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The Works at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019 Raise More Questions Than Answers

David Hammons' African-American Flag sold for more than $1.5 million at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019.EXPAND
David Hammons' African-American Flag sold for more than $1.5 million at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019.
Photo by Douglas Markowitz

An art collector once said even the best work can go overlooked at art fairs. Such is the case at Art Basel Miami Beach, where there is so much art that one can barely make sense of any of it. What is good? What is bad? What will sell? The answers are elusive.

If you haven't been to Art Basel in a while or ever, start at the name-brand dealers. They are the biggest galleries in the world, and they represent artists that everyone and their mother knows. At David Zwirner, which attracted a large crowd during Wednesday's private viewing, there are works by Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Yayoi Kusama. This writer overheard casual mention of a drawing selling for $40,000. Gagosian, arguably the best-known gallery of them all, doesn't even reveal the names of the artists whose works are on display — you just have to know or make an educated guess. There are a couple of Basquiats and what looks to be a large work by Roy Lichtenstein.

Those are all canonized artists, so sticking to the big dealers isn’t helpful if you’re trying to figure out where art is going in the near future. For that, Basel has "Nova," a section where galleries display work created in the past three years by one or two artists in their stable. Works here include manic, cartoonish paintings by Masato Mori of Japan, portraits of African subjects by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, and a bizarrely arresting video piece by Zheng Bo of China that shows a boy hugging a tree and eating its leaves. Will it be in a museum in ten years? Let's hope so.

Fredric Snitzer Gallery shows Hernan Bas at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019.EXPAND
Fredric Snitzer Gallery shows Hernan Bas at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019.
Photo by Douglas Markowitz

On the subject of museums: The Magic City is represented by Tomm El-Saieh, whose work has been exhibited at ICA Miami. The Haitian artist specializes in colorful abstract paintings that resemble fields of wildflowers; his work is displayed by Central Fine, a Miami gallery making its debut at Basel this year. Another local dealer, Fredric Snitzer, is displaying work by Miami native Hernan Bas. The artist, who is of Cuban descent, is presenting paintings of young, pale-skinned men in Florida-centric scenarios. One eats stone crabs while wearing a bib. Another, with his back to the viewer, flaunts a flamingo-print shirt. There's one titled Tampa Goth, and you can use your imagination for that one.

There are a couple of interesting works that wrestle with what it means to be American. Artist Ron Terada, represented by a Vancouver-based gallery, is displaying the sculpture You Have Left the American Sector. The piece comprises a large white road sign displaying the title in English and Spanish. Another work, Declared Void II by Carey Young, draws a black outline against a wall and offers a caption stating that anyone who stands inside has declared themselves a U.S. citizen.

Terada's and Young's pieces comment on the vagaries of national identity and border crossing, implying the most American thing of all is simply getting here. One piece by David Hammons, however, takes on the knotty issue of patriotism: His African-American Flag reinterprets the Stars and Stripes in the symbolic red, black, and green of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. It’s a potent reminder that not everyone came to America by choice. ArtNews reported that the piece sold for more than $1.5 million.

Ron Terada's You Have Left the American Sector at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019.EXPAND
Ron Terada's You Have Left the American Sector at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019.
Photo by Douglas Markowitz

Many people of varying nationalities have crossed into America for Art Basel Miami Beach. On the convention center floor, you can hear Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and many other dialects. There’s a literal world of art here, and it might be confusing and imposing at times, but it’s undeniably captivating. It’s a shame that only the very rich and powerful can participate in buying and supporting artists at this level, and that many of the buyers exploit those with less money.

Some of the most striking work at Basel this year is by photographer Nan Goldin, who has no qualms about calling out the world's sad state of affairs. In the past few years, she has transformed into a bold activist focusing on a very specific subject: the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharmaceuticals is considered responsible for the opioid epidemic thanks to its marketing of Oxycontin. A former victim of prescription painkiller addiction, Goldin founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), which stages protests and "die-ins" at art institutions the Sacklers are known to support, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Louvre in Paris.

At Art Basel last night, Goldin's dealer, Marian Goodman, displayed two photographs, each of a different sunset. One was blue and orange, the other pink and violet. Her crusade gives them an interesting context: Is each image a view of the twilight of a life on drugs or the end of a struggle with them? Or are they just pretty? You decide.

Art Basel Miami Beach. Thursday, December 5, through Sunday, December 8, at the Miami Beach Convention Center, 1901 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach; miamibeachconvention.com. Tickets cost $45 to $500 via artbasel.com.

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