Aires Strike

Linda Yablonsky at the 23rd arteBA in Buenos Aires

Left: ArteBA director Julia Converti and curator Octavio Zaya. Right: Collector Claudio Stamato, artist Julio Le Parc, and ArteBA president Alec Oxenford. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

ON MAY 21, I arrived in Buenos Aires for the opening of arteBA, thinking it Argentina’s first contemporary art fair. I was wrong. It was number twenty-three.

Where had I been? Certainly not in Palermo, the neighborhood of La Rural, the convention center housing the fair. Just by the by, BA also has a Palermo Hollywood, a Palermo Soho, and a seedy, riverfront district called La Boca that some call “the Bushwick of Buenos Aires.” So this is not the most Latin American of cities. It looks like Paris, for one thing, and nearly everyone I met over five days had a French, German, or Italian name, and spoke such Italian-sounding Spanish that roving Mousse editor Stefano Cernuschi could fake it and still be taken for a native.

He was there to appear on one of the panels organized for the fair by the curator Abaseh Mirvali. They were among the visiting VIPs from Brazil, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, the UK, and the US transported through a soggy afternoon chill to join their Argentine counterparts at a preopening mixer. No artists were present at the reception, held in the near ruin of a gorgeous, historic house called Casa Carlos. Champagne was served with empanadas and grilled organ meats on a stick, quickly immersing us in a social swim that floated pretty much the same faces every day.

ArteBA president Alec Oxenford, collectors Guillermo Rozenblum and Raúl Naón, publisher Baroness Francesca (“Dudu”) von Thielmann, and arteBA past president Facundo Gómez Minujín surfaced early as some of the bigger fish. Claques formed among the foreigners. Mexican collector Eduardo Prieto buddied up with Hôtel Americano co-owner Moises Micha, and New York dealer Bridget Donahue hung with Cernuschi and dealer Mari Spirito, who would represent her nonprofit Protocinema on Mirvali’s panel with Cernuschi. “This is the greatest international presence we’ve had so far,” observed the raffish Julia Converti, arteBA’s current director.

Left: Publishers Jean Louis Larivière and Francesca von Thielmann. Right: Dealer Bridget Donahue, Mousse editor Stefano Cernuschi and curator Abaseh Mirvali.

Once restricted to Argentine galleries, the fair has purposefully expanded its reach in the past three years, hoping to attract dealers from abroad while also creating a new collecting class among younger patrons at home. “It’s difficult in a country going down to have a fair that goes up,” said Minujín. He is the son of artist Marta Minujín, a local folk hero worshipped by many. With her platinum hair and the paparazzi around her, she was hard to miss at the fair’s evening preview, where visitors lined up to snuggle into her large, earthen “bird’s nest” of a sculpture at Henrique Faria’s booth in the forty-five-gallery main section.

Unlike most fairs, this one is operated as a nonprofit directed by a board of trustees. Foreign dealers were given booths, gratis, after guest curators Agustín Pérez Rubio, Octavio Zaya, and the Tate’s José Roca selected their artists for presentation in one of three stand-alone sections, each underwritten by a different corporate sponsor. Rubio had the international section, named “U-Turn Project Rooms by Mercedes-Benz,” which pretty much puts the art-is-money and money-is-art state of things today in plain language.

However, the works on hand—from Gavin Brown, Simon Preston, and Michele Maccarone (New York); Micky Schubert and Johann König (Berlin); Proyectos Monclova and Labor (Mexico City)—carried more conceptual heft than flash and, Pérez Rubio said, were meant to inform serious collection building. In the same spirit, Roca organized a six-gallery section of “expanded field” solo outings by Latin American artists, and Zaya, on short notice, put together another six for Photobooth. “That’s new this year,” he said. “Up to now, there hasn’t been much interest in collecting photography.”

Even more striking was the frequent appearance of art from the 1960s and early ’70s—the period of Argentina’s repressive dictatorship—which gave not only context but meaning to the contemporary work on display. Meaning at an art fair? How many can boast of that? In the Dixit section, a sweeping, politically engaged, multidisciplinary exhibition titled “Where does contemporary art begin?” drove home the point. Built around the idea of “simultaneous avant-gardes” and organized by the Argentine-born, Austin-based art historian Andrea Giunta, it contained artworks generally unfamiliar outside of Latin America and suppressed within.

Left: Inhotim director Rodrigo Moura, MALBA director Agustin Perez Rubio, and collector Eduardo Costantini. Right: Artist Marta Minujín.

“It’s rare to have such canonical works at an art fair,” said Roca, as he passed through. Thirty percent were loans; the artists still had the rest in their studios, either because they had no market at the time or because subject matter like AIDS and the Disappeared made it dangerous for anyone to show or acquire them. Giunta was the perfect choice to resuscitate this buried history. In 2004, she curated a León Ferrari retrospective that Pope Francis, then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, condemned as blasphemous. “I’m very proud of that show,” she said.

Time collapses here. Galleries in business for less than a year, like Baró, could command prime positions in the main section of the fair with established enterprises like Ruth Benzacar (now run by Orly Benzacar and her daughter Mora Bacal), Gachi Prieto, and Ignacio Liprandi. Quality fluctuated at nearly every step. Generally, older works—like those in U-Turn or Photobooth—had more import, though I found collectors like Abel Guaglianone and Joaquín Rodríguez, supporters of emerging artists, shopping only in the Barrio Joven Chandon section for the youngest galleries. Among the brightest of these was Peña, a two-year-old nonprofit cofounded by Rosario Güiraldes, who is heading to Bard CCS in the fall and is definitely a talent to watch.

That night, the Brazilian embassy held a cocktail party for weary dealers and VIP fairgoers in very French colonial salons where murals painted on their ceilings by José María Sert turned heads and elicited gasps from the visitors. “Did you see the cloud room?” collector Richard Massey asked LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory, a new arrival. “Astonishing.” It was now going on 10 PM, time for the open studios at a building Guillermo Rozenblum owns and leases to artists but it was also past dinnertime. “There’s food upstairs!” Rozenblum promised, but a ravenous group, led by Mirvali and Massey repaired to Mirasol, a meat-eater’s paradise serving thick steaks and delicacies like testicles. “A bit spongy,” Massey remarked. “But tasty.”

And that was day one. After that, things got interesting.

Left: Tate curators Jose Roca and Anne Gallagher. Right: Collector Agustina Blaquier and art historian Andrea Giunta.

The following day began with a sweet visit to Guillermo Kuitca’s home and studio for a preview of the deft wall paintings he’s making for this summer’s opening of Hauser & Wirth Somerset. The next stop on the VIP tour—to the National Museum of Immigration—required an abrupt change of emotional gears. The Ellis Island of Buenos Aires, it was once a hospital and intake center for Europeans fleeing the world wars. It tells that story but also now has a year-old contemporary art space. Director Diana Wechsler guided me through “Losing the Human Form,” an exhibition of truly radical Latin American art from the ’70s and ’80s imported from the Reina Sofía. In this eerie asylum for the quarantined, the show’s political posters, performance photographs, books, videos, and punk music took on considerable power beyond its already provocative content. The whole building felt haunted by erasure.

Another surreal leap across cultural borders landed a small group of us at the Benzacar gallery, where sculptor Luciana Lamothe had constructed a vertigo-inducing bridge of wood and steel as a destabilizing path through life. “It’s all about trusting the materials,” she said, adding that vertigo was like music to her. Next door was a complete surprise: the Federico Jorge Klemm Foundation. Klemm, who looks in his many self-portraits here like an understudy for Siegfried and Roy, built a surpassing contemporary collection of work from the ’60s through the ’80s with artists like Warhol and dealers like Robert Fraser.

Back at the fair we got a closer look at U-Turn, where Argentine artists like Amalia Pica and Irene Kopelman were getting their first exposure in their native country, and at Photobooth, where Zaya hit home runs with Annemarie Heinrich at Vasari, Milagros de la Torre at Rolf, and Miki Kratsman at Tel Aviv’s Chelouche.

A photojournalist by trade, this was Kratsman’s first trip to Buenos Aires since his Argentine family emigrated to Israel in the’60s. On the walls were unframed prints downloaded from his Facebook project, “People I Met,” an arresting archive of portraits of noncombatant Palestinians he encountered while working in Israeli-occupied territories. “At first I thought I had nothing to say to people here,” Kratsman confessed. “But the truth is that six members of my family were among the Disappeared, and we don’t speak of it. This project made it important for me to be here.”

Left: Collector Guillermo Rozenblum and ArteBA communications director Soledad Álvarez Campos. Right: Collector Eduardo Prieto and hotelier Moises Micha.

That evening, Pérez Rubio was named the new director of MALBA, BA’s museum of contemporary Latin American art, at an exclusive dinner hosted by Eduardo Costantini, donor of the works forming its (major) permanent collection. A proud, self-made real estate developer who started out collecting stamps and then birds before turning to art, Costantini showed me the brochure—actually a hardbound catalogue designed by Jeff Koons—of the luxury high-rise he’s building on the “most expensive piece of land” in Miami. It will have two Koons sculptures—of a Degas dancer (still in production)—on permanent display outside. “I bought them from Gagosian,” Costantini said.

That Saturday, Oxenford hosted a daylong barbecue at his modest, Richard Meier–like home in a gated suburb. Everyone I’d seen all week was there, chowing down on the usual grilled meats and hanging out on the lawn. Back at the fair, Mirvali was moderating a collecting panel with Pedro Barbosa, Aimée Labarrere de Servitje, and Massey, which was not about collecting but supporting artist projects by three people with a deep commitment to art beyond vanity.

Which doesn’t mean they don’t party. Everyone parties on art tours, when bonds form out of spontaneous meetings. That night, after visiting Eva Peron’s tomb in the bonanza of architecture that is La Recoleta cemetery, I fell in with a temporary posse—Adrián Villar Rojas, Cernuschi, Guraldes, and Massey—for a blowout at Clubhouse, the Soho House–style club in Palermo Soho. It attracted most of Mirvali’s panelists, along with young artists and gallerists working the fair.

It wasn’t just fun. It was business. Some deals were consummated there. Relationships deepened. The night got long. The week ended, perhaps appropriately, at a flea market, where a couple of aging street dancers doing a slow, beautiful tango spoke to the undying power of romance. That was the image in my mind when I reached the airport, where a monitor at the security line was scrolling a list of people who had gone missing.

Left: Collectors Abel Guaglianone and Joaquín Rodríguez. Right: Dealer Gachi Prieto.

Left: LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory and collector Richard Massey. Right: Peña Gallery codirector Rosario Güiraldes and artist Lorenzo Bueno.

Left: Artist Guillermo Kuitca. Right: Dealer Nira Itzhaki and artist Miki Kratsman.

Left: Artists Luciana Lamothe and Fernanda Cohen. Right: Dealer Orly Benzacar and Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires (MAMBA) director Victoria Noorthoorn.

Left: ArteBA president Alec Oxenford with arteBA past president Facundo Gómez Minujín. Right: Museo Tamayo curator Julieta González.

Left: Fernando Yañez and Zappopan Museum director Viviana Kuri. Right: Artist Adrián Villar Rojas.

Left: Museo Hotel de los Immigrantes director Diana Wechsler. Right: Collectors Anibal Jozami and Clarice Costantini.

Left: Designer Martin Huberman and architect Belen Garcia Pinto. Right: High Line Art curator Cecilia Alemani and New Museum deputy director Massimiliano Gioni.

Left: Dealer Peter Brandt, Antonio Junqueira and dealer Karla Meneghel. Right: Dealer Michelle Maccarone.

Left: Artist Diego Bianchi and dealer Victoria Blaquier. Right: Dealer Micky Schubert.

Left: Dealer Henrique Faria. Right: Dealer Simon Preston.

Left: Artist Voluspa Jarpa and dealer Alex Mor. Right: Collector Raúl Naón.

Left: Fabiano Burkhardt, secretary of the Brazilian embassy, Buenos Aires. Right: Dealer José García Torres and artist Tania Perez Cordova.

Left: Collector Mauro Herlitzka. Right: Dealer Mora Bacal and artist Eduardo Basualdo.

Left: Artist Ivan Comas. Right: Dealer Nani Lamarque.