Asia Week Highlight: A conversation with Joan B. Mirviss

Editorial Staff Opinion

As a highlight of Asia Week in New York, we spoke with Joan B. Mirviss, a veteran dealer who specializes in Japanese painting, woodblock prints, and contemporary ceramics. Mirviss discusses the market, the Haughtons, and Kawase Shinobu, the ceramics artist whose work is currently on view at her gallery.

Can you explain some of the differences between selling Japanese antiques and selling contemporary Japanese art?

They are completely different. First of all, with antique art there are questions of authenticity and connoisseurship that are hugely significant issues for dealers and collectors. In selecting any type of contemporary art, one has to have an eye. You don’t have ten or twenty years of  historical perspective to fall back on—you have to use your own judgement to determine what is an “A” level piece of art. Condition is also a critical factor with older art, whereas with contemporary work everything must be in perfect condition to begin with. Lastly, an important distinction with contemporary art is that there are no export issues surrounding patrimony or licenses.

Among my museum and private clients there is some overlap, but for the most part I would say they are different areas of specialization. Recently I’ve had a number of new clients who used to collect non-Asian fields that have either become overpriced, or in which high quality works are no longer available. These collectors are leaping into the field of contemporary Japanese clay, in part because the work transcends being simply Asian and stands as the best clay art being produced in the world today.

What criteria are important in selecting contemporary artists for your gallery?

I look for artists who are firmly connected to traditional techniques and have been honing their skills for at least fifteen years, but they must have an artistic voice of their own. Of the 10,000 Japanese artists who make a living working in clay, only 3,000 actually survive on solo exhibitions, and of them I follow fewer than 100 closely.

Does functionality play a role in the pieces you sell?

Some artists create nominally functional work in order to meet certain definitions in Japan for exposition, but that is not a deciding factor for me.

Tell me about the current exhibit of work by Kawase Shinobu at your gallery.

I am really excited about this show of Kawase’s celadon ceramics in part because he’s the first artist who inspired me to enter this field in 1983. There was a wonderful exhibition at the Smithsonian at that time titled Japanese Ceramics Today, which featured about 50 artists who had been born during or just after the war who were bursting on the scene with new ideas about clay art. I went to see that show three times and decided that on my next visit to Japan I had to meet one artist in particular—Kawase Shinobu. Fortunately, one of my dearest friends, a dealer in classical Chinese art actually knew him, because in Japan you can’t just go knock on someone’s door. She made the introduction and we became friends. But, and this is unusual since I am a dealer myself, he would not sell to me directly. Instead I had to go through one of his two agents. It took about fourteen or fifteen years before I was able to buy from him directly, and only four years ago did he allow me the honor of having his first solo exhibition in the United States at my gallery. We sold out the entire show and had commissions for many more works.

The current show, Kawase Shinobu: Flowering Waves of Celadon, is really a departure from that first show, which included masterworks from the preceding twenty years. This time, after thinking long and hard about it, we decided to focus on a theme—the idea of flowers in motion. The works, inspired by natural floral and wave forms, while stationary, evoke movement and really cry out, “pick me up and turn me around!”

Can you tell me more about your involvement with the Asian Art Dealers of the Upper Eastside New York and the Asia Week open house?
Jiyoung Koo (KooNewYork) and I organized this banding of dealers for a joint open house event after the Haughtons announced in December the cancellation of the International Asian Art Fair. Having been a participant every year, it’s a huge loss because it was the hub of Asia Week, where everyone met. The message from the Haughtons stated that due to the economic situation the dealers decided not go forward with the IAAF, but this was not the complete story and not all of the dealers were in this position. We wanted to offer an alternative venue for those who wished to maintain their presence during Asia Week in New York and many are hosting individual exhibitions in galleries throughout Manhattan instead. There’s an incredible array of Asian art available in New York for this period of ten days, and the AADUE-NY open house is our way of organizing and localizing the activity.


Do you think specialization is an important factor in selling Asian art?

Well, Asia represents nearly half of the world! But in any field you just can’t be a generalist anymore. I have done the Winter Antiques Show for 29 of the 55 years, and in the old days there were dealers that had everything in one booth—from Japanese lacquer to English furniture to American painting—now there is specialization which speaks to the sophistication of the industry. As prices have escalated, people are expecting more expertise and certainty about what they are looking at. But I also think that’s true across the board in our society—the medical industry, or the legal industry—everybody has a specialty.

Has the market for Japanese art and antiques been affected by the Chinese market?

To some extent it’s been a little overwhelmed by China and always has been. Chinese art has always had a bigger platform in the West for serious collectors, and Japanese art has often been denigrated as being too pretty or too decorative by those in Chinese art.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the current market?

I would add that Sotheby’s has closed its Japanese department globally, and Christie’s has instituted a $5,000 per lot minimum so that precludes a substantial portion of Japanese art from ever being auctioned by them. Fortunately Bonhams has stepped in, but they are new to the market. I think now is the time for the dealers to publicly reassert their pre-eminence.

Images from top: Joan B. Mirviss. Interior view of Joan B. Mirviss Ltd. Flaring flower vase by Kawase Shinobu, Japan, 2008. Porcelaineous stoneware with celedon glaze; 10 x 7 3/4 inches. Mountain vessel by Kaneta Masanao, Japan, 2008. Glazed stoneware; 14 x 14 3/4 x 16 1/8 inches. Rising Air by Miyashita Zenji, Japan, 2008. Stoneware and colored clay, 22 x 13 3/4 x 8 inches.