At TEFAF ’16, Secrets Of A Great Art Fair

Pablo Picasso, “Peintre au Chapeau” (1965) at Hammer Galleries

This is coming late. I know.  A couple of terrorist attacks will do that.

But in its own way, perhaps the delay in writing this proves the point I want to make: that in an obscene overabundance of art fairs, and when so often many of the same works appear over and over again (either at the same gallery’s stand as the last time, or another) rare indeed is the fair you still remember long after it is over.

Consistently, TEFAF is one you do.  (I should add that the same is true, too, of BRAFA, the more intimate and smaller TEFAF-style fair held in Brussels every January.)

That fact has less to do, really, with the specific quality of the works on view there (though they tend to be the best), but rather, with the range of offerings — from Persian carpets and Egyptian burial figures dating thousands of years BC, to contemporary jewels by Cartier and Graff and Hemmerle, to African fetishes and Picasso portraits of Jacqueline and chairs by Charlotte Perriand.  And then some. Even more, the lasting impressions of TEFAF come as echoes, reflections of the galleries who recognize the potential in this encyclopedic presentation of the entire human history of art.

Case in point: This year, I wandered into the stand of Axel Vervoordt along with a close friend.  Vervoordt is known for his extraordinary ability to combine the art and design of many cultures into a harmonic visual symphony — be it an Australian Aboriginal tjuringa, say, with 17th century Flemish tapestries, or a white Lucio Fontana “Concetta Spaziale” alongside a marble torso from ancient Rome.  And so we encountered a large, almost hypnotizing, alabaster ring, massive and yet appearing light, even translucent, its exterior roughly hewn, its center smoothly polished.

Anish Kapoor Untitled, 2013

Anish Kapoor
Untitled, 2013 at Axel Vervoordt

“What would that be?” my friend, whose expertise in art spans several areas, from contemporary American to tribal

African and more.  “From when?”

I reckoned it was Asian,  from several centuries, even millennia ago.  I smiled at her. “Take that, Anish Kapoor,” I said.

Curious, we found our way to Noach Vander Beken, whom I often refer to as “the guy who knows everything” at Vervoordt.

“It’s a sculpture by Anish Kapoor,” he said.

We laughed.  Then we wondered if he was joking.  It was difficult to tell.

This is my point. (It was, by the way, a sculpture by Anish Kapoor.) In  a forum such as this, the timelessness of the very best in art shines to the fore: art that goes beyond culture, beyond politics, beyond even usefulness. You could say the same, too, for instance, of the jadeite Maori pendant and Anthony Meyer’s stand, or of the lovingly-assembled collection of Picasso drawings at Thomas Salis Art & Design, installed alongside the kinds of African sculptures that so inspired the artist. or the 11th-century Cambodian figure nestled beside an 1877 oil by Degas.

For the viewer, connections come to mind both immediately and over time.  Weeks later, I still consider the relationships among works placed in juxtaposition in these spaces — how they relate to one another either visually or metaphorically or both, how their histories reveal nuances otherwise invisible.

Thomas Salis Art & Design, installation view

Thomas Salis Art & Design, installation view


Maori jadeite pendant at Anthony Meyer Oceanic Art


This same was true, albeit in a different way, at the elegantly-curated Hammer Galleries presentation of works by Picasso and Matisse.  This was no ordinary art fair stand, but a museum-quality gallery exhibition, complete with catalogue.  In an age when art fairs increasingly are coming to look like exactly what they really are — trade fairs, not much different from, say, household goods fairs or communication technology fairs — a reminder that this is first about art, not commerce; about human achievement, not auction values hanging on the wall, is not just refreshing, but critical.  These are moments when one stops checking the labels, counting the red dots, comparing Artnet results, and just – looks.

And in looking, discovers, there, so much.


All photos copyright P. Madden


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