A-Rod Cages Owen Wilson Amid Ugly Art, Hookers at Miami Basel

"The True Artist Makes Useless Shit for Rich People to Buy" (2008) by Bert Rodriquez. Made of neon and transformers, the nearly 5-foot-tall sculpture is among the 190 works by 64 artists (all citizens or residents of the United States) in the show "American Exuberance" at the Rubell Family Collection (RFC), Miami, Florida (through July 27, 2012). Source: RFC via Bloomberg

The scene recalled the heyday of Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski and the melting statue of Michelangelo’s David that adorned his wife’s birthday party.

We were at the W South Beach Hotel reception hosted in part by Ruinart Champagne, an official sponsor of Art Basel Miami Beach, the 10th incarnation of the U.S.’s largest contemporary-art fair.

Guests dipped giant communion wafers into fountains of white and dark chocolate that streamed from the penises of two gleaming silver putti in Angel Otero’s sculpture “Pissing Contest II.” (If you were wondering, it was a draw.)

Later that Tuesday night, the opening party of London’s White Cube Gallery at the Soho Beach House featured bartenders dashing at breakneck speeds as guests elbowed one another over tables heaped with chicken, lamb, crab and paella. A wild boar was roasting outside in a clearing on a spit. Bikini-clad models poured tequila shots at bars floating in the swimming pool.

Miami’s fair -- where everything is not only permitted, but encouraged -- has always been more Art Bacchanal than Art Basel, the Swiss urfair. Sponsors and guests alike know that Miami is better built for pleasure than business. Still, you would have to be completely blasted not to sense the air of unease tormenting the place as dark little Euro bulletins burst through the sunshine.

Impulse Buy

By day, hung-over dealers scrambled to make sales to hung-over collectors. Many artworks sold. I watched a woman impulse-buy a $60,000 decorative, landscape-inspired abstract painting to hang “you know, over that chair in the hallway” -- as she explained to her girlfriend.

Word on the street, however, was that most six- and seven-figure works idled on dealers’ floors.

ABMB’s over-the-top parties argued for the height of confidence. The term “museum quality” was bandied about along with other dubious labels.

I heard one dealer refer to a piece that combined 2-D and 3-D elements surrounding the dog star Lassie as “phenomenological.”

The overall tone of the fair -- where European visitors were fewer than last year and sales were weaker -- was that the end might not be far off.

Blue-chip dealers were playing it safe, showing mostly average works by household names -- Calder, Chagall, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, Leger, Modigliani, Picasso and Chaim Soutine.

Arp’s ‘Torso’

There were exceptions. Jean Arp’s abstract marble “Torso” (1960) -- conflating female nude, bone, cloud, tree and flower -- reminded me that ABMB brings masterpieces, if only briefly, out of hiding. It was offered at $1.5 million.

Continuing to play it safe are Miami’s private contemporary-art collections, which (primarily curated by art advisers) are as predictable, impersonal and fashion-conscious as their collectors’ garages. Unlike their driveways, however -- where one can encounter world-class workmanship by respected names such as Bentley, Ferrari and Lamborghini -- their warehouse galleries and great rooms are generally filled with outrageously priced brand names that amount to visually vapid art.

At the Craig Robbins, Rubell Family, and Adam and Lenore Sender collections, among others, the usual A-list, status-symbol suspects reared their ugly-art heads. Shallow, one-note works with easily digestible content reign.

Owen Wilson in Cage

New York Yankee Alex Rodriquez hosted an exclusive art-warming party at his Miami home, where A-Rod’s zero-gravity-swimming-pool-bay-view is the real money shot. Rodriquez, who began, predictably, with Warhol, showed off his purchasing power more than his power hitting. The house’s expansive, contemporary-art-filled interior has almost as many sweeping vistas as its backyard.

Visitors were drawn to his infamous, indoor batting cage, which contained a contemporary display of Nate Lowman’s simple-minded smiley face and bullet hole paintings. The latter, like Warhol’s “Flowers,” comprise a single shape with a round “hole” in the center. The desired effect, I dread to think, was to equate fast ball with speeding bullet.

“Amazing!” said actor Owen Wilson as he left. I’m not sure if Wilson was referring to A-Rod’s art or his enormous cage, custom-built to improve his batting average. I vote for the cage.

‘American Exuberance’

The Rubell Family Collection mounted the show “American Exuberance,” whose centerpiece was John Miller’s “A Refusal to Accept Limits” (2007). Miller’s installation -- perhaps both an omen and ABMB theme -- is a debris field of broken Greco-Roman columns and odds-and-ends, including machine guns, all covered in imitation gold leaf.

Included in the show is Bert Rodriquez’s coiled, neon word sculpture, which reads “The True Artist Makes Useless S--- for Rich People to Buy.” (This is also the artwork’s title.) I hope the Rubells paid an enormous sum for this sculpture. It fits in nicely with the rest of their collection.

In a setting like ABMB -- where you rub shoulders with P. Diddy, Naomi Campbell, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones; where women wear white crocheted dresses, thongs and posture-altering stones -- the contemporary art (most of it forgettable) has a lot of competition.


To be surprised, you had to venture into the smaller galleries and satellite fairs. Discoveries for me were Christopher Kurtz’s wood sculptures, including “First Dark” (2010), an abstract amalgamation of ornament, bird and star; Valerie Favre’s inventive, narrative ink drawings and collages exploring themes of performance and dream; and the quirky, mixed-media tree sculptures of Gonzalo Gonzalez.

Perhaps in Miami, sex sells better than art; or maybe they’re somehow related. Rumor has it that the success of ABMB is in direct proportion to the number of prostitutes that decorate certain hotel lobbies. More equals more.

Private Paradise

When I returned in the wee hours to the Fontainebleau Hotel, bleached-blond girls -- perched on cushioned benches under inverted wedding-cake chandeliers, each her own private paradise -- shone like amber beacons floating in the pink-and-blue glow of the lobby.

There were usually about a dozen prostitutes on duty.

But not everyone seemed to have thought his visit a rip-roaring success. On my return flight to New York, I encountered a disgruntled man who was wearing a t-shirt that read: “Please Buy My Art.”

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editors: Manuela Hoelterhoff, Jeffrey Burke.

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