Here is a daring proposition: to consider Asia Week New York the Maastricht of Asian art. It may lack the gatekeeper judges but most of its nearly 50 participating dealers set their own exacting standards, are rigorous in selecting what they show, and are wonderfully generous with their deep knowledge. To visit a show and pose a question about a piece is to receive a concise and articulate mini-lecture personalised to your knowledge (or lack of it). This sharing of years, or decades, of studying and handling objects is one of the delights of TEFAF Maastricht – and of Asia Week New York.
John Siudmak, for instance, has been studying Indian and Himalayan art since 1974. As he talks about the tiny treasures that he has brought from London – ‘I like small’ – he turns a little 7th-century bronze Buddha from Sri Lanka in his hand, then passes me an almost 4,000-year-old Indus Valley seal while he discusses the artist’s lively rendering of a rhinoceros on it, and finally tests my observation of a profusely bejewelled yakshi made in 1st-century BC India to see if I notice that what appears to be a nimbus is actually a palm fan held by an attendant. Visits to New York dealers Kaikodo, Michael C. Hughes or Nicholas Grindley are just as rewarding – Grindley is putting the spotlight on fragile blocks of ink this year, some of which were made in the 17th century.
Contemporary Asian art has just as much depth. Joan B. Mirviss spent two years sourcing her pieces, all of which are water vessels. They include a ‘neriage’ (marbleized) vessel by Ogata Kamio who has revived the painstaking 10th-century Chinese technique. First, he creates a multi-coloured block of clay rather like a mille-feuille, then he throws the pot, finally he carves the flutes.
Almost all the dealers now congregate on Manhattan’s East side between 66th and 82nd street so it is easy to skip from one to another, taking in the elegant period row housing along the way. Even veteran Indian art dealer Nancy Wiener has moved across from the West side to show sculptures that include a robust 1st–2nd century loving couple representing joyful fertility; and downtown Onishi has taken uptown space to show contemporary Japanese ‘Kogei’ (art crafts) masterpieces in a ballroom lined with English wood-panelling. In addition to the regulars such as Oliver Forge & Brendan Lynch and Francesca Galloway (from London) and Dalton Somaré (from Milan), first-timers include Tenzing Asian Art from San Francisco and Renaud Montméat from Paris.
It is the dealers who, over the years, have encouraged the rest of the city to be part of this cornucopia of festivities. This year, five auction houses – Bonhams, Christie’s, Doyle, iGavel and Sotheby’s – offer multiple sales as well as public lectures. Furthermore, Mumbai’s Pundole’s considers the fair as so significant it has brought over highlights from its April auction in India.
Museums and institutions are playing a greater part, too. In addition to the expected special shows at the likes of the Japan Society, Asia Society, and The Met (now rounding off the year-long centenary celebration of its Asia Department), there are some real surprises to seek out. ‘Re:visioning HANJI’ at the Korean Cultural Center on Park Avenue (until 31 March) is about the contemporary use of traditional mulberry tree paper, while a ferry ride to Staten Island leads to the remarkable Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art established in 1945 in buildings designed to evoke a Tibetan monastery. It takes a festival like this to notice what is on one’s doorstep.
Asia Week New York runs until 19 March at various venues across the city.