A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Remembering… Miami before Art Basel

David Rohn as Teddy Behr, 1994.

As we prepare for the impending chaos (and brilliance) of Miami’s Fall 2008 season it feels pertinent to remember how this city’s current fortuitous circumstance came to pass and why we are all still here.

From meager, somewhat desperate beginnings as a drug run backwater, Miami is flourishing as a city of real cultural importance. Much like oceanic vents whose teeming life systems are supported by subterranean tributaries that carry essential minerals to barren, otherwise indistinguishable regions of the sea floor, art hubs feed off attention paid to them by the eyes of the wider world and similar, longer established hot spots.

The inhabitants of either of these bustling communities may grow at speed but their existence can also be short; for just as the fickle fancy of trend setters might move onto greener seemingly ‘hotter’ locales, the vents too do not erupt indefinitely. At any given moment, some eddy, deep in the earth’s crust could divert the energy, and an entire micro world could be extinguished.

As we approach Art Basel Miami Beach 2008 we would do well to remember our precarious position. The art world as we know is cruel, ruthless and rarely considerate to the needs of those striving for recognition; irrespective of whether they are an individual artist or a whole city. Nevertheless, the bonds forged between makers, patrons, and all those close enough to the furnace to feel the heat have been proven to withstand leaner times; and annealed by a uniting desire to marry into a life defined by art and personal exploration they make long term subsistence realistic whatever the weather.

Today we speak to Miami based Artist David Rohn who first settled in Miami when the genesis of our now thriving art community was just beginning to form.


When did you first come to Miami?

I came to Miami on New Year s day 1991. The Beach wasn’t called ‘South Beach’ yet but there was a nightlife-oriented mostly gay artist scene emerging alongside the elderly people and Mariel refugees who’d wound up South of 5th street since the 1980 Mariel boat lift from Cuba. That’s where I moved to and that’s where I learned that a lot of the people who came in Mariel where not just criminals and mentally ill but also Aids victims and gays who were routinely jailed by Fidel. It reminded me of the East Village in New York where I’d lived in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.

Center: David Rohn as “Teddy Behr” with “Adora” (right) and Digby Liebowitz of “Swirl” (left) on South beach, circa 1995.

Were there any galleries to speak of?

There weren’t any galleries to speak of but there were a lot of open studios in storefronts on Lincoln Road – which at the time was completely dead as a retail area. It had one restaurant and a few stores for things like orthopedic shoes but not much else except artists and it was deserted after dark.

In the afternoons you might see some people around (other than the rows of 80-somethings parked in wheelchairs in front of their buildings) and maybe at the beach on 23rd street or South of 5th too but it was mainly in clubs like Warsaw, Torpedo, and Boomerang. There you could see that a very grass roots and rather gritty (by current standards) community had somehow congealed in a place that was otherwise literally dying right before your eyes.

I can’t remember any galleries in South Beach at that time but I rarely left it. I tried to go to the Bass Museum but it was closed the first time and kind of expensive the second. Finally I went to see their tapestries and other what-not; sadly realizing there was no need to go back. Once I went by bus to the Kane Concourse near Bal Harbor because I’d been told that that’s where the galleries were but it was mostly second generation abstract expressionism and chrome sculpture so I didn’t go back there either. Eventually I went downtown to the Center for Visual Arts (now called Miami Art Museum (MAM)). They had put up a travelling show of Degas. It was nice.

How long was it before you began exhibiting work?

The first time I exhibited in Miami was at an event called the Hortt Exhibition held every year at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. I proposed a loaf of pink papier mache bread which was accepted and won an honorable mention (including an honorable mention in the Miami Herald). I’d been making these painted breads of papier mache in Paris and it wasn’t clear that it would make any sense here. Bread is an iconic shape and symbol in French Culture but that’s not so true here, we have our own icons. Some months later I showed towels embroidered with erect penises in pastel colored yarn at the Alliance for Cinema Art on Lincoln Road – and in conjunction with a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, it doesn’t exist anymore.

At the time I thought both gay and straight cultures were very involved with machismo and my own experience was increasingly that male sexuality was more tender, boyish and sweet – a lot of the local Gay community came and I felt great about that.

Later on I tried to organize a show in an abandoned motel building on 3rd Street – around ’94 I guess – with some artists in the area; Skip Van Cel, Lazaro Amaral and Mike Borosky are still around. It wasn’t easy getting organized and then the building got knocked down.

A little later I did a show at a place called Swirl, which was a very relaxed club on Washington Avenue started by an art friendly guy named Digby Liebowitz who’s since moved to LA, but one of the pieces got stolen; maybe I should have been flattered but I was mostly annoyed. Eventually I met someone while at a small hotel fair in Amsterdam who told me if I lived in Miami I should get in contact with Bonnie Clearwater. When I got back I did. That led to Bonnie buying a piece for the Museum and eventually offering me a solo show there in ’97. Since then the opportunities and locations to exhibit art in Miami have increased exponentially.

Where do you exhibit now?

The short answer is ‘wherever I can’. Lately I’ve been involved with Carol Jazzar who puts on interesting exhibitions in my view and doesn’t seem overly commercial in her programming. From time to time I’ve been included in Summer group shows at MOCA and the Optic Nerve Series and participated recently in ‘Shelf Life’ (maybe an apt name for summer in Miami), a group show put together by Scott Murray of Twenty Twenty Projects. I’ve also belatedly realized that performance can be taken to the streets and so for some months now I’ve been shooting myself in various locations throughout Miami; in various ‘situations’. The first was the bridal dress and the most successful shots have included passers by who somehow interact (or pointedly don’t) in the frame.

That s been interesting for several reasons:

1. Miami is a… well, let’s say ‘un self-conscious’ urban locale. There are lots of scenes that are very real, semi developed, semi cleaned up (or not at all), in this fast growing burg. The people too are VERY straightforward – really like New Yorkers were when I was growing up but with gentrification even they’ve become boringly polite these days.

2. It’s a great way to bring art to the street; and if and when photos get exhibited I find the move from the street to the rarefied art fascinating as they are really two very different dimensions – I mean when do you see someone who’s really FROM Wynwood at Gallery night? Another series I shot is one with an American soldier (me) and a Muslim detainee (my lover Danilo de la Torre) kissing on the street – there’s been no place yet in these for reactions but lets see…

The main thing about taking it to the public is that it allows me to practice without having to wait for the ‘art public’. Of course there’s no commercial vindication but you can’t have everything. And who knows, maybe later there will be… or not. Past experience has taught me not to hold my breath on that one.

Would you consider yourself a Miami artist?

Yes I’m a Miami artist if only by default – and I’m happy to be a part of the Miami art community because it is a very vital and generally inclusive one. Yeah there are many discussions about what isn’t entirely ‘right’ here but it s still a community with more accessibility and contact between collectors, curators and artists than New York or Paris -2 larger cities where I lived and worked. Nor do I think the gap between ‘successful’ ($) artists and those less-so is so wide. Obviously there are lots of ‘feelings’ to consider but things and perceptions of things are always changing. And I think that Miami is really part of an international community now even if [at this point in time] I’m not participating internationally. I guess it’s helpful to have a sense of humor but I m always curious to see what s going to happen next. I guess none of us can have great shows or exercise good judgment all the time but there are a lot of people who put in the effort in Miami and I’m glad they do[.]

David Rohn installing at Locust Projects, 1998.

For more information on this artist please visit:


  • I was there

    Thanks for the great post on Mr. Rohn.
    Regarding the early Miami and Miami Beach scene I’d recommend you find an early issue of Interview magazine that was published while Andy was still alive. The art scene was all abuzz about the “Miami Artist’s” issue that was being published circa 1986. Andy was seen coming and going to different art openings and small galleries.
    Oddly the only artists featured that are still in Miami and working are Damian Rojo and Pablo Cano. Alot of the others seem to have faded away.
    They did a great treatment of the Artifacts Art Salon (Gallery and Meeting Place)run by Howard Davis on Michigan Avenue and Lincoln and the Wet Paint House located in the Edgewater section of Miami.
    During this time Miami Beach had a sprinkling of artist run galleries such as Hyper-Space on Lincoln Road, and a few fashion/art spaces on Espanola Way and Washington Avenue. Numerous artists were renting storefronts on Lincoln Road for about $400 a month. I remember an abandonded fish market on Washington Avenue being opened for a one night Fashion Show and Art exhibition. Anything was possible back then. Rent was cheap and the city was easy and oblivious.

  • Andy WhoreWall

    And Wet Paint become a cafe on Lincoln Road, I believe where Books and Books is now. And wasn’t Doug Rodriguez the chef there? Helen Cevern had her gallery next to the Cuban Restaurant, now a Hofbrau. Carlos Betancourt had Imperfext Utopia next to Next. Ground Zero gallery was adjacent to The Strand on Washington, Coral Snake gallery was just south of Fifth. And who can forget Art Asylum in the Cameo space. They would give it to us FREE on thursdays because it was such a slow night.

  • artcart

    this guy’s from miami, has basel ever brought him in?

    We have seen the future of art, and his name is Michael Israel. Equal parts Jackson Pollock, Peter Max and Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance, the Florida artist was in the news recently when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of super-investor Warren Buffet at his Omaha, Neb., home base last Saturday. The completed likeness is to be sold on eBay this fall as a fundraiser for Girls, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building self-esteem in young women.
    The long-haired, model-handsome Israel works on stage live in front of large, spinning canvases, either painting with his hands or with paintbrushes in both hands, often shirtless, usually accompanied by rock music. His paintings are most often celebrity portraits. An impressive film clip on his website shows him performing in front of screaming crowds, accompanied by exploding confetti bombs and a chorus line of cheerleaders.

    So, who is this guy? A long manifesto on his website places him in the lineage of Edouard Manet, Mark Rothko and other artists who redefined the paradigm of what art is. “Is it a performance? Is he a painter in the artistic sense? Is it a concert? A social commentary? An experience? The answers are all emphatically yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.” The website does, however, add sternly that “while our First Amendment guarantees us the right to make any statement we wish, Michael believes that such freedom comes with the moral obligation to use it for good purpose and not sensationalism and vulgarity for the sake of profit and greed.”

    For the Buffet event, several dozen shareholders watched Israel perform at a stage outside Omaha’s Qwest Center. According to the Omaha World-Herald, which also has some great pics of the “live painting” event, Israel started his portrait with the images of a dollar sign and a heart, then conjured Buffet’s face as strobe lights flashed and music by U2 blared. This guy is going to be huge.

  • Candy Darling

    minor correction. Wet Paint cafe on Lincoln Road and the Wet Paint House were unrelated.
    The Wet Paint Cafe is close to where Yuca is now and Books and Books used to be a funky used book store run by a Wiccan Prietess and a bunch of stray cats…

  • ana graham

    Candy Darling is right. Wet Paint Cafe came around about a year after Rodolfo Tejera RIP set up Wet Paint which was more a piece of art itself than a gallery. Every room was an installation, i remember sleeping in the Telephone Room with a broom to quiet the rats when they got too rowdy. The House would change it’s exterior from month to month, nobody cared as most of our neighbors contributed in some way. The parties were sometimes dangerous with trips to the hospital or county jail. Too many to list but for the closing night party (which I opted out of) the house was literally torn down, ropes tied to the columns and pulled by cars.

  • CK

    Is there any facebook for the old Wet Paint house? How did Rodolfo pass? I used to visit him alot and I was part of the demolition party :) …what a wild night. I have lots of pictures from that time so may start a group of my own. Any info is appreciated…I gather by the post he did pass away, how sad. I hadn’t seen him since 1989…

  • Wendy

    There was an Interview magazine with Rob Lowe on the cover I think that covered the Miami art scene, sometime around 1988. I am sure it covered Wet Paint and a number of other art happenings around town. It would be fun to find a copy.

  • Wendy

    It was actually Sept 1986 with Don Johnson on the cover. Will try to track down a copy!

  • Inger

    Rudolfo Tejera (UFO) died of AIDS, sadly. I used to live with him at the wet paint house 86-88 and i have several pics of him and his work and from a showing he did in NYC i went with him to. I want to do a facebook for him and am looking for any input and images. He was truely one of the founding artists of the Miami Beach scene and unbelievably talented.

  • CBetancourt

    You can also see in these albums photos of Helen Cevern, Coral Snake Gallery, Imperfect Utopia, Varla, Tomata, etc etc.
    There are about 12 albums….

  • xavier cortes

    I also knew UFO , I also spent time at The Wet Pinat House.
    Tripped there with Vince,Alba,the greyhound,,Inger,Marianne,
    Cheryl and The Prom Sluts. I was there tripping when the White Riot skins tried to burn it down in their madness.
    I became an artist there , under the care of UFO.

    I will never forget you , old friend.

  • iZZI

    I knew Rodolfo Tejera and his family since 1970 from Cuba, we were good friends and worked together in ICAIC.
    Some of his neighbor friends are in Miami now and we have been wondering about his wereabouts and causes of death, and luckily I found this Blog and other articles regarding him.
    Last time I saw him was in Feb. 1979 when I said goodby to him and left the Island, then I lost contact with him, till I moved to Miami a few years ago and started having contact with old friends, and wonder about Rodolfos life. Some belived he was still in California, others say he is living in NY, and others heard rumors about his death. But now we know…anybody knows where he was buried?
    We have a picture of “little” Rodolfo in Panoramio…circa 1957.
    Any input about him will be welcome.

  • Inger

    He died in New Orleans. Marianna (aka marrianne) was the last to see him, that is how i found out about his demise. She said his ex girlfriend was there but she didn’t have any other information. I wish I knew where some of his work was. I went with him to a show of his in NYC in the late 80′s and I know he sold stuff. Anyway, that’s all I have. Thanks Izzi for posting that, I am glad that he is well remembered. He was one of the most interesting people i have ever known.

  • izzy

    Thank you Inger, I’m trying to get the most info about Rodolfo as I can, there’re friends in Cuba that want to know more too. He got no family alive no longer. His mother and aunt pass away a while ago and they did not know about his death…all this is very sad, and I want to know all I can and pass it on to his friends.
    Is Marianna around? or his ex-girldfriend? What is her name?
    If someone knows, please contact me with any info or pictures at my e-mail address: or post it here.
    How nickname UFO came up?
    Inger,can you send me any pictures of him, his work, etc,? I will appreciated and shared with his friends.
    Thank you all.

  • Shayne

    Ah, Ufo was a a good way..he let me stay at the wet paint house for a few months while I worked at the Christmas Place near the Omni hotel. Ufo was a blunt man, he would tell you if you were making art or making rubbish. I’ll never forget those interiors he did for Club Nu—the dude worked his butt off and while I don’t know how much they paid him, the owners got their money’s worth and then some…

    I too was at the wet paint house demolition…almost smashed the circuit breaker with a sledgehammer but someone stopped me. It was a great time to be stupid but not that stupid.

  • Denise

    Rodolfo and I were friends in San Francisco, but we lost touch after he went back to Miami. I never tried to find him in all these years until yesterday, when I discovered that he was gone. I’m so sad.

    I remember Rodolfo as being endlessly, compulsive creative; he had more ideas and visions in his head than he could ever get out, and an amazing energy and focus when working on his art. He was a wild man sometimes, but also sensitive and reflective in his quiet times, and very intelligent. I’ve never known anyone else quite like him.

    It’s great to see the photos on the memorial blog. They really brought him back after so many years.

    I hate to think what he may have suffered in the end, and hope that he was not alone.

  • Bernie

    I remember going to wet paint in 1986 with a couple of people and was blown away how cool it was. I think i was with Rodolfo and me and a couple of other people were hanging out. Real art. super cool people..Glad I got to see and experience it.

  • Margeaux

    Rodolfo did NOT die of aids. He died of liver failure. He did not have aids. I know because I spoke with his doctors, who were in touch with me as Rodolfo had named me his next of kin. I was his girlfriend for 6 years, and though we were not together at the time of his death, we had stayed in touch. Sadly, I was not able to be with him at the end. I spoke with him 3 days before he passed. His last words to me in this life were ‘I love you.’

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Remembering… Miami before Art Basel