South Beach Chill: The 15th Art Basel in Miami

Words by Whitney Mallett

Inequality is always hard to ignore at Art Basel Miami Beach. At poolside parties, collectors hungry for youth and cool rub up against, or at least gawk at, art thots plush with style and social capital. At the fairs, a majority of the works for sale, and the most expensive ones, are authored by white male artists. No doubt, these discrepancies were in Miami as always, but something felt different.

For the first time in years, the market’s cooled. People aren’t throwing money around the same way as they have in editions past. Maybe their auras dulled without the energy of frenzied consumption caused the rich to fade into the background. Whatever the reason, collectors’ ostentatiousness seemed less on display, the discrepancy between the haves and havenots less visible but no less of a contrast.

The lull in the market also means it’s an opportune time for galleries to take a little more risk — there’s less to lose. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I wondered if that’s why it felt like there was a smidgen more diversity within the works being hocked by dealers at the booths this year.

More than half of the galleries in the Positions section, for instance, a platform for younger galleries to present single-artist booths, were showing women artists including Maggie Lee at Real Fine Arts, Melanie Gilligan at Max Mayer, and Jeanette Mundt at Off Vendome – the booths devoted to Lee’s and Gilligan’s works featured video art installations prominently, always a harder sell than paintings. By Thursday, the Berlin-based gallery Peres Projects had already sold out of canvases by Cologne-based painter Melike Kara, the angular graphic qualities of her imposing blue-and-white figures reminiscent of early 20th century movements like Cubism and Futurism while the naivete of their flatness has earned her comparisons to Art Brut originator Jean Dubuffet. (Kara’s paintings were selling in the $14,000 to $17,000 range.)

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Works by Melike Kara. Courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin — Photographer: Sebastiano Di Pellion.

While the prominence given these emerging women artists’ work perhaps foretells a new narrative, walking around the fair was a reminder of how many women artists are only given their due when they’re dead, dying, or at least “mature.” In its booth dedicated to outsider artists, Andrew Edlin gallery had a selection of colorful graphic works by New Zealand artist Susan King, a nonverbal autistic woman in her 60s whose work wasn’t discovered and shown until 2009.

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Works by Susan King. Courtesy of the artist, Chris Byrne, and Andrew Edlin Gallery.

The Argentinian gallery La Ruche had several works by the late Argentinian artist Sara Grilo, who passed away in 2007. Mixing printmaking and painting, geometric grid-like shapes and bits of text and numbers, Grilo, whose works date back to the 1950s and who lived in New York in the 60s, was a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism and an innovator of the style we attribute to Robert Rauschenberg today. La Ruche gallery recently sold one of Grilo’s works to the MoMA for inclusion in their Rauschenberg retrospective opening May 2017.

Another artist whose influence is today being rewritten into art history: 73-year-old artist Howardena Pindell both gave a talk about the influence traveling had on her work as part of the conversations series and had several works from the early 1970s for sale at Garth Greenan Gallery. For Pindell, the 70s marked a period when she was creating her patterned-dot paintings, made using a hole-punch as a freehand stencil, on traditionally-stretched canvases, a convention she’d abandon soon after. A Garth Greenan gallerist noted that while Pindell was a New York art world insider, working a day job at the MoMA and painting at night, the African-American artist’s legacy “slipped through the cracks” because she didn’t fit neatly into the era’s feminist art movement dominated by white women and her abstractions didn’t match the political iconography that came to define the Black Arts Movement.

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Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1971.

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Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1972.

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Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1972-1973. Images courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

While the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) fair mostly featured the contemporary work of emerging artists, the collaborative booth by Detroit-based What Pipeline and New York-based Queer Thoughts had one painting for sale by Mary Ann Aitken, a Detroit-born painter and art therapist who passed away in 2012 and only began showing her work publicly several years before. Since then, she’s had work exhibited prominently including a show at MoCA Cleveland. The untitled oil on masonite painting What Pipeline brought to Miami had a striking and almost claustrophobic composition, a cropped view of a section of a red car.

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Mary Ann Aitken, Untitled, 1985-89. Courtesy of What Pipeline, Detroit.

This year, NADA thankfully returned to the Deauville Beach Resort where it felt much more at home than its brief stint at the Fontainebleau Hotel last year. The fair added a much appreciated series of poolside talks and performances, which wasn’t afraid to get political with a panel conversation featuring Naomi Fisher (BFI), Domingo Castillo (Noguchi Breton), Felice Grodin (AST), Colin Foord (Coral Morphologic), moderated by Sara Blazej and Zach Smith (together Emma Geller Green), which spanned from artists wages to climate change.

While the international art world’s Miami gathering feels in many ways an escape from the real world, there were many moments when artists and dealers engaged with the frightening political climate, from a rug made of American flags by artist Puppies Puppies at the What Pipeline-Queer Thoughts booth that invited fairgoers to step on the patchwork of stars and stripes to the humongous electric sign by Sam Durant reading “End White Supremacy” which greeted Basel-goers at the Blum & Poe booth when they entered the fair through the main doors.

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Artist Chloe Wise with work by Puppies Puppies. Image courtesy of Chloe Wise.

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Clockwise from floor: Puppies Puppies, Mary Ann Aitken, Diamond Stingily, Will Benedict, and David Rappeneau at Queer Thoughts & What Pipeline NADA Miami Beach 2016 presentation. Image courtesy Queer Thoughts & What Pipeline.

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Sam Durant, End White Supremacy, 2008 at the Blum & Poe Art Basel Miami Beach 2016 presentation. Photo by Silvia Ros.

Though the flag-rug drew ire from some fairgoers, hostility toward the KKK-approved president-elect and his white supremacist chief strategist is something that many rich, socially liberal collectors and the precariously employed cultural workers they buy art from likely share. That’s why it was another provocation that felt the most relevant given the week’s context. As part of the performance produced by HBA at the MoMA PS1 Saturday night party in the posh backyard of the Hotel Delano, writer and activist Grace Dunham performed a monologue, addressing the crowd with an urgent demand for resource redistribution. “Dissolve your inherited wealth,” they ordered the audience, standing on a platform rising a few inches above the hotel pool, elegantly lit steam rising from the water, their voice echoing with reverb. “Don’t give your money to a foundation or a museum,” Dunham urged at the museum-sponsored affair. “Give it to people. Give it to literally anyone.”

Dunham’s charged introduction was followed by an impeccably produced fashion presentation anchored by performances from musician Ian Isiah and rapper Princess Nokia and featuring a brief piano-bench cameo by HBA designer Shayne Oliver. Isiah crooned at a grand piano on stage while models glided through the pool, glittering construction lights in hand, before Nokia rained down two raps. The climax came with her entering the water like a queen. The show was a sublime moment and powerful testament of Black Excellence, in itself an unassailable refutation to White Supremacy.



Whitney Mallett is a journalist, critic, and filmmaker living in New York. Her writing has been published by The New York Times, Art in America, ArtForum, CURA, PIN-UP, V Magazine, and others.