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Myra Janco Daniels Takes On Art Basel

The iconic creator of The Phil heads to Miami Beach and marvels at the power of art and the cast of characters on hand.



I bought my first painting at age 5, with a financial assist from my grandmother, an avid collector who offered this sage advice: Choose something you love, and you’ll be making an investment in your future. She was right. I’ve been collecting and living with art ever since, and it has led me to some interesting places.

In early December, I visited Art Basel in Miami Beach, the country’s largest and most important contemporary art fair. I wanted not only to take the temperature of the art world, but also to see some old friends and maybe discover some new ones. The sheer size, energy and diversity of Art Basel make it the sort of adventure I have always enjoyed.

It was my first trip back in several years, and it was heartening to find the art world is as healthy, eclectic and outrageous as ever.

This season’s fair featured the work of about 4,000 artists (with a total estimated value of $3 billion, according to insurer AXA Art). Nearly 100,000 visitors flocked to Miami Beach for the four-day event. Some were buyers, some were dealers. Many were just there to enjoy the art. There were also 25 satellite fairs this year, during what has become known as Art Week in Miami.

As a colleague and I began to browse the 269 gallery booths at the Miami Beach Convention Center, we quickly recognized pieces by familiar artists: Nevelson, Close, Calder, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Dubuffet, many others. A provocative, large-scale painting by Keith Haring, we learned, was originally part of Haring’s set design for Secret Pastures, a dance performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984 (the piece was priced at $1.8 million).

But there were lots of more modest, unfamiliar gems as well. Just around the corner from the Haring, at the Ratio 3 gallery from San Francisco, were the charming, folk art-influenced paintings of the late Margaret Kilgallen. Arranged in clusters, these small-scale canvases featured the recurring themes of trees, female figures and ornate typography. Art Basel was the first time in years that her art had been available for sale.

At the nearby Universal Limited Art Editions gallery booth hung one of Jane Hammond’s delightful three-dimensional lithograph and silk screen Clown Suits (which interested me because I have one hanging in my entryway at home). There were also lithographs by Jasper Johns and by some younger (and more moderately priced) artists such as Michael Williams.

I also caught up with ULAE’s director, Bill Goldston, who had brought the exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts to our Naples Museum of Art (now The Baker Museum) in 2002-2003.

As I began to introduce myself to Bill, he smiled and reminded me that we had gone out to dinner together many years earlier. We spent the next 20 minutes trading stories about Frankenthaler and Robert Rauschenberg, before I finally moved on to other booths.  

Thirty-one of the exhibitors at this year’s Art Basel were Latin American galleries. One that I found particularly intriguing was Sao Paulo’s Galeria Leme, which presented arresting silk-screen images by Jaime Lauriano depicting colonial-era torture instruments.

It was fun to reconnect with Mary-Anne Martin, whose New York gallery is one of the leading dealers of Latin American art. Mary-Anne was instrumental in developing the auction market for Latin American art in the late 1970s during her years at Sotheby’s. She also worked with us at the Naples Museum of Art (The Baker Museum) on several projects.

This time I didn’t need to introduce myself. “You haven’t changed a bit!” she said as I walked in (Mary-Anne still has a gift for saying the right thing).

We talked about Mexican art and about the late Harry Pollack, whose collection Mary-Anne helped bring together. The Pollack Collection became the core of the Naples Museum of Art’s Mexican holdings.

At Art Basel, Mary-Anne showed some marvelous new blown-glass sculptures by Panamanian artist Isabel De Obaldia.

Many other works caught our fancy at this year’s fair: Paris’ Galerie Nathalie Obadia featured poignant, large-scale color photographs of homeless people by American artist Andres Serrano. Pierre El Khoury, the gallery’s associate director, took us to a back room to show several pieces from the series not on display.

In front of the Landau gallery booth, sculptures and paintings by Marino Marini, the late Italian futurist, were showcased, including the massive sculpture L’Idea del Cavaliere.

A wonderful variety of photography was presented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery, including an atmospheric Jungjin Lee scene of the Everglades. The Richard Gray Gallery showed whimsical works by Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein.

A favorite find for me at Art Basel was the painting La Rue de la Paix by the Dutch artist Kees van Dongen (left), at the Hammer Galleries booth. This stylized, elegant Parisian scene was painted in the early 1920s, one of my favorite periods in art history, and I would have loved to have taken it home with me (although at $2.9 million, it was a little over my splurge budget).

One of the real “wow” paintings at this year’s fair was Robert Henri’s Dancer of Delhi (at bottom), a colorful 1916 representation of a reclining exotic dancer (Betalo Rubino), which caused a small traffic jam at the Hirschl & Adler Galleries booth. It was here that we met up with Naples landscape artist Ellin Goetz, who had also stopped to admire the painting.

I asked Thomas Parker, associate director of the gallery, how much he wanted for this stunning work. He graciously provided a lengthy and compelling history of the painting and its artist. I thanked him, and then asked again how much he wanted. It was, unfortunately, out of my range (he asked that, for the magazine, we use “seven figures”).

He also showed us a captivating untitled work from the 1930s by Kay Sage, one of the leading women artists of the surrealist movement.

Art Basel is not just about the art; it’s also about the people. The fair draws aficionados as varied as the artists’ palettes—and from nearly everywhere (including a number of friends we ran into from Naples). There are millionaire buyers in shorts and sandals along with dealers from Paris, Munich and New York attired in business suits. 

Lots of characters, too. In addition to all the great art-viewing, Art Basel offers some first-rate people-watching (even though there aren’t as many “sit-down” spots as there ought to be). This year I saw several women I mistook for burlesque dancers, and young people who seemed to be on their way to the MTV Video Music Awards.

The eateries at Art Basel were varied and modest, the seating at a premium. We ate our noodle-and-shrimp lunches from cardboard boxes with plastic forks. But at least we were able to find seats. It was fun to strike up conversations with strangers over lunch.

Although I didn’t end up buying anything this year, I was able to reconnect with some of the energy and passion that first caused me to fall in love with collecting art. I returned home inspired, with a refreshed appreciation for my own collection and for the role art has played in my life.

Just two and a half hours from Naples, Art Basel is an international treasure that everyone should experience at least once. It’s a testament to the power of art, even in troubled times—the power to change our perspectives, and to change our lives.

Postscript: Whatever happened to that painting I bought at age 5? It’s still in my home here in Naples, a cherished friend in a collection that has grown to include works by Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso, Dine, Rauschenberg and many others.

Robert Henri’s Dancer of Delhi

 

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