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Jewelry and Tableaus in the Same Tent
By KAREN ROSENBERG
For the second year in a row the dependable design fair Modernism has teamed up with the younger Art20, giving visitors to the Park Avenue Armory a concentrated look at 20th-century art and design. The marriage of these two fairs has allowed both to ride out a difficult economy. It has also nudged painting and sculpture into close contact with furnishings, jewelry and decorative objects, producing a kind of friction that rarely occurs in museums.
Because Modernism is the more established of the two fairs (with 25 years under its belt, to 9 for Art20), the design tends to dominate. This is generally not the place to go shopping for big-ticket 20th-century art, although the also-rans have plenty of personality.
Major design pieces look even better when the exhibitors go to great lengths to create context for them. At Martin Cohen a Louis Comfort Tiffany settee upholstered in olive-green velvet, with a Moorish-influenced inlay of mother-of-pearl hexagons, is being shown alongside 17th-century carved wood panels from Damascus. Also on view is a picture of the settee in its original location, the fabulously ornate George Kemp House.
More Tiffany can be found at Lillian Nassau: lamps, glass and a striking vanity mirror in the form of an oval framed by winding lily-pad stems. Just as compelling, though harder to imagine living with, is another Art Nouveau object: a cabinet by the sculptor and furniture maker Carlo Bugatti (father of the automaker Ettore Bugatti) at James P. Infante. It combines inlaid pewter, ivory, suede and bronze, and it makes use of several wildlife motifs, among them dragonflies and flocks of birds.
Earthier and more streamlined, George Nakashima’s natural-edged wood furniture goes with everything and is seemingly everywhere (at Moderne, Geoffrey Diner and B & G, to name a few booths). And if you’re after Scandinavian modern, Jacksons, based in Stockholm, has plenty of it, including a sinuous cream-colored canapé by Kerstin Horlin-Holmquist for NK.
Among the art dealers McCormick’s booth intrigues with lesser-known abstract-expressionists like Milton Resnick and Mary Abbott (a descendant of John Adams who fell in with the 10th Street crew and was romantically linked to de Kooning). The Resnick is tightly worked, the Abbott loose and rangy; both are excellent footnotes to the Museum of Modern Art’s current celebration of the movement.
Babcock has a bold, two-tiered abstract composition by Will Barnet, currently the subject of a centennial exhibition at the Art Students League. It has a perplexing date of 1961-83; apparently Mr. Barnet painted most of it in the ’60s and later retouched it. At the same booth is a Cubist-inspired still life by Edgar Levy (an associate of John Graham and Dorothy Dehner) from 1939. Neither work quite fits into the neat categories of art history, but both look great here.
There’s a good deal of social history in a drawing by Alice Neel, at Levis Fine Art. It’s a kind of courtroom sketch, in pen and ink, of the 1949 trial of 11 American Communist leaders. Ms. Neel attended the trial, at the Foley Square courthouse, and her distinctly unflattering depictions of the Judge Harold Medina and the witness Angela Calomiris evince her sympathy for the defendants.
Another item of local interest can be found amid the mid-century Modern furniture at Lost City Arts: a set of two handwritten progress reports from offices of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, describing the construction of the Empire State Building. The first of them lists the skyscraper by its provisional title, “Waldorf Astoria Office Building.”
JMW Gallery in Boston, meanwhile, devotes the back wall of its booth to squares of wood-block-printed fabric from the Depression era. The dealers believe that they were made by a woman affiliated with the W.P.A. Milwaukee handicraft project.
Just as intricate and pattern-rich are the European drawings, prints and illustrated books at the booth of Leonard Fox; look out for Gerda Wegener’s Art Deco femmes fatales.
The fair’s sole vintage-clothing dealer, Katy Kane, has mounted an eye-catching display of haute-couture Courreges: an orange A-line wool dress and matching coat, made for Florence Knoll. She also has a selection of Halston worthy of Studio 54, including a drapey pantsuit in tie-dyed green velvet.
Modernism + Art20 has a way of blurring the distinctions between the sculptural, decorative and wearable. Often it’s simply a matter of scale — or so the necklaces by artists including Arman, Wilfredo Lam and Harry Bertoia, at Didier’s booth, would suggest. Another jewelry dealer, Mark McDonald, has an entire case of Art Smith’s whimsical, Calder-esque pieces. Others can be seen right now at the Brooklyn Museum — the beneficiary of the fair’s opening-night preview, and another good place to find art mingling with design.
Modernism + Art20 is at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, at 67th Street, from noon to 8 p.m. on Friday; noon to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday; (212) 777-5218 or sanfordsmith.com.