What do we want from art now? It sums up Art Basel Miami well that one of the best-selling works of the annual extravaganza was finally smart, small, darkly comic — and dirt-cheap. Artists William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton offered a line of art-world condolence cards. They read, over images of moving vans, gravestones, and street signs, “I Am So Sorry for Your Loss of Representation” and, comfortingly, “Chelsea will miss you.” At $150 a box, everybody wanted one.
Forget the frenzy — when all the dust settles after Art Basel, it’s all about the art. Who broke through with good work? What sold and who bought it? Six days, four museum shows, and thirteen art fairs later, here’s our take.
Dealers pulled out all the stops to bring some of the best work the ABMB bacchanalia has ever seen. Many, especially at the main fair, hung great photography or classic works by dead artists — Dubuffet, Duchamp, Picasso — rather than risk offering discounts on the works of younger artists. There, 20 percent off might reprice a whole inventory and shake a career. But then, karma from 2007 kicked in. Some of the same dealers who’ve been placing buyers on waiting lists for years — think Gagosian — got put on “hold” themselves by collectors who expressed interest in works but left dealers hanging, and sometimes left town. As one art adviser said, by the glow of hanging lanterns by the Raleigh pool, “Everybody is worried sick.”
Lee Schrager, director of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and a longtime art collector, snapped up two Starn brothers photos “at a 13 percent discount” at Photo Miami but then put away his checkbook. He said one dealer explained the Miami climate to him this way: “We did better than we expected — and worse than we had hoped.”
Who was recession proof? Cindy Sherman, breaking through to Warhol territory in cred and cost; Whitney Biennial vet Hernan Bas, whose atmospheric and homoerotic works get a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art next year; and Mickalene Thomas. Her nifty rhinestone-on-enamel portraits were one of the hits of the much-praised show at the Rubell Collection, “30 Americans.” To overgeneralize, pretty, portable art, and video art, was “in” with buyers; large, confrontational, or installation art was “out.”
Buyers included Takashi Murakami, who said he was cutting back his art-collecting but broke his own rule when he spent $100 on a drawing by Jacksonville, Florida, graphic artist Brandon Mata. The scrawny, friendly twentysomething artist, who does geometric portraits on graph paper, said he was “really happy!” as a result. At the main fair, Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, one of world’s richest men, snapped up one of Karl Lagerfeld’s photos of the Jeff Koons exhibition at Versailles. It shows a Koons vacuum cleaner alongside a portrait of Marie Antoinette and was originally priced at $30,000. “It was controversial [in France] — and I got a deal,” bragged the grinning Sheikh, who added he’d like New York readers to know he’s opening one of his Villa Moda luxury malls in Dubai in March. Real-estate developer Craig Robins went shopping for several works and announced he and partners are building a museum of design in Miami.
Morgans Hotel Group CEO Fred Kleisner, giddily celebrating the coup of luring a surprising slice of celebrities and artists to his new Mondrian Hotel (dubbed “stunning — a decorative wonderland” by Artkrush editor Paul Laster, poolside at the Russell Simmons party), fell hard for some video art in the Lisson booth. It’s “about obsessive-compulsive disorder — my wife says it’s a little like me,” said Kleisner. He also picked out one memorable work at Design Miami: a rat encased in a shiny crystal vacuum cleaner with a diamond gleaming in its mouth. “It’s good, it’s so New York,” he said — but was still negotiating a discount off the $57,000 price when last we checked.
Dealers who thrived included Francis Nauman, who did a gutsy show of Marcel Duchamps instead of playing it safe with cheaper works. Kenny Schachter had a lot of demand for his Zaha Hadid works, and New York veteran dealer Max Protetch nearly sold out his “recession booth” of works mostly under $50,000 at the Pulse Art Fair. A breakthrough artist there (almost all of his work sold) was New York artist Siebren Versteeg, whose giant iPhone-like touch screen changed its art as the viewer scrolled a finger across it. Korean art also sold strongly and conceptualist and sculptor Hyungkoo Lee was a big hit. Photography sold strongly at Art Miami booths Yancey Richardson, Barry Friedman, and Stux.
One trend we’re sorry about: Collectors often opted to buy works by “famous names” that weren’t priced as high as art by traditional artists: Lagerfeld, Hadid, Marilyn Manson, and Naomi Campbell all had shows. The nicest thing to happen all week: Hopeful images of Obama were everywhere, and the crowd, though smaller, was by far the most racially mixed ever to attend Art Basel Miami. Recession or no, the art world has changed for the better.