Art Basel

At Art Basel, less flash means more cash for galleries

Less cheek and more blue-chip. Less rubber, more paint. Less untested youth, more classic heft.

That was the skinny on the vast trove of contemporary works on offer as hundreds of art-world VIPs swept through the opening hours Wednesday of Miami Art Week’s big tostada, the Art Basel/Miami Beach fair.

If gallerists were playing it safer than in previous editions of the biggest, most important art fair in the country — concerned about a still-unsteady world economy, perhaps, or covering the expense of showing at Basel — the conservative approach did seem to pay off in big sales, at least early on. Which made for a lot of happy small-business owners at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“I’ve sold more in the first hour than I ever have before,” said a beaming David Nolan of New York, who stocked his booth with works on paper generally ranging in price from $30,000 to $100,000. The array included works by iconic American artists Richard Artschwager (a pair of pastels) and Robert Smithson (a drawing). A quick survey of the thousands of artworks from around the world arrayed on the sprawling convention floor founds lots of examples by big names in 20th Century art, from Josef Albers and Jean Dubuffet to Alex Katz, Mark Rothko and Frank Stella.

One of the most talked about pieces: Barbara Kruger’s huge Buy low sell high, in the Sprüth Magers gallery, which sold early Wednesday for $275,000. The screen print on vinyl shows a gray cushion stuck with pins and a penny, framed by a red border with the title printed at the top.

It represents “what the fair is about,” said art advisor Lisa Austin, who described it as “iconic” and “hilarious.”

Not that the experimental, the younger or the unfamiliar was stinted at the fair. Nolan, for instance, also hung a minutely detailed small painting by a younger Miami artist, Victoria Gitman, of a feathered change purse: On the tiny clasp, a sharp observer can pick out a near-microscopic reflection of the artist at work in front of her Hallandale Beach window.

Fairgoers looking for the novel or the experimental, what many collectors expect to find in the Miami edition of the Swiss-owned fair, had plenty of other stuff to see — starting with first-time exhibitors along the edge of the floor and extending to the most sober booths.

Browsers could participate in the creation of art as part of a piece by Brazilian artist Tonico Lemos Auad in the CRG gallery booth. His Reflected Archaeology encourages people to scratch off the gray lotto-card material obscuring an image underneath. The result looked like the scribbles one might find on a bathroom wall: “Love is the answer,” “I (heart) 3 Matt,” and “B--ch.”

The morning Basel VIP opening, to be followed by the usually mobbed Vernissage in the evening, means Miami’s art week — that can’t-see-it-all crush of pop-up fairs and exhibitions, pop-up shops, pop-up parties and pop-up people — is now in full swing. More satellite fairs than ever opened to the general public on Wednesday, from UNTITLED on the sand of South Beach to Art Miami, the week’s senior fair, in Midtown Miami.

But for serious collectors and repeat celebrity visitors such as Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart, the day’s focus was undisputably the Basel fair, now in its 11th year.

Unlike last year, when a scrum of well-heeled VIPs virtually shoved their way in at the 11 a.m. opening, possibly inspiring the now-notorious comparison to “squirming maggots” in Tom Wolfe’s new Miami novel, this time fair organizers staggered entry in orderly lines. The more-sedate atmosphere gave buyers time and space to focus and shop around, gallery owners said.

“It’s not as frantic,” said Burkhard Riemschneider, of Berlin’s Galerie Neugerriemschneider. “People are more concentrated — it’s a very well-informed crowd of collectors.”

And though the aisles were relatively uncrowded, the avidity for art had not flagged.

At the booth of New York-based dealer Larry Gagosian, works had sold before the fair even opened — with collectors making decisions from digital images. Among the works sold were a Gerhard Richter with a $4 million price tag. New York-based Pace Gallery had 15 sales in the first three hours of the show at prices ranging from about $80,000 to about $650,000, said gallery executive vice president Peter Boris.

Evident, too, was the staggering diversity of nationalities among the fairgoers, to judge from the babble of languages and accents.

Air kisses and even hugs were common as members of what is a relatively tight, exclusive club greeted one another as if it were old art-world home week at Basel, which in a sense it was. For them, the Miami Beach fair has become a must-do pilgrimage.

“There’s very strong attendance by the right people,” said Mathias Rastorfer, co-owner and director of Switzerland’s blue-chip Galerie Gmurzynska, with a coveted position next to the fair’s entrance. “In spite of the global economic problems, there are more international buyers than ever. The Far East, Russia, Europe, the U.S. is coming back, South America has especially increased.”

Visitors at Gmurzynska were fascinated by Scott Campbell’s Reliquary, a sculpted figure in a large case made of thousands of layers of laser cut dollar bills — a kind of “money mummy.” It has been reserved for $100,000.

The Galerie Neugerriemschneider generated buzz with an untitled piece by famed Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, composed of two prison interrogation chairs facing each other and connected by wood temple carvings — equal parts ancient art and commentary on modern Chinese society.

Video art, a hot commodity in recent fairs, was not so much in evidence this year. Neither was explicitly sexual or profane work.

But it wasn’t entirely absent, either.

A small army of cigarette butt sculptures stood ready to picket at Miami’s Snitzer Gallery, holding signs, including ones saying “My husband is a p---y,” and “Just explode this life for a change.” The 2012 installation by Jon Pylypchuk is called, “I won’t give up on you,” and attracted snickers and cellphone photos — and praise — from people passing by.

Miami Herald staff writer Jane Wooldridge contributed to this report.