American Upstarts Harley, Homer, Ault Dominate at Armory

Of the many large-scale art fairs I’ve slogged my way through, both in this country and abroad, for more years than I care to recount, the one that has consistently given me the most pleasure is the annual Art Show organized here in New York by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) in the labyrinthine space of the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. And I am happy to report that this year’s Art Show-the 16th-was one of the best yet.

The only thing to be said against the ADAA fair is that it will, alas, already have closed by the time this column rolls off the press. The tenure of the Art Show is brief-this year, a mere five days (Feb. 19-23). It cannot be otherwise, I suppose, given the logistics of the fair, with some 70 dealers from across the country mounting individual exhibitions of their most highly prized objects in a temporary space.

I am not myself a big fan of art fairs-all too often, the ratio of quality to dross leaves much to be desired. I long ago gave up on the Venice Biennale, where the acres of national pavilions have so often been dominated by the kind of puffed-up reputations that only politically appointed cultural bureaucrats can truly admire; and nothing in the world could induce me to revisit the lugubrious São Paulo Bienal-does it still exist?-where, as I vividly recall, the combined discomforts of merciless heat, urban squalor and the odor of manure (in an aging structure otherwise devoted to agricultural fairs) have left in my memory a far more emphatic impression than most of the art.

I may be guilty of cultural chauvinism in preferring the Art Show, yet it is, in fact, the only international fair I’ve seen in which the glories of American art are exhibited on an appropriate scale. Moreover, the sheer quality and diversity of American art is all the more impressive when seen, as it is at the ADAA show, under the same roof with so many European masterworks. (In the latter category, however, nothing could compete with the selection of Old Master prints, especially the Rembrandt etchings, shown by David Tunick Inc.)

As for modern European art, the single most impressive entry in this year’s Art Show for me was the enchanting group of drawings, prints and paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard organized by the Jill Newhouse Gallery. Two small paintings by Bonnard- The Artist and Marthé in the Bedroom (1898) and Le Port de Saint-Tropez (1921)-were outstanding. But once again, the nearly complete absence of anything significant from the contemporary art scene in Paris was striking-and slightly depressing. As a friend of mine remarked: If you ask anyone to name the five most important painters in Paris today, you are likely to be met with a blank stare. And New York’s romance with the German Neo-Expressionist painters seems pretty much over, too.

Whether by accident or design, however, it was the American art in this year’s show that commanded the lion’s share of attention. Straightaway upon entering the armory installation, one encountered the Pace Wildenstein Gallery’s survey of tabletop polychrome sculptures by John Chamberlain, who has brought a new vitality to the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic with these small-scale gems of chromatic invention. And these could be seen to have an interesting relation to the early small-scale drawings and paintings by Jackson Pollock a few steps away in the Washburn Gallery’s booth.

Among the earlier masterpieces of American art, some of the most notable were Marsden Hartley’s brilliant Flower Still Life (1932) and Winslow Homer’s sensational watercolor called Young Woman (1880) in the Berry-Hill Gallery’s booth, and the Richard York Gallery’s rarely seen landscape by Fitz Hugh Lane called The Annisquam River Looking Toward Ipswich Bay (1848). The York Gallery also exhibited an unusual painting, Reginald Marsh’s cityscape Lower Manhattan (1929). We are too often inclined to pigeonhole Marsh’s work: He is not, after all, only a painter of not-very-attractive women shoppers.

Still another sensational American painting was the Zabriskie Gallery’s Arnold Friedman work, Skier, Island Pond, Vermont (circa 1930′s), the only winter scene I know of by this artist. Another knockout was Zabriskie’s Autumn Landscape (1937) by George Ault, an artist still woefully underrated-a situation that may be about to change when the gallery mounts its solo exhibition of Ault’s work.

Among the more recent examples of American art, I was especially taken with Leigh Behnke’s painting called The Paradox of Infinite Regression (1999), a virtuosic pastiche of Futurism, Cubism and Realism executed with consummate skill, from the Fischbach Gallery; and Nancy Hagin’s dazzling oversize watercolor, Lucky Ten (2003), also from Fischbach.

If you had the misfortune of missing the Art Show this year, the obvious thing to do is make sure you don’t miss it next year. Meanwhile, of course, you might be able to track down some of the works I have mentioned here in the galleries that exhibited them-those works, that is, that remain unsold.