The Glossy and the Rusty — Visiting The American Antiques Show

The American Antiques Show, presented by the American Folk Art Museum, started from Wednesday, Jan 19. By the time we visited the show on late Friday afternoon, we have found many things we would like to take a close look had a red dot beside them. Unlike other shows such as the Winter Antiques Show and Antiques at the Armory, the show largely on Americana. Selected items from selected dealers attract selected customers. Judging from the number of sales, it seemed that for elite shows at this level, who attended the show is more important than how many attended the show for the financial success.

As this was our first visit to such a prestigious show, we could only recognize a few familiar faces such as flag dealer Jeff Bridgeman or Connecticut dealer Roberto Freita, whom we have met in THETA antiques show in Houston. (Interestingly, both presented mostly different merchandise: Jeff took away the Confederacy flags from the THETA Show, and Roberto brought more signs and baskets onto the wall.) But the official pamphlet showed that there were only four new dealers in this year’s show. Thus in the early evening of the Friday night, when visitors began to thin out, exhibitors walked around to get involved in an agreeable discussion, like old friends.

Eagle with a turbo engineThe fact that we are not hard-core Americana collectors made it hard for us to fully comprehend the depth of the show. For non-trained eyes like mine, even with about 50 dealers, which took the first floor of the Metropolitan Pavilion on the 18th street between 6th and 7th Ave, after the first round of walking tour, I began to feel (under the influence of low sugar probably) that there was such a continuity and flow between most booths as if they were all set up by one master dealer.

Unlike shoppers in fine-art or highly polished decorative art, whose discrimination against faults and imperfection can often lead to exhibitor’s defense; most Americana collectors take it for granted that Americana is anything but perfectionism. The rusted copper, the worn gilt or the peeling surface are records of material’s past. To embrace things as they are is a priori for a wholehearted Americana collector. The show’s jolly and relaxed atmosphere proved it. Maybe those transactions are just natural results from those long congenial conversations.

However, repurposing is definitely a NO-NO in a pure Americana show like this. Painted furniture (fancy chairs or Pennsylvania dower chests) are great, but repainted furniture such as those Victorian chairs with Martha-Stewart-color seen at Antiques at Armory would not possibly be accepted here. The intricate interplay between original bold patterns and the naturally aged surface texture has an undeniable air of authenticity that none of the artificially worn products can rival. Such nuance became evident when I walked around with the fresh memory of those repurposing items from the armory show. At the detail level, it became clear to me that great Americana antiques is beyond old patinas or funky carvings: sincere, bold, non-conventional yet unpretentious, it is no wonder that collectors in this field seem seldom fall out.

It is in Americana where aesthetics may conflict with rarity. Even though aesthetics is extremely personal, there is in general consensus about some golden rules for creating visual pleasure from trained hands. In Americana, those rules (such as linear perspective, airy perspective or human anatomy) are meant to be broken. The rarity largely lies on unique forms or objects depicted, a certain level of betrayal of faults and inadequacy, plus strong individual styles. But rarity alone won’t win a collectors’ nod. When I took a look at a small unsigned portraiture of William Gray Jr (offered by Gary R. Sullivan Antiques), I first felt laughable that his large head is sitting on his disproportionally shortened body; yet the detail of his facial feature disclosed sincere efforts of precision and the grand background of burning clouds from the setting sun may indicate the painter’s ambition to incorporate popular yet technically difficult style into this small panel.

A Rooster Weathervane from Allan Katz Americana
A Rooster Weathervane from Allan Katz Americana

There were perhaps more weathervanes than dealers in the show. And roosters seemed to dominate the field. Yet nothing was more dramatic than the one brought by Allan Katz Americana from Woodbridge, CT. The copper rooster, once gilded, has turned uniformly green except a few spots. The fluidity in transforming volume (body) into forms (tail), the efficiency in use of large and repetitive patterns and the genius adoption of succinct curves that integrate the symbolism with naturalism, made it the proudest rooster one could ever have — except that it was already taken when we got there.

Usual Andiron from Allan Katz Americana
Usual Andiron from Allan Katz Americana

A pair of andirons, also from Allan Katz, was designed to steal the spotlight in the most unflashy place of a house. At first, I thought the andirons were in some abstract form. But a close look revealed that each andiron was embodied into a sea horse with a snake around the head. Another pair of snakes, tightly tangled links the pair andiron together. The imaginative power to use such obscure animals with their unexpected gesture and movement highlight what I deemed as the irresistible feature of Americana: Instead of following the convention, it creates convention.

A Country Sofa with Classical Forms in the American Antiques Show
A Country Sofa with Classical Forms in the American Antiques Show

Not long ago, Eric lamented that a period classical sofa was sold for less than an IKEA one. Yet a rural sofa with a classical form in the show had a stunning price tag that may trigger some dealers to reconsider whether it is a bane or blessing for period furniture to have a metropolitan root. The sofa, tall, deep, mostly rectilinear, is accentuated with consistent diagonal-line-carving, yet collectors looking for sophistication or metaphors may be disappointed. Although I would be out of place to argue here, for or against each school of collectors, I do feel that consummate techniques of New York or Philadelphia furniture may dampen Gen X’s collecting enthusiasm. They neither wholeheartedly accept the formal and somber tones of such furniture, nor do they aspire to decorate homes to imitate museums. This folkish looking sofa, however grand it was designed to be, is less “antique” than unusual. It is the latter word that may comfortably bring young people in.

Charles and Rebekah Clark’s booth, in contrast,  is filled with glossy mahogany-veneered furniture and shimmering light, most from federal and classical period. With all honestly, this is where we felt most at home. It’s also curious this formal city furniture was on display in an Americana show, yet somehow it seemed to fit. Perhaps that’s because the designs for much of the folk art resulted from these classical designs. Just as it’s argued that Ammi Phillips, as an example, was not operating in a vacuum, rather striving to imitate trained artists, so the makers of many folk art and crafts were often imitating trained artisans and cabinetmakers. The designs may be painted rather than carved, or simplified and given regional characteristics, they have common soil, if not roots. The classical style seems to have such a elite following these days, I imagine it’s difficult to find a show that’s just right for a booth like this one.

Chinese export decorative art has been traditionally regarded as part of Americana. Tucked at one corner of the booth of Samuel Herrup Antiques from Sheffield MA was a small ink wash painting (on silk) by an unknown Chinese painter, with an immaculate Americana subject — a cat. I had an interesting conversation with Sam on this piece of work. Sam pointed out that the detailed realistic rendering of the cat on top of a suggestive, nearly formless rock may be the result of the unique combination of traditional Chinese school and western art brought in by Giuseppe Castiglione in the first half of the 18th century. The jarring contrast between the fullness of the fur (especially some tightly controlled folding pattern above its feet) and calligraphic, freehanded expression of the rock within this 15 by 15 inches square is a wonder to behold. Was this by some pupil of the famed western court painter? Or was this from somewhat later period? Without dating or signature, hardly can one garner any information. But I tend to think it is a blessing for the future owner when a piece of a “puzzle” has not been found. Besides the curious eyes of the cat, the painting will always be shrouded by its mystery of provenance.A Mysterious Cat Painting From China

Sam has been dealing with Chinese export decorative art for many years. Another item was just a tureen lid, which was made to commemorate Washington’s death for Judith and Robert Lewis, Washington’s nephew. The absence of tureen’s body actually helped me focus on the memorial pattern.  Would I accept that the body is perhaps broken and would never be united with the lid if I had the money to buy it? (It has AGAIN a red dot.) I am not sure.  It reminded me another feature of Americana antiques: the unconscious change in perception — from practically functional to purely decorative and to ultimately served as rare extant of our material past. To some degree, the hard-core Americana collectors are themselves sort of “repurposing” conceptually, by usurping item’s own pragmatic past with the aesthetics and rarity focus.

A Single Lid of a Tureen Found Its New Home
A Single Lid of a Tureen Found Its New Home

At the center of Sam’s booth was a mahogany twelve-sided candlestand made in New York, dated around 1790. Its center has an inlaid eagle placed within an oval, like an Egyptian cartouche, proudly declaring its royal heritage.  The 13 stripes on the shield, the olive branch and arrows held by the talons are quite accurate with respect to the Great Seal of the United State which made its first public appearance in 1782, presumably not long before the table was made. Yet the eagle head is turning to the left, a minutia abberation from the majority. It would be hardly to believe that the artisan created the inlaid image from his imagination; possibly the available samples then all had some difference and the one he had at hand happened to have the eagle head turning left.

Nothing was better than viewing this stunning piece alone as the last stop before heading out. It is neither glossy nor rusty, instead it has aged gracefully. Most of all, all Americana pays tribute to the patriotism and this particular piece was made when the country was just founded. They provide a time window for Americans to discover the grand ambition of ordinary people of a new nation.

A New York Candlestand from Samuel Herrup Antiques
A New York Candlestand from Samuel Herrup Antiques

Perhaps, when President Obama delivered his State of the Union address yesterday, he should have brought several pieces from the show. They are the material evidence of what he declares:

We do big things.

From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.

Inlaid Detail of the New York Mahogany Candlestand
Inlaid Detail of the New York Mahogany Candlestand

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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