Kenny Schachter on Celebritism and ‘Arting’ at Art Basel in Miami Beach
Back on the art fair circuit with Kenny Schachter.
Loving and Learning
Like starlings changing course mid-flight in a well-ordered flock, many trudged to Art Basel Miami, season fifteen (there should be a boxed set). Come to think of it I’ve been to every fair, though never so much as dipped a toe in the water—certain things are better left unseen in the art world. There was constant chatter about audience fall-off from fairs past, though I didn’t observe much evidence from my side of aisles. How could you blame folks for not attending this year? Other than the very first fair, cancelled due to 9/11 and anthrax scares, I can’t think of more treacherous, nerve-jangling times in my lifetime—and I’m old.
Overlooking out-and-out world mayhem, it’s a marvel there was anyone at the fair with Zika detected in Miami and pinpointed in and around the Wynwood district, home to the Rubell, De La Cruz, and Margulies collections and Perez Museum. Not to sound too Oliver Stone, but the threat of the testicle-shrinking, unborn baby-harming bite of mosquitos in the art quarter seemed a little too fluky, maybe the Frieze people had a hand planting it. God knows I could ill afford contraction of balls or brains—I half imagined the surgical masks prophylactically worn throughout Asia to stop the spreading of infections replaced by full body mosquito garb in Miami.
Yet this was no time to abandon ship. I came to look, more than looking to buy (not by choice) as I am already on many an art world layaway plan, but did anyway. As usual. Any serious collector is more challenged by lack of liquidity than s(c)hackled by it. If the Basel-Basel version of the fair is like the MET museum with price tags, Miami resembles a wet, shaggy puppy by comparison. But it’s always good; and, by the time I get home anyway, love and learn from it on every occasion.
I thought I’d have to fight not to see celebrities, which I was fully prepared to do, in a state of reverse looky loo-ism (our endless fixation for rubbernecking) but they didn’t seem to make it before the end of the fair, which for the art-interested is Friday—it opened Wednesday. Perhaps the (non-art) stars didn’t want to be seen reveling with too much abandon now, like Leo DiCaprio and his twenty strong Victoria’s Secret squad on display (and widely reported) during Art Basel Miami 2014, staged no doubt, like everything they do is.
For it was only Friday eve when Madonna (& Co.) hit it hard at the Faena Hotel but with a charity attached. I asked a dealer with a work on offer from one of her artists in the inevitable auction component of the gala if she was going, to which she replied she’d sooner chew her arm off. But as much as art for sale were experiences such as private poker games with Edward Norton and Jonah Hill (feds, are you listening?), a week in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Palm Springs house (with him if you’re a model), and a private performance by magician David Blaine—he could lock himself in your fridge for a few days if you like.
Unlike at my house (littered with my errant teens and their “friends”) there seemed to be a concerted effort to drop the decibels down a level (just), not by choice in all probability; or, might the famously short attention spans of the famous have dried up for art already? Cuffed to his hospital bed, still (just joshing, withhold judgement), Kanye West wasn’t expected but Adrian Brody, booth-less in Miami unlike Shanghai, could you help me out here? Has anyone seen or heard from the likes of art darlings Shia LaBeouf, Miley Cyrus, or Lenny Kravitz? (· · · – – – · · ·), that’s Morse code for an SOS distress signal.
Kanye, I wonder how the value of his wax effigies recently on view at Blum & Poe will be impacted by his recent mental shenanigans, becomes a more empathetic character since suffering a breakdown should he decide to follow through with his declaration of a presidential bid. By all means he should pursue it with vigor, perchance joining forces with the Whitney Museum’s thoughtful and sympathetic Adam Weinberg, as I suspect cultural currency will swiftly outshine Trumpian billionaire-itis. They can campaign under the slogan West and Weinberg, 20/20 vision in 2020; besides, art has never been more germane in such topsy-turvy times.
Nightlife Miami Basel Style
My twenty and nineteen year olds Adrian and Kai, who had paintings on view in a pop-up group show that all sold (I’d be remiss not to mention), guiled their way into numerous parties including at the Versace mansion the night before I arrived: sometimes they are astute learners. At the event thrown by an art advisor or another, a drunken merrymaker yelled out to no one in particular: “If I undress and jump in the pool will Kenny write about it?” Yes, I would, but was grateful to be in London at the time.
Emblematic of the town, just off the plane I joined Kai and Adrian at a Larry G cocktails and then to the annual White Cube party. I’m becoming obsolete in my own family. I lasted till 2:00 a.m. with zero sleep and only departed after I was introduced to Courtney Love (also an artist), humming under my breath content to be with my children, OK, and sozzled, when she began warbling a song to me, a duet! Bless Miami, ever regressive. On the nights’ the kids went out (all), they only resurfaced mornings, oftentimes partying away with those I do business with, the younger set anyway (strange, that), and once even with Lucien Smith—long live the zombies. Better them than me, not that I didn’t used to.
Basel, the Gift that Keeps on Giving
Oh, right, the fair lest I forget. En route to the convention center I heard a radio advert for the general public Basel opening: “Get a job and you can afford some art. Probably not.” The audience was widely international yet exclusionary, maybe less European as payback from notable American absence from October’s FIAC in Paris. There was the inauguration of metal detectors since last iteration’s stabbing and I thought the general quality was as good as ever.
There was so much to see, in fact, you simply couldn’t conceivably take it all in unless they extended opening hours for… say, six months. Not to mention the hanging constantly evolves in real time concurrently with sales. Legendary Lisa Spellman, owner of New York’s 303 Gallery, ex- of Richard Prince (who featured in her booth) noted: “More business with half the people. If this is the New Quiet for Miami, sign me up.” Favorites were a collection of Bruce Nauman drawings and sculptures from the 1980s and ’90s at Sperone Westwater from $200,000 to $1.5 million. Covetous better describes my impulse.
I like Sam Durant and own a great spray painted text on mirror “Bite the Hand that Feeds”, from 2009. In the same vein, immediately entering the fair, you were smashed over the head with the larger than life, fire engine red, glaring lightbox entitled END WHiTE Supremacy (caps and underscore courtesy of the artist) at Blum & Poe. The piece, $60,000 in an edition of three from 2008, was as poignant as ever, but the fair was supremely white. Diversity in the ranks of artists, young and (rediscovered) older, male and female, black and white, etc., is rapidly on the rise, but to a lesser extent the rest of the art world. Sorry to report.
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s text on newspapers dated the day after Brexit and the US elections and affixed to canvases (easy price booster) allegedly addressed populist sentiment with the oxymoronically ambiguous text: “THE TYRANNY OF COMMON SENSE HAS REACHED ITS FINAL STAGE” (ticketed at $90,000–130,000) C’mon. I love Rirkrit, but giving away free spring rolls to the likes of Jerry Saltz won’t exactly go far to ameliorate the lack of food and empathy in the world or I’m just too acrid. Is Zombie Formalism to be replaced with Zombie Political Formalism? Something seems to be cooking.
To give you a sense of present pricing, $425,000 will get you a large Julian Schnabel on the outside wall at Blum & Poe (again), they had an especially vital installation within, while over at Per Skarstedt you can fetch a new Eric Fischl for $575,000 and some David Salles for $275,000 each (Skarstedt reported five recent sales between the fair and galleries). George Condo’s new primary is $700,000 while his auction results have inched up to the million-dollar mark. A fresh out of the studio Joe Bradley was $850,000 at Eva Presenhuber Gallery and a small Vito Acconci archival text documentation work from 1969 sold for $75,000 at Marc Selwyn that was worth a load more in my opinion, especially after last summer’s sleeper of an exceptional exhibition at MoMA PS1.
Luhring Augustine had tucked away in the closet (always a destination in fairs), a tiny text painting on aluminum by Christopher Wool that read: YOU MAKE ME (in my case, write). At $900,000 it was a crazy good deal considering the actual value is closer to $2.5 million; primary dealers can misgauge the secondary. There was a buzzing beehive of interest before it quickly sold, an art market Black Friday sale, and nice arbitrage. A Facebook friend told me he last saw the Wool work hanging in the studio of artist Charline von Heyl, which reminded me of the mini FOOL I bought in Miami last year that had been a present to writer Glenn O’Brien back in the early 1990s. Christopher Wool: the gift that keeps on giving.
Mark Grotjan had a half dozen works on paper dispersed in multiple venues from $175,000 at Gagosian to $1,300,000 at Richard Gray. There were no others on view—it’s the cardboards mounted to canvas that garner the mega money. I can’t think of a scenario quite like the meteoric rise of Mark Grotjahn’s market other than…Adrian Ghenie, Peter Doig, and Mark Bradford; I guess I can think of other instances of rampant painting price inflation. Stories abound of his open (studio) door policy if you rock up with sufficient millions but there are no deals to be had unless you believe prices in the range of four or five to ten million and up is sustainable. If not, it will be a hard fall. There is as much speculation as to who remains a Grotjahn supporter as there is in the unremitting flipping of his works.
I have long been a Ken Price fan, who’s estate is represented by the inimitably talented (with artists) Mathew Marks. The intricately crafted ceramic blobs are $250,000, the single work sold on the opening, painted in toxic colored, all-over camouflaged patterns, while the atmospheric watercolors of uninhabited industrial landscapes are also spookily hued and equally as wonderful. I have known the notoriously prickly Matthew Marks for nearly thirty years, and we’ve never had anything but cordial relations if not exactly chums.
Hunched over a small table in a small back room within the booth, Marks was assiduously avoiding me by tucking in his chin and seeming to write and rewrite an endless series of numbers on a pad, like the Samuel Beckett character incessantly sucking on stones then shifting them in his jacket pockets in the novel Molloy. I wanted to express my interest in a Price (and be acknowledged), so I said hello, and I said hello again (and again) until I sounded like an edited version of Adele serenading him: Hello, it’s me. Hello, can you hear me? Hello from the other side. Hello from the outside. Hello, how are you? He finally relented and answered in kind. I prodded about my interest in a ceramic and all I could squeeze out of him was this gem: “That’s something to think about”. Kai and my client were beside themselves snickering at how I’d been blanked.
Admittedly the second day was dead with tumbleweeds rolling down the uninhabited Basel aisles other than Jon Bon Jovi who I spotted with a burly bodyguard in tow; what did he fear, Marian Goodman launching into a triple somersault before karate kicking him in the head? But on third day (before I left after the whirlwind), a Metro Pictures director said she was “high” from how busy they were with the crowds and sales.
The dedication, tenacity and commitment apparent in the ancillary fairs is awe-inspiring, oftentimes with little or no ostensible return, more so at Untitled than NADA, where business was bustling. There are usually amazing gestures to be seen and some consistently good works but little in the way of wow factor at either. They both don’t lack for the sheer range of wacky gallery names from Five Car Garage and Sorry We’re Closed, both in NADA to Disturb The Neighbors, and Pierogi at Untitled, to name but a few.
The Global Art World as a Bowl of Rice
Upon landing at Heathrow, I read in the New York Post (noted art resource) that Madonna raised $7.5 million for a Malawi Hospital and “when the auction stalled, Sean Penn handcuffed Madonna and crawled through her legs as the two tried to coerce the audience, consisting of Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, James Corden, ex-boyfriend A-Rod, and Courtney Love, to bid higher.” By then, most of serious art crowd had bailed; and, at $5,000 per ticket, many I know would prefer the fare at NADA, as laudable as the cause was. Let’s face it, the bold-faced didn’t show up for us (or art).
Was there an attendance decline from emotional, social and political exhaustion, and entropy? A fading fervor to party? Has the celebrity sheen worn? Does the presence of Madonna signify an art world shark-jump? Does any of it matter in the face of such evidently strong business? Overheard comments on the ground were more likely about Dior than Dubuffet, but intrepid buyers bought, and some. The way it’s always been and will be.
The start of globalism can be traced to the Asian and Middle Eastern spice trade as early as 3000 B.C. I attended a gallery dinner in Miami with Chinese, Europeans (Eastern and Western), Americans—enough to cause Trump a trauma, but that’s exactly what gives the art world breadth— interdependent global attachments instead of walls and borders. Art is a binder like a bowl of rice. I propose a verb, arting; which occurred when a collector figured fair travel accounted for fully 20 percent of his life. On the plane home, littered with art dealers and a smattering of artists, the advisor seated next to me expressed interest in a Van Gogh and Picasso owned by a friend (before she raised the screen between us). I should just stay on planes forever, we practically do already; hey that’s an idea, The Air Fair!
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