Art Basel: Blake Gopnik on the Festival Where Art is a Commodity

Art Basel Miami Beach, which fills the first weekend of every December, is the most important art fair in the Americas. It is also, if possible, the most annoying, so ferociously focused on buying and selling that the works could almost be pork bellies. The only way to enjoy it, I decided, was to pretend I was in the market for bacon. For the fair's tenth anniversary edition, I raided petty cash for $10 million—in Monopoly money—and went on a spree. This Web gallery presents the dozen works that I "bought" at Art Basel. (To read what it felt like for an art critic to do all that buying, see the article on my spree.)

—Blake Gopnik

Photo by Colby Katz

Frank Stella's Khurasan Gate Variation III, from 1968.

To start building a collection from scratch, I needed one piece that was huge and bold and impressive – a centerpiece that would say to all my friends, "I have an art collection and you don't." This 30-foot Stella, on sale for only $2.8 million at the Edward Tyler Nahem booth, seemed just the thing. The dealers said that it had been bought straight from Stella by its previous owners, who had had it in their dining room. (Note to billionaire self: Build bigger dining room.) Not a hint of spaghetti sauce anywhere on the picture – so it's definitely mine. And then there's the fact that, with my art critic's hat back on my head, I can affirm that I think that these slightly later, very showy Stella "protractors" are due for a reevaluation as serious art, like most late-sixties abstraction.

Courtesy Klosterfelde, Lisson Gallery and the artist.

Christian Jankowski's video called "Casting Jesus," from 2011.

After the hard work of spending almost a quarter of my budget on that one vintage Stella, it was time to buy something "cheap" and contemporary and irreverent. For only $80,000, Klosterfelde gallery, from Berlin, had a new piece by Christian Jankowski, one of my favorite younger artists. In Rome, the artist launched a casting call for the perfect Jesus, and got officials from the Vatican to choose the best Christ. His straight-faced video records the actors trying to be Christ-like, and the comments of the judges as they ask for saintly gestures from the aspirants. ("Not very convincing," says one judge to his colleagues, after he's asked one "Jesus" to look up to the skies in devotion.) My $80K also bought me a suite of production stills from the project.

Courtesy Gallery Gmurzynska

"IKB 128," by Yves Klein.

I wouldn't normally frequent an ultra-deluxe booth like the one of Galerie Gmurzynska, from Switzerland. But if I was going to be a Monopoly millionaire, I had to play the part. The booth had a classic all-blue Yves Klein, from 1960, that I could not live without. It had been inscribed as a gift from Klein to Antonio Saura, the Spanish painter, and was signed and dated and had had few owners. Klein is undergoing a massive reevaluation these days: Instead of being seen as a consummate colorist, his role as godfather of conceptualism is at last being noticed. The picture was a steal at $1.4 million.

Image courtesy of {CTS} creative thriftshop, New York and Katharine Mulherin, Toronto

"Untitled Cowboys" (after Richard Prince), a 2011 work by Eric Doeringer.

As an admirer of 1970s appropriation art, I shopped and shopped for a good Richard Prince to add to my (imaginary) collection, but came up short. Then, at the Scope fair that shows scrappy young dealers, at the booth shared by Creative Thriftshop and Katherine Mulherin, I discovered something even better: works by Eric Doeringer in which he appropriated Richard Prince's famous cowboy photos – themselves once "stolen" from Marlborough man ads. Doeringer simply went out and found the vintage magazines that had the original ads, and re-photographed them, as Prince had done 35 years ago. I can't imagine that Prince would have the nerve to complain. So I got three "Princes" for only $6,600.

Courtesy Helly Nahmad Gallery

Concetto spaziale, New York 3 (62 ME 11), by Lucio Fontana

My collection needed something plain gorgeous, so I couldn't resist the sparkle of a scratched and dented sheet of copper, distressed by Italian artist Lucio Fontana in 1962 and now on offer for only $1.8 million at Helly Nahmad's Art Basel booth. Of course, the appeal of that sparkle is partly meant tongue-in-cheek: It stands for the superficial gloss that so much art has, and for a superficial reading of it. (The kind of reading art gets when someone with a wad of cash is eager to spend it.) That happy sparkle is also tempered by the violence implied in Fontana's attack on his copper.

"Fear", by Damien Hirst, as installed in the White Cube booth at Art Basel Miami Beach.

My collection's was getting too heavy in wall-works, so a classic Damien Hirst sculpture seemed a fine addition. At Art Basel, White Cube was offering a superb one one from 1994 for just under $2.5 million dollars: It was a glass-and-chrome cabinet full of shiny stainless-steel surgical tools. There's threat in every Hirst, but this one condenses it into one brutal symbol. Hirst took Duchamp's readymades to a totally new place.

Photo by Blake Gopnik

"Ghost," a 35mm film by Elad Lassry, as screened in the booth of Luhring Augustine gallery.

Every good collection should have works its owner doesn't really understand. "Ghost", by the young American artist Elad Lassry, shows footage of ballet dancers filmed in stangely muted colors. I could imagine watching it again and again. It costs $95,000, including the vintage film projector that it takes to show it. A lot of money, maybe, but not if Lassry turns out to be one of our great artists.

Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

A new photo by Jeff Wall with the long title "Vancouver, 7 December 2009: Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women's Club, Virginia Newton-Moss wears a British ensemble c. 1910, from Sayers' collection."

Jeff Wall is one of the great artists of our time, so what millionaire (however notional) wouldn't jump at the chance to own one of his very latest works. This one was on offer at Marian Goodman Gallery for $600,000. As usual, Wall's image seems both tremendously straightforward and endlessly complex. And, it turns out, one of the joys of being a collector is that you don't have to sort out all the complexities – you can just buy the damned thing. In fact, as a temporary collector, I could like and "buy" the piece for a reason that would seem absurd coming from an art critic: My mother-in-law is a stalwart of the University Women's Club mentioned in the title, so she'd get a kick out of looking at this work.

Courtesy Studio Voltaire

A detail from "Hand Extended & Knot Set," a recent work by Laura Aldridge.

My only "discovery" in Miami – this time at the NADA fair that rides Basel's coattails – was the 33-year-old Glasgow artist Laura Aldridge, showing in the booth of the London nonprofit called Studio Voltaire. The silkscreened image at the center of her wall installation, titled "Hand Extended and Knot Set", shows arms holding a cat, and it loosely sets the tone and theme for the six sculptural "knots" with which it's surrounded. The whole piece is a subtle take on embrace and entanglement. I wouldn't understand it, if it weren't that my wife is permanently entangled with our cat. As the mega-collector I am pretending to be, I could buy it as a treat for the two of them – at $6,000, it would barely count as a stocking stuffer.

Courtesy David Nolan Gallery, New York

A Willem de Kooning drawing from about 1965 or 70.

What is there not to like about a de Kooning drawing? I believe the drawings get at what he's all about as well, or better, than his paintings do. And, because the art market always equates size with value, this little thing was on offer at David Nolan's Art Basel booth for only $185,000. It would make a lovely grace note in my collection, perfect for an intimate space.

Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

A 1947 drawing by Jackson Pollock.

This drawing is too fine for any billionaire to pass up (especially if they've also forked over for a de Kooning). Pollock drew it on the back of a letter he received from a friend, and it seems more genuinely spontaneous and "unconscious" than his more fully willed paintings. It also reveals a side of Pollock's pictures that I'd never noticed before: Their sense of humor, and their latent traces of caricature.Why shouldn't Matthew Marks ask $500,000 for something that's close to a doodle? It passed out of my $10 million with barely a squeak.

Courtesy Pierogi

"Fairy Ring Mushroom Cluster #2," a recent work by Patrick Jacobs.

I "bought" Jacobs's piece for $8,000 from the Pierogi booth at Miami's seven-dealer mini-fair called … Seven. It gets installed to appear as a two-inch hole in your drywall, covered with a glass lens. Look through that lens, and you seem to see an entire landscape stretching into the far distance. In fact, however, what you're seeing is a fully-realized, micro-miniature, 3-D diorama built by Jacob to fill a 10-inch-deep box that sits behind the wall. Is it an easy special effect? Maybe, but it's also irresistible. And some of its effects must feel, for us, the way realist landscape painting felt in 17th-century Holland. You'd want to live with it, and see what it still does for you after two or three years – as only a collector could do.