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by Walter Robinson
"Gallery programs are either esthetic or intellectual. Mine is esthetic," said Bernd Lausberg, a tall and articulate art dealer who since 2002 has had galleries in both Düsseldorf and Toronto. He favors bright color abstractions by artists I’ve never heard of (Robert Schaberl, Regine Schumann) and also has sculptures of pets copied from Old Master paintings and laboriously assembled from slivers of bright cut glass (an orange figure of a lynx, from a work by Albrect Dürer, was $26,500). I thought that the artist, a young woman named Marta Klonowska, must have a lot of little cuts on her fingers.  

Later, when I approvingly repeated Lausberg’s unprepossessing formula (esthetic v. intellectual) to Gerhard Charles Rump, an art critic for the German newspaper Die Welt, he quickly moved to disagree, pointing out the theoretical underpinnings of several artists in Lausberg’s program.

Such difference -- of taste and opinion -- is the most interesting thing about the orthographically challenging art fair known as palmbeach³, Jan. 15-18, 2009, which brought about 80 dealers -- down substantially from the 100 exhibitors in 2008 -- to the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach. The wide variety of participating galleries, and the types of wares they bring to the fair, certainly make it less boring than the Armory Show or Art Basel, with their endless booths of super-hip contemporary art.

"Palm Beach loves kitsch!" exclaimed Biba St. Croix, the irresistible proprietor of Gallery Biba on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, a keystone of the local art scene. A Croatian native who met her husband, artist Robert St. Croix, on the West Coast, she relocated to Palm Beach after the 1993 Northridge Earthquake, and built her business from scratch. (Her husband, who shows his large-scale figurative bronzes at the gallery, established his own foundry that now employs ten people and casts for a number of leading artists.)

Biba admitted that the local art-collecting scene had lost some of its energy. Perhaps, in the art-fair age, local collectors prefer to travel to New York, London or Paris to make their acquisitions. And perhaps, though Biba didn’t say so, the "Bernie Madoff Effect" may have hit her clientele as well. According to one report, Palm Beach alone has seen 80 foreclosures. 

Biba offers a huge bronze head of a woman by Robert St. Croix for $275,000 and lenticular-screen stick-figure pinups by Julian Opie (in editions of 50) for $19,500. She also boasts a work by René Magritte, which is priced at $800,000. "A client was begging me to take $600,000 for it, can you imagine?"

palmbeach³ presents kitsch and high art cheek-by-jowl, sometimes making it hard to tell one from another. Especially proactive in this regard are the works by Mike and Doug Starn, and Julian Opie, contemporary artists whose works are at several booths throughout the fair. In this context, it becomes clear that their sophisticated imagery is as good as any fancy financial instrument at straddling the line between junk and real value. (Photoworks by the Starns, printed on Thai Mulberry paper with beeswax and encaustic, go for as much as $40,000, edition of three.)

With 80 gallery booths, of course, it’s not hard to find plenty of redeeming elements, even at an art fair like this one. For a sophisticated inventory of 20th-century moderns, from Alfred Maurer to an early diamond-shaped stain painting by Kenneth Noland, there was New York dealer Mark Borghi. "All the hedgers have stopped buying," he proclaimed, adding that he was finding bargains at auction.

Barry Friedman Ltd. was also on hand, with its wide selection of exquisite (if pricey) pieces of furniture by Wendell Castle and Ingrid Donat, rare jewelry pieces by Louise Nevelson, figurative ceramics by Akio Takamori, contemporary glass by Toots Zynsky, exotic color photos by Michele Alassio and more. "With the breadth of our offerings," said gallery director Carole Hochman, "we do fairly well at this fair."

For the hardcore avant-garde, there was Galerie Caprice Horn, established in Berlin in 2002 by the eponymous founder, who was trained as a psychiatrist ("in therapy with Dr. Horn," reads one of the gallery buttons). In the middle of her booth is a pinball-machine construction that is nothing if not funky: a Dark Knight model of the life cycle, featuring the image of a naked corpse on the side of the box, courtesy New York City artist Meghan Boody.

Other artists in the gallery, including Daniel Canogar, Daniel and Geo Fuchs, Maximilian Huller and Mitra Tabrizian, are included in curator Eric Shiner’s forthcoming show of apocalyptic art at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, titled "The End." 

Also looking good were dealers with prints and multiples by hip contemporaries, like the five-year-old Verve Gallery from Ft. Lauderdale. "We sold about a dozen works so far," said Gary Santoro, one of the enthusiastic directors of the enterprise, ranging from Polly Apfelbaum’s monoporint Baby Love for $7,500 to a large robe by Jim Dine for $60,000. The clientele, Santoro said, was 90 percent South Florida.

At the other extreme, palmbeach³ was filled with glass galleries, a respectable specialty, to be sure, but one that is perhaps more often "esthetic" than "intellectual." But that, too, is a question of degree. Holsten Gallery from Stockbridge, Mass., filled its booth with the exquisite organic forms of blown-glass veteran Lino Taliapietra, while Helicon Contemporary, a gallery from Munich, featured amazing blown-glass insects, animals and full-size skeletons by Oliver Habel. The show-stopper, a large depiction of a lion goddess, was priced at $120,000.

In recent years, palmbeach³ has been owned by the London-based conglomerate DMG, which put New York dealer and art advisor Fran Kaufman in charge. Among her initiatives was a slate of panels and presentations, which brought a range of experts to the fair, including decorative-arts reporter Brook S. Mason, International Center for Photography curator Christopher Phillips, artist Wendell Castle, designer Juan Montoya, and yours truly.

All that came to an abrupt end last week, as David and Lee Ann Lester let it be known that for the next installment -- the veteran art-fair organizers have acquired palmbeach³ from DMG, as has been widely reported -- their own staff would take over. Word is that the Lesters hope to convince more blue-chip dealers to take part. Good luck to them; in this market, it’s no easy task.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.