Sadie Benning, “untitled, “telephone drawing”” (2015) (left) and “untitled, “telephone drawing”” (2015) (right). Both: Medite, aqua resin, casein acrylic gouache, each: 97.375 x 61.25 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

MIAMI BEACH — So where were they? An Inside Art column published in The New York Times a week before the opening of Art Basel Miami Beach dangled the prospect of a more inclusive fair this year, one that would feature “A Focus on Female Artists,” as the headline put it.

Tellingly, however, the article, by Robin Pogrebin, begins with a disclaimer:

There may come a day when having a critical mass of women featured in an art fair is no longer noteworthy, but we’re not there yet. So it’s worth noting that Art Basel Miami Beach, which starts next week, has a significant number of female artists.

Pogrebin goes on to count out five artists at Mary Boone; five at Galerie Lelong; and three at Galerie Barbara Thumm. That’s three galleries out of 267. The rest of the fair, aside from a few, scattered pockets of diversity, was predictably male and, more often than not, white.

Among the artists featured in the three booths cited in the Times report were, respectively, the indomitable Judith Bernstein, whose lushly colored, absurdly sexualized images remain as scabrous as ever; Petah Coyne and her giant, bristly, hanging “Untitled #670 (Black Heart)” (1990); and Jo Baer, whose geometric abstractions stole the show in the Minimalist corner of the new Whitney’s inaugural exhibition last spring.

That there was so little unique, renegade work at Art Basel Miami Beach is to be expected: the point is to clear the walls, not rock the boat. But the focus on female artists, or lack thereof, created its own storyline, something to latch onto while navigating ABMB’s endless shoals of merchandising. In fact, it turns out that there is no better place than late capitalism’s hunting grounds to appreciate the importance of heterogeneity as a cultural seedbed.

Isa Melsheimer, “Kabinett” installation view (click to enlarge)

The sameness affecting acres of ABMB — booths full of derivative works siphoning off the stale fumes of Pop, Conceptualism, Neo-Conceptualism, Neo-Expressionism and even Abstract Expressionism — may reassure clients that what they are buying possesses a properly vetted lineage, but in the end much of it remains formally tedious.

Whether this sameness has to do with male essentialism (an increasingly complex argument in light of sexual fluidity) or a regression to the mean, in which overproduction invariably spawns mediocrity, the bottom line is that much of the predominantly male art at ABMB looked just the way you’d expect it to look: bright, shiny, and new, often jokey and decorative, legitimated by art historical precedent but never venturing too far to the right or left.

Categorically speaking, it was then up to the artworks made by women and, paradoxically, the paintings and sculptures of long-dead modern masters, alongside those by artists now in their 70s and 80s, to breathe some life into the proceedings.

Among them, the most inexplicable and unfamiliar pieces stood out: an oil painting in white and golden yellow, “Dog and Snake” (2004-05) by Susan Rothenberg; a set of revelatory pre-Pop, quasi-Cubist compositions by Dorothy Iannone from the early 1960s; and a pair of symbol-laden graphite drawings of mythical female and male figures by Sandra Vásquez de la Horra (“Deidad Planetaria” and “El Portador de las Estrellas,” both 2015), each made up of three vertically-stacked sheets of paper, unframed and pinned to the wall.

What these disparate works have in common is their indirection and slipperiness of meaning. Perhaps the head of snakes and the exposed heart of the nude woman in “Deidad Planetaria” (which translates as “Planetary Deity”) relate to the Medusa and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, respectively, but there is nothing in the drawing to lead us to that conclusion.

Susan Rothenberg, “Dog and Snake” (2004-05), oil on canvas, 49 3/4 x 36 1/2 inches

Similarly, Rothenberg’s animal painting features a barely-there dog’s head, emerging from the outside edge of the upper-left quadrant, next to a snake that might be chopped into pieces, à la the “Join, or Die” emblem of the American Revolution, or simply obscured by feathery tufts of grass. Again, nothing is made explicit.

And Iannone’s oil-on-canvas works at first look like abstractions, but then various discernible elements become clear: a profile; a pair of lips; an umbrella — all of which meld into the more unrecognizable elements. You’re never sure of what you’re looking at, and with everything laid out in slabs of bold color outlined in black, the paintings feel of a piece with the work made at the same time by Jean Dubuffet, who was himself a sizable presence among many of the booths.

Dorothy Iannone, “My Heroine and Her Mate” (1962), oil on canvas, 64.57 x 59.45 inches (left); “Dark Lips” (1964), oil, paper collage, acrylic on canvas, 64.96 x 59.65 inches (right) (click to enlarge)

As an artist grouped under the rubric of New Image Painting in the 1970s, Rothenberg also displays a lateral relationship with the art of her time, channeling the paint handling and materiality of a so-called Minimalist figure like Robert Ryman. Her early horse paintings, in which the figure and ground were composed of the same color separated by a rough, graphic line, share formal concerns with some of the linear geometric monochromes of Robert Mangold, whose work enjoyed a mini-retrospective at the fair, spanning the years 1966 to 2005.

(And speaking of New Image Painting and Minimalism, the exposition offered a rare look at one of Robert Moskowitz’s very early window shade collages from 1962, in which he pasted an actual shade and pull string onto the canvas and covered everything in aluminum paint. The confounding result is reality pushed to Minimalist abstraction.)

Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, who was born in Chile in 1967, comes out of a different tradition altogether, Latin America’s distinct brand of classicized, humanist surrealism popularized by the work of Frida Kahlo. (This style was also represented at the fair by the haunting, rocklike figurative forms of Armando Morales, the Nicaraguan painter who died in 2011 at the age of 84.) Vásquez de la Horra’s blend of rootedness and whimsy suffuses her work with the peculiar resonance of being of this world but slightly out of it, something that could be also said of the arch-political paintings of Leon Golub — his gritty, unstretched oil-on-linen “Rioters III” (1984), like Vásquez de la Horra’s drawings, was unframed and pinned to the wall — in which a mythic dimension emerges once the topical urgencies subside.

Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, “Deidad Planetaria” (2015), graphite on paper, wax, triptych, each drawing: 78 x 107.5 cm (left) and “El Portador de las Estrellas” (2015), graphite on paper, wax; triptych, each drawing: 78 x 107.5 cm (right)

The demands of the marketplace — the necessity of moving product while investing in research and development (i.e., the discovery of new and neglected talent) — cuts both ways. A fair is noisier and messier than a biennial, and far heavier on the glitz, but as we circulate through it we get to be our own curators, poking around corners in search of something that will strike a chord, spike a preconception, or shake up our provincialism.

Works that were new to me included the architectural paintings, models and sculptures of the Berlin-based Isa Melsheimer; the self-portraits of Indian-born British painter Celia Paul; and the eye-popping sectional abstractions of Sadie Benning, who came to prominence with her Pixelvision videos in the 1990s. Each unfamiliar work seemed like an avatar for dozens of unknown artists who will eventually add new wrinkles to contemporary art’s already tangled narratives.

Philip Guston, “Traveler III” (1959-60), oil on canvas, 65 x 72 inches (click to enlarge)

Discovery also extended to artists we thought we knew all too well: an oil on canvas by Philip Guston, “Traveler III” from 1959-60, was made ten years before his celebrated move from Abstract Expressionism to his late figurative style, but it displays a spirit more closely aligned with the latter’s nasty-funny images than with the twilit lyricism of his non-objective work: the color is harsher and darker, and a red-and-black tree-like form dominating the right half of the picture could be a precursor to the innumerable clouds of cigarette smoke he painted later on.

And even within the current Francis Bacon bubble, the unexpected apparently happens. The eight-figure price fetched by his “Man in Blue VI” (1954) at the fair brought attention to the artist’s quieter side, one more in keeping with his innate conservatism, but nonetheless a beautiful, nuanced piece. That this painting outshone a larger one nearby — an especially garish example of his signature style — seemed, in its own absurdly rarified way, like a break in the clouds.

Art Basel Miami Beach took place at the Miami Beach Convention Center (1901 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach, Florida) from Wednesday, December 2 to Sunday, December 6.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.