A Frisson of the New

The current cover of Poder Hispanic–a Miami-based monthly magazine subtitled “Intelligence for the Business Elite”–features the Florida mega-collectors Don and Mera Rubell in Warhol fright wigs. It’s headlined “From Swampland to Art Mecca,” and begins, “For years, Miami has been embracing the arts and everything that comes with them. Is this town finally ready to be called a great American city?”

Seth Gordon, managing partner of a Miami business-advisory company, worried within the story that “It’s all built on really shallow foundations. That’s an illusion that can be washed out to sea. It’s not an image that’s deep-rooted and organic, like movies are to Hollywood.”

Michele Oka Doner, the artist and designer whose father was mayor of Miami Beach, will have none of this. “Miami is the city of the 21st century,” she said serenely. And if the arts have been a motor in this town’s transformation, there is a precedent. The uplift that the mythos and business of contemporary art has brought to the life of the city can be compared with the way that Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim has transformed the Basque capital. It used to be said that trade followed the flag. Nowadays, you are likely to find that an artist made the flag and a dealer sold it to a collector. Who flipped it.

It was Art Basel Miami’s ninth year in the Miami Beach Convention Center, and there was plenty of pure pleasure to be had, from the Sigmar Polkes at Michael Werner Gallery to the Yves Klein monochrome–in the artist’s copyright IKB color International Klein Blue, natch–at the Zurich gallery, Gmurzynska (bought by collector Aby Rosen), to another luminous monochrome, a leaning plank by John McCracken at David Zwirner.

There were dependable pleasures, but they were safe, and there were fewer shocks than one might have wished for. I remember a couple of fairs ago looking out over the aisles of Art Basel Miami talking with the Los Angeles abstractionist, Ed Moses. “Where’s the angst?” he fretted. “This is all happy-happy stuff.” I mentioned Mr. Moses’ still relevant remark to Ms. Oka Doner this year. “Miami is not Berlin,” she said.

Indeed not. The aisles of the convention center were so crammed with tip-top luxury goods that even the rawness of Jannis Kounellis suits on hangers somehow lost its edge, and business was brisk, if not quite as feverish of yore. Which, considering the still shaky economic conditions worldwide, was itself intensely interesting. Various answers were given to the question of just how many individuals–collectors, not institutions–were keeping the upper levels of the art economy aloft. Five thousand was the consensual total. But Franz Rassler of the Dorotheum (a Viennese auction house) spoke of “between two hundred and a thousand professional collectors,” and Alexis Hubshman, the creator of Scope Art Fair, told me it was “basically just 25 people.”


FOR THE FRISSON of the new, the thrill of the underknown and a sense of things to come, you had to leave the convention center and prowl as many of the 20-plus piggyback fairs as you could stomach. Or wander the urban outdoors where, with Banksy as the paradigm, street artists are devising ever more ingenious ways of bringing themselves to attention.

One of the real eye-opening artworks, though, was to be found by the swellegant pool of the Standard Hotel. Marco Brambilla is not exactly unknown. But Evolution, his new video piece compiled from snippets of film, which he has turned into a polycentric 3-D Hieronymous Bosch-scape, was unlike anything else at Miami Basel.

“I collect a lot of movies. I have a huge library of video film,” Mr. Brambilla told me. “It’s the idea of humanity, beginning and ending simultaneously … the conflict between the past and the future. I look for the right sequence of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. I need an Apache Indian. … I want an astronaut exploding; Mel Gibson in Mad Max; Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. … I wanted the Red Baron pulling HAPPY FOREVER. And that did take forever to find.

“It’s photo-montage. And then it goes into a machine called the Flare, which can handle up to 900 layers of video in high definition. It’s essentially a hologram.” Did Mr. Brambilla sign up the rights?

“No! No! If I had to get the rights, it would never have happened. My argument would be that the film only occupies a small part of the frame. But it’s such a gray area.” He noted that there’s a snippet from Tropic Thunder with Ben Stiller in his piece, and that he had run into Mr. Stiller at the fair.

“I told him about it. I said, ‘You have to come see it!’

“He said, ‘Yeah? Great!'”


A Frisson of the New