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critic's notebook: january in miami

by Lewis Kachur  

Art Miami Catalogue


Roberto Matta
Diagramme de l'Espace

Andy Warhol
Head (After Picasso) XIX
at O'Hara

Joseph Cornell
Hotel de l'Etoile
ca. 1956
at Karsten Greve

Liliana Porter
at Ruth Benzacar

Frederico Uribe
La Bocalista
at Jacob Karpio

Kenny Scharf
Power Happy
at the Bass Museum

Collaged records
by Christian Marclay
at the Lowe

Palindrome Incest

Milky Fallings

Inside Out Upside Down
Performance at Documenta X

Carlos Alfonso
Feast of Wrath

Carlos Alfonso
Triumph of the Spirit

Georges Hoynigen-Huene
Horst & Bettina Jones, Beachwear by Schiaparelli

Art Kane
Sonny and Cher, Swimming Pool, Los Angeles

Bruce Weber
Sunday Afternoon, South Beach, Florida

Nicole Eisenman
Underwater Film Shoot
as pictured in The Miami Herald
   While the New York art world snoozes through the winter doldrums, Miami is having its moment in the sun, thanks to the huge art fair in the Convention Center and the Gramercy Art Fair's Miami installment, as well as related museum and gallery events.

Art Miami '98
With over 80 dealers from 14 countries, Art Miami '98 (Jan. 8-13) offered the spectacle of wildly variant worlds competing for attention. Strong dealers from New York, Europe, Mexico and South America pretty much swamped the locals. With a heavy orientation to the south, the fair favored the "Latinate" trio of the Cuban-born Wifredo Lam, the Chilean-born Matta and the late Picasso, who were each represented at eight or more booths. Picasso, in this context, is not School of Paris -- he's a Neo-Expressionist.

The silver-haired, 88-year-old Matta won the fair's official "art vision" award, and also the guest of honor of a benefit dinner at the Bass Museum. Despite the acreage of his energetic recent canvases, and their amusing punning titles(Art en ciel), the gems for me remain his early drawings, full of sexual hijinks, such as 120 days of Sodom and others shown at Galerie de France.

The Picasso effect was so strongly felt that even the Warhols on view depicted a Picasso portrait, in a series of works at both Thaddeus Ropac from Paris and O'Hara Gallery from New York. Ropac also exhibited a sublime recent Katz seascape, while O'Hara had a classic, relatively spare Basquiat figure, Speaking Voice. Both works seemed calculated to appeal in the South Beach setting. Karsten Greve brought museum quality Cornell boxes and Guston paintings, along with more questionable Bourgeois bronzes recently cast from her early wood sculptures. Waddington's booth was a warren of huge Flannagan hares, while Nam June Paik's amusing figurative TV sculptures carried on an imaginary video dialogue between the booths of Galerie Bhak and Hans Meyer. Among the work on view by younger artists, the tiny toy-populated photos of Liliana Porter and the decorated mannequins of Frederico Uribe were noteworthy.

While the main axis of the show was strong, the perimeter increasingly descended into another exhibition altogether, with acres of realism and Magic Realism, and kitsch academicism, that defeated the attention span of this viewer. So, too, the cavernous spaces overwhelmed a laudable attempt to present large-scale installations.

The Miami Gramercy
A New York presence was more obvious in the younger artist-focused Gramercy fair (Jan. 9-11), which was in its second year at the Art Deco Raleigh hotel. The poolside opening party was a nice feature. Unfortunately, none of the exhibitors used their outdoor terraces -- at least for art -- and site-specific installations were little in evidence. Once inside, this fair felt very much like its New York edition, with primarily recent photography and works on paper shown in the small hotel rooms. As usual it was a good occasion to chat with or eyeball the dealers.

Gracie Mansion was showing portfolios of photos by the late Jimmy de Sana, whose comically fetishistic imagery now seems to have anticipated everything from Nan Goldin to Nobuyoshu Araki. PPOW screened a new Nic Nicosia videotape of a staged drive through an all-American Middletown. Stefan Stux spent a day transforming his room into a white gallery cube, which in this context was unusual. The bed became an effective plinth for a group show of sculptures, but left him no apparent place to sleep.

Tony Shafrazi tied into the Bass Museum show of Kenny Scharf's bronzes with a more telling exhibition of his paintings, including a wild shaped canvas in a painted biomorphic frame. To me Scharf has never looked so good as in the context of the similarly colored neons of the Art Deco district at night.

At the museums
In a gleaming white Lowe Art Museum on the lush University of Miami campus, the traveling survey on art and rock music is fun and well-considered. Called "It's Only Rock and Roll," the show features more than 100 works and is up till Feb. 8. Iconic portraits of music-industry superstars ranged from Peter Blake's painting using Everly brothers' autographs as collage material to verifax collages by Wallace Berman, their repeated hand-held transistor radio a definer of pre-Walkman days. Robert Stanley's monochrome painting of the Supremes was one from his Pop-era show devoted to rock personalities, the first of its kind.

Archie Rand's name paintings, done in sparkly acrylic gel in the manner of cake frosting, revive mostly forgotten early rockers. Better know rockers include Chuck Berry in a poster-style painting by Jerry Kern and a ceramic portrait of Willie Nelson by Robert Arneson. Although the show's long tour precluded the inclusion of any major Pop works (a Warhol triple Elvis?), a variety of unexpected and quirky works were included. The guitar as sculptural object, Christian Marclay's collaged records, even the record cover as art form, are all entertaining. Only the occasional foray into jazz imagery, which slightly blurs the focus, and a relative absence of punk, mar this overdue thematic exploration.

Evidence that Miami is still the northernmost city of the southern hemisphere was provided by the shows of "Tunga, 1977-1997" at the impressive new Charles Gwathmey building of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Carlos Alfonso at the Miami Art Museum (until Mar. 8, after which it travels to the Hirshhorn Museum). Coincidentally, both institutions have woman directors with a proven track record in curating contemporary art: Bonnie Clearwater and Suzanne Delehanty, respectively.

At 61,000 pounds, the exhibition of Brazilian-born Tunga was the heaviest in town (until Feb. 1). Unlike its incarnation at Bard, this installation of giant metal and mixed media works was in a completely open space, evoking the industrial metaphor of a vast factory or train shed. (His work was installed on the train station platform at Documenta X.) I appreciated his use of magnetism as an art medium -- a big, wall-mounted magnetized metal plate adorned with small metal objects and filings -- as well as the arrangement of copper wire on the floor, like strands of hair.

Havana-born Carlos Alfonso was the subject of a retrospective that focused on the large-scale canvases he made in the United States between 1982 and his early death in 1991 at age 40. One wished to see more of his Cuban works of the late '70s, but perhaps they were not available. His work changed vastly after his first visit to New York in 1982. He breathed in the prevailing winds of neo-Expressionism, and retreated to Miami in 1984 to paint his response to it, most successfully in canvases such as When Tears Can't Stop (1986), bristling with crosses and daggers. In God in the Studio II (1989), Alfonso's motif of visionary eyes are pictured passing through a floating halo, with a palette and brushes below. These works are better when compared not to his contemporaries but to his forerunners, painters like Lam or Cobra artists like Alechinsky or Jorn.

Alfonso's paintings of 1990-91 are transitional, featuring pared-down imagery done largely in black. Witness directly references the gray and black last works of Rothko. Diagnosed with HIV, the artist set out to create his own epitaph in works that deal with blood, white cells and a supplicant figure. They will surely form an important chapter in a future study on art in the age of AIDS.

Fashion at the Bass
The Bass Museum opened a small show of Kenny Scharf bronzes, some installed atop grand pianos. But the Bass's major effort was an appropriate embrace of the local "Fashion at the Beach," co-curated by Charles Cowles and Dennis Christie (To Mar. 8). The theme was given historical footing by Lartigue's photos of the Riviera from the 1920s and '30s, and black and whites by Horst and Hoynigen-Huene. The latter's shot of Schiaparelli beachwear (1928) is a most clever play of black and white, mirroring, and nude legs descending the staircase. An effort was made to include Miami settings, such as Bruce Weber's shots on South Beach, which is among the few picturing African Americans. So, too, is the masked hulk rising from the water in David LaChapelle's oversaturated cibachrome Shoe Story (1995). LaChapelle's dizzying colors dominated one corner, such as in the outrageously sexist Bikini Girls in Candy Land Competition (1994).

Of the over 100 photos in "Fashion at the Beach," the majority were lent by the New York galleries Staley-Wise and Howard Greenberg. The accompanying catalogue represents the first I've seen with an advertisement on the back cover -- for "Absolut Ritts" -- mirroring the mixture of art and publicity of the photos inside. The most arresting image would be Wolfgang Tillmans Lutz & Alex, Holding Cock (1992) were it not for another couple, Art Kane's Sonny and Cher, Swimming Pool (1960). The daisy-clad Cher and the striped-panted Bono float underwater, in what now becomes a fittingly heavenly memorial image.

An Eisenman controversy
Further south on South Beach, the Wolfsonian-FIU gallery inadvertently touched off a controversy which illuminated the perils of public art. In conjunction with the show "Public Works" of WPA murals and studies from the collection, Nicole Eisenman was commissioned to create a new mural on a 30 by 16 foot wall in the central open space. It apparently escaped the notice of the curators that her Underwater Film Shoot was focused on a "tiny, delicate daisy chain of cavorting lesbian sea monkeys," apparently a new species that the much larger male divers are scrambling to document (the mural can be seen and commented at

After completing the mural in early December, Eisenman was prevailed upon to alter these quite human-looking cavorters, though the visible result still is quite explicitly sexual. She still regretted the alterations she had made, "It was like being in front of a censoring board. I feel badly that I made those changes. I should have walked away from it."

Acting Director Cathy Leff denied censorship, "As part of the public art process, the user, the commissioning agency and the artist work out what is appropriate for that specific site" (Miami Herald, Jan. 7, 1998). Apparently, Eisenman's mural is inappropriate for children who might visit the museum -- despite Ellen. And on the daisy chain turns.

LEWIS KACHUR is a New York art historian and critic and teaches art history at Kean University.