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Feb. 21, 2008 

After 20 years, the Art Show is one smooth-running art machine, short on surprises, perhaps, but long on its own special brand of pleasure. The Park Avenue Armory, with its renovation under way, is more nicely tricked out than ever before, from suave gray carpet below to draped white scrim above. The gallery booths seem almost dollhouse-sized, so modest are their dimensions in comparison to the huge warehouse spaces that are now commonplace. With 70 members of the Art Dealers Association of America arrayed along four neat aisles, the show, which runs Feb. 21-25, 2008, seems more like a Zen garden than an art bazaar.

In earlier days, the old-timers say, the Art Show was a place where real treasures could be found. But a ravenous art market and the siren call of the auction block have put an end to all that, or almost. In its stead, the Art Show has gone much more contemporary, and many of the booths are given over to solo shows and theme installations.

Examples would include large color photos by Tina Barney at Janet Borden, colorful abstract paintings by Amy Sillman at Sikkema Jenkins, photographs by Richard Avedon at Fraenkel Gallery, ceramic sculptures and drawings by Andrew Lord at Gladstone Gallery, and a series of a dozen painted cardboard objects by Richard Tuttle at PaceWildenstein.

Needless to say, the Art Show provides an occasion to take the art market’s temperature, as well as to look at art. The diagnosis remains uncertain, though the Art Show opening night gala on Feb. 21, which as always benefited the Henry Street Settlement, was by most accounts a success, both in terms of attendance and sales.

PaceWildenstein, for instance, had sold most of its Tuttle works -- they’re about the size of a tissue box and hang on the wall -- by the fair’s first day, for about $50,000 each. And Gladstone was also doing good business with Lord’s works, a group of four oversized and eccentric ceramic vessels with titles like Tasting and Biting, which happen to describe the way the artist has worked the clay. Lord’s sculptures have a rich glaze with detailed craquelure and touches of gold, and are $45,000-$55,000, while drawings are $12,000.

At the booth of Odyssia, a long established and now-private Manhattan gallery run by Odyssia Skouras, the theme was flowers. The installation includes a drawing by Alberto Giacometti, several collages and a major painting by Jess, and a rare early oil on canvas by Giorgio Morandi of a vase holding a bouquet of pale yellow flowers. The price is $2 million.

Such classics of 20th-century modernism can still be found at the fair, needless to say. "Walter, look at this, the greatest moment of this art fair," said the ever-enthusiastic Frances Beatty, director of Richard L. Feigen & Co. In between a Pablo Picasso still-life and a wall filled with Ray Johnson collages was a Surrealist landscape by Max Ernst, Scottish Land (1935), flanked by three gouaches by Henri Rousseau. Desert bright and glowing, the Ernst seems possessed by the coils of Ouroboros.  

"We had a fabulous first night," Beatty went on. "We sold a Joseph Cornell box, a George Grosz watercolor and a Ray Johnson, with three more on reserve. It was a terrific crowd." Among the celebrities on hand were Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Yoko Ono.

The positive outlook was shared at the booth of Martha Parrish & James Reinish, one of the few galleries at the show to specialize in works of 20th-century American art. Smaller works by Mark di Suvero, Gertrude Greene and Marsden Hartley sold during the opening, as did a large and busy pseudo-cubist view of 42nd Street from 1936 by Theodore Roszak. Definitely odd and a little bit garish, the work is an out-of-the-mainstream masterpiece. The price? "Say ‘less than $500,000’," said Reinish.

One last note. At the booth of Lennon, Weinberg is a curious pencil drawing from 1963 by Walter de Maria, a column of 16 rats drawn in profile along the left side of the now-yellowing sheet, each alike but all different. The drawing was drawing was purchased at the gala by an American museum. Buying rats at the gala, now that’s odd.

On another wall is Stephen Westfall’s With You and Without You (2008), a 60 x 60 in. painting that is clearly a takeoff on Frank Stella’s famous early paintings of concentric squares. This guy could single-handedly revive hard-edge abstraction. "The paint’s still wet," said Jill Weinberg. The price? $22,000.

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