The Ocean Swells: In the Pink at the Palm Beach Fair

Palm Beach is 90 minutes from South Beach by way of Highway I-95. But it is also, of course, a world away, at least a generation away, and it inhabits a whole different universe of shapes, sounds and colors. The colors of South Beach, for example–derived from the once superhot architectural outfit Arquitectonica via a magazine cover featuring Miami Vice–are turquoise, salmon and polar-whiteout white. But the colors of Palm Beach, whether on country club pants or restaurant walls, are, eternally, pink and green.

I had arrived in Palm Beach for the American International Fine Art Fair, and I was keen to see whether it also inhabited a parallel world of art.

A discreet eyeballing of the groups circumnavigating the plush aisles told me: You bet! “I saw Missy Saks in a sable coat, the jewelry coming out like this. She’s the chicest 90-year-old you ever saw,” an elfin woman with a buzz of blond hair shrieked in my ear. “This is the anti-Art Basel,” somebody else explained as we walked through a human underbrush of patterny silks. Indeed, bald men in black and/or Hugo Boss were woefully thin on the ground. Here,  the bald men wore startling paisley.

In the upper echelons of the contemporary art world, there are the Fab Four art fairs, namely the Armory, Frieze and the twin Basels. They are the world’s mega-galleries, and everything hung within their white boxes is having its profile sleekly raised. It’s up to you, the audience, to judge whether the talent is up to the billing. The experience of traipsing around the American International Fine Art Fair was different.

Think here of a clubbier Maastricht, with books, antiquities and furniture alongside the art, the whole thing massed together with a jewelry smackdown. Graff, for instance, had a miniature version of the stately enclosure that Cartier has at Basel, plus there was Van Cleef & Arpels, Veronique Bamps, David Webb and David Morris. Much like a trio of sterling silver furry orangutans for sale in the Buccelatti booth, Palm Beach, it seemed, sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil–if that evil is recession.

“Last year it was a complete disaster,” confided Wilhelm Grusdat of Galerie Terminus, although he blamed bad weather more than the region’s hangover from Bernie Madoff. This year, with wares brought from Munich including a Gerhard Richter abstraction, a Fernand Leger and a couple of small John Chamberlains, “it has been been very good. People here are liquid,” he said approvingly. He indicated a young German artist, Jan Davidoff. “We brought 11 paintings. We sold every one.”

The experience of fair-going can become somewhat like wandering around a very upper-crust thrift store. I had just missed seeing somebody cart off a gray velvet sofa that seated 16, which New York’s mid-century Modernist Todd Merrill had just sold for $50,000. Gone to somebody with fragrant memories of the party pits of disco days, perhaps? “I have seen a total change in what people want to live with. They understand glamour,” Mr. Merrill said.

There were also suits of armor at Peter Finer of Duke Street, Mayfair. I don’t recall seeing arms and armor at the Big Four, but their appeal is understandable in a community where the drawbridge is raised, not lowered, during a hurricane event. Redmond Finer showed me an impressive suit of jousting armor with an added circle of protective metal riveted around the heart. “Two and a half million dollars,” he said.

How were they doing? “We’ve just had the best trip to the United States we’ve ever had.”

I was delighted to see the neglected Frank Horvat shown at Worth Avenue’s Holden Luntz Gallery, which was also showing John Dugdale, a photographer of whom I had never heard. “We’ve done very well with [him],” Mr. Luntz said. “He’s blind in one eye and 85 percent blind in the other.”

There was also no shortage of academic art, including plenty of blameless, if aimless, work by what I shall politely call Post-Post-Post-Impressionists. None of it lacked admirers. “It’s unbelievable!” said a grande dame, examining a canvas by one Adolphe Lesrel (1877). “Look at that green velvet chair.”

So on to the Modern and contemporary. Approving clumps of people were scrutinizing easy-on-the-eye Modernists like Raoul Dufy and easy-on-the-eye Popsters like Tom Wesselman. Other choices were more unlikely for Palm Beach. I saw a brutally fine Philip Guston, Nixon in Key Biscayne, in which the late president was looking unusually penile. But the dealer was stuck in confab with a collector. So I was never able to find out how this unsunny image had fared in this most instinctively Republican of towns.