Cézanne, Dürer for Sale

When does an art-world promotion become a respected art-world tradition? Maybe when it enters upon its second decade with a record of delivering the goods. This is pretty much what has happened to The Art Show , the annual exhibition extravaganza organized by the Art Dealers Association of America at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. This year’s show, in which 64 dealers participated, was the 11th in the series, and certainly showed no falling-off in quality. It was a good show.

This is not to say it was lacking in the usual quantity of duds, absurdities and overrated mediocrities, some of them bearing famous names. It was amusing, for example, to see Frank Stella’s latest wall contraptions–polychrome constructions desperately aspiring to the condition of sculpture–more or less sidelined in a booth that attracted few visitors during the press preview I attended. As a visiting English acquaintance said to me at the preview: “No one in America seems to be interested in Frank anymore.” That is fairly amazing when you consider that he was talking about an artist who has been the subject of not one but two major retrospective exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.

There were inevitably other evidences of fallen reputations in The Art Show , but the main action was in blue-chip stocks, so to speak, and these ranged from the art of the Old Masters to some really extraordinary examples of 20th-century modernism. Top honors in both categories must go to the display mounted by David Tunick Inc., which included, among other treasures, several prints by the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer–one of them, Melancholia (1514), foolishly deaccessioned by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth a dozen years ago. (Why do great art museums do such nutty things?) Modern German art was represented there by a rare Franz Marc woodcut, The Riding School After Ridinger (1913), a classic in the Blaue Reiter style.

Even more compelling, in some respects, were the two color prints by Paul Cézanne from the 1890’s, a Large Bathers and a Small Bathers . The latter is from the collection of the late Paul Sachs, in his day (the early decades of the century) our greatest connoisseur of fine prints, who presided for many years over the program in connoisseurship at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. It was to the wall in the Tunick booth containing the Cézanne prints, flanked by superb examples of Bonnard, Vuillard and Munch, with the Franz Marc woodcut in the lower right corner, that I found myself returning most often in this year’s Art Show .

For connoisseurs of early 20th-century Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism, however, the principal draw was the Rachel Adler Fine Art booth. This was at times a little like visiting a miniature version of the Paris-Moscow exhibition organized at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris in 1979, with its juxtapositions of works by well-known French artists and lesser-known members of the Russian avant-garde. There was a knockout painted-wood-and-iron abstract Relief (1922) by the Russian artist Natan Altman, which, if I remember correctly, I first saw in the Russian avant-garde exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1980. Even more astonishing was the Dada Assemblage (La Danseuse) (1920) by another Russian avant-gardist, Yuri Annenkov. The School of Paris was represented with a marvelous watercolor Nature Morte (1922) by Fernand Léger, sculpture by Henri Laurens and a delightful drawing, Intérieure (1921), by Roger de La Fresnaye.

Elsewhere in The Art Show , the School of Paris was well represented in the C&M Arts booth with a wonderful portrait of a woman by Bonnard and a great Matisse drawing. (It was a little unkind, however, to include a big drawing by Jasper Johns, from his Seasons series, within viewing distance of the Matisse, for it only served to remind connoisseurs of drawing that Mr. Johns has never been much of a draftsman, especially in his rare attempts at drawing the figure.) Again in the School of Paris category, there was one major Cubist painting in the Jan Krugier booth–Picasso’s Femme à la Mandoline (Mme. Léonie Assise) (1911).

There was a lot of exceptionally fine American painting in the show, too–the Milton Averys and the single marvelous picture by Richard Pousette-Dart, recently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Knoedler & Company booth; a brilliant late watercolor-gouache, Brook Song Echoing (1950-59), by Charles Burchfield, in the Kraushaar Galleries booth; and a Childe Hassam, Manhattan at Sunset (1911), in the Tibor de Nagy Gallery booth. There were also rare examples of the wood sculpture of Elie Nadelman in both the booths of Berry-Hill Galleries and Salander-O’Reilly Galleries.

If all of this makes The Art Show sound a little like a posh flea market for the 1990’s economic boom–well, that is what The Art Show felt like this year, and I see nothing wrong with that. After all, if you prefer looking at a lot of overpriced bad art, you can always take a taxi to the Chelsea galleries and have your taste for the worst fully satisfied.

As for what commended itself for the title of worst painting in this year’s Art Show , I would have to say that there were few rivals to compete with Jörg Immendorff’s Surrealist Tribunal I , a huge farce of a painting that dominated the Michael Werner Gallery booth. Described as “a complex pastiche of Surrealism” that claims to subvert “the system that has canonized” the Surrealist masters, it only succeeded in reminding us of the follies of postmodernist gamesmanship.

As for the follies of the art market, they too were inevitably much in evidence in The Art Show this year. In that department, it came as something of a shock that a set of six snapshot-size photos taken by the late David Smith of his own sculptures–photos that Smith himself certainly did not consider part of his artistic oeuvre–were on offer at The Art Show at a price far higher than it would have cost to buy any of these sculptures at the time the pictures were taken.

Still, the show as a whole was very well done.

The Art Show closed on Feb. 22.