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Art Basel Miami Beach's 21st Edition Marks a Milestone in the Fair's History

When the doors flew open on the media preview to this 21st edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, an eager crowd of press and VIPs was greeted by a giant inflatable globe. This, it would seem, is a representation of the globally essential art fair’s limitless reach. And, yes, the globe was made small by the size and scope of the behemoth Art Basel has become. 

It’s difficult to avoid hyperbole when describing this grandest of all art fairs - some don’t even try. Miami Beach Mayor Steven Meiner, whose city spent $600 million modernizing the Miami Beach Convention Center where the event is held, could hardly contain his enthusiasm: “Art Basel has been referred to as the Olympics of the art world and we are right now in Miami at the epicenter of the arts and culture world,” he said. “This week has become the apex moment of the American cultural calendar, a place where you simply have to be,” added Art Basel CEO Noah Horowitz. 

Row after row of gallery stalls make the world look small during the press opening for Art Basel Miami Beach. 

By Friday’s public opening, hundreds of collectors and others will already have inspected the art work during VIP events that started on Wednesday. Tens of thousands of other art lovers are expected to exercise the turnstiles over the weekend. When its gate is combined with that of the dozen-plus satellite shows that have cropped up around Art Basel Miami Beach over the past two decades, some 80,000 people will have taken part.

There are works by established art world greats and emerging artists, there are paintings, figurative, abstract, and everything in between; there is sculpture in bronze, clay, plaster, ceramic and glass; there are digital works and interactive installations; countless artists, 277 galleries, and 34 countries are represented. To say the art, like the taste of attendees, is diverse is a disservice to the word.

Sometimes, the diversity in vintage, style and subject occurs within a single Art Basel booth. This is the case at Aquavella Gallery of Palm Beach and New York, where works by Picasso and Francis Bacon share wall space with Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring and others.  

Here, you’ll also find a work by self-taught American artist Damian Loeb, whose piece Immaculate Conception, in oil on linen, is a none-too-subtle exploration of ecclesiastic femininity in swirling, animated, psychedelic patterns. The Virgin Mary often appears to the faithful in odd places, like a grilled cheese sandwich, in one well publicized example. Loeb’s pareidolia has led him to find her in a vagina.

The arresting work of Ed Bereal, brought to the fair by Elizabeth Leach Gallery of Portland, Ore., is one of many examples of Art Basel’s latter day embrace of Black American artists. Bereal gained wide exposure for his artistic immersion in the politics of race during the 1960s. His collage work, for which he is best known, incorporated classic drawing techniques alongside expressionist elements and pop art references.

The presentation offers a collection of early self-portrait drawings created between 1958 and 1965 before fast forward to a stunning work called CHARGED with Disturbing the Peace, a 1998 photographic diptych that parodies American racial stereotypes. The work satirizes a Los Angeles Police Department mug shot of a black man with a wildly exaggerated, smiling, toothy mouth.

At the booth of New York’s 56 Henry Gallery, Cynthia Talmadge’s immersive installation Half Light takes viewers into the artist’s imagined vision of the studio of painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, whose unsolved 1964 murder is sometimes thought to have been linked to her affair with President John F. Kennedy.

Through six large pointillist paintings and a hand-dyed carpet, Talmadge imagines Meyer’s studio at three different times: the last year of her life, immediately following her murder and what it might have looked like in 1969 had she not been killed. Talmadge’s limited color palette, complex monochromes and use of simple geometrics mimic some of Meyer’s paintings. 

New York’s P·P·O·W Gallery brings a rarely-seen series of subdued works on paper created between 1992 and 2003 by “accidental dissident” Betty Tompkins. Tompkins is best known for attracting the attention of authoritarian censors for her photorealistic, close-up imagery of sex, love, and desire including her iconic Fuck Paintings series.

In the series presented here, Tompkins harvested photographs from books on vintage softcore portraiture like Wheels and Curves: Erotic Photographs of the Twenties which she combined with her own oil crayon renderings of idyllic landscapes. The results are works that make laughable the evolution of censorship and shrill public distress over nudity in art.

New York’s Gladstone Gallery’s offerings include several works by Arthur Jafa, the American video artist and cinematographer. The three largely black-and-white works, all created using acrylic and archival inkjet printing mounted on wood panels, included one that featured Iggy Pop, doing his famous backbend during his silver-slacked days as the frontman of seminal punk band The Stooges. Jafa adds to this image some acrylic abstract filigree that ably captures the chaos that was attendant Stooges performances of the period.

There you have it, a highly subjective selection of five examples from the thousands of interesting and engaging works of art that are, for a mere three days, on display across the convention center floor. The show opens to the public on Friday and closes on Sunday.