Issue #139  1/3/2008
Report From Miami: Art Basel's Decadence, Balanced By AIPAD's Vintage and Large-Scale Contemp and Photo Miami's "Energy/Nerve"

By Matt Damsker

Into its sixth year as the biggest art fair in the U.S.--and, as far as anyone knows or cares, maybe the biggest in the world, given the swirl and sprawl of parasitic/symbiotic art shows that have attached themselves to its orbit (this year including AIPAD's first Miami-based tent)--Art Basel Miami Beach was everything people say it is: impossible to really absorb, a fashion event as much as a truly artistic one, and most of all an enormous excuse for the rich and trendy to party, compete, self-congratulate and enjoy Miami weather at its most moderate, as the early December sun kisses rather than assaults the skin, and the 43,000 attendees and 1,600 journalists who descended on it between December 5th and 10th worried about what really matters in South Florida--finding the right place to eat.

And so, while a relatively staid show such as AIPAD's has entered its Miami Vice era, one could say that ABMB has entered its decadent stage, but that would be disingenuous, since decadence was always built into this "Art Costco for billionaires," as New York Times critic Guy Trebay dubbed it last year. And as doyenne Nadja Swarovski, of the famous crystal manufacturing family (which sponsors an annual blowout here), observed, ABMB was invented as the geographically convenient way of catering to the North America and South American capital that plays hard in Miami--thus, ABMB is, to the rich and richer, just another traffic jam/parking nightmare to be overcome by limo or private plane.

After all, the world is flat and access to art and artists is much easier for the privileged, and so big, showy, campy, faux "events" are of greater interest to the press and the scene-makers than to the powerfully wealthy, and gradually, perhaps, that message has sunk in with ABMB's organizers. Now there's less frenzy and more purpose--last year's striptease by Dita von Teese was the sort-of media highlight (by last year, it might be noted, Dita was already so last-year) but this year there was more of an emphasis on timelessness, and nothing exemplified this better than having ageless punk avatar Iggy Pop and the remnants of his original band, the Stooges, kick things off on the beach with a typically furious rock 'n rage set, as Iggy asked that the spotlights be turned on the true stars of the day--mainly, the collectors, dealers, and gallerinas who energize ABMB as much as does the art.

This was nicely balanced at AIPAD by the non-musical but nonetheless thrilling--in it is own dark and dour way--appearance of pre-Iggy, proto-punk rock icon Lou Reed, whose expectedly brooding photos of New York and its inner dimensions were hanging at the Steven Kasher Gallery booth. (AIPAD did well enough on the celebrity front, with Calvin Klein, Bob Vila of "This Old House" fame, and even Mandy Moore seen schmoozing and browsing.) And AIPAD's trove of Latin American artistry was especially apposite in the Miami context: Throckmorton's reverent display of works by Mexico's Manuel Alvarez Bravo--who recently broke auction records for a photograph by a Latin American--and PDNB Gallery's showcase of Argentina's Esteban Pastorino, who builds his own cameras and flies them from kites (especially stunning was his dramatic bullring photo).

AIPAD also had a greater veneer of dealer integrity going for it. Indeed, it's arguable that much of the best art for which ABMB is ostensibly held was sold even before the show opened. Pre-selling is nothing new, but apparently it's more common now in Miami, according to the Wall Street Journal's Lauren Schuker, in part because of ABMB's emphasis on major contemporaries, and the intense competitiveness of their collectors. Increasingly, these buyers have no desire to cool their heels waiting for the main hall to open in the Miami Beach Convention Center when they can negotiate for their prizes beforehand. Miami's Lisa Austin, an art adviser, acknowledges that the pre-selling at ABMB is "getting earlier and earlier every year." Thus, according to Schuker's reporting, new work by American pop-art painter Alex Katz was sold just prior to ABMB by his dealer, the Richard Gray Gallery, which was offering lesser Katz drawings at the Miami fair. Similarly, New York's Mary Boone Gallery reportedly sold some $10 million worth of Eric Fischl paintings to a single collector a month prior to ABMB.

That hardly means that there's nothing worth buying or seeing at ABMB, but it gives some credence to the notion that the event is more of a jetsetter festival than anything. As a result, ABMB's canny impresario, Samuel Keller, seems determined that it be distinguished by seriousness, rigor, and high imagination in its presentations. (Perhaps there's the issue of his legacy. After organizing 20 editions of Art Basel, Keller will move on in 2008 to direct the Foundation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland. As of January, the new artistic director of Art Basel will be Cay Sophie Rabinowitz.) Thus, not only did we get Iggy over Dita, but the proximity to Miami Beach's matchless surf and sand led to an inspired showcasing of "young" galleries in large shipping containers along the Collins Park beachfront--as if they had been washed in by time and tide, and that's as potent a metaphor for the fair's existence as any.

On the Trail of Scale

But timelessness amidst an ironic whirl of fashion, trend, and gimmickry is a pretty good thematic conceit for ABMB's effort to squeeze the universe into a ball, and that's where the rest of the art comes in. Thus, the most elite and established galleries--such as PaceWildenstein, Sonnabend, and Metro Pictures--balanced their offering of rising art stars like Sterling Ruby, with his enigmatic astral collages, with the enduring likes of John Chamberlain's twisted auto bodies, Sol LeWitt's mathematical abstractions, Warhol silk screens, some small Picassos, Jeff Koons molds, or Cindy Sherman images. Amidst all the new, envelope-pushing, randomized, fragmented, cartoonish, hypersexualized, and ultra-violent pieces and installations, it is at once comforting and profound to note that nothing had more of a presence--nor seemed more contemporary--than Dan Flavin's familiar tubes of colored light, juxtaposed so simply with one another, set against white corners and illuminating their space with blended electrical hues that make us stop and wonder, as they always have, bathing our eyes in the purest glow of minimalism's heyday.

Today's breed of billionaire collectors, of course, needn't canvass ABMB for their Flavins, so there is something quaint about this show when it throws up the big names of modernism and post-modernism with that Costco flair. Which leads us to ABMB's relationship with art photography. Thanks to large-format C-print and inkjet and laser technology, photographs needn't remain the step-child of Big Art, especially since today's breed of hedge-fund manager/collectors demands SCALE to fill that vast wall space in the Hamptons or Pacific Palisades. And so the leading photography galleries at ABMB go well beyond the typically intimate framing of the modernist masters they sell--Harry Callahan, August Sander, Weston, Winogrand, and the like--with whopping large-format images full of sound and fury, signifying…well, the usual.

At Jeffrey Fraenkel's booth, for example, Richard Misrach's gorgeous bird's-eye view of a swimmer in the green surf measured 68 by 118 inches, all visual sensation, a symphony of sunlight reflected on small, rippling waves--this is HDTV without the TV. Similarly, over at Kicken Berlin's booth, where big versions of Helmut Newton's Asian nudes towered intimidatingly for Miami's fetishists, one of the walls was given over, magnificently, to a reprinting of Dieter Appelt's 1993 assemblage of black-and-white close-ups of rippling water, "Field," another immersion in pure liquid eye seduction. If nothing else, these artworks paid homage to Miami's briny geography, bringing another thematic strand into focus for ABMB. But over in a far corner of the hall, Paris Projects plastered its walls with a somewhat unfathomable photographic series that documented some deranged quasi-religious festival of seeming cannibalism, zombie-ism, sodomy, torture—in other words, another ABMB metaphor for the byproducts of capitalism, rather quietly self-critical in an important way.

The AIPAD Connection

As for AIPAD (the Association of International Photography Art Dealers), the logical strategy of aligning, finally, with the ABMB experience meant setting up more than 40 of the world's top photography galleries across Biscayne Bay, in Miami's trendy if downscale Wynwood art neighborhood, where it shared its setting with Photo Miami's like-scaled tent (admission to either show included access to the other). The result was convenient and complementary.

For solid contemporary work, modern masters and vintage photographs, AIPAD offered a well-lit, navigable maze of booths, while Photo Miami, a discreet few yards away, delivered the cutting-edge blend of photography-based art that prods the barriers of style and format. You could begin your visit in the calm thrall of AIPAD's unpretentious dedication to fine-art photographs, then dive into Photo Miami's din of genre- and gender-bending, emerging at the end of the day with a decent sense of what the photography market will bear.

In AIPAD's case, the spillover from Art Basel Miami Beach was, of course, a key reason for being here. "There's going to be people you wouldn't see otherwise," agreed Aspen, CO, dealer Joel Soroka, "and that means curators as well as the private collectors. Whether that translates into more sales for us becomes harder to say." It certainly may require a long-term assessment to determine just how much ABMB drives sales for AIPAD's members going into 2008. Meanwhile, AIPAD dealers were exhibiting with an eye to the Big Art imperative of the ABMB crowd.

"Certainly, scale is important to collectors, more and more," observed Portland, OR, dealer Charles A. Hartman. "And so we're conscious of being able to fill wall space with large-format photography--but it's equally important that the photography makes sense on a large scale." Hartman's small booth was devoted to a single photographer, Scott Peterman, a New York-based artist whose images alternate evocatively between arid, minimal, monochrome studies of spaces such as the Bonneville Salt Flats and dense cityscapes--a bustling, multi-leveled Cairo, with commercial signage atop buildings, cars speeding along on the freeway below, and people at bus stations at the bottom of the frame; Mexico City, with serenely repetitive, clustered homes; and a Manhattan homage to Berenice Abbott's famed vantage point atop the Empire State Building, which Peterman recasts in color, the snowcapped skyscraper roofs reflecting a gorgeous blue tint.

At the end of the weekend at AIPAD, dealers were expectedly mixed in their assessments. Florida dealer Howard Schickler called it "generally a slow fair, but we had a brisk interest/response to Richard Pare's 'Lost Vanguard' series with five sales at the fair, two post-fair and climbing, and Pare's 10-foot long diptych "Melnikov House" sold at $17,000. Many visitors to the booth had seen his show at MoMA NY which had just come down on Nov. 1."

But Schickler "could not ascertain any trends here at the show, although the two blackouts and lack of signage for two and a half days was a real bummer."

Chicago dealer Catherine Edelman, while agreeing that the show had its functional problems, "thought it was terrific and definitely worth doing again. We sold 32 Julie Blackmon pieces, a few Joel-Peter Witkin pieces, among others. We sold to UBS folks [UBS was the main sponsor of ABMB], a number of Europeans, and several Florida residents. Overall, we sold to only one collector known to us, which is always a sign of a good, new art fair, as I picked up over a dozen new collectors."

And David Barenholtz of Culver City, CA's David Gallery, said, "We did relatively well. Not as good as I have done at past AIPADs or even some Photo LA's, but not bad. We sold about 20 prints--three Harry Benson prints ranging from $6,000 to $10,000 and two large format Stephen Wilkes prints (72 x 48) from his new China series at $17,500 each.

As Barenholtz put it, "Overall I would say it was a fair fair. I was surprised there were so few collectors from Europe, as I thought with the weak dollar they would be in Miami in droves. Also I think ABMB has matured considerably. There was less energy than last year in Miami; it was easy to get into fancy restaurants--the hoi polloi have left!"

Contemporary/Vintage Works, Ltd., took AIPAD's largest space, as dealer Alex Novak rolled out generous wall displays for his Internet-based gallery's stable of artists. Novak's contemporary charge is led by the provocations of Lisa Holden, whose meldings of photography, paint and multiple imagery question identity and image, and Claudia Kunin, who builds dreamscapes and recasts mythic scenes with deceptively pure photographic style. Then there are the night landscapes of Marcus Doyle, who imparts an alien grandeur to mundane locales, and the majestic Western vistas of Mitch Dobrowner. All of these artists afford scale.

But some of the most powerful work on display at Contemporary/Vintage Works didn't trade so much in wall space as in sheer content: Arthur Tress' magnificent series of saturated color prints from his remarkable Welfare Island project, in which he set up his camera at an abandoned Manhattan hospital, with its rusted machinery and haunted detritus. Using wildly colorful spray paint, Tress turned these "objects trouve" into astonishing artistic shrines, and then photographed them--a superb transformation of object into art, and art object into photographic subject.

When one thinks of Tress' long history--his naturalistic black-and-white photography of past decades, with its imaginative capture of form, light and shadow, and its theatrical, sculptural play of human subjects, from rural children to street hockey players--this Welfare Island project is a daring progression, since it addresses the human in retrospect, as having produced these hospital objects and left them behind (much as our culture leaves behind the sick and dying). Tress ironically yet compassionately celebrates this junkyard of the body, and the result is unique--a photographic theater that departs from Tress's earlier work yet remains utterly consonant with it. As Alex Novak observed, "The thing is, just about the only place where people can see this work is here, now, at AIPAD."

Novak's assessment of AIPAD's show was highly positive. "Contemporary Works/Vintage Works had its most successful art photography fair ever at the AIPAD Photography Miami show," he said unequivocally. "The company has sold or has on "hold" about $350,000 in vintage and contemporary images, with interest in many others." Novak also thought that most of the AIPAD dealers exhibiting had "brought their 'A' game, so the show looked great. And all our clients told us that this show was the most professional and interesting of any of the so-called satellite shows."

"Because we were able to get the kind of space in Miami that we did, I think that all the dealers, including ourselves, were finally able to do justice to the larger scale contemporary work at an AIPAD fair," Novak added. "I hope that will be true in the future. AIPAD's New York City fair at the Armory has space limitations that really make it difficult, if not impossible, to show contemp work properly; so Miami is all we have currently."

And as for that contemporary work, Lisa Holden (who was recently compared to Cindy Sherman, Pipilotti Rist and Tracey Moffatt by Focus magazine and featured in the contemporary art photography magazine Eyemazing) was clearly Contemporary/Vintage Works' star.

"We sold eight of her pieces," Novak said. "We had to take down off the wall and deliver three of hers and one of Marcus Doyle's work for local Floridian collectors who wanted to show them off immediately at dinner parties. One of the Holden's was a unique painted/varnished work just completed in time for this show. We also sold three Arthur Tress pieces and a Mitch Dobrowner landscape."

A number of institutions and corporate clients are also looking at purchasing a number of other Doyle nightscapes, Dobrowner's Californian images, Michael A. Smith's powerful new large color prints of inmates awaiting murder charges and Claudia Kunin's stunning mythological studies from her new "Holy Ghost" series. The latter two were shown in Miami for the first time in the U.S. There is also some institutional interest in possible shows for some of these artists.

As for vintage work, Novak sold a number of important pieces to fellow dealers, including a Robert Frank, several Helen Levitt's and a Manual Alvarez Bravo portfolio, as well as to institutions and private collectors. One museum has Edward Steichen's Marion Morehouse image that appears in Vogue in 1928 on hold. Another bought nearly six figures worth of 19th-century work that Novak had stored away, rather than on display. Other private clients bought up four more Levitts, a rare oversized and superb print of Andre Kertesz's "Melancholic Tulip", another very rare late 1950s print of Kertesz's surrealist "Arm in Ventilator", and an early and published Josef Sudek "On the Embankment, Prague".

Novak attributes much of his sales to a combination of personal pre-selling before the show and his company's major pre-show marketing blitz that consisted of two-page color spread ads in several photography and art publications and a massive mailing to his clients, plus several email blasts.

"We also made arrangements for several major museum and art groups to come to the fair as VIPs." "In addition," Novak continued, "AIPAD's new PR/marketing team made a great effort to gain exposure for the show, which was extremely helpful to the success of all the dealers here."

Several unsold works that got lots of interest for Novak included a beautiful Irving Penn platinum/palladium print of "Woman in Bed", a unique little gem of a portrait of Kiki peering out of a Giacometti sculpture by Man Ray, Edward Steichen's iconic "May Pole", the two multiple exposure images by Francois Kollar ("Eiffel Tower" and "Women and Chess Pieces"), a rare 1960s print of Robert Frank's Butte, Montana, from his "The Americans" series, a very rare Horst vintage print of "Barefoot," and a circa 1960 print of Cartier-Bresson's famous "Au Bord de la Marne."

The list certainly goes on. San Francisco's Michael Shapiro reported a "good level of interest from serious collectors" and sold 22 works, among them a W. Eugene Smith gelatin silver print for $110,000 and a Harry Callahan gelatin silver print for $22,000.

Bruce Silverstein of New York noted sales of two prints by Edward Weston in the $50,000 range, nine prints by Randy West of his iconic blades of grass for $5,000 to $6,000, and a set of prints of manhole covers by Marvin Newman for $24,000. In addition, six tiny prints by André Kertész made from 1912 to 1925 were sold for $10,000 each.

Barry Singer of Petaluma, CA, who also felt that this was one of his best shows ever, cited sales of photographs by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman to a major industrialist and a Swiss collector.

HackelBury Fine Art Limited, London, sold a number of prints priced from $4,000 to $25,000 by Stephen Inggs, Richard Caldicott, and Malick Sidibé, the Malian photographer noted for his black-and-white studies of popular culture in the 1960s in Bamako, who won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale this year.

Scott Nichols, of San Francisco, commented on "the tremendous interest from all over the world."

Peter Wach, of Wach Gallery reported the sale of Ansel Adams' "Half Dome, Orchard and Winter, Yosemite National Park", c.1935, for $32,000 and Robert Glenn Ketchum's Choose Joy, 2007, for $24,000.

Throckmorton Fine Art, New York, noted it was "a very well presented show" and sold more than a dozen works including Nicholas Murray's 1938 portrait of Frida Kahlo for $8,000.

"We did well at the show," said Tucson, AZ dealer Terry Etherton. "Not as good as we usually do at AIPAD but better than Photo LA. We sold everything from Curtis to Witkin. Mostly classic well-known photographers sold: Curtis, Gibson, Garduno, Lyon, Morris, Witkin, Mann, Sommer. Pieces that did not sell that are special: a selection of the best images from Alex Webb's impressive career; a really stunning Frederick Sommer Colorado River Landscape, 1942; and an exceptionally beautiful Curtis goldtone."

Boston's Robert Klein, who is also president of AIPAD, sold both contemporary and modern work across the board including four prints by Arno Rafael Minkkinen from $10,000 to $25,000 and work by Jeff Brouws and Kenro Izu. Klein also sold an Edward Weston print for $20,000 and an Edward Steichen print for $125,000.

The transgender world of the 1970s captured by Jeffrey Silverthorne was of interest at Photographs Do Not Bend (PDNB) Gallery, Dallas, TX. Eight prints went for $5,000 each. "The biggest surprise was Jeffrey Silverthorne's photographs of Transvestites, taken 1972 to 1974. We had a group (15 images) and sold most of them, but some are still available," said Burt Finger of Dallas, Texas's PDNB Gallery. "These were gritty pictures that portrayed the transvestite scene in Providence, RI directly as only Silverthorne could do."

"I did well selling work by Alison Rossiter, Cynthia Greig, Vid Ingelevics and SX-70 Polaroids by Andre Kertesz. Thus far my follow-up sales have been almost as good as my sales on the floor," noted Stephen Bulger, of Toronto, Canada. "The most interest was in the Kertesz Polaroids as well as Rossiter's new work called 'Lament.'" In the latter series, Rossiter makes photographs of expired and discontinued sheet film; she also processes long expired papers that have not been exposed. Their abstract imagery stems simply from age and circumstantial damage.

San Francisco's Robert Koch Gallery had fine displays of Edward Burtynsky's wide-angle explorations of the vast marble and granite quarries of Iberia and Maine, and more than a few dealers made sure that the prime obsession of our era--celebrity--was well-represented, whether in Mark Shaw's glamour shots of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, or in Daniel Kramer's many candid captures of Bob Dylan in his mid-1960s ascendancy, being hugged and lifted by Joan Baez, or slyly perusing a newspaper. And Steven Klein's sacrilegious tableau of an elder David Bowie and a Christ-like figure was a showstopper, equaled only by David Hockney's fractured Polaroid montage of a nude Theresa Russell.

Photo Miami's Nerve Center

Over in Photo Miami, of course, the familiar gave way to the shock of the truly new--a bracing blast of headlong contemporary artistry that may prove as disposable as the hip-hop and alternative rock music that blared over the speakers, although that hardly matters. Mainly, what differentiates it from AIPAD is that Photo Miami is a show of "photo-based art, video and new media," as impresario Stephen Cohen's publicists carefully describe it. And what registered was the energy and nerve of the photo-based projects on display--indeed, a preponderance of these artworks are not about taking pictures but about using the photographic image as a mere point of departure.

During my visit, it was tough to gauge where the collector excitement was, since the manufacture of youthful art stars has become as much of an industry as the marketing of athletic shoes, but once again, being in the orbit of Art Basel Miami Beach had to bring an extra dollop of recognition to the emerging artists at Photo Miami.

In fact, youth is very much the subject of so many of the works on display--youth as embattled inheritors of a broken, bewildered world. Thus, the art collective known as AES+F (which consists of four Russian-born artists: Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes, represented by New York's Claire Oliver Gallery), create big color tableaux using young, ethnically diverse models, posed in Renaissance styles, enacting a variety of surreal, sci-fi street battles amidst iconic architecture. It's hard to describe, but it is elegant and urgent work that echoes many forebears--from Caravaggio to Gilbert & George.

Other works combine photography with text, as in Stephanie Lampert's images of New York, over which a stenciled stream of troubled, typically youthful sentiments ("I'm sorry I don't know why I feel this way…") blurs the image--it's as if the air were about to explode from the press of consciousness. Then there is the potent minimalism of a post-Joseph Beuys Germany, as in Norbert Brunner's delicate assemblages of inflatable plastic--one of them bearing the words "You Are Important"--over which videos are projected, turning the small space of Vienna's Lukas Feichtner Gallery into a dark closet of adolescent angst and hope.

If anything, Photo Miami reflected the transformation of American culture that Miami is certainly all about, as the Latino population not only swells in previously Anglo-American bastions but comes into its own as an aesthetic, as well as a cultural force. Galleries such as Miami's Hardcore Art Contemporary Space offered the collaged photography and design of edgy artists such as Nina Dotti or Carl Pascuzzi, who deal with legacies of displacement and cooptation by commercial forces. And further abroad, in towns like Caceres, Spain, such art spaces as Galeria Maria Llanso are offering the large-format color work of Jose Maria Mellado, who marshals brooding, overcast skies and compelling perspective in documenting the clash of ancient and modern that defines Spain.

But Photo Miami had even more, ethnically speaking, including New York gallery ChinaSquare's wonderful display of large digitally manipulated images by China's multifaceted Chen Jiagang, an architect, businessman, curator and collector turned photographer who also engages the battle between his country's old and new, man against nature, often with a small human figure set vulnerably amidst massive structures and vast, polluted landscapes. What such art affirms--as did Photo Miami at least as well as did ABMB--is that the global viewpoint is the lens through which we must measure ourselves, and the challenge, perhaps, for collectors is to avoid a narrow engagement with art that could turn them into hermitic preservers of nostalgia or cultural elitism as opposed to nurturing new and ever more inclusive ways of seeing. It's fine, of course, to limit a collection to, say, 18th-century river views, but why go to Miami in December with such a small checklist?

And that's where I dead-end. Unfortunately, to do a relatively complete Art Basel week in Miami takes the sort of time, energy and patience that few of us non-billionaires can muster. I would have liked to wander from AIPAD a few streets over to the Rubell Collection, or peruse more of the cutting edge five blocks south at Aqua Wynwood, or 10 blocks down at Pulse--not to mention Scope, Art Miami and NADA--but it was all I could do to strategize my traffic jam-dodging for ABMB, let alone get through that mother of all art malls without collapsing from sensory overload.

There was never enough time to visit one show, one booth, one artist without feeling an unpleasant pressure to move on. If that's a symptom of modern malaise, then the enormousness of Art Basel Miami Beach--don't forget the scores of satellite events it spawns and succors--shares some guilt for turning us into a bunch of raw nerves plagued with attention deficit disorder. Then again, it's only further proof, as if we needed it, that The Market works.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)