THE THING you need to know about Art Basel Miami Beach and its attendant hoopla is that it's more about people watching than anything else. A colorful crowd, running the gamut from serial recidivists like Adele and Eva to lean and tanned South American trophy wives clutching regulation-issue Birkin bags, haunts the miles of aisles of art that comprise the show. There seems to be a high percentage of those wives on a mission to acquire ever more trophies with which to embellish their AbFab lives. Or, was it that I kept running into the same group again and again?
The Vernissage is a fashion parade of epic proportions featuring a leitmotif of sky-high gladiator sandals and (this being Miami) lots of sequins and lamé. Porkpie hats are the fashion accessory of choice for hep-cats channeling the Rat Pack. Forget about looking at the art: Even if you could see it through the crush, the human spectacle's much too distracting. The only thing missing were the Salahis and they may well have been there, for all I know
The Miami Beach Convention Center is ground zero, but numerous satellite shows (NADA, Aqua, Pulse, Scope, etc.) are spread about the greater Miami area. If you don't come equipped with a Brink's truck full of cash, or you have an interest in emerging artists, these are must-sees.
To say one spends most of one's time on the shuttle buses traveling between the various venues, isn't an exaggeration. All manner of info is exchanged in these mobile bush telegraph stations. How reliable this information is ("the containers on the beach are great/there aren't any containers on the beach this year") is open to question. And do I really need to know which is Rosie O'Donnell's house? Still, a pleasant bonhomie prevails among a group not always known for its warmth and fuzz.
In the interest of full disclosure I must confess I didn't make it everywhere, there was just too much to see. One thing's for certain: No matter where you go, be prepared to wade through a boatload of drek. But even this can be entertaining, up to a point.
Two booths that wowed me at Art Basel were Lisson and Sikkema Jenkins, where nearly every piece was a home run. The former featured gems by Anish Kapoor, Robert Mangold and Shirazeh Houshiary, and at Sikkema Jenkins I discovered Arturo Herrera, who gets my Best in Show vote. Other works that rocked my world were a luminous Andreas Gurskey at White Cube, two lush Thomas Ruffs, Kendell Geers' giant stenciled mirror ball, Nick Cave's exuberant appropriated-object "soundsuits" at Jack Shainman Gallery that evoke tribal dress, an enchanting glitter painting by Chris Martin and a fresh little Sam Francis that I would have given my eyeteeth for.
One of my favorite booths (for all the wrong reasons) was Gmurzynska from Zurich. I'm convinced this is where Steve Wynn buys his art. They specialize in the kind of easily identifiable work that even the most loutish can guestimate the cost of. Going against the prevailing trend, the booth was painted a putty color and had white wall-to-wall carpet. Behind the chrome and glass console (which reminded me of the command center of the starship Enterprise and must have been picked up in Dubai) sat five salespeople, whom, judging from their resemblance, were all related. In addition to the glitzy Robert Indianas, the de rigueur Picassos and the titillating (no pun intended) Tom Wesselmans, the pièces de résistance were several works by that as yet undiscovered modern master, Sylvester Stallone. Now, I like impasto as much as the next guy, but really. Show some restraint. Looking at these hot messes of a dog's breakfast, I have just one thing to say to Sly: Keep your day job.
In-vogue artists Wayne Gonzales, Kehinde Wiley and Yinka Shonibare kept cropping up in multiple booths, detracting somewhat from their intrinsic wow factor. Some work was perplexing. Is just taking a familiar object and making it really big, enough? Haven't we been there and done that? At $30,000 a pop and up for a booth, how can the galleries swing it? The papers reported that sales were good, but can this be true? I spotted only a handful of red dots during my meanderings and everybody seemed to be in a bargaining mood.
At NADA, way the hell out at the end of Miami Beach in the Deauville Hotel, I was thrilled to see Chuck Close (whom I didn't fawn over, though I was itching to). Here, I was taken with Peter Alexander's resin Judd-like pieces and Ricardo Rendon's punched felt. At Aqua, Narwhal Gallery from Toronto featured unpretentious and highly inventive work. Tibi Tibi Neuspiel's toast series made me laugh out loud — the perfect response to those enshrined bakery items boasting Virgin Mary likenesses. I made a quick pass through Pulse, stopping to admire the beautiful (and a little creepy) kinetic flower sculpture by U Ram Choe, and Sandow Birk's elegant Mad-Magazine-meets-the-Koran miniatures. Two children made an unwitting sight gag seated on the floor watching a video next to Mickey Mouse twisting in a hangman's noose. As usual, the selection at Hales and Pierogi was first rate, with work by Hew Locke, Tony Fitzgerald, David Scher and Hugo Crosthwaite.
Eating our way through Miami, we dined on jerk chicken at Clive's, fried yucca and pulled pork at Puerto Sagua and a phenomenal Cuban press sandwich at Enriqueta's, washed down with a sublime mango elixir. A visit to South Beach wouldn't be complete without stopping at the sumptuous Delano, of the famous pool and gardens. It's the kind of place where the low lighting, oversize proportions and ubiquitous chill soundtrack are disorienting, making you feel stoned even when you're not. But I have to say, although they were delicious, the mojitos, like most of the art I saw, were overpriced. Seventeen bucks? Pu-leeze.