Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator, and writer. The opinions expressed here are his own.
For weeks I’d been telling myself, and anyone who would listen, that I was going to skip the 2014 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach. It had been a busy fall. October’s Frieze London fair is at least on my home turf, but then there were whirlwind trips to Paris, for FIAC, and New York, for the auctions. I couldn’t be bothered with yet another fair, especially one so notoriously party-centric. In the end, though, I was reminded of Adam Lindemann’s rallying cry in the pages of The New York Observer back in 2011. “I’m not going to Art Basel Miami Beach this year,” he wrote. “I’m through with it, basta.” But he ended up going. And so did I.
In Miami, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. There’s the usual cast of characters, now chock-a-block with celebrities and complete with Deep Pockets, my source for art-market secrets, as well as a relatively new acquaintance, the drug-dealing art advisor I met in New York during auction week, who weighed in with some pre-fair recommendations of his own. Everyone is fueled by fear of missing out and everything is set to a throbbing soundtrack.
I usually don’t take American Airlines from London, but I did this time, and it turns out to be both cheaper than the British options and lighter on art world-ers; perhaps there is a correlation. Still, there was enough of an art presence that I was pitched a painting before the plane had begun taxiing, and by the time we hit 30,000 feet I’d proposed an exhibition. Marc and Arne Glimcher would be proud of the Pacemaker who attempted to sell me a Kenneth Noland for $500,000 sooner than he could get his carry-on into the overhead compartment. (How to reciprocate? How about a Vito Acconci show to follow up the successful Paul Thek exhibition I curated for Pace London last year?)
No sooner did I hit the ground in Miami than I was off to see the art. First things first: “One Way” at the Bass Museum, a k a architect and designer Peter Marino and his art collection, proudly and flagrantly displayed like the feathers of a giant peacock, emphasis on cock, for this is a man whose signature accessory is a prodigious codpiece. Said piece appeared in multiple settings at the Bass, from the one adorning the Madame Tussauds wax effigy of Marino to the multitude of portraits throughout the show, including one splashed across the museum’s façade. Who said money can’t buy (self) love? The highlight was Gregor Hildebrandt’s site-specific installation employing hundreds of videotape strips from copies of Jean Cocteau’s classic film Orphée, interspersed with black and white monochrome paintings by the likes of Pierre Soulages and Rudolf Stingel.
Art Basel in Miami Beach
Then it was off to the fair. Before I describe it, allow me a small digression. My personal experience with Art Basel Miami Beach dates back to the second edition, in 2003. At that time I was an exhibitor or, at least, a would-be exhibitor. I’d been admitted to the fair’s Nova section and, had I bothered to read the small print on the application, I would have been aware that galleries in the Nova section were permitted to display works made in the past three years by up to three artists. But I didn’t read the small print, and hung my booth salon-style with works from around 20 artists, some of those artworks nearly half a century old. There were 1960s pieces by Vito Acconci alongside recent stuff from the likes of Joe Bradley, Mika Rottenberg, and Kim Gordon. Needless to say, this did not go over well with the selection committee, famous for its rigorous early-morning booth-vetting visits.
Fast-forward a year or so. Art Basel’s then-director, the inimitable Sam Keller, told me I could get back in if I staged an architectural intervention like the one I did in 2004 at New York’s Armory Show before I was thrown out of that fair (a story for another time). So I approached Vito Acconci, who agreed to make a lattice-like framework on which artworks could be hung.
My booth was shunted into a corridor that had been transformed into an art space. Because of the shape of Vito’s piece, word got around that I was trying to sabotage commerce at the fair by cutting off circulation from one side of the event to the other. In no time at all, Ursula Krinzinger, then a member of the selection committee, had bounded around to my booth, demanding to know why I was trying to kill the fair. In truth, I had alerted Vito to the potential for disruption of visitor flow—like all the other exhibitors, I was trying to sell art, not attract attention. But it was no use—I got the heave-ho once again. My last appearance at the fair, in 2006, was in the Positions section, then in shipping containers on the beach, where I was contained at a safe distance from the convention center.
Things were different back then: you saw the art first and a smattering of celebrities second. These days, it’s the reverse: lots of celebrities first, art second. I’d only just flashed my VIP card at the entrance, and there were Leo DiCaprio and the e-cig brigade, featuring fellow actors Tobey Maguire, Ethan Suplee, and a constellation of hangers-on. (How many actors does it take to see a painting?) Leo’s minions are like the Garra rufa, or doctor fish, which feeds off the dead skin of swimmers. In a way, though, today’s clusterfuck of models, actors, musicians, and all-around wannabes beats the situation just a few years ago, when the art world was mostly comprised of a motley crew of professionals and the dedicated few. Now cultural currency is a hot commodity; Jeffrey Deitch is touting Miley Cyrus as the new Mike Kelley, and Kim Kardashian’s ass is a pedestal for our aesthetic aspirations.
On the market side, I noted that the entry point for a Chris Wool printed painting is now $3.5 million, for a recently auctioned work at the booth of Richard Grey Gallery. Over at Simon Lee, it was just shy of $4 million; around the corner at Christophe van de Weghe, it was $4.9 million for Wool’s vine leaves, and at Nahmad, whose Wool had the added benefit of some color, it was $8 million. There were other Wools at Luhring Augustine and elsewhere. What is more hyper than hyperinflation?
Meanwhile, over at Hirschl & Adler Modern, a colorful, late 1950s landscape painting by Fairfield Porter was a steal at $450,000, even factoring in a far less active resale market for Porter’s work than, for instance, Wool’s. Porter was a near-contemporary of Alex Katz’s, and his work is at least as good. Porter’s problem is, he’s stuck in the ghetto of American Painting, while Katz has power-slid his way into the blazing hot contemporary category.
I approached a gallerist about a Rudolf Stingel painting and he told me his brother recently bought a Stingel at a Phillips evening sale (they do actually sell work from time to time!) and that there are too many Stingels on the market. Another dealer complained to me of overproduction on Stingel’s part and went further, stating that he had known Stingel for ages and that he wasn’t a real talent. Funny, as there was only one Stingel at the fair, at Massimo De Carlo, and it sold early on for $750,000, and had a waiting list longer than the taxi line outside the convention center. At those levels, 58-year-old Stingel is not too much of a sting compared to a contemporary like Wool or some of the (relative) young’uns like Wade Guyton and Mark Grotjahn, both in their forties but with auction records over $6 million, over double Stingel’s record.
The London dealer Sadie Coles, whom I adore, had the misfortune of presenting a wildly dramatic dripping teardrop installation by Urs Fischer. The booth-filling piece had the entire gallery staff barking at visitors in a vain attempt to stave off physical engagement with the seductive, made-for-selfies artwork. What did they expect? The gallery was kind enough to offer to “even sell one to me” of the cast clay nudes lounging under the sea of sobbing tears.
As bad as Yayoi Kusama’s gaudy, bejeweled Starry Pumpkin Silver (please do not tell me there might be gold too) that was begging to squashed over at Victoria Miro was the political poetry of David Wojnarowicz and his peers at P.P.O.W. Maybe when the fair ends there will be room for Kusama’s work at the Bass’s Peter Marino show. I spied one 1960s Canadian carpet-bagging Picasso that has been lugged between so many fairs it must have more frequent flier miles than I do.
On day three, I turtled my way to the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) fair the way Jeffrey Deitch jogs on the beach—very slowly. NADA has a more relaxed atmosphere than the main fair, in terms of both attitudes and prices. And there was brisk business being done—brisk to the point of physical violence. There was good art, and (some) nice people; I don’t know why anyone would complain (Jerry Saltz, please take note).
I swore I wouldn’t buy, but I can’t deny the shambolic rush of shopaholic-ing seven works for under $20,000—cash and carry. Anyhow, the sign of a dedicated collector is someone not impeded by a mere lack of liquidity. But beware: hunting and gathering from this sea of emerging and unproven art is like riding a motorcycle with no helmet, which is perfectly legal in Florida for some stupid reason (two areas that might benefit by some legislation perhaps).
Immediately upon entering NADA trends inescapably leapt at me, namely that Epson printers are the new neon and that the Sigmar Polke estate might benefit from hiring a full-time copyright lawyer (or two) as there were more knockoffs than after a Victoria Beckham runway show. Guyton looks like a financial shoo-in to be swept up in the next Wool wave, and Polke is a seminal artist not yet accorded his full due in relation to some of his peers, but c’mon guys, can’t you make a little more effort? Kasper Sonne at The Hole and Dona Nelson at Thomas Erben were among the many artists under the influence…
Among the juiciest tidbits at NADA was the tussle between two (very) determined buyers over a skinny little $5,000 Katherine Bernhardt cigarette painting (I exhibited her work in 2002 in New York, by the way) at Los Angeles gallery China Art Objects. It nearly devolved into a barroom brawl. That was as good endorsement as any; do you suspect they were actors? Anyway, fabulous, I bought the leftover—I don’t like to smoke, but I love cigs in my art.
Some other practitioners from the up-in-smoke school ranged from Dan Colen’s hand-painted versions at Karma Gallery, New York, for $180,000 to cast cigs by Eric Muñoz at Anonymous Gallery, New York/Mexico City (at the Untitled fair) from only $350 to $1,500 and others. The market is deep and varied enough for a cigarette arbitrage play.
In the same vein back at The Hole, at NADA, there were crudely painted ceramic cigarettes and ashtrays by Rose Eken from $1,200 and happy saccharine works by Evan Roberts made with resin on paper to resemble melted popsicles for $3,000 each, both of which could just as easily have been on view at the gallery I keep passing through at Heathrow Airport. Nevertheless, I bought both.
How do you make a painting nearly unsellable? Make like Brian Kokoska showing at the East Hampton Shed and plop a garish clay head in front of his already lurid, reddish-orange hued installation along with some rubber snakes on the floor. Somehow it was great. Phil Grauer of Canada gallery had a super works-on-paper installation throughout his booth. Here’s an irony of the market for young art: Grauer told me he’s lost a lot of money by selling most everything. Hawking incredible, whacked-out Joe Bradley drawings of superhero birds for $8,000 to $9,000 a pop to the likes of Peter Brant, probably preparing for a Bradley show of his own, is like selling sweat socks: you make money selling art, but create wealth by keeping it.
Then there is this, said by a dealer talking about Travess Smalley works priced between $10,000 and $30,000 at Foxy Production gallery: “More than the mere digital representation, you definitely need to see this work in person; he’s really into the printing.” Good to know. Then I overheard the response of the collector, saying to her husband: “But it looked so amazing in the jpeg.” In the Insta-age, there’s something quaint and old fashioned to be said for seeing past the screen to the art itself, even in these settings (not to mention you taking the time to read about it here).
I went to a gallery dinner for a highflying art star who has recently suffered some extreme market gyrations. He unfurled a folder-sized envelope filled with cocaine in open view of the unfazed wait staff and his fellow diners, but I guess in South Beach it would be hard to imagine differently, or expect the likes of Nate Lowman et al. to be anything but unimpressed. The Pablo Escobar of paint began using his hand in a way Darwin never could have conjured to ingest his stash. Those in the know anxiously await his self-immolation. Welcome to mad Miami in a car crash-y, looky-loo kind of way; we were definitely not in Switzerland.
Throughout my stay the weather was erratic: from rain to sun to a biblical deluge that turned my dear friend Deep Pockets into the winner of a wet T-shirt contest, around the time of which he informed me of a prominent young Greek shipping scion who recently ruthlessly flipped a Jeff Elrod painting from $80,000 primary to $350,000 in a heartbeat. Deep Pockets pocketed $200 from some clients as a tip for getting their restaurant reservation moved up—in the art business you get it where you can.
A pedantic artist I encountered went on and on about how art does not equal capital. He was about to turn that sentiment into a neon; why not a computer print on canvas, I wondered? Obviously money is not the only thing but the notion of value has become an indisputable tool in art analysis and even appreciation. As much as color and composition, value economics is an integral part of relating to art. There is a new breed of spec-u-lectors who care about art, are enriched by it, and like to know they can get rich from it too. There is an art to art economics.
Speaking of numbers, before my departure I met the controversial twenty-something founder of Art Rank, former gallery owner Carlos Rivera. Rivera’s claim to fame as a dealer was helping to launch Retna, the not-so-interesting street artist who is said to have stabbed him in a Caravaggio-esque bid at art world cred, an act that succeeded only in landing him in jail.
Some market participants today relate to works based on a stochastic algorithmic approach to art appreciation that is all about access to works and the horizon of how long you venture to hold prior to dumping—numbers taking precedence over pictures. Says Rivera, all collectors are idiots for not using diagnostics to decide but neither money nor math can buy connoisseurship or knowledge and computer models can’t replace experiential engagement with art. You can predict future trends and tendencies from information gleaned from the past (to some extent) by employing historic information systems that can by nature only record the recorded. Not much more. And let’s not forget the incalculable visual dividend that art provides.
Within the past year I have heard Anselm Reyle, Banks Violette, Terence Koh, and Lucien Smith (who, like Rivera, has also rather absurdly stated his disdain for collectors), all in their forties and below, express their intent to quit art. This smacks of a crisis of confidence in and around (very) contemporary art relating to the bifurcation of art and art business that has grown more and more pronounced. For better or worse, the only way I know how to make a living is to try to sell a piece of art now and again; this indictment of my quasi-profession smarts.
Art is an amusement park for all ages and we act out in the sandbox, in spite of the schoolyard hierarchies. It’s a spectacular pretense for bringing together the hopeful, the jaded, and the discontented. It is social paste for the restless, and all of this is intensified at Art Basel Miami Beach and its environs, a smorgasbord of art. True, there was never a toilet or taxi nearby, the coffee was microwaved, people who looked dead were propped up on the couches of my hotel lobby, and I spent much of my time in excruciating foot pain, but I can’t think of anything I would rather have been doing.