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Imagine getting dressed up in a jacket and tie or a dress suit to purchase albaster swans. Well, when one comes from a certain socioeconomic class, I suppose there is an unwritten protocol to these sort of shopping excursions to the Park Avenue Armory. Each year I attend the TEFAF New York fine and decorative art fair, I’m reminded of how much social status is codified in the style of dress of the majority of the patrons (and sales people): in the Park Avenue location itself, in the amenities available (which include an oyster bar) in the wares for sale, which include precious objects, from old master paintings to classical statuary to medieval armory, jewelry, and those aforementioned swans. Most seem to follow the protocol that stratifies the distinctions between old and new money (and no money to speak of), though once or twice I see a pair of causal trousers, elasticized at the ankles, on a man wearing a jacket but no tie.
Much of the fair is taken up with various bits of design clothed as fine art, but that is too gilded and decorative for my taste, even when it’s attempting to look modern, such as Onaga Tomatsu’s “framed lacquer panel with various fish” (nd) which is a layered, cubist take on fish that makes the entire scene into a kind of twisted parquet floor pattern. It’s the kind of piece that looks expensive while being intellectually poor.
The fair is much more interesting to me when I find the older, pre-modern painting work that succeeds, particularly in the portraiture, in constructing a scene that, while wholly invented, is emotionally convincing. Pieces like “The Head of Medusa” (ca. 1617–18) from the studios of Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders — which shows the cut-off head on the ground with a stunned expression stamped on her features, and the writhing, conglomeration of snakes beginning turn on each other — make the ancient story seem true. They “give to reality to greater permanence of the imagined” as the poetry critic Alfred Alvarez said of Sylvia Plath’s last collection. Leonardo Coccorante’s “Architectural Capricci, a pair” (1730) is a landscape that depicts a set of ruins; while ramshackle, they still look glorious, and it helps that the painting is so large I felt that I could walk into it.
Among the modernist painting offerings are some favorites I will always walk a mile to see, such as the couple of oddly colored nudes by Egon Schiele I found at the Galerie Sanct Lucas stand. I also appreciated the few pieces that used some pre-modern character arrangements in modern settings, such as Dean Cornwell’s “Interior with Two Figures” (nd) which has an older man with one shoe off, a sour expression and a glass in his hand and a younger woman with Dante Rossetti lips seemingly waiting for life to happen. It reads as the macho artist with his muse, but the apartment is dilapidated and the romance is gone.
The TEFAF fair continues to be a place that looks to overwhelm with its opulence and wealth signification. But besides that, it lets me glimpse some connections between art historical eras that I might otherwise miss.