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Patricia Zohn Headshot

An Art Fair Is the Best Defense

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I went to Miami last week to see what the all the fuss was about.

As a young girl, I had spent lots of time in South Florida, home of the Parrot and Monkey jungles, swamp alligators and the cheesecake line at Juniors. In those years, the slickest transactions I witnessed were my nattily dressed grandfather placing his bets at the paramutual window at Hialeah or my grandmother and her friends playing canasta in their strapless bathing suits and deep Coppertone tans by the pool at the Diplomat Hotel. Even then, Miami seemed like a place where you had to pinch yourself to make sure you had actually done the things you remembered. Once, in 2000, after a very long hiatus, I breezed through Miami on the way to an architectural presentation my husband made at a trustees meeting in Palm Beach. Condi Rice was the featured speaker at a get-together for the wives and she told us all in no uncertain terms that if George Bush were to be elected president, he would surely not send our troops on any more futile missions nor foster US peacekeeping in parts of the world we didn't belong.

So when friends in the art world who had been bugging me to join them for the Art Fair to see the elites meet and greet said this was the year to go, I naturally had a healthy dose of skepticism. Everyone was talking about it: accomplished artists who were frantically churning out new work, arrogant dealers who normally made their clients come to them; wealthy patrons who had never been south of Soho; all of them shadowed by curators and museum directors who wanted to make sure not to miss out on any action among their most important constituencies.

But even though the stock market went up over a hundred points while I was there, I wasn't prepared for the sound of thousands of wallets simultaneously opening wide, and the seemingly insatiable collectors who converged on the art jungle that is Miami the first week of December.

The already pan-Latin city was infused with New Yorkers and Angelenos and even the red-staters in between as well as Madrilenos, Parisians, Norwegians, Germans and Brits. I know, because I spent much of my time riding buses to and from the private house tours, museums, boutique museums, performances, beach happenings and the five separate fairs with this international crew.

I got to make their acquaintance because even before I left Los Angeles, I was abandoned by my friends as the scent of the art came wafting across the Mississippi and the Rockies and oozed its way across the Atlantic. One who had promised to fly down with me called late the night before our departure to say she had gotten a "ride" with a famous wealthy collector. Another who had promised to "walk around" with me suddenly didn't return my calls or emails. Old friends from Europe who had made me promise to eat Cuban food with them de-materialized, only to reappear at spectacular banquets at the trendy hotels seated next to beautiful girls who may or may not have known who Picasso was.

I personally spent a lot of time in Miami feeling left out: On the plane ride there from Los Angeles, people were already comparing their fair packets, and one attendee who routinely hosts private invitation-only parties at a gallery in Los Angeles was busily working the plane (for those of us doomed to flying commercially, already a group one-notch down) to see if she could rustle up some invites to even more elite invitation only parties that had not been included in her packet.

I didn't blame them one bit. Remember seeing the photo of the stampede at the Wal Mart on Black Friday? Well, I'm here to testify, even at considerably higher price points, there was a Black Wednesday in Miami. By noon, collectors had swarmed the Poppa Fair, Art Basel, fanning out in lopsided formation to stalk their expensive quarry. I saw my erstwhile friends with their posses trailing from booth to booth as they frantically tried to stay ahead of the pack (e.g. me and the rest of the uninitiated) while they purchased things for themselves and the various institutions where they are trustees.

At Art Basel, the museum-caliber work was truly breathtaking. I realized early on that there was something I needed to stalk first though, at this, the highest-end of the many fairs. I came clean with the dealers: I told them that they should keep a look out for a Daddy Warbucks for me and I, in turn, would make sure their galleries had pride of place when we were ready to buy. I said I was sure my husband would be very flexible about sharing me if they were as good at wrangling a guy as they seemed to be at wrangling rich suckers.

In anticipation of their successful efforts, I made my list: a stunning tiny Reclining Woman by Jackson Pollack from Joan Washburn for 450,000 dollars, a 1931 Ruffino Tamayo still life for 700,000 from Ramis Barquet, an intimate study of legs by Francis Picabia for 180,000 at Michael Werner, a composite of Brownie snapshots by Robert Smithson for 30, 000, a charming Elizabeth Peyton cameo-like painting of Marie Antoinette and her children at Barbara Mathes for 38,000, a sexy watercolor by Marlene Dumas for 28, 000 from Zwirner and Wirth and a moving photo of Ana Mendieta and a skeleton for 20,000 from Galerie Lelong.

And after all these inquries, even I got a little play: loath to miss out on a sale, the dealers were unfailingly polite. Bunches of us coagulated in their closets which functioned like Loehmann's back room -- as we pawed over the stacks, there was even a tiny gleam in our eyes. Maybe there was a leftover off-price bargain they had forgotten to mark up? And if something we inquired about was already sold, hey, no problem -- they got out their black leather look books to see if anything else might strike our fancy or worst case, maybe the artist could be convinced to work on commission.

Even though they kept telling me to "trust myself" (I remembered this line from when I was a virgin), my stress level was at an all time high. Did I want perfectly rendered mushrooms, sumptuously patterned abstracts, enormous portraits, or tangerine colored video art? It wasn't until Friday, when the Momma Fair, Nada, and the Baby fairs (Pulse, Scope and Aqua, Design 05) opened that I found I could finally relax. Aqua was the calmest of these, a charming installation in a redone hipster motel in South Beach which along with a place to actually sit down (the beds were still in the rooms) had something I could almost contemplate buying: a crisp and amusing gouache by Seonna Hong, a young and talented Los Angeles animator, and a haunting ink drawing by Billy Collins, a mid career artist ((loved FINALLY hearing about somebody who wasn't still in grad school) who had just been named a Whitney Biennial artist.

I've decided the art fair is currently the best defense we have against the overwhelming hostility to the US and its current policies. People from all over the world seemed positively delighted to part with their money though one Washington power couple huddled and frowned in the corner of a booth, focused on their personal deficit for a change, and not the trade deficit.

And I didn't go home empty handed after all. I have a pink wristband from the Miami Art Museum, a Bacardi Vanila pin that blinked on and off till the battery wore out, a paper placemat with a map of Florida from Victor's 24 hour taxi driver bodega, a free copy of Interview magazine and about fifty cards from gallerists with my fantasy works of art and their prices.

In the inclusive spirit of Art Basel Miami 2005, I plan to hang them up on the wall as place holders in my own personal conceptual art piece until those fat cat dealers get their acts together and find me the next Eli Broad.