1:46 pm Nov. 14, 2011
“For a European dealing in modernism,” said Rosella Colombari, “there’s a special resonance about showing at an Armory in New York.”
Colombari was presiding over the 700-odd-square-foot booth of her Milan-based Galleria Colombari, flanked by a lustrous 1956 bedstead and an ultramodern 1960 bureau-console, both by architect and designer Gio Ponti. The debut function of the Pavilion of Art and Design—the latest addition to New York’s already busy calendar of art fairs—was going full tilt, and all 52 exhibitors of 20th-century paintings and furniture were standing at the ready, in stall after well-appointed stall, even as the carpets were still being stapled to the floor of the old drill hall. Each paid between $30,000 and $50,000 for the privilege of being here, a big bet that this fair, and this space, would bring out the high rollers.
What the Armory represents to these eager out-of-towners (and to not a few local dealers as well) is a venerable tradition of modern art and its diffusion in America, a tradition that dates back to the D-Day of European Modernism in this country—the 1913 Armory Show that brought Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp to the attention of American collectors for the first time. But to make such a connection is also, in a sense, to dress the new fair in borrowed robes. After all, this is the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, not that of the 69th Regiment on Lexington, where the original International Exhibition of Modern Art took place; and this time, the artists and gallery directors aren’t here to épater la bourgeoisie. They’re here to give them what they want: solid, dependable modern goodies, sprinkled with a few pieces by 21st-century blue-chip designers.
Le Pavilion des Arts et du Design (PAD, for short) is the brainchild of French partners Stéphane Custot and Patrick Perrin, the former a specialist in modern art, the latter a dealer of 18th-century furniture and a name well-known in the antiques trade. Galerie Perrin, founded by Patrick's father, has been in operation for nearly five decades, and Perrin fils got his start there. But after a long spell with the family firm, he felt pulled towards something new. “I’d been working as a dealer for fifteen years. And one day I thought, I could become the best golfer and the best hunter in the world, but I could be very bored.” Looking for a professional challenge, he teamed up with Custot, and together they launched the first PAD fourteen years ago in Paris.
The fair had became a Paris fixture before expanding, in 2007, to London, and in both cities its success can be credited in no small part to the organizers’ keen eye for location. In Paris, previous Pavilions have been held under a series of tents erected in the Tuileries Gardens; in London, it’s taken over stylish Berkeley Square, right on the doorstep of Bertie Wooster’s old digs. New York City gallerist Todd Merrill, whose display at the Armory was backed by a three-dimensional toile de Jouy wallpaper by sculptor Beth Katleman, had seen the fair in its overseas iterations, and was instantly impressed: “It’s a beautiful-looking show. Everything is really well thought out, more so than at other fairs.”
The sense that this is an intensely curated fair, one where place, space, and all the artwork have been carefully calibrated to achieve an effect of maximum luxury, is another factor that distinguishes the Pavilion from some of its rummage-sale, ad hoc-style competitors here and abroad. Contemporary fairs like Scope and Frieze routinely play host to 150 or more galleries; the behemoths, above all Art Basel and its Miami cousin, run closer to 300. The Pavilion tops out at just the 52, with Perrin and Co. keeping a tight grip on the invite list. “I don’t want young galleries to get too exposed,” said Perrin: the minnows get tossed back.
That makes PAD a considerably clubbier affair than the big potluck shows that have become routine in New York. “It’s a French invasion,” said Francois Laffanour, of Galerie DOWNTOWN. “Everybody here knows everybody.” Most of the PAD New York participants are veterans of the Paris and London fairs, and some are refugees of the recently defunct Modernism fair, which for 25 years also took place in the Park Avenue Armory and focused on 20th-century paintings and objêts d’art.
The clubby feeling goes right down to some of the pieces on display: at the booth of Paris gallery Vallois, a low-riding Art Deco fauteuil by Jacques-Emil Ruhlmann features a built-in ashtray of gilded bronze, so ingeniously homey you want to take up smoking just to put it to good use. The presence at PAD of both furniture and paintings, itself unusual, lends the proceedings a more refined but definitely business-classish air, and the visitors seem to fit the mold. Outside the booth of E&R Cyzer 20th Century Art, where a large-scale Fernand Léger surveyed the scene, someone, presumably a buyer’s buyer, was yelling into his cell phone, “That’s very well! But I only wish you’d picked up the phone yesterday….”
The upmarket character is further underscored by the timing of the fair—coinciding not with the typical spring fair season, but with the fall modern and impressionist auctions, which bring international buyers to the city in droves—and, of course, by simply being on Park Avenue, and at the Armory. “It’s hard to find spaces in the center of important cities,” says Perrin; Bryant Park was considered, but with a price tag of $100,000 a day the organizers balked. The Armory, coming in at $32,000 per diem, was practically a steal, and came with gratis cultural cachet.
But that cachet may not translate into New York City art world cred. Despite the extremely high quality of the modern art on display—Kees van Dongen, Otto Dix, Picasso—the glamour-by-association of these Tiffany-clad corridors won’t accrue to PAD instantly, or perhaps ever. There are too many other claimants. The annual Armory Show at the Chelsea Piers is in contention as heir to the 1913 show, as is the Armory’s own annual spring art fair. The addition of furniture, of the Deco armoires and free-floating mid-century bookshelves, makes the show a treat for history-loving design types, but not necessarily for the hipper at heart; the occasional concession to contemporary tastes, like an oversized Ron Arad bookcase at the Barry Friedman stall, come to seem relatively conservative in these tony environs. It’s a crowded design marketplace in New York, and it’s not clear that PAD has cleared a niche for itself.
Nor is it even clear that the Armory will want the show back again. Fall auction sales have been brisk at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but on the second-to-last day of PAD, the drill hall was fairly quiet. The door receipts had been on the low side, not the least because Perrin declined to pursue an aggressive marketing and advertising strategy in New York City media—counting, apparently, on the superiority of exclusivity to publicity.
The keeper of the flame at the Park Avenue Armory is Sanford Smith, who for two decades has been the space’s lease-holding contractor for the dates that PAD is in town. Smith partnered with Perrin to bring PAD to the city, and it was Smith, not Perrin, who insisted on taking an ad out in the Times. The old Armory hand says that while Perrin’s closed-door, buttoned-down approach may make the dealers feel like they’re in on a good thing, it’s alienated prospective buyers as well as Smith’s staff:
“Sales have been mixed, and the quantity of quality people you want have not come through…. If you think I’m angry, you’re absolutely right.”