When, finally, the doors to Art Basel Miami Beach’s 2015 show sprung open at 11 a.m. Wednesday, all the well-heeled V-VIPs who had been waiting in a tight scrum for a half-hour — because the competition is such that only the very truly important people now get to go in first — acted like kids let loose in a candy store.
They spread at a brisk pace through the vast floor of the Miami Beach Convention Center and its 267 gallery booths, looking for the moment like someone had clad an invading army in goods cleaned out from a Prada or Givenchy warehouse. But then, as though they’d suddenly let go of all that tension over the ridiculous traffic, the off-and-on rain, and whether they had RSVP’d in time for that exclusive dinner, a calm sense of release settled over the crowd.
Now, at this moment, it was all about what they had come here by the thousands for, from all over the world: the art.
And, holy bananas, what art.
From 20th-century modern American and European masters to new art stars from all over, and a particular spotlight on women artists, either overlooked or rediscovered, the Basel fair— the main event in the cornucopia of art fairs and ancillary happenings that’s come to be known as Miami Art Week — served up an aesthetic repast so rich that even the greediest art-gourmandiser could not rush through it.
Now in its 14th year, the Beach edition of the Basel fair, its place firmly cemented as the premier venue for collectors and curators and art-world hangers-on in the Americas, has traded much of the go-go, flavor-of-the moment feel of its early days for a settled depth and sweep that offers something seriously good for everyone, from the connoisseur to the merely art-curious, several observers said.
“This fair survives on the basis of quality,” said prominent Miami collector, businessman and activist Norman Braman, an early backer of the Beach fair, hands clasped behind his back as he cooly surveyed the pre-opening scene in the collector’s lounge. “People have to remember — it’s a commercial enterprise. The galleries are here from all over the world with their best art. It’s not the parties, it’s not anything else.”
Among the highlights, collectors and critics said: the Elvira Gonzalez gallery from Madrid, which gave over its entire space to a collection of American Robert Mangold’s deceivingly simple, quietly colorful geometric paintings. At Pace, a stunning collection of 20th century giant Louise Nevelson’s sculptural assemblages, all in her signature black, including an unusual early piece for the relative bargain price of $350,000. And, at ULAE’s booth, a Jasper Johns monotype of his paintbrushes in a Savarin coffee can, which collector and dealer Barry Fellman called “one of the most seminal images” in 20th century art — and worth every penny at $2 million, he added.
That so much of the best work on display in this year’s fair is by long-established or even dead artists is no coincidence, Pace gallerist Marc Glimcher said. “The cult of the 24-year-old artist is fading now, and people are starting to look again at history,” he said.
Another reason: Softening economies in Latin America, Europe and China has lessened the frenetic pace of sales and caused collectors to consider value.
Early sales on Wednesday were “vibrant,” in one gallerist’s description, though expectations were clearly tempered. Steven Henry, director of the Paula Cooper Gallery, said he had sold 10 of the 40 pieces he had brought to the fair by early afternoon, including a spiraling white scuplture by another 20th century heavyweight, Sol LeWitt, for $600,000. Rachel Lehmann of Lehmann Maupin sold two works by Nari Ward, who has a show at Pérez Art Museum Miami.
New York gallerist Howard Greenberg said he had sold one photograph, a stern portrait of an 11-member Israeli Orthodox Jewish family by French photographer Frédéric Brenner, for $27,000. But he wasn’t expecting a record-breaker this year.
“Sales will be fine,” Greenberg said. “But we’re seeing buyers be more selective, more careful. We’ve had a very nice run over the last few years, but I think people are taking a little breather.”
Not that there was any lack of cutting-edge, provocative or simply fun newer work. At Galerie Karsten Greve, a delicate installation by Irish artist Claire Morgan features a tiny taxidermied hare within a cocoon of dandelion seeds painstakingly glued to filament to form an egg-shaped enclosure.
Turner Prize-winning Briton Chris Ofili’s erotically tinged black-and-blue “Black Shunga” etchings, based on the old Japanese Edo-era explicit imagery, and exhibited in a darkened Kabinett booth within Twin Palms gallery’s space, were causing a stir. In a different way, so was an installation consisting of an old Chrysler crushed by a massive volcanic basalt stone, by American Jimmie Durham.
And if you like painting, whether you’re buying or just looking, this fair’s for you.
This year’s show confirms that painting, pronounced dead time and again, is indeed alive and thriving. In booth after booth, paintings took center stage — both figurative and abstract and, increasingly, said NSU Art Museum of Fort Lauderdale director Bonnie Clearwater, a blend of the two.
And women, once shoved to the background, occupied foreground space in many booths. Team gallery prominently displayed a large new painting by Florida-born Suzanne McClelland, whose work is also represented at the all-women show now up at the Rubell Family Collection in Wynwood.
At the Mary Boone Gallery, the veteran director proudly pointed to works by five women, including Laurie Simmons, Nancy Dwyer, and Barbara Kruger, with a new untitled work showing an enormous faucet spouting the words “Water Oil Land Air” and the question “Who Owns What?”
Francis M. Naumann’s booth had watercolors by Suzanne Duchamp, sister of famed Marcel, in her first American exhibit.
It wasn’t all about the art, of course. There was plenty of stargazing, too, as usual. Sly Stallone, Tommy Hilfiger, Elle Macpherson, Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez, Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and Leonardo DiCaprio were among the luminaries on hand, along with Los Angeles mega-collector Eli Broad. So was Emma Watson, though not in person: Swiss artist Yves Scherer’s nearly seven-foot-long aluminum sculpture of a reclining mermaid, at Galerie Guido W. Baudach, bore the actress’ face.
Miami Herald Staff Writers Jordan Levin, Jane Wooldridge and Herald Arts Writer Siobhan Morrissey contributed to this report.