Published: December 19, 2017
Review and Photos by Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY – Despite its small size, the American Art Fair, which celebrated its tenth year at Bohemian National Hall November 12-15, occupies a central position at the intersection of scholarship and the marketplace. With computer-driven selling and pressure on the bottom line causing auctioneers to redeploy assets and step up the pace of selling, the American Art Fair is both a counterweight and a great luxury, a place for exploring historic works of art in a leisurely fashion with knowledgeable experts.
The emphasis on connoisseurship has only increased since Thomas Colville became the fair’s sole owner. The art dealer, who also exhibits at the fair, explains, “Our emphasis is on providing collectors with expertise. We give people the opportunity to interact with quality works of art, in one place, with people who are broadly experienced and back what they sell. The atmosphere of the American Art Fair is conducive to connoisseurship and consideration. I still believe collecting is something to savor, that the more one learns, the more rewarding collecting becomes. Art is not just an image on a screen that you buy as a commodity.”
Colville is working to increase the educational component of the fair, which this year featured well-attended talks by Avis Berman on Whistler’s influence on Ashcan artists and Saint Louis Art Museum curator Melissa Wolfe, who discussed American painting in the mid-Twentieth Century. Enhancing the American Art Week initiative that Colville is intent on building was Just Off Madison, an open house sponsored by private dealers in American art on November 12. Seven of the American Art Fair’s by-invitaton-only exhibitors participated in both ventures.
The show’s 17 exhibitors represent the backbone of the field of historic American art, in this venue mostly prewar and ranging in date from about 1760 to roughly 1980. “We do not allow work by living artists, who may be forgotten in ten years. We are selling things that have withstood the test of time,” Colville says.
Though most exhibitors maintain showrooms in New York City, Santa Fe’s Nedra Matteucci Galleries was new to the fair with outstanding examples of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century art of the American West, including the small, meditative “Plums in Dish” of 1928 by Georgia O’Keeffe.
“Our Georgia O’Keeffe, two beautiful William R. Leigh Native American scenes and the Russian painters Nicolai Fechin and Leon Gaspard were of special interest to collectors, who really seemed to enjoy seeing this added dimension at the fair,” noted Matteucci Galleries director Dustin Belyeu.
Longtime Bryn Mawr, Penn., exhibitor Avery Galleries advertised the breadth of its inventory with canvases ranging from “Bouquet Valley in the Adirondacks” by William Trost Richards to “Autumn Still Life” by William Merritt Chase and a Cubist portrait, newly acquired, by Henry Fitch Taylor.
John and Clay Surovek, father and son dealers from Palm Beach, Fla., brought out their big guns, countering the auctions with the Winslow Homer watercolor “Girl on a Swing,” Norman Rockwell’s “Autumn – Father and Son Bird Hunting” and Roy Lichtenstein’s boldly exuberant “Two Paintings (Flags).”
There was no more commanding figure than “El Matador,” Robert Henri’s life-sized, full-length portrait of Felix Asiego, priced $1.75 million at Debra Force. The New York dealer paired the 1906 portrait with Thomas Hart Benton’s “Morning and a Sack of Meal,” $1.5 million and James Henry Beard’s “The Illustrious Guest,” $1.1 million. As in past years, Force brought early Modernist sculpture, in this case the carved mahogany “Kneeling Figure” by Robert Laurent.
Later reached by phone in Miami, where she was exhibiting at Art Miami, Force said the American Art Fair was fairly well attended, notwithstanding Sotheby’s decision to move its $19 million American Art auction up to November 13 to coincide with its Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary sales. Christie’s $34 million American art auction was November 21, remaining in its traditional date close to Thanksgiving. The eight-day gap between auctions created a dilemma for some out-of-town buyers.
“I do feel that some private collectors and curators didn’t show because of the split auctions. Those who did come, came for the fair weekend and Sotheby’s sale,” said Force, who was especially pleased to have sold a big genre painting by John George Brown at the show.
Force was also a player at the auctions, bidding Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Shell,” an oil on canvas of 1937, to $1.5 million at Sotheby’s. “I got that for a client and was very pleased about it, particularly since the O’Keeffe pastel ‘Yellow Sweet Peas’ made $4.4 million in Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale the next day.”
Following the American Art Fair, Menconi + Schoelkopf was off to Art Basel Miami. Susan Menconi said the American Art Fair produced interest in their Nineteenth Century still life paintings and a charcoal portrait by Joseph Stella, done in Pittsburgh around 1908. Two sculptures also stopped traffic, the bronze “Flight of Night” by Paul Manship and a Harry Bertoia sound sculpture.
Great American Modernist pieces, including several works by Charles Burchfield and one by Marsden Hartley, were of note at Questroyal Fine Art. “Of course, our Hudson River School paintings remain a favorite among connoisseurs of American art, and our Kensett, ‘Pro Patria (Sunset on the Coast)’ was no exception. Overall, the fair was a successful event and a great start to American art week this fall,” said the gallery’s Jenny Lyubomudrova.
A focus wall at Hirschl & Adler told the story of this small but powerful fair. There, in one place, was the history of American art in a cluster of works that included “Valencia Oranges” by William Joseph McCloskey, “Sketch at Chimborazo” by Frederic Edwin Church, “Portrait of Anne Boutineau Robinson” by John Singleton Copley, “Mugs, Bottle and Pipe” by John Frederick Peto, “The Smoker’s Companion” by William Michael Harnett and “Portrait of Richard John Cock” by Joshua Johnson.
Colville termed this year’s American Art Fair “a great success.” He noted, “We had really outstanding attendance during the week. It was partially due to the reception we had for our two speakers. Next year we are adding an extra weekend day. We will open on Friday instead of Saturday, and we will definitely have more speakers. We really want to make American Art Week an essential destination.”
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