The American Art Fair at Bohemian Hall: Time-Tested Treasures

Sails, c. 1950, by Esphyr Slobodkina (1908 – 2002). Oil on masonite (Courtesy Kraushaar Galleries)
My favorite art fair of them all

I go to lots of art fairs, but I have to say the American Art Fair at Bohemian Hall on the Upper East Side is my favorite. It opens today.

The fair gathers about 20 of the best New York dealers specializing in 19th- and 20th-century American art. That’s my academic specialty, so I’m among friends. These are definitely not the big corporate dealers making millions from glitzy fad artists. The big dealers might as well be in Shanghai or Dubai as New York. Their artists are often international celebrities. Of course, I’m naturally skeptical about paying a million dollars for a painting that’s still wet. A new-car smell is intoxicating. A new-painting smell is a pricey fume.

The art at the fair is time-tested. The dealers are connoisseurs — not snobs but knowledgeable, curious people, each with specific taste, and all about quality. You’re not sized up net-worth-wise the minute you walk in, as the big-white-box contemporary dealers sometimes do. Since it’s American art, visitors feel, at least instinctively, more comfortable. The fair doesn’t have a big-money, manic feel, either. It’s aesthetically a treat, but it’s also a short course in American art.

All the dealers are good, but I’ll focus on three or four. Kraushaar Galleries opened in 1885, so it’s one of America’s oldest art dealers. The gallery represented John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, and George Luks, among many other American avant-garde artists. It had a fluid relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, buying and selling work from Stieglitz’s circle.

I’m climbing on a tender limb now. Kraushaar means history and quality to me. It’s also been run by women since my start in the art world. The old-time American dealers are comfortable places for me since I’m an old-time American art curator. In that world, women dealers aren’t outliers. Betty Parsons and Edith Halpert were two of the greatest dealers in New York. In every shop owned by women, there’s a spirit of graciousness, kindness, and exacting, serious taste. All the dealers at the fair possess this amalgam, or alchemy, in one way or another, but Kraushaar seems to have refined it.

Gifford Beal (1879–1956) showed at the gallery from 1917 until his death, and his Sixtieth Street Yards, from 1915, is a dynamic, paint-rich scene of a frenetic New York freight yard. He’s such a good artist. It’s not big — 17 by 24 inches — but packs a punch with a brilliant palette, a dozen rectangles of jostling trains, and clouds of smoke, or what we’d call air pollution today. Beal’s a realist — he was an Ashcan artist — but his work has the romance of big-city life where what’s gritty, noisy, and smelly looks and feels beautiful, too.

Kraushaar’s booth is mostly early American modernism, with Beal and views of Dogtown in Gloucester by Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, and William Keinbusch. Characteristic of the gallery, though, it throws a wild card in the mix. Kraushaar, after all, did lots of work with Ashcan artists, but it sold some splendid Whistlers, too.

Esphyr Slobodkina (1908–2002) was a Russian refugee who came here in 1928 and painted unusually good cubist work. Sails, from 1950, was, for me, the biggest surprise in the show. American cubism can be a snoozy bore and entirely derivative, high-society wallpaper, but she’s really good. Again, at 16 by 21 inches, it has a nice scale. No one at the American Art Fair suffers from art gigantism — just make mediocre art bigger, and it’ll get better — and the scale of almost everything there is human-sized. It’s five vignettes of sails from different perspectives, each separated by a thick border. It’s very beautiful. It’s got a machine aesthetic of defined geometric shapes, but it also has pliability. They’re sails, after all. They move for a living.

Both are under $50,000, which makes them good deals.

Alexandre Gallery always has good things. Phil Alexandre, the owner, has an aesthetic. It’s not defiant, and he’s not a contrarian. He sees quality where most don’t or can’t. The artists he represents are all good, but all are offbeat, and he and his artists have stayed together for years. I’m all for long marriages, and the relationship between dealer and artist is a kind of marriage, part business but personal, too, since the best dealers often see their work as a mission. For good artists, their work is their heart and soul.

Alexandre’s artists include Lois Dodd, Brett Bigbee, John Walker, the wonderful sculptor Anne Arnold, Neil Welliver, Tom Uttech, Loren McIver, Gregory Amenoff, and Hyman Bloom. They’re artists from our time, but they feel like Old Masters, technically superb painters and sculptors working mostly in representational styles. He loves the luxuriance of materials like paint, ceramics, and wood, unpolluted by polemics. His artists march to the beat of their own drummer, but they’re serious, good, and bracing, as integrity always is.

Alexandre’s booth has three paintings by Hyman Bloom (1913–2009), one of the best American painters of his time but an eccentric. He lived in Boston, for one thing, which is the kiss of death for any artist with an avant-garde pulse. It’s a cultural backwater, strange to say, for anyone doing anything new.

Bloom’s work is so cluttered by his biography. He was born in Latvia, which, let’s face it, is an odd place to come from. He thought as a teenager that he wanted to become a rabbi, and much of his work is religious. Fame doesn’t visit Boston every day of the week, and Bloom didn’t want to be part of the glam New York art world.

I think Alexandre is good at looking past clutter. De Kooning and Pollock considered Bloom “the” pioneer abstract-expressionist artist because of his wild handling of paint in the 1940s, and that’s where we need to start in evaluating him. He’s a great painter, with surfaces like bubbling, viscous oil. They’re sensual but apocalyptic, too. Bloom painted cadavers. Torso and Limbs, from 1952, is lots of body parts. Not a dining-room picture, and not for the billiard room. It’s art that makes no compromise to fancy or fame. There’s no sugar-sprinkled cow manure coming from his gallery, no clichés, no junk, no phonies, no cant.

It’s $225,000, a good price. I visited The Hague a few months ago and saw The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, by Rembrandt, from 1632. It’s an autopsy picture and riveting. Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic in 1875, a painting about surgery. They feel clinical compared with Bloom, whose work is warm and carnal. On one level, he felt the freshly dead presented a color and texture challenge. Leaving this world for the Great Jewish Whatever is a philosophical challenge, and a tough one few artists want to touch.

At Thomas Colville’s booth, I saw his characteristic selection of work that’s fresh to the market and top-notch, with some surprising juxtapositions. I loved John Singer Sargent’s Bologna Fountain, from 1906. Sargent was about to retire from portraiture. After 1907, he did very few big, formal oil portraits. He focused on paintings and watercolors that have a snapshot feel. He did many paintings of what I call recumbent figures — men and women lying down on the grass after a picnic, for example — that freed him to experiment with compositions in a way formal portraits couldn’t. He also did architectural studies, often in Italy, that feel like tourist snapshots. Bologna Fountain is a close-up view and handsome.

Sargent’s biggest project after, say, 1900 was the extensive murals at the Boston Public Library. He worked on them for 20 years. The murals are set in architecture, but they depict architecture, too, another subject that portraiture doesn’t naturally invite, unless the subject is an architect. It’s $350,000. This is a good price for a Sargent watercolor. It’s not Venice, but less glamorous Bologna. Sargent isn’t known for architecture. It’s beautifully, freely painted, and I love the arcades in the background. It’s a connoisseur’s picture, perfect, offbeat, and as intellectual as it is sensual.

Having absorbed myself in Sargent’s architecture, I felt a bit of a jolt from Colville’s selection of abstract art from the 1940s and 1950s. Raymond Jonson (1892–1982) lived in New Mexico, taught art, and painted in a style that really can’t be classified. Oil, Number 10, from 1946, is as disciplined as geometry but sumptuous, too. Glyphic lines set against a gray background and rolling, colorful forms at the base seem exotic. It complements the Sargent watercolor, which is rich, foreign, and tough. At $65,000, it’s certainly value for money. It’s a painting you live with for a lifetime. It will change and grow each day.

There are many other good pictures in the show. Meredith Ward has a striking, Charles Sheeler painting of Hoover Dam from 1950. Like the Beal at Kraushaar, it’s realism meeting romanticism. Sheeler (1883–1965) loved machines, and a dam is a machine with tons of moving parts. By 1950, though, that aesthetic seemed old. His work is taut and tight. Think Pollock whose work at the same time looks arbitrary and drippy, if not leaky. The Sheeler must have felt historic. A dam’s about control. Abstract expressionism is LSD art.

Ward has very good taste. She’s had her own business for the past 15 years but came from Richard York’s gallery. He was a master dealer: canny, savvy, smooth, smart, and a gentleman.

Sheeler saw both past and future. American art is a realist aesthetic. It’s mostly concerned with tangible things we see in our daily lives. I looked at this very strong painting and thought less about dams or Herbert Hoover, whom no one wants to think about. I thought about photorealism, still a generation away. I thought about grids, too, and computers, electronics, and the crazy, unpredictable future high tech will deliver to us.

It’s $650,000 but it’s a prophetic, great Sheeler.

The sweetest, loveliest gem in the show is Questroyal’s October in the Bronx — Study from Nature, painted in 1876 by Sanford Gifford (1823–1880). It’s tiny, 8 by 7 inches, and it’s oil on board, which means Gifford painted it outdoors and on site. Canvas was for studio work. Board was easier to carry. That’s why it looks so fresh and spontaneous. He gave it to his fiancée as a present. Gifford was a vagabond and a rake, finally marrying when he was 53. His wife kept it until she died in 1886. It then went into a Philadelphia private collection until this year, so it’s new to the marketplace. I think provenance is important, and this little thing hasn’t been hauled around as often as Oliver Twist.

Having lived in Riverdale once, I can assure you that tiny slivers of the Bronx still look like this. It’s sparkling. Christmas is around the corner, and Valentine’s Day not far off. It’s a painted love letter. At $95,000, it’s fairly priced. Gifford’s work just reached his record earlier this year, with Christie’s selling a painting for $2.4 million.


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