After a 2020 pandemic hiatus, the Art Basel fair and all its high-gauge hoopla returned to Miami Beach on Tuesday, signaling a jubilant “go” for the first Miami Art Week in two years. And it’s safe to say the usual crush of rich collectors, art aficionados and assorted hangers-on — and the resulting traffic jams — were never more welcome.
The 2021 edition of the main fair, which moved up its VIP preview by a day, made a chill debut Tuesday morning, followed a few hours later by the invitation-only openings for the companion Design Miami fair next to the Beach convention center, as well as Art Miami and its companion Context fair in downtown Miami. The myriad satellite fairs, like Untitled Art, which opened Monday evening on the sands of South Beach, are also back in force.
To thin out crowds because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Basel fair restricted entry to timed slots and will hold a second VIP-only viewing on Wednesday. The tactic seemed to work: Not only was virtually everyone in the convention center masked up, as required, but the typically frenetic first-day mob was replaced by a relaxed flow of collectors, curators and journalists from all over the planet, with plenty of spacing and time for conversations, considered viewing — and buying.
‘The energy here is great’
Basel and Art Miami, unlike some other fairs, were strictly enforcing masking and COVID-19 protocols requiring a fresh negative test or a proffered vaccination card showing two shots.
Collectors and gallerists alike said they were happy to be meeting in person after two years of mostly virtual communication. And fair organizers and gallery directors said they were pleased and struck by the international character of fair-goers, a result of the Biden administration’s recent lifting of travel restrictions.
They said it’s a good sign for the fairs and gallerists, who weren’t quite sure what to expect after the deep disruptions caused by the pandemic and the specter of the worrisome new omicron variant. Though some artists, gallery managers and staffers from Africa were prevented from coming by new travel restrictions prompted by the variant’s spread in South Africa, work from the continent had been shipped earlier and staffers were in place in Miami before restrictions hit, so that no exhibits were affected, fair organizers said.
“Many more collectors are attending than I expected,” said Julie Roberts, of Roberts Projects in Los Angeles, at the Basel fair. The gallery represents Betye Saar, whose work is currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the Miami Design District. “The energy here is great.”
Steady sales reported
At the massive 190,000-square-foot Art Miami tent on the edge of Biscayne Bay, a steady flow of art lovers streamed into the Tuesday evening opening, many in designer sneakers and all of them wearing masks (most stayed on). As the bars did a brisk business, collectors were swiftly pleased with the quality of what they saw.
Ann Nitze of New York and Washington, D.C., found herself negotiating with Acheus/Post-Modern London shortly after her arrival for the painting “Glass Vase, Jug, And Wheat” by the renowned Los Angeles-based British artist David Hockney.
“We’ve all been at home so long,” she said. “We’re really happy to be here.”
Her companion, Suzi Cordish of Baltimore, who owns a home in Fisher Island, says she plans to buy around six pieces, and some will certainly come from Art Miami.
“I think it’s the best ever,” she said of the 2021 show, adding that she has been coming to Art Miami for 15 years. “I spend more time here than at the convention center.”
Less than an hour after opening, galleries at the Basel show were already reporting steady sales.
“Is the Anicka Yi still available?” an associate at the Gladstone both asked a co-worker. “Reserve it for me.”
Though Art Basel staged a fair in its home city of Basel in September, the response was more muted there, noted Los Angeles-based curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch.
“Basel was really only Europeans,” he said. “This time there are collectors from South America, Africa, Asia, across the U.S. This is the first time collectors from all over the art world have gathered. People are enthusiastic.”
At Art Miami, a work by British graffiti artist Banksy entitled “Charlie Brown” sold for $4 million at the Maddox Gallery booth.
Banana guy is back
Also back at Basel: the banana guy. This time, he’s brought a pigeon problem.
Famed conceptual artist and art jokester Maurizio Cattelan, whose $120,000 banana — an actual ripe fruit duct-taped to a gallery wall — caused a worldwide stir at the previous Miami Beach edition in 2019, is showing new work at Perrotin’s booth. Perched atop the edge of the booth’s walls are 56 pigeons.
If they look uncannily lifelike, it’s because they’re real. Taxidermied and perched in various postures, the pigeons make up two of the most recent version of Cattelan’s long-running “The Ghost Series.” One, consisting of 35 pigeons, is $350,000. The other grouping of 21 goes for $210,000.
In contrast to Cattelan’s art-world flippancy, though, both Basel and Art Miami had plenty of 20th century and contemporary works by big-name artists like Stella, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Alex Katz and their artistic descendants, including Keith Haring and George Condo. At Art Miami, fair director Nick Korniloff said he expects big names to dominate the week’s conversation, from Damien Hirst to Haring and street artist Kaws, whose work is “heavily sought after by collectors.”
“The big names achieve major, major attention. You won’t find a Van Gogh here, but the big-brand art — Lichtensteins, Warhols — that’s what the top collectors are looking for,” he said.
Among other standouts, a four-panel piece by Colombian artist Fernando Botero at Art of the World’s booth is “a rare, rare piece any collector of Latin American art would want,” Kroniloff said. It’s expected to go for more than $12 million, gallerist Mauricio Vallejo said.
More inclusive fairs
Something new at this year’s fair is a bigger showing of work by artists of color, a consequence of greater concern in the art world over racial equity that the pandemic has only sharpened, Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler said.
“It has made for an interesting and better show,” he said.
As a result, much of the new work shown at the two big fairs, especially that by younger artists of color, engages the topical issues of race, ethnicity, colonialism, gender and other themes of identity, place and politics that rose to the fore during the pandemic and the protests over the killing of George Floyd by police.
Similar hot-off-the-press concerns were reflected at Design Miami, now in its 17th year, which chose the theme of “Human Kind” to demonstrate how objects and design can make the world a better place.
One showstopper, at the Moderne booth, is Hashimoto Tomonari’s “Glazed Ceramic Globe,” created just this year. The Japanese artist made a giant ceramic orb to resemble the Earth, gallery owner Robert Aibel said.
“There is no question that his making the globe was a statement for him... a way to make it human, especially at a time when a lot of people were not feeling that good, and a lot of the world was suffering a great deal,” Aibel said.
One of the most striking and potentially provocative works on display at the Basel fair is a reproduction of the neon sign at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, at Paula Cooper’s booth.
The lettering on the sign spells out a quotation of dialogue by a character in “Beloved,” the classic novel by Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison: “There is no bad luck in the world but white folks.” In the novel, the character, on her deathbed, is lamenting the miseries she has lived through.
Taken by the piece, fair-goers paused to photograph the work, “Citational Ethics,” by sculptor Ja’Tovia Gary. Some posed for photos in front of the sign, one of three produced by the artist, at $150,000 each. One has been sold, to the Rennie Collection in Vancouver, Canada, the gallery said.
“Amazing,” said retired Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman as he stopped at the booth to admire the piece.
Most fair-goers, generally an open-minded group, seemed to get the intent of the work, and no one of any race seemed unduly provoked, said Steven P. Henry, senior partner at the New York-based gallery. The fact that an attempt to ban Beloved from a school library became part of the recent Virginia governor’s race only adds to its impact, Henry added.
“As far as we know, everything has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “It stops people in their tracks. In these heightened times, it really resonates.”
In a change from some previous years, there is also a higher preponderance of painting, especially figurative painting, at the convention center this time, Basel global director Spiegler noted..
The sometimes sharp contrast between the older art and the newer work signals a dramatic change in the art world since the 1970s, said gallerist Deitch, who in addition to his Basel booth is mounting a large exhibit of new work, mostly paintings, by artists of color on three floors at the Moore Building in the Design District.
“In the 1970s, when I got started, art was about art,” he said. “Now people want art that addresses our lives today. It’s about what we’re experiencing now. It has had a profound effect.”
Another twist this year is the proliferation of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, the virtual artworks — really lines of code — that have begun fetching big prices at fairs and auctions. NFTs had a strong presence at an Art Basel section hosted by the platform Tezos. Two young men at a “help desk” offered tutorials for collectors befuddled by the format.
And though digital sales of art you can actually touch — well, only if you own it — helped make up for the cancellation of fairs and the shutting of galleries during the pandemic, there was a palpable sense of hushed excitement as the Basel fair opened at 11 a.m. and art fans began quickly making their way across the vast convention center floor.
“It’s amazing to be back,” said a satisfied Spiegler. “There’s no substitute for discovering art in person.”