Memories of Miami part 3 (Miami Basel art report 2005 – 2008) – updated October 2010

I’ll  start again with more of what I remember of some of the past highlights starting with the 2005 edition.

My partner and I have been to Miami Basel every year since beginning in 2005. We went without much planning, having missed the 2004 event when so many of my artist friends from LA decided it was time to dip into the tropical waters of Miami’s unbelievably festive winter art fair ocean. We used Hotwire and booked a beachfront hotel in September. Over the next few weeks I watched as all the hotels on Orbitz and in South Beach were solidly booked, and then as dozens of hotels sold out as the prices for the remaining rooms rose into the stratosphere.

I booked our Miami Beach restaurant reservations on Opentable. Escopazzo on Thursday nite, China Grill on Friday nite, and Wish on early Saturday evening. Each of these was an exceptional dining experience. Escopazzo featured Sicilian cooking and a staff brought in from the motherland. China Grill was our first ultra-lounge, where the experience of eating as a form of theater is quite well performed. We had been to places like Ruby Foos in NYC and the Stanton Social in NYC, the latter of which is still one of my favorite places to haunt while in New York on the Lower East Side. Wish featured patio dining and these totally cool dayglow faux ice cubes that glowed in your drink. We also had lunch at the Hotel Victor, and remember being served by what had to have been the most James Bond like experience of our lives, as the waiter was so over the top professional and yet theatrical, that we felt we were in a thrill seeker film that partially starred luxury goods.

China Grill Miami Beach

Now for the art encounter of 2005. We decided to check out Miami Basel for several hours before our 7:30PM dinner. I don’t have a memory of a specific work of art that stood out, because so many seemed to do so. What made the deepest impression in my memory is walking through the individual spaces, which I would discover were hierarchical – the closer to the center, the more powerful the space. I distinctly remember walking from a hard surface and stepping into a gallery from Spain, when of a sudden my shoes were cushioned by a level of plush carpeting that my shoes literally sank into. I remember smiling and saying to myself – what a wonderfully subtle way of expressing one’s desire to convey the upscale lifestyle. I remember many of the guests being strikingly well dressed, but most of all I recall the conversation I had with a Texas couple who were talking about buying a Tony Ousler for one of their several homes.

The wife was incredibly excited by the Ousler eye projection work, but needed to know that the piece was unique before she would make a purchase. I remember asking her why she required this: She didn’t want things that other people had, she wanted the work to be an expression of her unique self.

The next morning, after having breakfast outside our hotel on Ocean avenue, we got dressed to the nines and drove our drop-top rental car to the Rubell Family Collection’s 9AM Friday opening. I wore a dark green suit and so did my female partner. We entered the cavernous space and were each handed the RFC booklet for the show. This was the Rubell’s new collection of Eastern European paintings. I remember being astonished by one work in which it appeared that a man was behind a window, wiping it clean, but all I could see was his shadow. I also remember seeing several astonishingly good large-scale hyperactive color oil paintings by a young German woman painter. I recall seeing a woman visitor to the Rubell who was so beautiful as to almost not seem real. Her skin was devoid of blemish – incredible.

The Rubell Collection I learned is used to showcase their annual collecting from their global travels. The year before I think they did a show of the white hot Leipzig painters.

In coming years they would do a show of LA Artists called Redeye, a show of international conceptual works. The most impressive installation we saw during those years was a massive sound sculpture and installation by Thomas Zipp, which featured live DJ’s playing a selection of historic air raid siren sounds, and in 2008, the show called 30 Americans, which features the fresh art of 31 African-American artists. In this most recent colleciton, I noticed a similarity in the practices of several of the artists, and recognized the Rubell’s taste in powerful narratives, whether they be gigantic gorgeous geometric yet rhythmic abstrations by Mark Bradford, or potent personal  urban storyteller representations by Henry Taylor, or the massive aggressive often sexually charged wall sculptures of Rodney McMillian.

Thomas ZIpp's installation used guest DJ's to play a selection of air raid siren sounds.

Thomas Zip's installation at the Rubell Family Collection Miami

The Rubell Collection building is well known as being a former Miami DEA confiscation warehouse, transformed over time into a 45,000 square foot superbly renovated exhibition space. It has a Phaidon bookstore, a 30,000 volume library, lectures and film screenings. This year I was invited to a mid-November preview of 30 Americans.

This building is what the LA MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary should be like in Los Angeles, but still is not even after over a quarter center of use. LA MOCA’s TC, renamed as the Geffen, is still in need of the major renovation that would turn it into the world class permament art exhibition showcase that the LA artworld deserves. At the hotel that evening I discovered we had inadvertently attended the VIP private viewing of the Rubell Collection.

The other space that blew us away during our first visit in 2005 was the Margulies Warehouse. It’s the same square footage as the Rubell, and a full on museum too, but without the transformation of the façade. It’s in the downscale fashion warehouse district in Miami, which looks a lot like the same area in LA. The 2005 show was showcasing the Margulies photography collection. I have to say – I have been to no other venue in my many travels over the year that as such an up-to-date encyclopedic representation of photography, from the 1920’s through the massive German photo works that came to the forefront during the late 1990’s. I remember thinking how lucky Miami was to have such phenomenal on the ground contemporary art resources.

We visited the then just opened Cisneros Fontenals, a former warehouse in downtown Miami transformed into the CIFO, a smaller but stellar contemporary art showcase, which then had on display what I can only describe as a video forest. It was the most mind-boggling display of video and video installation I had ever and still have ever seen. There were dozens of video screens hung at various heights in the darkened space. The potent multiple video images and corridors of sounds were majestic in their symphonic order and evocation.

On Saturday nite of the 2005 Miami Basel week we visited the Design District, which would be throwing a huge block party that the artworld would be attending and that was televised. There was free drink and several bands playing on portable stages. Thousands of people were walking through the neighborhood. There was live music coming from several of the Design District galleries, which were and still are largely for the Miami design community, which is now one of the most dynamic in this country.

If I recount some of the highlights from our next three vists to the Magic City and Miami Beach, we saw several stunning exhibitions between 2005 and 2008. The William Kentridge retrospective at the now closed Miami Art Central, was one of the most tremendous and rewarding experiences of art I had even had the privilege to experience. Kentridge is a master storyteller and a magician with drawing, film, animation, and the live time based arts of theater and even opera. Kentridge is what I would describe as being a total artist, multifaceted, brilliant, brooding. A gold standard in art making.

William Kentridge in his studio

Kendridge drawing for The Magic Flute, La Monnaie, Brussels, 2005

Kentridge drawing at Miami Art Central

Another phenomenal show was the Hernan Bas exhibition at the RFC. Bas not only showed several phenomenal paintings, (far better than what I had seen of his work in LA) but he also showed a couple magisterial and hypnotic installations, which also featured short personal films by Bas that were so in tune with Bas’s work as a painter, that I almost didn’t believe how good it all was. I have rarely seen installations of this caliber by a younger artist, that is until this year in Miami, when the Meth Lab installation from Marfa Ballroon was show at The Station, an under construction condo building whose empty spaces were filled with provocative art by Whitney Museum curator Shamin Momim and NYC artist Nate Lowman.

photograph by Chip Litherland for The New York Times "Ocean's Symphony," an installation by Hernan Bas, Rubell Family Collection

Other works that come to mind include a previous Miami Basel in which a fake cigarette lighter skipped around a huge space from aircraft wire, it was playing and clever and witty and amusing. Then there was a photograph of a ship that had rotted at sea and photographed as it split in half, at the Scope Fair, and this year there were several simply sublime paintings from China in the new Art Asia Fair. We saw a Barry McGee videos in a flipped over truck installation that was out of this world good, as good as the one we saw at Redcat in Los Angeles a year ago or so.  This past season, we noticed several new galleries at the fairs from foreign lands with a new Miami location.

This past Miami Basel were entralled by the Russian Dreams show, the lightbox photos od the dead in haute couture, the tank covered in feathers with the canon that flopped periodically like a spent penis, the DEMOCRACY oil pump sculpture and the boxes emitting steam sculptures.

Exhibition poster for Russian Dreams at the Bass museum

Andrei Molodkin, Democracy, 2008 (sketch). Mixed media installation, crude oil, neon 500 x 600 cm


DEMOCRACY - another view

Russian Dreams sculpture by Kostroma. The canon would deflate and go limp, a perfect metaphor for spent power.

Russian Dreams sculpture was a sensation. I would love to see this work come to Los Angeles.

Another major highlight were the video installation of Chantal Ackerman, the utterly poetic and provocative video about people attempting to come to Europe on small boats at the Margulies Warehouse, and Anri Sala’s video installation at MOCA Miami, which featured drums playing without drummers, and a dazzling video in which country western radio and classical music stations first moved in and out, then in the second video projection, a classically trained country music group played both the cutting away sounds of the country western radio and then the classical pieces, magnificent. I really got into the young male solo drummer video too.

Back to the food. Miami and Miami Beach continue to grow in sophistication as a foodies destination. This year we had one of the two best meals we had this year at Sardinia Enoteca in Miami Beach, followed by after midnight drinks at the Fontainbleau’s billion dollar makeover hotel. Sheer opulence and total luxury in a tropical clime, that is why the Swiss chose Miami in 1995 and launched Art Basel Miami Beach in 2001. We even had great breakfasts of the kind we have to pay top dollar for in LA, but in Miami we could eat well a block from the ocean for two for $30 for breakfast in America’s winter paradise. Now I know why the snowbirds love South Florida, even thought I’ve still never been to old world lux Palm Beach.

Escopazzo restaurant in South Beach

Last but not least. Miami is one of three American cities with European late night hours, with clubs and bars that stay open until 5 or 6AM. Miami Beach has one of the most incredible club scenes in the country, and now a major food and wine festival to go with their winter music conference.  Everyone must experience Miami Basel at least once. In the near future, the small museums that are in the region will have an international thrust, and the soon to be six private collections will be reason enough to come to Miami at least once a year to see art, independent of whether the art fairs last or not. Miami/aka NYSouth is here stay.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. He has recently been named a 2010 United States Artists Project artist.

The USA site went live on December 7, 2010

My initial project is to fabricate a 3 foot tall doll house sized sculpture of the collapsed William Livingstone House in Detroit. The project description and a video presentation of the project are at the links provided here:
Please feel free to review the site and to contact others who would be interesting in supporting the program and my project.
thanks so much
Los Angeles, California
cell: 818:430.1604


Five Signs of Deano's by Vincent Johnson

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

Biography October 2010
Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited at Las Cienegas Projects, LAXART, the P.S. 1. Museum, the SK Stiftung, Cologne, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Adamski Gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, the Sacramento Center for Contemporary Art, 18th Street Arts, Santa Monica and the Boston University Art Gallery. His photographic works engage both significant and neglected historical and contemporary cultural artifacts and is based on intensive research of his subjects. Upcoming is a group show at the Kellogg Museum of Cal Poly Pomona, an exhibition at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a show in Copenhagen, and a second one person show at Las Cienegas Projects in Los Angeles.

Johnson received his MFA from Art Center College of Design in 1997. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was nominated for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 nominated for Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Vincent  Johnson Artist Statement

Vincent Johnson’s work is a form of sustained cultural mining that explores the depths of his subjects. His photographic works created from 2001-2007 delved into architecture as fantasy, from the vernacular architecture of Los Angeles to that found throughout the American West. He has documented several of the no longer extant commercial vernacular structures in both South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley that came into existence during the birth of long distance family travel by car. In 2007 he presented a fully fabricated work of sculpture – a 12 foot long six-foot high replica of a 1956 Chrysler Air Raid Siren. This project developed as he was both researching and documenting a former military corridor in the San Fernando Valley that included a retired military airfield. His newest photographic works, all created in 2008 and 2009, are large-scale photographic montages, each of which confront significant cultural figures and several dramatic signal events of Cold War era Western cultural history, including Television, the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Space program, American home-based bomb shelter  program, and Vietnam. He is working on large-scale photomontages of the several major American political figures of 1960’s, including Martin Luther King, the Kennedy family, and Malcolm X, as well the representations of both Communism and Capitalism, Hollywood and Los Angeles and many related Cold War era subjects. Johnson’s photomontages can take several months to create as he captures hundreds of images from online sources, before selecting those which most well index a particular historical moment, personage or event. The creative juxtapositions and scale shifts of the found images is what he most relies on to develop his potent and illuminating photographic works.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: