Published: December 13, 2011
Show business in New York is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. A successful event juggles the right combination of management, sponsorship, exhibitors and dates. Suitable venues are as scarce as hen’s teeth. When renovations to the National Academy of Design forced the American Art Fair to find a new home this year, good management turned hardship to advantage.
Under the directorship of Catherine Sweeney Singer, the four-year-old show owned by New York dealers Alexander and Laurel Acevedo in partnership with New York and Connecticut dealer Thomas Colville opened with a by-invitation-only reception at its new venue, Bohemian National Hall, on Sunday evening, November 27. Seriously? To most of us, the busiest travel day of the year seems like a crazy time for a preview, but for buyers and sellers of American art, it works. Opening night was packed.
“We had over 500 people on opening night and they were the right people, a lot of museum curators and directors,” said Colville. Guests included Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Carrie Rebora Barrett, associate director for collections and administration.
The American Art Fair is the first major event of an entire week devoted to the exhibition and sale of American art, preceding not only the biggest auctions of the year, but Just Off Madison, the November 30 open house organized by 12 private dealers in American art. American Art Fair organizers budgeted just enough time before and after the sales for collectors to browse and buy, closing hours after the auctions wrapped up on Thursday, December 1.
On a quiet side street between First and Second Avenues, just two blocks from Sotheby’s, Bohemian National Hall also seems like an unlikely choice. But in the brilliant hands of Daniel Meeker, a Yale-trained set and lighting designer with a long list of theater credits, this year’s fair was an artistic triumph. Increased square footage allowed the show to expand to include 17 of the field’s most prominent members. Exhibitors set up on three adjacent levels, with the third-floor mezzanine providing a clear view of the main trading floor. While a tight fit for sculpture and objects, Bohemian National Hall is a pleasingly intimate and domestic space for paintings and works on paper.
Meeker’s genius was to create a simple but elegant set. He covered hard walls in raw silk and edged them with removable moldings. He limited the palette to Baltic and Mediterranean blue, mauve, pumpkin, silver and gold. Best of all, the sets can be used again next year.
Even with its condensed time format, the American Art Fair produced sales. Jonathan Boos of Michigan and New York got off to a good start with his sale of “Six O’Clock,” Horace Pippin’s 1940 oil on canvas of a mother and child by a hearth. Avery Galleries of Bryn Mawr, Penn., wrote up Charles Prendergast’s “In Paradise,” a mirror enclosed in a frame that the artist decorated with tempera and gold leaf.
The fair showcases traditional American art from the late Eighteenth through mid-Twentieth Century. Emphasizing the breadth of their inventories, exhibitors offered more 300 landscapes, portraits, still lifes and studies, along with a smattering of sculpture. Thomas Colville Fine Art parted with a drawing and five paintings by Metcalf, Dove, Sheeler and Glackens to customers from New York, St Louis, Alabama and the West Coast.
“All my sales took place before the auctions, on opening night or the first day,” said Colville, who helped himself to Winslow Homer’s “Orange trees and Gate,” $1,314,500, at Sotheby’s.
Christie’s set a record for an Oscar Bluemner on November 30 when “New Jersey,” an oil on canvas of 1915, fetched $5.4 million from an anonymous bidder. Dollar for dollar, the Bluemner sold by New York dealer Debra Force at the American Art Fair was the better deal. The specialist marked Bluemner’s striking “In Scarlet and Black,” an oil on panel of 1932, $1.1 million.
“We sold two things, our Bluemner and a Frishmuth sculpture. We had a lot of interest in Cropsey and Bricher and some interest in Frieseke and Kuhn,” said Force.
“We made four sales and every one of them was a Nineteenth Century painting,” said Howard Godel of Godel & Company Fine Art in New York. “If you are not taking about Heade, Cole or Church, Nineteenth Century painting is a very good value for the money right now.”
“We have had a great number of good conversations about our pictures,” said Eric Baumgartner, senior vice president and director of the American art department at Hirschl & Adler in New York. Gallery highlights included Martin Johnson Heade’s “Storm Clouds over the Marshes,” an oil on canvas from the early 1870s, and a circa 1849 Frederic E. Church view. Long thought to depict Hartford, Hirschl & Adler has recently reclassified the painting as a New York scene.
Sculpture was in short supply, a deficit addressed by Conner-Rosenkranz. The New York dealers brought examples of their signature specialty, Nineteenth Century American neoclassical carving in marble, plus works in iron by Samuel Yellin and William Hunt Diederich. One noteworthy example was Diederich and Robert Winthrop Chanler’s collaborative three-part folding screen of wrought and cast iron with decorated wood panels. Dated 1919, it was $175,000.
“The dealers are their own worst enemies sometimes. We should have been organizing this show 20 years ago, but it is better late than never. Most people think that the American Art Fair offered much higher quality than the auctions,” said Howard Godel.
According to Sweeney Singer, the American Art Fair has a five-year lease at Bohemian National Hall, so pencil it into your calendar for next year. As Eric Baumgartner put it, “There are 17 good reasons to visit.”
For additional information, www.theamericanartfair.com or 212-987-5306.
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