Art was being murdered. It was happening in a meat locker—the vehemently air-conditioned De La Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space in Miami. The killer was a black-haired woman in smart boots. "He's appropriating images, recontextualizing them," she instructed an older, richer woman. "There's symbolism. There's primitivism." They kept walking, apace. The art was by Jonathan Meese (a German), an artist people like to call an "enfant terrible," which means the art is messy and big and includes guns, penises, penises that double as guns, demon children, crosses, thick paint, protuberant bronzes, and references to Hitler and Jimi Hendrix. Enfants terrible are not my thing, but I felt sorry for him, being taken down in cold blood like that.
But the annual art-world migration to Miami is not really about art. It's about the art world. About money, people-watching, and tropical escape (the water is so salty off Miami Beach that a body floats uncomfortably high in the cool December air). About rich people trying to look smarter and vice versa. About, as Ben Davis has written, the endless asking of the question "How are sales?" It almost feels beside the point, like a bonus, that this is pretty much the only way to get this much contemporary art in one place at one time—a painting in the shape of a trench coat, a bin of musical garbage, a sculpture consisting of an endless supply of white wrapped candies, fireworks momentarily spelling the word "RECESSION" in the night sky, documentary photographs of Texas prison lifers, a New York Times dipped in 24-karat gold, a video in which a young Iranian prostitute is tormented by men without faces (Shirin Neshat's Zarin: unforgettable), electronic billboards with messages such as "Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest," mesmerizing three-dimensional mirror mosaics by an 85-year-old Iranian woman (Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian), a male mannequin with a lifelike crotch, a performance in memory of the Tlatelolco student massacre in Mexico, graffiti on the streets and in the galleries, drippy ceramics (by Seattle's Jeffry Mitchell), droopy textiles (by Josh Faught, based in Eugene, Oregon, and recent Seattle Art Museum Betty Bowen Award winner), shoe-shine stations painted like shrines, geometric abstractions made in thick, silvery pencil. That and Picassos, Warhols, Duchamps, Ruschas, Flavins, Richters, and even, this year, a religious painting by the turn-of-the-20th-century Belgian James Ensor, whose retrospective this year at the Museum of Modern Art was a sleeper hit. And paintings (primary-colored, splashy) by Sylvester Stallone.
Plus, ladybugs—thousands of them, dumped surreptitiously into the VIP-est of all VIP lounges in Miami—possibly by the guy who did the same thing at the Baja to Vancouver exhibition at Seattle Art Museum in 2003 after he didn't get into the show? He called himself Balsa and lived in Seattle then; now he's rumored to be in New York. "Maybe people were too blinded or dizzy from the bright color combinations and eccentric art pieces to notice someone carrying buzzing bags," MSNBC.com reported about the incident, which inspired a (so far fruitless) police investigation.
When art people say "Miami," they mean a whole knot of events. The heart is Art Basel Miami Beach, a giant, fancy fair with a European pedigree (its parent, Art Basel, happens every June)—this exclusive fair's exclusive room is where the ladybugs were released. Orbiting around the big fair all over the city are littler fairs, special exhibitions at museums and galleries and private collections, lectures, presentations, discussions, and even a newspaper put out especially for the fair. When the economy swelled to improper proportions, so did Miami. When the economy crashed in 2008, Miami crashed, too. This year it was called "sober" ("impulse buying is out"), "cautiously optimistic," and "a relief." The special fair newspaper reported that five hundred thousand was the new million, and this was received as a definite improvement. Sales were markedly better than last year at the big fair and the Off-Basels—NADA, where Seattle gallery Ambach & Rice sold well with sculptures by Mitchell and paintings by Seattle's Grant Barnhart, and Pulse. Off-Off Basel and below, things were shakier and too much of the art was dreadful. Mid-level galleries—including every established Seattle dealer—stayed home after last year's beating.
It is bad form to rant about the quality of art at an art fair (it's an art fair!), so I will be brief: The art this year was dull, insidery, and overwhelmingly conservative. It included almost no video. The headline-maker was Kehinde Wiley's giant painting of Michael Jackson on a horse.
Deals were comparatively modest: A $12 million Picasso sat; a $2.25 million Warhol Mao moved. And William Powhida, the Brooklyn artist and writer (showing now at Platform Gallery in Seattle) who regularly pokes the art world in the side, was on hand to point out that "comparatively modest" seven-figure deals are unheard of for most contemporary artists, who are still basically starving. (That was another thing about Miami this year: Very few artists were there. They have a humanizing effect on fairs, what with their anxiety and hope and curiosity.) The art world's otherworldliness was in high relief, even in the art itself. Portland artist Dan Attoe had a neon piece that read, "We're all here because we're too afraid to deal with problems in our real lives." At the De La Cruz collection were two stacks of takeaway posters by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres; one read, "Nowhere Better Than This Place," the other, "Somewhere Better Than This Place." I took it as evidence of collective positive thinking that more "Nowhere Better"s were taken than "Somewhere Better"s. I took both.
My very first morning in Miami, I came out the doors of the Deauville Beach Resort—the Art Deco grande dame where the Beatles played in 1964, in the Napoleon Ballroom, which was now hosting NADA—to find a ceramic sculpture balancing on the lap of a pretty lady on a bench. The lady was Carrie E. A. Scott representing Seattle's Ambach & Rice Gallery, and the sculpture was by Jeffry Mitchell. It was headed to the Miami apartment of a Portuguese collector; another of his works was purchased by a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art for her personal collection. This is an enviable position for any artist. Across town, Seattle artist Juan Alonso was in a very different position for four straight days: standing in front of his own silvery-gray paintings in the back of a warehouse, trying not to feel too awkward about having to sell them himself. He bankrolled his own Miami debut because his Seattle dealer, Francine Seders, didn't plan to go, and he could get a discount on the booth due to all the galleries staying away, and Miami is his hometown. He'd never had a solo show there—but he couldn't help feeling disappointed that he only sold one small painting.
Robert Yoder, represented in Seattle by Howard House, also paid for a Miami booth of his own, but said it was worth it. He sold a painting to the codirector of a Chicago art fair (Ken Tyburski, also part owner of DCKT Gallery in New York) and picked up a New York/European dealer—a fresh-faced couple (they have no space yet but plan to open in New York, then Zurich) going by the name of Frosch & Portmann.
All this Seattle action took place under Aqua's roof. Traditionally the Seattle redoubt in Miami, the satellite fair Aqua has a life story like a country song. Founded in 2005 by Seattle artists Dirk Park and Jaq Chartier, it was an underdog in Miami: a bubbly hotel fair in South Beach with a core of otherwise marginalized but totally deserving Northwest galleries showing Northwest artists (who huddled around the central pool under the palm trees after-hours). In a couple years, heady with success, it grew into a two-headed Hydra—an additional warehouse venue across town was hard to find, and the place felt cold and devoid of underdog charm... and that was right about when the economy crashed. Meanwhile, over at the hotel, the owner got greedy, lawyers got involved, and the whole thing fell apart. This year, the warehouse was the only venue, and the only Seattle gallery there was La Familia (it was their first time, and they were suitably happy and excited)—meaning that Seattle was largely absent from Miami. (Northwest artists who did get action at the bigger fairs: Oscar Tuazon, whose two standing sculptures sold for 11,000 euros each at the main fair, and Whiting Tennis at NADA.)
It was a coup that Aqua survived at all. Park and Chartier had a hell of a time filling the spaces (70 percent of the galleries were new to Aqua). But survival was a little grim: The art was uneven, some of it depressingly bad. Where Lawrimore Project once was, a guy this year was selling doors with celebrities screen-printed on them for 600 bucks each. In some ways, Aqua has come back around to zero. Park acknowledged the upward curve. "We've got a lot of work to do," he said after it was over. "Last year felt like the end of something, versus the beginning of something this year."
At the private collections, I wanted to tear down the art and start over. In Miami, the private collectors have opened mini-museums and the shows can be terrific. Not this time. The Rubells—the leaders—had the worst show, an airless morass of trendiness in the tired name of appropriation. (Guyton/Walker, I'm looking at you.) The brand-new De La Cruz wasn't much better. It made the De La Cruzes look seduced and confused. Over at the Margulies (where installation is always messy), a tender little sprout of do-gooderism (admission went to charity, one whole area was devoted to classic social-justice photography) was trying to avoid being trampled in a crush of old blue-chippery and wild new stuff. At least the exhibition at the Cisneros Fontanals was small, focused on engagement with the non-art world, and included the great work of Shirin Neshat. She made up for the Bill Viola video in which fire hoses are turned on an overly diverse-looking raft of humans who writhe in slow motion; at least vegetables at the grocery store have the dignity to sit still when they are watered.
What I can't forget: Lorraine O'Grady's exuberant photographs of people framing themselves as art for her 1983 performance in Harlem, Art Is. Marina Abramovic, holding a bowl of milk forever, her arms shaking. Twins so identical it's unbearable, in a film by Candice Breitz. And the crashing thunderstorm that turned Olafur Eliasson's sky-lit hall of mirrors at the Margulies Collection into a canvas for circumstance. That description could apply to Miami, which is why I keep going.
Stay tuned for a slideshow, coming as soon as we get the slideshow machine jump-started!
This article has been updated since its original publication.