"Works on Paper," Feb. 25-29, 2004, at the Seventh Regiment Armory, Park Avenue at 67th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
In case anyone was wondering, the 16th annual Works on Paper fair proved that paper is a heavy medium indeed. Fair organizer Sanford Smith brought together a show that was both remarkably diverse and high quality, with 85 international exhibitors presenting everything from posters, prints and illustrated books to photographs, collages and drawings.
Etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn could be found at Paul McCarron Fine Arts, while works on paper by the emerging artist Norbert Freese, who adroitly draws Boschian creatures on damaged and discarded Old Master prints, were on view at the New York-based gallery C&J Goodfriend. Pablo Picasso was all over, as one might expect, including at the Parisian Galerie Andre Candilier, where a handsome etching of La Suite des Saltimbanques could be had for $150,000, and at the California-based Walker Fine Art Gallery, which featured linocuts for between $37,000 and $95,000.
The avid interest in the smallest scraps by top artists has brought interesting ephemera to the market. For example, Elrick-Manley Fine Art offered three thumbnail sketches by Edward Hopper, done in pencil on a single notebook-size piece of paper, for $65,000. In one corner of the thin sheet, Hopper drew a house framed by thick lines. Above it, he sketched a nude sitting alone on her bed facing an open window, giving his model a smoothly sloped back that resembles the posture of Ingres' The Valpincon Bather. Though the last drawing on the page, supposedly of a stairwell, is unreadable when the paper is hung horizontally, the two coherent images are excellent, candid examples of Hopper's signature stark moodiness.
A similarly stirring peripheral piece is Thomas Hart Benton's 1967 lithograph Ten Pound Hammer, offered at $4,500 each, by Platt Fine Art, a Chicago-based gallery specializing in the Social Realist genre. The lithograph is a reproduction of Benton's 1965 painting by the same name. The image of sinewy black workers toiling on the railroad lines translates brilliantly from paint to line as a potent reminder of paper's significance as a more accessible, democratic medium than canvas.
"Most of the collectors are Upper East Side residents looking for opulent and attractive pieces to hang in their homes," said David Lusk, owner of the eponymous Memphis gallery showing compelling contemporary work by emerging southern artists like Rana Rochat. Rochat's sleek abstractions, done with encaustic on paper, rebut assumptions about paper's limitations, as does Kim Dingle's sepia oil-on-vellum painting at Baltimore's Goya-Girl Press. Dingle's painting of little girls in fluffy white dresses, who fight each other like demonic cream-puffs, $15,000.
Perhaps the most charming piece in the fair was Forestville Venus, Los Angeles, a voluptuous, high-relief nude sculpture made out of cigarette butts by the late artist Al Hansen. This DIY goddess, with her thick thighs, big burnt grin and ashtray smell, is a pagan homage to everything that is tacky and fun (it can be yours for $15,000). It was on view at the booth of Manhattan dealer Pavel Zoubok, who will be moving from his Upper East Side location to a new space on 23rd Street in Chelsea this spring. "Collage had never been a separate category in the fair before," declared Zoubok. "It is important that it have a presence because the majority of contemporary pieces on view are multiples and editions, while collages are unique."
Zoubok also had three iridescent assemblages of pipe-cleaners, holographic tape, aluminum foil and plastic wrap by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a pioneer of the kitsch art esthetic of the '70s. Part Medieval Catholic ceremonial plate and part pizza pie, Lanigan-Schmidt's multiple is an iconoclastic polemic about Catholicism, sexuality, homophobia and class. "The wafer is bread and pizza is bread," he explained. The works are a bargain at $3,000 each.
"The majority of collectors visiting this fair are extremely knowledgeable," explained Mary Morris of the Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery. "They buy for their taste." Her booth was a favored stop for admirers of Helen Frankenthaler, who came to view the artist's majestic 1998 Tales of Genji III, a popular print in her Eastern-inspired series. The price: $50,000. A not unrelated work at Morris' booth was Tom Wesselmann's drawing of a langorous nude, complete with beaming red smile, blonde flip hair-do and tan lines -- one of Genji's lady loves, perhaps?
The print fair could even be called family-friendly. Chris Beetles Gallery from England offered exceptionally charming prints by Maurice Sendak of his iconic children's book characters, each priced at $4,000. Sendak's original illustrations, like the comical Hillbilly Wild Thing, showing one of his trademark creatures cavorting with a jug of something less wholesome than milk, can run to $450,000.
Playful in an adult way is Otto Dix's Matrose und Madchen from 1923, on consignment at the German Jrg Maass Gallery. In this large watercolor, a brutishly handsome sailor enjoys a post-coital giggle with his plump, aged, drunken, naked blond mistress. She holds a bottle in one hand and leers at her lover affectionately. Nearby, in a color lithograph from the same year, Dix depicts the same loutish character taking an equally haggard red-head from behind while he gives her an identical lusty grin. Works like these added a refreshing shot of decadence to the otherwise polite fair.
With the Dix in mind, the string bindings in Christo collages, on view at both William Weston Gallery and Sims Reed Gallery, offered an eerie hint of bondage. Usually, Christo's collages are bound bundles of plastic or fabric. But at Reed the artist's 1996 Wrapped Woman depicted a supple female form wrapped in black lacing, like a body being prepared for a Viking burial.
While there was surprisingly little photography presented at the fair, Santa Monica dealer Peter Fetterman did fill his booth with elegant fashion photographs. Against burgundy paper lining his booth, Fetterman displayed a range of black and white iconic nudes and famous fashion images from the first half of the 20th century. Among the wares was the amazing 1960 color picture by Ormand Gigli of 41 models in brightly colored frocks standing in the windows of four New York brownstones, several portraits of the always-lovely Audrey Hepburn by Sid Avery, and a particularly charming 1948 Le Nu Provencal by Willy Ronis.
A more somber masterpiece is the series of tender poetic collages by Romare Bearden, combining watercolor images of nature with excerpts from Chief Seattle's 1854 Treaty Oration, which Bearden wrote in his fluid cursive hand using thick black marker, like a child carefully preparing a history-class presentation. North Carolina-based dealer Jerald Melberg wisely refused to break the full suite, instead offering the complete series for $72,000.
Individually, the collages are sensitive, folksy and charming, but as a series they become a powerful expression of history. Bearden's collages are a great example of the evocative power of art.