Carlos Betancourt / Katerina Llanes

An excerpt from Making Miami, telling the story of the artists who helped shape the city we love.

Richard Haas mural on Fontainebleau Hotel

KL

So lovely to see you.

CB

Same here.

KL

We’re going to talk today about your experience in Miami, in the art scene from the 1980s to the present.

CB

Okay. I’ll tell you a little bit about my introduction to Miami Beach, which was kind of mythical in my mind’s eye. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents, and I came for the first time to Miami Beach around 1971 when I was 6 years old. Ponce de Leon, first governor of Puerto Rico, died looking for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Miami had pink flamingos, springs, alligators, Flipper, Everglades, exploration and fantastical architecture. I remember having a fascination with the Fontainebleau Hotel, the decaying Art Deco building and the other jetsonian buildings, even at that early age. Little did I know then that I would meet Morris Lapidus, the visionary architect of the Fontainebleau Hotel, and that Miami would be one of my main muses.

KL

The trompe l’oeil mural that made it feel like you were driving into the water, it was so magical. Sadly, they tore it down in 2003.

CB

It was a trompe-l’œil mural by Richard Haas.

KL

I loved it! Was mesmerizing to me as a kid.

CB

Oh it was! The Fontainebleau was in decay after the years of Frank Sinatra and all of those great entertainers, but it was grand architecture of joy. And when that building was done, it was one of the most influential buildings in the world. It was both loved and hated.

KL

Morris Lapidus was ahead of his time.

CB

Yes, he gave Miami a definite style, form and a shape. We eventually became friends and he used to stop by my studio in Miami Beach, Imperfect Utopia.

KL

Incredible!! But before we get to Imperfect Utopia, I heard you were part of a Christo and Jeanne-Claude fan club!

Signed pink material from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-3

CB

When I was in high school, our art teacher, Mr. Fitzpatrick spoke to us about Christo and Jeanne-Claude doing the Surrounded Islands. I volunteered but not in the traditional way. I had friends with connections, friends who love to get in trouble. One of those friends loved to steal his father’s car, and one day we showed up at the Pelican Harbor to watch the construction of the Surrounded Islands. One thing led to another, and I was passing out cups of water, helping people, and assisting or bothering these older artists. I was “volunteering” if you can call it that, watching all day, seeing all the material, and being heavily impacted by the brilliant fuchsia color and this idea of how monumental art can be outside the white cube. Also, it was my first appreciation of Miami. I mean, I was young. I think it was 1983, but I knew I wanted to be an artist, architect, designer, maybe all of them. So I saw these artists being inspired by Miami and it was like a switch in my head. I started appreciating nature and all the possibilities. I mean, when you’re confronted with something like Christo and Jeanne-Claude doing these interventions, at any age, it is very powerful.

KL

Right. It’s massive.

CB

It gave Miami a definite voice in the contemporary art world dialogue. 

KL

Putting us on the map for public art.

CB

Indeed. And we paid attention. I became a part of the “groupies” of Christo and Jeanne-Claude! We found out that they were staying at the Leslie Hotel on Ocean Drive so we would show up there to try to meet them. I actually met Christo later on and I told him all these stories!

KL

What did he say?

CB

He remembers the Leslie Hotel. He remembers people hanging out on Ocean Drive. He remembers South Beach being so European and bohemian back then. Nothing particular about me. But he knew what was happening and that people were showing up outside the Leslie Hotel to try to meet him and Jeanne-Claude.

KL

There were Christo and Jeanne-Claude groupies!

CB

Yes! And few cared back then about South Beach. So imagine how monumental Christo and Jean-Claude were for my generation. Their artwork and vision lured me to Ocean Drive and its futuristic architecture, again…I was captivated by the supersonic buildings surrounding the Leslie Hotel where they were hosted. These buildings were beautiful ruins and had a force and presence only good architecture can offer. That is why they were worth preserving. Great architecture creates great communities. So while I was going to art school, I resolved that I would come back to live and work in this magic Oz land of fantastical buildings. These artists opened my eyes to Miami as a muse. It’s was very important for me and I didn’t realize it until a couple of years later. The Sound Symbols Project, an enormous ephemeral installation that I created in 2000, was a direct response to this experience. The first time I collaborated with architect Alberto Latorre was with this project.

KL

What else were you doing with these art friends?

CB

A lot. During high school, and right after, there was a great alternative club called Fire & Ice in the Design District. And like most people of my generation, we had fake IDs. Everything happened there on a Tuesday night. There was a program called Artifacts put on by Howard Davis, his archives are now at the University of Miami’s Special Collections (UM). There were all kinds of art interventions going on there. And I was a young teenager, and I witnessed many out-of-the-box moments that were considered art. It expanded my mind a lot. I started hanging around with a lot of my peers from Fire & Ice. The sound of these times was very defined, influential to this day, Echo & the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Alison Moyet, The Smiths, etc.

Carlos Betancourt, Sound Symbols Project, 2000, Miami Beach

KL

It was like a dark wave.

CB

Yes. But with optimism. It was called the New Romantics back then. We were romantics in the sense of Oscar Wilde, and we also danced slowly sometimes…

KL

That moved into Morrissey later.

CB

Morrissey of course! Fire & Ice was the hangout, a creative nightclub of sorts. We all knew the door man; we had our fake IDs. and we were dressed a certain way. I had my trench coat and skirts, my friends had punk mohawks, a particular look that reflected our interests and personalities. It was very important for me because there was a culture that was clearly defined. Those times were more about ideas than about objects.

KL

Yes, stylistically.

CB

We went to these places, you belong to a movement of sorts, but you get to retain your individuality. Other people moved through other cultures during those times, but the Fire & Ice counterculture was the form and the force of the times that helped shaped me, and it had a huge impact on many of my friends also to this day.

The Fire & Ice crowd moves to Miami Beach because of some new mysterious energy, including uplifting architecture and cheap rent! There was a Bohemian force. Miami Beach was no longer a crime-filled forgotten Scarface. The Miami City Ballet was in Lincoln Road and the New World Symphony was soon to be housed inside an old art deco building near the Bass Museum. Many of us were heavily informed by our syncretic and very culturally rich Latin Cultures as well as Warhol, Frida Khalo, Rauschenberg, Octavio Paz, Keith Haring, Bettie Page, Celia Cruz, etc. and we were all obsessed with Miami’s tropical lushness and crisp light, mid-century architecture and design, and almost all things vintage. In Miami Beach, the past was right in front of us. These Art Deco buildings and mid-century temples were loaded with memories of glorious adventures, and for a country that was obsessed with constant change and demolishing the past, it was a welcomed reprise that these temples of memory still existed. These ideas helped also shape our tribe.

KL

You really had a scene! Where did you all hang out?

CB

There was a little visionary shop called Heydays, that was a favorite hangout. It was a secondhand shop that also started creating a particular fashion language. Everybody from the scene was shopping or stopping by there. I met my friend Sandra Bernhard there and I first opened my first artist studio in the back room of Heydays. We drank our vodka there, we dressed there to go out to the new clubs that had our vibe and were playing the music we liked. It was mostly the same crowd from Fire & Ice as well as some very creative people moving from New York City, Europe and Latin America.

The Strand, Miami Beach, 1987

KL

The Strand was around there too, right?

CB

Yes, the Strand, an iconic restaurant, bar and theater next door to Heydays was another of our favorite spots. Many models that started using Miami Beach as backdrops would hang out there. And gays and creatives from all over the world were arriving in droves attracted by beauty and energy. We would meet and dine at the Strand like a big family. Truly Bohemian. Ed Ruscha, used to hang out there, as well, I think he contributed to the menus or something like that. I had my 21st birthday party at The Strand, meeting David Hockney and Paloma Picasso that night.

Hyperspace, run by the late Victor Fariñas, was also a favorite alternative space. It had an intimate movie theater that showed B-movies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, also Metropolis and Ciao Manhattan and random footage of Bettie Page and Bunny Yeager. I exhibited there some large graphics with Carlos Alves, Linda Faneuf and several others in the late 80’s, 90’s. Elisa Turner reviewed some of the exhibits.

At this moment, Miami Beach was being identified as the next underground scene. Other artists favorite places where Café Des’ Arts (where Howard Davis of F&I curated special nights), Sempers (hosted by the dynamic duo Louis Canales and Tara Solomon), the Woolworth dinner counter on Lincoln Road, the Amsterdam Palace (eventually the Versace Mansion) and Lums on Lincoln Road. Slowly galleries start opening in the beach. I showed mainly with Helen Cevern Gallery in group shows with Kenny Scharf and other artists.

You could feel the shape of things to come back then. It was an art community forming organically, connected to the source, a scene of sorts. There was purity, and innocence. The possibilities were infinite. We were inspired by our surroundings. People gravitated towards the beach because there was a commonality of a style, sound, and language that still was not defined, but soon. All disciplines of art, from ballet to painting, were in flux in South Beach and eventually in Miami, in a symbiotic relationship inspired by similar forces. Generally it was the syncretism’s of Miami’s new unique mixing of cultures. Artist friends were doing cutting edge performances inside parking garages or inside supermarkets. I remember vividly a production by Art Act, with costumes designed by the legendary Barbara Hulanicki, of Biba fame. She still lives in the South Beach. The community was developing its own voice.

KL

A signature.

CB

Yes, somethings like that. I think that a counterculture or underground scene has to develop organically because it is mostly against any trends. It is a group of thinkers with common interest, but ironically, individuality of thought is treasured. I believe the South Beach underground scene developed organically, like a magnet, attracting similar people with very independent minds. The most common goal was to be able to express freely and authentically. That is why individuality was treasured, without it, honesty could not flourish. The South Beach scene took a more definite shape once the artists began to arrive attracted in part by what was already there, and of course always the sea. The early gay, fashion and modeling scene followed, also attracted by the same forces. And as we start spending time together, a “scene” is created with the same artists, the same gallery owners, the same drug dealers, the same door person, all going to the same places attracted by the same visual language and vibe. I remember when artist Keith Herring opened a Pop Shop on 5th Street called Wham Bam, we knew similar people and went to the same places, the same when Kenny Scharf arrived to Miami Beach.

There was very little money. However, we had this thriving force to create. Some people thought we were doing interesting things, and some artists started getting some attention from some international publications, like Interview Magazine, which was our “Bible.” They did a special issue, half of it dedicated to Miami in 1987. Andy Warhol actually called the Director of the Miami Design Preservation League, Diane Camber, who eventually became the Director of the Bass Museum, because he wanted to see this place called the Art Deco District. And she gave him a tour. I have pictures of that!

KL

Amazing, I need to see those!

CB

It was interesting to get coverage in magazines that we admired and, of course, we read these sitting at the tables of the just opened News Café, but the goal of sort was to remain pure…Anyways, some of us joined the Miami Design Preservation League, led by the late Barbara Capitman and the late Leonard Horowitz in the battle to preserve the Art Deco District integrity. We used to tie ourselves to the buildings, light candles, and do vigils. We lost some buildings like the Senator Hotel, but we saved many others, like the St Moritz. The community that existed was participating in saving their community while creating a new one. The Preservation League won the fight to have the Art Deco District historically designated and, in a way, protected. We now have the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world and it’s in Miami Beach. I like to say “not everything old is bad, not everything new is great.”

Rent was still cheap. And we start attracting some of our “heroes” to come here and get inspired by our surroundings.

KL

So it’s like cyclical energy.

CB

Nicely put. And in a way that starts validating some of our efforts. But we try to preserve Paradise. 

KL

And what are the years? The mid-’80s to mid-’90s, would you say?

CB

Yes. These are the years of Louis Canales, Tara Solomon, Susanne Bartsch, huge influential forces in the scene and Miami in general. Louis moves from New York. He understood the alternative club scene and the influence that it could have. I attended a concert in 1991 at the Cameo theater on Washington Avenue. David Byrne performed with Celia Cruz! I remember thinking how our culture and Miami was quietly influencing the world.

So, you know, as I have said before, we wanted to keep the purity in some way. I think when Madonna started coming here, and other high-profile people, even though she had an edge, (she had been Basquiat’s girlfriend), she was already becoming mainstream. And for many of us, we didn’t want her here. She would call too much attention to the area. We were like, oh God, this is our little paradise. But you just can’t stop it. That would be selfish, to take this inspiration away, so once in a while, I would hang out with this crowd and take them to see Albita at El Centro Vasco on Calle Ocho. It became like a ritual. 

Also during this time, and after submitting my art portfolio, I was invited to join the South Florida Art Center, which was already a couple of years old. It was founded by the late Ellie Schneiderman, a visionary. I used to walk up and down with Ellie on Lincoln Road. When Ellie was interested in renting spaces, many of the artists would tell her, “Ellie, don’t rent this! This is the future. Have your foundation buy these spaces.” She was an intuitive leader and the foundation bought them thanks to her. One of those spaces she bought for the Art Center for $300,000 sold a few years ago for $88 million. And that’s why we now have Oolite Arts.

KL

Which is moving to Little Haiti.

CB

Yes, exactly. The South Florida Art Center was very important for us. It was very organized. And the Art Center had an edge.

KL

So Art Center is what brought you to Lincoln Road where you started Imperfect Utopia

CB

Yes. Imperfect Utopia was mainly my working studio, also an incubator of ideas and art salon. It was a hang-out for my peers from the South Florida Art Center, my friends, family, drag queens, poets, performers and other fantastical creatures. The first artwork series I developed there was the Assemblage series, assembled from the utensils and kitchen ware that I collected from the Netherland Hotels in Ocean Drive.

KL

Oh cool, I like that. And the space was a ground-level storefront?

CB

Yes, it was a storefront. This was where I lived also. It did not have a tub or shower. I had a hose attached to a sink. And I would take a shower in the alley on the back, so did a lot of people and a lot of my artists friends….. A lot of people took showers there.

At Imperfect Utopia we would conceive artworks, have poetry readings, performances, exhibits, and parties of course. It was a microcosm of the forces that were active in South Beach back then. I remember working with artist Carlos Alves on an installation in the huge display window of Imperfect Utopia. We assembled a composition of objects we had collected from the streets after the passage of scary Hurricane Andrew.

Some others that stopped by where Octavio Paz, Linda Evangelista, Tony Ward, Bruce Weber, Celia Cruz, Gianni Versace, Barry Diller, Glen Albin, Jason Rubell, Andrew Sullivan, and Rudolph Nureyev, whom I would spend hours with listening to his life stories. I remember Julian Schnabel and his beautiful Spanish wife at the time, Olatz. He liked my works from the Fracturism series. I used to play La Lupe for them. I was surprised they knew of her music. Julian eventually produced the masterpiece Before Night Falls, a movie about the life of Reynaldo Arenas, the legendary writer who escaped communist Cuba and lived in Miami Beach (Ocean Drive) and NYC for a while. And once we hosted an event for the renowned Jazz musician, Dizzy Gillespie.

KL

Wow, what a cast of characters! Did this crowd influence your work?

CB

Yes! With all these very talented people around, we were absorbing knowledge like a sponge. We were certainly learning a lot of things not taught in art school! And it was at Imperfect Utopia that I found my language as an artist, when I began embracing my roots and Puerto Rican/Cuban heritage and the environments around me, as well. My reality, in other words. I had also begun to explore issues of memory, syncretism and using collage, silkscreens, and Miami as a muse.

Rauschenberg, whom I spoke with several times back then was highly influential. Collaging and layering was important to many of us. Then there was Morris Lapidus, the architect of the iconic Fontainebleau Hotel. I finally met him decades after my first visit to the hotel when I was a young kid. Glen Albin, editor of Interview magazine brought him to the studio. Back then hardly anyone new of him and we were his groupies, making sure he knew how important and influential he was to us. During his first visit to Imperfect Utopia we became friends. I showed him an anthology on architecture that mentioned his influential work, a rare thing back then. He was so excited about this!  I quickly pull a pen and he autographed the pages of the book where they mentioned him or showed pictures of his work.

Eventually Morris lived long enough to see several books about his influential works. My generation grew up surrounded in what some scholars called the “architecture of optimism”. Morris was instrumental in developing that language, which still continues to influence my artwork and that of many others. I actually have a series of works called Lapidus Infinitus. And in Miami Beach there is a large sculptural glass artwork by Dan Graham titled Morris’, from 2010.

KL

I love Morris Lapidus and that Dan Graham piece! Didn’t realize it was named after Lapidus, but that makes a lot of sense. I got to meet Graham once at Lovely Day in NYC. He was eating alone and I went over and knelt by his table to tell him how much I admired him and he asked me what my sign was, lol. He’s very into astrology. There’s something playful that connects him to Lapidus. That mural on the Fontainebleau felt like you were driving into an oasis. Made Miami truly magical!

CB

Indeed! 

KL

And you made magic happen at Imperfect Utopia. What were your favorite shows there?

Imperfect Utopia, 1987-95, 704 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach

CB

My favorite exhibit at Imperfect Utopia was Fracturism. Elisa Turner wrote about it. The show was a series of mixed media paintings I created based on the concept of fractured cultured: assembling the splintered vision of all that we knew and related to. This is before the internet attempted to organize information, before google became our memory. Collaging and layering was the best way we could represent this, with Rauschenberg influencing. I used silkscreen a lot. Here I found a unique language, once I embraced my ancestors and rituals, my own history and surrounding, no matter the circumstances. I was captivated then to explore issues of memory, identity, beauty, and nature, as I am now. I liked a lot the exhibit Cuba-Cola where I invited Afro Cuban dancers who performed around sculptures of roasted chickens. We also had events for Amnesty International in support of poet and political prisoner Maria Elena Cruz Varela, who inspired an early series of graphics I did.

I realized back then that Miami is a melting pot of backgrounds and cultures, but somehow we get to retain our identity, slightly removed from the melting pot theory. A new experiment, not truly assimilating, but mixing a little bit.

KL

More of a diamond with facets than a liquid that combines to become a new thing.

CB

Yes, how beautiful. Those are some of the things that happened. It was a laboratory of experiments. It seemed to be at the right place at the right time.

Keep in mind that this is also the time during the AIDS epidemic. A lot of people came down to Miami to live out their last years of life, many cashed their health insurance. I can give you dozens of names of dear friends and artists that passed away. The Cuban and the Haitian refugees dying at sea constantly. All these were tragic situations that impacted many of us. These were very personal moments, sad and confusing times.

KL

I was too young to experience the full force, but the echoes are haunting. We lost most of a generation. What I remember from South Beach as a teenager came after this. It was more of a club scene than an artist one. Is that part of why you closed Imperfect Utopia?

CB

Well, I thrived there as a young artist, after all it was primarily a working artist studio, but things were becoming more mainstream in South Beach. Even the gay scene. Warhol had died. And after Giannis death, it was like the end of innocence. And perhaps because it was so much in the news, everybody wanted to come to South Beach, as if it was just discovered. The energy was no longer organic or pure. Gentrification of sorts. I think what happened is that we started getting noticed a bit too much. And like I said, at first it was the publications that we admire, but then it was all kinds of publications. This was, in a way, very flattering and many of us benefited from it, but it was also opening, at least a bit, a Pandoras box. This had happened in other organic communities like Montmartre, and more recently, Soho in NYC. Artists making communities, developers gentrifying communities, artists moving on…The same developers that had helped gentrify Soho, moved to Miami Beach with the same intentions. It was the beginning of the transformation of the South Beach underground scene, and perhaps the last opportunity for a truly underground scene anywhere before social media made that impossible.   

And with all these you start losing the dialogue, the conversation that was once very clear and focused is dissipated. So, a lot of things and magical places that were influential to us start disappearing, replaced by nightmare ugly modern cold spaces without personality. Imagine you have a Banana Republic opening on Lincoln Road, Victoria’s Secret. The old Woolworths became McDonalds, and the doors of alternative spaces, cafes, gay clubs, art galleries, were shutting or getting gentrified. The gentrification was painful to watch, it was constant and careless and unfortunately, the local government supported it. It was too much. A little bit would have been okay.

Buildings start getting renovated no longer by local creatives but by outside and too corporate forces, all at light speed. And you could feel it, you could feel the change, the “we don’t care”. But a lot of money was coming in…And, you know, with money comes other possibilities… We’re no longer in our 20s. We need to create a future that might cost money, if we want to create a family, travel, if we want to do big projects. So, we start becoming a little bit of accomplices with these forces. I learned quickly that it is all about balance. It was so different, that some of the artists that were here saw no future and started moving away to New York. Miami didn’t have much of an artist support system back then, not even academically. 

Dan Graham, Morris’, 2010
Photo courtesy of Katelyn Kopenhaver

KL

That’s true, to this day.

CB

Yes, in some ways. But I decided to stay in Miami not caring much about opportunities but about inspiration. I really believed in Miami, and it could only be one of my muses if I stayed here. But I understood that collectors weren’t buying enough local work, so artists sometimes need to make economic decisions to survive, as well as to find other muses. But I was still fascinated with this place. I did question a lot of things during that period because so much of what we loved was disappearing, was being replaced by nonsense, with little creativity and nothing to do with Miami. It felt impersonal.

KL

They were importing things into Miami rather than looking in our backyard.

CB

Exactly. It was boring stuff, didn’t have the dialogue, the conversation. Not challenging enough. I have to say also that during this period, there were some people who said, “There’s nothing in Miami, there never has been.” Of course, we were trying to find our own language, but there was always a language here. I really believed in Miami and Miami Beach as a muse, at different times, like Bunny Yeager, Ana Mendieta, Cesar Trasobares, Bruce Weber, Purvis Young, Carlos Alves, Keith Haring, and so many others.   

Miami is inspiring to me, the ancient Tequesta, the kitsch, the elegant, the vulgar and edgy. Miami is tropical lush and parking lots, beautiful and ugly, dirty, clean, poor, rich and can be very Avant Garde. Most of us tolerating each other and getting along somehow, most of the time. Like Paris in the early 1900’s, it still is in a way. And after all, it was in Miami Beach where Robert Miller first saw my artwork. He loved Miami. We explored it so much. It was very symbolic for my friends and I when I signed with his gallery in NYC, without having to move to NYC! You see, I am an island person, and Miami is almost like an island, water everywhere, the Everglades to the west, the Atlantic on the other sides, and highway barriers everywhere. Yes, Miami is an island. I heard someone say once that the best things about Miami is that it so close to the United States…

And I tell you, it was encouraging seeing back then at least a few artists comfortable embracing Miami, being inspired by it, the good and the bad, the reality of it, and not moving to another town like so many others did.

KL

Embracing all of what it was. I had a hard time with that. I moved away because I wanted something more. But there’s usually a pull that brings you back home. It’s like a magnet.

CB

Things move, evolve, but there is always opportunity where you connect. Keith Haring said something like, “The primitive will always make us new.” That statement had resonance with me. I translated it into … – once you know your roots, once you own your reality, the possibilities are infinite.

Ironically during this time, I found comfort and inspiration literally in the primitive and underground, (in the oolite) when I became a volunteer in the recently discovered Miami Circle archeological site. It was very important to me, but somehow many of my peers didn’t see the site as history. My artwork continued to be influenced by my Caribbean roots, but my new present was Miami and I kept embracing it in several ways.

The site consisted of a perfect circle measuring 38 feet of cut stone in the ground. It is the only prehistoric permanent structure cut into the bedrock in the eastern United States. It predates any other known permanent settlement. It is believed to be the location of a structure built by the Tequesta indigenous people of Miami around 2000 years ago. It was a very important discovery that actually made it to global news cycle. Suddenly, this young city had an ancient past and a larger identity. I remember artist Jose Bedia was also very excited about this finding so I took him to the site a couple of times and we had a magical time sifting through the oolite and finding artifacts that belonged to the Spanish and to the Tequestas. It was one of my most satisfying experiences for me in Miami because it reminded me of Puerto Rico and its indigenous Taino Culture and the importance of immersing yourself in the history of the place you live in. I think Miami found its way again in part because of the Miami Circle archaeological site.

There is a simple saying that I like to live by. Know where you come from to know where you are going.