Published: March 24, 2020
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring
NEW YORK CITY – If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? It was that sort of existential crisis facing organizers and participants of Asia Week 2020, which proceeded to take place March 12-19 despite the COVID-19 prompted travel bans for travelers coming to the United States and the postponement of sales of Asian art at most of the auction houses in the city that typically account for a significant part of the activity of the week.
Such is the prominence of the auctions that many exhibitors initially viewed the lack of competition for viewers to be an advantage to gallerists. Sadly, the ban on international travel, or safety concerns from museums and collectors outside of New York City, meant that most buyers simply did not make a personal appearance. Many events at the Asia Society, Japan Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were canceled, further limiting reasons to come to New York City.
What did galleries do? Some exhibitors made the difficult last-minute decision not to come at all while others opened for a shorter exhibition time than expected. Those who were no-shows were UK-based Nicholas Grindley LLC and Littleton & Hennessy Asian Art; Alan Kennedy from Santa Monica, Calif., and Japan-based Hara Shobo and Sokyo Gallery, which was to make its debut at Asia Week.
Based on reports by exhibitors, the visitors whose demographic was hardest hit were curators but many dealers were using digital means to sell to clients who could not – or would not – make the trip, and several reported sales despite the pandemic’s effect, largely to local or online buyers.
Katherine Martin, chairwoman of Asia Week New York chairwoman and director of Scholten Japanese Art, said, “It’s so hard to summarize Asia Week. I was surprised at how many people came to our little opening, I was not surprised that so few people ultimately saw our exhibition, and I was surprised I made any sales at all, which we did. We were fortunate that we presold approximately two-thirds of our exhibition before it opened and before things started to unravel quickly in reaction to the expanding impact of the virus. But once the show opened, attendance was way, way down, and we did not enjoy the typical supplemental sales (not directly related to the special exhibition) that we usually have as a result of having people at the gallery.” Martin reported sales from the gallery’s website, noting “people buy art in good times and bad.”
Asia Week has an increasing focus on contemporary Asian art, with the majority of incoming exhibitors specializing in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century works of art. Brooklyn- and Manhattan-based Boccara art featured two parallel exhibitions on Kim Jeong Yeon and Hyun Ae Kang, two contemporary Korean artists. Boccara had scheduled two receptions, on Thursday and Friday, March 12-13, and both went ahead as planned. Virtual exhibitions at both spaces are still viewable, at https://boccara-art.com/news.html.
On hand from New Delhi and Kolkata, India, modern and contemporary Indian art specialist Akar Prakar was exhibiting the work of Ganesh Haloi in an exhibition titled “Form & Play.” Working in nonfigurative images, the artist says, “You cannot imagine how much freedom I enjoy. And because I feel that sense of infinite freedom, I can exercise that to create my own land. It is my own world – parallel to and different from what you call reality.” Gallerist Reena Lath said she would return to Asia Week next year, with an exhibition focused on Somnath Hore.
Contemporary Vietnamese art was on view at debuting dealer Rosenberg & Co., in Midtown Manhattan and featured the work of Nguyen Cam in an exhibit titled “Blue Night, Red Earth.”
Also in Midtown Manhattan was contemporary Japanese dealer Ippodo Gallery, which is not new to Asia week but was premiering its new gallery space. Despite the featured artist – Koichiro Isezaki – not being able to travel from Japan, the reception on Thursday, March 12, was attended by more than 50 people, while the gallery saw about 25 visitors on Friday, March 13, and 30 people that included a museum group tour on Saturday, March 14. A representative for the gallery reported positive reactions, inquiries and sales. The exhibition will continue to be open by appointment only through April 16; www.ippodogallery.com.
Other debuting exhibitors were New York-based Carlton Hobbs, who was exhibiting a selection of Chinese export furniture and decorative items. Featured items included a pair of Qing dynasty nodding-head figures in their original clothing, a black lacquer, polychrome and gilt cabinet on stand for the Export market; and a palisander cabinet with canted sides and inset famille rose porcelain plaques and Chinoiserie elements made for the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.
Visiting from Mill Valley, Calif., was historical Asian and Tribal art and textile specialist, Thomas Murray, who was showing at Arader Gallery. His exhibition was titled “Rarities: The Himalayas to Hawaii” and closed early.
Walter Arader, specializing in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art, anticipated the dearth of international visitors and had prepared a small exhibition geared at Western buyers titled “Masterworks of the Company School.” Featured were original ornithological and botanical drawings and watercolors made in the Nineteenth Century by Indian artists commissioned by officers of the East India Company.
Chinese art – either ancient or contemporary – is one of the smallest components of Asia Week, with just five galleries participating. RM Chait Galleries was celebrating 110 years in business and published a spring exhibition catalog featuring ancient Chinese ceramics, bronzes, jades and Chinese export silver. Steven Chait said, “with our catalog and some early visits, we did business through the start. I would expect more internet inquiries as people are more confined but seeking the solace of these wonderful objects.”
James Lally of J.J. Lally characterized it as “the worst ‘Asia Week’ anyone could imagine,” citing a “perfect storm” of quarantine in China and elsewhere across Asia, airline cancellations and emergency closures throughout New York City. His Asia Week exhibition, “Elegantly Made: Art for the Chinese Literati” closed early but will stay open through March 27 by appointment.
New York gallerist Eric Zetterquist, whose Asia Week exhibition featured Japanese ceramics and Song dynasty Chinese ceramics. Afterwards, he commented, “While it was a decidedly strange Asia Week, I had many local visitors to my exhibition. I made sales to locals, as well as foreign clients who purchased items from photographs or live video feed. It is heartening to find that art lovers find solace in beauty during difficult times…”
Showing more than two dozen paintings from the royal courts of India and Persia, London-based Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch, Ltd., also decamped early upon fears they would not be able to return home. “Our biggest casualty was museum curators,” Lynch said, adding that visits from a core group of New York collectors and interest remotely resulted in some good sales and more pending with some of the institutions that could not attend.
Contemporary Japanese art specialist, Carole Davenport, reported Asia Week attendance was about half what it typically is but received numerous inquiries from people requesting images and information. She sold before Asia Week and had a few pending sales, most in the mid-five-figure range.
Joan B. Mirviss was exhibiting two distinctly different exhibitions simultaneously: “Ukiyo-e Highlights from the Collection of George Crawford” and “Restraint and Flamboyance: Masterworks of Mino.” Commenting on Asia Week after she closed the gallery early, Mirviss said, “The past two weeks have been challenging in almost every sense. My gallery was most fortunate to have started our Asia Week process several months ago, and we managed to mail out both of our fully illustrated catalogs in mid-February. Additionally, by simultaneously offering online previews of the exhibitions, we were extremely fortunate to have placed nearly half the works in both shows before Asia Week actually commenced. Additionally, we were blessed with devoted-client visits immediately at the start of the scheduled events and that too assured us of additional sales.”
Another exhibitor for contemporary Japanese ceramics was Dai Ichi Arts, Ltd., which reported selling more than a dozen pieces.
Selling ancient Korean works of art was New York City-based Kang Collection. Peter Kang commented, “It was obviously much slower than normal but not completely dead. We had a light flow of people during the weekend and a number of possible deals are available which we will pursue over the coming weeks, which is normally how Asia week is for us as most of our clients are curators.”
The Asian art auctions typically conducted during Asia Week were initially rescheduled to June, with previews of highlights open for visitors. Specific dates for these sales have not yet been set and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen.
For information on Asia Week New York, www.asiaweekny.com.
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