Manhattan builder Bill Webber's been a New Yorker for 40 years. I met him trolling Fountain, one of the smaller, avant-garde, guerilla-style fairs that cling to Art Basel Miami. He introduced himself as a collector of downtown '80s street art — as in avenues A and B. He reminisced about Saturdays 20 years ago, when he came down from the Upper East Side to spend half a day in an alternative lifestyle. "The rest of our world was pretty buttoned down," he says. He collects the work of Linus Coraggio, who had a sculpture yard in an old gas station at Second Street and Avenue B called The Garage. (Since 9/11, Coraggio's yard is in badass Bushwick.) In those days, The Garage had a foundry, and scrap metal piled up all over the place — even Webber shakes his head over the "creative destruction" of New York, pointing out that there are 20 condos on that site today. Webber frequented the Avenue B Gallery, a clearinghouse for artists who worked in the neighborhood (a number of them dead now), and particularly collected the work of street artist Kevin Larmee. In the '80s, Larmee would bring a huge painted canvas from his studio and stretch it over a billboard on Fifth Avenue at 72nd Street, right where the cabs enter Central Park, next to the Metropolitan Museum. Webber says sometimes these paintings stayed in place for a couple of months before being stripped down.
An engineer by training, Webber collects sculpture, 20th-century American art with an architectural component (like some early Franz Kline paintings), and 20th-century American Photorealism. He has a few pieces of art in his one-bedroom apartment in the city, but most of the collection is displayed in what he calls his "studio" in Jersey. Webber points out that his collection was never intended to be an investment, although he just sold his first painting at auction — bought years ago as part of a lot — for the price of an average American home, to fund more acquisitions.
We met in a beauty shop in the Miami Design district during a night of open houses, where music prevented conversation, so we soon headed to the parking lot. Webber wore a white suit, small, round, black glasses and a dapper white porkpie hat — a vision of what William Burroughs might have been if clean.
Artillery: Talking over the course of Basel Miami about what it means to have an "eye," do you feel you have one?
Webber: Yes, I do. I consider myself visual. I like to draw, particularly buildings. I usually do sketches of what I want to build before I start talking to architects. If that was a more important part of the SATs, I might have gotten into Harvard.
How does that influence your eye when you're looking at art?
I do photography myself. I love the spaces out here. There's a bunch of steel tanks out on Second Street — I think it's a dairy — and they're very photogenic, particularly early in the morning — that's when I prowl around down here. Just the splash of color on an otherwise monochromatic background — it's pleasant. Sometimes I'll walk up the railroad tracks and take pictures of the backs of buildings.
Sounds like you're always following your eye.
It's strictly pleasure. I go prospecting.
What trends have you seen at this year's Basel Miami?
I thought there were refreshingly less political statements. I was happy about that. Either side of the political argument, where people are strident about something, kind of bores me.
Do you have any advice for collectors about this buyer's market and how to navigate it?
I'm not much in the way of a bargainer. When it comes to a picture or something that I like, I usually pay whatever somebody's asking. Now, if we're talking about real estate, I would have an entirely different approach. I buy what I like.
There's definitely fine art available under some distress in this market. How to do that is not something I'm thinking of pursuing. I'm going to go to the next print auction to try to buy some Thiebauds. If I see a couple of these prints I'm after come up and no one's buying, I'll probably put in a bid. If it's being bid through the offer, I'm not going to chase it up. I'm collecting those pictures for eight grandchildren under 9 years old. ■
Robyn Perry at email@example.com