Beyond Buildings


TEFAF: Tulips, Skulls, and the Power of Framing

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Courtesy TEFAF


TEFAF, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, is the most important fair for non-contemporary art in the world. I’m sure you’ve read about the rediscovered Rubens crucifixion, the $4 million Chinese bowl, and other highly prized delectables. TEFAF is also the only fair that, designed to within an inch of its plywood stands, looks good. Because it contains antiques, jewelry, and objets d’art, it gives a full view of what the most refined interior might be.


Walking into the MECC, a convention center at the industrial and office end of the town of Maastricht, is like coming to any other such box anywhere in the world. The beauties of the medieval city and the river Maas that flows through it are far away. All you get is spaces that advertise their ability to swallow up people and displays. As soon as you show your ticket and enter into the fair space proper, all that changes. The walls disappear into black, and what stands out are tulips–perhaps a cliché sign of the Dutch locale, but one the designers use to create a sense of drama and actual life inside this arid container .They stand in serried ranks, they droop over cubes, and they march down the aisles. A circle of white roses placed in the wall marks your arrival into another realm.


Roses. Courtesy Aaron Betsky


The simple act of painting everything that is not a place of display black or dark gray makes the grid of “streets” dividing the booths appear like superlatively expensive versions of shopping mall allees. It might seem trivial to point out this design, as the surroundings are usually not the point at trade fairs, but this design, by Tom Postma, serves to translate into the realm of the trade fair what is the peculiar spatial achievement of temples dedicated to art: to do nothing more or less but frame your attention on completely fetishized works that have disappeared from use or veneration, and have turned into condensations of wealth, power, and beauty.


There certainly were plenty of those at this year’s TEFAF. If you wanted a medieval or baroque painting, a Picasso or a Gerome, this was the place. I noticed that the scrubbing of all marks of the outside world continued onto the surface of many works of art: they were clean and gleaming beyond compare–with the result that you were not sure how much of what you were looking at was the effect of science and restoration, and how much you could attribute to the skill of the original maker. One painting I looked at had been completely over-painted, elements added and highlights changed, until the gallery had commissioned a complete reversion to what it assumed was the original state.


Kuntskammer George Laue's stand. Courtesy Aaron Betsky


I preferred the stand of Kunstkammer Georg Laue from Munich, which featured tableaux in which skulls of animals mixed with ivory sculptures, fur-lined purses with tortoise shells, hardwood in the shape of a heart carved to within an inch of its non-beating life, and masks mixing with magic wands. It brought art back to the notion of the ingenuity of craft and invention transforming materials to the point where the essence of each fabric of reality, each facet catching a reflection, each reminder of our mortality, and each emblem of human’s power to make something we had not seen before, shone forth.


The fair, with all its security, an aura or status that brings together buyers and sellers from all over the world, architecture that focuses our attention on what is –because of scholarship or infatuation, skill or taste—valuable, and décor that makes it all seem even more than it is might be, has the ability to do that. “I can tell it is real, and that is important,” I heard one face-lifted floozy ask a bemused and bespectacled gallerist; “But my husband won’t believe me. How can you prove it to me?” Because it was there, in that place, in that time, with that intellectual, financial, and physical architecture.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.