More than just a reason to party, the Miami leg of Art Basel proves the work still comes first
he party invitations don’t lie: Art Basel in Miami Beach, the jewel in the crown of the renowned international art-event series, is as much about fashion, champagne and celebrity as it is about art. This is a testament both to the fair’s astonishing success and perhaps to its oversaturation. In December 2013, no conversation topic among a certain set held greater attention than this—the very essence of Art Basel. When did the art fair become not about Art (with a capital A) but about Other Stuff? Or is it still all about Art? Or do Art and Other Stuff share the spotlight?
303 Gallery displays artist Doug Aitken’s signature work, More X4 2012
The numbers also don’t lie: The 2013 American leg of the world’s greatest gallery road show was a resounding success. Over the course of five days, 75,000 people streamed through the Miami Beach Convention Center, where 258 galleries from across 31 countries showcased the best of the best of the best art available. According to AXA Art Insurance Corp., 2013’s entire Miami exhibition was worth more than $3 billion. And though patrons had to navigate a thicket of corporate sponsorships heavier than the traffic on Collins Avenue, there was also a great deal of optimism that in spite of all the new gloss, art was A number one.
For Marcella Novela, the fair began more than a week before Art Basel kicked off, with a dinner party in honor of artist Hew Locke and the Miami-Based Fountainhead Residency. A lifelong resident of Miami, Novela is deeply involved in the city’s art community, sitting on the board of the Pérez Art Museum of Miami; chairing PAMM Contemporaries, Pérez’s young collectors’ group; and running Art Conductor Inc., the organization she founded in part to foster relationships between artists and the collectors and dealers who might support them. In addition to working behind the scenes, Novela is also a prominent collector in her own right, traveling each year to international art fairs and filling her home with contemporary pieces. She especially loves the work of local artists, and at Art Basel in Miami, she was most often found at the booth of hometown gallery Spinello Projects, saying hi to friends, chatting with the featured artists she knows personally and surveying the crowds from the vantage point of an insider.
Collector Marcella Novela has made a name for herself as one of Miami’s most active supporters of local artists and galleries
To her, Art Basel is a very personal affair. On the morning of December 4, the fair’s press and VIP preview day, she and her husband, Daniel Novela, drove to the convention center together, and she couldn’t take two steps in any direction without hearing a patron or artist ebulliently calling her name. “Art Basel for me just shows how much Miami has to offer as a city and how far it’s come,” Novela says. “I only go to the events that are related to art. Now with Art Conductor especially, it’s all about the artists for me.”
Indeed, she and her husband seemed less interested in making a purchase than in networking. Later that week, they spent time at two other fairs around the city: Pulse and Untitled.
In a similar vein, Berlin-based artist Gregor Hildebrandt views Art Basel as a social opportunity, preferring to attend than to skip the fair entirely, as some artists have begun to do. “A lot of people say artists don’t have to go to fairs, but I think, ‘If I’m interested in art, and I love art, why shouldn’t I see it at the fair?’ ” he says.
Hildebrandt has earned great attention for his use of the prerecorded cassette tape as a medium, and he considers the tapes’ recordings to be an extra dimension of what appears to be only two-dimensional art. At the fair, his series of mixed-media wall hangings inspired by the Velvet Underground’s famous song “Venus in Furs” hung in Galerie Perrotin’s booth. His works on canvas and in frames were set within a wall of tape, shimmering and quivering in contrast to the images they set off. Having studied at the Berlin University of the Arts, Hildebrandt is a professional artist through and through, and he confesses that all of his friends are artists. This includes his girlfriend, Alicja Kwade, whose work was also on display at Art Basel.
That his enthusiasm for the fair has never waned is remarkable given his immersion in the world. “That’s the point, why I always come here: I’m very interested to see the art pieces, and there are some very good ones,” Hildebrandt says. “I’m also interested to see how the booths look. They tell a story of a gallery’s program. I also try to see the private collections in Miami because there are a lot of very good private collections, especially Margulies’ and the Rubells’ for sure.” It is these private collections, of course, that keep artists always in a position to create.
In December 2013, for Chilean-born and Brooklyn-based artist Sebastian Errazuriz, whose only piece on display at Miami’s Art Basel sold minutes before the show’s opening, attending is a means of asserting himself in the art world. In 2013, he also showed pieces at DesignMiami, a fair featuring commercial products, such as furniture and lighting, and that bridge between artist and product designer is what defines him.
“Art can trigger emotion in a functional piece,” Errazuriz says. “Whatever I do, I back my ideas with hard work and craftsmanship. The idea that one has to be one thing to be good—an artist or a designer—is an old idea.”
At first glance, the steel and aluminum Time Lapse Custom Vintage Racing Motorcycle he exhibited at Art Basel is most definitely a product. Composed of roughly $60,000 worth of vintage parts, its artistry is in its simple lines and bare bones. It is a racing bike stripped of all decoration. It looks at once heavy and light, hard as nails and fluid. “I know this will go in someone’s house on display,” he says, “but it is like keeping a loaded gun in a living room. One day, its new owner will roll it outside, and he will take off. It has a ton of power. It can really go.”
And yet, it’s not just a bike. “It’s a symbol,” Errazuriz explains, “of mortality and humanity.” Tucked in a glass box within the gas tank, a taxidermic bird lies beak up, wings at its side, feathers a vibrant ombré of turquoise and violet. Errazuriz’s intent is for it to remind viewers of their own fragile nature. A motorcycle collision can kill a driver; to press down on the throttle of this bike, to lean forward in the saddle, the driver sits heart to heart with the dead bird.
Errazuriz sees no conflict between his roles as an artist and a designer, but at the Salon 94 booth at Art Basel, he was also a rock star. Never once did the public leave him alone. He posed for photos, explained his motorcycle, chatted and autographed maps and fair guides. At just 36 years old, his energy was infectious, and understandably so. His bike sold for six figures, and his series of footwear sculptures inspired by ex-lovers drew rave reviews.
Emma Fernberger Logsdail of New York gallery Bortolami stands between two works by Tom Burr, one of the artists she represents
Hard at work at the booth of New York–based Bortolami, wearing the gallerist’s uniform of head-to-toe black, Emma Fernberger Logsdail hustled to garner sales for her artists. Clear-eyed and serious, she could pass for an art student, but her résumé is formidable. One of a family of gallery owners, she knows the business inside and out, and her attention to detail at the fair was notable. With some pieces already sold, Fernberger Logsdail seemed relaxed, but she knew she was on the clock. “I don’t think people know how much work goes into setting this all up,” she says. “It’s been months in the making.” The two artists featured at the Bortolami booth, Tom Burr and Jutta Koether, envisioned the setup together and then created individual original works to give it a fresh and cohesive look. And the work doesn’t stop once the paintings are hung. “A lot happens in follow-up,” Fernberger Logsdail adds. “The [purpose of] the fair is not just selling things in the present but also starting conversations. Sometimes people need to think about things, and it’s valuable to have those conversations. And those can turn into sales later on. Sometimes it’s just important to plant a seed in someone’s head.”
Just as Novela strives to win attention for new artists, so, too, does Fernberger Logsdail make recognition a major goal. The more people who see an artist’s work, the more they’ll recognize it and the more inclined they will be to buy it or follow the artist’s career, she says. “It works on a subconscious level.” Burr and Koether, for example, are well established but not household names. With Fernberger Logsdail’s help, they may soon be.
The chain of events set off at Art Basel by people just like Novela, Hildebrandt, Errazuriz and Fernberger Logsdail is critical in keeping the art world—the industry—thriving. And while longtime fans of the fair may rue its transformation into a week packed with parties that have nothing to do with art, at Art Basel, the art comes first—in name and in practice. In the rush of the crowds, surrounded by masterpieces current and future, major deals are struck, stars discovered and perspectives challenged. Lives change at the fair.
- All photographs by Gordon Hull for RL Magazine.