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by Walter Robinson
For an enterprise that specializes in the avant-garde, the art world has been shockingly slow to suffer the effects of the economic crisis. True, business is down at the seventh annual installment of Art Basel Miami Beach, Dec. 4-7, 2008, which brings some 250 dealers from 33 countries to the city’s modern convention center. No longer do collectors rush to snap up prize artworks lest some other buyer beat them to it. Now they take their time. The frenzy is gone.

Even in the best of times it would take a little work to move the top-ticket items, like the Pablo Picasso painting of a reclining, pregnant Françoise Gilot at the booth of Jan Krugier Gallery, which is priced at $25 million, or the classic, gold-framed Francis Bacon Study from the Human Body -- Figure in Movement (1982), an image of a naked, headless man with chopped-off arms, writhing on a table in a room, which is priced at $18.5 million at the Marlborough Gallery booth.

But at the top level, sales are still made whatever the economic situation -- at least enough to cover costs. As the daily art-fair edition of the Art Newspaper put it, aptly if without tabloid verve: "Loyal buyers secure a positive start." Throughout the sprawling fair, dealers speak of lowered expectations with resignation but without panic. They note moderate sales. "We’re pleased," they say. It’s a clear testimony to the power and status of ABMB, the best art fair in the U.S.

"It’s better this way," said Miami dealer Kevin Bruk, almost sotto voce. Bruk has a small booth in ABMB’s "Art Nova" section filled with large energetic paintings by Brooklyn artist Daniel Hesidence, which look a little like monstrous haystacks made of brushstrokes. "Collectors have time to look at the works, you have time to talk to them. It’s better."

"Happy colors for a bad market," joked Cologne dealer Raphael Jablonka about the brightly colored new works filling his booth by the Connecticut-based postmodernist painter Philip Taaffe, works that combine tie-dye sunbursts with classical Islamic geometrical arabesques for an effect that suggests a kaleidoscope, or perhaps a kind of cross-cultural rose window. "We sold some paintings, believe it or not," said Jablonka, who called Taaffe a "great colorist." Prices for the paintings range from about $50,000 to $175,000.

Jablonka had also taken the works to the Abu Dhabi International Fine Art and Antiques Fair in November, along with another series of paintings, Taaffe’s most narrative to date, pairing peregrine falcons and king snakes, a subject that presumably appeals to sheiks and emirs.

"Recession? What recession?" said Sarah Gavlak from her tiny corner of "Art Supernova," ABMB’s open-plan concession to the younger, hipper dealers. Around a large central table sit the staff of galleries like the Breeder, Miguel Abreu and Casas Reigner, while they install their works in an adjacent warren of rooms and freestanding walls. Gavlak, who splits her time between New York and her gallery in West Palm Beach, said she had made several sales of works priced in the $20,000-$45,000 range.

She is showing neopsychedelic abstractions by New York artist Jose Alvarez, whose "maximal collages" often include beads, porcupine quills and feathers, along with otherworldly swirls of eye-popping paint -- it’s almost as if the delirium missing from collector shopping has turned up in the artwork itself. Alvarez is also known for strangely primitivist "paintings" made of large mineral crystals, overlaid on each other like the scales of a prehistoric reptile. The artist is supposedly influenced by the shamanistic teachings of Carlos Castaneda, as well as the skepticism of anti-magician James Randi.

Similarly optimistic sentiments were expressed by Berlin dealer Aurel Scheibler, who this year is sharing a booth with David Nolan Gallery from New York. Scheibler noted that he had sold one edition of Malcolm McLaren’s 21-part film, Shallow, which puts a lively pop-music soundtrack to a series of nonpornographic images of women from old adult films, for $75,000 to a Kentucky collector, and a pristine Bridget Riley painting of colored Op Art stripes from the 1980s, for $900,000. 

The open corner booth of Milan dealer Francesca Kaufmann is filled by a mobile by Los Angeles artist Pae White, a kind of confetti waterfall of small cardboard hexagons in yellows and other colors, "hanging from 800 threads that we installed one by one," said Chiara Repetto, Kaufmann’s sister and partner in the gallery. The work was drawing a lot of attention -- it turns everything around it into a little bit of La Grand Jatte -- including the interest of an American collector, who had put the $50,000 sculpture on reserve.

"Collectors feel strong, and are looking for discounts as high as 30 percent," said Repetto, who noted that the gallery had lowered its expectations after making only modest sales at the Frieze Art Fair in October. But since Italy’s economy is always in a crisis state, the current art-market difficulties are nothing new. "We have money in the mattress," she joked.

The scholar-dealer Frances Naumann, who recently moved from his Upper East Side quarters to larger space in the 24 West 57th Street galley building, had a disappointing vernissage, he said, with no action at all. But business picked up dramatically the next day, when he sold eight smaller works one after the other, most by Marcel Duchamp. An authority on the proto-conceptual artist, Naumann had a substantial installation of Duchamp items in the booth, along with works by contemporary artists like Mike Bidlo and Richard Pettibone.

At Galleria Franco Noero from Turin, the mood was less sanguine. "Look at the faces of the people passing by," said one of the staff. "I don’t know what they’re looking at. The carpet?" The Noero booth is a difficult one, scattered with the sort of abject formalist art that was seen in the last Whitney Biennial: a hanging coat-rack sculpture by Tom Burr, two pairs of concrete-filled blue jeans by Rob Pruitt, two huge black-painted circles on the wall by Neil Campbell.  "We have time to talk to people," he ventured, diffidently.

Also on hand at Noero is a pair of before-and-after glamour portraits by Francesco Vezzoli, Interview-magazine style, taken by fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo before he died. The pair of portraits is $19,000. Vezzoli is keeping busy, both in Miami Beach and elsewhere. The Wolfsonian FIU design museum is opening the artist’s "Democrazy" installation, a parody of U.S. presidential politics, a work that premiered at the 2007 Venice Biennale (starring Sharon Stone as a candidate), and Vezolli is reported to be working on a new commercial for a fake perfume, called Greed, which stars Natalie Portman and Michelle Phillips and is being directed by Roman Polanski. In recessionary times, "celebrity" probably remains a steady investment.

Art fairs excel as a place to unveil new product, and ABMB has plenty of it. Everyone notices the new portrait by Dijon-based Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama at the booth of David Zwirner, a somber, drip-laden image in the artist’s signature black-white-and-gray palette. Pei-Ming had been working on a series of portraits of U.S. soldiers for an exhibition now on view at the Des Moines Art Center, and the portrait of the president developed from that. The picture is sold, though the gallery declined to give a price, to "a major U.S. private foundation" (Pei-Ming’s auction record, for a portrait of the Pope, is over $2 million.)

Just down the aisle, the booth of Deitch Projects also features a portrait of Obama, this one by Kurt Kauper, who may be best known for his imaginary photo-realist image of a stark naked Cary Grant. Kauper’s Obama is fully clothed. Not so the 3D resin-and-wax model of a nude Ophelia by Vanessa Beecroft, which fills the center of the space. Titled Blonde Figure Lying, the model boasts real human hair.

Other sculpture on view includes white plaster and wood works by the Leeds-born, Los Angeles-based artist Thomas Houseago at the booth of Xavier Hufkens from Brussels. Energetic and enthusiastic, Houseago seems unstoppable in person, as do his golem-like figures, sculptures that begin with a plane and then build up into three dimensions. His works, which were included in "Red Eye," a show of Los Angeles artists at the Rubell Family Foundation in Miami in 2006, range in price from $30,000 to $60,000. Houseago was one of many artists spotted at the fair in just a few hours; others included Kerry James Marshall, Ed Moses, Shirin Neshat, James Rosenquist, Will Ryman, Phillip Taaffe and Terry Winters.

The talk turned to weight at the booth of New York dealer Peter Freeman, where two new boulder sculptures by the Earthworks pioneer Michael Heizer had been installed. The first works Heizer has made for gallery display in over a decade, according to Freeman, the sculptures weigh five and six tons, respectively (and are priced at $750,000 and $850,000).

Each boulder -- one is smooth black diorite granite and the other is a rougher chunk of red volcanic scoria -- is framed, or tightly contained, within a heavy steel box, which is set up on its end, so to present each rock to the viewer as if it were inset into the wall. The objects are from the artist’s series of "Negative Wall Sculptures."

Heizer, who has been concentrating his energies on building his massive City in the Nevada wilderness despite a debilitating nerve condition, has recovered his health and is now concentrating on the major sculptural commission that is on tap for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- a work that involves a boulder that weighs an incredible 300 tons.

Save the final image for the avant-gardist Aaron Young, who filled a container with sand the last time he came to ABMB but who outdoes himself this time around, blocking off the entry to Bortolami gallery’s "Art Nova" booth at the periphery of the fair with a gold-plated chain-link fence (the price: $100,000). Only the most serious viewers dare to squeeze through the breaks in the golden barrier to get inside. What a metaphor.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.