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It’s one thing to hear about the oyster shuckers who roam the Park Avenue Armory during TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair) New York’s VIP preview; it’s another thing entirely to see a hoard of one-percenters sloshing on shellfish and champagne in front of several Picasso paintings.
Such is life for the luxe elites who crowded into the Upper East Side drill hall for the third spring edition of the Netherland-based fair, which continues to capitalize on its reputation for conspicuous consumption. Not that anybody looks like they’re actually ingesting anything; everyone looks like varying degrees of Jane Fonda and Robert Redford: golden children in a gilded hall.
Which is also to say up front that TEFAF is overwhelmingly white. It comes from the Old World, caters to old money, and sells paintings by old men. This is notable insofar as this art fair, unlike its other large competitors like Frieze and Armory, takes an unvarnished look at the art market and the people actually capable of buying multimillion-dollar objects. Programming is at a minimum, and galleries have little incentive to shock their viewers with the new and unexpected. This is about wealth qua wealth, and most of us will only ever be the Nick Caraway at the Gatsby party. Or maybe the butler.
TEFAF begins with Picassos on the left (Helly Nahmad Gallery) and Lichtensteins on the right (Gagosian). Inaugurating the fair, these picks are strategic. A Lichtenstein painting from the 1960s will be on Christie’s auction block in two weeks with an estimate between $30 million to $50 million, from the Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Family Collection. And Gagosian’s wares are nothing new, though the gallery wouldn’t disclose its prices. Lichtenstein’s “Girl on Mirror” (1964) was on sale as recently as March when it sold at Phillips for $6.28 million.
One of the most eye-popping inclusions at this year’s fair is a $20 million painting by Paul Gauguin, “Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar” (1896) presented by the gallery Wildenstein. The work is a classicized portrait from the artist’s Tahitian period based on the biblical couple from the Book of Genesis. Frankly, I think Gauguin is worth oyster shells, but the rich swarmed the painting. Other famous turn-of-the-century artists are on view around the fair, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Amedeo Modigliani.
There are more than 90 galleries exhibiting at TEFAF this year, 13 of which are newcomers to the fair but old staples in the art world, like Friedman Benda and Victoria Miro. Also making its debut is Pace, which dedicated most of its booth to the artist Jean Dubuffet. The gallery also had some poor soul wandering through the armory in a costume designed like one of the Frenchman’s sculptures and heckling billionaires on their phones.
The public relations machine behind TEFAF has touted its roster of “maverick women” on display at the fair, but that’s a matter of perspective. Louise Bourgeois, Maria Lassnig, and Alina Szapocznikow are on display at Hauser & Wirth. (Bourgeois’ 1984 bronze “Nature Study” was present and priced at $5 million.) Victoria Miro had its mandatory showing of Yayoi Kusama; the gallery decided to feature the Japanese artist’s 1998 “Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets,” priced at $2.8 million — which may be a steal depending on if you think the world will ever fatigue of the artist’s plenary powers over illusion and pattern. Still, I’m not sure how “maverick” the art of these women can be after being so-long subsumed into the conservative wheelhouse of art market wares.
A welcome surprise, however, was seeing Simone Leigh’s “Las Meninas” (2019) at Luhring Augustine’s booth. One of the few, if only, Black women artists on display, Leigh’s sculpture functions as both a critique of the Western canon proudly on display throughout TEFAF and a powerful, imposing work in its own right.
I would be remiss not to mention the enormous scenographic backdrop hanging above everyone’s heads in the drill hall. This technicolor curtain is the creation of the Russian avant-gardist Natalia Goncharova for the 1914 Ballets Russes production of Le Coq d’Or, here presented by Galerie Gmurzynska. The work is opulence par excellence drenched in shades of vermillion, yellow, and purple. Created almost a year after Igor Stravinsky’s iconoclastic Rite of Spring, Goncharova’s designs continue the trend of Russian arts returning to peasant traditions and regional aesthetics.
Ahead of this year’s edition, TEFAF announced an overhaul of its vetting procedures. Scrutiny of provenance has always been a point of pride for the fair, but organizers moved in March to provide even stronger and more independent guidelines for exhibiting galleries. Wim Pijbes, former general director at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was appointed global chairman of vetting, a new role created to implement policy changes that involved excluding dealers and auction house employees from being voting members.
How this new directive has played out on the ground, however, is sort of unclear. Provenance details were slim on the customer-facing front from dealers of antiquities and objects of African cultural heritage at TEFAF. For $320,000 the London-based gallery Charles Ede will see you an astonishing second-century Roman sculpture of Asclepius that still has traces of roots and dirt on its left side from centuries of being buried underground. But provenance only traces back to a French collector, Jacques Bacri, who acquired the piece in the mid-twentieth century, before dying in 1965. That amount of information is fine, technically. Italy’s anti-looting and repatriation laws were established in 1969. But someone putting down a couple hundred thousand dollars for a statue might want a little more information on an object almost two millennia old.
Galerie Bernard Dulon is exhibiting a series of cultural objects from Africa, including an elegant female antelope headdress from the 19th century. The wooden artifact hails from the Chi Wara Society in Mali and bears a provenance that dates back to the 1950s. But other objects have a startling dearth of information. An Ivory Coast sculpture of a female figure from the late nineteenth century? “Private Collection, Brussels.” A divination box from the Democratic Republic of the Congo? “Private Collection, Paris.” Months after France’s landmark restitution report, this lack of detail was troubling. A gallery representative that I spoke to described how repatriation will affect the antiquities business as still “an open question.” And when I inquired about the history behind the antelope headdress, she began discussing how Picasso developed cubism from African aesthetics.
At this level of the market, it’s clear that African objects derive their value in proximity to the Western canon of modern art. I’d still like to think that galleries selling these objects have done their due diligence and historical research and that my exchange at Galerie Bernard Dulon was a wrinkle in an otherwise flawless display. Yet my exchange with the gallery representative was indicative of how far dealers still have to go before catching up with contemporary ideas about selling objects outside one’s own cultural heritage.
There is no question that the art presented at TEFAF is exceptional, but dealers need to think better about how they are exhibiting their artworks for sale. This is one area where the fair lags behind its Frieze and Armory Show brethren. Careful curation and storytelling takes a backseat to wheeling and dealing, when these strategies should go hand-in-hand.
The spring 2019 edition of TEFAF New York continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 7.