Before the curtains came up, literally, for the 21st time Wednesday for Art Basel Miami Beach, the fair served up an appetizer of sorts for the eagerly awaited main course in a week of frenzied, artful consumption.
Early-bird VIP fairgoers and the news media were treated to a morning entrée into the fair’s Meridians sector, dominated by the oversize and accessible, before the vast floor of the Beach Convention Center and its 277 art-gallery booths opened to the usual throng of collectors, fashionistas and museum folk.
And, on a day when the international art scene revolves around Miami, the sneak peak gave pride of place to an ascendant, homegrown artist from Overtown.
Soon a curious crowd gathered around a novel work in Meridians, by Miami still-life painter Reginald O’Neal – his first sculpture, based on a souvenir figurine of a Black cellist, and a work redolent with Miami history.
The massive musician, modeled on kitschy musical souvenirs the artist bought in New Orleans, sits with his back to the gallery, playing as to himself. It’s an oblique critique of the days when Black stars played Miami Beach but had to stay in segregated Overtown, and the fact that Black people still don’t enjoy equal advantages in America, O’Neal said.
“It’s this conversation that’s being held back then and also now,” O’Neal said, gesturing to the cellist’s towering back, as he stood with his gallerist and longtime supporter, Anthony Spinello.
The prominent placement of O’Neal’s work coincides with the rising profile of Miami artists during their hometown Miami Art Week, where they were once something of an afterthought.
Spinello, whose Allapattah gallery and studio space has become a major incubator for young artists like O’Neal, scored again Wednesday when the black curtains at Meridians parted and the floor opened at 11 a.m. Within an hour, he had sold all five paintings by a new Miami resident, Puerto Rican artist Esai Alfredo, whose oils depict dream-like, cinematic scenes. Among the buyers were prominent private collectors in New York, Spinello said.
“Estoy en shock,” the 26-year-old Alfredo said, pressing his hand to his chest and smiling broadly.
Another Miami gallery, Pierro Atchugarry, was also off to a good start, selling half its works by Uruguayan artist Nelson Ramos.
Nearly every major Miami collector was in attendance, including Jorge and Darlene Perez, Don and Mera Rubell, Marty Margulies and members of the Braman family. Collectors from Singapore, Dallas, New York and Palm Beach included sports icon Serena Williams, Pamela Joyner, Sergei Brin and music star Shakira. Jeffrey Gibson, the artist chosen to represent the U.S. in upcoming Venice Biennale, was flocked by admirers.
Other famous names spotted on the floor: Miami Heat President Pat Riley, and Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton, whose artwork -- a spaceship, of course -- was on offer at gallerist Jeffrey Deitch’s booth.
Deitch’s booth was particularly busy. Guests swarmed around a Banksy work, a hot pink quilt by Bisa Butler and two quilted works by the legendary Faith Ringgold. Sales have been “excellent” so far among works by established and emerging artists, Deitch said. One of the sold works include a masterpiece by Barkley Hendricks.
“It’s very upbeat,” he said. “A combination of some of the great art collectors of the world and people who are new to this.”
In the booth is also a series of works by Nadya Tolokonnikova, a Russian performance artist and activist known for establishing the punk rock, feminist collective Pussy Riot.
Midway through the afternoon, Art Basel CEO Noah Horowitz said multiple $1 million-plus sales had been reported, including the sale of a Barclay Hendricks work at the Deitch booth for more than $6 million. Other $1 million-plus sales included works by Georg Baselitz, Robert Rauschenberg and Hans Hoffman.
“There are a lot of happy people,” said Horowitz.
“I’m shocked this is here”
If it’s 20th Century masters you want there is plenty of that on the convention center floor.
One is a historic piece, Frank Stella’s “Delta” from 1958, which he painted when he was just 22, the first in a series that would change the course of art for decades. The striped painting, all in shades of black, is at the booth of New York gallery Yares, which represents Stella and is asking $45 million for it.
The artist has held the work since he first made it, Yares gallerist Nicolas Graille said. “We wanted to show something exceptional - the best possible work.”
Said Miami collector Rose Ellen Greene upon seeing the work: “I’m shocked this is this is here. You never see these.”
And even though it’s Art Basel, and it’s come this year with a renewed focus on deep and serious art, there is always space for a spot of frivolity as well.
As he greeted VIPs and walked the floor, Art Basel CEO Horwitz sported limited-edition white sneaks with a straggly pink pattern that the fair is selling, a first. If you can’t afford that Warhol, maybe you can snag a $175 pair -- the fruit of a collaboration between ON shoes and Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz. It’s based on a work of hers now on view at New York’s Highline, a massive pink tree, that’s garnered worldwide attention.
Also new this year is the fair floorplan. Art Basel rearranged booths this year in a more friendly fashion, mixing newer, emerging galleries with established ones, and creating spaces like town squares with benches where fairgoers can sit, chat and mix.
“It’s very dynamic, very open,” said Axel Dibie, of Parisian Galerie Crevecoeur, in the fair this year for the eighth time with works by American, Japanese and French artists from the Paris scene, like Louise Sartor, who created several new paintings for Miami Beach.
“This is what brings quality to the fair,” Dibie said.
Claws, slaps and sharks
Back at Meridians, among highbrow paintings, politically charged works and buzzing art collectors, a small toy dog yapped inside a bright blue claw machine. Art Basel VIPs lined up for their chance to grab it.
A happy tune plays as visitors try their hand at “Fantasy World,” a functioning claw machine game and artwork by New York-based artist Anthony Akinbola. It’s on display at “The Poetics of Dimensions,” a collaboration with UBS and ARTNOIR. The small group presentation showcases artwork made with “non-art” materials, said curator and ARTNOIR co-founder Larry Ossei-Mensah.
“Fantasy World” is all about the thrill of almost winning something. At a fair where guests are asked not to touch anything, ARTNOIR wanted to provide an interactive experience, he said.
“[The artist is] thinking about desire, thinking about value,” Oseei-Mensah said. “How does the value shift for this item because you won it at Art Basel versus if you got it at a carnival?”
A small group of people crowded around the machine to watch players try -- and fail -- to grab candy, watches and stuffed animals. Strangers groaned and laughed when the claw grazed over a toy. A woman cheered as someone successfully won a plush soccer ball.
Beside the claw machine music, an incessant slapping sound echoed through the gallery space. It’s not a fight in the middle of Art Basel. It’s a video installation by British artist Oliver Beer.
In the video, called “Composition for Face and Hands (ASMR),” two women, each featured on their own LED screen, repeatedly slap each other’s faces.
The slaps aren’t random. The women are actually percussionists, and they create a rhythm by slapping each other -- pretty hard! -- until their cheeks turn bright pink. They suddenly stop and just stare at each other in silence. Another pair of male percussionists appear on each screen. They draw on each others’ faces and create sounds by stroking their facial hair and tapping their foreheads.
Because all art, like politics, is local, Art Basel Miami Beach offers lots of works that should appeal to South Florida collectors.
Who needs a multimillion-dollar Warhol when you can own a sculpture featuring a scud missile downing a shark? Or a nearly 7-foot-long fin that will have you humming the opening bars to “Jaws”? Or how about a sculpture of a Mercedes towing a travel trailer?
German artist Cosima von Bonin created the shark sculpture, complete with a scud missile in fashionable black-and-white plaid. The missile is a direct hit into the open jaws of a great white that appears to be leaping from the frothy sea. An artist of some stature, von Bonin has exhibited at New York’s Highline and this year’s Venice Biennale. The Petzel Gallery offers the six-foot-tall sculpture, titled “What If They Bark 07” for $150,000.
The Gagosian Gallery is offering Alex Israel’s midnight blue shark fin titled “Fin (Nightswimming).” If your dreams are filled with seeing the sights and wonders of Florida – think the mermaids of Weeki Wachee or Gatorland in Kissimmee or Goofy Golf in Panama City Beach – then Katharina Fritsch’s sculpture of a Mercedes from the 1970s towing a camper from the same era might be just the ticket. They are placed on a rotating circular platform, reminiscent of car shows from long ago. Both are offered by Matthew Marks Gallery.
On a more sobering note, perhaps, were politically tinged works focused on human rights and the endangered Amazon.
International gallery Continua’s booth offered a massive artwork by famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that depicts Venus, the goddess of love, sleeping along a mountainside. Look closer: she’s made out of Lego bricks. Look even closer, there’s a modern day coat hanger by her side.
Weiwei’s “Sleeping Venus,” made in 2022, is a recreation of a painting of the same name by Renaissance master Giorgione but made entirely of Legos. The work juxtaposes “the classic beauty of a Renaissance master and a product of mass production like Lego,” said gallery general manager Veronica Siciliani Fendi. Weiwei added the coat hanger in the foreground of the work to criticize American anti-abortion policies and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The piece is priced at 800,000 euros, which is about $863,000.
“It’s very emblematic of his work,” Siciliani Fendi said. “Always fighting for human rights.”
“The world is interested”
Because the fair, like Miami itself, is a nexus for Latin American culture, this year’s ABMB features a big contingent of galleries from the city’s backyard, including Brazil, whose artists bring a strong regional focus.
Galeria Vermelho, based in São Paulo, highlighted the imagery of Rosângela Rennó, a well-known Brazilian photographer.
Gomide & Co, another São Paulo-based gallery, displayed portraits reflecting the vast Amazon rainforest, forgotten indigenous populations and Afro-Brazilians.
Gomide has displayed at Art Basel for about 10 years, and this is not the first time its work has included those themes, said Thiago Gomide, a partner who spent Wednesday speaking with well-heeled art collectors.
However, this year felt different, he said. It was more important to highlight those topics, especially after what happened in Brazil in the recent past, said Gomide.
With Jair Bolsonaro serving as president until the end of last year, deforestation rates in the rainforests skyrocketed as did illegal mining, fishing, and general lawlessness. Indigenous living in desolate areas were increasingly killed as were people who worked with them or sought to interview them, notably the indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, both assassinated in June 2022.
Now, “the world is interested” in art showcasing those themes, he noted.
As part of the Kabinett sector of curated historic works, Gomide & Co features a paintings by self-taught Hélio Melo, who died in 2001. The former rubber tapper turned artist from the Brazilian state of Acre is today considered a foremost chronicler of the life of rubber tappers, and his work showed Amazonian landscapes, people, and its animals. His work uses natural pigments he found around him in the forests, giving mostly a tropical green color to his work.