“THIS CITY STRESSES ME OUT. I get anxiety as soon I land,” said Joel Mesler, cofounder of UNTITLED gallery, as we sat over legs of disembodied octopi during a Blum & Poe dinner at the Soho Beach House on Wednesday night of the Art Basel Miami Beach cavalcade. In all its white-suited trashiness and conspicuous consumption, the Miami fair week is stressful: Dealers stressing about collectors. Collectors stressing about outgunning other collectors. Curators stressed by trustees. Most everyone in the business stressed out about dinners and parties. Wandering aimlessly from free drink to free drink, critics are stressed out by everybody else. Artists should probably just stay home. “I really like colorful things,” the collector across the table told me as dessert arrived. “Did see you any colorful things for sale?”
Out the window, eight floors below in a giant white tent on the beach raged a party thrown by Dasha Zhukova for Art.sy, some kind of Web project that almost no one can say aloud without cringing. A gaggle of dinner-goers followed Tim Blum as we passed other art dinners through corridors guarded by Argus-eyed girls with iPads lighting up their faces and the ubiquitous oversize bouncers, all asking to see our passes. I just kept pointing to the guy next to me, which happened to be artist Anthony Pearson, a strategy that more or less seemed to work. Once down on the beach, drink in hand, one woman told me she worked for an international weapons manufacturer; another kept referring to “clients” in a way that felt synonymous to “dates.” I ran into a somewhat bemused trio of Kitchen director Tim Griffin, MoCA curator Bennett Simpson, and future Ludwig Museum director Philipp Kaiser. The last two joked about being yanked into a picture with Paris Hilton, the looks on their faces ranging from bewildered chagrin to downright delight about their photo op with one of the many heiresses that seemed to litter Miami’s streets.
The following morning I headed to the opening of NADA. Though I’d heard stories about collectors and advisers foaming at the gates for the younger fair’s vernissage, no one seemed to be rushing. I saw tons of people (artist Sam Falls, curator Dominic Molon, Bad at Sports’s Amanda Browder) leisurely having breakfast as I walked the final stretch of Collins Avenue leading to the Deauville. Though the NADA galleries had the best reason to be stressed out (selling young art has slim margins, and one bad fair could break a young dealer), the fair felt collegial and mellow. Fair director Heather Hubbs, now pregnant, and artist Brendan Fowler were high-fiving over the awesomeness of babies. Dealer François Ghebaly looked downright cheerful as he admired a wall stacked with sold Oscar Murillo paintings.
The best energy came from a string of diminutive booths populated mostly by artist-run spaces and nonprofits. Their size made you want to put the word “phone” in front of “booth,” but many made up for lack of space with ingenuity. Night Gallery from Los Angeles painted its walls sky blue and showed paintings by Parker Davis and a stack of silvery boxes by Samara Golden. Like a few others in attendance, Night Gallery had tricked out its room upstairs in the Deauville, too. Proprietresses Mieke Marple and Davida Nemeroff coaxed friends and collectors with promises of cocktails using charmingly janky flyers for local tourist attractions likely nabbed from the lobby; they just crossed everything out and Sharpied their party info on top. A few booths down from them, Brooklyn’s Dumbo Arts Center opened up shop with Barb Choit’s collection of “Attitude Problem” paraphernalia. “I don’t have an attitude problem,” said Choit. “You have a perception problem.”
One of the most interesting artists at the fair had probably the biggest attitude problem (in the best, John Waters-ish sense of that term): the recently deceased cult figure George Kuchar, showing at Richmond, Virginia’s Ada Gallery. With a set of comic book pages from the 1970s on display, dealer John Pollard talked about the time he spent with the filmmaker in hospice before he died. Apparently Kuchar joked about all the doctors who had to check out his ass on his deathbed, while Pollard gave his regrets to Kuchar that he wouldn’t be able to chase any boys on the beach in Miami this year.
I didn’t chase any boys either, but I did end up on a treadmill chasing parties. I first landed in the Setai penthouse at a shindig thrown by the radiant Russian art patron Maria Baibakova (along with Vogue and Hugo Boss—everyone gets a sponsor here). Here we were, a room filled with gowned beauties, Lance Bass, a corpulent Daumier caricature in a tracksuit, and the odd, out-of-place writer. Under a Sterling Ruby painting, facing two late works by LA godfathers Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, Baibakova groused about how weirdly exclusive and frustrating the circuit of Miami launches, dinners, etc. can be even for her, once getting shut out of a party for Visonaire magazine, with which she’s collaborated.
After watching the fifth person trip over a steel Subodh Gupta sculpture of an armchair and ottoman, I split downstairs and next door to Mr. Chow’s at the W for a dinner thrown by Puff Daddy. It promised to be a “revolving” dinner, such that everyone would have a chance to eat, but in practice this only meant that there were way too many diners and way too few seats. Some friends waited in line for what they thought was food, though it just ended up being the line to pay respect to Diddy. Crowds of latecomers huddled at the edge of the room, enviously eyeing the tables and getting progressively drunker on Veuve Clicquot, until somebody (okay, me) began to raid the tables and bring back plates to the temporary hoi polloi. One recommendation: Don’t try to eat lobster without proper utensils; the irony wasn’t lost on me that I almost choked on a lobster shell.
Leaving Mr. Chow’s, I walked thirty yards to grab a drink at the Cardi Black Box/Armani party and then shot over to the NADA fete at the Shore Club where all lists and carefully parsed hierarchies had gone out the window and bedlam reigned. I squeezed into the crowd, where I was pressed against artists Erik Frydenborg and Amanda Ross-Ho and dealers Mihai Nicodim and Johann König, all of us laughing, frustrated, stressed out, caught in a rare democratic moment in a week rife with exclusivity. I tried to convince Ross-Ho to rush the door with me, but then the rope was finally lifted. We surged in, disappearing into the party without looking back.