The New York Times, MARCH 31, 2006
Sublime Asian art at an evolving U.S. event
By Roberta Smith
NEW YORK Asia Week is upon New York, and it is bigger than ever.
Two substantial Asian art fairs have taken over the Seventh Regiment
Armory on Park Avenue and the Gramercy Park Armory. About two dozen
special gallery exhibitions are spread around the Upper East Side. Timed
to coincide with the fairs and mounted by local and visiting dealers,
some are sublime.
But this year the movable feast that is Asia Week is more in flux than
usual, jostled by changes from all sides. These include the exploding
economic growth of China, which has created a market there for Chinese
art of all kinds, driving up prices and limiting the dwindling amount of
top-quality historical material coming to the West. Adding to the
overall shortages are the complex issues of legitimate provenance and
new attitudes regarding exports.
Locally, the impetus for it all - the uptown International Asian Art
Fair, before which Asia Week did not exist - is very much in transition.
The fair's purview has been expanded to include art from Africa, Oceania
and the Americas, much like its less patrician rival, the New York Arts
of Pacific Asia Show. The fair this year also includes unprecedented
quantities of contemporary Korean, Japanese and Chinese art.
Some of the International Asian Art Fair's most respected veteran
dealers have not returned this year, among them Doris Wiener, Grace Wu
Bruce, Roger Keverne, Sydney L. Moss and John Eskenazi. The reasons are
complex, and a certain amount of eye- rolling about the fair's new shape
is inevitable. But often the cause seems to be the dearth of good
material or simply individual shifts in ways of working. Doris Wiener,
the doyenne of dealers of ancient Indian and Southeast Asian art, is
simply taking the year off. Eskenazi is scaling back his business to
concentrate on curatorial projects.
International Asian Art Fair
In truth, the International Asian Art Fair is not what it used to be: a
place for relatively hushed (given the setting), awe-inspiring, finely
tuned presentations of museum-quality works. And it is not what it may
someday become. At this point it seems bewilderingly suspended over
three quite different alternatives. It could become a fair devoted to
the best from a range of non-Western cultures, a fair of contemporary
Asian art that is prone to hollow reiterations of past glories, or a
routine fair of older Asian material dominated by familiar examples of,
say, Tang and Song dynasty ceramics.
This said, some of the fair's stalwarts have put up wonderful work this
year, including Nancy Wiener (daughter of Doris Wiener) whose display of
Southeast Asian sculptures is overseen by a serene 10th-century Khmer
sandstone statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.
Hiroshi Yanagi's handsomely shadowy booth features eight carved-wood
Buddhas and Shinto deities dating to Heian period in Japan. Sandra
Whitman is presenting a rare and enormous 17th-century Chinese kilim rug
in shades of apricot and white; its four panels are woven with schematic
cranes, stenciled with traditional Chinese carpet motifs and bordered by
a bold expanse of continuous stripes that, like the kilim technique,
reflect the Mongol influence.
Carlo Cristi has marvelous material from Tibet, Nepal and Central Asia,
including an unusual eighth-century Tibetan conch shell carved with 10
avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. Erik Thomsen has Japanese ceramics and
lacquer, including an unusual 13th-century Suzu storage jar with a
herringbone-textured surface. At Gregg Baker, a wonderfully
self-referential Japanese screen depicts a cluster of screens painted in
Several newcomers are contributing exemplary material that is among
highlights this year, like Robert Winter's display of Japanese armor.
Douglas Dawson's Southeast Asian material includes a vibrant ceramic
sculpture of an elephant and rider from 15th-century Thailand - a recent
shipwreck find to which nature has added a few barnacles.
The contemporary art at the fair this year is dispiritingly slick and
craft oriented. As is the case with contemporary Chinese art in general,
the most convincing efforts involve the camera, not the brush: the
photographs of the ordeal-like performances of Zhang Huan at Barry
Friedman, for example.
Some booths seem overly diverse or a tad dumbed down, with results
ranging from corporate to desperate. Michael Goedhuis' salad of
contemporary Chinese painting is not as good as the show of Qin Feng's
enormous calligraphic abstractions at the Goedhuis gallery.
Art fairs are not static entities; each incarnation brings changes, and
those brought by the 2006 International Asian Art Fair are dramatic and
indicate a new phase. The options are clear, but at this point the
direction is not, nor is its effect on Asia Week in general.
Arts of Pacific Asia Show
The New York Arts of Pacific Asia Show is, in its eccentric way, better
than ever. The quality is generally up, even if some of the outlying
booths have a high- end flea-market feeling.
Although the fair is more thoroughly vetted each year, it remains to
some extent a buyer-beware situation. Still, if appearance matters more
than provenance to you, the Pacific Asia fair offers a mind-boggling
array of covetable stuff for every eye and nearly every pocketbook. The
mood is strikingly personal, as dealers follow their tastes and
passions, which can be contagious.
Here Asian cultures tend to be defined broadly and mixed with abandon.
Thomas Murray, for example, has a monumental house guardian from Borneo
and a spare, modern-looking white Japanese futon cover of delicately
tie-dyed fabric. It finds a distant cousin in a beautiful if worn
two-panel Japanese screen from around 1800 at Galen Lowe whose
silver-leaf surface has calligraphic poem squares and album paintings
depicting scenes from "The Tale of Genji." It could almost be by Robert
At Chinalai Tribal Antiques, there are impressive massings of small
objects like Cambodian loom pulleys or Chinese toggles and overcoat
buttons and silver Laotian jewelry. At Arnold H. Lieberman, a Tibetan
painted-fabric ceiling canopy depicting a flayed human skin draped over
a mandala is hard to miss.
At Dalton/Somare, the Indian material includes some wonderful
terra-cotta pieces and two unusual cylindrical clay vessels from around
the second century B.C. They are decorated with delightful reliefs of
tiny, voluptuous figures.
This is the kind of fair that you can enter as a civilian and leave as a
nascent collector - and without spending a fortune. It conveys the
impression that a life-changing aesthetic experience lurks beyond most
of its many twists and turns.
Asia Week brings an increasingly impressive flotilla of exhibitions to
the Upper East Side, and especially to the Fuller Building.
"Arts of Ancient China" in the beautifully appointed gallery of J.J.
Lally skips about the early millennia of Chinese culture with dizzying
flair, touching on ceramics, lacquer and ritual bronzes, like a glorious
Eastern Zhou dynasty wine jar whose sprightly inlaid figures and animals
enact an elaborate tale.
Sydney L. Moss, led by the founder's grandson, Paul Moss, provides at
least two of the highpoints of the week. A hand scroll of the 18 Lohan,
or perfected beings, by the 16th-century Ming master Ting Yun-peng, is a
tour de force of the spidery pai-miao, or ink outline, technique. Three
rare 12th-century gessoed wood bodhisattvas, whose brilliant colors are
greatly worn, still give off a striking amount of visual heat. Moss has
also brought engrossing displays of small Japanese objects.
The private dealers Alan Kennedy, from Paris, and B.C. Dentan, from San
Francisco, have collaborated on "The Art of Japan," which juxtaposes
luxurious Noh kimonos with coarser but no less flamboyant examples of
ceramic storage jars. The New York dealer Carole Davenport has assembled
"Buddhism and Beyond," which includes a 17th-century portrait of a Zen
priest wearing a robe identical to one that Kennedy has installed on the
other side of the wall, and a compact, subtly geometric Muromachi-
period bronze of the cosmic Buddha.
At William Lipton, the exhibition "Spring Mist From Snow" evokes the
rarefied realm of a Chinese scholar's study with a late-17th-century
table made of exquisitely gnarled woodroot and such literati objects as
an exceptional boxwood ruyi, or lotus scepter. At the small,
white-on-white Mika Gallery, where a gently curved ceiling adds to the
chapel-like atmosphere, "Reflections of Gods" is notable for a small
12th-century sculpture of a Shinto deity whose robe is indicated by ink
"Auspicious Emblems," a 35-piece show at Rossi & Rossi, includes an
18th- century Tibetan thanka that depicts the often invisible protector
Pehar in the form of voluminous robes surrounded by clouds of curling
smoke, and a large 17th- century Nepalese bronze of a Mooshika, the
devoted rodent steed of the elephant- headed Hindu god Ganesha.
Carlton Rochell has mounted the equally large "Realm of the Gods." Its
gems include graceful Chola dynasty bronzes of Ganesha, Shiva and Vishnu
from 10th- and 12th- century India; an amorous Gupta dynasty terra-cotta
panel of Shiva and his consort Parvati; and a dynamic clay bust of a
Hindu god with elegant hands, elongated eyes and cascades of tightly
In the Galleries
Pace Wildenstein, the London house of Eskenazi, headed by Giuseppe
Eskenazi, has its usual impeccable selection of objects, this one
focusing on eight early Chinese bronzes. A climbing gilt- bronze dragon
whose curled tail may have held a lamp is probably rare, but more
rewarding is a late Shang dynasty wine vessel with an exquisite surface
and almost comically ferocious form.
At his small, usually private gallery, Eric Zetterquist has combined 20
outstanding examples of Chinese ceramics - mostly Tang, Song and Yuan -
with Lois Conner's tranquil, screenlike black- and-white photographs of
lotus plants at different times of day or year. It is Asia Week's most
inspired juxtaposition of classical and contemporary material.
At Koichi Yanagi Oriental Fine Arts, shoji screens and tatami mats
create a fitting setting for what may be the United States' first survey
of the enigmatic 18th-century Japanese painter Nagasawa Rosetsu. The 14
works reveal a breathtaking range of skills serving an almost
chameleonlike artistic personality. Deft renderings of birds alternate
with regal portraiture and with calligraphic abandon like that unleashed
in a pair of large folding screens of confronting Chinese lions.
In an Upper East Side brownstone, the private dealer Sebastian Izzard
has "The Floating World in the 18th Century," a beautiful exhibition
devoted to the years when the pleasure district of Edo became the
leading subject of the new, increasingly popular art of color woodblock
print. Prints of geishas, actors and actors dressed as geishas trace the
transition from applied to printed color. A rare six-panel screen
depicts the Yoshiwara brothel district, visible beneath doily- like
gold-leaf clouds and an elegant hanging scroll by Katsukawa Shuncho
zeroes in on a fashionable geisha.
Another example of Asia Week's wonderful exhibitions is "Spring Fever"
at the relocated Kaikodo gallery. The show combines 16th- to
18th-century Chinese paintings with significant ceramics. Nearby, at E.
& J. Frankel, is one of the week's largest, if most compressed,
exhibitions. It features 77 miniature depictions of protective or
wrathful deities from the Tantric Buddhist pantheon. Called tsakli in
Tibet and sakhuis in Mongolian, they were worn as amulets by a nomadic
people. Packed with detail, iconography and color, they form a pantheon
right on Madison Avenue, a fitting summation of the gathering of
artworks and art lovers that is Asia Week in New York.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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