Published: January 27, 2009
Sanford Smith’s 17th annual Outsider Art Fair returned this year to a new home the midtown Mart at 7 West 34th Street and a new date, January 9.
For 16 years, the show occupied the Puck Building downtown and was conducted during the latter weeks of January. But when the “funky” Puck, once home to Spy magazine, took on a second act as a catering hall and restaurant, Smith was prompted to relocate the fair to the Mart’s 11th floor. It was not a stab in the dark. This new art show facility housed Volta NY, the contemporary art boutique show, in March 2008 and is owned by the Merchandise Mart of Chicago, which produces Art Chicago, the Chicago International Antiques Fair, the Armory Show at the New York Pier and others.
Situated just across from the Empire State Building, the venue affords easy access from all 34th Street subway stations: one block from Herald Square, a few blocks from Penn Station and a short trip from Grand Central Station or Port Authority.
The quirky Puck layout was replaced by a well-lighted space measuring 17,000 square feet, permitting larger, more uniform booths for exhibitors. And although the show was perched 11 floors up from street level, five high-speed elevators brought visitors directly to the show floor from the building’s lobby. According to show management, that number totaled more than 4,800 collectors who filled the show floor with an enthusiastic buzz over the fair’s three-day run, among them celebrities like Glenn Close, Edie Falco and Lucy Liu, as well as musicians Lou Reed and Jake Sheers.
Bringing together works created by artists outside the conventions of traditional art outsider, primitive, self-taught, visionary and intuitive are some of the genre’s labels this year’s fair featured 34 dealers, many longtime favorites. A preview on January 8 benefited the American Folk Art Museum, which also offered well-attended lectures and tours over the weekend.
More than 20 years ago, a work from one of the featured artists like the now iconic Bill Traylor sold for about $50. The stickers on many of the works at this year’s show some in the six figures pointed to the growing desirability and value of this art form, despite a flash-frozen economic landscape that is serving to rationalize prices across the art world. Several dealers participating in the show indicated that they were pleasantly surprised at their results.
Carl Hammer, the Chicago gallerist, was among those who had approached the show with apprehension. “There seemed to be many obstacles that the show would have to overcome, namely, the changes in venue, time of the month and greatest of all the state of the economy,” said Hammer. “I must say that the show pleasantly exceeded my expectations on all three fronts. Sales were strong, the crowds omnipresent and the purse strings opened up. We had a well-balanced performance from almost every artist whose work we brought to the show. Most notable were, perhaps, Lee Godie and Stephen Palmer, but we had successful results with just about every artist we had on display.”
Palmer (1882), who prolifically produced some 400 visionary gouache paintings on paper, mostly of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, was in visual stereo showcased at both Hammer Gallery and at Ricco/Maresca directly across the aisle. The two galleries in fact were collaborating to present the first solo exhibition of the work by this artist who was driven by an obsessive-compulsive mysticism.
Laurie Carmody Ahner, president of Galerie Bonheur, said her favorite sale of the weekend was “The Women of Darfur” by Mary F. Whitfield. “It will be a wedding gift to two American doctors who are giving their lives over to helping the victims of genocide in Africa,” she said. “I also sold a marvelous drawing by Craig R Norton of Martin Luther King to a nice gentleman from Washington D.C., and several joy-filled images by Amos Ferguson of the Bahamas.”
Other returning exhibitors included Jennifer Pinto Safian of New York City, showcasing several works on paper by Swiss artist Aloise Corbaz, a governess who was institutionalized for schizophrenia yet depicted in her works a fantasy world where a “Prince Charming” with whom she was in love took her to the opera, balls and other festive events. “It took me many years to gather the works I had in my booth, as most are in museums or in private collections and rarely sold,” recounted Safian.
“Visitors were very excited to see works by Aloise and to have the opportunity to acquire one, since up to now they mostly knew her through books or museum exhibitions.” One other highlight of Safian’s weekend was selling a large ink drawing by Madge Gill to “an important collector of Modern art who will hang it next to a Calder mobile or other masters of the Twentieth Century.”
Marion Harris was one of the show’s charter exhibitors marking a 17th year of participation. In addition to her trademark booth filled with her collection of Morton Bartlett dolls and artwork, the New York City dealer introduced the work of Jerry Coker, an emerging self-taught artist from the South whose “Identity Masks” made of wood and metal record the people in his life and whose “Animal Farm” sculptures capture the essence of barnyard creatures.
“The show went well for just about everybody,” said Harris, contacted a few days after the event. “The gate was good, high energy and sales across the board. We sold several Kevin House pieces, along with Jerry Coker Identity Masks and lots of animals from his new series, ‘Animal Farm.’ And David Marshall stone carvings were popular with new collectors. Also, Morton Bartlett continues to find interest and sales from Outsider and contemporary collectors.”
The Ames Gallery, Berkeley, Calif., exhibited a collection of paintings by Ursula Barnes. At preview, however, gallery director Bonnie Grossman’s homemade toffeed almonds were drawing almost as many “ahhs” as the assembled artwork. “I probably would have done well to package them and sell them, rather than give them out,” said Grossman. Sales were slow for her and her husband, Sy, but she noted great interest in the extraordinary renderings of A.G. Rizzoli and her newest acquisition of works by Barnes. Born in Germany, Barnes (1872) moved to San Francisco when she was about 20 years old. Her colorful personal history included stints as a dancer in New York City, a parlor maid in Chicago, the wife of an itinerant evangelist (she was widowed at an early age), and, finally, a pastry chef in San Francisco.
Her artwork, full of theatrically costumed characters, never received any attention during her lifetime, but after she died, her canvases were found by the San Francisco County coroner. Her painting “Cat and a Ball on the Waterfall” was the inspiration for, and the title of, an exhibit in 1986 at the Oakland Museum that surveyed 200 years of California folk painting and sculpture.
New galleries in the fair included Fountain Gallery, New York City, an established showcase for artists with mental illness, Sue and George Viener, Outsider Folk Art Gallery, Reading, Penn., showing the works of Purvis Young and other established and emerging artists, and Lindsay Gallery, Columbus, Ohio, which, according to owner Duff Lindsay, was “warmly received by collectors that we knew and by many who were new to us.” Lindsay reported strong sales across the board from blue chip artists like Joseph Yoakum to contemporary self-taught artists like Karl Mullen.
There was a lot of interest in the eerie handcrafted dolls by Amber Groome, which, voodoolike, provided in the artist’s words, “a testimony to the trauma and sorrow of being female and living with mental illness.” “One sale that was notable was a sandstone carving of a dog 18 by 18 by 7 inches, circa 1968 by Ernest ‘Popeye’ Reed,” said Lindsay. “The sale was particularly notable because the American Folk Art Museum’s lecture series at the fair included a talk on him, which I think raised his profile among serious collectors.”
For first-time exhibitor Fountain Gallery, a Manhattan not-for-profit cooperative that exhibits works by artists with mental illness, the fair provided a pleasant experience, according to director Jason Bowman. “The change in venue was great and the crowd seemed to have sustained itself,” reported Bowman. “While some of our artists have participated in the fair with other galleries in previous years, this is the first year that we have had our own booth and were welcomed warmly as one of a select number of not-for-profit galleries that work with artists that have mental disabilities. We represented about 50 artists from around the country, which included Fountain Gallery member and visiting artists.”
Sales were respectable, added Bowman, including a $1,900 sale from the late Dick Lubinsky whose collection is being admired by other dealers in the field as well as the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. Artists Keith Pavia and Gary Hilsen, two living Fountain Gallery artists, sold a number of pieces at the fair and currently have pieces in the gallery’s current show “Outta Sight: Artists Outside the Mainstream,” which runs until February 25.
The Outsider Art Fair was upbeat and pleasantly successful for us,” said George Viener. “There was great interest in the historic, earliest works of master Outsider artist Purvis Young of Overtown, Miami, Fla. Among major sales was an early Jon Serl, a Carl McKenzie Adam and Eve carving and a bejeweled found object Boxer sculpture by nationally recognized ‘Philadelphia Dumpster Diver’ Leo Sewell, whose work is included in many museum and private collections.”
Gilley’s Gallery, Baton Rouge, La., showed tin and wood constructions by David Butler, while Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York City, put its selections of works by Martin Ramirez and Stephen Palmer front and center. Show management pointed out that Clementine Hunter’s “Abstract Face” at Gilley’s Gallery sold the Friday it appeared in a New York Times review. Ricco/Maresca Gallery sold three Martin Ramirez paintings, each one in the low- to mid-six-figure range, as well as many paintings by other artists, including Ben Hotchkiss. Frank Maresca said, “We came in with very low expectations and went out with one of the best shows we’ve done in years.”
The next Sanford Smith event is Works on Paper, scheduled to take place for the 21st year at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street, February 27. For information, www.sanfordsmith.com or 212-777-5218.
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