Our Man in Miami: Banksy Was Everywhere at Art Basel—Or Was He?

“I tell people Banksy is just like Jesus… do you expect to see Him at Art Basel this year?”

That was New York and Southampton gallerist Stephan Keszler sharing the stock response he gave to the people who asked whether or not Britain’s most infamous street artist was lurking about town for that madness called Art Basel. Keszler wasn’t implying Banksy is as big or even bigger than Jesus, mind you (or even that he’s bigger than The Beatles); it was simply a quick way to point out the rather ridiculousness of the question. As all the world knows, Banksy has largely made his fame by not showing his face—ever. And to think the masked man would suddenly decide to unmask simply because his works were being exhibited, is about as absurd as thinking 12.21.12 will be the day the Christian deity decides to finally pull off the long-promised Second Coming—never mind that the minute either one of them does reveal themselves, it’s all over.

Keszler was the main force behind the extensive collection of Banksy on display at Art Miami and its adjacent CONTEXT art fair throughout the just-wrapped Miami Art Week. Consequently, he got questioned about Banksy a lot. But Keszler’s rapid-fire reply wasn’t only practical, it was also apropos. Most folks inquired about Banksy in the hushed and reverent tones generally reserved for saints or other such eminences. And even if the guerilla muralist hasn’t can’t quite be called a deity, it’s clear the cult of personality he’s cultivated is reaching proportions that are now near Biblical. 

Adding perceived insult to apparent blasphemy, is the fact that the first two murals Keszler acquired came directly from Bethlehem, after a couple Palestinian entrepreneurial types had some trouble unloading the walls they’d torn down. “They were trying to sell the walls on eBay," said Keszler. “Can you believe it? I told them, Banksy or no Banksy, you can’t sell three tons of cinderblock on eBay; that’s not even remotely possible. But I may be able to help get the murals off your hands.” Those murals—“Wet Dog” and “Stop and Search”— were indeed rescued by Keszler, and at considerable effort and expense. That’s likely why he initially put ‘em up for six-figure sale at Art Southampton, summer sister fair of Art Miami.

Done in cahoots with British gallerist Robin Barton and the London-based Bankrobber Gallery, with whom Keszler’s been selling Banksy prints since at least 2009, the showing (and the salvaging) proved to be more than a mite controversial. Both, because the artist’s official Pest Control refused to authenticate the works (though the outfit doesn’t authenticate any of Banksy’s street art), and because some believed the murals should’ve remained on the West Bank (despite each having sat scattered and unseen in a stonemason’s lot for years).

Freed from their price tags (though major museums have reportedly made inquiries about their acquisition) and shown in support of Keszler’s just-launched IPXLU, the murals joined five other rescued street artworks in an exhibition entitled “Banksy: Out of CONTEXT”. As at Southampton, the usual array of crybabies made their usual complaints. Yet for the vast majority of the 60,000 plus who attended Art Miami and CONTEXT throughout Art Week, the onslaught of Banksy proved to be overwhelmingly edifying. “We would never have seen these works anywhere but on the internet,” said one slickly-suited Jane, speaking on behalf of her tricked-out pals. “And I don’t care what people say. We’re standing face-to-face with some of the most iconic images of this decade—images that for all anyone knows may have been lost forever. What the hell is wrong with that?”

I don’t know, but I’m betting if Keszler did get a chance to confront Banksy, he couldn’t have said it better himself.