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by Brook S. Mason
Things have gotten rather more stylish for the once staid Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) Art Show, the 19th installment of which gets under way this week, Feb. 22-26, 2007. First off, the fair venue has a new grandeur. The dilapidated Seventh Regiment Armory, though the city’s A-list site for parties since the 19th century, was nevertheless cited by the World Monuments Fund on its list of the world’s 100 most endangered treasures in 2000.

But now, a new regime has given the Armory a stylish overhaul, with refinished wainscoting freshly painted (hats off to picking a historically correct terracotta tone for the main hall) and even restored period portraits now gracing the interior.

Also distinguishing the Art Show is its centerpiece status in the art-packed, multiple fair-filled long weekend, in what is Manhattan’s resounding answer to Miami’s flotilla of art fairs in December. All the commotion is certain to draw more visitors. The Art Show raised $1 million for the Henry Street Settlement at its Feb. 20 gala alone, according to ADAA executive director Linda Blumberg, and the venerable Lower East Side charity also gets the daily gate (at $20 a head).

What’s more, ADAA prez Roland Augustine cunningly brought in the Manhattan firm of Rexrode Chirigos Architects to trim up the 70-dealer event. Banished (finally) are the vending machines and clumsy ticket booths, formerly situated near the show entrance and always seeming borrowed from a provincial craft fair. In their place are 20-foot-tall scrims of silver balloons, witty riffs on George Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa in sparking Mylar contrast to the building’s Renaissance Revival interior.

Perhaps most significantly, the Art Show has become more contemporary than ever, putting the event in sync with fairs like Pulse, Scope and the Armory Show. "We’re not in competition with the other fairs," says Augustine. New Art Show participants include Sonnabend, Andrea Rosen, Peter Freeman, Skarstedt and D’Amelio Terras, all of New York, along with Rhona Hoffman and Donald Young, both of Chicago.

Additionally, many of the exhibitors at the Art Show have opted to mount solo shows of individual artists, proving that fairs have become the new gallery walk. So, goodbye, Fuller building and all those Chelsea blocks, and hello, Art Show (at least for this weekend!). This kind of tight editing makes the fair into a series of highly orchestrated, single-style boutiques.

Selecting Barbara Gladstone Gallery to command the central booth at the fair entrance was a brilliant choice. The Chelsea dealer is showcasing a large Anish Kapoor mirrored Plexiglas and wood wall sculpture in maroon that’s quite captivating and actually very 1960s in shape. There’s also a marble sculpture that resembles a humongous eyeball. Each is priced at $750,000.

Right next door is veteran Los Angeles dealer Margo Leavin, whose booth features a late de Kooning soaked in white oil for around $3 million. Along with that sticker-shock price, Leavin is also touting a large John Baldessari work from 2002, dubbed Seascape with Onlookers. It’s a cross made of framed color photographs, including the artist’s own panoramic snap of the sea flanked by stock black-and-white portraits, adjusted here and there with paint. The cost is $225,000 for, shall we say, a new devotional.

Six new Sigmar Polke paintings crowd the stand of Michael Werner. They are experiments for a cathedral window commission in Zurich. A master of virtuosity, Polke painted paper black and then splashed on white lacquer in a manner that’s a bit of a take on the spontaneity of Jackson Pollock, as well as of his younger colleague James Nares. The huge works are tagged at $200,000 each.

As always, the fair trumpets new collecting trends and new directions artists are taking. That master of animated avant-garde film, William Kentridge, has now -- surprise, surprise -- turned to the decorative arts. At the Marion Goodman Gallery booth, Kentridge presents his own rendition of an 18th-century vitrine, complete with small figures in the vein of Sèvres porcelain. Only Kentridge’s objects are made from nautical tide charts and done in homage to 18th-century operatic stars. Titled Diverse Divas, the crumpled-up figures are also painted. With the Brooklyn Academy of Music set to debut Kentridge’s own version of The Magic Flute, his star is certain to rise even higher.

Hands down the most surprising deco arts example, though, has to be at the stand of Old Master dealer David Tunick. He’s featuring a two-sided, three-panel screen made by Color Field painter Helen Frankenthaler in the early 1980s. In bronze, both patinated and painted, the screen sports on one side her prints, while the other is saturated in a stylish pumpkin color. The frame is made up of crumbled ribbons of bronze and it’s a showstopper at close to $1 million. Overall, this unique piece is a great buy and possibly even underpriced.

Other ventures into the decorative arts include Lalanne furniture at Paul Kasmin and Ai Weiwei’s towering celadon porcelain vessels at Robert Miller. At the booth of New York dealer Connor Rosenkranz is a William Hunt Diederich 1925 fireplace screen with shapes of highly stylized antelopes, which in style terms is to die for.

Ceramics appear to be climbing the price charts with examples at Manhattan dealer Garth Clark marking new levels of valuation. A Ken Price Cityscape bowl from 1991 emblazoned with a silhouette of urban skyscrapers is $25,000 -- and it’s earthenware, no less. Price’s ceramics with abstract (and erect) handles go for $45,000 a pop. That’s for a cup and a small one at that. "Five years ago, they cost $7,000," says Clark.

Luhring Augustine is offering an avant-garde take on the kind of small female busts that were popular 200 years ago. Only they are made in chocolate and soap, coyly dubbed Lick & Lather by the post-feminist conceptual artist, the Bahamas-born Janine Antoni. Stars of a Whitney Biennial in the early ‘90s, the pair costs $250,000, or about the price of a good 18th-century French terracotta. Antoni also crafted a night light of translucent praying hands, titled If I Die Before I Wake (Mother’s Hand Meets Daughter’s Hand in Prayer). Done in porcelain, the sweet work has only the slightest eau d’Bible Belt trailer park.

Marble seems to be the new canvas for a clutch of artists. At Marion Goodman, Tacita Dean employs dry point to inscribe minute comments on slabs of pinkish alabaster, which are hung upon the wall like paintings, while Matthew Marks exhibits a Brice Marden marble chunk decorated with regimental stripes in oil. The Marden is already on reserve, as is an Ellsworth Kelly 1982 Orange Curve that fills the gallery booth with a punchy neon tone. L&M Gallery has a dynamite Rothko and one of the fair’s few Warhols (now that’s a change).

Raising the bar for photography offerings are the Fraenkel Gallery from San Francisco, which is exhibiting a Richard Avedon gelatin silver print diptych of a rather dissipated Francis Bacon, a Hiroshi Sugimoto of Commandante Castro (from a Tussaud wax effigy) and a bevy of disturbing Diane Arbus images.

Manhattan vintage photography dealer Hans Kraus is staging a gem of a show, titled "Framing Architecture: Windows and Doorways." The classic toned prints capture 19th-century Parisian hotels, Greek and Roman temples and English cathedrals with a time-honored evocativeness. Such early snaps are really the period’s photo renditions of vedute, or "view" -- think Canaletto’s Venetian scenes, which the English Grand Tour visitors gobbled up as an antecedent to the picture postcard

John Chamberlain’s sculptures evoking twisted auto parts are a staple of the contemporary sculpture market, and a top example from 1984 can be found at the booth of Manhattan dealer Barbara Mathes. The right size for a desktop, it’s made out of smashed Tonka trucks, which the artist just might have borrowed from a young boy. The work is signed and that’s a rarity. Its cost is $175,000. Mathes has also got a large Sugimoto photograph of a bust of Catherine Howard, the final wife of Henry VIII, once again from an "original" found in Madame Tussaud’s.

Sadly, period American painting is in scant supply at the Art Show, in part because of scarcity and stellar prices that can seem totally out of reach for specialty dealers. What’s more, many of the best 19th-century picture dealers are no more. Gone are Kennedy and Kraushaar Galleries (they both went private) and Richard York (deceased), among others. Especially telling is the absence of Berry-Hill Galleries, which could always be counted on for several gems of 19th- and early 20th-century representational art. Berry-Hill resigned from the august ADAA in December, saying in a nice letter that the organization had become too focused on contemporary art (though this polite turn of events didn’t stop the gossips from wondering whether the gallery, which recently suffered bankruptcy, had jumped before it was pushed. Untrue, we’re sure.)

In other news, dealer Per Skarstedt is expanding vastly by taking over the former Salander-O’Reilly Gallery lease, for the townhouse around the corner on East 79th Street. Of his market, Skarstedt says, "Eight years ago, Richard Prince ‘joke’ paintings went for $40,000 and now they are $800,000." His comment says to perfection how contemporary art is the name of the game today. So take note -- in 2007 the ADAA Art Show is right in step with the times.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times, the New York Sun and other publications.