Art supernova

It's early December at the country's most prestigious art show, and international artists, critics, curators and celebs are mixing it up. Such pop stars as David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz, Beyoncé, Pamela Anderson, Marilyn Manson, Jason Mraz and the Olsen twins have already been spotted perusing the booths at Miami's main convention center. There are 250 top art galleries from around the world assembled here and hundreds more artists represented in surrounding museums, hotels, galleries, warehouses and private homes throughout greater Miami.

It's Art Basel Miami Beach, a kind of Olympic Games for contemporary and "blue-chip" arts. Because the Motor City's a cultural epicenter, many Detroiters circulate.

Elliott Earls is a designer in residence at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and heads its 2D design program. He's making his Art Basel debut at Florida International University's Wolfsonian Museum. And the DIA has sponsored special-access tours for its patrons, and museum curators Rebecca Hart and Mark Rosenthal are here to lead them. Paul Kotula of Paul Kotula Projects — the only Detroit gallery actually selling works here — is promoting his artists as much as he's representing D-town.

Kotula says economic woes have many art collectors cutting their stay shorter this year. Cutting back is on everybody's mind.

"I can't tell you how many questions I've had ... 'So what do you think about this [auto] bailout?'" Kotula says in his track-lighted booth at Aqua Wynwood, one of many satellite fairs at Art Basel.

"I don't see anyone making sales," adds Kathy Dambach, a former art professor at the College for Creative Studies who's helping tend Kotula's booth.

"Is anybody?" Kotula asks.

The DIA takes its Detroit patrons to places they can't visit using Art Basel VIP passes. Today they're touring a private collection. Norman and Irma Braman, the couple opening their home for this particular tour, have been collecting art for about 25 years and live on the water on an exclusive island at the north end of Miami Beach. The Bramans certainly live well; they own several top-end car dealerships — including Bentley, Rolls, BMW — among others. Norman once owned the Philadelphia Eagles. Among the Bramans' possessions is one of the most important private art collections in the world. Museum groups from all over come to view their assemblage that's heavy in post-World War II abstract expressionist art.

Rosenthal has toured the Braman home many times. "You're in for a treat," he says to the DIA group, "especially for the indoor-outdoor effect." One of the greatest things, Rosenthal says, is the Jasper Johns painting "Diver."

"I think it was Henry David Thoreau who said that the roots of a civil society and the roots of a green lawn are nourished by a well-spring of duty and responsibility. Or was that Thomas Hobbes?," says Earls, who's conducting an undressed rehearsal of sorts in the Wolfsonian auditorium a few days before his Art Basel performance that's called "Thoughts on Democracy."

When Earls created his first performance piece back in 1997, he'd recently earned his MFA from Cranbrook; he was living outside New York City and thought his career as a graphic designer was going horribly. So he put in a proposal to Manhattan's Black Box Theater, home of the Vagina Monologues. His first piece was called Here. They let him do one every six months. Then he won an emerging artist grant from the prestigious Wooster Group in Manhattan, and caught the attention of his old alma mater. His first day teaching at Cranbrook happened to be Sept. 11, 2001.

"Is there any way you could get out of the way?" a museum worker says while hanging a ceiling light. Some guys in black set up and install Earls' piece in the heavily mirrored Wolfsonian's museum auditorium. Earls, who wears a white cotton zip-up jacket and a "visitor" tag, steps aside. He continues talking: "I'd be doing this much more theatrically than what I'm doing right now." His colorfully animated, often surreal, computer-generated designs roll on four flat screens on the wall, connected to four laptops.

"Look, I got kids," Earls continues reciting his script. He clicks the remote and three kids flash on the screens. "Those are actually my kids and my wife," he says pointing to one of the four flat screens on the wall to his left. Then he refers to a trailer park that appears, and says, "We don't actually live there. But, um, all this stuff was shot in Detroit."

Earls created several iterations of the American flag. He really lacquered one up with an automotive sheen, red and candy-like; another he designed with black and silver stars and stripes. The black and silver flag, he says, was a symbol of the Depression.

The number 700,000,000,000 flashes across Earls' four screens. It's an ironic reference to the economic stimulus package enacted by Congress recently to stabilize the financial markets and the Detroit auto industry.

In the Wolfsonian's lobby, brochures explain how on January 6, 1941, on the brink of entering WW II, President Roosevelt made his annual state of the union address to Congress — the "Four Freedoms" speech had Roosevelt outlining four essential human freedoms. The government hired Norman Rockwell in 1943 to design posters depicting the importance of said freedoms — propaganda posters to generate support for the war. Those original Rockwell posters were recently gifted to the museum.

So the Wolfsonian asked 60 contemporary artists and graphic designers, including Earls, to design a poster inspired by Rockwell's original "Four Freedoms." Big names in contemporary art and design contributed posters at the nadir of the George W. administration, so pessimism existed. For example, in Earls' "Liberty Weeps," Liberty is a young girl with a forlorn look on her face. Her clothes are disheveled, and there's a cameo of FDR in her crown and on her belt. Her sword limp, she's surrounded with blood-splattered snow and her American flag bows down to the ground.

Gary Wasserman, CEO of Michigan's Allied Metals, on the boards of both Cranbrook and the Wolfsonian, commissioned Earls' performance. And he thought it wouldn't be complete without a car show; a kind of rolling art piece. Enter a cavalcade of Smart cars emblazoned with slogans about democracy designed by Earls. Smart cars are mini-autos with a hybrid engine, a little more than 8 feet long. Conceived by Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch and manufactured in Germany and France, the name Smart is an acronym for Swatch Mercedes Art. They're a hot item in this country, and there's a waiting list of a year to get one.

Smart USA, division of Penske Automotive Group, the sole stateside distributor for Smart cars, donated those used for the show. Earls designed the exterior of the cars in five days. The printing and installation took two days, a digital process indistinguishable from a custom paint job. Then the cars were loaded up for the seven-day trip to Florida. Those eight "Thoughts on Democracy" autos will drive around Miami Beach in a rolling unit during Art Basel, sporting Michigan plates to boot!

A bearded guy in jeans steps into the museum. "Elliott, can I have my key?" he says, sounding somewhat annoyed.

"This is Benjamin Teague," Earls says. Teague, a Detroit-based ceramist who's performing with Earls, is part of the Cranbrook contingency. He needs keys to get into the museum workshop to mold Earls's sculpture, "Elegy for the collapse of the Empire" (Detroit, Craft and Disintegration). The work's a component piece to Earls' Wolfsonian performance.

Teague has worked closely with Earls on numerous projects, paintings, sculpture, music and filming. They are friends. (After a day at Art Basel, Earls and Teague hit an Irish pub and later busked the streets of South Beach and on the veranda of the Blue Moon hotel. Earls on banjo and harmonica and Teague, mandolin, keeping time with a "tambourine foot" — a musical instrument Earls designed in his studio.)

Teague gets the keys from Earls and goes to file metal.

Suddenly Earls detects an audio problem. "Something strange is going on," he says, referring to his laptop's coordination with the sound. He goes to talk with the sound guys.

The Wolfsonian, by the way, holds a snazzy collection of government propaganda posters commissioned during the '40s, many by anonymous designers: "Save Rubber. Check Your Tires Now" reads one that was distributed so Americans would conserve resources for the troops. No doubt those who created these couldn't have guessed they'd ever hang in a museum. For that matter, none of the objects in the Wolfsonian's permanent collection were designed with a museum in mind.

"You should have death metal music here," Earls says to a sound guy.

He continues, "So, there's this sort of ambient track that mixes all this stuff together. And then I say," Earls pauses dramatically, "we the people in order to form a more perfect union." Earls runs through the preamble to the Constitution at breakneck speed and ends it with the question: "But where does our power stem from?"

Earls clicks the remote and all four flat screens cut to a prerecorded Obama speech, explaining how our power as a nation does not come from our might, or our wealth, but the power of our ideals, and so on.

"I don't know if you know this line," Earls says, looking directly into my eyes searching to see if this writer knows the speech Obama made just after winning the presidency.

"Obama talks about our power coming from our ideals and the dynamism, the fluidity of the American project," Earls continues. Another click of the remote and up pops scenes from the second presidential debate, 2008. He rewinds.

"There are five different tracks of Barack Obama talking and then John McCain talking and then the commentators talking," Earls explains. This stuff is relevant to his performance piece. "Through this cacophony I ask 'where does our true power stem from?' and then there's the most amazing thing we've seen in a long time which is this great, amazing speech that Barack Obama gave about where our real power as a country comes from.

"I wanted Barack Obama to win so desperately," Earls continues, "and while this was coming together I didn't know where we would be standing. ... It's a really proud moment for America. White people, black people, Mexican people, voted for Barack Obama. It's an articulation in some ways of a meritocracy.

"Makes me emotional just thinking about it," Earls adds, turning his head toward the wall, almost tearing up.

Interestingly, Earls' patron and business partner Gary Wasserman, who commissioned this piece, is a registered Republican and gave money to the 2004 Bush campaign and to McCain in '08.

The ship container cranes at the Port of Miami on Biscayne Bay resemble a row of Mark di Suvero sculptures — those large outdoor contraptions of railroad ties, tires, scrap metal and structural steel, I-beams and heavy gauge metal. In the '60s, di Suvero mastered the use of a crane, acetylene torch and welder. He soon purchased his own crane to bend and build steel.

There's a di Suvero on the grounds of Braman's compound, firehouse red, angular as a metal compass. The DIA group has the best view of it from the couple's waterfront dining room, there in the garden among sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, David Smith and Joan Miró.

When the DIA group arrived at the Braman's earlier in the morning, Irma explained that they've had to move four Smith and Miró sculptures, use a crane to move rocks and take the sea walls down to accommodate a new piece, a volcanic Richard Serra made especially for the Bramans. The Serra's very lyrical, much more so than his other work. It feels softer. Looks lighter. Buoyant. It could be sails on a sailboat. It could be anything you want it to be, Irma says in front of her home, shielding the sun from her eyes. It looks like steel cusps of breeze.

A pier stretches out to a solitary boat in the dining room's bay windows; a fish of broken stones and gold bits of glass, a Calder, dangles down over the round wood table decorated with colored carnations in bowls; a '40s De Kooning hangs in the corner. I wonder what temperature the water is.

"Having di Suvero by the water is a really great thing," Rosenthal tells the group that's huddling around the dining room table. "It's a little known fact that di Suvero and Richard Serra grew up on the same block in San Francisco. Both their fathers worked on the docks. Being by the water and the docks and the wharfs and the piers and stuff like that plays a powerful role in their work."

Picassos. Braman seems to be obsessed. He's got a massive gold and black one from the early '50s that's over his bed in the master suite, a smaller version of the Picasso mother and child on an end table. Two blue period Picassos hang in the den. The home's gallery portion, which feels like a medium-sized museum with its hardwood floors and echoes (they built it on as an addition to store more art), has one room with two massive '60s Picassos facing off with a Warhol and a Basquiat.

I ask Rosenthal how much he thinks the Bramans' collection is worth. He bristles. "Why are you asking all this? Are you with the museum?"

The Bramans purchased "Diver," their Jasper Johns painting, for around $4 million back in 1988. It's now estimated to be worth at least 20 times that — which is precisely why the Bramans, who've chaired the Miami's Art Basel host committee since the festival began, have been dubbed "the blue-chip buyers." It may also be why this island of only about 14 households has its own police force and 24-7 armed boat patrol. Yet when Paul Kotula finally sold pieces by Michigan artists Jae Won Lee and Kathleen McShane at his booth, it wasn't because they were "blue-chip," but because someone appreciated their work.

Most Braman choices border the boring — not that the art's dull; rather, their curatorial sense's sort of boring — they aren't very adventurous curators. Have they ever purchased an artist who isn't already famous? Are they only name-brand buyers? Have they ever introduced an artist to the world?

Liza Lou, a sculptor whose work's featured in the Bramans' large industrial kitchen is "not so blue-chip," Rosenthal says. For many, the term "blue-chip" means expensive. To Rosenthal "blue-chip" describes those artists whose reputations are firmly part of history.

"Picasso is firmly part of history," he says. "Calder is firmly part of history, at least history as we know history right now." To be a blue-chip artist as Rosenthal sees it, you must make an impact on art history and that's a complicated process. For the average artist fresh from grad school, they've got a ways to go.

When Earls called sculptor Anish Kapoor a "blue-chip artist," Teague was visibly irked. The pair was taking a break from busking to talk about what they liked at the fair. Earls said he liked a Kapoor sculpture: "Kapoor's work is incredibly expensive and he's firmly established as a blue-chip artist. But the thing that struck me as odd is ..."

Teague wrinkled his face.

"What is it?" Earls asked.

"I just hate that term," Teague said. "It shoots up my spine. I just can't stand it. I just can't stand that term. ... Quite a few people would say that anyone in that show is a 'blue-chip' artist. But we all know that's not true."

"I'm still struggling to find what your point is in all of that," Earls said.

"It just seems to be an umbrella statement. It drives me nuts, because I don't know what it means." Teague has done all types of ceramics, from Majolica and High Fire reduction glaze techniques to hand-building and wheel throwing — a good fit for his sculptural and painterly interests.

"A blue-chip artist, unfortunately," Earls said, "is an artist whose work holds its value over time and is incredibly expensive."

"I'd be willing to bet that Anish Kapoor was half a million," Teague said and then admitted that maybe he got so irked because he's not a blue-chip himself. "I'm sure that has something to do with it," he added. Then he and Earls packed up their instruments and stepped away to have a mango-kiwi Snapple and a Fanta orange soda, respectively.

Makkada B. Selah is a freelance writer and arts critic. Send comments to [email protected]
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