It’s a balmy seventy degrees at 9:30 AM. I am part of a small crowd at the Rubells’s private museum in Miami, and we’re sipping free espresso in the back garden. A large box dripping with organic honey hangs from the ceiling. Bees gather at the base, as guests hold little designer jars of homemade yogurt underneath the stream to catch the sweetness. Video cameras flock to get a picture of Jennifer Rubell, who is also sticking her hands into the honey. Inevitably, all participants walk away sticky, licking their hands and arms as they return to moving among the art—precious works made of imitation gold leaf, giant spray-paint color fields, sloppy neon, messy paint spills, and chrome. This is the vibe of the Rubells’s 2011 curation, American Exuberance: too good to be true, racy, overripe, and darkly decadent.
Anyone lucky enough to find herself in this Caribbean beach city in December can relish the spoils of three locally competing art dynasties. These art-collecting families—de la Cruz, Margulies, and Rubell—welcome the annual flow of Art Basel, a crowd of more than 40,000 knowledgeable art tourists. All three generously open their private museums to exhibit impressive stashes. Their investment choices make careers. But also on display is a deep love and enjoyment of art.
The Rubell collection is my favorite. The family has fearless, bombastic, and politically poignant taste. Some think that the Rubells’s curations are too hard hitting or macho. What some might interpret as too much emphasis on drama, too much of the speed of commercialism and the highway, is just what I find compelling. There is something totally American and totally Miami about the Rubells’s verve. But this year’s choice of artworks is not just flashy and bold, because the flash and lack of tenderness make a sharp point—one reflecting a particular brand of American artists of this time and place. The glitz and decay of the work seem all the more powerful as we lie fallen from a state of economic and governmental grace. The gold plate is starting to flake away.
Entirely covered in “imitation gold leaf,” John Miller’s 2007 installation, A Refusal to Accept Limits, reads as ruins. This assembly of golden columns, arches, pedestals, and a giant obelisk are all covered with trash—toylike skulls, fruit, axes, and swords. This bright spectacle spreads before visitors as they enter the main gallery. It’s the aftermath of a party, a battle, or a feast, and make sure to note its date. This work foreshadowed the crash of yet another empire. In juxtaposition with the Rubells’s generous serving of honey to their guests, Miller’s installation provides the guiding metaphor for viewers as they pass through all twenty-eight galleries of the exhibition.
So many other works of art continue the sprawling theme of American exuberance: Sixty-four artists, spanning two decades, all make similar cries. On view are classic pieces by the super-famous: Barbara Kruger, Cady Noland, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, Keith Haring, Matthew Barney, Richard Prince, Maurizio Cattelan, Jason Rhoades, and others.
In addition are new discoveries for me—voices from a younger generation. Kathryn Andrews’s deflated balloons, hanging off a chromed-steel gate, are so sad and funny. Mark Handforth’s iconic Honda (2002) is an effigy and an accident, as candles burn atop a downed motorbike on the cement floor. Michael St. John’s 6 posting is a single floating column suspended against the wall. Simple paper messages, like fucked-up memos from the corporate office, are tacked up: “Move Your A$$” and “Street of $creams.” In yet another funny simulation of an accident, Brendan Fowler plays with picture frames to mock the mundane commerce of art. He puts trite inkjet images under Plexiglas and crashes them into each other to make jumbled wall sculptures. And totally hysterical was Ryan Trecartin’s installation, Trill-ogy Comp (2009): an entire dim room converted into a corporatized California park at sunset, complete with sand, abandoned luggage, and benches that are chained to the floor. There, viewers could tune in to three hyperspiritual videos.
I think I detected a slightly sentimental moment somewhere in the middle of my visit with a particular juxtaposition of works (at which point I was three hours in and had seen only half the show …). A respite from all the aggression and flashing lights, this moment was like a calm, sunny island. Hannah Greely’s installation Dual replicated a dark restaurant booth that includes little landscape paintings, a wall lamp, smoky mirrors, and an old-fashioned, wall-mounted pay phone. Bracketing Greely’s centerpiece were several absolutely charming, Matisse-like landscapes by John McCallister. And in an adjacent room, Dana Schutz’s large, romantic painting, Lovers (2003), showcased a truly exuberant use of color surrounding an embracing couple …. This naïve sense of romping joy is still America, too.
Private art collections are the bells and whistles of capitalism. Every year that I go to Miami for Art Basel, I am totally disgusted by a powerful truth: Art is big business for the people protesters call “the 1 percent.” The people who get to play are way out of my league. And yet, at the same time, my faith in art as a unique, communicative form, as a practice and a subculture, is also somehow restored. In this place of easy breezes, pink neon, and unapologetic privilege, there is no question about the validity of fine art. This bubble is well established. There is supply, demand, and plenty of product on many levels. It is through the sophisticated display of private collections, however, that one can best understand the context (and fantasy) of the fair itself.