I have a painter friend. Her name is Margaux Williamson. Last December, her Toronto gallerist decided to take some of her paintings to Miami, where for a week the city would be one giant art fair. Collectors from all over the world, the top galleries in London, Tokyo – everywhere – would gather by the beach. The fanciest art would be shown at Art Basel, the original and largest of the fairs, and of the dozen smaller fairs which would circle it, one, called Scope, was where Margaux’s work would be.
Though her dealer had already left for Florida, Margaux continued painting. I told her to deliver the newest paintings by hand, not ship them, and offered to take the trip down with her. Then I watched, the morning we were to board public transit to the airport, as she stuffed three oil paintings packed in bubble wrap into her large duffel bag, along with twenty t-shirts. We were only going for three days.
On the plane ride down, we read an article in the New York Times about a painter who would be attending that week, a twenty-five-year-old guy who had studied at Yale, and was represented by one of the top SoHo galleries. Basel would be his debutante ball. From Miami Basel to the heavens.
His dealer intended him to meet everyone. No doubt he would be kept busy the whole entire time. It read as though his life for the past five years had been very well managed, from enrolment at art school to his discovery in art school, to his move to Brooklyn and so on, so that he was quoted saying of the contemporary art world, ‘There’s a career track. You get your BFA and then you get your MFA. You move to New York, you have a show, and it’s like being a lawyer or something else. And that doesn’t entirely square with the romantic ideal of being an artist, living in isolation and being the avant-garde hero.’
When we arrived in Miami, we changed from our pants and sweaters, getting half-naked in the airport washroom, our clothes spread all over the counters. ‘Be careful,’ I told Margaux, since we were both given to routine. ‘Whatever outfit you choose for yourself now, you’ll be wearing for the next three days.’
We jumped in a cab and took her paintings to Scope – a large, makeshift tent in the centre of a muddy field, in a park in what the cab driver told us was a very dangerous neighbourhood that the city had been trying to fix with art.
Having delivered the work, and then dropped our bags at our cookie-cutter hotel, we decided to get dinner in Little Havana, at the other end of town. Then, in the evening, we’d return to Scope, see the work and also visit NADA – North American Art Dealers Alliance – a fair that was slightly fancier than Scope.
We sat on the pavement in the very bad neighbourhood as some boys with skateboards played with a cat, and waited forty-five minutes for another cab to take us to the beach where the city was hosting a Peaches concert.
At four in the afternoon, we stepped onto a bus, mid-way through a discussion about what you need to know in writing, and what you need to know in art. We came to the same conclusion: you have to know where the funny is, and, ‘if you know where the funny is, you know everything.’ As the bus drove on through the sun, sitting up in front, across from a seat labelled ‘In memory of Rosa Parks,’ we tested out this theory.
s. I think Manet is funny.
m. Yeah, Manet is very funny.
s. And Kierkegaard is really funny.
m. I see him as so sweet. I see him so much more like poetry.
s. He’s funny. Do you think Nietzsche’s funny?
m. I haven’t read him much. Baudrillard?
s. Haven’t read him enou– hmm. Baudrillard?
m. Yes! Kafka-funny. Matthew Barney’s funny in his seriousness.
s. Richard Serra’s not funny.
s. But he’s still great . . . but maybe that’s the fault.
m. He seems to take himself and art very seriously. It’s nice to take it seriously while also leaving your back door open. I mean, your pants down.
s. (Laughing.) You mean slipping on a banana peel.
m. You know, I didn’t realize that you – you can’t really slip on a banana peel unless it’s rotten.
m. Which is what happened to me.
s. And was the buttery side down?
m. It was all black. So it was hard to tell.
s. Right. The Ramones are funny.
m. Not funny.
s. What about Rothko?
m. He’s okay . . . I mean, all those guys are – I mean, one of them would have been enough for me.
After finishing our dinner, we went to NADA and arrived as it was closing. Because of this, we walked super-fast through all the booths: like it . . . hate it . . . don’t like it . . . don’t care . . . and left after stopping briefly to say hello to a pale, blonde Chelsea dealer we both knew and she leaned in to kiss me, but not Margaux.
‘Connecticut!’ Margaux raged as we left the building. ‘All the Connecticut bitches hate me.’
To calm her down, I asked her to recite what I knew to be her favourite American poem.
‘Okay. James Joyce – ’ I prompted.
‘James Joyce was stupid, he didn’t know as much as I know. I’d rather throw dead batteries at cows than read him. Everything was fine until he came along. He started the Civil War. He tried to get the French involved but they wouldn’t listen. They filled him up with pastries and desserts. They tried to get us to use the metric system and we said, No, go away – we like our rulers. Thomas Jefferson said, You always get the rulers you deserve.’
‘Do you know any other poems by heart?’
Then we found a cab and returned to Scope, where the lights were down and lengths of tape had been pasted across most of the booths. Calling Margaux’s dealer, we learned that the fair had closed three hours earlier. ‘Three hours!’ I exclaimed. ‘We missed them both!’
‘We had to have our dinner,’ Margaux replied.
We sat on the pavement in the very bad neighbourhood as some boys with skateboards played with a cat, and waited forty-five minutes for another cab to take us to the beach where the city was hosting a Peaches concert. I pulled out my tape recorder and we discussed Margaux’s hopes for the fair. I couldn’t understand how anyone could get famous in a place like this, where there were thousands of artists and so many galleries, and all of the art just laid out to speak for itself like cereal boxes on supermarket shelves, but without even the words. The art had all started blurring together for me, and I suggested that we had as yet seen nobody truly great.
m. Well, of course there are people that are really truly great here, but how could you see that? Like for instance, if Takashi Murakami had one of his sculptures there, you wouldn’t know how good it was.
s. You don’t think?
m. No, I think we’ve – both of us have read this extensive article about him, like of course if you saw one piece by Takashi Murakami, like we have such nuances because of articles and because of context and because you’ve seen their past work and because, you know. And these are so many young artists trying to show all of that in one go.
s. But the point here is not to decide who’s the greatest artist, right?
m. Not at all. Not at all. But it is a chance for – it is a chance to let the younger artists in. It’s a chance to let the smaller galleries in. I don’t know what it is. It’s not everything.
s. No, it’s true. If you think that going to an art fair and having your pictures in a booth will make you famous, it won’t.
m. But no one thinks that. No one’s thinking that at all.
m. Not at all. Not at all.
s. I would be thinking that if I were an artist here.
That evening we went to the concert on the beach, and had a brief, awful fight after I suggested that all the art that Margaux liked was ‘only almost good.’ Then we met up with Margaux’s dealer, and the three of us walked in the rain to find a good place to drink around there. On the walk we spotted a pizza shop, and since it had been five hours since Margaux and I had eaten, we got some slices and sat at the counter and ate them. As we were eating, a boy and a girl in their early twenties, who were clearly part of the art crowd, came into the pizzeria and addressed Margaux directly.
‘Are you Margaux Williamson?’ the girl asked, wide-eyed.
‘Oh, I love your paintings! I’ve seen them on the internet,’ she said. The three of us were startled.
The boy added, ‘I met you at the art fair in L.A.. I’m a painter, too.’
‘We’re from Baltimore,’ she said.
As they continued to talk about her work, my mind went to a video Margaux had made of a friend’s performance of a song he’d written for his band, Tomboyfriend. They had put it on YouTube, and one viewer had listed himself as a fan: a man, supposedly, from Afghanistan. Planning the band’s first concert, Margaux had carefully chosen the title: Big In Afghanistan.
The next day we attended the main fair, Art Basel, which we had to pay twenty dollars to get into and line up for, then, in the cavernous, cold convention centre, retrieve a full-colour map to direct our way around. There were coffee kiosks set up, in case visitors got tired making their way from one end of the hall to the other, and it was here we found the wealthiest art patrons.
Basel was being sponsored by a bank and on their banners, which had been hung outside the convention centre and in the corridors leading to the rooms with the panel discussions and the temporary bookshops, was this message: ‘USB welcomes you to Art Basel Miami Beach.’ Below it was a quote from Andy Warhol: ‘Everybody’s sense of beauty is different from everybody else’s.’
Looking at it, Margaux grimaced, ‘Oh yeah. It’s saying you can be rich and stupid about art. You’re all welcome.’
After several hours, growing weary from all the art, and cold – I had only worn a sundress – we left the fair. Outside, down at the bottom of the flight of concrete stairs, a woman sat staring off into infinity, slowly winding a ball of string around her body and the handrails.
We stopped and looked at her, then walked on through the streets, where every one of the houses was painted a different, pastel colour.
Then I heard my friend say calmly, ‘I don’t care about success. I have it in my heart now.’
Earlier that morning we’d laid on the beach for several hours, squinting into the hot sun and reading our books, then swam so far out to sea that a lifeguard in his motorized vehicle had to drive down the beach and blow his whistle at us to come back to shore, while everyone stared.
There were coffee kiosks set up, in case visitors got tired making their way from one end of the hall to the other, and it was here we found the wealthiest art patrons.
After that we headed over to Basel, and upon leaving the convention centre we found a fancy hotel and went straight through the lobby out into the back, where we pretended to be guests and lounged by the pool, and watched as couples played with their babies.
I began leisurely musing on how the piece might go, but she corrected me. ‘No no, the story is: how do you do this while staying in Canada? How do you do this without going to Yale?’
‘Probably not by lounging near a pool, or spending all your time on the beach, or arriving late for all the art fairs.’
After another hour, we pulled ourselves from the lounge chairs and went to see our final fair of the trip, Aqua. Aqua was the smallest and friendliest of the fairs. It was a two-storey hotel with all the rooms opening onto a courtyard in the middle, and in each room was a gallery. The beer was free, and we saw a tall, slim, handsome Asian man dragging a cabbage behind him on a leash as he made his way into and out of the rooms, looking bored. There was a gallery owner from Winnipeg we were friends with, and we spoke to a dealer from New York who was hoping to represent Margaux, who’d met her for the first time at an art fair in L.A..
Now we sat down with our drinks on the edge of an enclosed waterfall.
m. We’ve talked about this so much, about professionalism and careerism. But my goal is not to be in the most prestigious gallery. I’m so not interested in that. It would be nice, but I have too many goals for that to be the main one, you know? And I think that it can still happen if that’s not your goal. Like, my goal is to make art and have people see it, and I think sometimes that’s what a prestigious gallery does. But mainly I feel – I feel the most important job is to make more art. And I always was very anxious about getting a New York gallery or galleries outside of Canada, because I need that to make a decent living. That’s all.
m. But I think it’s good for artists to see this stuff – especially from Canada.
s. To show that there’s a lot of great art out there, a lot of people doing art?
m. And also to know that it’s not important.
s. What’s not important?
Later that night, we wound up at a party at an extravagant hotel with our friend, the painter Clint Griffin, who was down this time not with his own paintings, as in the past, but with his shipping business; he had driven down canvases for some of the Toronto galleries exhibiting here. Now all the women we had seen in the streets – with their tight skirts and high heels, their false cleavage and their tans, their make-up and their heavy, long hair – were drinking colourful cocktails with us around a glittering, empty pool.
‘Have any of your paintings sold?’ Clint asked Margaux.
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. Maybe. I haven’t asked.’
I spent the next twenty minutes pretending I was a waitress at the hotel, asking the guests at the long banquet tables if they were done with their dinners, then taking the plates over to Margaux and Clint, where we ate the remainder of their steak and salmon.
Then, after some pina coladas, we ran into a rich couple strolling along the beach. They spoke of how they were thinking of buying a twenty-threethousand dollar Rouchet print, and had just come from having dinner with the gallerist who was selling it. Their collection included a Gerhard Richter, and they had so little wall space left, that whatever they bought in Miami would end up ‘in rotation.’ If they bought. Though they had flown from California, it was not necessarily for them to buy, but if they saw something they liked, the woman said, they had the ability to buy, ‘although it’s not like we have zillions of dollars.’
When I told this to my friend Misha later, he said, ‘She has so much money that she has to make up an amount of money that doesn’t exist to say how much she doesn’t have.’
We began discussing the art and the fairs we had seen and the fairs we had liked.
m. It’s funny. It seems Basel has worse art and better art and the other fairs have less bad art and less good art.
Woman. What now? Say that again?
s. She’s saying that Basel has more terrible and more wonderful art and the other fairs have more nothing.
Woman. Oh, so more extremes.
Man. Now, the big Basel convention one feels more like stocks to me.
Then the woman wanted to know, after I told her I was down here to write about Margaux’s art experience, how she might recognize Margaux’s paintings.
s. Well, they’re narrative, and there’s characters in them, and it’s kind of like, beautiful, otherworldly. It’s hard to, um, I don’t know how to explain it because you’ve seen so much art, probably – how to make it stand out for you.
Woman. But you have to work at it! You can practice with me right now, because you’re a writer and you’re writing about it –
s. The ones in this – in this – were very green and – uh, if you go to the gallery –
Woman. You’ve got to find the words! If you can’t, then you’re in trouble, sweetie!
A rage went through me – I wanted to punch her – what did she know! Besides, I had never told her that I had millions of words but not zillions!
We left the couple and walked back to the hotel. After another pina colada, the three of us stripped down to our underwear and jumped in the pool. We were the only ones swimming. Twenty minutes later, tiring of the pool, I beckoned to a man sitting on a bench near the edge of the water.
‘We need towels!’ I called, and I observed him wave down a hotel man, then collect three fluffy towels. We swam to the shore, thanking him as we got out. He smiled and replied, ‘No problem.’ It was Keanu Reeves! He was very smart and nice. But Margaux grew embarrassed as we walked away.
‘Oh God, I wish we had seen a really more famous, more annoying celebrity. But I like his work. I seriously have on my MySpace page, like, Werner Herzog, Laurie Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Keanu Reeves.’
‘Yes! Ugh! I wish that all the people I liked were either my best friends or total strangers . . . As they are, of course, but . . .’
We returned to our hotel really drunk, and Margaux talked to me as I stood at the sink, attempting to wash from my favourite dress the red wine we’d spilled on it earlier that night. In three hours, we would have to get up and go to the airport and fly back home.
m. I just feel like, Oh, you had such a funny version of what this fair, you know . . . Like the fairs are nothing about celebrities or excitement. They really are – it really is this little, self-contained art world, but because we were so happy with each other and we had so much fun, I got distracted and didn’t arrange any activities.
m. But of course, every experience is fair. I have that – it’s a real flaw of mind. I really just want to show everyone everything I possibly can. But it’s not necessary. You have your own art fair, you know?
We got into the double bed that we were sharing and I quickly passed out, but I had forgotten to turn the tape recorder off, and after a few minutes Margaux can be heard asking me if I am up; I wasn’t, though I made a little affirmative grunt to suggest I was.
And she said softly, perhaps asleep herself:
‘I feel like either it’s a dream, or it’s some kid I know from Texas, like this black kid, nice kid, smart kid, and like he just – he just wanted . . . He hated all the football games but he really liked the part when we were winning, or something. And he would just make the t-shirts from when we were winning . . . and he would make everything from when we were winning.’
After a twenty-second pause she spoke again:
‘He really wasn’t interested in the game.’
A thirty-second pause, and:
‘And then everybody got mad at him.’
Then Margaux fell asleep, and after several minutes of silence, the tape recorder shut itself down.