Forget DiCaprio: These Are The Real Stars of Art Basel Miami Beach

Away from the glamorous parties and celebrity sightings, artists producing art is the most heartening sight at Miami's grand art bash.

Will Ragozzino/Art Basel

Art Basel Miami Beach is by some measure the most media-drenched of the big-city art fairs, with as much close attention paid to such boldfaced names from outside the art world as to those within.

This year the main attraction was the actor/painter Sylvester Stallone, who was upfront and visible at a dinner given for him and the Prada curator, Germano Celant, at Gianni Versace’s former oceanfront mansion, the Villa Casa Casuarina on Ocean Drive by Galerie Gmurzynska.

Also, there were UFO-like sightings of Leonardo DiCaprio, and Hilary Swank and Adrien Brody were hosts at a couple of bashes that were so densely packed--and murky, in the case of the Brody event--that their presence had to believed in, as one believes in other religious manifestations.

That apart, you could say that it was Art Business as usual, but this was Miami so it was a whole lot more.

Buildings have names like Artecity, there are sappy neon art pieces in small hotels, walls are stickered, stuff is written on the street, and walking through Collins Park on a wet, gray morning--yes, there are plenty of those in Miami this time of year--I passed a large group of early teens paying sober attention as an older person took them around a cluster of art installations.

Many, both in the art world and well outside it, deplore the hoopla that comes with hedonism and celebrity-drenched events like Art Basel, but it is this intense public focus, I think, that preserves art from becoming a specialist enclave like poetry, jazz, and the literary novel, embedding it ever deeper in the culture at large.

So over to Wynwood, the so-called Design District. My destination here was the debutante art fair, X Contemporary, launched by Matthew Eck, a New Yorker, formerly a partner in the defunct fair Select.

It was a lively venue, the eyecatchers being two huge pieces, one by Grace Hartigan, the other a Keith Haring, saved from the wrecking ball, and now apparently on the market for $6 million.

Do you have a gallery, I asked Matthew Eck.

“I really should have a gallery,” he said, but then disagreed with himself and said “I DO have a gallery. I have fifty galleries.”

It was a lively scene. Ruvan, a photographer, had a wall there, already half empty. A sign on the wall read: HOW TO BUY ART. It was simple, as explained by a young Brit, Francesca Wade. “You buy a picture you like. And you just take it off the wall.”

Then to Context, where the New York gallerist Thomas Jaeckel was showing a piece by the young Brit artist, Piers Secunda, who had been to Iraq where he took a plaster cast of an ancient Assyrian bas-relief sculpture of a bull. It had been courageously machine-gunned, presumably by some zombie from Isis. “It sold instantly,” Jaeckel said.

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You might say though that the real action in Wynwood was outside. Over in South Beach, Paris Hilton was set to DJ in the fancy club, Wall. Heavy-duty art worlders could be counted on to attend.

But here in Wynwood wherever you looked somebody was likely to be painting a wall--often over what somebody else had previously painted. A young woman was slopping paint on fabric wrapped around a tailor’s dummy. I assumed that this was in preparation for a performance.

When is it happening, I asked?

“It IS happening,” she said.

This was outside a kind of a mixed-media outfit called Nomad Tribe. Within a performance was being set up. I spoke to Brian Shevlin of the Con Artist Collective, a group I was slightly familiar with in New York.

He said he had a project called Slap, which entailed driving around in a van distributing stickers which had been hand-made by 500 sticker artists.

Wynwood, in short, was ridiculously active—in fact, like the crowd scene in an old-fashioned play which only required to be set to music. Except, stupid me, it was set to music, coming from boomboxes all over.

It's precisely like no other art scene of which I am aware and in New York similar milieu—like the old East Village and the current Bushwick—are on different planets than that of the pro artworld. Here in Miami it’s all cheek-by-jowl, separated only by congealing traffic.

In the golden age of science fiction, Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth wrote fantasies about how the world would be if it were run by, for instance, advertising agencies. Wynwood is how the world would be if, God help us, it was run by artists. And I don’t think Paris Hilton would be the DJ.