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Asia Week dealers make up for loss of fairs with significant shows

Highlights from a slew of gallery and museum exhibitions include low-key Chinese masterpieces, colourful Korean figures, Indian erotic paintings and contemporary art

KooNewYork is showing this pair of Korean polychrome wood figures of Buddhist temple attendants from the Joseon Dynasty, 18th-19th century

New York’s Asia Week (15-23 March) has shrugged off the demise of the International Asian Art Fair (organised by Haughton International Fairs and last held in 2008), showing that this pluralist gathering works better without an overpriced, often overcrowded official focal point. This year, the low-end Arts of Pacific Asia fair was also cancelled, having failed to find a venue (organiser Caskey Lees has also postponed the San Francisco edition of the fair until further notice). But while Asia Week’s fairs have fallen to the wayside, scores of international dealers and auction houses are still coming together to put on significant displays, with added authority lent by major museum shows like the Guggenheim’s “Gutai: Splendid Playground” (until 8 May), a comprehensive account of a key post-war Japanese art movement.

In the Fuller Building on 57th Street, often dubbed the “Midtown Fair” because of the concentration of dealers, two galleries, one permanent and the other a temporary visitor, showcase the kind of low-key Chinese masterpiece that, these days, tends to get overwhelmed by grandiose later Imperial porcelain or fashionable contemporary art.

Asian Art Studio of Los Angeles is offering a 17th-century gilt-copper hand-warmer
signed by Hu Wenming, the head of a celebrated studio in the Jiangnan area near present-day Shanghai, a carefully-made luxury item that speaks to the refinement and wealth of the late-Ming elite.

The senior Chinese specialist J.J. Lally meanwhile, shows an 11th-century porcelain incense burner. A mere 4.9in (12.4cm) high and in a very rare form paralleled only by a piece in the Nanjing museum, its openwork top is modelled with plant forms that are formal and symmetrical, yet manage to maintain the spontaneity and energy of a spray of real leaves. Where the pale “sky blue” glaze has pooled in the recesses of the carving, it shows a more intense colour, enhancing the design.

In the field of Chinese religious art, the New York newcomer but London veteran Nicholas Grindley, exhibiting at Hazlitt Gooden & Fox, has another piece of late-Ming (or early-Qing) metalwork, a gilt-bronze figure of Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) cleverly plucked from the 2009 estate sale of Robert and Jean Shoenberg, collectors mainly of tribal art and contemporary American painting. As the only sculpture in an exhibition otherwise devoted to Chinese “scholars’ objects”, this small, reassuring figure, with its elaborate coiffure and sumptuous garments, should benefit from a radical change of context.

Criticised in the past for an excessively traditional focus, Asia Week now embraces contemporary Chinese art and the highlight of Martha Sutherland’s show, “Chinese Abstraction Now”, is Abstract No.4, 2007, by Zhu Jinshi (born 1954), a former factory worker who first studied painting in the 1970s. Influenced by Kandinsky, Beuys, and German Neo-expressionism, Zhu has achieved an increasingly compelling fusion of Western abstraction with the aesthetics of the Chinese brush.

While contemporary Korean ceramic artists still struggle to establish a market in the US to match the success of their Japanese counterparts, it is good to see that there is a growing choice of Korean works from earlier centuries. KooNew York, showing at the Mark Murray Gallery, features pieces from the collections of returned expatriates, including not only familiar early pottery but also an interesting group of later religious art, including a pair of polychrome wooden Buddhist attendants. These charming figures, both of them containing consecrated religious texts, attest to the vigour of traditional art at the end of the Joseon dynasty and offer adventurous collectors a way into genuinely under-explored territory.

Other longer-established galleries continue to exhibit the best in time-honoured collecting fields. Although Doris Wiener, a legendary figure in the world of South Asian sculpture, died in 2011, the legacy has been maintained by her daughter Nancy, who shows at the Jack Tilton Gallery with a group of Indian paintings including Krishna and Radha in a Moonlight Tryst, about 1775, an atmospheric, erotic masterpiece from a celebrated album. 

Hiroshi Yanagi, a member of the powerful Yanagi clan of Kyoto dealers and a regular participant in Asia Week, exhibits this year at Arader Galleries with a wide selection of accessible Japanese art including Nakabayashi Chikkei’s scroll of a Landscape with Chinese Scholars, 1861, a large composition teeming with finely depicted detail that invites viewers to share the artist’s fantasies of an imaginary continental otherworld.

Nancy Wiener, is showing at Jack Tilton Gallery with a group of Indian paintings including Krishna and Radha in a Moonlight Tryst, about 1775, an atmospheric, erotic masterpiece from a celebrated album
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