In his latest body of work, Hernan Bas demonstrates a desire to get even the tiniest detail right. His research ranges from taking a virtual tour on Google Earth to sifting through old films, such as “Next Stop, Greenwich Village.” His goal: providing viewers with an authentic image of the famous Sip-In protest at Julius’ bar – including precise details on the long-gone deli that operated across the street.
“That painting is based on this quiet moment in gay history called The Sip-In,” Bas said, referencing the famous photograph from 1966 that shows a bartender refusing three openly gay men a drink. “It sounds like the opening to a joke, where three gay guys walk into a bar. But these three gay guys did walk into a bar. They spent a whole day going around the city of New York, trying to find a bar that would not serve them because they were gay.”
The painting, still in progress during a summer visit to the artist’s new Miami studio, focuses on a time in New York when just being homosexual was deemed “disorderly conduct.” Under that rubric, gays could be denied service at a bar or lunch counter. The Sip-In – a nod to the civil rights lunch-counter sit-ins – marks an historic moment in the gay rights movement, predating the Stonewall riots by three years. Ironically, the three gay men had to search to find a bar that would deny them service so they could challenge the law.
The Sip-In painting is among seven works Bas has created for a solo exhibition titled TIME LIFE, on display at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York from Nov. 7 through Jan. 4., 2020. It is the fifth solo show at the prestigious gallery for the Miami-born New World School of the Arts alumnus.
“Hernan recreates that [photograph] and organizes it from the perspective of the bartender, but removes the body of the bartender,” explains Anna Stothart, the curatorial director at Lehmann Maupin. “So, all that’s left is the specter of a white glove that’s hovering over a glass, refusing service. It’s a beautiful painting.”
His Sip-In painting demonstrates a gradual shift from a teen prodigy of the late 20th century to a maturing artist of consistently surprising and amusing talent. That evolution became most noticeable last year, when Bas created a monumental painting featuring objects from the Andy Warhol estate. The 8-by-15-foot painting, titled “Sorting Out Andy,” featured a young auction house intern playing with Warhol’s wig while cataloging objects ranging from cookie jars to African masks and Roman statues. The painting was so detailed that Bas resorted to first making a full-sized drawing before putting paint to canvas. Today, Bas said, he draws his compositions in advance, rather than relying upon stream-of-consciousness painting.
“When you look at early Hernan Bas works, it is often tiny figures who are in these vast, lush environments,” Stothart said. “As he’s progressed over time, the figure has become more and more prominent.”
Today, Bas creates more prominent figures and emphasizes their background story, Stothart said. She sees his newer works as the artist’s attempt to capture a moment in history. “I think of them as contemporary history paintings,” she said, adding that Bas tends to focus on the less obvious moments in history. “It’s not like the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He’s taking interesting key moments.”
Fred Snitzer, the Miami gallerist who discovered Bas when he was an anonymous member of a collaborative called Team Waif, acknowledges the artist’s development during the past three decades.
“He reminds me that he was [too young to legally] to drink at his own opening,” Snitzer said, recalling the 1998 group show at this gallery that put Bas in the spotlight. “He was 19.”
Despite the artist’s youth, Snitzer featured Bas in the augural Art Basel Miami Beach fair in 2002. His work sold to the Museum of Modern Art and the Rubell Family, among other prominent collections.
Snitzer has continued to feature his work at every Art Basel Miami Beach Fair. This year, as Bas turns 41, Snitzer plans to provide him with a solo exhibition at Art Basel, which runs from Dec. 5 through 8 at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Gallerists rarely limit their booths to a single artist, preferring instead to provide a variety to appeal to a broader range of collectors. Limiting sales to one artist can be an expensive gamble. “But for me, Hernan is the poster child of Art Basel, in terms of the fact that he got discovered and the light shined on him in a way that he is very talented,” Snitzer said. “Without Art Basel, it might have taken a lot longer for him to get to the place that he is at.”
Today, in addition to Snitzer, Bas is represented by some of the finest contemporary art galleries in the world: Lehmann Maupin in New York, Victoria Miro in London, Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris, and Peter Kilchmann in Zurich.
As with the Lehmann Maupin exhibition, Snitzer plans to display all new works from 2019. Included will be a couple of large folding screens, paintings large and small, works on paper and a couple of screens.
His other works in the show delve into conspiracy theories or feature individual portraits of a tropical fish enthusiast, fishermen and event a television pundit.
“When I was researching “The Pundit,” it was one of those characters that no one had really made a painting of,” he said, “which is something I like to do – make a painting of something that doesn’t exist as a painting yet.”
He plans to position “The Pundit” painting next to “The Sip-In” painting, as if he were commenting on that historic event. Bas also makes expert use of the sensory overload provided by the fast-moving television graphics in a news studio. Rather than give those images definition, he softens them, creating a background reminiscent of an abstract cubist painting.
His upcoming show also includes two paintings of an eclipse, one solar, the other lunar. They feature fishermen proudly displaying their prize catches. Their portraits are shown against a darkening sky. He calls these paintings “A Moment Eclipsed.”
“In Florida you see it all the time,” Bas said. “In fish restaurants the guy’s posing with the catch of the day. So, they’re posing with their catch of the day, but their moment is literally being eclipsed by an actual eclipse. So, their big, proud moment is, ‘Oh, who cares in the scheme of things?’”
In one of the paintings, a young man poses with a hammerhead shark. Bas actually posed with a cut-out of a hammerhead shark so that he could figure out where to position the fisherman’s arms and hands in the painting. The photograph provided an amusing image that Bas incorporated into the painting.
“So, I cut out a hammerhead and posed with it myself,” he said, laughing. “I just happened to be wearing my Moby Dick shirt, which I bought in Tokyo, actually. Then when I looked at it, no, wait, that’s kind of funny. I should have him wearing the Moby Dick shirt. It’s okay. That’s funny.”
The eclipse paintings take up nearly 15 feet of wall space in his studio, which is crammed with paintings and drawings, along with his collections of flamingo magnets, taxidermy specimens (a swan with its wings spread in flight and a boar-like creature known as a javelina) and other memorabilia. Tucked in an inconspicuous corner of the studio is the life-size fiberglass dog from the TV sitcom “Friends.”
“So, I have a film prop, Pat the dog from ‘Friends,’ “ he said laughing. “It was a completely ridiculous, 1stdibs, 3 o’clock in the morning, random purchase.”
The studio is walking distance from the Little Havana home he shares with his partner of some 20 years, Peter Rozek, who trained in urban planning and at one time owned an art-infused miniature golf course in the heart of Miami.
Bas maintains a smaller studio in Detroit, where Rozek grew up. “I was never in Detroit full-time,” Bas said. “I always had a studio [in Miami] all the time I was in Detroit.” Then he adds with a sly grin, “I don’t mind the fact that people thought I had gone away, because it left me alone. If there’s anything to be gained from this article, it’s I kind of like to be left alone.”
Bas is that rare bird, an artist who has found success in Miami. Most of his contemporaries have moved on to find acclaim elsewhere. Daniel Arsham, who grew up in Miami relocated to New York, where he co-founded the design collaborative Snarkitecture and delves into art, architecture and performance art. Miami native Teresita Fernández now resides in New York. The recipient of a genius grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Fernández returned in triumph this year to the Pérez Art Museum Miami, with the solo exhibition “Teresita Fernández: Elemental,” which runs Oct. 18 through Feb. 9. Even Agustina Woodgate, whose work was featured at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, splits her time between Miami and Amsterdam.
Miami gallerist Snitzer maintains that it is not necessarily a bad thing for local artists to move away to make their mark on the world.
“I think that every artist, no matter where he comes from, needs to travel, needs to be exposed to different cultures, different opportunities,” he said. “The days of an artist living anywhere, including New York, and just staying there are gone. There’s too much happening all over the world. These artists need to travel.”
Bas believes the major difference between him and his contemporaries is that he was recognized early.
“I say I’m fortunate,” Bas said. “But I won’t use the word ‘lucky,’ because I don’t think it’s the same thing. I work insane amounts of time. I work every single day, basically. When I’m not having a deadline, I’ll take a Sunday off. But, I’m here basically every day from 11 to 8. That’s routinely.”
As with most artists, at the start of his career he worked a second job as an art installer to pay the bills. Today, his circumstances have much improved, he said, adding: “I always said, that to me, success is going to the grocery store and not looking at prices.” With some of his works selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, those days of price-checking have long since passed.
IF YOU GO
Hernan Bas Solo Gallery Exhibition
What: “TIME LIFE” (The title is a nod to the TIME-LIFE book series on ancient mysteries, as well as a play on important times in everyday life.)
Where: Lehmann Maupin Gallery, 501 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011
When: Nov. 7, 2019 through Jan. 4, 2020.
Info: 212-255-2923, lehmannmaupin.com.
Hernan Bas Solo at Art Basel Miami Beach
What: Entire booth dedicated to Hernan Bas artwork
Where: Frederic Snitzer booth, Art Basel Miami Beach, Miami Beach Convention Center
When: Dec. 5-8, 2019
Info: 305-448-8976, snitzer.com.
Tickets: ABMB, https://www.artbasel.com/miami-beach/buy-tickets
Cost: $65 (day pass); $145 (all days)