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The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) is aptly named. While walking down the aisles of the storied Park Avenue Armory words in French, German and Dutch flit about the air like bubbles jumping out of a generously filled champagne glass. The Armory’s old New York charm plays into the fair’s old-world ambiance, its prevalence of modern masterworks, and the continental art-chat. The pairing, like being served just the right glass of wine for your meal, elevates the separate parts into something greater.

One could be forgiven, amid all the delightful throwback, for forgetting that it was the abruptly shuttered Tefaf Maastricht fair in 2020 that kicked off Covid-19’s destruction of the traditional art fair calendar (from which hundreds of less-than-interesting Online Viewing Rooms sprung). As visitors in summer casual suits and cocktail attire roamed the venue, canapes were passed around, the multiple bars were always slightly busy (but not annoyingly so). There were even roving raw bars for those who enjoy watching an oyster get shucked and slurping it down while surrounded by fine art. It was almost as if the fair was taking place in the past, before the pandemic redefined how we experience time.

TEFAF New York

But it would be incorrect to call this Tefaf New York a throwback. Despite its historical flavour, it might be the perfect fair for the today’s art market. Over the last few years, collectors have slowly stepped out of the proverbial lanes that they traditionally stayed in. They have broadened their collecting interests. The auction houses caught onto the trend and began doing what they do best, selling things to people who want to buy them. Works by Rembrandt are now offered alongside Hockneys and Klines. Cecily Brown is in the same sale as Basquiat, which may or may not also include a dinosaur fossil (but will more than likely include a non-fungible token). Collectors do not have to stay stick to one era, they are free to collect as if time did not exist.

This is where Tefaf shines. While many of the stands rely heavily on Modern art heavyweights, there are plenty of classic contemporary artworks and design objects. During the VIP preview on 5 May, some works even seemed to still glimmer with wet paint. When works from disparate ages are hung next to each other, the potential dialogue between and around them is exponentially increased.

“Modern for us is the 20th century, but as people age they naturally become more interested in the classics,” says Mathias Rastorfer of the Zurich- and New York-based Gallerie Gmurzynska. “Some fairs focus on mostly the contemporary, Tefaf is a bit older in theme, but here you will find Old Masters and contemporary work as well. It is a wonderful experience for those interested in learning about and living with the past, while also seeing what is happening today.”

Pablo Picasso, Venus et Amour (Venus and Cupid), 1918

Gallerie Gmurzynska proved the point eloquently on the left side of their stand. On the centre wall hangs a 1918 work, priced at $2.8m, by Pablo Picaso, Vénus et Amour. The post-Cubist work was originally a fresco that was executed on a wall of the Villa La Mimoseraraie in Biarritz owned by the Chilean socialite Eugenia Errazuriz. An admirier and patron of Picasso’s, Errazuiz lent the artist the villa during his honeymoon with new wife Olga Kohklova. To the left of the Picasso, on a separate wall, hangs a powerful Wifredo Lam still life, one of two in the booth (only one was for sale). And across from the Lam is a smaller canvas, relative to the Picasso and the Lam which are both nearly 5ft high, The Gentlewoman or the Aggravation of our Incoherences by the French-American artist Anh Duong. A woman passionately leans back while being kissed on the neck by a man whose face is obscured. Her hand gently hangs above his head all but actively controlling the scene. Completed in 2022, this canvass nods to the mass of figurative work that is popular at contemporary art auctions and downtown galleries, while also echoing the joy and power of Picasso’s Venus sharing thematic elements and colours with both the Lams.

Teresita Fernández’s presentation at Lehmann Maupin’s TEFAF booth. Installation view, Park Avenue Armory

At Lehman Maupin’s stand, a solo presentation by Teresita Fernández is exceedingly contemporary and conceptually anchored in current events. Mostly collage and mixed media works, the stand has been painted a deep grey colour and hand-painted by the artist with thin futuristic pink stripes, a colour that is used in all the works on view. The main features in all the works are sticks of compressed charcoal, an item familiar to anyone who has taken a grade school art class. But here, the drawing tools represent what they once were, living wood. Fernández’s works comment on the history of colonisation and the slow collapse of the environment through moody, dark landscapes that reference tropical palm trees, also made of the charcoal, which turn the recognisable symbol of beach life into works that are as foreboding and treacherous as they are beautiful. The works range in price from $60,000 to $300,000.

On the Armory’s second floor, sculptures from the ancient past fill the Paris-based Galerie Chenel’s stand. Among the Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures, a first century Roman marble piece commands attention. Aphrodite, The So-Called Venus Genitrix is at once elegant and sensual, despite the lack of a head or arms. The female figure’s right leg is slightly back and bent at the knee, giving the hips a sweeping motion. The figure’s clothes, which erotically drape and cling to the body, look delicate, almost translucent despite the fact they too are carved from marble.

Roman, first century, Aphrodite, the so-called Venus Genitrix

In a market that is seeing collectors broadening their views and interests, Tefaf has a wealth of opportunities. A strong showing of women artists and works that feature powerful women prove that even when highly influenced by the past, one is never stuck there. An art fair is not only a place to connect with old friends but also to see how works connect with each other. At Tefaf, where the long view of art history is cherished, there is plenty to see.

  • Tefaf New York, Park Avenue Armory, until 10 May.

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