Roamin' Holiday

New York
12.29.06

Left: Brooke Alderson and New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman with filmmakers Vincent and Shelley Dunn Fremont. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)


It’s not a terrorist attack we need to prepare for, it’s a weather event (an art-market cataclysm seems not to be in the offing). For proof, I offer last Thursday, officially the first day of winter in New York and the day I noticed the tulips coming up in my garden. They came up early last year, too, but that was February. Life is so speedy now! So corrupted by pleasure. Take the nights before Christmas: I loved them all.

I loved seeing Jack Pierson at his Printed Matter book signing on Thursday night, pretending to be superficial in a natty Prada suit while exuding complete sincerity to fans, including actress Lili Taylor, novelist Nick Flynn, and artist Mary Heilmann. “It’s really Richard Marshall’s book,” the ever-modest Pierson said of his handsome blue-linen tome. (Marshall wrote the text; Rizzoli published it.) I loved that. I also loved the book's absence of a dust cover. Pierson’s signature cigarette stub is embossed in gold on the back—a nice touch. He was spending the holidays in Rio. “It’s summer in Brazil, you know,” he said. “Funny,” I replied. “Here, too.”

I loved the Mylar runners that Daniel Reich and Milwaukee artist Scott Reeder had placed on the floor of Reich’s shoebox gallery as holiday decor, and the Mylar chuppah above the bar. They also put a mirrored disco ball near the ceiling and strings of soft white Christmas bulbs around the floor’s perimeter, leading to a tinselly fake tree. Reeder’s modest new painting, Money in Bed, got me with its title alone. It’s more abstract, and a lot less obvious, than American Dick, the image of an American-flag erection. In reproduction, actually, that flag made a nifty holiday postcard.

Left: Art lawyer John Silberman. Right: Tyson Reeder with artists Anne Collier and Scott Reeder.


Reeder helped organize Milwaukee’s first international art fair this year with his brother, Tyson. Both turned up later at Heather’s Bar on East Thirteenth Street, which was packed with revelers who came to celebrate the birthdays of artist Anne Collier (thirty-six) and Nicole Klagsbrun gallery director Carolyn Ramo (twenty-seven). I was surprised to see so many people still in town. New York is supposed to empty out during the holidays—part of the reason I love it at Christmas. Everyone seemed to like the bar. “This DJ is fabulous,” said Matthew Higgs, Collier’s other half, starting his vacation from the nonprofit White Columns after a profitable run at the big bucks at NADA in Miami. “We made seventy-five thousand dollars,” he boasted, far less than what most dealers at Art Basel Miami Beach pay just to attend. “It was a lot for us,” he said, “but the best part was that forty-five thousand went to the artists, all young people no one had seen before. And it was fun,” he added. “That’s why I’m in the art world, you know. For the fun.”

Collier was having fun, too, though she hadn’t actually wanted to call attention to her birthday. Why pick a public place for it then? “I didn’t want to have to see all the same people,” she replied. Then why did everyone seem to know everyone else? Or were they just making very fast friends? I met Christian Jankowski just as some stranger came over to compliment him on his recent show at the Kitchen. “At the opening, we lost a third of the audience,” Jankowski reported. “Too much gore.” Even though it was fake? “They were trustees, or something,” he said.

The birthday bash turned out to be the East Village funk version of Cindy Sherman’s annual Christmas party, held this year on Friday night. This was an extremely posh and sophisticated affair that was about as close to the grand salons of yesteryear as I’ve experienced—artists, writers, actors, dancers, musicians, and children, all in extraordinarily good moods. It felt like the party scene in All About Eve, minus the viciousness. This party is the real reason I love being in town at holiday time. It didn’t happen last year, because Sherman’s new duplex penthouse, which has views all around, wasn’t built yet. “I guess this is the official housewarming,” she said, clearly loving it. (Who wouldn’t?) “Take a look around.”

Left: Artist Mika Rottenberg. Right: Dealer Nicole Klagsbrun with artist Douglas Blau.


The place has an open kitchen in the center of the top floor, where a sushi chef was preparing finger food. Downstairs, in the studio, there were tables laden with more to eat. I loved the Christmas tree—a teepee of tripods strung with white Christmas lights and handmade ornaments. “I don’t know about the bedroom,” actress Alexandra Auder said, sounding very much like her mother, onetime Warhol superstar Viva. “If I were a guy who wanted to do Cindy, my dick would go soft the minute I went in that room.” (I take that back about the viciousness.)

Curious, I tiptoed inside with Peter Schjeldahl and his wife, Brooke Alderson, who, in her past life as an actress, nearly stole the show as John Travolta’s aunt in Urban Cowboy. “It’s maybe a little too much Scandinavian hotel room,” offered art conservator Lisa Rosen, bringing up the rear. “I never care where I am,” Schjeldahl said, peering at the artworks in the room. (Sherman has clearly traded actively with her peers.) “It’s the company that counts.”

Be that as it may, we all loved the walk-in closet, not because it was bigger than many apartments (well, mine), but because its contents were so color-coded and uncluttered. Personally, I love it when a female artist can afford to live as large as a male. I also love a party that can accommodate both Lisa Yuskavage and Jerry Saltz, where dancer Stephen Petronio can explore with the likes of Parker Posey, Robert Longo, Laurie Simmons, and Yvonne Force Villareal. But I had to leave to get to the closing-night performance of The Fortune Teller, a marionette show by Skeleton Key (and former Lounge Lizard) bass player Eric Sanko limning the seven deadly sins in goth splendor. That’s why I missed Louise Lawler’s arrest, when she left the Sherman party and was caught in some sort of police dragnet on the way to Brooklyn. Remember when to be an artist was to be an outlaw, instead of a brand? Still, I hate it when the good guys get arrested. Then again, what good is a holiday if you can’t get caught having fun?

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artists T.J. Wilcox and Lisa Yuskavage. Right: Puppeteer and musician Eric Sanko.


Cover Story

Brooklyn
12.24.06

Left: LTTR coeditor K8 Hardy. Right: Bragan Thomas and Chris Spinelli. (All photos: Michael Wang)


Instead of the raucous, magazine-launch-as-a-good-excuse-for-a-party atmosphere I expected last Monday, when I slipped inside LTTR’s latest appropriated event space along the river in Williamsburg (for the release of the radical, lesbian, gender-queer publication’s fifth issue) I found hushed crowds pressed against the walls of the Glasslands Gallery. Artists James Tsang (going by Ingrid, his given name, in the magazine), in a black one-piece and heels, and Ashland Mines, in a hoodie and waistcoat, moved slowly through the performance space, clapping their hands and reciting what they described as an “old Appalachian traditional” by the light of a single bulb. The work’s title, Someone Else’s Song, aptly described a number of the evening’s queerings. The performances imbued appropriated material with a range of affects, from giddy talent-show enthusiasm (Michael O’Neill and Leidy Churchman of Tri-State Area’s celebratory pop-anthem covers), to the “deconstructive” criticality of Chris Spinelli and Bragan Thomas’s theatrical evocations of “WASP melodrama” classics, to the intergenerational reverie of Jeanine Oleson’s '70s-era lesbian sing-along.

“What happens in a performance when you take away the language?” asked Tsang. “What’s left is your body and your voice.” The different acts anticipated varying degrees of familiarity with their chosen texts. While Tri-State Area called out, “This is a song we all know by heart” before diving into Usher’s “U Got It Bad,” Oleson handed out Xeroxed pages from Something Good: A Feminist Sing-a-long Songbook and detailed her rediscovery of the 1973 manuscript (compiled by Di Otto) at the Lesbian Herstory Archives book sale. With Otto herself helping to lead the session, the mixed crowd quickly warmed to lyrics like “A room full of women getting high / Then I looked around and saw there wasn’t one guy!”

Left: Tri-State Area's Leidy Churchman and Michael O'Neill. Right: LTTR coeditor Ginger Brooks Takahashi.


Between acts, artist A. K. Burns set up shop in a booth offstage, exchanging straight currency for “gay dollars” that featured a prominent pink triangle. “You can circulate them,” explained Donnie Cervantes (of the artist duo Donnie + Travis), before slyly suggesting, “You can give it as a tip to someone you think is cute.” By the time Tri-State Area had finished their set (ending on Brenda-Lee-by-way-of-the-Pet-Shop-Boys’s “Always on My Mind”), Dean Daderko (in a RIDYKEULOUS defaced Guerilla Girls T-shirt) and Tsang’s tango dips drew the rest of the crowd into the dance party.

Meanwhile, editor K8 Hardy, working the merchandise table and sporting a grill of silver fangs, described the evening’s program as “fairly casual.” “We have to see who’s willing to perform for no money,” she reasoned. While the editors wanted to “include artists whose practice doesn’t easily translate into print” on the evening’s roster, they also tried to “push artists past their normal practice,” inviting several print and video contributors to perform for the first time. The latest issue of the magazine, LTTR V/Positively Nasty, puts pressure on the editors’ typical roles. “This is not just a magazine,” Hardy maintained. “This is an artists’ project.” For this issue, the editors resolved to work in ways that related more directly to the artistic practices of their contributors. “We wanted to be a lot more cutting, more severe with our editing. It’s a lot more political.” While past issues featured a single introductory statement, this issue features four editorials—from Ginger Takahashi’s economic analysis of the magazine’s production to Emily Roysdon’s “Conceptually Nasty,” an articulation of the issue’s theme. “We don’t mean ‘nastiness’ as in stupid-ass erotic shit, whatever it’s called . . . ‘porn,’” asserted Hardy. “At this point there were a lot of things about the project we had to write about and explain.”

Berlin Reconstruction

Brooklyn
12.20.06

Left: Lou Reed onstage. Right: Antony and Lou Reed. (Photos: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)


Lou Reed’s epigraph billed his four-night St. Ann’s Warehouse residency and first-ever live performance of the entire Berlin album as “an evening to press between the crumbling leaves of Fall,” a claim only made more self-regarding by the insistent media flogging (“Sometimes called the most depressing album ever made,” quoth Ben Sisario in the New York Times) surrounding the event. The will-call line was heavy on formalwear, Times Arts sections tucked into overcoat pockets, graying ponytails, cigarette smoke drifting over ubiquitous war stories—even hearing aids. Some formulated their own pull quotes, evidently inspired: “This is a very, very special event”; “Only two or three people I go out for these days.” I preferred Julian Schnabel’s take (outfit, too: unruly beard, red and black lumberjack top), which came by way of the show’s introduction: “I wrote this one on my bathroom floor.”

This was the kind of overblown piety, Schnabel excepted, that froze press out and had us begging just to lay out a steep $67.50. Getting off the train, DUMBO looked surreal—lit-up trees, throngs of people, glassed-in condos, the river reflecting on an unseasonably warm night—and it was hard not to draw the parallel between the rehabbed underside of the Brooklyn Bridge and the rehabbed society pull of Lou Reed, ca. 2006. Inside St. Ann’s, his success regime was in full effect: signed posters for ninety dollars a pop, CDs for twenty, and T-shirts for thirty.

On an otherwise excruciatingly literal night—the album was “depressing,” therefore the audience would remain still and somber throughout; when the Brooklyn Youth Chorus chorused, “No, no, no!” they would also shake their heads, no, no, no—the only break in the mood was Schnabel’s set, a perplexing creation of Japanese screens in pale orange, yellow, and cream, set off by a fifteen-foot couch hanging vertically from the ceiling. Reed riffed on the otherwise inviolate solemnity, capping an extended guitar rave with a resigned shrug: “Oh, back into the land of depression now.”

Behind him, Lola Schnabel’s video matched Berlin’s song-cycle narrative shot for shot: kids in song were kids on-screen, alleys were alleys, Alaska was Alaska. Reed was center stage in jeans, gingerly holding his guitar; beside him, local soul goddess Sharon Jones sported a brilliant red cocktail dress; and off to the left, downtown muse-to-the-stars Antony sat quietly in black. Best dressed was original Berlin producer Bob Ezrin (other credits: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Kiss’s Destroyer), who conducted the musicians while sporting a pale blue jacket with BERLIN emblazoned in white on the back.

We had skipped cozy holiday parties and the last sane Sunday of the year to see something momentous, and eventually Reed took note. Now thirty-three years old, Berlin felt new once again. Reed sounded like he was auditioning for his own ancient musical—tentative, feeling it out—and as the choir dopplered from a drawn-out “What a feeling” toward the buoyant closer, “Sad Song,” you could sense the crowd begin to hold its breath.

Forward then, through the album's finale, the encore (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Rock Minuet”), and Reed’s last dedication to Laurie Anderson: “She continues to teach me every day about the purity of music and life.” On the way out, Ezrin was soaked but exhilarated, exclaiming, “It was so much fun—I sweated my ass off.” Though he too called Berlin “music to cut your wrists by,” nothing but weary smiles lined the path to the door.

Our Gay Apparel

New York
12.16.06

Left: P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss with P.S. 1 project director Jelena Kristic. Right: Artist Spencer Sweeney. (All photos: David Velasco)


Arriving at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center on Thursday evening with unanticipated promptness, my companion and I were present to witness the building’s gates swing open in the grand style of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The fact that no one present held a golden ticket, and that the only eccentric guru sure to be on hand was museum director Alanna Heiss, didn’t stop the modest crowd from making a modest bum's rush to gain admission. They were evidently looking forward to the latest installment of PopRally, a series of events conceived by the Museum of Modern Art and its Long Island City affiliate with “young New Yorkers” in mind. On this evening’s bill were the opening of a group exhibition, “Altered, Stitched and Gathered,” and musical turns by Spencer Sweeney and the Jewish, Jah Division, and, uh, Spencer Sweeney again.

Waiting in the café for the first band to take the (makeshift) stage, we indulged in some people-watching. With Eli Sudbrack, aka assume vivid astro focus, and friends holding court, the dominant style was predictably campy, though not markedly “younger” than any other comparable gig at the museum. As the room filled to capacity, we clocked a masked man dressed only in well-stuffed underpants, brand-new Reeboks, and socks emblazoned with the legend SUCK MY DICK. It was the Jewish’s drummer, and his appearance heralded the start of their set. Insistently championing their bass player and supposed muse—a leather-clad bear known as Smokey whose only comment (made in reference to his initial encounter with the band) was a beyond-understated “I thought what you dudes were doing was kinda gay”—the otherwise nerdishly outfitted ensemble launched into “He Likes Me,” following it up with “Be Gay.” Pauses between songs were enthusiastically plugged with in-jokes and bong hits.

Left: Monica Zwirner with dealer David Zwirner. Right: MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach with collector Julia Stoschek.


After half a dozen songs, we’d had our fill of this malarkey and headed upstairs for a tour of the exhibition. Organized by P.S. 1 curatorial assistants Christopher Y. Lew, Erica Papernik, and Elna Svenle, under the direction of Jelena Kristic, “Altered, Stitched and Gathered” filled several third-floor galleries with diverse work gathered under a rather nebulous thematic umbrella (something to do with the transformation of the familiar). Among pieces by Cornelia Parker, Emily Jacir, Tom Friedman, and Shinique Smith was the concluding part of Sharon Hayes’s ten-hour performance My Fellow Americans, 1981–88. Seated at a desk against an orange backdrop, Hayes finished her reading of all thirty-six of Ronald Reagan’s official “Address to the Nation” speeches. But while the Gipper has his kitsch—and arguably camp—associations, the work still felt incongruously straitlaced on an otherwise flamboyant occasion.

After a chat with painter Ellen Altfest and a parting nod to MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, we hopped the subway back to Manhattan for a dinner in honor of Glasgow-based artist Michael Fullerton, whose show “Get Over Yourself” had opened at Greene Naftali Gallery in Chelsea earlier that evening. Hunting for the venue, Centro Espanol La Nacional, aka the Spanish Benevolent Society, we realized that we’d walked straight past it at least once, expecting a flashy theme restaurant rather than what turned out to be more along the unpretentious lines of a workingmen’s club. Once inside, we squeezed up to a packed long table, dug into a mound of paella, and caught up with gallerist Andrew Kreps and his new director, Liz Mulholland. Later, on the way out, we complimented the artist on both his work and his distinguished head of long, white-tufted dark hair only to have Counter Gallery founder Carl Freedman immediately attempt to sell it to us as one of his enterprise’s limited editions. A tempting offer, but we had no time to haggle—David Zwirner gallery’s holiday party, the final stop on our itinerary, was reportedly in full swing.

After a much-needed espresso-and-pastry break, we cabbed it to subterranean Nolita watering hole Double Happiness only to find a gathering in what felt like its concluding phase. The DJ was spinning Madonna; the crowd was small, obviously close, and too drunk to do anything but jump up and down. In spite of some “interesting” fashion choices, it was an office party indistinguishable from any other. We didn’t stay long but decamped, via an unintentionally roundabout route, for the DJ collective Touch of Class’s holiday party at an unnamed venue on Centre Street (“Look for the silver door”). Packed and jumping, it was everything that where we’d just left was not. And as the two amazons making out frantically on the dance floor might have agreed if they could only have been prized apart, it was one that P.S. 1’s city kids would have loved.

Another 48 Hours

Miami
12.12.06

Left: Musician Casey Spooner. Right: Dealer Mary Boone with artist Terence Koh. (Photos: David Velasco)


Friday morning, I woke up in my hotel and checked the temperature in New York. Like I needed reassurance: “Feels like 17ºF”—a clarion reminder that despite Miami’s miasmal humidity, ambling along the South Beach boardwalk trumps tromping through Chelsea in December. Then again, weather doesn’t exist inside a convention center.

Breakfast was at Jerry’s Diner, the art world’s temporary Peach Pit and a vague relief from the oppressive "South Beach Diet”—compulsory fasting due to lousy local food and service (offset, if you’re lucky, by occasional crudités “dinners”). At one table I spotted artists Dana Schutz and Ryan Johnson, at another Casey Spooner chowing down with photographer Matthu Placek. Casey and I chatted about Yvonne Force Villareal’s party the evening prior at the Standard, easily the best fete of the week. Comparing itineraries (a popular Miami sport), he told me: “Tonight, I’m going to rehab.”

Hopping into our white Jeep SUV (when in Miami . . .), my friends and I sped across the Venetian Causeway to Pulse. Just outside, a billboard read GOLDMAN PROPERTIES WELCOMES THE ART WORLD, as if we were ambassadors from another planet. I’m reminded of the scene in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! in which New Age hippies greet the aliens with a dove of peace; the invaders promptly zap it to ashes. The art world had descended upon Miami—Art Basel Miami Beach was the mothership. (Is that why they’re called “satellite fairs”?) Inside Pulse, odes to fashion ruled the roost with works at Torch Gallery, Monique Meloche, and Heather Marx Gallery appropriating logos from Louis Vuitton and Chanel. But a few booths impressed, with Galerie Anne Barrault, collage aficionado Pavel Zoubok, and San Francisco’s Rena Bransten Gallery setting particularly high bars.

We did some quick time at the book launch for Jack Pierson’s latest monograph, Desire/Despair—I didn’t get a book, but I did snag a tote bag (an alternative to the ubiquitous canvas White Columns and Venice Biennale sacks)—then headed to the Shore Club for Vanity Fair and MoMA’s party for Doug Aitken. A bungle with the bracelets prompted a swarm of angry VIPs outside—overentitled peasantry gearing to storm the Bastille. I pulled out my press card and talked my way through, but inside it was even worse. I exchanged bleary-eyed glances with MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach. “You’re everywhere,” I told him. “Isn’t it perverse?” he replied.

Left: Artist Nate Lowman with friend. Right: Artist Isaac Julien. (Photos: David Velasco)


Next was Le Baron, a karaoke after-hours joint underwritten by Emmanuel Perrotin and hosted that night by Maya Stendhal, this year in a new location. The change of address didn’t prevent yet another crowd from forming at the door. But it was the weekend and the tables were turned—here Miami descended on the art world. The guard was a goalie, stretching his arms wide to form a blockade. People flashed business cards (Paper Magazine, Surface) hoping to bluff their way in. I spotted Casey Spooner among the mass and grabbed on, forming a human chain, and together our small entourage cut a line through the crowd and past security. Inside someone was doing an awful rendition of “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and in a moment of dubious tact (one of many, no doubt), I asked musician David Byrne if he thought he’d cover one of his own songs. “Not this round,” he answered graciously. To the crowd’s delight, Casey did karaoke to “Nightclubbing,” and when he forgot the lyrics, he just improvised: “Can’t we end this song already? When does your plane leave? Haven’t you bought enough? Sold enough?” Truth to power?

Saturday was Aqua (“cute, small West Coast–y drawings,” declared a friend), where Seattle’s James Harris Gallery and Portland’s Small A Projects made good impressions, as did two videos by Josh Azzarella at Lisa Boyle Gallery in Chicago. From there, we sped to the Design District, where Moss was abuzz with groupies swooning over design stars Constantin Boym and Maarten Baas. We hit NADA (significantly better than rumored) for a spell, before running through the largely uninspired photoMIAMI.

Good timing is everything—too bad it seemed to have deserted us. My friends and I arrived an hour late for Scott Hug’s party for K48 (with a performance by Mirror Mirror), but the place was still empty (Miami set new standards for “fashionably late”), so we climbed back into our vessel and headed to the Jalouse party, held in an incongruously bright, unmarked storefront in South Beach, just off the main strip. Inside, my friend joked with Nate Lowman, “Word around the fair is you died.” “Really? Who told you that?” he asked. We reminded him of his eight-hundred-pound tombstone in the main fair. “Oh right, that thing. I was just confused because I almost did die last night.” (Huh?) Amid a few crazies and some underwhelming, overly chic people, he was the only familiar face, so we headed off to Miami megaclub Mansion, where quirky French uniquery Colette was advertising lessons on how to dance like Justin Timberlake. We met up with Sarah Lerfel, the store’s beloved owner, who promised that in an hour we’d be dancing just like the pop savant. But time was precious—especially on the Saturday night of the fair—so off we went back to the Raleigh for Visionaire’s highly anticipated soiree.

The line for the Visionaire party recalled Disney World—or a slaughterhouse—with the wait divided into several stations, a meager attempt to minimize crowd anxiety. Inexplicably, you had to show your prearranged pink-neon VIP wristband at each of the four “checkpoints.” Slava Mogutin and posse dropped by, blanched at the line (and the unsympathetic gatekeepers), and departed for friendlier ground. Terence Koh swooped in with a friend and tried to cut ahead, but it wasn't that kind of event, and security roundly thwarted his attempt.

Left: Artist Walead Beshty with Wallspace co-owner Jane Hait. Right: Artist Ryan McGinley. (Photos: David Velasco)


Once you passed the barricades, the party wasn’t so bad, with free cocktails, Petrossian caviar, and complimentary bottles of Imperia vodka. But it wasn’t so great, either—as artist Walead Beshty noted earlier, Miami is all “short conversations with people you like and long conversations with people you don’t,” and this party was a case in point. Someone remarked that Visionaire functions are heading wearily in the direction of Spago. A friend introduced me to Simon, one of several half-naked models hired to roam around the party. Eyeing his glabrous chest, I asked his age. “Sixteen,” he said. Tacky? Probably. Just when I feared that the party was getting a bit “too Miami,” I spotted Isaac Julien on the deck. We discussed his current project (still in the early stages), a biopic of the artist’s old friend Derek Jarman produced by Tilda Swinton. While we chatted, Ryan McGinley was introduced to Julien. “Looking for Langston was the first artwork I remember seeing. It was an inspiration,” said McGinley, who looked genuinely in awe. It was a touching moment, seeing one artist pay serious respect to another in that environment. I decided to take my leave, running into V Magazine editor Christopher Bollen near the door. “I think I’m dying. I’m like a computer that needs to be reset,” he said.

Word spread of another Jalouse party at the Mynt Lounge, with a performance by Los Super Elegantes. We headed up the strip and ran smack into a throng of unsavory Miami clubbers clamoring for entrance at the bar’s flashing maw. Matthew Higgs and Anne Collier eyed the depressing crowd dubiously before splitting for higher ground. Dash Snow paced frantically out front. It was like Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Hell, animated, tanned, and tumid with silicone. Enough was enough, I thought, and we jaunted back to the more soothing environs of the Raleigh’s expansive back patio.

My plane was leaving in a few hours, but I decided on one final late-night snack at Jerry’s. On the way, I bumped into Dana Schutz leaving NADA’s party at the Sagamore (where apparently Graham Watling of Miami Ice Machine proposed onstage to NADA fair director Heather Hubbs). “Too much MSG. Jerry’s almost killed me!” All that muerte . . . it’ll be a wonder if the art world makes it home in one piece.

David Velasco

Left: Artists Brian Kenney and Slava Mogutin. Right: Designer Maarten Baas. (Photos: David Velasco)


Magic Towel Ride

Miami
12.10.06

Left: Keanu Reeves. Right: Yvonne Force Villareal with MoMA curator and P.S. 1 chief curator Klaus Biesenbach. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)


As Jaime Frankfurt, art adviser to the stars, told me Thursday afternoon, attempting to put the Art Basel Miami Beach fair in perspective, “It's either the end of the world or it's fabulous!” I wondered whether there was a difference, but I was hoping for fabulous when I headed over to the Sagamore Hotel that evening for a cocktail party launching Yoko Ono's new show on XM Radio. Yoko in full-moon Miami at the same time as Russell Simmons, Narcisco Rodriguez, Calvin Klein, and Jay-Z? Give peace a chance! I had to check it out.

Yoko was nowhere in sight, nor was anyone else who looked even remotely artistic. (Maybe Devendra Banhart.) The hotel was introducing a “video lounge,” meaning that there was now a plasma screen in every poolside cabana, facing out. Yoko's Onochord came on. In this video, Yoko faces the viewer blinking a tiny flashlight on and off. A text running across the bottom of the screen explains how blinking the light in a certain rhythm can send a message to men and women everywhere and to all the ships at sea. The message is “I love you.” I felt only marginally better. No matter how many invitations you accept during Miami Basel week, it is possible to live the eternal social nightmare and always be in the wrong place.

“Is Yoko here?” I asked a bartender too good-looking to be working in the dark. “She's here,” he said. “Where?” I persisted. I told him she was a friend. “She must be in the spa,” he said, staring at a balcony on the second floor. “She ought to be down in a little while.” Well, I know how long “a little while” is in Miami, especially for a diva, and I was on a schedule. So I left, with an Onochord key-chain flashlight that I shall treasure to the end of my days, and hailed a cab to André Balazs's new Miami hostelry, the Standard, on one of those little islands in Biscayne Bay.

Left: Arden Wohl with David Byrne. Right: Artist Jack Pierson with a friend and architect Gustavo Bonevardi. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)


This turned out to be an ultrachic, surprisingly minimal, two-story motel by Morris Lapidus, the architect of Miami kitsch whose philosophy was Too Much Is Never Enough, the title of his memoir. Too bad he never lived to meet Yvonne Force Villareal. Force and Mark Fletcher were throwing a torchlight buffet dinner with the hotel's Claire Darrow. “This is for the artists,” said Yvonne in a toast, and though the darkness made it hard to see exactly who was there, the group included several genuine contributors to the art of our time—and one interloper, art-world newbie David Amsden, sent by the New York Times Magazine to suss out why art is “suddenly so important.”

He had no idea whom he was meeting, or how to distinguish Jack Pierson from John Currin or Lara Schnitger from Hope Atherton, or that Barbara Gladstone and Anton Kern were dealers of one sort and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Marc Foxx another. I couldn't tell whether he'd ever heard of the Studio Museum in Harlem when I introduced him to Thelma Golden, and I have no idea whether he talked to MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach or was impressed by collectors like Eli Broad and Jane Holzer mixing in. Leo Villareal brought his father, also Leo Villareal. Rachel Feinstein brought her parents. This was a family affair.

We all sprawled on the plush, oversize beach towels that Force is rather brilliantly marketing through Target and that I have to say are worth every dollar of the fifty it will cost to own one. They come in four high-art designs by Alex Katz, Marilyn Minter, Rob Pruitt, and Richard Phillips. As comfy on our downy carpets as a posse of pashas, we took in the night in such a louche and lazy manner that even surprise guest Keanu Reeves let his hair down. As I left for Kenny Scharf's poolside performance as a troglodyte at the Raleigh, Reeves, who had been browsing the fair all day, was engaged in a conversation with artist Matthew Monahan and dealer Stuart Shave so animated it was hard to believe this was the same wooden idol we've all come to know and love. Obviously, a little art has been good for him. Later, I heard that Jay-Z was also on the fair beat and showing interest in a James Welling, while Beyoncé was hot for Jutta Koether. Could it be that Miami is done with kitsch? Are we riding a new wave of good taste?

Left: Art Production Fund's Doreen Remen with Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden. Right: Gladstone Gallery's Max Falkenstein, Charles DeGainsbourg, and dealer Barbara Gladstone. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)


The answer may be embedded in the title of Scharf's performance: It's the Astral Cumulo Nimbus über Express and the Vomidingleberry Movement Troupe Doing the Rectal Romp Troglodyte Starshow. I couldn't wait to get there. Only the shuttle dropped me in front of the Delano instead of the Raleigh, so I ran in to catch a few minutes of the poolside strip by Marilyn Manson's burlesque queen of a wife, Dita von Teese. Mistake! An hour passed before von Teese came onstage to peel off a pink-sequined cowgirl outfit and ride a giant tube of lipstick. I had a ringside seat on a giant white ottoman with artist Will Cotton, P.S. 1 deputy director Brett Littman, designer Cynthia Rowley, and her husband, Bill Powers, but frankly, my dears, von Teese was a bore. Yet Rowley pronounced the show gorgeous. “It's the pink sequins,” she explained.

Meanwhile, the boys ripped the performance to shreds on aesthetic, moral, conceptual, and entertainment grounds. Having worked as a teen for one of burlesque's greatest strip acts, Ann Corio—as her quick-change dresser, no less—I had to side with them. By then it was too late for the Scharf, who also stripped in the chorus line of what I later heard was the funniest show of the week. Feeling cheated, I wondered whether Yoko had emerged from the spa, or whether love was still the message.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Genevieve Jones. Right: Dita Von Teese and designers Narciso Rodriguez and Donna Karan. (Photos: David Velasco)


Peaches and Beaches

Miami
12.07.06

Left: Collectors Jason, Michelle, Mera, and Don Rubell. (Photo: Brian Sholis) Right: Peaches disrobes. (Photo: David Velasco)


Twenty minutes before the 4 PM Tuesday kickoff of NADA’s preview (benefiting the New Museum), a small queue had formed outside the still-locked gate, while dealers inside breezed past in designer shifts and flip-flops, racing to make finishing touches to their booths before donning heels and greeting VIPs. Banished from memory were 2005’s assorted technical difficulties and power outages. “We learned from last year. This time we brought our architect when we came down to see the space,” said new NADA president Andrea Smith. “But still there are new steel columns we weren’t told about.”

Minor glitches notwithstanding, red dots were soon ubiquitous. But the initial push hardly filled the cavernous Ice Palace Film Studios, and the aisles didn’t achieve critical mass until half past six, when dealers (everyone from Tanya Bonakdar to Jay Jopling) and artists (I noticed Kori Newkirk, Aaron Young, and Nate Lowman) installing over on Miami Beach crossed the causeway to check in on their chums—and the competition. They joined a hoard of collectors, including notables like Marty Eisenberg, Eileen Cohen, and David Teiger. Rob Fischer’s gymnasium-floorboard sculpture, snaking across the corner of Mary Goldman’s booth, impressed, as did a disturbing new Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn video (at Elizabeth Dee), which featured Kahn and her son, Lenny, playing in the yard while wearing matching bright-pink detainee hoods adorned with smiley faces.

A brief detour brought me to artist Cristina Lei Rodriguez’s studio, filled with the sculptures that composed her solo at Emmanuel Perrotin’s Miami outpost last year, where curator Amy Smith-Stewart and I loaded up on packets of Emergen-C to help us through the week. Thus equipped, we faced down a phalanx of guest-list gatekeepers stationed beneath the highway overpass adjacent to the Moore Space Loft, the local nonprofit’s new seventy-five-hundred-square-foot digs. While waiting for John Bock’s performance (a variation of his Venice piece from 2005) to begin, a live band stationed outside tested the limits of what humans will endure in exchange for a little bit of food and something to drink. And despite moments of perverse humor, which were imitated immediately by a mob of turned-out ladies, Bock’s manic intensity couldn’t build to a cathartic release.

Left: Dealer Michelle Maccarone with staffer Ellen Langan. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch. (Photos: David Velasco)


So I plopped into a taxi—alongside an Artforum colleague and MoCA director Jeremy Strick—and sped back into the city, my destination the Delano, the deluxe Deco hotel on the strip. Striding along the length of the pool, I heard Los Super Elegantes’s Milena Muzquiz introduce herself and partner Martiniano Lopez-Croset and add, “Our goal for this set is to wake that guy up.” A young man in driving shoes, sprawled out on a deck chair, continued to doze as the duo launched into their he-said-she-said lounge act. By the third song, though, the snoozer had come to, and the LA contingent (Javier Peres, Daniel Hug) was on its feet and dancing.

I could’ve used LSE for my 7:45 Wednesday-morning wake-up call. The Rubell Family Collection’s “Redeye,” a just-opened survey of Los Angeles art, beckoned. Paul McCarthy’s The Painter, seriously damaged during shipment to Sydney for the 2000 Biennale, was remade for the occasion, and the artist was obviously the lodestar both for the Rubells and for his younger cohorts. Many worked with (read: deformed) the figure, and limbs and heads by Matthew Monahan, Thomas Houseago, and others were scattered throughout the upstairs rooms. A brief tour through Wynwood’s galleries ate up my spare minutes before the noon opening bell at the convention center.

Less than half an hour into the fair’s professional preview, I noticed SF MoMA curator Madeleine Grynsztejn admiring works on paper by Lisa Yuskavage and Luc Tuymans in New York dealer David Zwirner’s closet, so I glanced at my watch and commenced the countdown. Across the aisle, a clutch of bullying, I-me-mine collectors encircled Chelsea’s Matthew Marks, who patiently explained, “There is another one—very similar—that I will reserve for you now and hang tomorrow.” While I was chatting with Bard CCS executive director Tom Eccles in the Metro Pictures/Sprüth Magers booth, an art advisor from LA interrupted to ask me the cost of an Ed Ruscha drawing. Fair director Samuel Keller strolled past, squiring Dennis Hopper. Keanu Reeves, an advisor on his arm, followed not far behind. Down the aisle, Greek tycoon Dakis Joannou peered at images on a Blum + Poe laptop. Best of all: Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker slipped off his blazer to reveal an Art Chicago 1997 T-shirt. “A reminder of the possible fate awaiting these things,” he deadpanned. Elapsed time: six minutes . . . and counting.

Left: Artist John Bock. Right: Curator Hamza Walker and artist Carl Pope. (Photos: Brian Sholis)


Andrea Rosen treated visitors to an unofficial Venice preview with an impressive, boulder-size head by David Altmejd (he will represent Canada) and works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (USA). Peter Freeman improved on the quirky inclusion of Marcel Broodthaers's eggshells on last year’s stand by bringing a late-’30s James Ensor canvas, Christ in Agony. You guessed it: It looked totally fresh. More predictable—but gorgeous just the same—were a bright-red Judd stack (still available at $4.5 million as of 6:30 PM) and a lovely 1961 Agnes Martin drawing, both at Anthony Meier. The most expensive work of the fair may be Jan Krugier’s Picasso (a 1941 bronze bust of Dora Maar; reported asking price: $30 million) but one big sale (at Jeffrey Deitch’s booth) was confirmed: a 1982 Basquiat double portrait—of the artist plus Andy—sold for $5.5 million to another dealer. (Never fear: Acquavella’s enormous 1987 canvas was still available at 2:45 PM Thursday for $3.25 million.) Another sign that times are good: Sylvie Fleury’s iridescent-purple mushrooms looked so nice to Paris-based dealer Thaddeus Ropac, he thought he’d take a chance and wheel 'em out for the second year running.

“The gallery exhibition—as a publicity mechanism for artists—is obsolete,” suggested one dealer late in the afternoon, surveying the crowd in his booth. But Michele Maccarone’s presence here indicates that maintaining a public venue may itself be on the way out. Why open a new space in the West Village when you can hop from Frieze to ARTissima to Art Basel Miami Beach? Nate Lowman’s eight-hundred-pound tombstone was the only visible work in her booth: Anthony Burdin and his creations were once again hidden behind a locked door. Across the aisle, Gavin Brown’s at-first-glance empty booth was shortly filled by a spinning Urs Fischer sculpture. At the tail end of fishing line hooked to a rotating arm above dangled an empty Marlboro pack that danced erratically, like the plastic bags in American Beauty. Word is that both editions have sold at $160,000. “I’ve scrambled across the floor, hallucinating, after empty packs at 4 AM,” admitted a friend, empathetically.

Needing to find a meal before reaching a similar state, I toured the Art Positions containers quickly. Daniel Reich’s booth, with sand dumped on the floor and images carved into bath towels by Christian Holstad, wins the award for site-responsiveness. And unlike Alex Katz's and Marilyn Minter’s just-unveiled beach-towel designs, Holstad’s work seems unlikely ever to make its way into Target stores. Kelly Nipper’s Calder-esque melting-ice mobiles and Aïda Ruilova’s new video at Salon 94, as well as Dana Schutz’s canvas at Zach Feuer, left a strong impression—which, after ten-plus hours on your feet, is about all you can hope for.

Well, perhaps more: “I want cum on my titties!” screamed my normally buttoned-up friend in a Peaches-induced frenzy as she jogged toward the beach in a prim skirt and sensible heels. Had the organizers found just the musician to bring out everyone’s inner Miami hedonist? Needless to say, the Canadian schoolteacher–turned–sex diva didn’t disappoint, tearing through an hour-long set. At the end, she dashed for the sea, stripping on the way, with one hundred fans in tow. If only we could all exit as gracefully. I dashed in the opposite direction—toward the Raleigh, where Deitch played host to a performance by the magnetic singer Devendra Banhart. Fleshed out with a full band, his elegant “freak folk” morphed into the kind of shambling pop you might have found on the AM dial thirty-five years ago—but better. For just a moment, with my feet in the sand and a chair to relax in, there was no place I’d rather have been.

Brian Sholis

Left: Musician Devendra Banhart. Right: New Museum curator Richard Flood with dealer Emi Fontana. (Photos: David Velasco)


Last Supper

Los Angeles
12.06.06

Dealer Kim Light with Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy. Right: Artists Ed Ruscha and Marnie Weber. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)


Last Saturday marked the final batch of openings in Los Angeles before the galleries trouped to Miami Beach. A strange mood of exhaustion and reservation pervaded the thinly populated Culver City crowds, ready for one marathon to end and another to begin. I started my trek at Blum & Poe, which presented Dave Muller’s new paintings of dissolving album covers. The artist lumbered through the galleries, infant daughter strapped to his chest, stoically observing the observers. Dealer Jeff Poe received visitors in the gallery’s storage area and tried to pass off former Warhol superstar Louis Walden as his father; the uncanny likeness won a gaggle of believers. Walden appeared at one point with another Warhol holdover, inexplicably lugging around the bottom half of an Elvis silk screen (which Poe nobly dubbed “the King’s better half”).

I left Walden and Poe to their antics and headed down to Lightbox Gallery, where a minor buzz had developed around the possibility of a performance by Scottish rock superstars Franz Ferdinand; the band’s guitarist, Nick McCarthy, had curated the current show. They didn’t play, though another band fronted by McCarthy did, putting on a concert more dour church choir than moody cock rock. The exhibition featured a lot of young Glaswegian art—soft-focus images of girls in sylvan light, painted and sketched in delicate lines that fell somewhere between earnest high school doodling and Lisa Yuskavage. Collector Seth Geller, built like a graying linebacker and wearing a dark sweatsuit, was hard to miss among the shabby-chic rock-’n’-roll crowd—kids who looked coolly at one another rather than at the art. “I’m a collector, but I’m also a businessman,” Geller told me. “Though the work is interesting, I have to do some more research.”

At MC, a bluish cloud hung over the chain-smokers celebrating Paul Pfeiffer’s images and video installations of heavily attended basketball games with the players digitally removed. A shadow of the athletes cut from the photos could be found in the gallery staff, booked on the following day’s flight to Miami Beach and ready for their own big game.

Left: Collector Seth Geller. Right: Artist Louis Walden and dealer Jeff Poe.


Next, I drove over to the Sue Williams opening at Regen Projects, arriving just before the doors closed. As I entered the gallery, one wit exclaimed, “So, you’ve come to see the genitals.” Williams’s paintings of abstracted body parts made the lingering attendees appear like the last few standing after a cartoon massacre. Perhaps fans of Williams’s previous work with text, the distinctly literary crowd included writers Benjamin Weissman, Amy Gerstler, Rachel Kushner, and Trinie Dalton (with new husband, artist Matthew Greene).

Leaving the body parts behind, I sped down the freeway to catch a glimpse of Jim Shaw’s new show at Patrick Painter (his second this season!). The quiet gallery had recently been vacated, and I stood alone under the large set paintings that had been reclaimed and modified by the hyperimaginative artist. One depicted a troop of life-size zombies in business suits, ringers for the moneyed classes that will doubtless haunt Miami next week. Painter hosted a dinner for Shaw at a cavernous barbeque restaurant in Koreatown. Opting for an intimate gathering, the artist had invited anyone and everyone who had ever worked for him—sixty people, it turned out. I managed to find a seat in the throng two tables over from Painter, Shaw, the Ruschas, and artists Ivan Morley and Marnie Weber. I’m not sure whether it was the youngish crowd or simply Painter’s retinue, but the mood here felt refreshingly jaunty. After a brief speech by the dealer, we chatted over a cigarette in the darkened bamboo garden off the main outdoor seating area. (A distinctly shaped green leaf, emblazoned on his black hoodie, symbolized another possible bad habit.) Painter explained his multiple Shaw exhibitions as “a smushed retrospective,” proclaiming that if the museums won’t do it, he will. “Sorry it took me a while to come over, I always get social anxiety when there’s people.” He took a drag from his cigarette, the restaurant lights reflecting off his glasses. “Small crowds are tough, give me an art fair anytime. Forty thousand people and I’m just fine.”

Andrew Berardini

Left: MC Gallery director Renaud Proch with artist Paul Pfeiffer. Right: Artist Dave Muller with daughter Frances.


Common Thread

Philadelphia
12.04.06

Left: Artists Alex Da Corte and Virgil Marti. Right: Artist Fia Backström. (All photos: Anthony Campuzano)


The holiday do at the Fabric Workshop and Museum is an unmissable Philadelphia perennial, and this year promised extra buzz and pomp. Thanks to the inexorable expansion of the Convention Center, now leading a third cycle of downtown demolition, the workshop has been evicted from its home of eleven years and must tear down its incomparable archives and production facilities. Twenty-four-thousand square feet have been secured just barely a block away, though, and while there are “nasty little logistics” (a rank understatement from new director Lorie Mertes), Friday evening was greeted as an opportunity to gear up for a fresh start. A charter bus, filled with patrons and collaborating artists brought in from Chelsea, arrived at 5 PM on the nose. Scores of waistcoated waiters went around. Catering was enthusiastically and instantaneously set upon by students with matted hair and paint-splattered clothing. One had to smile for incidental New York visitors killing time before John Armleder and Christian Marclay’s performance at the ICA—described to me by museum director Claudia Gould as involving “fire and Christmas trees”—the likes of Carol Greene, Fia Backström, and the Swiss Institute’s Gabrielle Giattino, who had stumbled into as warm and familial an art fete as any going. “We’re on our first date,” joked Greene, squeezing Modern Painters senior editor Domenick Ammirati. I collided with the industrious Virgil Marti, usually a low-key local presence, a few minutes later. “You might meet someone at a cocktail party and have a nice conversation in New York,” he explained, “but I’ve done more and learned more here, always.”

Left: Swiss Institute curator Gabrielle Giattino with “New Humans” artists Mika Tajima and Howie Chen. Right: Fabric Workshop and Museum director Lorie Mertes.


This isn’t remotely the sort of institution (or, indeed, city) where people tap champagne flutes with forks and make announcements, so the crowd offered up their own plumbs from the anecdotal well, interspersed with flushed predictions for the future, as they worked away at 250 bottles of wine. The tone of jubilant self-congratulation was buttressed by the current exhibition, a taut survey of projects from the venue’s history that includes vitrines of storytelling ephemera and errata with many of the works. The mind spins at Christine Borland’s beautifully bungled early attempts to hand-harvest spider silk around blown-glass forms, a feat punctuated by the minuscule form of the collaborating artist itself, splayed and pinned next to the unfinished works. There is radiant euphoria in the photograph of Jim Hodges using a sewing machine for the first time, and the long pipe of inflated sausage casings, evidence from a fun afternoon’s digression as Miroslaw Balka sought the perfect semitranslucent organic gauze, is a pretty riot. “We had eighty interns working on that one,” project coordinator Mary Anne Friel told me with a vague gesture toward a mound of bikes and bookcases and balls, bits and bobs cast life-size in paper by Leonardo Drew. “There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces. Most of them were destroyed. Mostly by Leonardo.”

This city is tough to top when it comes to clinging to a former glory. To wit, this summer saw the installation of an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Rocky––yes, the movie character––at the foot of the Philadelphia Art Museum's steps, an unintentional monument to cultural stasis and, as widely predicted, an instant hit as a tourist attraction. I asked the workshop’s founder, Marion Boulton Stroud—known to friends (known to everyone) as Kippy—about the artistic achievements embedded throughout her space, and how she is considering their imminent destruction. “Well, some of it is gone, and for that we’re very sad. But Jorge [Pardo] said he could reconfigure his lounge for the new space, and Virgil [Marti] and Jenny [Holzer] would rehang their wallpapers in the bathrooms. How much of our next environment should be nostalgia for all this, and how much should be cutting-edge? I suspect we’ll do something new and unique.” She smiled and turned to Mertes. “But that’s all we ever do!” Mertes was graceful and sanguine, as she’d been all evening, appreciative as the extent of support and respect commanded by her employer revealed itself to her for the first time. “This city is ready for contemporary art,” she confided in me, with deathly intensity. Gee, have I heard that one before. But she called me “honey” several times, and by then I was smiling, too.

William Pym

Left: Greene Naftali director Carol Greene with Modern Painters senior editor Domenick Ammirati. Right: Fabric Workshop and Museum master printer Mary Anne Friel.


Unrequited Love

New York
12.01.06

Left: Stephin Merritt and Rick Moody. Right: Stephin Merritt. (Photos: Jennifer Snow)


The Book of Love is long and boring; its author’s voice is deep and deadpan. So learned Rick Moody and assembled throng at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night, when Stephin Merritt—indie rock’s Cole Porter—discussed his lyrics. The notoriously laconic, impressively prolific songwriter for the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and other projects, Merritt doesn’t enjoy being interviewed—or, rather, enjoys pretending that he doesn’t enjoy being interviewed. Moody, a novelist and memoirist, wants Merritt to acknowledge an autobiographical, emotional force behind his lyrics, particularly those from the three-volume Magnetic Fields opus 69 Love Songs; Merritt—perhaps thinking “Um, cabaret? The Apple? Postmodernism? Hello?”—dodges, refuses, and glares at Moody as if he were Zebulon from Galaxy X. Both men wear hats.

Here are the details: Moody emerges onstage and delivers a long, immensely flattering introduction of “the best songwriter of his generation.” He mentions that his first encounter with Merritt’s talents was through the 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests (a synth-pop hootenanny) and, to indicate Merritt’s fluidity with genre, that he’d seen him play Erik Satie on marimba at the SculptureCenter. With that, Merritt appears—tan suit, newsboy cap—and unceremoniously plunks himself down. He says his first memories are of songs, starting at age three. At age nine, he composed a song called “What Do You Do When There’s Nothing to Do?” “It was dull,” he adds. He writes melodies in his head and lyrics in a little black book, often in the corner of a bar. If he arrives at a rhyme scheme too complex for a whole song, he’ll make it the bridge of another song. He sent 69 Love Songs to Tom Lehrer and received the reply “That’s sixty-seven too many,” along with an admonishment for his “avant-garde arrangements.” These answers are patiently extracted from Merritt like impacted wisdom teeth.

Needing a rest, Moody asks Merritt to play a song. It is the mordant, gorgeous “Aging Spinsters,” rendered tonight on ukulele. Afterward, Merritt pours himself a tumbler of Chivas Regal, says “Alcohol,” and offers Moody a drink, which is declined. Merritt asks why; Moody says, “Stephin, I’d be happy to talk about that later” and counters with the lyrics-as-autobiography gambit. Merritt is as squirmy with this question as Moody was with the last, but allows that “Aging Spinsters” was at least biography—written as a bit of friendly revenge on a friend, who, if you know the song, did eventually marry. Asked if he prefers limitations on his subject matter, Merritt, sounding like Leonard Cohen on screw juice, replies, “If the Ostrich Board asked me for a concept album about ostriches, I’d say, ‘Great!’”

Moody gamely continues, only to have Merritt, several times, ask him to repeat easily understood words. Moody apologizes for his lockjaw; Merritt says it’s because he can only hear his echo. As he pulls what sounds like a bottle of pills out of his jacket, Merritt says, “Everything profound is already a cliché.” Glossing the weird pill situation, Moody says, “We’re having a health-and-beauty moment here.” Merritt clarifies: “Commit lozenges.” Moody asks for one, hesitates, then asks what’s in them. “Nicotine, calcium . . .” The novelist waves them away. Merritt steadfastly refuses to say whether his love songs are genuine, describing 69 Love Songs as a “textual cloud.” Moody: “Wow.” By way of illustration, Merritt notes that there are two songs called “The Best of My Love.” He sings a bit of the disco one, then asks the audience who sang it. “The Emotions,” someone shouts. “Yeah,” sighs Merritt. The crowd laughs, nervously.

Merritt sings “The Book of Love,” accompanied by his ukulele. Moody mentions that the song was performed at his own wedding. Does this please Merritt? [Deeply uncomfortable silence] Moody elaborates, “Didn’t it come from a powerful emotional force?” [More silence, glaring] “The song,” Merritt says, “is about a powerful emotional force—the power of cliché. Strange thing to have at your wedding.” They argue about Meat Loaf. I want to crawl under my chair. Moody steers him back to lyrics. “Good lyrics make crap poetry,” Merritt says, “except Sondheim.” Does he have any guilty musical pleasures? “Why should I feel guilty about liking a song?” He explains he has a “clinical attitude” about melody, enjoying “Deutschland über alles” while being repelled by its politics. Is he influenced by poets? “No,” Merritt says, “It’s a different art. I wouldn’t be influenced by sculpture either—except for Duchamp’s readymades.” The authenticity flag is bravely floated. “It’s authentically music. I’m authentically singing.” Send in the clowns.