NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ver the last few years, I’ve covered dozens of art fairs. The TEFAF fair in Maastricht was my last, and, I believe, the Western world’s last, live fair, for now. I wrote about it here in early March. It closed a few days later, after a dealer was hit with COVID-19, and within a few days after that, an axis of panicky politicians and lifer health bureaucrats closed the world’s economy. The news business goaded them with their “grandma’s gonna die unless” headlines.
Not that the art world figured in anyone’s analysis of costs and benefits. Nobody in public authority seems to have thought about any of the costs of a reckless, never-been-done quarantine of billions of healthy people. On my art-world beat, every arts venue was shut and the art market was paralyzed for the first time in history. I hate trying things that have never been done by anyone, anywhere before.
“Never been done before” makes for news, though, and the online version of the annual International Fine Art Print Fair is the first virtual iteration of a fair I’ve been attending every year for 30 years. It’s run by the trade association of print dealers and covers seven centuries of engraving, woodcut, etching, and other art media arising from the printing press. It was my first online art fair since the COVID-19 crisis, and my first ever.
Artsy, a good online art-clearinghouse site, hosted. I enjoyed it. About 150 dealers participated, some simulating a booth but most offering an array of works in high-quality images. A few days after it started on May 13, the print dealers’ association blasted news of a big sale — an impression of Albrecht Durer’s “The Rhinoceros” from 1515 — for what it touted as a six-figure price. The dealer, David Tunick, is among the most esteemed of Old Master print dealers ever, so the very highest quality can be assumed.
Durer never saw a rhinoceros, but one managed to get to Portugal from India in 1513, courtesy of the intrepid, inquisitive, and very acquisitive King Manuel, who assembled a menagerie. The rhino, the first in Europe since the Roman era, was, to say the least, a marquee presence. The news quickly reached Nuremberg, where Durer lived.
Durer was interested in exoticism, but that wasn’t his specialty. He was exacting and precise in his landscapes and buildings, and I suppose a rhinoceros offered looks and textures from nature he hadn’t experienced. In the 1510s, too, Durer was at his most decorative, with lots of design flourish and a new concern with arms and armor. To us, his rhinoceros looks like a tank, or a Marvel action figure. The print is exceedingly rare. In 2013 an impression of “The Rhinoceros” sold at Christie’s for $866,000 on a $100,000–$150,000 estimate, after a fevered bidding war.
I hear there were many sighs of relief when Tunick got a big sale, though I doubt the price was that high. Would an online art fair fly? It’s a tough proposition. There are two big, intractable, thorny givens: a buyer can’t see the art for sale and the dealer’s salesman skills are fettered. I would say the first is the bigger challenge. To me, buying art sight unseen is taboo, though I’ve done it.
Young print collectors are starter buyers. Prints, unless they’re six-figure Durers, are usually very affordable — one of the sublime features of the print fair is the availability of very good art for less than $1000. If a buyer is just starting a collection, or if the buyer wants things he can enjoy at home, seeing the scale, color, and look of something firsthand is very good and I would have said essential. Condition should be important to everyone. To me, print collecting is a satisfying form of connoisseurship. And at an in-the-flesh fair, there’s the dynamic of seeing many things during a two- or three-hour visit and buying what you’ve finally concluded you love.
The look of an inked surface, the ink’s color, the feel of the paper, and how velvety a drypoint’s burr is are features that serious print lovers fetishize. An etched plate will give only so many good impressions, so we obsess over crispness of little lines that fade with each strike of the press.
Of course, today people search for romance online, and what I’m describing as an old-line art historian might sound ritualistic at best, neurotic at worst. Still, the more informed a collector is, the more likely it is that he’s going to crave the real thing with all the nuances before buying.
The online print fair has a good system for communicating with dealers, and I think almost all the dealers sell on approval. On the issue of New York–based dealers and potential buyers breaking lockdown for a private viewing, I don’t think that’s possible. Dealers in New York, by and large, couldn’t get into office buildings in New York until the last few days.
In any event, would anyone have gone to Manhattan the last couple of weeks? Unless the city had a concealed-carry law, I wouldn’t even consider it. Suffice to say, in this sale people were shopping and buying without seeing.
Still, my feeling on the print fair is “go for it.” For the time being, buyers and browsers will have to work harder to educate themselves and to ask dealers questions. Print dealers, in my opinion, are among the unsung heroes of the art business. It’s a connoisseur’s business, and I don’t think anyone is getting rich. The museum world has hierarchies, with paintings on top and prints, well, the print galleries in many newly built museums are usually near the bathrooms. The established dealers represented at the fair love prints, and that breeds patience.
Some of my favorite dealers offer a big menu. Conrad Graeber offered a range from Old Masters to the present at good prices. His online booth offered about 150 objects, a hefty number for the show. At a print fair, matted prints are placed in a pile on an easel. Flipping through is fun and educational, and if the joy of the hunt is for you, well, you never know what the racks reveal. Graeber simulated this through a big variety and the arbitrary arrangement. As the viewer scrolled, he moved from Old Masters to modern American prints to Impressionist prints. A 1905 etching by Picasso of Salome dancing before St. John the Baptist’s severed head, for $12,000, was a nice surprise, as was a Steinlen portrait of a young, hearty, handsome Maxim Gorky for $2,000.
Graeber, Thomas French, and Jan Johnson were three of the encyclopaedic or generalist dealers, and each had great things. Jan Johnson’s Edouard Vuillard lithograph of a gorgeous French promenade on a sunny day was as fresh as the day it portrayed. It’s from 1898 and sells for $16,000. Vuillard is best known for scenes of everyday life in small bourgeois apartments in Paris, with lots of patterns and cloistered encounters but he’s great with big outdoor scenes of leisure, too.
Betsy Senior isn’t encyclopaedic but she’s focused on the very best contemporary, mostly American art. Her booth was wide ranging within those parameters and I loved her impression of Alex Katz’s “Forest Woodcut,” a 68-by-30-inch, eight-block woodcut and Katz’s biggest print. It’s from 2008 and very rare. At $35,000, it’s a great buy.
I saw many things that moved and beguiled me, as I always do in print shows. A print is a mechanical reproduction, to be sure, but as an art historian I see every impression, whether it’s from an edition of 25 or 100 or 500, as having the potential of singularity. It could be the quality of the paper — some artists use handmade antique paper that could be 200 years old — or the quality of inking the plate.
Whistler, for instance, tended to supervise each impression’s printing, adjusting how the plate was inked, and after seeing lots of Whistlers, I like to think I can spot where Whistler was more or less involved by the subtlety of tone. Tonal range is impossible to see online, I think, and that’s one of the biggest disadvantages of an online fair. There were lots of Whistler prints for sale but I wouldn’t buy one unless I saw it.
In the case of a monotype, we’re looking at a one-off — it’s not produced in numbers — that’s gone through a printing press. Achim Moeller, the distinguished dealer of 20th-century art, works in New York and Berlin. He is a dealer but a scholar as well, with an art historian’s knowledge of his artists. His things are always exquisite, none more so that a Mark Tobey monotype. A monotype is a painted or inked surface from which only one impression, at most two, can be gotten because the properties of the plate or the paper drink, in effect, all the paint or the ink.
Tobey (1890–1976) was an Abstract Expressionist artist who usually worked in a small scale with delicate dabs of paint and the subtlest transitions in color. He made prints later in his career, and his monotypes especially are both serene and experimental. His 1965 monotype, priced at $34,000, started as a plate made from styrofoam. Tobey painted it and then put the plate through the press covered by a sheet of rice paper. The effects are part deliberate, part unexpected, a wistful passage of mottled color and arbitrary shapes but, here, lots of structure. Tobey then added some hand-applied touches of tempera. I’d call it unique, but the printing press introduced a mechanical actor.
Moeller is a specialist dealer in that his art is mostly 20th-century and emphasizes German and French artists who are both aesthetically and intellectually bracing. They’re beautiful objects but they demand close looking. Alice Adam is a Chicago dealer with a deeper focus still and renowned expertise in German Expressionism and the Bauhaus and Dada movements. In business since the 1970s, she works with museums and the most serious connoisseurs in building focused collections.
Adam offered two very, very rare Kurt Schwitters collages from 1923 that started as lithographs. They’re $150,000 each. Tobey is ethereal, and so is Schwitters (1887–1948), but Schwitters uses small, arbitrary geometric shapes that juxtapose a good jostle with German discipline. Schwitters comes from the world of graphic design and typography, and his collages have the feel of blocks of type assuming an inner life.
I was thrilled with John Szock’s booth, which was almost all Picasso prints. It was a deep, rich mini-retrospective. His business is focused on Picasso, Munch, and other giants of Modernist printmaking, and his choice of an array of Picassos was brilliant. His selection starts with “The Frugal Repast” from 1904 and runs through “La chute d’Icare” from 1972, the year before Picasso died. Picasso was endlessly inventive in every print medium, in each of his periods.
Icarus fell to the earth when he tried to touch the sun. The wax fastening his homemade wings to his body melted as he approached. He’s a figure representing the hubris of young people, their ambition and daring gone wrong. Bruegel and Rubens painted their own versions of the fall of Icarus, and Picasso did a big Icarus mural in 1958. Nearing 90, he returned to the theme of the eternally young grasping for the unattainable. It’s a beautiful image.
Shark’s Ink, Two Palms Press, Stewart and Stewart, and Stoney Road Press in Dublin are among the printing houses at the fair. To me, they’re the secret treasures of the print world. These presses work with artists who have an aesthetic vision but need technical masters to partner with them. Together, artist and printer push technology to push the envelope on what printmaking can do.
I loved Stewart and Stewart’s work with Janet Fish (b. 1938), part of the group of sharply realist artists who emerged in the 1970s. “Leyden” is a brilliant twelve-color screen print the firm made with Fish in 1991. It’s from an edition of 44 and sells for $12,000. It’s Stewart and Stewart’s 40th anniversary this year. They’ve worked with Fish for years, and they dedicated their online booth to her work.
“Leyden” is a triumph of color, and Stoney Brook’s “Ilulissat,” by Barbara Rae from 2019, is a triumph in monumental form and monolithic feel. Rae (b. 1943) is Scottish, and Stoney Brook’s Irish, and together they’ve used a new process called a carborundum print. It starts with silicon carbide, an industrial abrasive they obtain in powdered form and mix with water-based glue that the artist uses to paint on the plate, which is a thin sheet of plastic. The paint hardens and has texture. The plate is then inked and run through the press and printed on paper. Ilulissat is in western Greenland, and Rae’s medium suits its rough terrain of rock and ice. The print’s big — 59 by 75 inches — and bold. I love its roughness, which gives it a beauty that isn’t suave or refined but direct. It’s £8,000.
There’s plenty more contemporary art. This reflects the younger crowd the fair wants to attract. When I was a graduate student, the Old Masters dealers dominated, but over time they’ve gone to join Goya, Durer, and Rembrandt in heaven. My one observation is this. I saw lots of new work by Sarah Brayer, Will Cotton, Ryan Gander, Glenn Brown, Sarah Lee, and Grayson Perry — all fine artists — at Paragon or Rabley Gallery, but then I’d look at work from the 1970s by Louise Nevelson or Lucas Samaras or Sven Lukin. Pace had a great selection.
I looked at their counterparts today and one word stayed in my head: “light.” Not lightweight but lacking the edge, gravity, fantastic color, or surliness of the ’70s artists. Tame, I think, might say it better.
It didn’t surprise me that the biggest bombs were by Andy Warhol. Big screen prints from, say, between 1980 and 1986, depicting Theodore Roosevelt in neon, fresh from a safari, or a Northwest Native American mask, are hideous, pointless, and, at £50,000 and up, really expensive. Warhol (1928–1987) is a 1960s artist whose aesthetic vision ran out of gas in 1968 when he was shot. I can’t say the Warhols I saw at the print fair were junk. “Ugly” is more precise, as is “pointless,” since by 1980 he was a celebrity and a magazine publisher, and if he was an artist, it was performance art.
I hope the live fairs return, but I’m not optimistic. Shopping online is so convenient. I miss seeing my dealer friends but I don’t miss the random, surprise encounters with people whose names I don’t remember, or with whom I don’t want to chat any more than they want to chat with me, or the rarest of smelly lumps: people I don’t like. Social distancing is a big problem at a fair where booths are small. And, of course, many are terrified of large gatherings. I think the auction business will mostly move online, with selected previews or previews open to serious, gilded clients.