America’s Largest Art Market Is Open

Galleries tallied millions in sales during Wednesday’s VIP preview of Art Basel Miami Beach, with contemporary art fetching record high prices and Basel officials lauding the fair’s success in its fifth year.

Art Basel Director Samuel Keller said the Miami Beach version of the Swiss art fair had met or surpassed expectations.

“We have . . . exceeded our dream,” said Keller, who will leave Art Basel to become director of the Swiss Beyeler Foundation in 2008. Keller called Art Basel Miami Beach “America’s largest art market.”

Indeed, more masterpieces change hands, more new artists are discovered, more art sales take place at Art Basel Miami Beach than at any other North American fair.

Fair officials say they expect 30,000 to 40,000 collectors and showgoers to attend this year’s fair, which runs through Sunday and features 200 galleries representing more than 2,000 artists from around the world.

Indications from Wednesday’s premiere suggest the fair is going strong.

Within an hour after opening, New York gallery Lehmann Maupin sold Miami artist Teresita Fernandez’s Falling Glass, made of simple crystal balls falling in the shape of an elaborate necklace. The asking price: $90,000, though the gallerist would not confirm the sale price.

New York’s Edwynn Houk Gallery sold three prints — priced at $19,000 apiece — of Canadian photographer Robert Polidori’s shots of Havana interiors.

One photo, titled Seora Luisa Faxas Residence, is of a decaying mansion in the Miramar neighborhood with an antique piano in the middle of the room.

Jim Rosenquist, the American artist first associated with pop art, was just starting his walk around the Miami Beach Convention Center with Miami collector and dealer Marvin Ross Friedman when he stopped to explain his motivation for attending the fair.

“People have said this before, but you pay one airfare and see the whole world. I’m very interested to see artists I’m probably going to start to collect. Hans Hofmann and George Grosz. Knowns and unknowns. People I didn’t like I’m starting to like. One is Helen Frankenthaler. She’s pretty damn good.”

Two artists expected to sell well, based on recent record prices paid for their works, are Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who just closed a show in New York, and American pop art icon Andy Warhol, whose portrait of Mao Zedong recently sold for $17.4 million.

There is one Andy Warhol gem at Art Basel Miami Beach: the small Knives, a simple piece of a set of black knives spread out like a fan on a white background. The asking tag: $300,000.

At the booth for Landau Fine Arts of Montreal, proprietors Robert and Alice Landau said sales were very good to excellent. “We sold some very major paintings,” said Alice Landau, whose gallery is a repository of 20th Century masters such as Alexander Calder, Joan Mro and Picasso.

Robert Landau estimated that the gallery sold over 30 paintings Wednesday, adding that some were priced at more than $1 million.

Business was going “very well” at the booth of New York gallery Sikkema, Jenkins & Co., said co-owner Brent Sikkema, who sold a painting by American artist Mark Bradford for $100,000. The painting was collaged with silver papers and showed an abstract painted composition that resembled imploding street maps.

Other sales: $375,000 for a series of works on paper by American artist Kara Walker, critically praised for creating silhouettes in black paper that lend an aggressive, sexual twist to slave narratives.

A set of prints by the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, who’s had a solo show at Miami Art Museum, went for $75,000.

“We are selling everything,” said Richard Arregui, a representative for Miami’s Fredric Snitzer Gallery, one of three Miami galleries in Art Basel. A multi-colored striped painting by Miami artist Gavin Perry, glistening with nine layers of resin, sold for $18,000, Arregui said.

Kevin Bruk Gallery, a Miami art dealer exhibiting in the fair’s Art Nova section for new and typically less expensive works by emerging artists, showcased paintings and mixed media works by Craig Kucia and Fabian Marcaccio. Bruk sold one six-foot-by-eight-foot mixed media work by Marcaccio titled “Casual Miami” for $55,000, said Chae duPont, a representative for the gallery.

Buyers attending Wednesday’s VIP preview seemed particularly informed about the market, duPont said, and they knew what they wanted.

“Seems to me they are looking for the blue chip artists or the ones who are going to become blue chip artists,” she said. ‘They are asking educated questions about, ‘Where has this artist been shown?’ and ‘Can I see some slides of their other works.”

Among the art world heavy hitters spotted at the fair were Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden director Olga Viso, who was shopping to discover new works.

“I was interested in seeing [artist] Spencer Finch at Rhona Hoffman [Gallery]. We just acquired a light installation of his,” she said.

Also spotted at the VIP opening was Norton Museum of Art director Tina Orr-Cahall, browsing for contemporary art.

“I did the really blue-chip stuff at first,” she said. “Now I like to see the new artists, to see what’s out there.” Orr-Cahall was accompanied by Norton curators and 10 collectors from Palm Beach and Hobe Sound.

The collectors were looking for works by Richard Diebenkorn and Jean Dubuffet. After seeing Basel, “we are heading off to [the alternative art fair in Wynwood] –scope Miami and making quite a day of it.”

Art Basel Miami Beach featured more than the galleries inside Halls A and D of the convention center.

At the container-filled Art Positions at Collins Park, cross-cultural dialogue emerged as a recurring theme.

Los Angeles artist Mario Ibarra Jr. turned the Helwing Gallery container into a rest-and-talk spot for Baselgoers, complete with fancy furniture in rococo and baroque style — but covered in protective plastic, as was customary for many immigrants to do with their precious new acquisitions in the 1960’s and ’70’s.

He served tea and Chocolate Ibarra, a traditional Mexican hot chocolate, a quirky mix of European tradition, Latin flair, and some kitsch. Add some Latin jazz and a collage of Tito Puente playing drums and you’ve got Tea Time for Tito.

The Art Video Lounge in the Miami Beach Botanical Garden featured several New York-based artist organizers of the video art project called [PAM] or perpetualartmachine.com.

[PAM] is a two-channel interactive video installation, featured at the –scope Miami art fair, that combines over 1,000 videos by more than 500 artists from nearly 100 countries.

“We’re turning the viewer into the user. It’s through the Internet. It’s a fusion of MySpace and YouTube,”said artist-organizer Lee Wells.

Miami artist Alette Simmons-Jimenez was one of the visitors to the lounge. She was concerned that Miami artists are not benefiting as much from all the Basel-related activity as they would like. “‘We are all trying to draw attention to the local things,” she said. “It’s expensive to do what you are doing locally and then join a fair. There are not many local galleries in all the art fairs. It seems like there should be more.”

While sales were strong and Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer declared Art Basel a “permanent show” for South Florida, fair officials, including Host Committee Chairman Norman Braman warned that escalating hotel prices could doom the fair’s future.

“If something isn’t done, it jeopardizes the future of this fair,” Braman said.

Art Basel has reserved show dates at the Miami Beach Convention Center for the next 10 years but operates on a year-to-year contract.

“We will stay as long as the fair is successful . . . and in Basel [Switzerland], that has been 37 years,” affirmed Peter Vetsch, Art Basel’s marketing and communications manager.

Alan Lieberman, owner of seven South Beach boutique hotels, said the rates mostly reflect the growing popularity and upscale status of the lodging market. “Prices are up. But prices are up everywhere.”

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