When I first started writing about art fairs, I was more naive than I’d like to admit. I mistakenly believed my trained eye would allow me to spot more valuable trends and news stories than anyone else. But with so many dealers to talk to and so much art to see, thousands of narrative threads spin from these events and only a few recur enough times to make a definitive statement. And even then, many are suspect.
Take the dead icons fair trend at Art Basel Miami this December, as identified by countless twitterers and newspapers: Michael Jackson appeared a lot at Basel this year according to these sources, but I only noticed three instances at the main fair and two at Art Miami. There are probably more than I noticed, but it seems likely that pop power of these icons distorted the degree of emphasis on repetition, and drew attention to the trend. After all, the numbers are only slightly more frequent than Wade Guyton’s U sculptures, which were located in a post by Greg Allen earlier this week.
Allen’s narrative has greater weight for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it reveals a specific body of work by a very trendy artist as popular among collectors. A more generalized observation of interest is the diminishing presence of assemblage sculpture at the Miami fairs. Contemporary galleries still show plenty of this work though, so I suspect this trend has less to do with people finally tiring of the medium, rather than the expense of shipping sculpture long distances in the midst of recession.
Speaking of recessions, the trend here is that nobody wants to talk about it. Last year’s story that Basel Miami “wasn’t as bad as we thought” seemed little more than a means for dealers to stay positive. This point was underscored for me at Pulse a week ago, when one anonymous dealer exclaimed, “Yay! Collectors will talk to us again!” As I mentioned here in October, given the economic duress I see many handlers and artists under, I am suspicious of statements such as these.
Of course, the dominant stories this year tend to be about celebrities who would do well no matter how the market is performing. Sylvester Stallone, whose awful angst-ridden portraits sold despite their poor quality, undoubtedly had a little help from the popularity of his Rocky films. Stallone is one of a growing number of celebrity hack artists—Marilyn Manson and David Lynch among them—showing up at art fairs. As it turned out, artist Burt Young, Stallone’s Rocky co-star Paulie, was the under-reported celebrity artist in Miami this year, his equally bad Picasso-inspired painting titled “Lisa” on display at Art Miami’s Westwood Gallery. Apparently, Stallone is a fan of the work.
Perhaps the difficulty in labeling significant trends at the fairs cause some reporters to focus on its character. “Any fair takes on, to a large extent, the identity of its city,” Frieze Fair executive director Amanda Sharp told me in an interview last October. I thought about those words a lot this week, as they seemed to provide a stable framework for the giant mass of Miami fairs. A mental checklist of constants began to form: sunny beaches, an air-conditioned convention center, art deco hotels. I stopped when I added “more Botox-faced, stilleto-heel-wearing collectors.” It was a recurring story about a lifestyle trend, but I liked it anyway.