The International Asian Art Fair, which returned to New York March 26-31 as the cornerstone of the Asia Week shows and sales, is perhaps the most stimulating of all the engrossing expos that each year convene at the Seventh Regiment Armory. It is certainly the most elegant.
Organized by Brian and Anna Haughton of London, the coolly meditative sequence of 55 exhibits is dedicated to universal excellence and unburdened by datelines. The March 25 preview, which drew 1,000 and raised $500,000 for Asia Society, attracts the most international of art-loving crowds, judging by the well-traveled notables – among them chairmen Marie-Chantal and Robert Miller, Lady Lynn and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, and Richard Holbrooke and Kati Marton – who mingled on opening night.
The peacock finery of the revelers – many of whom arrive wearing kimonos, saris or Japanese designer clothing – suggests a return of Whistlerian aestheticism, which mysticized the East in a thoroughly Western quest for beauty. But while Neo-Aestheticism is certainly afoot, the International Asian Art Fair is also a geopolitical comment on shifting powers and increasingly porous cultural borders. The joy and wonder of the International Asian Art Fair is its complexity and dynamism.
The East-West cultural exchange that began with the Silk Route and continued for centuries during the Age of Exploration thrives today, as international dealers and collectors push forward new, previously unrecognized talent. A fascinating example of artistic exchange could be found at Jonathan Tucker/Antonia Tozer. Specialists in Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian works of art, especially sculpture, the London dealers paired two Gandharan terra-cotta heads dating to the Fourth or Fifth Century. The first head was a classically Eastern portrait of a Bodhisattva; the second, a classically Western depiction of Zeus or Atlas.
Another intriguing hybrid could be found in two Nineteenth Century scroll paintings at A&J Speelman, Ltd, of London. By a Chinese hand, the framed views on silk are a study in Occidentalism (the opposite of now-discredited Orientalism), showing exotic looking Caucasians in imaginary European settings.
A dialogue between old and new rather than East and West, Lawrence of Beijing brings the metaphor up to date, each year exhibiting oil on canvas paintings by the contemporary Chinese artist Wei Rong. Rong’s views typically place men and women in colorful, contemporary garb in sepia-tone settings redolent of Old China,
The contemporary scene at the International Asian Art Fair is one of the show’s most lively features. In addition to Lawrence of Beijing, there are other dealers in contemporary Chinese painting: Plum Blossoms; M. Sutherland, a New York dealer who offered four 1997 watercolor and ink views of “Yellow Mountain” in different seasons, $15,000; China 2000, which parted with its most important work, “Red Hill Overshadowed by Snow,” $150,000, by Chang Dai-chien (1899-1983); and Goedhuis Contemporary, which sold two oil on canvas paintings by Cai Jin.
Still other Chinese art specialists combine old and new. Andy Hei Ltd of Hong Kong sold several pieces of Ming furniture, which he showed with contemporary watercolors by Robert Powell, an architect and painter who visited Chengkan village in 2002 to study historic structures at the behest of China Heritage Fund, a group organized by antiquarian Robert Ellsworth to preserve China’s historic architecture.
“We’ve sold over 50 pieces of ceramics dating from the 1930s to the 2004, beginning with the founder of the contemporary Japanese ceramic movement, Shoji Hamada,” said Joan Mirviss, who devoted a third of her tripartite display to recent work by the internationally celebrated Kyoto ceramist Morino Hiroaki Taimei, whose pieces are represented in 30 museum collections around the world. “We had a reception for the Brooklyn Museum and another dinner honoring curators who’ve already acquired his pieces,” said the Manhattan dealer, who was virtually out of inventory by the show’s end.
Perhaps because the so-called applied arts have never been secondary to painting in Japan, the country is a hotbed of contemporary art in fiber, ceramics and lacquer. First-time exhibitor Katie Jones of London offered a selection of pieces in several media dating from the early Twentieth Century to the present. Melbourne, Australia. dealer Lesley Kehoe has also forged ahead in the past four years with contemporary Japanese craft, her stand this year devoted to pieces by ceramist Kitamura Tatsuo and screenmaker Maio Motoko. Lea Sneider of New York showed contemporary sculpture by Kyoko Kumai woven of such unexpected materials as steel, felt and jute, as well as a selection of contemporary Korean decorative arts.
Plum Blossoms blazed the way for contemporary Chinese ceramics, so far a rarity at the International Asian Art Fair. The Hong Kong dealer featured campy, sexualized figures of headless women, their legs flailing in the air, by Liu Jianhua.
Antique Chinese ceramics were represented by London powerhouse S. Marchant and Son, whose sales included a blue and white Imperial beaker, Kangxi period; and a pair of blue and white Imperial Kangxi palace bowls, similar to a pair in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. Uragami Sokyu-Do Company, Ltd, of Tokyo attracted notice, stacking 19 Han dynasty covered Hill jars, their carved and glazed surfaces echoing the patina of bronze, in an eye-catching pyramid.
Fiber arts – ranging from Tibetan thangka paintings on canvas at Carlo Christi of Milan to Chinese carpets at Sandra Whitman of San Francisco and Imperial Chinese costume at Linda Wrigglesworth of London – are another unexpectedly vibrant category.
“This is a fantastically early Zoroastrian fragment dating to the Third to Fifth Century AD,” London dealer Jacqueline Simcox said of the six-figure remnant that mingled Central Asian and Persian stylistic influences.
The measure of the International Asian Art Fair is in both its quality and its depth. Remarkably, both Cora Ginsburg, LLC, of New York and Francesca Galloway of London offered exceptional and exceedingly rare embroidered Seventeenth Century spreads. Ginsburg owner Titi Halle identified her textile, $54,000, as an Indo Portuguese example from Goa; Galloway’s was Sino Portuguese from Macao.
There were Buddhas and other devotional figures of every size, age, description and price, beginning with Jan Van Beers’ imposing 643/4-inch Fifteenth Century Ming dynasty figure of dry lacquer gilt; a large, polychromed carved wood figure of Manjusri at Speelman; and an arresting Seventeenth Century Japanese carved and lacquered wood sculpture of Oni Nembatsu at Sydney L. Moss of London.
Traditional Chinese specialties included Tang pottery figures, a universal bestseller. Berwald Oriental Art of London wrote up a 391/2-inch pottery horse dating to the Eighth Century. Priestly & Ferraro of London sold a large camel with two riders.
Partitioned into three chambers, Chinese Porcelain Company’s large stand near the fair’s entrance combined ancient and antique pottery figures with contemporary painting. The New York firm sold its catalog piece, a delicate pair of Eighteenth Century Sino Tibetan gilt bronze figures that were only seven inches tall.
Chinese furniture sold well for Grace Wu Bruce, M.D. Flacks and Gerald Hawthorne. Bruce, a Hong Kong dealer, parted with a rare cloud-spandrel pingtouan table of Huanghuali wood and a traveling book cabinet dating to the late Sixteenth or early Seventeenth Century with its original hardware, a rarity.
The show was upbeat for Flying Cranes, New York specialists in Meiji art. Said Jean Schaeffer, “We brought a wonderful collection of presentation tsuba that had been tucked away for 40 years. On opening night, a collector sauntered in, stopped, thought for five minutes, then bought the whole group.”
John Eskenazi’s sumptuous stand arrayed sculpture from India and Nepal against the backdrop of Edo Period six-panel screens whimsically decorated with folded robes hanging on a rack. Entitled “Whose Sleeves?,” the screen’s motif has its origin in the poems of Kokin Wakashu compiled in 905 AD.
Notable sales in the Indian and Southeast Asian category included a silver liter, made for the Maharajah of Ambikapur, circa 1860, and used on state occasions. It sold to a Virginia institution for $120,000. New York dealer Terence McInerney parted with a collection of powerfully modeled Malabar Coast masks representing gods and demons.
“Most exhibitors are happy and a few are ecstatic,” said Joan Mirviss, as the fair came to a close for another year on Wednesday, March 31.