Art Basel Afterthoughts

Friday, December 9, 2011 1:30 AM

All of a sudden, Art Basel had rolled around again, now for the tenth time. I was vaguely aware of the buzz in the background in November. Then, presto, it hit Miami in early December like an uncharted hurricane. No passes had arrived in the mail, so I had to scramble and send out feelers. Soon I found myself in possession of a VIP pass, courtesy of my tennis instructor. His daughter is an exhibition director. Most fortuitous.


The pass covered not just the enormous, glitzy venue at the Miami Beach Convention Hall, but also every satellite art fair in town. They tend to be more interesting and relaxed, but sometimes just as crowded. How can one card do that? I wondered. The various venues are not formally connected in a business sense. If you are in possession of a VIP pass, I guess you are naturally assumed to be a good customer. 

Alas, that is certainly not true in my case, since I am not a VIP and have not bought a work of art in years. For one thing, the prices are high. For another, I can't understand 90% of what I'm looking at. What is it, exactly? Why is it not beautiful? There is no way to make an evaluation. I'm talking modern art in general, including such great names like Picasso. 

I don't want to look at a Picasso. Yes, I know Picassos are worth far more than their weight in gold bullion, but I'd rather take the Picasso and put it in a safety deposit box. Like gold, the Picasso would be an investment, out of sight. I'd prefer to look at an interesting photograph by an unknown photographer which I might buy for perhaps a hundred dollars. I can relate to that, and to other things as well.

For example, Piet Mondrian. I'd love to have a Mondrian at home, to pass it in the hallway on my way to breakfast. Can you imagine the experience? How could you have a bad day after stopping and looking it over, just for a moment? After coffee, you could come back and take a second, longer look. The day would evolve into a lark or a meditation. 

I'm also a Joseph Cornell fanatic. Those mysterious wooden boxes with affecting, hermitic worlds assembled inside. I came across one while wandering around the main hall. It was just sitting there, on a desk out in the open, unattended and unheralded. Important people were rushing by, intent on going somewhere. I was transfixed. I could reach out and touch it.

The box was from a smart New York gallery on 57th street, whose representatives are called registrars. It measured a little over seven inches high, seventeen inches long, and three inches deep. Inside behind a glass window, there were five little sherry glasses, lined up in a row on a plank, each with a bluish marble in them. Something was going on overhead, a fragment of a game with steel rods and two, outsized crystal marbles. The background was painted in a rich lapis-lazuli. The paint was chipping, exposing white chalkiness, like one might see at an abandoned health clinic on the outskirts of Lausanne. 

This construction was dated 1955 and entitled "Spirit Level". Had Cornell kept it for himself in his humdrum house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York? Or had it been one of the relatively few purchased during his lifetime? It was a lifetime in which Cornell never once visited Europe, but distilled from afar a dream of Europe inside his boxes.

There is a fun feature that the Miami Herald has every year during the fair. It is called, "How much for that Art?" I took an iPhoto of the Cornell box, showed it to my tennis coach the next day, and played the game. First, since it was a wooden box, he wanted to know if it had any utility. He's more into design than art. Stuff like furniture and automobile prototypes. I told him no, that it was like a painting; you hang it on a wall or place it on a table.

He studied the little image on my iPhone. He had never heard of Joseph Cornell. Knowing that the piece was from ground zero of Art Basel, he guessed at a price which would be on the high side: $15,000. The price was $58,000. 

After paying silent homage to the Cornell box for several minutes, I figured there was no need to search further, my day was complete, no point in spoiling it. I should head home to regroup. But then on the way out, I caught sight of a medium-sized, India ink drawing of Louis-Ferninand Céline. Whoa! What was he doing here? Another one of my idols like Cornell. I stopped in my tracks. The afternoon visit was turning into a cultural experience, not a confrontation with glitz and glamour. 

Isn't Voyage au bout de la Nuit the most important European book of the twentieth century? I think so. Everything was determined by and predicated upon the Great War of 1914. I'm talking about the run-up to it, which started at the turn of the century, and the aftermath from it, which preordained the second bloodbath in September 1939. Céline was there for both events. He saw it all clearly from the start, and he was not fooled. The result was Voyage, which appeared in 1932. The upshot was, when he died in 1961, he had to be buried in secret. A badge of honor, which very few achieve. Read the Céline interview in the Paris Review from 1960. 

Well, it was great to see that someone was thinking about Céline in the twenty-first century! The drawing was by Fernando Bryce, who was born in Lima, Peru, studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and now lives in Berlin. He would be a great guy to have a cup of coffee with. He seems to have a deep interest in European history, judging by the subject matter of his art. The portrait of Céline was not alone. It was part of a triptych with Alfred Döblin and Alberto Arlt

I must confess I had not heard of the other two, but after looking them up, I can see why Bryce would bracket them together. They were all outsiders, whose reputations skyrocketed, then dived, and now may be said to be on the ascendent. 

Döblin wrote Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, which was made into a 15 hour film by Rainer Fassbinder in 1980. Alberto Arlt was a journalist and short story writer from Beunos Aires, whose most famous novel The Seven Madmen published in 1929 is his only book translated into English. His weekly column in El Mundo from 1928 to 1942 about daily life, politics and society in Argentina caused a sensation. These "Aquafuertes Portenas" or "Porteno Etchings" were compiled into a book, which I would love to read but can't, since I'm the only human being  in Miami who does not speak Spanish. 

Again, I hastened to leave the giant, noisy hall, to escape the crowds, collect my thoughts, and do some research. Among other things, I found out later that the ink which Bryce used on the triptych was not strictly speaking India ink but an ink from the specialized German firm Kremer Pigmente in Aichstetten, Bavaria, and that the price of the triptych is $20,500. This might be over my own budget at the moment, but the intellectual adventure of that afternoon, the chance encounter with Cornell, Céline, and now Döblin and Arlt was priceless. Ça ira!

--Copyright 2011 Patrick Foy--