Published: November 27, 2018
Review and Photos by Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY – Amid the hubbub of the auction season, particularly that unruly fall stretch encompassing the mega-million-dollar Modern and Contemporary sales, the American Art Fair seems an oasis of calm and refined contemplation. Now in its 11th year and solely owned by founder Thomas Colville, it offers a welcome respite to serious collectors and would-be students, who over four days and change may browse, buy or simply educate themselves on what this learned crowd of exhibitors has to offer.
Meant to complement the auctions and the Just Off Madison program of open houses, the jewel-box American Art Fair sets up on three floors at Bohemian National Hall on 73rd Street, two and a half blocks from Sotheby’s. This year’s dates were November 10-13. With Sotheby’s and Christie’s no longer running their American art sales consecutively, scheduling the American Art Fair has become a bit of a challenge. That said, the proximity of Christie’s sale of the Barney A. Ebsworth collection on November 13-14 was a boon to the fair, drawing collectors from around the country to New York to partake of all. The American Art Fair enjoyed record attendance at its by-invitation-only opening night gala on Friday, November 9, and the gate was steady through opening weekend. The fair closed Tuesday at 4 pm, hours before the first Ebsworth lot crossed the block.
“With the auction schedules in flux, the American Art Fair has become its own destination. It works well,” Colville told Antiques and The Arts Weekly after the show wrapped up. “Saturday and Sunday were very good. A lot of people came through on Tuesday. Overall, we had record attendance.”
Two features of the presentation managed by Catherine Sweeney Singer have added to its success. The first is the concerted effort made to draw museum directors, curators and collecting groups from around the country. “We have a really good list and we are expanding it,” Sweeney Singer told us midway through the show.
Related programming addressing a mix of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century topics is a major attraction, serving to educate buyers, keep them abreast of market trends and introduce them to luminaries in the field. This year’s events were standing-room-only affairs. They included talks by Linda S. Ferber on the American Pre-Raphaelites, Mark D. Mitchell on the American Renaissance, Keely Orgeman on George L.K. Morris and Esther Adler on Charles White, plus a signing for Mary Anne Goley’s recent book John White Alexander: An American Artist in the Gilded Age.
Seventeen exhibitors offered a carefully selected sampling of their specialties, ranging from Nineteenth Century American landscape and genre painting to mid-Twentieth Century abstract paintings, works on paper and sculpture. If the show has a gravitational center, it is early Modernism of the prewar era.
Debra Force Fine Art invoked the Gilded Age with the shimmering “Festa Della Regatta,” a circa 1903 oil on glass over watercolor on paper by John Singer Sargent. The work was an important early sale for the New York dealer, whose priciest offerings included “Mount Lafayette” by Albert Bierstadt, $1.750 million, and “Fog Rainbow” by George Wesley Bellows, $1.6 million.
Another Sargent was for sale at Godel & Co. Fine Art, which featured the artist’s striking 1889 portrait of Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. Another choice work here was the crystalline “View of Blue Mountain Lake” by Levi Wells Prentice.
“The American Art Fair is a very efficient way of seeing people in a short time,” said Eric Baumgartner, director of American paintings and sculpture at Hirschl & Adler Galleries. The New York firm made its own nod to the Gilded Age, hanging the evocative full-length portraits “Sunlight” by John White Alexander, 1909, and “The Goldfish Bowl” by Henry Salem Hubbell, about 1907, within conversational distance of one another. Hirschl & Adler’s important exhibition “The Masters: Art Students League Teachers and their Students,” at the company’s Fuller Building showrooms will conclude December 1. The presentation had been described as a ground-breaking collaboration among Hirschl & Adler, 511 Projects and the institution responsible for training many of America’s most-admired artists.
“Arthur B. Carles was about color, color, color,” said Avery Galleries principal Richard Rossello, directing a visitor to the artist’s molten abstraction “Chamonix” of circa 1912. This work and others in Rossello’s stand were plucked from “Living Color, Modern Life: Hugh Henry Breckenridge and Arthur B. Carles,” the firm’s fall gallery exhibition. A catalog of the same name is available from the Bryn Mawr, Penn., dealer.
Only three exhibitors hailed from beyond Manhattan. One, Nedra Matteucci Galleries of New Mexico, brought a wide selection of paintings and works on paper associated with the Southwest. A highlight was the brilliant village scene in winter “L’Ours Russe (A La Foire)” by Leon Gaspard, a Russian ex-patriot artist who settled in Taos, N.M. Matteucci sold “Blue Mountains, Sunny Day, New Mexico” by Alice Schille, an artist honored with a retrospective exhibition in Matteucci’s Santa Fe gallery this fall.
Another non-New Yorker was Vose Galleries, exhibiting at the American Art Fair for the first time. The Boston dealers showed Jane Peterson’s 1914 oil on canvas “Lure of the Butterfly,” a favorite of curator Cynthia Roznoy’s from her recent traveling exhibition “Jane Peterson: At Home and Abroad.” Vose also unveiled “A Cup of Water,” an unsurpassed sporting view by the Boston painter Frank Weston Benson. As gallery director Carey Vose noted, Edward Cabot Storrow purchased the work from the artist in 1928. Still in its original Philip N. Yates frame, it was acquired by Vose Galleries in 1965 and has been with Carey’s parents since 1985.
“Good material, correctly priced,” said Katherine Degn, explaining the healthy sales enjoyed by Kraushaar Galleries. The firm, which opened as a print gallery in 1885 before switching to American paintings and sculpture, ticketed “Harborscape,” a circa 1948-54 collage on paper by Anne Ryan; “Interior, Setauket,” a 1975 oil on canvas by John Koch; and “Monochrome in Brown,” a circa 1950 oil on Masonite by Esphyr Slobodkina.
Paintings by Esphyr Slobodkina were also on view at Jonathan Boos, where “Red, White and Black” was an early sale, and at Taylor Graham. For those who are unfamiliar with Slobodkina (1908-2002), she was born in Siberia, immigrated to New York City, studied at the National Academy of Design and married Ilya Bolotowsky, from whom she separated in 1935. As Degn observed, “There is great interest in work by American women artists, abstract art and pieces from the 1950s. It’s an area where people have not looked as much, it’s affordable and there is quality.”
Art by women was indeed a central theme of this year’s fair, with D. Wigmore Fine Art even organizing a focused exhibition of work by the fairer sex. Paintings by Sally Michel, who painted alongside her husband Milton Avery, and Doris Lee spanned an entire wall. Across the way hung the long panel painting “Wellfleet” by Lucy L’Engle, 1920, and the 1936 watercolor on paper “A Celebration of Corn” by Elsie Driggs. The latter is a study for a still-extant lobby mural at 165 Seaman Avenue in the Inman section of northern Manhattan.
Of special note was the Henri Rousseau-like painting “Art Students League,” circa 1948, by Lee, an artist for whom the Westmoreland Museum of American Art is organizing a retrospective exhibition for 2020. Observing a figure awkwardly sketched on an easel in Lee’s studio view, Wigmore gallery director Emily Lenz remarked, “We love this little reminder that painting isn’t easy.”
The fair’s breadth was succinctly summarized by Driscoll Babcock Galleries, which began with the rare pre-Civil War Boston genre painting “The Yankee Peddler” by William Tolman Carlton and concluded with the daringly modern “Tamworth, New Hampshire” by colorist E. Ambrose Webster, 1914, and “Autumn Impressional” by Marsden Hartley, circa 1906-08.
“Hartley did about 80 of these early Maine paintings. This one is a wonderful example of his brushwork and is still housed in its original frame,” offered gallery director Kate Kamp, who sold the Hartley pencil study “The Outcropping” of 1908.
Perhaps anticipating Christie’s impending record sale of “Chop Suey” by Edward Hopper, Menconi + Schoelkopf featured the 1920 Hopper drawing for the engraving “Les Deux Pigeons.”
Exhibiting on the show’s mezzanine floor, Thomas Colville urged visitors to inspect two special drawings by Joseph Stella, the circa 1910 “Painters Row as it Stood in the Spring of 1908, Pittsburgh” and “Pittsburgh Steel Mill,” as well as the enchanting Impressionist oil “The Garden” by Mary Louise Fairchild MacMonnies, 1896. Having sold two paintings plus a third work owned jointly with another dealer, and with two more pieces out on approval, Colville pronounced himself pleased with results.
The American Art Fair has another two years’ lease on Bohemian National Hall, with an option to renew after that, so plan to visit this treasure, an essential date in the art world calendar.
The Bohemian National Hall is at 321 East 73rd Street.
For additional information on the American Art Fair go to www.theamericanartfair.com.
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