As the world economy began to unravel in September and October, the art market continued to prosper for a week or two before entering a volatile phase which has generally been hard on the major auction houses and dealers. However, the most important and desirable objects continued to sell at prices one would have expected before the collapse. “Suprematist Composition” by Kazimir Malevich sold at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 3 for $60 million. A superb Degas dancer fetched $37 million—a record for a work on paper; and The blue Wittelsbach diamond sold for over $24 million at Christie’s London on December 10th. Souren Melikian, writing in the International Herald Tribune, explained the phenomenon well. Buyers were driven by the awareness that these works are unique. Moreover, these areas of the market were not much affected by the consumerist bubble which characterized the contemporary art market, as nouveaux riches fell over one another acquiring bigger, gaudier, and nastier trophies for their oversized homes. As Melikian said, connoisseurs had an opportunity to “take back control of the art market.”
Around the last week of every January, these connoisseurs descend on New York for “Old Master Week,” as they affectionately call it. As Sotheby’s and Christie’s hold their sales of old master paintings, drawings, and sculpture, the major local and European dealers exhibit the best they have to show in galleries along Madison Avenue. Many of the out-of-town dealers show under the auspices of Master Drawings in New York, a joint initiative which began as Master Drawings in London, an early July event which similarly complements the London old master sales. Beyond that, the Morgan Library will present The Thaw Collection of Master Drawings: Acquisitions Since 2002, the current installment of a series of exhibitions going back to 1975. Now, after more than thirty years, Eugene Thaw appears to be the last of the collectors of master drawings, who acquired on a truly grand scale. For that matter, at the Met, The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions will still be on view through February 1 and will also offer a few valuable lessons for the developing connoisseur.
Rarity, the very force which buoyed up prices for the very best material during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, has severely curtailed the old master market over the past fifteen to twenty years. As the best works find their way into museum collections and disappear from the market, the supply has dwindled to a trickle. The sales of the major houses were once much larger and more frequent than they are today, and the meager supplies of old masters are now filled out with nineteenth century and British works, which used to have their own dedicated auctions. In the heady years between 1965 and 1985, dealers could organize themed exhibitions from stock, which often rivaled the loan exhibitions of museums. Today, most of those dealers are no longer active, although a few, like Richard Day and Jean-Luc Baroni, soldier on with impressive success. This month you can visit these old masters in New York, as well as a troupe of younger dealers, who will be showing their own intelligent and idiosyncratic selections, which will of necessity fan out more broadly than in days gone by. A dealer who might have presented an exhibition of Central Italian drawings from 1525 to 1580 will now include French, Italian, Spanish, British, German, Austrian, and Swiss works from the 19th and 20th centuries. But even without a theme or a scholarly argument (And some of these merchants are great scholars.) these exhibitions are splendid to behold. In fact, the quality of the work in these exhibitions is extraordinary this year, easily the best for some time, as are the auctions. Now in midwinter and in the midwinter of the economy, you can have the surreal experience of seeing a magnificent display of great art for sale, almost on a level of great times long passed.
I’ll survey the old master drawings exhibitions geographically, beginning uptown…and maintaining the fiction that one could visit all these exhibitions in a single evening and remember it all. Another advantage of beginning uptown is that an especially appealing restaurant lies at the end of it on 66th Street, the Bistro Chat Noir.
Our itinerary must begin with a distinguished New York gallery which is not a part of the Master Drawings group, W. M. Brady. I have not yet seen the catalogue, but I do know that there will be a delicate early Degas, as well as the usual fine collection of mostly Italian and French drawings and watercolors from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. Jean-Luc Baroni’s show is almost next door at Adam Williams Fine Art on 80th between Madison and Fifth. Baroni managed Colnaghi’s drawings for many years. Today his exhibitions show the same taste for drawings which are lively and interesting as well as impressive and important, always presented in rich period frames. His grand Domenico Tiepolo Allegory of Prudence offers only a hint of the splendors he has in store. Last year I thought his was the finest of the exhibitions I visited.
On 79th Street, Shepherd & Derom Galleries will host exhibitions by the private dealer Margot Gordon of New York as well as Crispian Riley-Smith, who is based in North Yorkshire. Ms. Gordon in Italian drawings from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, including a wonderfully gritty sheet from the circle of Mantegna, while Riley-Smith has broader interests. He will be showing important head studies by Guercino and Greuze, as well as an exquisite group of botanicals. In the next block down Madison at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Richard Day and James Faber will show Italian and French drawings from the Renaissance to the eighteen century, including an elegant drawing on blue paper by Pomponio Amalteo (1505-88), the most important of the followers of Il Pordenone. They will share the space with Lowell Libson’s important British drawings, paintings and watercolors, which will include masterpieces by Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Cotman, Cozens, Varley, and Linnell.
After that you can enjoy a few blocks’ walk in the cold to 73rd Street, where C. G. Boerner. Mary-Anne Martin, Nissman, Abromson, Ltd., Trinity Fine Arts, and L’Antiquaire & the Connoisseur are located. Mia Weiner will be showing at L’Antiquaire. Ms. Weiner, who is based in Norfolk, Connecticut, will be showing an elegant copy by Claudine Bouzonnet-Stella (1636–97) after Poussin’s Venus Showing the Arms to Aeneas, as well as an important and handsomestudy in bodycolor of a young man’s head by Beccafumi, a study for his fresco of the Murder of Spurius Maelius in the Palazzo Pubblico at Siena. She will also be showing an amusing depiction of an armed robbery by Vinckeboons. Joan Nissman and Morton Abromson of Brookline, Massachusetts, who will be showing at Praxis International Art, will have an impressive group, which will span Italian mannerism and the modern, including, Balducci, Natoire, Gemito, and Villon, as well as a magnificent study of an angel in black chalk on blue paper, heightened with white, by the Florentine Bernardino Poccetti (1548-1612). More Gemito will be on view at Trinity Fine Art next door.
Mary-Anne Martin, as a specialist in twentieth century Mexican and Latin American art, will offer something different with works by Orozco, Kahlo, and Rivera, includinga fascinating and powerful study by Rivera for the figure of “Song” in his Creation Mural in Bolivar Auditorium in Mexico City. The model was Guadalupe Marín, Rivera’s future wife, who was having an affair with Edward Weston at the time. Rivera most likely made this study on their first meeting, which he described as follows:
“a strange and marvelous-looking creature, nearly six feet tall, appeared.She was black haired, yet her hair looked more like that of a chestnut mare than a woman’s.Her green eyes were so transparent she seemed to be blind.Her face was an Indian’s, the mouth with its full, powerful lips open, the corners drooping like those of a tiger.The teeth showed sparkling and regular: animal teeth set in coral such as one sees in old idols.Held at her breast, her extraordinary hands the beauty of tree roots or eagle talons…”
“Is this the great Diego Rivera?” Lupe asks “To me he looks horrible!”
In 72nd Street, at Mark Murray Fine Paintings, Stephen Ongpin will present an especially important exhibition. In our gallery I reproduce only the sensitive study of a youth by the Tuscan painter, Il Passignano, the crazy bacchanale by the Genoese Domenico Piola, and the splendid Degas dancer, to give an idea of the range of this collection, which is especially rich in Italian drawings. Eastwards, at Clinton Howell Antiques, James Mackinnon will show British drawings and watercolors. The distinguished specialist in 18th century French art and decorative objects, Stiebel who are also very strong in the Italians, will show an elegant caricature by G. B. Tiepolo, and host the London dealer Emanuel von Baeyer, who will show 19th century French and German drawings, most notably a delicate study of a pensive gir (Cinderella)l by Georg Friederich Kersting (1785-1847) and a watercolor of a Bavarian boy by Friedrich Moritz Wendler (German, 1814-1872).
The final destination is the block between Madison and Park on 66th Street, where David Tunick and Dickinson, who will host Andrew Wyld/W. S. Fine Art, are located. Tunick will show Italian and Dutch Old Masters. Dickinson boasts a drawing by Sol Lewitt and a Portrait of the Infant Daughter of Admiral Walker, Commander of the Turkish Fleet by David Wilkie, in which the child wears traditional Turkish dress. Andrew Wyld will have an outstanding group of 19th century British drawings and watercolors, including sheets by Gainsborough, Towne, Constable, and Turner. Constable’s unusual pencil drawing of a girl reading stems from a series of sketches of close friends he made in 1806. Gainsborough’s Coastal Scene with Cattle and Sailing Vessels is a nostalgic late work in which he evokes his early imitations of the Dutch landscape style. Towne’s waterfall study, a glowing watercolor, full of subtle observations of light and color, comes from his series of Welsh views of 1777. Turner’s Storm at Sea, an almost formless study of water, light, and weather, is a preliminary study for his Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, now in the Yale Center for British Art (1832).
The beauty of these events is that they constantly tempt the collector to change his or her habits through new discoveries, and branching out it s necessity these days. Even Eugene Thaw, who used to stick to the classics of old master and impressionist drawings has broadened his taste. Today no one can collect drawings as he did in the beginning, or like Woodner or the Steiners in their time. There is no formula for collecting drawings, especially today. Historicaly collectors of drawings have been the most passionate—and the quirkiest—of all those prone to the addiction. A brilliant success has been Robert Loper’s handsome and witty collection, which was recently shown at the Clark Art Institute. If at Master Drawings an Italianist falls in love with a Rivera, or an Anglophile feels an inexplicable desire to take Cinderella home with him, a good thing will have happened.
In any case, we are at the end of our art stroll, pixilated, perhaps, by all the drawings and watercolors we have seen and all the drinks we have consumed…and we are very late for our nine o’clock reservation at the Bistro Chate Noir, which I recommend. It has all the relaxed charm of the best neighborhood establishments on the Upper East Side and its own polished version of French bistro cooking—just the thing for cold January night. [Bistro Chat Noir, 22 East 66th Street, New York City, 212.794.2428.]