MIAMI: The rise of deep culture in the sun
To reflect upon this year’s events at Miami Basel, I’ve decided to share not
just my experience there during the first week of December, but to offer
my opinion of how I see Miami’s culture front transforming into a major center for the visual arts.
I’ll off my memory of some of the past highlights starting with the 2005 edition.
My partner and I have been to Miami Basel every year since beginning in
2005. We went without much planning, having missed the 2004 event when so many of my
artist friends from LA decided it was time to dip into the tropical waters of Miami’s unbelievably
festive winter art fair ocean. We used hotwire and booked a beachfront hotel in September.
Over the next few weeks I watched as all of the hotels on orbitz and hotels.com in South Beach
were solidly booked, and then as dozens of hotels sold out as the prices for the remaining rooms
rose into the stratosphere.
I booked our Miami Beach restaurant reservations on opentable. Escopazzo on Thursday nite, China Grill on
Friday nite, and Wish on early Saturday evening. Each of these was an exceptional dining encounter. Escopazzo
featured Sicilian cooking and a staff brought in from the motherland. China Grill was our first ultra-lounge, where the
experience of eating as a form of theater is quite well performed. We had been to places like Ruby Foos in NYC and
the Stanton Social in NYC, the latter of which is still one of my favorite places to hanut while in New York on the
Lower East Side. Wish featured patio dining and these totally cool dayglow faux ice cubes that glowed in your drink.
We also had lunch at the Hotel Victor, and remember being served by what had to have been the most James Bond
like experience of our lives, as thw waiter was so over the top professional and yet theatrical, that we felt we were
in a thrill seeker film that partially starred luxury goods.
Now for the art encounter of 2005. We decided to check out Miami Basel for several hours before our 7:30PM dinner.
I don’t have a memory of a specific work of art that stood out, because so many seemed to do so. What made the deepest
impression in my memory is walking through the individual spaces, which I would discover were hierarchical – the closer to the center,
the more powerful the space. I distintly remember walking from a hard surface and stepping into a gallery from Spain, when of a sudden
my shoes were cushioned by a level of plush carpeting that my shoes literally sank into. I remember smiling and saying to myself – what a
wonderfully subtle way of expressing one’s desire to convey the upscale lifestyle. I remember many of the guests being strikingly well dressed,
but most of all I recall the conversation I had with a Texas couple who were talking about buying a Tony Ousler for one of their several homes.
The wife was incredibly excited by the Ousler eye projection work, but needed to know that the piece was unique before she would make a purchase.
I remember asking her why she required this: She didn’t want things that other people had, she wanted the work to be an expression of her unique self.
The next morning, after having breakfast outside our hotel on Ocean avenue, we got dressed to the nines and drove our drop-top rental car to the Rubell
Family Collection’s 9AM Friday opening. I wore a dark green suit and so did my female partner. We entered the cavernous space and were each handed the RFC booklet
for the show. This was the Rubell’s new collection of Eastern European paintings. I remember being astonished by one work in which it appeared that a man was
behind a window, wiping it clean, but all I could see was his shadow. I also remember seeing several astonishingly good large-scale hyperactive color oil paintings by a young
German woman painter. I recall seeing a woman visitor to the Rubell who was so beautiful as to almost not seem real. Her skin was devoid of blemish – incredible.
The Rubell Collection I learned is used to showcase their annual collecting from their global travels. The year before I think they did a show of the white hot Leipzig painters.
In coming years they would do a show of LA Artists called Redeye, a show of international conceptual works, the most impressive work being a massive sound sculpture and installation by Thomas Zipp, which featured live DJ’s playing a selection of historic air raid siren sounds, and in 2008, the show called 30 Americans, which features the fresh art of 31 African-American artists. In this most recent colleciton, I noticed a similarity in the practices of several of the artists, and recognized the Rubell’s taste in powerful narratives, whether they be gigantic gorgeous geometric yet rhythmic abstrations by Mark Bradford, or potent personal urban storyteller representations by Henry Taylor, or the massive aggressive often sexually charged wall sculptures of Rodney McMillian.
The Rubell Collection building is well known as being a former Miami DEA confiscation warehouse, transformed over time into a 45,000 square foot superbly renovated exhibition space. It has a Phaidon bookstore, a 30,000 volume library, lectures and film screenings. This year I was invited to a mid-November preview of 30 Americans.
This building is what the LA MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary should be like in Los Angeles, but still is not even after over a quarter center of use. LA MOCA’s TC, renamed as the Geffen, is still in need of the major renovation that would turn it into the world class permament art exhibition showcase that the LA artworld deserves. At the hotel that evening I discovered we had inadvertently attended the VIP private viewing of the Rubell Collection!
The other space that blew us away during our first visit in 2005 was the Margulies Warehouse. Its the same square footage as the Rubell, and a full on museum too, but without the transformation of the facade. It’s in the downscale fashion warehouse district in Miami, which looks a lot like the same area in LA. The 2005 show was showcasing the Margulies photography collection. I have to say – I have been to no other venue in my many travels over the year that as such an up-to-date encyclopedic representation of photography, from the 1920’s through the massive German photo works that came to the forefront during the late 1990’s. I remember thinking how lucky Miami was to have such phenomenal on the ground contemporary art resources.
We visited the then just opened Cisneros Fontenals, a former warehouse in downtown Miami tranformed into the CIFO, a smaller but stellar contemporary art showcase, which at the time had on display what I can only describe as a video forrest. It was the most mind-boggling display of video and video installation I had ever and still have ever seen. There were dozens of video screens hung at various heights in the darkened space. The potent multiple video images and corridors of sounds were majestic in their symphonic order and evocation.
On Saturday nite of the 2005 Miami Basel week we visited the Design District, which would be throwing a huge block party that the artworld would be attending and that was televised. There was free drink and several bands playing on portable stages. Thousands of people were walking through the neighborhood. There was live music coming from several of the Design District galleries, which were and still are largely for the Miami design community, which is now one of the most dynamic in this country.
If I cut to the chase and recount some of the highlights from our next three vists to the Magic City and Miami Beach, we saw several stunning exhibitions. The William Kentridge retrospective at the now closed Miami Art Central, was one of the most trememdous and rewarding experiences of art I had even had the privilege to experiece. Kentridge is a master storyteller and a magician with drawing, film, animation, and the live time based arts of theater and even opera. Kentridge is what I would describe as being a total artist, multiifaceted, brilliant, brooding. A gold standard in art making. Another phenomenal show was the Hernan Bas exhibition at the RFC. Bas not only showed several phenomenal paintings, (far better than what I had seen of his work in LA) but he also showed a couple magisterial and hypnotic installations, which also featured short personal films by Bas that were so in tune with Bas’s work as a painter, that I almost didn’t believe how good it all was. I have rarely seen installations of this caliber by a younger artist, that is until this year in Miami, when the Meth Lab installation from Marfa Ballroon was show at The Station, an under construction condo building whose empty spaces were filled with provocative art by Whitney Museum curator Shamin Momim and NYC artist Nate Lowman.
Other works that come to mind include a previous Miami Basel in which a fake cigarette lighter skipped around a huge empty space from aircraft wire, it was playing and clever and witty and amusing. Then there was a photograph of a ship that had rotted at sea and photographed as it split in half, at the Scope Fair, and this year there were several simply subline paintings from China in the new Art Asia Fair. We saw a Barry McGee videos in a flipped over truck installation that was out of this world good, as good as the one we saw at Redcat in Los Angeles a year ago or so. This past season, we noticed several new galleries at the fairs from foreign lands with a new miami location.
This past Miami Basel were were entralled by the Russian Dreams show, the lightbox photos od the dead in haute couture, the tank covered in feathers with the canon that flopped periodically like a spent penis, the DEMOCRACY oil pump sculpture and the boxes emitting steam sculptures, all of these can be seen in the Russian Dreams links I’ve provided below.
Another major highlight were the video installation of Chantal Ackerman, the utterly poetic and provocative video about people attempting to come to Europe on small boats at the Margulies Warehouse, and Anri Sala’s video installation at MOCA Miami, whihc featured drums playing without drummers, and a dazzling video in which country western radio and classical music stations first moved in and out, then in the second video projection, a classically trained country music group played both the cutting away sounds of thw country western radio and then the classical pieces, magnificent. I really got into the young male solo drummer video too.
Back to the food. Miami and Miami Beach continue to grow in sophistication as a foodie destination. This year we had one of the two best meals we had this year at Sardinia Enoteca in Miami Beach, followed by after midnight drinks at the Fontainbleau’s billion dollar makeover hotel. Sheer opulence and total luxury in a tropical clime, that is why the Swiss chose Miami in 1995 and launched Art Basel Miami Beach in 2001. We even had great breakfasts of the kind we have to pay top dollar for in LA, but in Miami we could eat well a block from the ocean for two for $30 for breakfast in America’s winter paradise. Now I know why the snowbirds love South Florida, even thought I’ve still never been to old world lux Palm Beach!
Last but not least. Miami is one of three American cities with European late night hours, with clubs and bars that stay open until 5 or 6AM. Miami Beach has one of the most incredible club scenes in the country, and now a major food and wine festival to go with their winter music conference.
Everyone must experience Miami Basel at least once. In the near future, the small museums that are were regional have an international thrust, and the soon to be six private collections will be reason enough to come ot Miami at least once a year to see art, independent of whether the art fairs last or not. Miami/aka NYSouth is here stay!
Check out the SCOPE FAIR 2008
Gas station Miami Beach, 1939
Miami Central Station
Miami Beach Collins Ave.
We stayed for 3 nites at the Essex House on Collins, and Sunday nite
at the Westin in Coral Gables, which was simply a gorgeous and luxurous old hotel.
I understand that there is a real estate debacle in South Florida, but somehow, every remaining undeveloped
Art Deco building, whether old beahc hotel or whatever, is being transformed along Collins Ave. in South Beach
into total lux pleasure pits with NYC level ultralounges or NYC level dining coming to town.
Fairwind Kimpton hotel, directly across the street from the Essex House, which was artworld party
central on Thursday night.
The Browns Hotel, Miami Beach. After our fabulous dinner at Sardinia Enotena, we drove the formerly notorious
south of 5th corridors, passing by the trendy beyond measure, luxury car and black dress heaven. The energy
was so high that we expected to see Tom Cruise and Matt Damon walk out with Samuel L. Jackson.
Only this end of the island there are five or six world class steak houses, with more dining pleasures coming in 2009.
We took a Sunday morning drive up the length of Collins, through Midtown Miami (MIMO), past the hot new hotels
coming on line, from the W to the Gaansevort and many others, all the way through Golden Beach, past a totally
white post modern ocean fronting house, into Sunny Isles, where the 4th Trumph Tower of 10 total has opened.
We were told to check out the action at the Aqualina hotel, to see and sip a drink while surrounded by
world class movers and shakers.
Herzog & de Meuron, Eleven Eleven, Miami (1111 Lincoln road)
Our Saturday evening dinner was at Pacific Time, in the Design District. We shared several small plates and had a
grand time people watching, before doing our annual Design District Saturday night stroll to the beat of live music.
After visiting Scope and Art Asia, the Station, Art Miami, Photo Miami, we had dinner at Pacific Time on Saturday evening. There was an endless crowd streaming into the place.
Pacific Time is one of the restaurants of the moment in Miami’s Design District. Michael’s Genuine Drink is another, which we went to last year, and Senior Martinez is yet another. SM just opened during Miami Basel week, which is commonly used to launch new restaurants, clubs, and bars in Miami and Miami Beach.
Grass, a restaurant in Miami’s Design District, just opened a new club called
the King is Dead. There are boutique hotels now being planned for the Design District.
New 2009 Miami Beach Dining will include Hakkasan (from London, the number one Chinese restaurant in the world), Buddakhan, Tao (both from NYC) and Katsuya (from LA)
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles