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Palm Springs

by Deborah Ripley
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Presidents Day weekend marked the debut of the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair, Feb. 17-19, 2012, at the convention center in the scenic desert oasis of Palm Springs, Ca. Designed to appeal to the town’s burgeoning population of rich, gay and retired boomers, who flock from Los Angeles to find mid-century modern second homes, the fair is the latest project of Rick Friedman of the Hamptons Expo Group, which hosts ArtHamptons, ArtAspen and two other boutique art fairs around the country.

Palm Springs is all about a “Bauhaus meets Ranch house” esthetic, as exemplified by the 1946 home built by architect Richard Neutra for Edgar Kaufman Sr., who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa.  

Palm Springs hasn’t had a contemporary art fair since 2004, the last incarnation of the Palm Springs International Art Fair, known for what might be called a “Vegas Esthetic,” i.e. black velvet paintings, blown-glass eagles and the like.

Friedman wisely scheduled his new fair to coincide with the highly successful Modernism Week, Feb. 16-26, 2012, the 11-day-long extravaganza, now in its sixth year, which brings 25,000 design aficionados to the desert to celebrate mid-century masterpieces of architecture and design.

For the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair, Friedman was taking no chances. He called on his anchor galleries, including dealers William Shearburn from St. Louis, Jonathan Novak from Los Angeles and the Etherton Gallery from Tucson, among others, to help him select a roster of exhibitors that would send the message to Palm Springs collectors (and their decorators) that the art should be just as significant as the designer furnishings that fill their homes.

The result was, for the most part, a dazzling if classical display of works, mostly post-war secondary market, many of them in the six-figure range.

The booth of Yares Art Projects from Santa Fe was a fine example. In a double booth, one section was devoted to a retrospective of Milton Avery paintings, many with their corresponding sketches and watercolors, allowing a rare opportunity for viewers to see Avery’s ideas fleshed out in full. An unusually abstract painting from the 1952, Black Sea, Red Sky, was offered with two preliminary studies for $1.3 million.

Although fair visitor Elliot Forte said he would need an additional infusion of cash to afford an Avery painting, he was bowled over by the quality of the works and was glad he changed out of his bathing suit to come over the fair.

Palm Desert dealer Heather James also offered some heavy hitters, including Ed Ruscha’s painting Las Palmas (1967). The oil-on-wood work, which includes a leather belt tooled with the words “Las Palmas” collaged right onto the surface, has an unusual history. Named for the luxury community where Ruscha had a failed romance, as the story goes, his wealthy girlfriend threw his clothes out the window along with the belt. He retrieved it and made the painting. Priced at $250,000, it seems like a bargain for a vintage Ruscha painting that should probably be acquired by the Palm Springs Art Museum.

In addition to the 50 galleries participating, the fair featured numerous talks and tours. Critic Peter Frank curated a special exhibition inspired by the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time” initiative. Entitled “The Big Picture: Paintings from Southern California, 1960-1980,” with works (for sale) lent by exhibitors, the selection was a bit thin and installed haphazardly in a dark corner of the fair.  Even so, the show included some memorable works, among them DeWain Valentine’s luminous cast polyester resin disk entitled Red Smoke Veil (ca. 1970-71), lent by Scott White Contemporary Art.

Frank also gave a lifetime achievement award to Judy Chicago on opening night along with an engaging interview and slide show. Looking much younger than possible, considering her formidable 50-year-long career, the feminist artist, author and educator expressed delight at the renewed interest in her work, thanks in part to PST. The fair devoted a front hallway to a mini-retrospective of her paintings, prints and sculptures.

Denenberg Fine Arts from Hollywood also focused on artists rediscovered by PST by showing paintings previous owned by Felix Landau, a pioneering Los Angeles art dealer whose gallery was a showcase for the contemporary art scene in the 1960s. One artist, William Theophilus Brown, whose striking 1971 Portrait of Felix Landau brings to mind the best Bay Area paintings, was available for a modest $40,000, a bargain compared to works by his contemporaries, like Wayne Thiebaud and David Park.

Several collectors opened their homes in Rancho Mirage for the fair’s VIP tour. Helene Galen, whose name is known primarily for the USC Galen Center basketball arena and who is the namesake of The Galen, the Palm Springs Art Museum’s new satellite venue in Palm Desert, had a magnificent collection. In a home looking out over the golf course, which formerly belonged to Zeppo Marx, a John Buck sculpture seemed perfectly suited to straddle indoor and outdoor spaces. A beautiful Milton Avery painting as well as a Max Ernst bronze greet visitors at the front door. A spectacular Al Held painting enlived the interior of a private movie theater.

Before moving to the desert in 1998, Marilyn Pearl was a force in New York with her eponymous gallery that emphasized abstract artists active from the 1930s to the 1960s. With her husband, Alan Loesberg, she has assembled some gems, many of them housed in niches in the living room. A 1945 painted Alexander Calder stabile was a tiny masterpiece as was a 1952 Richard Stankiewicz sculpture of scrap metal and found objects.

Accompanying the tour was the actor and comedian Cheech Marin, who has one of the largest Chicano art collections in private hands. One of his newest discoveries is the artist Carlos Donjuan, whose painting, La Cumbia del Arvaro (2011), showing at Thomas Paul Fine Art’s booth, seems to be inspired by the peyote visions of another Don Juan, the shaman memorialized by Carlos Castaneda.

Sales on opening night appeared to be brisk for works under $10,000. Lisa Sette Gallery’s painting by Carrie Marill entitled Birds and Beasts (2011) had failed to find a buyer in December at Art Miami, but was snapped up within minutes for $8,500.

By the end of the fair, according to fair organizers, attendance had topped 9,500 and sales reached into the millions, including paintings by William Theophilius Brown, whose career may finally be turning around, a few weeks after his death at the age of 92 on Feb. 12, 2012.

DEBORAH RIPLEY is senior print specialist at Artnet.