Kenny Schachter on Why Art Basel in Miami Beach Is the End of Art History
It's an even more vapid kind of death than Arthur Danto had predicted.
Covering Art Basel Miami Beach since its inception 14 years ago I frankly didn’t think there would be any stories left to tell, yet there’s inevitable change and flux afoot though not entirely for the better. Miami is one of the few, if not only, places the art world collectively lets their pants down. It isn’t always a pretty picture, and on occasion can be gross. The fair is equivalent to an art market bon-bon, rich with calories but not particularly good for you.
I hate the word post, (its post itself), but on a certain level, the Miami branch of Basel is past the art, you really felt a disassociation from the works themselves and those exhibiting them. Don’t get me wrong, I am obsessively passionate about art, and far from alone—even in Miami. I found plenty to fall for, hard, that I neither intended to nor could afford (and bought). But there are some clouds, and I’m not referring to the endless rain and flooding the duration of my trip.
Strolling down the aisles of the main fair and private museums is more a matter of box-ticking obvious art by obvious artists. And then the celebrities—and there were loads, from Adele and A$AP Mob (which includes A$AP Rocky—whoever that might be) to Rocky himself, it’s a glut that amounts to a veritable movement. Call it Celebritism, which is now more acute than recent fairs past (if imaginable), with many of the leading characters foisting their own art upon us, their roots burrowing deeper into the land of fully-fledged makers.
Beuys would be delighted that everyone has finally become an artist and Rauschenberg’s gap between art and life has all but disappeared. In After the End of Art, Arthur Danto stated the floodgates opened by the sea of silkscreens emanating from Warhol’s factory signaled the end of art history; boy, if he had been to Basel Miami this iteration, he’d see an altogether more vapid kind of death that would have turned even Warhol.
When every bored actor/musician/poseur (some at the top of their game, other’s not) is an artist, it all turns into artifice. The likes of Miley Cyrus, who’s been compared to Mike Kelley (sorry Mike); James Franco, who paints like an East Village expressionist escapee from an Art in America article on the early ’80s scene; Lenny Kravitz’s trite photography, and Sly Stallone, who may be an Oscar contender for Rocky XXII, but has no prize in sight for his painting miscarriages at Galerie Gmurzynska.
Adrien Brody unintentionally summed it up most succinctly with his show entitled: Hot Dogs, Hamburgers and Handguns, said in the self-serving press to have been focused on violence and the desire for instant gratification. Tell me about it—the savagery of his bad art coupled with the immediate urge to be recognized for it—how can I possibly add to that?
Leo, his posse, and the sundry others of his stripe that made appearances (for the cameras, if not the art) are an indicator of their own: of the frothy, frivolous, pseudo interest that continues to mushroom at a higher rate than ever, rising in lock step with the financial stature and breadth of the market. Apropos of what I don’t know, it just is. I guess everything else has already been done.
Contrary to popular belief, the party police don’t force you at gunpoint to go out, and then out again after. But this time around Adrian and Kai, my nineteen and eighteen year-old children who are studying fashion and art (at Parsons in New York) showed up and did just that, not necessarily to desirable effect.
The plane to Miami was like being in a hermetically sealed, zero gravity art chamber where gossip reverberated non-linearly through space (and seat rows). I was sandwiched between a YBA and his girlfriend, a famed music producer/collector, gallerists and, across the aisle, London’s most successful private contemporary dealer and his ’80s supermodel girlfriend; a sensational start—not so much for solace on the long-haul flight but for forage for this piece.
Before takeoff I got a call from the dealer I bumped into earlier, who tried to sell something in the lounge, asking me to reoffer a particular painting he’d previously tried to push on the producer he spied sitting next to me while boarding. Once airborne, I waited for the Jack (Daniels) to do its thing before pressing my neighbor for information, and wasn’t disappointed. He spoke of his repeatedly bad dealings with a well-known, well-dressed, lanky female adviser who makes a practice of having an assistant planted in the salesroom bidding against her, hiking prices and thereby commissions in the process. Then there was the work she bought for him before cancelling the transaction due to condition issues, when in fact she better sold it at a steeper margin.
The YBA and his girlfriend were discussing who not to invite to their dinner, while the dealer across the way spent the duration of the flight burying his head in a newspaper supplement that read in bold block letters, ART MARKET. At one point the ample fury brow of the private dealer noticeably arched before he burst out laughing at the preposterousness of a comment I made about loving art too much to be an exceptional dealer—the downside of a cramped cabin. There was no mystery; we were all headed into the vortex of the social art swirl.
I checked into a staid, unmodernized hotel on the beach that resembles the aftermath of a neutron bomb with no humans left standing but the architecture still intact, the perfect anecdote to the Miami mayhem. Staying at a raucous hotel like Aby Rosen’s W in the past does not suit my histrionic phone behavior, often forgetting I am in the midst of a building with an 85 percent familiarity-of-the-occupants rate, never a clever move.
Hitting the ground, I visited the offsite group show entitled Unrealism organized by Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch, meant to be an argument for the vitality of figurative art and admit to being dissatisfied by the unimaginative, cheek by jowl overhanging that amounted to below-grade grad school stuff. Makes you realize the artistry of curating which was noticeably absent. Both dealers are well equipped to go way beyond this shoehorned selling exercise, which rather made a strong case for abstraction.
First night in town and Adrian and Kai snagged a better dinner invite than I did, lovely. I didn’t exactly end up at Wendy’s, but the lone zillionaire that did attend the event I made my way to emphatically told me, more than once, how he hated it when he was the only first-rate person in the room. I was feeling good already.
Jetlagged and exhausted (and admittedly after a few), I soldiered on and made a brief appearance at the Unrealism after-party, and, before crashing to awake to a fistful of business cards and only a foggy recollection of whom they belonged to, managed to sell one of Kai’s paintings to original Warhol superstar and mogul Jane Holzer. A fluid act of inter-generational finesse thank you very much.
Deep Pockets, my reliable resource and art circuit cohort, made it to an alternative bash at a new Hirst infested as yet unopened hotel where he overhead the dearth of art world heavy hitters was due to the fact their egos couldn’t tolerate the glare of glamour from being surrounded by stars more famous than them. There was will.i.am (of course) and our friend Adrian Brody’s elucidating explication of art (finally) to X-Men director Brett Ratner, “amazing stuff being an artist, it’s amazing stuff, man, amazing stuff, yeah man, amazing.” Glad to have finally cleared that up. And whenever there is money, lots, there are hookers, lots; two guys at the party were viewing lingerie-clad woman on an I-phone like it was an auction catalogue
I’ve always walked or run on the beach, blighted with satellite art fair tents none of which I’m too bothered about visiting, before the onset of festivities and more often than not was passed by Deitch turtling along at a pace just quicker than mine (missed him this year). I’d do anything to avoid the VVIP opening at 11:00am, a well-heeled hustle of hustlers.
Once through the gate, I just want to swallow it all without chewing—there’s so much to take in. The hierarchical layout of the booths has an intensifying vibe as you enter the circle of power, galleries Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Acquavella, Dominque Levy and above all, the incomparable wattage of Larry G—every time. It can feel like two different fairs when you depart the dominants and make your way to the perimeters. I find that I can last approximately four hours at a go before I pass out from foot (and brain) fatigue.
Oh right, the art, almost forgot. There were dueling Maos from 1972 both 26 x 22 inches, one for $4.7 million at Gagosian and another, from the same year and the same size, at $5.5 million at Acquavella, but there was a noticeable difference in the color saturation and vibrancy. You don’t always have to be a Mugrabi to see through Warhol’s often convoluted market.
Hauser had a 1991 loose, geometric abstraction of different shades of red and pink squares by undervalued Mary Heilmann, a deal at an ask of $350,000 and still available before I left Miami prior to the end of the fair. An early knit piece by Rosemary Trockel in the back room of Sprueth Magers caught my eye—I barge in uninvited to these mini, impromptu viewing rooms when I can—a unique black and white grid that also seemed a value at €1.5 million for this signature and escalating body of work. Pricing parity between white male artists (usually from New York or living there) and the rest of the world is still far off I’m afraid.
Francis M. Naumann the brilliant surrealist dealer and intellectual (he belongs in a vitrine himself), who poops out books on Marcel Duchamp and the period at a possibly quicker frequency than Hans Ulrich Obrist, noted with glee that his piece of $500,000 Manzoni shit (Merda d’artista (1961), tin can, printed paper and excrement, edition of 90) was a far better value than most of the shit in the rest of fair. Though considering the last public sale in the region of $300,000, I think I’d prefer a bit of constipation instead of taking the plunge.
UK gallery Annely Juda has been dragging David Hockney’s frequently flying, heavily damaged, apparently unsellable painting Big Stone (1962) to no less than five fairs I’ve seen alone. When and/or where do you put a painting to pasture? Surreally, I found myself contrasting the qualities of a Joe Bradley Schmagoo painting and one of his modular robot works to Alex Rodriguez (aka A-Rod); funny coming from someone who couldn’t hit a baseball off of a stationary tee.
Michael Werner Gallery lost out on the Sigmar Polke estate to David Zwirner, a better fit in my estimation, but have hung on to a few good bits and bobs, including the two-sided painting on resin for $2.8m. Richard Gray Gallery from Chicago and New York had another Polke painting, an early 60s Ben Day dot painting entitled Three Astronauts priced at $3m ($1m per space traveler). The gallery told me if I photographed the work the largely abstract (indecipherable) images and text from the painted clipping would miraculously become apparent. Nice trick, if it worked.
I nevertheless bought Richard Gray’s 1991 miniature Christopher Wool text painting on aluminum (said to be one of two made tiny) entitled FOOL, fitting after I erroneously questioned the longevity of his career in a 1997 article entitled Pulling the Wool. Good call.
NADA opened the day following the big draw at the convention center in new digs at the Disneyesque Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel that was cleaner, airier and easier to navigate than the previous version but a trade-off for a more corporate, institutionalized feel. Standouts were crude cartoonish terrible paintings by Brian Belott who I exhibited in 2004. Phil Grauer, proprietor of Canada Gallery, who was recently profiled in W magazine, strong-armed me into making the purchase (the works are actually great), he who boasted about getting into the NADA fair ages ago by bullying (i.e. physically threatening) cofounder John Connelly.
I also went for a David Adamo deflated balloon sculpture in pink at Ibid Projects (2015, painted aluminum)—which is how I feel writing this now at my computer after the onslaught of noise, both visual and audial. One fair-goer was accompanied by a dog clad in a coat designating it as an Emotional Support Animal, an accessory I could relate to—a few days into the fair I already about had it.
Back at Art Basel Miami, to and fro from the Collectors Lounge (there are lounges within lounges according to net worth, no shit) like a yo-yo with clients (and hopefuls), there was still much to be seen. Including poor Adam Weinberg, the visionary director of the Whitney Museum being barraged by Peter Freeman like a sitting duck who came down harder than the boulder crashed onto roof of the crushed car by Jimmie Durham (sold to another museum for just under $1 million) for not snapping up the seven-ton work.
Even more entertaining was Dimitri Mavrommatis, the big, brash and boisterous collector (spec-u-lector) bargaining with dealer Christophe Van de Weghe—closer to fighting—for the purchase of a late 1960s Picasso canvas and a 60s Twombly Roman Notes painting on paper, but the $13 million offer, I couldn’t miss it—he wrote it in huge numbers on a piece of paper and shoved in front of Christophe—wasn’t enough to cinch the deal. That didn’t stop the gregarious Greek from asking to be mentioned to the press as the ultimate purchaser. Reverse discretion.
The streets in Miami are thick with humidity and art mavens on a mission to go out in various levels of undress—many (men and women) so negligibly attired I wondered why they bothered to put on any clothes altogether. Dinner Thursday night was at Mr. Chow, the celeb artist/restaurateur, a venue uncomfortably jammed beyond fire hazard. Just prior to being seated, private dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski who bought the large Wool Fool on a guarantee of $14 million at Christie’s last year (and was said to have sold half at a discount to cover the trade) offered to buy half my baby Fool, maybe I’m onto something.
My kids coerced me to go to the Wall, also in the W Hotel, a fashionable party at the trendy club, and told one of my professional acquaintances who inquired after my state of mind that they were baby sitting me (remind me not to take them next time). My last memory was scary art dealers dancing scarily (and precariously) on tabletops while Lenny Kravitz spun Lenny Kravitz tunes in his capacity as DJ, or should I say post DJ, cf. Paris Hilton was also in attendance.
Friday and Saturday
I gave talks both Friday and Saturday as part of the Art Basel Salon fare and to benefactors of my alma mater George Washington University. I won’t bore you like countless others who have sat before me with the gory details other than to note a few observations. I found the audience at Art Basel in Miami Beach much bigger this time around than for my last Salon talk in 2012, which is perhaps indicative of the increasing number of participants sucked into the art lifestyle.
The title of the conversation, with Josh Baer, was Art Market Talk, Flip or Flop, What Do I Do Now? (don’t blame me). I thought it might be a retro cool, defiant, contrarian gesture to amass a collection of Lucien Smith, Israel Lund, Christian Rosa and the countless others who’ve recently tanked—they could have been contenders and might.
When a disparate group of 150 super-engaged alumni of George Washington University show up on the ground (for breakfast on a Saturday, no less), enthusiastic and chock-full of questions, art has truly gone mass.
A few words on the rash of private museums all but launched in Miami (and presently subject to a Congressional investigation into tax breaks): they are freezing! If they temper the temperature a little they could each afford another Wool, achoo. An art professor at Parsons summed it up rather perfectly to Kai who paints: “if you can’t make it red, make it big”; I think the teacher should abandon ship and get a job at a private foundation in Miami.
Despite the heady total of $2.4 billion, both auction houses suffered immense losses in the November sales to the tune of a whopping $50-100 million each according to reliable sources, that’s one hell of a lousy auction house estimate (the actual numbers are assuredly closer to the top). Christie’s aggressive guarantees and Sotheby’s massive $515 million Alfred Taubman pledge came up short, more than a tad too little to amount to an auspicious first move for CEO Tad Smith. A young hedge fund client who pumped $3-5 million into contemporary art shorted Sotheby’s shares to cover any interruption in the art market and did so well that he mirrored the trade for his fund. It’s his best bet of the nearly-ended year.
RM Sotheby’s December 10th New York auction, “Driven by Disruption” (naming sales is all the rage), filled with wildly aggressively estimated multimillion dollar classic cars—one car alone carries a valuation of $28,000,000-$32,000,000, a 1956 Ferrari (the Picasso of the petrol world). Let’s see if the greed of guarantees and inordinately high expectations dampens enthusiasm in this sector as much as it contributed to the slowdown in contemporary.
There’s a new move in Switzerland to force the issue of disclosure in the murky world of free ports, which for most of us are just convenient and hyper expensive storage facilities, not as glamorous or sexy as they’ve improbably been painted. And regarding the ballyhooed bullshit about the murky muck that lies within, there is not much the banks don’t already know.
In an ongoing global economic constriction, art seems the last to go, but we are entering a sobering, more cautious time, other than for fresh to the market, marquee works by marquee names. Art marches on and I will venture to say we are in front of a bigger overall picture to come, in spite of the shrill whines to the contrary—in unison against everything from Warhol’s market (I’ll happily take a few crumbs of it) to concerns about the overall health of the market. I will walk the plank and hazard that the May New York auctions, the real test, will achieve a very strong result over $2b, trust.
Oh the party in Miami that it even slogs on is a testament to the perseverance of the flock, a disjointed, dissonant group inexorably stuck together by art. No one can or will stop buying—they can’t, its certifiable. There’s even a word for it, a medical term for people who have an uncontrollable and compulsive desire to shop, oniomania, which comes from the Greek onios, which means for sale, and mania, which means insanity (blog.dictionary.com). But whatever our individual symptomologies and in the face of unparalleled social and political instability we daily face, onward and forward we go.
Not to close on a somber and threatening message, but smack in the middle of the fair in prime time there was a random, bloody, nearly fatal homicide attempt. This is a warning I hope will be heeded—it’s time for full-on security at art fairs, museums and auction houses—let’s throw notorious art world tetchiness to the wind; like it or not, we live in a dangerous new world order. I’m glad to share it with art and my kids.
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