Karim Masri, Meir Teper, Tony Shafrazi, and Gianni Nunnari check out Keith Haring’s Untitled (1988) at the VIP Preview at the Miami Beach Convention Center for Art Basel Miami Beach 2011

Just how overheated was the atmosphere at this past December’s edition of Art Basel Miami Beach? Start with the record-size crowd of 50,000, including an opening-night vernissage crush that had the Beach’s fire marshal in a panic, hollering, “Nice and easy! Nice and easy!” as he forced hordes of VIPs to march single-file into the Miami Beach Convention Center, like so many kindergartners in high heels. Gaze over the swarm of Hollywood A-listers who winged into town, from Michael Douglas and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones to Sean Penn and Will Smith, turning Basel’s week of velvet-roped parties into a tropical take on the Sundance Film Festival.

Then add the sudden transformation of louche celebs into discerning cultural mavens: If the sight of Sean “Diddy” Combs dropping $70,000 at the fair on one of British neo-feminist Tracey Emin’s sculptures wasn’t jarring enough for you (Emin’s solo exhibition at North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art is already scheduled for 2013), there was New York Yankee A-Rod trading in his baseball bat for curatorial duties, having a set of It boy Nate Lowman’s “bullet-hole” paintings installed in his waterfront Miami Beach home (including inside his indoor batting cage, naturally), while a who’s who of visiting Basel-ites ooh-ed and ah-ed over his burgeoning art collection.

Not least, there was a dizzying array of, ahem, art-themed corporate product launches: a pop-up shop hawking a new line of Dior handbags customized by German abstract painter Anselm Reyle? Why not! Perrier copresenting a night with drag queen-cum-videographer Kalup Linzy and post-punkers TV on the Radio? Sure! A poolside fête with alt-rockers Soulwax, courtesy of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Maybach autos, and… the Kingdom of Morocco? “The same publicist who brought us Maybach was working with Morocco,” LA MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch helpfully explained to The Wall Street Journal. “Everybody wants to connect with contemporary art.” Well, pass the lamb tagine.

Maybe it’s best not to overthink this blurring of art and commerce, as evidenced by the spirit inside the Basel booth of Leipzig, Germany’s Eigen + Art. There, a woman stood transfixed before Neo Rauch’s Die Jägerin, a fiercely imposing, nearly eight-foot-tall, bronze statue of a female falconer readying for battle. “Where will this go?” she asked earnestly. It seemed like a fair question—sporting a fearsome necklace of four disembodied heads, the statue seemed best suited for display inside Qaddafi’s revolutionary palace. “Where will it go?” thundered back gallery head Gerd Harry Lybke. “To whoever gives me $850,000!”

Of course, you could always ignore the price tags and just focus on the art itself. In that respect, this past Basel was one of the strongest yet. While some veteran hands grumbled about a conservative tone to many of the pieces brought to Miami, it really just meant more bona fide masterpieces on display. Indeed, while trendspotters are always parsing the fair’s booths to divine the latest art world development, this year saw no single style dominate. Call it the “antitrend” trend—head-scratching conceptual artworks vied for attention (and wallspace) with easy-on-the-eyes modernist classics. On that latter note, New York’s Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe hung two gorgeous pinnacles of Abstract Expressionism painted by the late Helen Frankenthaler. Her huge 1974 Blue Reach, featuring sprawling swaths of azure that practically beg the viewer to leap into the canvas, was a reminder of just what gets lost amid the incessant drumbeat driving the shock of the new.

Likewise, New York’s L&M Arts turned its booth into a shrine to vintage Andy Warhol, complete with his signature cow’s head wallpaper. But this wasn’t simply a regurgitation of Warhol’s greatest hits, such as the now hoary silkscreened self-portraits and soup cans. Instead, L&M showcased Warhol’s drawings, particularly his pre-Pop ’50s output, when he worked as a commercial illustrator with his handiwork appearing on jazz album covers and filling the pages of Vogue. By turns playfully inventive and smolderingly sexy, whether sketching an array of women’s shoes or a daydreaming paramour, Warhol’s early drawings are full of all the messy emotions he would later purposely drain from both his artwork and his entire public persona. Not only did few of these drawings sell at the time, their creator was dismissed as a lightweight by the then-reigning art stars. It was a painful lesson that Warhol took to heart as he reinvented himself in subsequent years.

Business Art is the step that comes after Art,” Warhol wrote in 1975. “I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist…. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business—they’d say ‘Money is bad,’ and ‘Working is bad,’ but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Glib? Or an embittered victory lap masked as philosophy? Either way, Warhol’s proviso lurked over at the Basel booth of Eric Charest-Weinberg, one of just three Miami gallerists (out of a total of 260) chosen to exhibit in the rarefied environs of the fair, and a last-minute addition at that—he’d been selected after the Basel catalog had already gone to print. Accordingly, while Charest-Weinberg was quick to wax poetic over the artwork he’d hung—paintings by New York’s Ouattara Watts and collages by Miami’s own Nicolas Lobo—he freely admitted that superior aesthetics were hardly the sole reason his gallery had made the cut.

“All art fairs are heavily political,” he explained. “When you’re applying to enter, it’s inevitably about a lot more than having good artists. There’s this curtain that goes down when the selection committee meets. It’s all supposed to be solely about the art…. But it’s also about if somebody on the committee doesn’t like one of your artists, or if someone got into a fight with somebody else one night at a bar.”

These kinds of snubs and grudges can have serious repercussions. With many of the art world’s biggest collectors focusing their check-writing on the galleries represented inside Art Basel’s confines, being a local gallery left outside can mean the difference between financial success or failure.

Indeed, with a limited number of art buyers, competition can lead to a zero-sum game for Miami’s art dealers. This is a business, after all. “It’s a big business,” Charest-Weinberg said with a solemn nod.

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