At the Art Fairs

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When I was living in England, a literary agent once said to me at a party, “I was born to be a literary agent: my father was a car salesman and my mother was a social worker.” I think it was a favorite line of his; I heard him repeat it to someone else a few minutes later. Though I found the quip distasteful at the time, and still do, it came back to me last week in Miami, when I was down at the art fairs that take over that city for several days every December. As I walked around the immaculate corridors at Art Basel Miami Beach, the offshoot of the original Art Basel that has unseated the Armory Show as America’s largest art fair, I often found my eye straying from the art on display to the trim, elegant gallerists who stood at attention in every booth, or engaged prospects in friendly banter, or slumped discreetly over take-out salads while their colleagues took shifts. It was hard to imagine any of them comparing themselves to car salesmen, even in jest.

This was the sort of thought—tangential, anecdotal, fundamentally beside the point—that crossed my mind repeatedly while I was at the Miami art fairs. When this particular thought occurred to me, it was Thursday. Vernissage was over everywhere, and many of the wealthiest collectors had already flown out of Opa-locka that day, leaving behind smaller fish for the dealers to fry: minor and mature buyers, curators, celebrities, the odd artist. I belonged to an even lower order than these. I was not there to buy art, or to sell it. I wasn’t even there for the parties. If anything, I was there because I was depressed, and a little suggestible; my classmates in the art history class that I was taking in lieu of therapy (my life had come apart a few months before) had urged me to come. In a cold Manhattan winter, it had seemed like a fine idea. I still think it was a fine idea; the weather was very warm; I had a good time. But I could not help feeling, every day I was down there, that my mind was straying from the point. Reading through my notes from Miami, I feel a little like the test subject in a psych study I once read, who, after being shown a climactic scene from the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was found through eye-movement tracking to have fixated exclusively on a light switch behind the actors’ heads.

I had friends who seemed to be getting the point, who seemed to understand the narrative, and they endeavored to help me understand things. On Thursday night, after roaming around Art Basel, I went to the Ritz-Carlton to see a woman I know, a retired fashion executive who attends the Miami art fairs every year. In the lobby of the hotel, an attendant behind a buffet station was preparing tiny flambéed banana-chocolate tarts with a blowtorch, and offering them to guests who were heading into the lounge for a drink. As I ate my mini-tart at a mini-table in the lounge, my friend mourned the end of the wild Cartier parties of yore and declared that Basel Miami was boring for anyone familiar with the New York galleries, which comprise the bulk of the exhibitors. She ordered me to go instead to Art Miami, and promptly frog-marched me to the concierge to pick up passes. It was one of several such orders that I was given, by many different people, when I was in Miami; I must see Pulse, must see NADA, must see Design Miami and Scope and Acqua. I believe the only fair that not a single collector, dealer, or socialite told me I must see was Red Dot, which by Saturday had t-shirted employees handing out free passes on the streets of the Wynwood district.

I received an elliptical series of texts from M., an Argentinian friend and art dealer, inviting me on a five-hour round trip to a show in an undisclosed villa on a different island. It sounded like the kind of offer that ought to be taken up during Art Week in Miami, but in a wave of fatigue that felt almost like a moral failing, I told her I did not feel up to it. Instead, I went to dinner with my god sister, F., at a genteel Italian restaurant sandwiched between two drag bars on Ocean Drive. F., who studied art history at Swarthmore, is a show jumper. She goes down to Florida a large part of every year to ride; her horses are stabled in Wellington, a sleepy place over an hour north of Miami. As we ate, she described to me her daily schedule when she is in Wellington: she wakes up at dawn and rides for several hours, then spends the rest of the day reading. As we discussed German postwar art, a favorite subject of hers, we were periodically distracted by the drag cabaret unfolding on the neighboring terrace.

Visual interference seemed to be an accepted part of climbing conditions that week. In the lobby of the Delano, a number of photographs and works on paper were being displayed on easels, but no one was looking at them. No one could, really: steps away, a celebrity pianist was improvising with epic gusto on a translucent electric piano. He had an impressive manner, crouching over the keyboard with his legs in a half-lunge, streaming sweat, mouth open, eyes rolling back into his head. The art didn’t stand a chance. Something similar happened at Untitled, a small new fair, but this time it was nature, not music, that intervened. Untitled was set up in a tent on the beach. Strong sunlight streamed in, a counterpoint to the windowless Art Basel complex, and the backdrop to it all was an almost unimpeded view of the ocean. It was a gutsy thing for the fair’s organizers to do. I have yet to see the painting that could pull focus from the ocean.

It was at Untitled that I ran into H., a high school classmate of mine who is rising fast in the world of which Art Basel Miami Beach is the apotheosis. A Staten Island girl originally, she has efficiently climbed the ranks of the art business since graduating, going from intern to gallery director in three years. Over dinner that night at a Cuban place on Washington Avenue, she told me about the painters whose work excited her, the plans she had for her new space. Afterwards, as she changed into a pair of python heels on the pavement outside, she rattled off the list of parties and pop-up clubs to which we should attempt entry that night. Feebly, I wondered out loud whether it was worth the trouble, causing her to respond, with great gentleness, as if to a child, “On a night like this, you have to accept that it’s going to be a lot of trouble to get in anywhere you want to be.” I suppressed the impulse to weigh my desire against my energy level, and let H. lead the way.

White hotels line Collins Avenue, and on any given night during the art fairs, they hold basically identical pool parties. There is a summer camp quality to these parties, a sense that school is out and many normally impermissible things are permitted. At the same time, everyone is working while they are partying—getting each other drinks, sizing each other up, making nice. This is how it is in a world where taste and business acumen only go so far, where a set of intangibles is always at work in determining who is successful, who has prestige. At the pool of the South Seas Hotel, a prominent New York gallery hosted a dance party whose guests were the only relaxed people I’d seen since arriving in Miami. Clustered together on white divans, people discussed the marital infidelities of their fellow guests and referred carelessly in conversation to “here,” by which they meant New York.

Late Saturday evening, the last night of the fairs, my companion and I were too tired from a day of staring at art to find anything to do. A few steps from where we had dinner, we sank down on the lawn the New World Center, where it seemed they were projecting the end of a live performance of Le nozze di Figaro on the outside of the building. All around us lay the motionless bodies of people who looked as tired as we were. The singing was piercingly beautiful; it was the end of Act 4, a scene about mercy that is even more affecting because the circumstances are absurd (“Contessa, perdono!” the philandering Count says, and the Countess answers, “Piu docile io sono”). But whether from fatigue or the delirium produced by wine in hot weather, I felt I was not processing the performance correctly. “Does it sound like they’re repeating themselves? Do you feel like they’re on loop?” I whispered to my friend, as we half-watched and half-drowsed on the lawn. “Dunno,” he said, suppressing a yawn. Soon afterward we stumbled home to our hotel. It was two days later, back in New York, that I came across an article saying that what we had seen on the lawn that night had not been a regular run of Mozart’s opera, but a half-day-long performance piece orchestrated by a famous Icelandic artist, in which the performers onstage were to sing the finale of Figaro over and over again, for twelve hours on end, without ceasing, until they had all nearly collapsed from exhaustion.