Published: October 4, 2011
This year’s USArtists was not a barn burner, but organizers of the September 23′5 show, a leading venue for traditional American painting from the Eighteenth Century through the present, are confident that the blue-chip fair will recover its once prosperous footing.
Organized by the Women’s Board as a fundraiser for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the nation’s oldest art museum and school, USArtists got its start 19 years ago at the 33rd Street Amory. At the height of the market, top dealers made six-figure sales to collectors on opening night, then traded among themselves with their earnings. USArtists moved to the sleek, new Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, adjacent to PAFA’s historic 1876 headquarters near City Hall, last year.
While most participants suspect that the sluggish economy and erratic financial markets are chiefly to blame for the sales slowdown, there were other culprits. For one, USArtists †which debuted on Thursday evening, September 22 †fell earlier in the season. For another, some PAFA patrons may have felt forced to choose between supporting the show and attending the October 1 lighting of Claes Oldenburg’s “Paint Torch,” a 51-foot sculpture marking the start of Philadelphia’s Museum Mile, and PAFA’s accompanying after-party, just one week later. PAFA owes the Women’s Board and USArtists exhibitors better dates and its wholehearted support in the future.
“USArtists has been promised the third weekend of October from next year forward,” said Alicia A. Sterling, who co-chaired USArtists with Diana Bittel. “Otherwise, I’m not sure what more the Women’s Board could have done to make people buy art. Our marketing and promotion effort was thoughtfully conceived. We bought ads in the New York Times , The New Yorker, Conde Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest and Vanity Fair . We were on Facebook and the Phillyfunguide.com. The lights of the PECO Building were even dedicated to us.”
Managed by Karen DiSaia, USArtists sets up on two floors, a mild inconvenience offset by the beauty and intimacy of these elegant spaces. Reflecting PAFA’s dual role as a school and a museum, the top floor of the show emphasized contemporary, if largely traditional, American art. Most of the powerhouse dealers in Impressionist and Modern American art †featuring a breathtaking range of works by Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam and Winslow Homer to Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley and Andrew Wyeth †took booths on the first floor.
“I can’t complain,” said Fraidoon Al-Nakib of F.A.N., a Philadelphia gallery that represents emerging, regional artists, some with ties to PAFA. Al-Nakib’s second-floor display was crammed with canvases, many not more than a few inches large. Before the weekend’s close, F.A.N. sold seven paintings by Al Gury, the head of PAFA’s paintings department, plus nine more by the 28-year-old painter Gregory Prestegord. F.A.N.’s affordably priced pieces range from about $1,500 to $5,000.
At the other end of the price spectrum were “The Pond, Weir Farm” by John Henry Twachtman and “The Red Mill, Cos Cob” at Gavin Spanierman; “Coast of Newport” by Martin Johnson Heade at William Vareika Fine Arts; Maurice Prendergast’s “Bayside, Marblehead” at Gerald Peters Gallery; Joseph Stella’s “Pear on a Plate” and John LaFarge’s “A Boy and His Dog” at Thomas Colville Fine Art; “Sea Birds” by Jamie Wyeth at Jonathan Boos; “Century of Progress (Boardwalk)” by Thomas Hart Benton at Hirschl & Adler Galleries.
Also, “Green Idleness” by Willard Metcalf at Godel & Co. Fine Art; “Massachusetts Infantry” by Childe Hassam at Menconi & Schoelkopf Fine Art; the double-sided “Strike” and “Waiting” by Thomas Hart Benton and “The Artist’s Wife and Child” by William Glackens at John H. Surovek; “Spring Morning, Montmartre” by Childe Hassam at Debra Force Fine Art and J.F. Cropsey’s “Autumn in America” at Questroyal Fine Art.
A smattering of sculpture included assorted works by Elie Nadelman at Tom Veilleux Gallery and Wharton Esherick’s “Sad Sack” at Gerald Peters Gallery.
Some exhibitors mounted special exhibitions. The Cooley Gallery unveiled “Introspect: Faces and Figures in American Art,” a portraiture show that continues at the firm’s Old Lyme, Conn., premises through October 15. Cooley’s sales included John Singer Sargent’s 1921 charcoal on paper portrait of Peyton J. Van Rensselaer, an Anna Elizabeth Klumpke drawing, plus a few other pieces.
“I like USArtists because people are here to look at paintings. Plus, I enjoy seeing my colleagues,” said Jeff Cooley, who also brought portraits by Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase and Thomas Dewing.
Elle Shushan featured a collection of early Twentieth Century portrait miniatures by Evelyn Purdie (1858‱943), a Boston- and Paris-trained artist who was a prominent member of the Pennsylvania Society of Miniature Painters.
“I sold five of my seven Purdies,” said the Philadelphia dealer, who experienced a preshow rush on her website, portrait-miniatures.com.
H.L. Chalfant sold two paintings by Grace Thorpe Gemberling Keast (1903‱997), a PAFA graduate who was one of Philadelphia’s most promising women artists before she stopped painting in 1940 after her marriage to architect Morton Keast. Scott Chalfant studied correspondence and other surviving records to compile Sanely Modern , the catalog to the retrospective exhibition that will open at his West Chester, Penn., gallery in February.
Pennsylvania Impressionism, a reliable seller here most years, was amply represented. Avery Galleries of Bryn Mawr, Penn., built its presentation around “At the Crossroads,” a large, arresting architectural landscape by Philadelphia artist Walter E. Schofield. Gratz Gallery of Doylestown, Penn., featured “Clouds of Evening” by George W. Sotter. Rae Sloan Bredin’s “Summer Symphony” was a highlight at Plymouth Meeting Gallery, Plymouth Meeting, Penn.
Pennsylvania Modernism included “Memories of the Past” by David Burliuk at the Caldwell Gallery, Manlius, N.Y., and “Gloria” by Emlen Pope Etting at Dixon-Hall Fine Art, Phoenixville, Penn. Schwarz Gallery offered “Rain: Spring” by Arthur Meltzer and “Schurs Lane, Manayunk” by Francis Speight.
A dozen USArtists exhibitors also participate in Manhattan’s American Art Fair in late November, a show that has the advantage of dovetailing with the important fall paintings auctions in New York. What USArtists has that competitors do not is crowd-pleasing variety and compelling ties to American artists past and present, more than a few with links to Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is at 128 North Broad Street. For information, 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org .
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