Day One Highlights from Art Basel Miami Beach 2023

The latest edition of the Miami art fair kicks off today—here's what not to miss.

The art world is a cold place; Miami is even colder. At least it is this year. With record-breaking low temperatures, it’s being called one of Miami’s coldest winters, with frost expected in some parts of Florida. The New Yorkers who descended upon Miami Beach this week expecting sun and seaside frolicking got a taste of reality. Turns out, it wasn’t so bad strolling through a concrete, air-conditioned convention center.

Two people stand in an art fair booth featuring brightly colored alien looking sculptures and matching wall paint
Work by Masako Miki at Art Basel Miami Beach.

The latest edition of Art Basel Miami Beach kicks off today in said convention center, with booths representing 277 international art galleries from North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The fair is divided into sections that help distinguish the younger, cooler galleries from the dusty old ones that tend to show 20th-century art. Look up, and you’ll see each gallery name paired with a colored stripe that slots it into one of the following sections: Galleries, Meridians, Kabinett, Nova, Positions and Survey.

The Meridians section features large-scale projects curated by Mexico City’s Magali Arriola, which are more or less themed around saving our planet. One highlight is the work of Mexican artist Gabriel de la Mora, who is showing his Ignea series created with hand-carved volcanic rock called andesite and obsidian, a black rock found in Mexico, which ties into the history of Mesoamerican symbolism.

The Kabinett section is a booth-within-a-booth micro-curated section in certain gallery booths (yes, that’s meta). The Positions section is interesting because it’s mainly young galleries that focus the limelight on rising artists on whom they’ve placed their bets. Meanwhile, the Nova section features artwork made over the past three years, and fairgoers should head to the Survey section to see established artists getting their own mini retrospectives.

People mill about in a bright lit art fair space
Fairgoers at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Courtesy Art Basel

Navigating all of this can be exhausting, and it’s not as if the people at Art Basel Miami Beach are friendly enough to strike up a conversation. Those attending the art fair out of curiosity, to gain insight and learn about the artwork—after all, why not—should know it’s very sales-driven. For the uninitiated, you’re entering a Wall Street version of wallworks. At every booth, it’s easy to feel as if you’re being sniffed out. Style tip: don’t wear jogging pants or scuffed shoes; this is your chance to make a style statement with chunky eyewear, big baubles or Marimekko prints, just for fun.

If you do decide to head over to Miami’s Art Basel, keep to yourself, take your art selfies and don’t cave and buy the overpriced food. It’s a tad precious—with expensive art, understandably so—and if you have a DSLR camera, beware. Uptight galleries tend to get very fussy about who and what is photographed in their booths, which they see as private even though we are technically in public. Play it safe by sticking with your smartphone.

The major highlight this year was abstraction, of all things. You’d think with the rise of A.I., V.R., the metaverse and the whole drama surrounding NFTs that an art fair in 2023 would feel like walking into an Apple store, but no. The art world keeps tradition at its helm, which in a way is somewhat beautiful. Wall-based 1970s abstract paintings are hot this year, alongside paintings that were made in the past decade but look like they’re from the disco era—a niche category if I ever saw one. Another major highlight is the art galleries from Brazil that are really shaking up the art fair with fresh works from South American artists.

Some of the best abstract works I saw included Vivian Browne’s intriguing set of paintings at the Ryan Lee Gallery (which feel very Lee Krasner, in a way). This painting series, in the Survey section, was made after a trip the artist took to Africa in 1971, after which she brought back a colorful palette for this set of paintings. My favorite piece on show is called Umbrella Plant, a 1971 painting that brings together hues of violet, lime green, orange and blue into a balanced, mysterious composition.

A colorful abstract painting hanging on a white wall at an art fair
William T. Williams’ “Avon, Rainmaker Piss” at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery booth. Photo: Nadja Sayej

Another highlight is a large, colorful painting by William T. Williams at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery booth called Avon, Rainmaker Piss from 1970, which looks very similar to early works by Frank Stella (but that’s another story). More than anything, it’s mind-blowing how a 50-year-old painting can still have such a vivid presence, proving that some art truly is timeless.

At the booth by Vermelho, which is a gallery from Sao Paulo, a blue wall work by Brazilian artist Edgard de Souza includes pieces from his “R” series, which began in 2017 and is still ongoing. He cleverly embroiders fabric and wraps the results around canvases. They look like scribbles in their own structured, sewing machine way, and make me think about sustainability in the fashion industry today, which is under high scrutiny. To the artist, this series is about gestural abstraction, and “is similar to the game of looking for images in clouds.” In other words, read it as you wish.

Pace Gallery has a new bronze sculpture by Lynda Benglis called QT, made in 2023. It’s an extension of her “Elephant Necklaces” series and looks like waves frozen in time. At the Tibor de Nagy gallery, one strong piece by Shirley Jaffe called The Chinese Mountain from 2004-5 has an old-fashioned, jazz-era Art Deco feel to it.

Another major highlight was at Berlin’s Thomas Schulte gallery, which is showcasing a painting by Marina Adams called Nefertiti III from 2023, an acrylic painting on linen with loose brushstrokes in green, purple, blue and yellow. Though the artist is New York-based, to me, it captures winter depression in Berlin, the blue blahs with slivers of sunlight. Another stunning piece is an abstract sculpture by Brazilian artist Maria Nepomuceno, who uses beadwork in her curvaceous works to create organic-looking pieces that call to mind underwater creatures. You can see it at the Brazilian gallery A Gentil Carioca’s booth.

A large abstract but almost anatomical sculpture of textile and beadwork
A Maria Nepomuceno piece in the A Gentil Carioca booth. Photo: Nadja Sayej

All of this is besides one giant, attention-grabbing piece by Claes Oldenberg, the legendary sculptor who passed away last year at age 93. In my mind, it gets the prize for best social media artwork. Imagine a giant garden trowel, and you get the idea. This piece, called Plantoir, is over 23 feet tall and was constructed using 2,300 pounds of aluminum, plastic and steel.

A giant red garden trowel sculpture with a brown handle at an art fair
Claes Oldenberg, “Plantoir,” 2023. Photo: Nadja Sayej

Or perhaps the Haas Brothers wool rug at the Jeffrey Deitch booth, called the Multicolored Whale Earnhardt Jr. from 2022, because who doesn’t love a good, colorful wall rug with stingrays on it? What could be more Florida art fair than that? Overall, Miami may be cold this year, but the artwork is still cool. And the best artworks, like that Haas Brothers piece, are amusing. The art world, as serious as it can be, still needs to keep it light and have fun, after all.

A hanging rug featuring colorful cartoonish sea creatures
The Haas’ Brothers’ “Multicolored Whale Earnhardt Jr.” at the Jeffrey Deitch booth. Photo: Nadja Sayej


Day One Highlights from Art Basel Miami Beach 2023