Have Art Fairs Destroyed Art? Zombie Abstraction and Dumb Painting Ruled in Miami

Are we seeing a new kind of art for the 21st century—art fair art?

Eric Fischl, Art Fair: Booth #22 Evil Live (2013).
Courtesy of the artist's website.

“If no one ever looked at art, would anybody even create it? And how much does art actually need buyers.” Extremely reasonable questions put forth by the 2014 BMW Art Guide by Independent Collectors, these queries appeared especially intriguing during the latest iteration of Art Basel in Miami Beach (ABMB). A positively gilded affair that looks increasingly beholden to a global art-as-asset aesthetic, this year’s ABMB featured lots of shiny surfaces, stacks of joke paintings, and enough zombie abstraction to inspire several remakes of World War Z. The fair’s thronged aisles of mostly uniform wares also sparked a few less politic questions. Among them: Who buys all this shit?

The answer, of course, is a growing connoisseur class that has developed a special predilection for what is, without a doubt, the new art of the 21st century—art fair art. Because a growing number of financial players increasingly see art as having permanent value, these masters of the universe have successfully redrawn the global art world (as well as its proliferating entertainments) in their plutocratic likeness. Among the signs of the new times is the newfound comfort many artists have developed with art entrepreneurship’s boldface names. These are the Aby Rosens, Alberto Mugrabis, and Stefan Simchowitzes of the world. More powerful still are their growing legion of imitators.

Where artists were once predictably wary of such dealer-collectors, they are now extremely solicitous of their money—if the loads of sunny paintings and mirrored sculptures on view at this year’s ABMB are any indication. Among the latter, there are Bertrand Lavier’s transparent acrylic painting on mirror Harrogate (2014) at Kewenig and Doug Aitken’s EXIT (large) (2014), a flashy take on the “Exit” sign, composed of powder coated steel and mirror at Regen Projects. Artists and their galleries shipped in scads more mirrored works and upbeat art fair art to match the Black Friday-like consumption that would follow. It did, in money-laden spades. More reason, it would seem, for artists up and down the art market ladder to scrap their critical inhibitions, stop worrying and love the M-bomb.

At ABMB 2014, that love officially became infatuation. Today, the 13-year-old fair can be said to specialize not just in blue chip art (everything from Basquiat and Bacon paintings to photo-based works by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince), but in a cheery brand of content-free stuff that actively caters to the tastes of the global collecting class. Handsome, glitzy, and insubstantial to the point of being as light as air, this kind of art perfectly patronizes the tastes of today’s high net worth individuals. Not unlike the effects of 19th century academic painting on the French bourgeoisie, this newfangled art Pompier is designed to be overblown and insincere (or ironic, take your pick), yet hold or increase its value while providing, in turn, an exquisite reflection of the worldview of the new overclass. But what to do when the triumph of pretty pictures—sometimes extremely pretty pictures—leaves art in the lurch with regard to the globe’s other 99.99 percent?

Inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, it was as if Ferguson and the Eric Garner verdict had never happened—though angry pilots did protest ABMB’s longtime sponsor NetJets outside the fair entrance over planned cuts and shrinking benefits, and Ferguson-related protests sprang up elsewhere in the city. With the notable exception of the very few artworks that featured critical content—among them, Kendell Geers’s police baton sculpture in the shape of a pentagram at Goodman Gallery and Ana Mendieta’s wrenching video of a 1975 blood strewn performance at Lelong—the vast majority of objects on view at the fair flattered or directly reflected the superior, detached ideal of today’s megarich. But like with the smooth, artificial academic painting of the 19th century, there are consequences to art fair art’s frivolous disengagement from the world. Here’s one in a golden nugget: beauty is passing, dumb is forever.

Besides Pop-inflected art fair tchotchkes by the usual suspects—Josh Smith (at Mnuchin), Cory Arcangel (at Team), and Sterling Ruby (at Xavier Hufkens)—veteran artists like Mel Bochner also got into the sales act with gusto. One of his dealers counted at least six chuckle-headed text paintings at the fair, while I spied two peppy colorful works from the Blah, Blah, Blah series (2008-2012) in the same aisle. Bjarne Melgaard, a purveyor of highly sexualized and misogynistic provocation, opted to show eight brightly hued primitive gestural paintings at Gavin Brown’s booth—several resembling expressionistic smiley faces. Other artists and galleries making hay while the sun shone last weekend included Damien Hirst’s bright, pharmaceutically-inspired sculptures at Paul Stolper, Sherrie Levine’s suite of hanging colored mirrors at Paula Cooper, and a blithe graffiti canvas by the late Keith Haring at Edward Tyler Nahem.

Another indication that works at art fairs have literally thematized the idea of art as retail therapy were Eric Fischl’s paintings of well-heeled buyers standing around perusing the displays at—where else?—art fairs (one such painting incredibly features a figure in front of an edition of Aitken’s Exit (large), the very same one hung at the booth at Regen Projects). Works like these lead to a natural conclusion: artists across the board are as comfortable as luxury department store clerks with romancing the billfold. But the new art fair art is not just sales-savvy, it’s cynical. Exhibit A is Arcangel’s Going Negative/Lakes (2014), a flatscreen TV turned on its side. Its linguistic jiu-jitsu reads: “Fuck Negativity.”

Of course, even a small Jeff Koons work is capable of encapsulating the artistic zeitgeist better than his legions of zombie children. His mirror piece at Gagosian’s stand is not just the costly vanity piece that launched tens of thousands reflective objects, it is the perfect synecdoche for a vastly improved brand of strategic art that may have finally relegated contemporary art’s critical power to the dustbin of history. In the words of New York magazine’s Carl Swanson, Koons’ vapid works routinely repeat the question that matters most in today’s art world: “Who’s the fairest collector of them all?”

But the last word on the material that dominated the floor of ABMB 13 goes to Rafael Ferrer, an underknown artist whose neon sign Red, White & Blue ARTFORHUM (1971/2014) (at Henrique Faria Fine Art) presciently antedates the use of this now ubiquitous material. More than four decades after it was conceived, the answer to Ferrer’s implied question is all too obvious. Without the winners of a lopsided global economy and the artists who dutifully butter them up, the vast majority of the crap on view last week in Miami would not exist.

Go to artnet News’s Art Basel in Miami page for the latest coverage, including:

Overheard at the VIP Preview of Art Basel in Miami Beach

Art Basel in Miami Beach: The Definitive Sales Report

What To Buy? See These Top 10 Booths at Art Basel in Miami Beach

Art Basel in Miami Beach 2014 is a Rip-Roaring Success

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