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London's supermarket for art of the world. Contemporary art fair was mammoth -- and much needed

The high-arched ironwork of its enormous vault gives the Grand Hall at Olympia the air of a Victorian railway station -- or a vast covered market. In fact, for four days this month this giant exhibition space in London was appropriated as the venue for a kind of market still unfamiliar in Britain: The Second International Contemporary Art Fair was here Jan. 17-20. ``One hundred and twenty galleries selling works by more than one thousand artists,'' the publicity announced. To the visitor there seemed considerably more of both -- galleries and artists from Zimbabwe and Argentina and Poland, Paris and Berlin and Brussels and Eindhoven, from Texas and New York, from Bahrain, Scotland, Chile, Italy. As could be expected, the overwhelming participation was by British dealers, but at least half of these had not taken part in an art fair in Britain before because this is only the second year such a fair has been held here.

The idea is to bring art into the open, to make it accessible to a wider range of potential customers, and to provide a context where private galleries can escape from the exclusivity that deters many people from even entering their premises, let alone buying their artists' work. In short, to bring the art market into a marketplace.

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Nowhere are off-putting, snobbish atmospherics more in need of evaporation than in private British art galleries. It would largely seem as though selling and buying art in this country were the province of those only with private educations and aristocratic forefathers -- art for the well bred and opulent, not for the masses. This is probably why British art galleries sell extraordinarily little to British clients: The ``masses'' tend to outnumber the ``opulent.''

London dealers sell largely to foreign buyers. Add to this the fact that quantities of Britons retain a profound distrust of modern art, and it becomes understandable why a question mark hangs over an enterprise like the London Contemporary Art Fair, much as it is needed.

``Must be a load of nuts in there,'' my taxi driver had observed merrily as he dropped me at Olympia's door. It was a joke, but possibly indicative.

``In there,'' actually, was a large proportion of London's top art dealers feeling the water of the fair this year, and a healthy spattering of good dealers from overseas likewise. The fair's future will be sealed by their approval or disapproval.

Remarks by some of the dealers themselves after the first full day of the fair told their own story.

Wim Vromans, director of the Galerie De Sluis from the Netherlands, was the only Dutch dealer who had also been at London's first fair, last January. That one had been half the size. ``The quality of the art is much higher this year,'' he told me.

``Also,'' he went on, ``it is better than at the Paris fair. But last year the London fair was a disaster for me.'' Mr. Vromans has been showing at the Basel fair for five years now, and at Cologne's for two. He has also had a small stand at Chicago. ``They are very good,'' he said.

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Had he sold work yet in London?

``Oh, yes, some already. But where are the English buyers? They must be somewhere. I think the propaganda -- the advertising -- has not been good. And the critics are very poor.'' He was showing abstract art, most of it Constructivist in tendency, with prices ranging, he said, ``from 2,000 to 3,000 [$2,240 to $3,360] at the top end to 100 at the lower end -- even less for prints. Cheap compared with the English galleries. I have sold so far to buyers from Bahrain, and to Americans. . . . But there are, there must be, British collectors. . . ?''

At that stage of the fair, Mr. Vromans was by no means certain that he would be back in London again next January. In common with many other participants, he was critical of the organization of the fair. He complained there had not been enough time to set up exhibits properly.

Much of the flavor of the fair stemmed from the international scope of the exhibiting galleries. A Scottish gallery sponsored Polish art presented by a Warsaw dealer, for instance; a Parisian gallery showed a young Argentine painter; an Austrian gallery proudly presented work by a Scot working in Wales.

The star of Miro & Spizman, a London gallery specializing in modern Russian art, was a Moscow sculptor, Vadim Sidur. Victoria Miro was at pains to explain the high prices of these bronze or aluminum works, costing 7,000 and up.

``We are a very serious gallery,'' she emphasized, ``and Sidur's work is now very rare indeed.'' There had been no sales when I spoke to her, but much interest. The main customers at her gallery (she has just opened a new one) are American. ``Americans are very interested in Russian art,'' she said, ``and the artists I sell are not available in the States. They are not 'emigr'e artists: They are working in the Soviet Union.'' She thought the fair was proving useful to her as publicity, though not as a selling market. ``I have the feeling it is aiming at buyers wanting something at the lower end of the market -- something to decorate their sitting room. The Argentine gallery next door has much cheaper sculptures, and they are selling like hot cakes!''

But it was clear from other gallery people that some expensive items were finding buyers. Ultimately it will be this that decides the fate or future character and quality of the London fair. The price of participation is high. For a larger stand, the basic cost to the dealer is about 4,000 ($4,480), I was told. And there are many other costs.

The general quality of the art did suggest that the fair was well worth establishing. It was not difficult to find excellent small works by many of the ``classics'' of modern art, mainly British and European. Moore, Hockney, Nicholson abounded. There were graphic works (including some superb drawings) by Matisse, Klimt, Picasso; there were even one or two late Picasso paintings; there were works by Gonz'alez, Schwitters, Arp, Ernst, and Caro. The prices of such items were not, however, low.

Younger galleries and younger artists were also represented. The Lisson Gallery (London) presented a refreshing and exuberant group of newer artists -- Julian Opie sticks in the mind. Another artist that caught my attention for the first time was Ken Kiff, represented by the Nicola Jacobs Gallery (London). Here is a painter with a vision. American light artist Bill Parker was popular with visitors. His glass globes dance with spasms and filaments of dazzling light, reacting in an oddly natural way to the touch of hands.

There was evidence on all sides of the current trend for the figurative, the narrative, and the ``throwaway painterly,'' a trend that has brought its own ebullience to a world of painting that through the '70s seemed to grow ever more arid and boring. But -- as should be so at a fair -- virtually every persuasion of 20th-century art was represented in some form, if not by primary exponents, then often by latter-day inheritors: the surreal dream, the documented experience, the spontaneous impact, the cerebral construction; there was art here that ranged from the visionary to the athletic, from the pure and cool to the funky and fetishistic, from the gestural to the minimal, from the protestingly political to the escapingly nostalgic. Even variations of Op and Pop showed up.

There is undoubted hope in such a kaleidoscope. But questions remain. One was voiced to me succinctly by a visitor to the fair who wondered whether ``Britain might not have entered too late the field of the international contemporary art fair.'' He was cultural attach'e to the West German embassy in London. He suggested that perhaps the already established art fairs are all the world can sustain. Next January will tell whether he is right or wrong.

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