What to Say, What to Wear and Whom to Know at This Year’s Festival
A couple of years ago we were in London when the Tate Modem decided to stay open for 36 consecutive hours for its final weekend of a fabulous Matisse-Picasso exhibit. When we went, a little after midnight the museum was packed. But on this visit we didn’t only enjoy the paintings, but spotted something we had not noticed on earlier museum stops: The art exhibit had become London’s choice venue for men trying to impress their dates. Instant art experts were walking around the masterpieces, some gesturing to draw imaginary lines, others pointing out subtle color or stroke variations, and still others correcting what they viewed as poor draftsmanship. One young man had two beautiful women in tow, and was loudly holding court near Matisse’s tour de force Goldfish and Palette. His arms whirled like windmills as he drew the entire work conceptually in the air. He had all the appearance of a real expert on this giant of modernism. As we walked near him, we saw him point to part of the painting and tell the girls confidently, “That, of course, is a phallus.” An older gentlemen standing nearby cocked his head slightly, and in a very clipped upper-crust British accent said, “According to the caption, it’s the artist’s thumb poking through his palette.” The know-it-all art expert was utterly flustered, his eyes darting quickly between the painting and the caption. His face flushed red. A few people who had gathered around him snickered. “It could be a phallus as well, I suppose,” he stammered.
With the imminence of Art Basel, the world’s leading contemporary art fair-more than 180 galleries arrive in Miami Beach this month-we thought our London experience was a good reminder that art is an area where someone can look foolish very quickly if you try to fake it. So, to avoid the embarrassment of the London “expert,” we figured it was time to present a quick guide to bluffing your way through Basel. With a little help, you might not get a passing grade in a good art- history class, but at least you won’t be asked to return your admission ticket at Basel.
Being able to answer the question, ‘What is art?” is a good starter. Comments like, “Is that really art?” or, “How do they get away with calling that toilet art?” will mark you as a cultural Neanderthal. Just never doubt that all things can be called art. Damien Hirst, for instance, the 40-year-old bad boy of modem British art, is worth more than $80 million, having earned nearly $20 million alone from selling a dozen works a couple of years ago at White Cube, dealer Jay Jopling’s stunning East End London gallery. Critics universally cite Hirst’s most powerful work to be A Thousand Years. It was first shown at the prestigious Royal Academy, and is composed of a rotting cow’s head on which flies hatch only to die moments later on an attached electric trap. If you have a weak constitution, you might want to avoid it. Some who saw it on Hirst’s debut actually retched.
You might prefer Bahamian-born Janine Antoni’s work. A cross between performance art and sculpture, the 41-year-old, who has exhibited at the Guggenheim and Whitney, uses her own body to transform mundane, everyday activities like eating, bathing and sleeping into art. She has chiseled cubes of lard and chocolate with her teeth, washed away the faces of soap busts made in her own likeness, and used the brainwave signals recorded while she dreamed at night as a pattern for weaving a blanket the following morning. Five years ago, her 300 kilos of chocolate sold as a single sculpture fetched $204,000 at auction.
Miami-based Naomi Fisher, one of our personal favorites, goes far beyond ordinary daily tasks to instead challenge the art landscape by creating psychologically and sexually charged images of women imagined from or inspired by feminist literature, mythology, art history and even slasher films. Naomi’s “ladies,” as she calls them, are often modern reinterpretations of Joan of Arc or Salome, represented in her vivid paintings as seductive mixes of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gwen Stefani and Lara Croft, often colliding with fairy-tale figures in nightmarish scenarios. The femme fatale never looked so great as when in Fisher’s very capable hands.
Want something without a figure in it? Chinese- born Xu Bing won the $65,000 Arts of the World Prize in New York last year for his artwork made of dust collected near Ground Zero in New York, with this Chinese verse written in it: “As there is nothing from the first, where does the dust collect itself?”
You get the idea. Maybe you might want to stop by Books & Books on Lincoln Road and browse through the shelves. You can kill at least an hour in the magazine section. ARTnews is the premier publication for both artists and serious collectors, but don’t miss Frieze, Europe’s leading contemporary publication. And you can always browse through Artists in America and Art in America-neither is cutting-edge, but they will give you a conventional view of the modern market. Arm yourself at least with a basic knowledge of the difference between surrealism and cubism. Now you’re ready to make your entrance to Basel. Local real-estate developer and uber-collector Craig Robins says, “There could be no better entrance than shaving your head, wearing a very nice European suit, and telling everyone you are Sam Keller.’ “And don’t forget to wear edgy sneakers to complete the look,” says Fredric Snitzer, owner of one of Miami’s smartest contemporary galleries.
A Keller look can work wonders, because he is the 38-year-old public-relations master who directs Art Basel in its Swiss home-from which he is a native-and in Miami Beach. A former communications director for Basel, Sam, with his shaved head and regulation black clothing, moves effortlessly between schmoozing the world’s media and courting the right social and monied connections that bring major buyers to the fair.
If you aren’t lucky enough to know Sam or one of his many friends, and you don’t want to shave your head, there are much less extreme ways of getting through the show in style. Michael Ayervais, a New York gallery owner whose Japanese collection has been exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan and is acknowledged as one of the world’s best, is a frequent visitor to the Beach. “Some things are basic,” he told us. “Wear black and be ten pounds underweight. Try to go with a friend who has a European accent. And do not walk through too fast. This is a dead giveaway that you are only there to kill time on your way to a party or club.”
But not everyone needs to copy a “Downtown” look. Many locals who want an “Uptown” style head over to the Neiman Marcus stores in Bal Harbour and Merrick Park. Maybe that is why Katharine Rubino, their director of public relations, has such good ideas of what works best for Basel. “The most important thing,” she told us, “is not to try too hard, not to be over-the-top. Don’t look like you’re dressed to go to a club. You need understated elegance. The serious people, those with a lot of money who are not just browsers, don’t care what they wear. The number-one item, though, for any of them is a comfortable pair of shoes. Don’t wear stiletto Manolos, but instead maybe a nice pair of Prada walking shoes. Even a sneaker. You can wear luscious jeans with embellishments. Remember this is Miami, after all, and if you wear head-to-toe black it looks like you are just in from New York. When you step outside it will be 80 degrees, so wear a little color, have a little fun. Pay homage to Basel being in Miami.”
“And if you really want to get a rise out of someone,” says Marianne Boesky, the owner of one of New York’s premier contemporary galleries, “when they ask you when you got to Basel, tell them you’ve been there for a couple of days of preview openings. That will establish your credentials as an insider.” Although Basel officially runs from December 1st through the 4th, key private previews, parties and cocktail events jam the schedule for at least a week beforehand. You might be fortunate enough to be one of the 3,000 at Don and Mera Rubell’s brunch, or spend the evening with film director Sydney Pollack and architect Frank 0. Gehry when they present their new short, Sketches of Frank 0. Gehry. You could try to wrangle an invite to the coveted Art Loves Design party, in Miami’s Design District. This year it will include exhibitions featuring Ron Arad, the Campana brothers and Gaetano Pesce, as well as a site-specific installation by Zaha Hadid. Visionaire is presenting Art Loves Fashion, where artists like Gary Hume and Jenny Holzer will introduce new flavor creations. There are almost 25 pages of official events and satellite happenings.
When walking around, it’s often helpful to approach a painting or sculpture with a frown. It will make it look like you’re intrigued and contemplating the quality of the piece. If you have had too much Botox and can’t actually frown, crossing you arms and resting your chin in one of your hands will do the trick
Stand to the side of the picture so you don’t block the view of real art fans and buyers. Count slowly to ten, scanning the picture up and down as if searching for a small ink stain. After you’ve finished your count, it is good form to make a small sound, something like a “hmm” or “humph.” If you are feeling really bold, you
might even try, “As I thought,” before moving on. Don’t say, Interesting.” That is art-speak for “crap.”
Now, if you play this role too well, what to do if someone asks if you are interested in buying something? Remember, that person is almost always the gallery owner, not the artist. ‘The worst question I’ve been asked,” says New York’s Boesky, is if I am the artist of all the works in my booth. That will mark you right away as a pretender.”
“If it’s any good, it probably has already sold anyway,” says Miami collector George Lindemann. So your first reaction might be to just pass. But if your curiosity has the better of you, ask the price. A general rule of thumb is anything priced up to $10,000 is a good local artist or an experimental artist from a foreign country $10,000 to $50,000 is someone likely to be known by your elitist friends and will get you an invite to a Basel party next year. “Anything over $1 million means the artist is dead,” says Leah Kleman, the antique dealer who is best known in South Florida for her wildly indulgent Lincoln Road stores a couple of years ago in the Sony Building and the current Banana Republic. ‘When you hear the price,” she says, “just flip your hair back with a toss of your head, give out a small laugh, and then walk on. It will mark you as someone not to be trifled with.”
“It’s the art world,” says Geraldine Leventis, a London collector whose husband, Michael, is an artist and was a dear friend of Francis Bacon. “Fakery has a long and honored tradition, so go for it.”
But gallery owner Snitzer might have the best advice. “It is indeed the art world. And really it should be conducive to doing things your own way. The more straightforward and honest you are, the better. You don’t really need to fake it. You don’t need to buy the hype. Be earnest. Be there as though Basel is for you. Ask lots of questions, and don’t be bothered if you are sometimes blown off. Dealers really don’t know who has the money. The guys who look the hippest, who run the show, actually don’t buy the art, they don’t butter the bread. Ask questions, ask prices, don’t be afraid, and you will have a great time.”
And it is little wonder that everyone at Basel is in a good mood when it comes to viewing, buying and sharing art. “Last year at Art Basel, a New York art dealer commented that he was smitten with South Florida and its vibrant energy in the visual arts,” Irvin Lippman, the executive director of the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, told us. “You do not have to step far outside the Miami Beach Convention Center to find this for yourself. It emanates not from any one place, but is pervasive as you travel up the coast to Fort Lauderdale and on to Palm Beach. It has long been part of the culture here, ever since the 26 African-American artists known as the Highwaymen began selling romantic paintings of the Florida landscape on the side of the road in the late 1950s. But who would not be inspired by the warm ocean breezes to create and buy art?”