of these stainless steel works lit by neon piping is dedicated to a different serial killer. Selected murderers here include “Milwaukee Cannibal” Jeffrey Dahmer, Andrew Cunanan (who murdered Versace, actually just a mile away from the Convention Center), 15th-century child-killer Gilles de Rais, and “Butcher of Hanover” Fritz Haarman. I’d be curious to know the collectors interested in acquiring these.
Best Spooky Suspended Art: Piotr Uklanski at GioMarconi and Petah Coyne at Galerie Lelong
If you’re vying to have the best Halloween decorations next year, this glaring eyeball by Piotr Uklanski and a spider-like sculpture of a black heart by Petah Coyne are great contenders. Both are plush, which makes them somewhat alluring, but they’re also large enough to make you feel squeamish.
Most Demanding Booth: PPOW
One section of PPOW is dedicated entirely to Martin Wong’s poetry scrolls, which he created in San Francisco beginning in the late 1960s. His writing style reflects his relationship to the graffiti world, so the words take some time to decipher — an unfortunate requirement at an art fair, where everyone is running around with little time to spare for parsing literature. That’s a pity, as many of these works are on view for the first time and offer an opportunity to hear Wong’s unique voice.
Booth Most Likely to Piss Off PETA: SIM Galeria
These shelves are lined with 36 fighting fish in volumetric flasks; each set of two is connected by a thin glass tube. Visitors are meant to put on a set of headphones, which plays an orchestral score so the fish become dancers of sorts. The experience felt lackluster and disconnected, and I left baffled — although my biggest question is how Pocztaruk slipped the fish down those narrow tubes.
Best Art That Proves We’re Still Doing What We Were Doing 100 Years Ago: Sherrie Levine at Simon Lee Gallery and Mike Bidlo at Francis Naumann Fine Art
Appropriation is hot, and Duchamp will always be relevant.