Accentuate the positive

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Happy-looking art suits the Miami mood—but upbeat works can be complex and radical too

Mel Bochner’s Chuckle, 2014, is on show with Simon Lee Gallery (H11). © Vanessa Ruiz

The artist Mel Bochner exhorts you to hoot, chortle, roll in the aisles and split your sides in Chuckle, 2014, an upbeat work that is on show with Simon Lee Gallery (H11), priced at $200,000. According to gallery director Manuela Mozo, “the culture of Miami lends itself to a slightly more light-hearted and colourful approach”.

Many other dealers at Art Basel in Miami Beach (ABMB), which opens today to invited collectors, curators and other visitors, and at satellite fairs such as Nada, Pulse and Art Miami, apparently feel the same. Affirmative works of art are on parade in a city known for hedonism, instant gratification and back-to-back parties. But such positivity is something that many dealers feel awkward about admitting to—there is often a feeling that uplifting art lacks seriousness.

More radical

“Art that has the virtues of beauty and joy is fairly rare and, to a certain extent, opposite to the idea of Modernism and the avant-garde,” says Max Hollein, the director of the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, which is currently showing German Pop art (“German Pop”, until 8 February 2015). “But if it is done well, it’s often more radical than, for example, documentary works depicting social distress,’ he says.

Artists often have fewer hang-ups than curators and dealers. “I’m not a miserable artist! Art should be about joy,” David Hockney told The Timesrecently. A set of iPad prints depicting the arrival of spring in his native Yorkshire, in northern England, is on show with Annely Juda Fine Art (B7), priced between $28,000 and $98,000.

Miami in December seems to be the right place at the right time for other artists whose works are at the happier end of the spectrum (and plenty that are quite the antithesis). “There are certain works we would show here that we might not in other contexts,” says Casey Kaplan (J4), who is exhibiting two large pieces from the 1980s by Giorgio Griffa. “We’ve previously concentrated on his work from the 1960s and 1970s, which is minimal. However, we feel that the time is now right—and Miami is the perfect place—to show a big, expressive work from the 1980s. The audience here is sophisticated and open to that kind of work, whereas in Switzerland, we’d show a more recognisable and classic 1970s work.”

Reasons to be cheerful

Edward Tyler Nahem (H6) is showing a large, untitled canvas from 1984 by Keith Haring, priced at $2.5m. The artist’s work “is, by definition, uplifting; Haring is all about the joy of dance, the joy of life”, says gallery director Janis Gardner Cecil. Like many artists whose work conveys happiness, Haring was also deeply political, as shown in an exhibition in San Francisco’s De Young museum, “Keith Haring: the Political Line” (until 16 February 2015).

It is now three weeks since post-war and contemporary art worth $1.66bn was sold in record-breaking auctions in New York. “In times of abundance, the market seems to focus greatly on Pop-ish art; it’s easy to understand,” says Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of the art advisory firm Art Agency Partners. He adds: “When the market is stressed, that which is Pop-ish and Expressionistic—colourful, graphic—tends to look indulgent.”

In more austere times, says Barbara Gladstone (H12), “the only people interested in art are the really serious people looking for content”. This year, she is showing art including voluptuous blue works on paper made this year by Jim Hodges, as well as two bronzes by Haring from 1990. “When the market is fluffier, lots of people want pretty pictures,” she says.

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