While revisiting Miami in February, I attended the launch of this year’s edition of Art Wynwood, a fair that began in 2012. It has survived the waning of the art-fair phenomenon by allowing a takeover of pop surrealism in the booths, and by anointing enough Ps as VI to ensure a VIP vernissage full of vigorously engineered décolletage. Thus the soul of the city was on display.
Nevertheless Miami permits something lost in blue metropolises in the age of medicalized technocracy and performative identity-consciousness: freedom to think whatever the hell you want. The trends were already in motion, but under the leadership of their respective governors, the swelling population of Florida blew past the withering one of New York. Ron DeSantis’s style of hardball is cheered by the dissident Right, which is the closest thing that America circa 2023 has to a counterculture. One of its organs, the magazine IM, recently featured a writer known only as Florida Woman in its Florida-themed second issue. She likened DeSantis approvingly to Abiaka, whose viciousness assured that the tribe of Seminole would never walk the Trail of Tears. Freedom is life.
My companion for the outing to Wynwood and environs was the sculptor James Croak, who sniffed the zeitgeist and abandoned New York for South Florida this year, echoing my own flight from Boston last year to well-armed New Hampshire. While in principle the art world’s reclamation of the work of demographically marginalized artists is welcome, the manner in which it has been conducted will require a reclamation of the artists that were neglected while the prior reclamation was underway. Croak, whose Pegasus (1983) captured a moment of West Coast masculine verve and whose work in cast dirt since then has only become more formidable, is one of them. Possibly one will have to be positioned well away from New York to see the gaps. Miami will do. There Croak has already found opportunities.
Speaking of gaps, I finally set foot in the Pérez Art Museum of Miami. I left town around the time that a bond issue passed that funded the museum and dedicated a spot on the waterfront to its construction. One of the arguments made in favor of the initiative in the mid-2000s was that it would give the museum the opportunity to display its permanent collection. The counterargument was, in essence, what permanent collection? Local collectors, in the main, have not been generous to PAMM, nor were they to the institution from which it was derived. It’s not my place to say whether their reasons were justified. In any case, three of the biggest collectors in town—clans Rubell, Margulies, and de la Cruz—all founded their own private museums instead.
Old Masters, as far as PAMM is concerned, are represented by a vibrant protractor-era Frank Stella, a handsome Gene Davis, and lesser contemporaneous examples. New contributions to the collection appear in a room dedicated to what is now termed, a little derisively, Black Figuration. This is a movement fueled by white racial guilt that tends to ignore talented black artists who are pursuing more interesting goals than demographic representation. The quilted portrait of the multimedia artist and impresario Trevor Stuurman by Bisa Butler from 2021 is typical in its flashy, photo-reliant stiffness, though it looks like inspiration itself next to the outsize Kehinde Wiley portrait next to it. Far better, and hung elsewhere, is a saturated Caribbean landscape with a Song Dynasty composition by Hulda Guzmán, Under the Flamboyán, dated 2020 and purchased by PAMM in the same year. Clearly the museum’s feelers are extended, albeit with uneven sensitivity.
The temporary exhibition is “Leandro Erlich: Liminal.”1 Erlich is a Buenos Aires–based installation artist whose work is, to boil it down, surrealist architecture. The highlight of the exhibition is particularly apt for the museum terrace overlooking Biscayne Bay: Swimming Pool from 1999. From the terrace, it looks like a typical pool, but it contains only a foot of water and a glass bottom. Stairs beside it lead to the space below, where one can enter and look upward. It’s undeniably entrancing and fun. But as in traditionally painted surrealism, the strangeness wears off and one comes away more amused than moved.
The Miami private museum phenomenon evokes Gilded Age projects attached to names like Gardner and Frick, and Miami may be the one place in the country that can provide the combination of sheer wealth, bleeding-edge taste, and ample warehouse space necessary to approximate them. The appeal of artists like Sargent and Holbein is, however, unambiguous. (We dare not call it “universal” any longer, as those cheering on the decline of the West will remind us that they don’t share the admiration.) Whether the same can be said of the melty figures of Christina Quarles in the de la Cruz Collection is worth asking. Their current exhibition, titled “Together, at the Same Time,” has little more conceptual ambition than to install a three-floor sampling of works from many years of acquisition.2 It begins with a nocturnal Rufino Tamayo. It ends with, to pick someone, Quarles. Her aggressively distorted forms have admirable painterly qualities and palpable queer angst, but not in excess of a typical Francis Bacon. I’m beginning to think of the Yale–Skowhegan route to art-world notability that she and so many others have taken as not so much a pipeline as a drain.
The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse remains one of the last reasons to bother driving to Wynwood. I was present for the Wynwood boom years, when the neighborhood was a dangerous stretch of concertina wire–festooned blocks of storage and light industry—but such is fertile ground for art and was, with countless galleries springing up. Word on the street is that it is now basically a Chinese real estate investment trust, full of locked buildings skinned with commissioned graffiti murals of such little distinction that locals have no qualms about tagging them. In their midst, Margulies has a deep and thoughtful collection of photography, including some prime Dorothea Lange, and the strongest Anselm Kiefer holdings in a thousand-mile radius.
Margulies also has on display “The Italians,” which follows up on a prior Arte Povera exhibition with contemporary artists whom the movement influenced.3 Standouts here include the softly architectural ceramic citadels by the team of Domenico Mangano and Marieke van Rooy, as well as an enticing collage by Isabella Ducrot of an embracing couple dressed in fanciful outfits, rendered in a playful cubist style.
The art presence in Wynwood has otherwise decamped to Allapattah to the west and Little Haiti to the north. (Art Wynwood, strictly speaking, takes place in the Omni district, or just “downtown.”) The anchor of the Allapattah scene is the Miami location of the Rubell empire, which also has a new space in Washington, D.C. The Rubells have long been known for scrying every corner of the cities for new talent. They made what might be thought of as successful early calls on the Pictures Generation, snapping up Richard Prince and Robert Longo material that subsequently became canonical, as well as some Jeff Koons vacuum cleaners.
There is a Margulies Collection style that favors both literal and figurative grit, though the input of Margulies fille provides a dose of whimsy. The Rubells’ tastes, in contrast, are protean. Each approach has its advantages. Margulies comes off as more serious and independent. The Rubells feature a breadth of work that rather puts the public museum on the waterfront to shame.
The Rubells are also unapologetic market-drivers. Lightning hasn’t struck a second time since “Hernan Bas: Works from the Rubell Family Collection” appeared in the Brooklyn Museum in 2009 with a catalogue about the Miami-based artist published by the Rubell Family Collection. But the Rubells have established an artist residency in an ongoing attempt to lay out the necessary conduits. The work by the current resident, Alexandre Diop, is some of the most exciting art on display in the city at the time of writing. The Senegal-born, Vienna-based Diop’s L’Incroyable Traversée d’Abdoulaye Le Grand, Troisième de la Lignée (“The Incredible Crossing of Abdoulaye the Great, Third in Line to the Throne”) from 2022 is an astonishing 324-inch-wide feat depicting a panoply of black figures using paint, collage, assemblage, and copious stapling. It is comparable to the energy of Basquiat at his best and the vitality of Dubuffet at his funkiest, executed at the level of ambition of Guernica.
Little Haiti is now where one goes for the galleries, including Emerson Dorsch Gallery, where I saw an exhibition of Robert Thiele.4 Thiele has long divided his time between Brooklyn and Miami, where he first moved in 1966. This is an eon in Miami years, and his influence in the region as an artist and a teacher is enormous. He has since the mid-1970s pursued a solemn style of abstraction that incorporates wall-hanging constructions, scrim, glass, and found objects that invite prolonged examination. He somehow got ahold of bound issues of Art in America from 1931 from the library of his alma mater, Kent State University, into which he long ago spliced pictures of his work. For the show at Emerson Dorsch, he laminated pages into hundred-sheet boards and painted ominous black circles upon them in oil. They speak of the horror of redacted knowledge and the loss of history to time but also celebrate the artist’s having gotten away with creative mischief for decades.
Nearby (by Miami standards, not Chelsea), David Rohn installed his madcap meditations on Miami as seen through Dante’s Divine Comedy at Dot Fiftyone Gallery.5 Robots, the Renaissance, and the brutal urban present collide in his colored-pencil-enhanced photomontages and constructions of discarded toys and detritus. I subsequently found myself in the compound of Collective 62, a studio complex and exhibition space brought into existence by the Dot Fiftyone artist Nina Surel, where I spoke with Marina Font in her studio about the art scene in Miami and her native Argentina. Creative energy was oozing out of the place as if it might glow in the dark.
Having attended the first six iterations of Art Basel Miami Beach back in the 2000s, I began to think of Miami’s art world as a tourist economy, akin to what goes on in the Caribbean when pink, thick-walleted travelers disembark cruise ships to buy the natives’ tchotchkes. No longer: my art-viewing included the inaugural edition of the Tropic Bound Artist’s Book Fair, which gathered local talents such as my friend Tom Virgin, nationally recognized masters such as Russell Maret, and many beyond and between. I could have spent much longer there than I did, talking presses and bindings and whatnot with delightful art nerds. Twenty years ago, chatter about Miami’s arrival as an art destination struck me as wishful thinking. Now it seems that some of those wishes have come true.
- “Leandro Erlich: Liminal” opened at the Pérez Art Museum Miami on November 29, 2022, and remains on view through September 4, 2023.
- “Together, at the Same Time” opened at the de la Cruz Collection, Miami, in 2022 and remains on view through 2023.
- “The Italians” opened at The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, Miami, on October 19, 2022, and remains on view through April 29, 2023.
- “Robert Thiele: And Elsewhere” was on view at Emerson Dorsch, Miami, from February 3 through March 11, 2023.
- “David Rohn: Saints and Sinners: The Infernal Now” was on view at Dot Fiftyone Gallery, Miami, from January 26 through February 28, 2023.