On the opening day of this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, traffic in the massive Convention Center was strong but paced. Guests were expectedly international; local school groups added a bit of energy; and both collectors and the art-world elite meandered through the labyrinthine setup with a very relaxed way about them.
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There certainly isn’t that must-have-it-and-must-have-it-now attitude that defined the 2007 edition. But there is also surprisingly little of the sort of gloom and doom that permeated last year’s fair.
People, it seems, are buying again. And conversations have finally shifted a bit from the economy to focus more on the art.
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Painting was big this year, which is to be expected given the medium’s surefire salability. There were excellent works from contemporary masters like Georg Baselitz, Cecily Brown, Sigmar Polke, George Condo, and Albert Oehlen. And Montreal’s Landau Fine Art impressed with its stock of Picassos and Miros, but the Hirsts, Koonses, and Princes that helped define the bubble were scarce.
Some of it is stuff we’ve seen before (more high sheen from Marilyn Minter and photographic panels from Gilbert & George) but there was a good dose of “new,” so to speak, from some of the international exhibitors. Sao Paolo’s Strina gallery, for instance, showed the fair’s only in-booth performance. Laura Lima’s Sinistro ( Biombo) featured a live human arm protruding from a hole in an off-white wooden screen, scribbling methodically on a chalkboard. The effect is hypnotic (except for when I saw the performer peer out at me from above her bicep. I think she was getting tired).
The “new” was also present at Art Positions, a section of the fair dedicated to young and emerging galleries. Art Positions used to be housed in shipping containers on the beach, but this year organizers Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer gave these galleries prime real estate as the nucleus of the fair. New York’s up-and-coming dealers made an excellent showing this year, particularly via Peter Schoolworth’s abstracted portraits at Miguel Abreu and Brent Wood’s Tim Burton-like installation of warped and whittled (yet still functional!) objects at Andrew Edlin.
But Art Basel Miami Beach wouldn’t be Art Basel Miami Beach without a little fanfare and just a touch of scandal. Megacollectors Eli Broad and Steve Wynn were seen shopping; Calvin Klein, Elle Macpherson, and John McEnroe were also spotted making the rounds. And Sylvester Stallone was there to unveil a series of his own paintings for sale at the Swiss gallery Gmurzynska. His bad abstractions and caricature-like portraits looked silly next to the gallery’s elegant Boteros, but at least two of Sly’s six pieces had been sold by Thursday afternoon. (Wynn bought the Stallone abstract The Electric Burst of Creativity for $40,000.) The actor’s paintings also distracted from a kerfuffle Gmurzynska had at the onset of the fair with dealer/collector/"corporate raider”/Gordon Gekko inspiration Asher Edelman and his band of U.S. marshals. Edelman had several works confiscated from the gallery’s booth as payment for a 1985 Robert Ryman painting, which, he alleges, the gallery had damaged.
On the naughty side of things, Santiago Serra’s Los Penetrados ( The Penetrated), presented by Madrid’s Helga de Alvear gallery was the clear favorite. Visitors flowed in and out of the curtained room screening Serra’s 48-minute X-rated film. It was nothing short of pornographic—white couples, black couples, and mixed-raced couples, straight and gay, doing it doggy-style on yoga mats. Some patrons emerged blushing, giggling to their companions. Others—and maybe it’s the new relaxed vibe kicking in—just got comfortable and took a seat.
Frankly, a little too comfortable.
Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.