Art Mania in Miami

The art world's been making headlines recently, with record auction prices for both modern and contemporary art set at Sotheby’s and Christies’ last month. But they, evidently, were simply the appetizer course to the Grand Buffet that was spread out over south Florida last week, as the monster art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, took over the town.

Think of ABMB, as the insiders call it, as the CES of the art world. It's where anybody who's anybody in the industry gathers to see, be seen, party, schmooze, wheel, deal, drink, dine and, of course, buy, buy, buy.

Everywhere you wandered in the city, there was some form of art to devour. There were exhibits in shipping containers on the beach, sound shows in the botantical garden, video shows behind dark curtains, alternative art shows, design shows, photo shows, and museum shows.

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The big enchilada, of course, was the show at the Miami Beach Convention Center, which encompassed more than 180 exhibitors from around the globe, from the loftiest galleries of New York and London clustered in the epicenter, to smaller fish that ranged around the perimeter.

It was as dazzling an array of art as you’re every likely to see in one place, with Lucian Freud cheek by jowl with Fernando Botero, Donald Judd and Cecily Brown lurking nearby, and Lichtensteins, Mardens, Richters, Hirsts and Basquiats in abundance. Andy Warhol, whose prices have quadrupled in the past decade, was represented by at least 20 different dealers. Warhol is a favorite of the hedge fund set, many of whom feel safer buying a “brand” whose value can be tracked, like the price of Google or Apple, on Artnet, the web site that records prices paid at auction.

We spotted a favorite little Picasso that had made the scene in Basel, still unsold. So, why was it still hanging around? “It’s not exactly an impulse buy,” the gallery owner said drily. And why was it now priced at $4.25M, up $250K from what it had been listed for in July? “If you like it, we can talk about the price,” he said. We said we’d be back later.

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With serious collectors getting first crack at the vernissage on Wednesday night, many works were sporting red “sold” dots by Thursday afternoon. The prestigious Gagosian gallery was busy swapping out the paintings that had already been sold, and mounting new ones so late-coming buyers would still have something to choose from.

Those buyers included Steve Martin, sporting a baseball cap and sneakers, accompanied by a young woman sporting a pony tail, who roamed the vast labyrinthine aisles of the show, hoping that earlier arrivals, Dennis Hopper, Keanu Reeves and Calvin Klein hadn’t cherry picked the merch.

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Asian art was moving particularly fast. “We sold three in the first 24 hours,” said a staffer at Kukje Gallery of the large works of Korean artist Kwang-Young Chun. His extraordinary pieces feature tightly clustered pieces of Styrofoam wrapped in Korean mulberry paper from old books. They’re weirdly mesmerizing. By Saturday, all six works that the gallery had brought to the show were sold, for an average price of $80,000.

Around the corner, a large painting by Zeng Fanzhi, priced at $300,000, at ShanghART Gallery had been snapped up as well.

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It was a thrilling array but, like a buffet at the Bellagio, ultimately too much to digest at one sitting. We left, reluctantly, driven out by sheer fatigue and sensory overload. Which may point to the biggest hazard of getting big: that exquisite moment, when you discover a painting you love, and want to linger over it, becomes subsumed to the urge to keep moving, to see more, to maximize your viewing before your feet give out. And that approach, ultimately, means any particular work gets short shrift in the process.

Still, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the sheer quality and scope of the work on display. And it’s hard not to love a city that so energetically and enthusiastically opens its arms to art.

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