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When I walked into the second spring edition of TEFAF New York, I was immediately impressed by the air conditioning. After spending the previous day wading through Frieze New York in a pool of my own sweat due to some incorrectly installed air vents that had turned the fair’s complex of white tents into a veritable greenhouse, I felt like I was in the lap of luxury as the Park Avenue Armory’s perfectly calibrated 72-degree air surrounded my salty skin. TEFAF, though, is all about that luxe lifestyle, and a working cooling system is only the tip of this iced-out iceberg.
The illustrious Netherlands-based fair got its start in Maastricht 30 years ago and has since become known as “the” fair for serious (read: exceptionally wealthy and mostly white) art collectors. In 2016, it launched its first New York event at the Park Avenue Armory, a fall edition dedicated to classical art, before instituting a spring iteration last May focusing on modern and contemporary art and design. Unlike most art fairs, each of the 90 exhibiting galleries is subject to a scrutinous vetting process by 50 connoisseurs armed with spy-like tools to ensure dealers are showing only top-notch, fully authenticated work by some of the biggest names in art history.
This year’s edition features two dozen new galleries, including many New York–rooted dealers like Marian Goodman, Matthew Marks, and Gladstone Gallery. This influx of US galleries marks a change in TEFAF’s heavily European trajectory, to the chagrin of some stalwarts. Yet the offerings remain largely the same even if the dealers are different — modern painting tends to dominate the spring fair, and there is also a healthy smattering contemporary canvases alongside sculptures, antiquities, design objects, and jewelry. The fair also boasts monumental tulip arrangements to inspire a sense of the natural sublime as you appreciate the cultural elegance around you, plush carpeting rolling through the entirety of the building to caress your designer footwear as you stroll, open bars installed in every aisle to quench your insatiable thirst, a regular smorgasbord of snacks served every few hours to stave off hanger, and a roving oyster shucker to remind you that there’s nothing quite like fresh seafood on demand to fuel your aesthetic appetite.
I don’t take umbrage with any of TEFAF’s ostentatious finery because I think it may be one of the few art fairs that’s sincere and transparent in its mission: to sell art to the one percent without revising the historical canon or aiming for accessibility. Unlike many other mainstream fairs, it has no interest in creating curated sections spotlighting emerging artists and upstart galleries, or offering booths to non-profits at a discount to help it build its brand as a benevolent crusader of wokeness on the front lines of a whitewashed, insular art world. TEFAF strives instead to be an Eden for collectors, where the only sin that will get you cast out of the garden is questioning the historical and economic status quo.
I was alerted to this holy edict at the gates to art fair paradise yesterday, two booths flanking the entrance to the event. One was Gagosian showing John Currin’s pretty but tired buxom lady portraiture. The other was Helly Nahmad Gallery presenting a 1920s Golden Age exhibition, in which all of the artists are male: Picasso, Ernst, Léger, Calder, Míro — you know, the “whole” gang, if you choose to believe these few men were responsible for the entirety of worthwhile artistic production of the era. I steeled myself to be disappointed but unsurprised by TEFAF’s lack of inclusivity of both women and minorities.
But then a funny thing happened. As I strolled through the aisles, the sole of my Nikes bouncing on the cushy carpet, I started to feel, well, excited by what I was seeing. That undoubtedly had more to do with the second glass of free wine in my hand than any kind of sea change in the market’s taste — which remains heavily skewed given that 96% of artworks sold at auction are by male artists, a point unabashedly reflected at this fair. I had to reconcile that I would never find the kind of value I was seeking at TEFAF, even amid all these expensive, expert-vetted works. But my improved mood and paradisiacal experience helped me envision my own little utopia, one that suggested a certain sanctity of equality in the arts where I might walk into a fair and see works by women and artists of color as often as I saw something half as interesting by their male peers.
With this happy picture in mind, I decided to manifest it for myself by zeroing in on these works where I could find them. As far as artists of color go, there are only a few featured at TEFAF, most of whom hail from Mexico and South America. León Tovar Gallery is offering a robust sampling of Latin American modernism featuring works by Venezuelan avant-gardists Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto, Colombian artist Jorge Riveros, and Argentina-based Manuel Espinosa. Galería Sur’s eye-catching orange booth boasts paintings by Hélio Oiticica and Alfredo Volpi. I only spied one work by a Latin American woman, a small, abstract, geometric collage that looks like a map of moon cycles by the pioneering Cuban modernist Loló Soldevilla, in Sean Kelly’s booth.
But there are some strong standouts on the female front. Although Gladstone has promoted its new sculptures by Andrew Lord, the colorful abstract paintings with bold black lines by Amy Sillman lining the booth’s walls lured me in. Despite suffering a bit of Yayoi Kusama fatigue recently, I was excited to see one of her white infinity nets holding its own between a Richard Serra and an Alexander Calder (among an entire booth of other works by men) in Stellan Holm Gallery’s booth. I’ll even throw the bronze cat-head statuettes of the Ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet on view in the Phoenix Ancient Art booth into my unexpected favorites, because a little appreciation for the divine feminine (and feline) never hurt anyone.
It was somewhere around the gratuitous dim sum snack station that I found myself truly bowled over by a wildly entrancing assemblage in the shape of a woman comprised of newspaper papier-mâché, lace, wool, plastic baby figurines, and spider webs from 1964 by Niki de Saint Phalle at Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois. And Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts’ display of the wonderfully witchy paintings from the turn of the last century by Agnes Pelton set my heart aflutter and my camera phone on the fritz. Her figures are very darkly hued against inky backgrounds with nuanced palettes, making them impossible to capture with anything but the naked eye.
Having found my icons in the temple of wealth that is TEFAF, I felt at least a little redeemed while I luxuriated in all of its capitalist ritualism. And when I overheard a woman berating the waitstaff for being out of shrimp shumai, I felt blessed enough to be able to leave it all behind.
The spring 2018 edition of TEFAF New York continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 8.