MIAMI BEACH — The only time I attended Art Basel Miami Beach before this year was in 2015. This is what I wrote then:
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.
I could write the same thing now. If the presentation and much of the art remained unchanged, everything else was like night and day. In 2015, Miami Beach was cold, rainy, and, thanks to an out-of-commission causeway, choked with traffic. This year the weather was warm and sunny, and the city was reasonably navigable.
But darkness was settling everywhere. That the fair coincided with Robert Mueller’s sentencing memoranda for Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort was one thing, with the specter of Trump and his co-conspirators plotting authoritarian moves to save their skins. That it also took place during the Whitney Museum’s Safariland controversy really hit home: if you need to convince yourself that the art world isn’t entirely in money’s thrall, you’d want to be anywhere but here.
Director Adam Weinberg’s bromide about the museum’s “critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognized” is regrettable in its silence over culture’s time-tested role in normalizing the excesses and abuses of the rich and powerful. And we don’t have to remind ourselves that the Whitney isn’t the only culprit: in New York alone, on either side of Central Park, the New York City Ballet’s theater at Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s plaza on Fifth Avenue are both named after David H. Koch.
If the Whitney board had sided with the museum staff and moved to expel Warren B. Kanders, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Safariland, from its ranks, that would be a sign of real change. If Kanders, Koch, and their fellow plutocrats seek to become the Andrew Carnegies, Henry Clay Fricks, and J.P. Morgans of the New Gilded Age, whitening their stains with the bleach of philanthropy, it is our job not to allow that to happen.
It is also our job not to give in to the cynic’s view that art equals money and nothing else. In that regard, the most emblematic, and ambiguous, work at the fair was Rirkrit Tiravanija’s performance piece, “untitled 2018 (all hope abandon)” (2018), in which an actor dressed in cardinal’s robes held one-on-one interviews with fair-goers. The setting for these conversations was not, as you would think, a confessional booth, but rather the booth of the Beyeler Foundation, which had been transformed by the artist, according to the Foundation’s press release, into “a space for confession, communion, and reflection.”
Tiravanija covered the booth’s three sides in gold leaf and inscribed the words from the gate of Dante’s Hell across the top (“Through me you pass / Into the City of Woe / Through me you pass / Into eternal pain,” all the way through “All hope abandon / Ye who enter here”).
The booth was located to the immediate right of the West B entrance to the Convention Center, and so casting the space as Inferno’s gate felt both foreordained and too clever by half. The egregiousness of the gold leaf and the inscription’s ambition to morph the fair into a circle of Hell seemed intended to tweak and not offend, allowing its targets to feel as if they are in on the joke, and off the hook — a facile and toothless form of entertainment that, like membership on a museum board, normalizes excess and abuse.
If only Tiravanija had outfitted the booth with six or eight boulders, covered the walls in mud, and inscribed a different quote from the Inferno, this time from Canto VII, which recounts Dante and Virgil’s journey through the Fourth Circle.
In six deft lines, the poet skewers the avaricious and the wasteful, who (in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation) are shoving great, Sisyphean stones at one another in an absurd jousting match:
Here saw I people, more than elsewhere, many,
On one side and the other, with great howls,
Rolling weights forward by main force of chest.
They clashed together, and then at that point
Each one turned backward, rolling retrograde,
Crying, “Why keepest?” and, “Why squanderest thou?”
But to question the morality, and pointlessness, of hoarding and spending mountains of cash on oversized baubles would cut to the heart of the enterprise, opening an unwelcome debate about the economies of art — a debate that should be held even if 90 percent of the work on display weren’t second-rate.
Tiravanija’s glib suggestion that the fair’s visitors were about to undergo an excruciating experience was immediately undercut by Giorgio Morandi’s four sublime still life paintings and one watercolor landscape at Galerie Karsten Greve’s booth, right next door. And throughout the endless aisles and walls, among the nooks, crannies, swirls, eddies, and black holes of this omnivorous spectacle, there were signs of art’s vitality, even urgency — pockets of surprise and transcendence that, given the company they were in, transported you farther and higher than they might have in a less blatantly mercantile context.
There was a multi-panel work featuring a hot-pink pillow by Robert Rauschenberg (“Rose Pole Spread,” 1978, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac), which might have looked too sweet anywhere else, but here felt muscular and grounded; a chunky yellow-green sculpture adorned with a pair of earbuds by Rachel Harrison stood out among the fair’s more polite offerings (“MD827ZM/B,” 2016, Greene Naftali) for its herky-jerky, elbows-and-knees movement and look-at-me color; and among the many El Anatsui knock-offs at the various Miami venues, it was thrilling to see the knockout aluminum-and-copper-wire “Shared Roots” (2014, Jack Shainman Gallery), with its ribbons and clouds of red, yellow, blue, and gold against a silvery ground — all made from bits of scrap metal, in accordance with the artist’s longstanding practice.
The pure visual pleasure of juiced-up and jewel-like color dominated paintings by Alice Neel (Victoria Miro), Etal Adnan (Barbara Mathes), Juan Uslé (Cheim & Read), Jonathan Lasker (Cheim & Read; Thomas Schulte), and Peter Saul (Michael Werner), whose “Why?” (2018), a pile of eyeballs, lips, and thumbs, was proof positive that the 84-year-old artist is operating at top form.
But amid the nonstop sensory overload, some of the most effective pieces were the simplest — ink blots by Pierrette Bloch (Karsten Greve); a silhouette of leaves and branches by Amadeo Luciano Lorenzato (Bergamin & Gomide); chewing-gum sculptures by Hannah Wilke (Alison Jacques) — works that draw you away from the glitter and noise into quiet, interior moments, and remind you why you look at art in the first place.
Art Basel Miami Beach took place at the Miami Beach Convention Center (1901 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach, Florida) from December 5 to December 9.