Yesterday, Jenny and I went to the Asian Art Fair at the Seventh Regiment Armory at Park Avenue and 67th Street. The centerpiece of New York’s Asia Week (click on the link, then scroll down for an excellent slide show), the fair gathers some of the world’s leading dealers of Asian art, and it was fascinating to see these rare, privately held works, and to hear them discussed in a way that is totally different from what you overhear in museum shows. Instead of academic talk about origins and expression, there was much back-and-forth about provenance, price (people batted six- and seven-figure numbers about) and the thrill of the chase.
We were lucky enough to get our admission free simply by joining a tour offered by the Korea Society, which essentially consisted of visits to the three booths focusing on Korean art. It occurred to us that, at least for Americans, Jenny and I are pretty knowledgeable about Korean art: we’ve been to the major museums in Seoul and Kyeongju, to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and to the Metropolitan’s scant collection. The only major repository of Korean art that we haven’t visited is Japan. But there is relatively little surviving Korean art anywhere, and until recently, no Western museums focused much attention on Korean art. As such, many of the best objects remain in private collections.
Each of the three exhibitors offered unique pieces. Probably the most surprising was a small Koryo celadon sculpture of a monk (pictured above). Celadon sculptures are extremely unusual, and the material is of course prone to damage, so a complete, unbroken sculpture in celadon is almost miraculous. Another exhibitor had in her collection a number of high-quality paintings, including a beautiful portrait of a Joseon-era military official from the 18th century. The collection in any one of these three small booths beats the entire Metropolitan collection of Korean art (although the Met does boast some very old bronze pieces).
Other amazing works in the show included John Eskenazi’s superb collection of Gandharan and South Asian art, including Buddhist sculptures from the third through fifth centuries that clearly showed the Greek provenance of the classical image of the Buddha in lotus position with top-knot. There were also spectacular Japanese artifacts and a stunning array of Tang-period and earlier Chinese sculpture.
If you’re interested in Asian art and have a chance to go to the fair this year, do. If you can’t make it, plan to go next year.