Photo Essays

At Spring Masters, a Glimpse of Precious Artworks Before They Change Hands

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Entrance to Spring Masters at the Park Avenue Armory (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Spring Masters fair preview welcomed its visitors on Thursday night with vases full of fresh magnolias, live classical music, and flutes of champagne. At the entrance, a Victorian globe is luminously displayed in the Ronald Phillips booth. Also prominently nearby is the booth of ProjectArt, an organization that offers arts classes in public libraries in neighborhoods where the public schools lack arts education. It’s asking fair visitors to purchase student-made artworks for $50 a piece. Each time a work is sold, a postcard replica is placed into one of the 200 frames delineated on a wall; once all are filled, ProjectArt will be able to open a branch in Red Hook, an area in need. On the occasion of the fair, the organization published a satirical newspaper titled The Future Observer, whose lead story reveals a crisis of empty contemporary art museums across the US:

Beginning in the early 2000’s, funding for arts education in US public schools began to be systematically cut. By the year 2050, contemporary art museums across the nation began struggling to acquire new work, while losing existing work to collectors and to buyouts by larger historic museums. 

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Front cover of ProjectArt’s ‘The Future Observer’

The story is at once a bold attack on and savvy plea to the Spring Masters audience — one that is very rich and willing to invest in art. Visitors here are asking gallerists, “What are your best things or most expensive things? Or are those separate things?” One woman casually remarked to a friend, “It was empty today at Sotheby’s,” while removing the rabbit fur coat that she was trying “to play down.”

As I meandered through the Rafael Viñoly–designed booths, brimming with works spanning from antiquity to the present, the phrase “losing existing work to collectors” echoed in my mind. From the Ecuadorian Caspicara’s Baroque sculptures of “The Four Souls in Purgatory” to the French Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy’s gouaches of bright, organic patterns to a 1st-century CE Roman ring depicting a crab, the selections here are, indeed, masterful — and, as I would later be assured, masterfully hidden from view.

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“Ring with Cameo Depicting Crab” (Roman, 1st century CE), gold, sardonyx, at Phoenix Ancient Art
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Manuel Chily (aka Caspicara) “The Four Souls of Purgatory” (18th century), polychrome wood, at Colnaghi

There are plenty of familiar-looking works by recognizable names, including multiple paintings by Fernando Botero, Andy Warhol prints, and Picasso sketches of women and birds. But, much like my recent experience at the ADAA Art Show, I saw a number of works I wouldn’t have normally associated with their authors. One of the highlights is the Didier Ltd. booth, which is showing jewelry pieces by the likes of Alberto Giacometti, Wifredo Lam, Jesus Raphael Soto, and Sonia Delaunay. My favorites included Salvador Dalí’s “Persistence and Sound” earrings, each shaped as a small telephone; a gold “Self-portrait” ring by Marisol; and an Yves Klein pendant of a Venus covered in the artist’s distinct, arresting blue pigment.

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Salvador Dalí’s “Persistence & Sound” earrings at Didier Ltd.
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Marisol’s “Self-Portrait” and a Jean/Hans Arp necklace at Didier Ltd.
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Yves Klein, “Petite Venus Bleu” (1956) at Didier Ltd.

I was eagerly taking photos of art in another booth, until I was stopped by a gallerist. When he asked for whom I was doing so, and I replied Hyperallergic, he declared, “I don’t want you blogging my art.” A woman working at the booth shook her head at me with disapproval. The man explained that he didn’t want photos to circulate because they create “familiarity” and then “no one wants the work anymore.” Heaven forbid the plebeians get to see “his” art! He demanded I delete the photos from my phone. When I showed him the pictures I took — solely three — he decided, hopefully out of embarrassment, to “allow” me to keep them.

Part of the appeal of fairs is the chance to see art before it slips forever from view into the private hands of a collector. And, as it turns out, it can be both the gallerist’s and the client’s desire to keep that viewing window as small as possible. It seems the risks of the present are many. We’re not investing enough in our young artists — when I exited the fair, there were some 20 postcards hanging on ProjectArt’s walls — and there are rich people who think it’s their job to shield precious historical art from the public.

Below are photographs of some of the works I most enjoyed. Please share them widely.

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Installation view of Cahn Gallery
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Phoenix Ancient Art display
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The Master AE (c. 1474–1518), “The Epitaph of Georg von Schleinitz: Ecce Homo – Pilate Showing Christ to the People, with the von Schleinitz Family below as donors,” oil and gold on canvas
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Helmet at Cahn Gallery
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Jewels at the Richters booth
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A plate by Jean Cocteau at Sylvia Powell
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Raoul Dufy, “Come D’abondance,” gouache, at John Martin Gallery
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Franz Hagenauer, nickel-plated brass, enamel (design 1930s, later execution) at Kunsthandel Kolhammer
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“Arm of an Equestrian” (Graeco-Roman, 1st BC–2nd century CE), gilded bronze, at Phoenix Ancient Art
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Constantin Brancusi, “Study for Baroness R.F.” (c.1908) at Osborne Samuel

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George Luks, a letter to Robert Henri, “Happy New Year 1903.” An excerpt reads: “How are you?–went over to Brooklyn / The exhibition was very / fine [?]. – I tell you my boy / you’ll fool those dam [sic] pink & white idiots before / they know where there [sic] at.”
Spring Masters continues at the Park Avenue Armory (Park Avenue at E 67th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 9.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated ProjectArt held its classes in public schools. ProjectArt holds classes in public libraries. This has been fixed. 

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