Monday, September 27, 2010

Paris - The XXVth Biennale and Beyond

I have been asked if American Museums were represented among the visitors to the Biennale. I had only run into a few American museum people myself but exhibitors in different fields told me that a number were present. Among the museums represented were The Metropolitan Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, The National Gallery in Washington and the Speed Museum in Louisville. The Louisville curator brought a group of patrons as well. Of course, many French and even some German museums curators and directors came.

Regarding the younger contingent of exhibitors, my favorite gallery was definitely Jason Jacques. It is a New York gallery and they do not deal in my field but their specialty has been of interest since my wife was curator of 20th century decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum many years ago. I met two of the principals Jason Jacques himself and Yoni Ben-Yosef. They were showing a large selection of late 19th century French art pottery with a choice selection of European furniture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, as a display case for some of the ceramics they used a large cabinet with the most wonderful mounts by the German artist Richard Riemerschmid (Munich 1868-1957). That was something I would have been happy to take home!

With the Biennale bringing so many French and foreign visitors to town, some dealers who do not participate use the opportunity to stage their own events, so there was much else to see.

A La Vieille Russie, the renowned New York gallery specializing in jewelry and Russian works of art, most especially Fabergé, have an exhibition at the Didier Aaron Gallery while the latter were exhibiting at the Biennale. Originally from Kiev the family firm came to Paris in 1920 and stayed until 1961. Complementing the works of art were photos and texts that lined the walls. They traced the history of the gallery and provided a prime illustration of the interesting ways in which the art world has evolved.

At Galerie Aveline on the Place Beauveau, Galerie Neuse from Bremen, Germany did a wonderful installation of their early German silver, objects and paintings. What particularly caught my eye were a few 16th century German pistols covered with engraved ivory inlays,-- another keeper! All this was wonderfully intermingled with great French 18th century furniture from Aveline’s proprietor, Jean-Marie Rossi.

But the prize for the most spectacular installation and exhibition had to go to the Galerie Kugel. The Kugel brothers transformed the courtyard of their hôtel particulier (well defined by Wikipedia as an urban ‘private house’ of a grand sort’) using a steel structure to turn it into a mini Panthéon. showcases and niches throughout displayed classical antiquities and 16th century Renaissance interpretations of the classical era.

There were many other exhibitions and events but as in any city with so much great culture one can never see it all. Whenever you come home again some one is bound to say: did you see thus and so? You may have missed that particular attraction, but remember, you enjoyed what you did see. By the time you read this one or the other be over but the Kugels’ extravaganza will be open until December 18.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Biennale 2010

Arrival--I don’t think that I will ever get used to the time changes and the unpleasantness of travel these days but having made it across my 8 time zones and checked in at my usual hotel in Paris, I am ready to take on the XXV Biennale des Antiquaires.

The Opening--After spending about 4 hours at the Biennale, with little sleep in the last 36 hours I am sitting at the computer to make some notes on my first impressions.

Just going into the glass enclosure that is the Grand Palais, built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, is always a thrill; it improves any experience inside. This year the fair is laid out like a star with aisles radiating out from a central circle. For the opening there was a huge round bar for Champagne and other liquid refreshment and continuous hors d’oeuvre were served throughout the evening including all kinds of fish with foie gras for the carnivores. There were many mini refreshment stands as well along one’s route.

As promised there was a surprise in the first booth that one came to on the right. As I entered, the proprietors said, “Welcome to America”. It was a to scale replica of the White House Oval Office. This was the booth of the Kraemer family. Based on the premise that the Oval Office is the most famous single room in the world, they posed the question,-- what if it had been furnished with French 18th century decorative arts. Of course, there was one truly American touch, a small Mark Rothko over the fireplace. I was with my associate Vince Hickman, who had actually been in the Oval Office, and he said this version was much more exciting.

Actually, there have been various attempts to decorate the rooms in the White House with French 18th century. The best known being in the Kennedy Administration when the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, an avowed Francophile, headed an effort to do so. However, when my wife, Penelope-Hunter Stiebel, was asked during the Clinton Administration to examine all the French decorative arts in the White House collection and report on their authenticity, condition and quality. To her and my surprise, besides the numerous Empire gilt bronze pieces purchased under President Madison, the two best pieces were acquired during the Nixon administration when the First Lady, Pat Nixon, led the effort.

People loved the Kraemers’ Oval Office and many came in just to gawk and see photos of the real thing and what the Kraemers had done in their interpretation. It gave me hope that in the future many more dealers would be inspired to do inventive installations just like in the old days.

Day Two--A day later much refreshed I could go to look through clearer eyes. The Biennale press release had noted this year’s accent on younger dealers. In order for the art world to continue as a vibrant field the new blood is vital. We need new dealers and new collectors and at last they are both definitely present.

French 18th century decorative arts remain a good reason to visit the Biennale but there was a solid showing of the 19th and 20th century. And what was particularly interesting to me was the fact that many of the 18th century dealers are showing a contemporary highlight or two, proving that works of fine quality can live well together no matter the period.

Another draw for the Biennale is the participation of the most important international jewelers. This encourages spouses, who may be as interested in gems as they are in art, to come along. In fact, for the opening the jewelers’ stands were too crowded for me to get near them.

With day three under my belt I realize that there is much more to say about the Biennale and the other fairs and private dealer exhibitions that make this week a big art week in Paris. So I guess I have to end this blog with… to be continued…

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Go East Old Man, Go East

For the past dozen years I have spent most of my summers at our home in Santa Fe and always flown East around September 11 (still excellent air fares that day) to get back to New York and or Europe.

I have, however, always wanted to stay in Santa Fe for the month of September. The summer crowd has left, the weather is beautiful and there are many activities after the Fiesta celebrations. But there is always something that I need to do back East so it does not happen. As I say every year at this time, “Maybe next year”.

This year what is luring me away is the 25th Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. The fair, which will open on September 14 and run from the 15th-22nd, is organized by the Syndicat National des Antiquaires the French art and antiques dealers association. It has around 350 members, mostly from France, but several other nations are represented as well. Although we do not exhibit in the Biennale my firm has been a member of the Syndicat ever since my uncle lived in Paris. He was there from the late 1920’s to the mid 1960’s with a decade’s gap in the 40’s when he lived in New York.

Years ago this fair was one of the most innovative in the world. I remember when a group of 8 Parisian dealers, who often worked together, built a fortress with each dealer showing in his own part of the fort. An English dealer constructed a major mahogany library on his stand, but the most innovative installation that year was a dealer who had borrowed a French 18th century painting from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He showed it under a glass bridge that one had to cross over to get into his booth. I would have liked to see the curator’s face when he learned how the dealer planned to protect the painting. Well, it was certainly under glass!

Shortly after that extravaganza the Grand Palais, the beaux arts architectural wonder in the center of Paris that had housed the Biennale, closed for a 10 year renovation. The Biennale moved into an exhibition space in the Carrousel du Louvre, the underground shopping mall next to the great museum. There was no room for innovative installations there and the tradition of design competition among the dealers was lost by the time the show came back to the Grand Palais just a few years ago. Who knows, maybe this year it will be revived.. A friend and colleague of mine who will be exhibiting said that they had a surprise, something special, planned so I am very curious to see what it is.

The September date seems early for a major fair to us in the U.S. where we haven’t yet settled into our fall work routines. Maybe that is why they pick it. But scheduling such events is a very complicated affair, and the exhibitors’ opinion of a desirable date that does not conflict with other arts activities is not the only consideration. One cannot just walk into the Grand Palais and demand a certain time slot. There are commercial, political and museum priorities at this prestigious venue where various sections are used for exhibitions throughout the year.

What will this year’s Biennale be like? The art dealer lives in eternal hope. Will there be something to race his/her motor, and possibly buy, around the next corner? And then will there be a passionate collector who will fall in love with it at the next turn? All in all the Paris Biennale is an excellent reason to venture East.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Georgia On My Mind

In Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is front and center much of the time. There is a museum that bears her name here and it is one of the city’s most popular attractions.

Georgia O’Keeffe began coming to New Mexico in 1929 and visited every year until 1949 when she decided to become a resident of the state.

Last week I saw a wonderful exhibition called “Georgia O’Keeffe Abstraction” for the second time. I first saw it in New York at the Whitney Museum and last week at the O’Keeffe here in Santa Fe. Between those two venues it was presented at the Phillips in Washington D.C. From opening to closing the show was on the road for a full year.

The exhibition team was lead by Barbara Haskell, curator at the Whitney and included several other authorities including Barbara Buhler Lynes, the Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, also an eminent authority in the field.

The exhibition traces the development of O’Keeffe’s interest in abstraction over her long career so that one can see her themes and interests in chronological order. The Whitney version included over 125 paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculptures. It was truly a monumental show befitting a great artist. For me, however, in exhibitions, less is often more, so I found the exhibition here in Santa Fe, where it had contracted by about 25%, more digestible and enjoyable.

Since I am always interested in what makes people tick, why they go in the directions they choose, I particularly enjoyed O’Keeffe’s quotes on the walls between the works of art.

One of my favorite, from 1922, “Singing has always seemed to me the most perfect means of expression… It is so spontaneous… Since I cannot sing I paint”. That jogged my memory, my father used to say something analogous, “Since I cannot create art, I deal in it”. Ah, but that is for another Missive!

One of her most revelatory quotes is, “ Nothing is less real than realism… Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Or maybe even better, “I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time”

I was always a fan of Georgia O’Keeffe even when her monographic exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the 1970’s was generally panned* But I only fully appreciated her work a decade later when I came to New Mexico and saw the light, the clouds, the mountains as she had.

We all strive to communicate what is most important to us in any way we can. Some are masters of the spoken word, others of the pen or paint brush. For me O’Keefe is among the masters. Using abstraction she evoked the essence of the light and landscape of her (and my) beloved Southwest.