Art Show at Armory Is Unquestionably-What? A Triumph!

It was difficult to know what could be expected this year from The Art Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. The Art Show is the annual mega-exhibition organized by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) to celebrate the role played by the galleries in the art life of the nation. It is also, of course, a major promotional effort to drum up business, and this year the art market has been sorely in need of as much fanfare as it can get. The downturn in the economy, compounded by the after-effects of Sept. 11, has taken its toll in the art world, just as it has in every other realm of conspicuous consumption. It would therefore have come as no surprise if this year’s Art Show had turned out to be a good deal leaner and meaner than any in the past.

There was also a question as to whether the Seventh Regiment Armory would even be available this year. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the armory was temporarily closed to non-military functions. Fortunately, all of these apprehensions were laid to rest when this year’s show proved to be a triumph when it opened on Feb. 21. As this year also marks the 40th anniversary of the ADAA’s founding, most of the 70 dealers who participated were clearly determined to come on stronger than ever. The result was, without question, the best exhibition in The Art Show ‘s 14-year history.

Whether by accident or design, it was mainly a show of American art, most of it 20th-century. The standard of quality was unusually high, the number of unfamiliar works remarkably ample, and the quotient of far-out, expendable junk the lowest that I can recall seeing in any major survey of this sort. If one didn’t know better, this year’s Art Show might even have led one to believe that the whole “postmodern” ordeal was nothing but a bad dream from which we have now awakened. We should be so lucky.

If this year’s Art Show could be said to have produced a star, the artist who qualified for that distinction was surely the American painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). In booth after booth, there were marvelous Hartley paintings to be seen from virtually every period of the artist’s career. The Berry-Hill, Barbara Mathes, Salander-O’Reilly and Zabriskie galleries all exhibited top-level examples of his work, and the Babcock Galleries, where Hartley has been featured for more years than any of us can now remember, topped off what amounted to an Art Show micro-retrospective with an entire wall devoted to this American master.

In the presence of all these great Hartleys, there was also some buzz about a forthcoming major Hartley retrospective at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., so 2002 might turn out to be Hartley’s year. Who knows? We might even get to see his Evening Storm , one of Hartley’s late masterpieces, which has long been relegated to the Museum of Modern Art’s storerooms. If my recollection is correct, that painting hasn’t been on public view at MoMA since Alfred Barr Jr. retired from the museum in 1967. The last time I saw it was a couple of decades ago, when MoMA lent it to an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

On a much smaller scale, it was also gratifying to see three examples of the art of another American master in this year’s Art Show : Arnold Friedman (1874-1946). For reasons that defy my comprehension, Friedman’s brilliant pictorial oeuvre has remained an unacknowledged aesthetic treasure in the American museum world. Certain museums own examples of his work, to be sure, but they rarely, if ever, exhibit them, and none that I know of has ever mounted an exhibition of his work. He may be the only American master from the period between the two world wars whose work has never been the subject of a major retrospective. The painting called Tugboat (circa 1935) in the Salander-O’Reilly booth, and Park Avenue (circa 1942-46) in the Zabriskie booth, plus Zabriskie’s watercolor of a harbor landscape (circa 1936), were vivid reminders of what the art public has been missing as the result of what amounts to a museum boycott of Friedman’s achievement.

Among the other highlights of The Art Show , one of the most moving for me was the exhibition which Pace-Wildenstein devoted to the work of Saul Steinberg, who died in 1999 at the age of 84. This was, in effect, a memorial exhibition of works from the artist’s estate. Always a master of surprise in his lifetime, Steinberg continues to startle us from the grave. Here the most unexpected picture was a huge landscape with figures called The Tree (1970), which may be the single greatest work the artist produced.

For sheer delight, however, nothing in The Art Show could match the 55 tiny carved and painted wooden figures and houses produced as gifts for family and friends by Lyonel Feininger in the years 1948-52. These have now been tracked down and brought together by Achim Moeller Fine Art to form a single work, Untitled ( City at the Edge of the World ). The tiniest of these objects is barely one and a half inches high, the tallest a mere four inches. Lucky indeed will be the museum that acquires this remarkable feat of visionary craftsmanship.

Still another impressive aspect of The Art Show focused on a survey of lesser-known examples of Abstract Expressionist and Color-field painting. Joan Washburn’s booth was entirely devoted to early, little-known paintings by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and David Smith. Knoedler & Company brought us, among much else, a classic Rothko abstraction from 1956, a major early abstraction by Richard Pousette-Dart- Figure (1944-45)-and a small abstract painting by Ad Reinhardt from 1946. There was also in the Knoedler booth an enchanting early watercolor, Landscape (Nice, France) , by Helen Frankenthaler and a splendid Milton Avery oil, Sketch for Saratoga Lake (1955). Avery, by the way, was another of the American masters whose work seemed to turn up in booth after booth, and every example was a knockout.

The Art Show wasn’t strictly American, however. David Tunick Inc. can always be counted upon to remind us of the Old Masters as well as some modern masters of the print media, and the Tunick booth this year included, in addition to some splendid Rembrandts, a magnificent set of 10 drypoints by Max Beckmann called Der Jahrmarkt (1921).

Was there nothing to complain about, then, in this year’s Art Show ? Sure, but nothing worth mentioning. My only real complaint is not about the art, but about the absence of chairs or benches or something to sit on. Visitors to an exhibition on this physical scale should not be denied some place to rest their weary bones. Except for that, however, the ADAA is to be congratulated for organizing this event so triumphantly, under what must surely have been challenging circumstances. Bravo!