A Walk for the Ages Through TEFAF

Konrad Klapheck, Die Party (the party), 1991, Oil on canvas, 65 x 110 cm / 25 2/3 x 43 1/3 in. Courtesy Anthony Meier.


When it comes to international art from all periods, no commercial event beats The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, The Netherlands, for upscale quality. Just unveiled is TEFAF’s silver jubilee edition, marking 25 years with 260 dealers from 18 countries, through Mar. 25. Kicking off the fair was a symposium titled “Collecting: For Art or Money?,” which illuminated the context in which this vital fair is unfolding: strength at the high end, weakness at the low, and an influx of Chinese buyers.

Keynote speaker Claire McAndrew, a cultural economist, focused on China’s new role in driving the art market. Worldwide transactions hit $46.1 billion in 2011, with “different sectors recovering at different rates.” It was “a fantastic year for the Chinese market” and for fine arts more than decorative arts. Nevertheless, McAndrew perceives “a cautious buying climate,” relative to the past, and a “polarized” market. “While the top end has been doing very well,” she observed, “smaller dealers are struggling.” Of course, this would be hard to judge at TEFAF, where everything is high-end.

Based on auction and dealer sales, China has just surpassed the U.S. by a slim margin to become the dominant market. The one hitch in current statistics, McAndrew warns, is the problem of delayed payment or nonpayment altogether for successful bids at Chinese auctions. Meanwhile, TEFAF has many active Chinese buyers in attendance, particularly in Asian antiquities and modern art.

TEFAF, however, is not the place to go for contemporary art—though large, it is no Basel—and “contemporary” here means mainly late 20th-century work. Moreover, for specialties such as photography, prints and works on paper, other fairs are more comprehensive. Still you can find fine examples in all these areas at Maastricht, and it’s the epicenter for classic Western European paintings and antiquities. In a way, the famously well-vetted TEFAF is the “public intellectual” of art fairs, displaying discerning breadth if not exhaustive depth.

The following are some personal highlights of the fair. In keeping with Art in America reader interest, my focus is on modern art, but I could not resist wandering further afield, assisted in my endeavors by a handy new TEFAF app, which I recommend. For my highly subjective selection, I did not follow TEFAF’s guide to glamour items, though I sometimes arrived at the same objects by coincidence. Yet I believe my suggestions will transport visitors handily around the fair, where they will undoubtedly identify their own top picks.

Kicken Berlin (Booth 506)
TEFAF began accepting photography galleries only four years ago, and Kicken was one of the first to come. The booth’s standout for sheer loveliness is the velvety Still Life with Roses, a multiple oil transfer print on Japanese tissue paper from around 1915 by the Austrian pictorialist Heinrich Kühn. You can almost inhale the fragrance of a tightly massed bouquet of dark gray roses in full bloom, their vase delicately encircled by light. Check out, as well, the photos surrounding two bronzes: a modernist Hans Arp abstract head (1959) and an ancient Greek helmet (6th–4th century B.C.). From an anonymous 19th-century study of armor to Brancusi studio shots, the photographs have a morphological resonance with the objects. “The idea was to show how well photography can be presented along with other art mediums,” says Kicken dealer Ina Schmidt-Runke. “In the ’20s there was a zeitgeist; photography was not a separate art form.”

Sperone Westwater (Booth 502)
Mounted at the entrance to this booth is a mini version of the “Portraits/Self-Portraits” exhibition that the gallery presented a few months ago in its Lower East Side space in New York. The Maastricht display includes around a dozen paintings ranging from a bemused self-portrait, smoking, by Susan Rothenberg to a psychologically charged dreamscape by Mark Greenwald. Don’t miss, on the opposite entry wall, Picasso’s 1943 painting of Dora Maar, Tête de Femme, and, inside the booth, a thickly slavered white monochrome by Otto Piene, La Force Pure (1959). Another standout is Alighiero Boetti’s Tutto (Peshawar), 1988, a veritable crazy-quilt of allover imagery-from colorful abstract forms to tiny planes and hands-that the artist composed by randomly dropping cutouts on a sheet of paper to make a collage. He then sent the collage to Afghani embroiderers in Pakistan (thus the title, referring to the Pakistani city). Dealer David Leiber says such Boettis are “underappreciated relative to the maps and texts.” (That type of Boetti embroidery may be seen elsewhere in the fair; check out the small arrazzi texts, for example, at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Booth 520.)

Ben Janssens Oriental Art Ltd (Booth 202)
TEFAF is tony, but like most fairs it overwhelms a soul with a barrage of stimuli. Longing for peace, the visitor would do well to seek out understated Asian antiquities. There’s a small, suggestively lit room of Japanese ceramic vases from all periods, modestly scaled and subtly colored, but with a breathtaking range of shapes and materials, at this London dealer’s booth. Also on view are some terrific Chinese pieces: Pottery Figure of a Court Lady, a painted terra-cotta figure of a plump, elegant and alert courtesan from the Tang period (618–907 A.D.); and a charming jar in the form of a duck (Han, 206 B.C.–220 A.D.). Turn a corner and find two absolutely exquisite diminutive dark wood Buddhas, standing and seated, their drapery falling in buttery curves, from the Japanese Muromachi period (14th–16th century).

Marcel Nies Oriental Art (Booth 146)
This Antwerp gallery offers a small bronze Buddha Shakyamuni with blue head (13th century) from Nepal, and from the Baphuon Temple, Cambodia, an 11th-century standing sandstone Uma goddess, her body modeled in subtle swells and her drapery articulated in narrow, delicately symmetrical folds. (The dealer could not stop stroking her as he talked turkey with an interested buyer-price, 95,000 euros [$125,000].)

Fondation Custodia
Upstairs, in the works on paper section, TEFAF has sponsored an exhibition of the Fondation Custodia, a collection of some 100,000 works on paper-prints, drawings, letters, etc.-the core of which was amassed by collector and scholar Frits Lugt (1884–1970). The collection is now housed in the Hôtel Turgot in Paris. Among the highlights are a crisp drapery study by Leonardo da Vinci in brush and gray-brown wash with white highlights showing the lower part of a seated figure, and a charming study, Flock of Quails Feeding and Resting, in pen and brown ink, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804). While old master drawings are to be found in the Paper section of the fair, most of the interesting examples are integrated into the Painting section downstairs.

Tornabuoni Art (Booth 524)
The Paris gallery, which specializes in Italian art of the second half of the 20th century, here mounts a diverse solo exhibition of Lucio Fontana paintings, ranging from colorful gashed monochromes to punctured mixed-medium canvases studded with glass and strewn with glitter.

Patrick Derom Gallery (Booth 447)
With the 73,000 visitors TEFAF expects this year, you may not be able to hear the gentle clicking of 19 Spheres in an Open Volume, a 1936–38 kinetic sculpture by Pol Bury. But you can watch as its polychrome balls of various sizes and colors rise and fall ever so slightly within a tall, open multi-armed box. “It’s very unusual to see these so large, and in color,” says Gilles Marquenie of the Brussels gallery. “They are like some kind of weird furniture. This is really in the spirit of his “Meubles”-the pieces are extremely rare, hard to find, and many of them, unlike this one, are damaged.”

Schönewald Fine Arts/Anthony Meier Fine Arts (Booth 442)
A substantial stash of Richter paintings was getting most of the attention when I visited this booth. (An advisor was somewhat heatedly telling a client by cell phone that he’d better pony up a million euros quickly or one small, predominantly red Richter abstraction would soon be snatched away. When I returned the next day, the piece had indeed been sold.) But although the Richters were impressive I was struck by two paintings posted at the entrance: Konrad Klapheck’s Die Mütterliche Freundin (1966) and Die Party (1991). His perverse contraptions, looming on cold abstract grounds, always provoke a pleasurable malaise.

Galerie Karsten Greve AG (Booth 500)
Who can resist stepping into a TEFAF booth whose entrance wall is posted with a grid of James Castle drawings? It’s a bold move at this conservative fair. Inside the booth are excellent, mainly modest-scaled works: a roomful of sculptures and works on paper by Louise Bourgeois; Lucio Fontana ceramics, large and small; a number of Twombly paintings on paper; an enigmatic little collage featuring an egret (Untitled for Jeanne Engels, 1963) by Joseph Cornell; and a radiant Mondrian still life of flowers glowing in a dark vase, from 1903.

Daniel Blau (Booth 443)
Here you will find some 100 hitherto unpublished Warhol drawings from the artist’s first decade in New York. Rendered mostly in ink and/or graphite, the 1950s drawings are delightfully fresh, executed in an abbreviated line that leaves many eloquent descriptive gaps. Some look like they were torn out of notebooks or roughly pieced together. Blau has paired the drawings—not always successfully—with a selection of 19th-century photographs, claiming an unconvincing thematic link.

Galerie Ulrich Fiedler (Booth 602)
One of only nine design dealers present, Fiedler has brought some early modernist gems, including a pre-war canvas Wassily Chair, by Marcel Breuer, and an extraordinary desk by the Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1964), featuring green and gray painted steel, white and black painted wood, and a white painted glass top. Its bold geometry is softenend by a curious vulnerability, as the piece is surprisingly small-scale, patently hand-wrought and somewhat worn with time.

Kunsthandlung Helmut H. Rumbler (Booth 373)
There aren’t a lot of old-master prints at TEFAF, but nestled into a corner of the paintings section, Rumbler has a fine selection of works by Rembrandt and Adrian van Ostade. Elsewhere in the booth, don’t miss the personifications of sea and river gods in 18 engravings by Philips Galle (1537–1612)—the wild hairdo of the Danube and the crocodile on which the Nile sits are among the exoticizing details—and a small study of a lady’s muff in five views, an etching by Wenzel Hollar (1607–1677).

Brimo de Laroussilhe (Booth 204)
For the visitor with a medievalist bent, it’s worth visiting de Laroussilhe’s booth to see some late 12th-century enamels from Limoges: two reliquary caskets, one with the theme of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (the scene of his murder in 1170 became extremely popular almost immediately after it occurred); and a small corpus of Christ studded with gems (1190–1200). There is also a heartbreaking stone mourner statuette by Master Aloi of Catalonia from the mid-14th century, in which the figure’s head is tipped at a wrenching angle.

Longari Arte Milano (Booth 184)
Dominating the booth from a corner position is a 4-foot-tall polychrome sculpture of the archangel Michael seated on a throne. With a solemn expression and large hands, the angel was produced by an anonymous sculptor close to Tino di Camaino in 14th-century Italy.

Pelham Galleries Ltd. (Booth 108)
The lushly furnished and decorated pseudo drawing room that forms the core of this booth is chock full of treasures, but do not overlook a modest set of four 17th-century oil-on-alabaster panels depicting allegories of the five senses. (Sight and hearing are conflated on one: a lady looking in a mirror while musicians play nearby). Three scenes transpire in half empty interiors, and one on a terrace (touch, in which two lovers stand embracing near chairs they have apparently just vacated). The anonymous northern Italian paintings were based on well-known engravings by the French Huguenot Abraham Bosse (1604–1672).

Rob Smeets Old Master Paintings (Booth 383)
A large, pristine Mater Dolorosa by Quentin Massys from ca. 1510 virtually glows on the back wall of this booth: the Virgin, placed against a gold background, is shown with hand aloft, shedding tears and garbed in a vibrant blue robe. Smeets informed me that the painting is a brand-new addition, previously unknown, to the Massys catalogue. Also in the booth, and radiating an equally impressive energy: a juicy still life of fruit resting on a stone ledge, with colorful butterflies flittering amid ripe orange berries, by Jan Mortel, 1708.

TEFAF Maastricht is open each day through March 24, 11:00 AM–7:00 PM, and March 25, 11:00–6:00. Admission is 55 euros ($72) per person, 90 euros ($119) for two.