MIAMI BEACH — The 16th incarnation of Art Basel Miami Beach was supposed to have “a new energy,” as Noah Horowitz, director of the Americas for Art Basel, told the New York Times. It’s true. The booths are larger, the aisles wider, the coffee shops more abundant. With the new space, the crowd felt thinner, but still overwhelming. As its own kind of machine, Basel is a beast that gets fatter and still hungrier every year, its events more corporate, and that aforementioned energy increasingly anxious.
But once inside, I was surprised — even relieved. When I saw a row of small acrylic and ink works by Ken Price, his American landscapes in bright, psychedelic colors, I embarrassingly couldn’t get Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 hit “America” out of my head. It was hard to look at his uncanny deserts and hills without thinking of Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and of the institutional disregard for the planet. They felt like retrospective memorials to these majestic spaces: “I’m going to look for America.”
The moment was a precursor to the heartbreaking potency of much of the art here, if you know where to look: work that addresses the reclamation of land and ancestry, the heartache of marginalization, and a sense of deep joy, despite existing in a place that doesn’t want you.
Yes, much of the art at the fair is stale or derivative of older artistic movements that feel meaningless now, but that’s partly due to the fair’s size (there’s no way to see it all, and anything that big inevitably showcases the good and the bad). The range of artworks in a sense reflects the social landscape of the United States: some say nothing, choosing to avoid “talking about politics”; others have no choice but to radically claim themselves, even if it’s dangerous.
On the day I visited the Fergus McCaffrey booth, the Irish-American artist, Máiréad Delaney, sat atop a flat plinth, a triangle-shaped hunk of wet cement drying between her legs. She occasionally lay down as passersby stared. In five hours, when the cement eventually dried, it became a sculpture to be sold. But watching this strained pain caused discomfort in my own body, especially given Delaney’s stoic, barely wincing expressions. The durational performance, “Stoppage I and II” (2017), refers to the oppressive forces that literally obstruct women, controlling their womb and ability to move. The cement protects and occludes Delaney’s body at once.
At Andrew Kreps Gallery, Andrea Bowers’s drawings inspired by political posters reference the seeds of this oppression, and also how black and trans women are erased from contemporary women’s justice movements. In the country’s collective memory of the fight for women’s rights, black women, it seems, are often forgotten. Homage to figures like Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, and their ilk feels sparse. Bowers’s colorful posters feature only black and brown women and girls, holding signs reading “Transfeminism” and “Vote for Women,” or astride horses outside the Nation’s capital.
In a beautiful homage to Mary J. Blige at Jack Shainman Gallery, Carrie Mae Weems has a series of prints that feature portraits of the singer and songwriter, sometimes crowned like a queen or shown in profile, like royalty on a coin — her power honored. I thought of “blue periods” in artists’ work, and how this particular blue felt pensive, not sad.
“Look for America” at Art Basel and you’ll find it: at Mendes Wood DM, Paulo Nazareth’s resin boxes, “produtos de geneocídio” (2017), contain products like “Cherokee” beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, and packages of rice emblazoned with images of unnamed First Nations men. Teresa Margolles’s “american Juju for the Tapestry of Truth,” at Galerie Peter Kilchmann, made in collaboration with members of the Harlem Needle Arts Cultural Arts Institute, is a flag dedicated to the lives of black men who died too soon and without justice, like Eric Garner and Carlos Alcis.
But there’s also optimism in the profound beauty of just existing — living out a story that may not get told, but thrives and blossoms anyway. At Casey Kaplan, Jordan Casteel’s oil painting, “Yvonne and James” (2017) depicts an elderly black couple sitting casually for a portrait. The color is rich, and the depth preternatural. The implied simplicity and fullness of their lives is moving, especially when, like me, you have relatives who look like them — and, I’d hope, when you have neighbors who look like them, too.
Back at Jack Shainman, in Gordon Parks’s photograph, “Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York” (1952), a man sits in the center of a room, its walls decorated with lightbulbs in a mosaic pattern; in between two record turntables that seem to float, he sits with his legs crossed and, upon first glance, appears to be floating himself. Ironically, he’s shown below a cityscape, living underground. The photographer’s visual interpretations of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are eerie and supernatural, and dark in a way only Parks could be — not macabre, but melancholic.
Art Basel Miami Beach is a luxury market, which is never the place to find rarely recorded histories or autobiographies — and yet, here they are, precisely because people are telling the stories themselves. Parks, who was also a poet, once told Black Enterprise magazine, “I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand.”
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