GORGEOUS THOUGH THEY WERE, the cherry blossoms that literally burst into bloom last Thursday were not what brought a swarm of New York art moths to the newly kindled flame of Washington, DC. I speak not of the Obamas’ fire but of the candlepower of Multiverse, an LED light sculpture by Leo Villareal newly installed in the National Gallery of Art.
“This is the first time I’ve been to Washington that hasn’t been for a demonstration,” said artist and Obama campaign booster Susan Jennings, on the arm of her husband, painter Alexander Ross. They were one of the several art couples (Sean and Michelle Landers, curators Cay Sophie Rabinowitz and Christian Rattemeyer, Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer and consultant Mark Fletcher) arriving for the dinner christening the Villareal work, commissioned by the museum to enliven the underground corridor connecting the institution’s east and west wings. “It’s tremendously popular,” said curator Molly Donovan of the two-hundred-foot-long configuration of forty-one thousand LED nodes that Villareal has programmed to dim, brighten, and create random patterns on one wall of the hallway and its lowered ceiling—never appearing the same way twice. “Two guys come over from the Justice Department every day,” Donovan reported. “They go down there just to clear their minds and cleanse their souls.”
Good to know our feds have found a sweet spot where they can wrestle their demons in public, though I doubt this is part of the new transparency. Actually, I think Villareal meant the project, three years in the making, to be more luminous than enlightening. “I made it so you see sound and hear shapes,” he said. It’s trippy, all right, but also serene, just like the soiree in his honor. It isn’t often the National Gallery touts a single work of contemporary art with any fanfare. Then again, it isn’t often that a single work costs around two million dollars. The piece was paid for by philanthropists Victoria and Roger Sant, as well as West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon Percy, CEO of Washington’s public-television station and the person Donovan credits most for getting the Villareal commission approved. On loan from Conner Contemporary Art, Villareal’s Washington gallery, it will be on view until November, though Donovan said there were no plans to replace it with something else. Pointing to an installation of nine hivelike mounds of stepped slate by Andy Goldsworthy installed in a project space just beyond the building lobby, she said, “That was another dead space until the Goldsworthy commission, and now the museum owns it, so who knows?”
A Washington friend who attended the event with me called the buffet lavish by the usual DC standards. And the crowd, she said, was much better dressed. That was because most of this fashion-conscious bunch came from New York and has been well trained by Art Production Fund directors Yvonne Force (Mrs. Leo Villareal) and Doreen Remen to be sanguine and stylish at all times. Set behind a hedge of potted plants that camouflaged the museum cafeteria behind it, with a string quartet playing throughout dinner, guests found their own seats at tables strewn with a generous outlay of white tulips that I wished had secreted hidden microphones. (This whole event was almost defiantly white.) Saint Louis Contemporary Art Museum director Paul Ha recalled how he gave Villareal his first New York solo show ten years ago, when Ha was director of White Columns. Retired P.S. 1 founder Alanna Heiss, still reeling from the imbroglio that followed her announced eviction of the Film-Makers' Cooperative from the Clocktower home of her new project, Art International Radio, swore she was letting the group stay. And Miami collector Mera Rubell tipped us off to the opening of her new restaurant in the Morris Lapidus–designed hotel that she and Don Rubell own and operate just south of the Capitol. (Who knew?)
Helen Marden, wearing a conspicuous squid bracelet, sat down with artists Lisa Yuskavage, Sarah Sze, John Currin, and Rachel Feinstein. Tony Oursler buddied up with Hirshhorn Museum acting director and chief curator Kerry Brougher and his wife, Nora Halpern, not far from the artist’s racehorse-breeder father, while Villareal’s mother held down another table with her family members at one end and dealer Leigh Conner and Washington/New York/Miami collector and megalawyer Aaron Fleischman at the other. “This is the best party we’ve ever had here,” Fleischman said, heading for the moving walkways running back and forth within the twinkly Multiverse tunnel that took us to the dessert tables on the other side. What they usually get is far more boring, he noted, all Supreme Court judges and lobbyists at a formal, sit-down, black-tie dinner. And the DJ isn’t usually composer James Healy, a sometime Villareal collaborator who created a live mix of “early techno,” as Force put it.
“I’m hoping to light the Washington Monument International Klein Blue,” said Brougher, who will be overseeing an Yves Klein retrospective at the Hirshhorn next year. Sounds doable, I thought. Just check out the Empire State Building: a new color for every occasion, red for Valentine’s Day, lavender for Gay Pride Day, white for Easter. Not so easy to accomplish in Washington. The red tape involved in defending our nation’s patriotic symbols from an attack of spectacle is pretty thick. Didn’t all hell break loose when filmmakers had an alien spaceship land at the indifferent white obelisk in 1951 for The Day the Earth Stood Still? “I’m hopeful, though,” Brougher said. “Now that the freedom-fries thing has died down, we might be able to push it through.”
THE END OF BLING. Damien Hirst’s glittering death’s-head flashed on the screen. DUBAI EXPATS GIVE NEW MEANING TO LONG-STAY CAR PARK came a headline. Then, a quote from Anna Wintour: I DON’T THINK ANYONE IS GOING TO WANT TO LOOK OVERLY FLASHY, OVERLY GLITZY, TOO DUBAI. “The media is all too eager to document ‘the end of Dubai,’” Rem Koolhaas said to the audience. “It’s as if we need the reassurance of Dubai’s demise to restore our own confidence.”
It was late Monday afternoon in the Emirate of Sharjah, and about a hundred of us were sitting in a darkened room at Dar Al Nadwa trying to catch the tail end of the first day of the March Meetings. Koolhaas had followed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi overseer Thomas Krens, capping off a tag team of Gulf cultural attachés/apologists who were no less convincing for being on the local payroll. As Koolhaas continued, a curator leaned over. “All he does is critique the critics. Look, he’s bashing Mike Davis again.”
It was the day before the preview of the third Art Dubai fair and two days before the official opening of the ninth Sharjah Biennial—though “official” timelines shifted depending on the person; each tier of participants seemed to have its own itinerary, institutionalizing a certain status anxiety. At the same time that this particular crowd of journalists, locals, and art tourists sat straining to hear Krens and Koolhaas, another group of art caravanners had pitched their tents at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, where a series of Global Art Forum panels had also commenced that day. (The series continued later that week in Dubai.) The wide view was impossible: One simply had to choose. “March Meeting” had a more revolutionary ring (not surprising, given the occasionally aimless bombast of the biennial’s artistic director, Jack Persekian); “Global Art Forum” sounded positively nerdy by comparison. But Hans Ulrich Obrist was over there, and Krens and Koolhaas were here. I’d have preferred the former, but extenuating circumstances intervened. What’s your poison?
Left: A sign for the Sharjah Biennial. Right: Sharjah Biennial artistic director Jack Persekian.
Sharjah’s heritage district was picturesque, to be sure. “There’s an actual street culture. I prefer it to Dubai,” noted artist Jane Wilson. “Too bad you can’t have an art gala here—no alcohol, no hashish.” One could almost forgive the biennial its T.G.I. Friday’s–style signage. “You can do Sharjah in four hours,” one gallery director advised. “You could do it in less, but then you probably wouldn’t like it very much.” Many I spoke with apparently did it in less. Sometimes-meandering videos and installations in dishabille made for a hard trek.
There was much worth considering, though. Many praised Lamia Joreige’s ambitious nine-room video installation inspired by Francis Bacon triptychs and Jalal Toufic’s concept of the “overturn.” Obrist and Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer fell for Haris Epaminonda’s terse, deceptively simple Polaroids of found images. Other standout works included pieces by Sharif Waked (a play on the genre of “living martyr” videos), Lamya Gargash (representing this year’s new UAE pavilion in Venice), a rediscovered Robert MacPherson, Basma al-Sharif, and Lara Favaretto (her white cube made from confetti, not her insipid car-wash installations outside). Much of the rest, though, was either pretentious or too literal, either decontextualized or straining to project a context. “When was the last time you saw a biennial in which you really loved more than a few pieces?” Obrist asked innocently.
That night, I took the forty-five-minute taxi ride south to Dubai; it was the first of many trips between the two emirates. (At roughly seventy-five dirhams, or twenty US dollars, one didn’t think much of traveling between the two.) If the media had visions of a failed Dubai, the art world dreamed of a sybaritic (and well-funded) social laboratory in the sands. It found as much in the Jumeirah Beach hotel complex hosting the fair—a gilded echo chamber on the shores of the Gulf. We’d all read about Dubai in the papers and witnessed the ebullient Sheikh Zayed road from our cars on the way in; for many of us, Art Dubai offered little more than cultural window-shopping. We strained to locate metaphors to give some sense of our surroundings. “It’s the third in a trinity—Venice, Las Vegas, Dubai,” asserted dealer Max Protetch. “Dubai is Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi is Beverly Hills, and Sharjah is . . . Santa Monica,” espoused writer Bob Colacello. “It’s like a city designed by children!” argued an enthusiastic Jake Chapman. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Chapman was the only to claim he’d want to live there.)
The fair was familiar enough territory. I’m sure that the Flying Wallendas could recognize the inside of the big top no matter which city they were in. Impeccable installation, a decent mix of international galleries, superior graphic design—it all had a certain glean and promise. But what of the work? Much Écriture Orientale, textiles, florid arabesques, shiny, gaudy things: items you would imagine a European or American dealer would think a Dubai collector would want. “Is this ‘knowing your audience’ or mere condescension?” one expert pointedly asked. Anish Kapoor’s mirrored, geometric platter was there at Lisson (always a big draw, the piece made the cover of Gulf News); Protetch brought a $2.5 million Matisse. Sfeir-Semler gallery (of Beirut and Hamburg) showed smart photographs by Akram Zaatari and some revelatory works on paper by inimitable Cairo-based artist Anna Boghiguian. L&M Arts classed it up with Yves Klein tables and David Hammons Kool-Aid paintings. Cairo nonprofit Townhouse, whose stand was sponsored by the fair but which had no money for shipping, showed attractive drawings by Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy borrowed from one of her commercial galleries. The Third Line and Emmanuel Perrotin each put paintings by Iranian art star Farhad Moshiri front and center, while both Salon 94 and Galerie Krinzinger brought agreeable works by another Iranian-born (though New York–based) artist, Laleh Khorramian.
Some of the work even found buyers. The Sheikha of Dubai apparently thought Ma Jun’s garishly painted Buick at Michael Schultz worth the $114,000 price tag. Two women in hijabs inquired about Kate Eric’s ornate painting at Frey Norris; they were disappointed to hear that it had sold early. “We flew all the way to Dubai to meet a very nice collector from Miami,” gallery proprietor Raman Frey joked. Saudi gallery Athr, showing in a fair for the first time, by Thursday had reported nearly selling out its rather crowded stand. Others were less satisfied. “Marc Spiegler’s come by my booth more times than John Martin,” one prominent New York dealer reported, comparing the respective directors of Art Basel and Art Dubai. “John had better bring me some Emiratis, or I won’t be coming back next year.”
“All the right faces in all the right places,” noted one curator, and indeed Jumeirah hosted a dizzy mix. Museum directors Glenn Lowry, Joseph Thompson, and Lisa Phillips (en route from Oman—don’t ask) had made the pilgrimage, as had curators Catherine David, Richard Flood, Frances Morris, and Jessica Morgan and collector Maja Hoffmann. Mari Spirito of 303 Gallery had come from Istanbul, where days earlier she had dodged tear gas while protesting the fifth World Water Forum. Yto Barrada was spreading word of Cinémathèque de Tanger, an art-house movie theater she is spearheading in Morocco.
It struck me that the bulk of the cultural advocates I met were women: Barrada was one; David, artistic director for the ADACH platform in Venice, another. And then there were Bidoun magazine’s Lisa Farjam and Negar Azimi, dealers Sunny Rahbar and Claudia Cellini (of the Third Line), Isabelle van den Eynde (of B21), Sylvia Kouvali (of Rodeo), Andrée Sfeir-Semler, Lamia Joreige of the Beirut Art Center, Bayan al-Barak Kanoo and Mayssa Fattouh of Al Riwaq in Bahrain, and Christine Tohmé of the Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, to name but a few.
Much of the social action took place on a large patio on the beach adjacent to the Global Art Forum’s massive, air-conditioned tent. Dotting the asphalted deck were ramadas furnished with rugs and cushions, on which guests smoked and lounged in the day’s heat.
“Who is that?” asked Boghiguian, wagging her finger at Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum. Someone explained.
“He looks very virile,” she announced.
On Wednesday, another round of panels (Birnbaum and Obrist on curating; a discussion on collecting where Sharjah’s Sultan al-Qassemi noted, “The difference between the Middle East and Europe is that art collecting is not yet institutionalized or acceptable. You should see the looks my mother gives me when I bring even abstract paintings back home”). In the evening, I set off for the Bidoun Lounge to catch Rabih Mroué’s lecture-performance The Inhabitants of Images, an intriguing if overlong piece in three acts. I decided to skip the promisingly solipsistic evening discussion “The Art of the Party,” a conversation between soiree wallahs Jérôme Sans, Colacello, and Simon de Pury. “There’s no foil on that panel,” a friend noted. “It’s all effervescence.”
I did, however, make it to Sans’s postpanel event “The Party as Performance,” an overhyped meet-and-greet at 360 Degrees, a bilevel plein air deck resting above the Gulf waters. Tied to the railings, some sad-looking balloons blew about in the breeze. Le Baron DJs Benjamin Moreau and Samuel Boutruche played a modishly eclectic set (not their first of the week). People drank and got drunk. A pair of balloons came undone and wrapped themselves around a pylon, looking, to our sordid eyes, a bit like male naughty bits. Belligerent guests pointed and guffawed. It could have been a winter night in Dubai or a spring night in Cancun or a summer night on a rooftop in Manhattan. Puffed up like a sail a stone's-throw away sat the infamous seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel (where Klaus Biesenbach and Alanna Heiss attended a more decadent afterparty later in the night; they’re made of hardier stuff than you or I). We settled in and found ways to pass the time until 2 AM, when Le Baron piped up over the loudspeakers.
“Bye-bye,” their voices carried above the din. “Dubai-bai.”
Left: Le Baron's Samuel Boutruche and Benjamin Moreau. Right: Setting up at L&M Arts.
LAST THURSDAY, Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture at long last reopened with a survey of works from François Pinault’s collection. According to curator Caroline Bourgeois, the exhibition’s title, “A Certain State of the World?,” was punctuated long before the economic crisis; nevertheless, over the past few months, this question mark has presided over the Garage’s activity––or, more fittingly, inactivity, as the space has remained closed since its much-feted Ilya and Emilia Kabakov retrospective last September. In the time since, the Moscow art world has occupied itself by inventing more and more outlandish conspiracy theories (implicating the Chelsea football team, rumored to be distracting Garage sponsor Roman Abramovich, and the Jewish Community Center, which was said to be plotting to take over the building) and speculation as to whether the Garage would ever reopen at all increased with the Pinault show’s delays.
Rumors were effectively laid to rest at the opening, which came with the announcement that the Garage will also host the Moscow Biennale in September. Those still casting doubt on the center’s credibility were stunned by the solid and thoughtful exhibition, which offered works by stars like Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, as well as by younger artists such as Adel Abdessemed, Pierre Huyghe, Cao Fei, and Francis Alÿs. (The works by thirty-three artists accounted for only about 5 percent of Pinault’s megacollection.) Many of the artists—including Koons, Sherman, Abdessemed, and Johan Grimonprez—were on hand to witness their works’ installation in the historic Melnikov Garage, formerly one of the city’s largest bus stations and now an oversize art playground under the direction of twenty-seven-year old Daria “Dasha” Zhukova.
While one of the principal subdivisions of the exhibition was titled “The Society of the Spectacle,” the show––and, more surprisingly, its opening––was notable for its restraint. Stilettoed socialites, a few accompanied by artists and the usual suspects, streamed through the roughly ninety-thousand-square-foot space, sipping champagne and smiling politely for the cameras in front of Subodh Gupta’s Very Hungry God (which itself seemed more subdued than during its previous installation outside the Palazzo Grassi in Venice). Abramovich, Zhukova’s partner, made a token appearance, as did several other power players, but the frenzied oligarch spotting of last September was confined to one or two journalists and the few dealers who were still able to afford the ticket. Gone was the atmosphere of excess that had permeated the Kabakov opening. Also absent were a number of the Moscow art world’s central figures, including representatives from four of the so-called Big Five galleries, among them Aidan Salakhova and XL Gallery’s Elena Selina.
The exhibition’s opening was followed by a symposium, which featured an eagerly anticipated, invite-only conversation with Koons. Openly adored by the Moscow masses, Koons nevertheless left the packed audience scratching their heads at his messages of “total acceptance” and “objective art.” More than a few of the participating artists could be heard grumbling about the second part of the symposium, which featured Openspace editor Ekaterina Degot in discussion with Bourgeois and (for lack of better phrasing) “all the other artists.” While the majority of the two-hour conversation might have been lost in translation (with French, English, and Russian batted back and forth over a crackling sound system), it certainly had its moments. In particular, Francesco Vezzoli charmed the audience when he drew a comparison between his use of celebrity and Koons’s Michael Jackson works; the dapper Italian found it important to add, “I personally do not like to claim that I have integrity.”
Integrity and credibility were something of a theme for the weekend, as the art center looked to establish its reputation in the international circuit. While dinners hosted by Christie’s and Haunch of Venison offered a chance to unwind, the generally subdued tone of the exhibition and its events indicated that Moscow is ready to host exhibitions of this caliber and that it can do so without the gilded excess that seems to have become synonymous with the city. Those who might lament this change of atmosphere can take heart, however: The Garage’s rumored summer exhibitions of David Lynch and Christian Louboutin promise there is still a place for heady extravagance.
Left: Artist Loris Gréaud. (Photo: Kate Sutton) Right: Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, international coordinator for the GCCC Moscow. (Photo: The Garage CCC, Moscow).
A VISIBLE PRESENCE in his drawings and animations, William Kentridge is a sturdy, balding, dadlike guy, a sort of character actor for whom a pratfall comes as easily as a political or artistic statement. He seemed uncannily familiar, dressed in dark pants and a rumpled white dress shirt, when he took to the podium last Friday during the press preview for “William Kentridge: Five Themes,” his survey exhibition at SF MoMA. After thanking the museum, curators, and collaborators, he revealed his theatrical personality to a couple dozen journalists and delegates from forthcoming exhibition tour stops––MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, Michael Auping of the Fort Worth Museum––with his South African lilt and the broad arm gestures of an orchestra conductor.
His hearty disposition was in sharp contrast to the remarks given by the show’s lanky, bespectacled curators, Mark Rosenthal, of the Norton Museum of Art, and SF MoMA’s Rudolf Frieling. They noted Kentridge’s “complex practice,” which, all things considered, must have as much to do with the content of his work as with the large number of projectors in the galleries. (“I’ve gotten a few more gray hairs with this one,” Frieling told me later.) Dealer Marian Goodman, wearing a pink scarf over a purple sweater, watched from the back of the room with an inscrutable expression.
Others, however, were more visibly moved. A few minutes later, I took a quick look at the slickly installed show and caught critics and museum staff smiling broadly at the multichannel projections that combine skillful animations with frequent self-portraits, particularly in Kentridge’s new energetic video sketches (and forthcoming stage designs) for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 presentation of Shostakovich’s The Nose. When I returned that evening for the Director’s Circle reception, even art historian Kaja Silverman seemed tickled as she watched The Magic Flute animations projected on ornate scale-model prosceniums.
When the reception bars finally opened, conversation turned to Kerry James Marshall’s recently unveiled lobby murals, coloring-book-style compositions dealing with early American presidents and the slave trade. A half dozen people asked me what I thought of them; their own answers were invariably ambivalent. I ran into a dealer who seemed dismayed by the crowd. “Everyone here is over sixty,” he scoffed. Behind him I noticed a harp on a stage, a hint of the lackluster party music to come.
The Director’s Circle crowd, however, wouldn’t be hearing it, as they were on a tight schedule with a mere ninety minutes to heed remarks, wander through the installations, and socialize before dinner was served in a banquet room at the neighboring W Hotel. Finances were on everyone’s minds, as the meal for nearly one hundred guests was sponsored by Christie’s and Chuck Schwab, the financier and self-proclaimed “happy chairman of the board,” who provided opening dinner remarks. Fittingly, the menu was comfort food: meat and potatoes well accented with fried shallots and gorgonzola. There was a polite but hardly electric buzz in the room—even one of the servers called it a “decaf crowd”—so it was nice to hear the rumor that the artist was gunning for an afterparty.
A fraction of the dinner guests took over a North Beach hole-in-the-wall, where a Cuban band tucked into a tiny niche of a stage got the crowd dancing. A few curators brought a spirited presence to the floor––Frieling, Biesenbach, Gary Garrels, and Trevor Smith (of the Peabody Essex Museum) all capably cut the rug. Kentridge and his wife, Anne Stanwix, smoothly twirled through the group, expressing their hearty nimbleness as they worked the room.
Left: Artist Lynn Hershman (right). Right: Okwui Enwezor with MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach.
Left: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. Right: The Lieb House.
TWO MONTHS AGO, when architect Frederic Schwartz learned that the Lieb House—one of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Robert Venturi’s earliest buildings and an icon of postmodernism—was slated for demolition by developers, his reflexive response took the form of a question: “How much?” Too much for him alone, it turned out. But with the help of Venturi’s son, Jim, he tracked down a couple of Venturi aficionados who eagerly accepted an unusual proposal: The house would be lifted off its original beachfront lot in Barnegat Light, New Jersey, where it had stood for exactly forty years, and floated by barge up to the new owner’s property in Glen Cove on the North Shore of Long Island. There it would sit beside the buyer’s other prize architectural possession: another Venturi house, this one from 1987.
Last Thursday night, three generations of house owners gathered together amid Lieb House blueprints hung from the narrow confines of Steven Holl’s Storefront for Art and Architecture (where the decision to mount an exhibition on the house had been made “just ten days ago,” according to Storefront director Joseph Grima). The homeowners reminisced about their days living in Barnegat Light and showered encomiums on Denise Scott Brown (Venturi’s wife and partner in the firm) and Venturi himself who, at eighty-three, was making a rare public appearance. Two of the owners fell in love with Venturi’s work only after they had purchased homes by the architect. “I had no idea it was a Venturi house,” recalled Sheila Ellman of the Barnegat Light property. “All these people came knocking on the door to see it. They said, ‘You didn’t know what this was?’” “Robert Venturi?” she remembered exclaiming. “I love him!” Dermatologist Debra Sarnoff and her plastic-surgeon husband, Robert Gotkin, the Lieb House’s newest owners, had never heard of the Venturis when they purchased their “boat-shaped” home in Glen Cove. They’ve since become collectors of the architect’s home furnishings. While Sarnoff refused to divulge just how many first editions of Learning from Las Vegas she now owns, she wasn’t shy about showcasing her newly acquired Venturi-speak, describing Lieb House as “a modest little shack—it doesn’t even look like a ‘decorated shed.’” Sarnoff wasn’t the only one riffing on the Venturi canon. When the younger Venturi presented the senior architect with his plan to move Lieb House into an unfamiliar context, Venturi invoked his own manifesto from 1966: “Let’s do it; I’m all for ‘complexity and contradiction.’”
Early the next morning, everyone convened again, this time at the South Street Seaport, to watch the house coast up the East River en route to its destination. Gotkin and Sarnoff, impeccably dressed at 7 AM, courted the news cameras as the bleary-eyed crowd of architects and buffs nursed coffees and awaited the signal that the barge was near. When word came, everyone rushed outside and into the particularly cold March air, straining to find the house through scopes and digital cameras. “I’m just going to trust my own eyes,” asserted Scott Brown, dismissing a coin-operated telescope installed at the pier’s edge. “Look at the nine,” Venturi quietly exclaimed when the house, and its Pop-art-inspired, five-foot-high number 9, came into view. The crowd grew hushed. While there was something absurd about the juxtaposition of the little house bobbing up and down beside the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, Scott Brown found pedagogical value in the spectacle. “How does a little thing like that trump its whole environment?” she asked. “It’s a wonderful lesson in scale.” As the migrant building sped by and the crowd hustled from one end of the pier to the other to watch the house and its tugboat disappear under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, the new owners, who had planned a party to celebrate its arrival at Glen Cove, were already checking their watches. “It went by in a flash,” observed Gotkin. “Now we have to rush home to receive it!”
LAST MONDAY, following a short flight from Berlin, I stopped by the Serpentine’s preview for Rebecca Warren’s first survey in a UK public gallery. I’ve long been skeptical of the hype surrounding her untidy and ambiguously referential sculptures (which critics often seem to ascribe with feminist meaning), so I was excited to see how her exhibition stacked up.
Something about the work still seemed half-baked to me, but at least the crowd was hot. The Tate’s eminent Sir Nicholas Serota, artists Tracey Emin, Glenn Brown, and Mat Collishaw, musician Alison Goldfrapp, and Bianca Jagger made their way around Warren’s rough-hewn masses of abstract or vaguely figurative clay and bronze forms. Some were on plinths; others were positioned on the floor. The rest were in loosely assembled vitrines in which she combined her unglazed lumps with plush toys and neon lights. A gruff Juergen Teller wandered around with dealer Sadie Coles, eventually pausing to contemplate a beetroot-hued tartan print Warren had painted on a bulbous mound of clay. Meredith Ostrom, the fresh-faced and affable actress who played Nico in Factory Girl, caught me up on the details of her own upcoming exhibition. As we studied an especially elaborate composition involving miniature clay beer bottles, a skull with snakes in its eyes, a neon bulb, and a well-loved stuffed blue bunny, she dilated on art’s potential to inspire underprivileged third-world children.
Having had my fill of rough reality, I decamped early . . . ish. Enough time, anyway, to get a proper rest before the show I was sure would be great. The next night, I made my way to Haunch of Venison for the opening of their new Burlington Gardens space, in the grand building formerly occupied by the Royal Academy, which they were christening with a group show titled “Mythologies.” I was thrilled to be greeted at the entrance by John Isaac’s gleaming gold orb on a weathered plinth; the totemic ball was almost hypnotic, pulling me up the stairs toward the main exhibition space.
Left: Dealer Sadie Coles with artist Juergen Teller. Right: ICA artistic director Ekow Eshun.
Once upstairs, I had a nice chat with Jude Law about his sister Natasha’s upcoming show at the Eleven gallery, in collaboration with artist Daisy de Villeneuve. The exhibition is apparently a rogue’s gallery of composite portraits of the pair’s “worst female friends.” “My sister is the most nontoxic person I know,” Law dutifully noted as we studied Polly Morgan’s life-size wooden coffin stuffed with taxidermied chicks.
Leaving Law, I bumped into writer Louisa Buck, whose arm was in a serious surgical sling. She told me that she needed to have a torn tendon stitched up after an accident skating. I strangely assumed she meant “skateboarding,” but she disabused me. “What a nightmare, me as a middle-aged skateboarder,” she said. “I’d get demolished.”
Perusing the remaining twinkling and opulent objects, I came across “Mythologies” artist Tim Noble’s interpretation of Daniele Buetti’s glittering surfaces dotted with pinpricks exposing points of white light from the light box underneath. “It’s all about cocaine,” Noble suggested dryly before we stopped to admire a text message on his phone that Isabella Blow had sent him not long before she passed away. “We should try to call her,” he suggested as we watched Nancy Kienholz correct an off-kilter crucifix, one of seventy-six in a collaborative installation she made with her late husband, Ed. But phone calls to the dead are a bit macabre, even for Noble, and instead we joined the rest of the lively party en route to the Groucho Club.
Left: Artist Nancy Kienholz. Right: Haunch of Venison director Harry Blain with Bodil Blain.
NEARLY TWELVE THOUSAND PEOPLE were naturalized a fortnight ago at the Los Angeles Convention Center; meanwhile, four thousand were sequestered nearby in the dimly lit lecture rooms, present for the College Art Association’s annual conference. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle: Descending the escalators, I spotted ecstatic new citizens holding tiny American flags and frazzled art historians in casual-smart garb prowling the floors and pushing their way out into the upper-seventies heat, where vendors hawked picture frames, certificate holders, and street meat. The latter group wore name tags around their necks (some with official ribbons), and chest gawking was a popular activity.
Most conference-goers seemed to be lodging at downtown hotels, many at Fredric Jameson’s favorite, the Bonaventure. A good number seemed also to be there without cars and dined at nearby chain restaurants like a throng of Rotarians (the ESPN sports club seemed a common spot), while buses shuttled them to and from destinations. Over two hundred sessions were offered, from the obligatory panel on Felix Gonzalez-Torres to “My So-Called Second Life.” There were also tours, film screenings, and receptions at night, if one didn’t get her fill during the eight-hour days at the convention center, while satellite talks at USC, MoCA, and the MAK center turned the conference into a citywide event.
I arrived on Wednesday, in time for “The Aesthetics of Counterculture,” a panel organized by Adam Jay Lerner, the new director of the MCA Denver, and the University of Colorado’s Elissa Auther. After Amy E. Azzarito’s illuminating talk on the Libre commune, I stuck around for a paper on West Coast light shows by Simon Fraser University’s Robin Oppenheimer. “If you got ’em, smoke ’em—sorry I can’t provide,” she quipped to start, and I was beginning to think the experience would turn out pleasurable after all. I was quickly proved wrong: Although this panel veered away from art objects as such, it included typical CAA highs and lows, with the lows (abstruse language; too slowly or, worse, too quickly delivered papers) bringing to mind grueling graduate school seminars.
Left: Artists Stanya Kahn and Drew Heitzler. Right: Art historian Irving Sandler.
It makes sense that CAA, like any academic conference, replicates educational structures: Sessions, like classes, are held at intervals: 9:30 to 12:00, 12:30 to 2:00, and 2:30 to 5:00. Those fond of endurance art might stick around all day; after a few hours I was ready to go. Thursday proved to be the most salient, at any rate, not only for the thousands becoming citizens in the West Hall but also for the 450 eager minds packed into what was clearly the blockbuster session: “What is Contemporary Art History?” Following a round of intriguing opening remarks, the panelists, all from California schools––Pamela M. Lee, Richard Meyer, Grant Kester, and Miwon Kwon––mostly preferred to discuss (what else?) teaching, primarily the professionalization of their students, courses, and dissertation topics. It wasn’t long before I wondered what might be transpiring next door at “Attention Must Be Paid,” featuring artists Sharon Lockhart and Lynn Hershman-Leeson, but exiting this session, amid the many people parked in the aisles, proved to be more difficult than the usual touch-and-go act one learns to develop at the conference.
Serving as a response to CAA in general, and perhaps that didactic session in particular, was Our Literal Speed’s version of a paper, which they delivered on Friday. “Timid and opportunistic, our generation of critics and historians have bred an aversion to experiment,” offering instead, they noted, “minor texts” and “minor ideas.” Switching between two speakers, OLS fervently and yet vaguely argued that contemporary art historians continually attempt to achieve the “first-est with the most-est.” This thought resonated nicely with a talk between Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie on Saturday, during a day of free panels organized by the Feminist Art Project. When asked about her students, Bowers mentioned that she was more interested in a “familial model of health” than metaphorically killing the generation before or creating competition––a novel idea, to be sure.
Fleeing downtown, I finally went to look at some art, but not before stopping at the CAA book fair, where I discovered the latest catalogues and art journals, all at slash-and-burn rates, the sellers looking to get the hell out of Dodge. That night, Circus Gallery opened “Put On,” a group exhibition featuring some of the artists who had participated in the CAA panel “The De-Centered Practice,” including X-TRA’s Shana Lutker, Paper Monument’s Dushko Petrovich, and artists Drew Heitzler and Tyler Coburn. Outside, in the crepuscular light, I didn’t see too many familiar faces from the conference halls. Beers were slurped, cigarettes were smoked, and we thought, as one artist put it, “CAA? What’s that?”
Left: Art historians Noah Chasin and Hannah Feldman. Right: A view of the panel “The Aesthetics of Counterculture.”
LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, I saw Vanessa Beecroft’s installation at Jeffrey Deitch’s newish “cathedral-like” Long Island City outpost, then John Bock’s performance at the pop-up Bar2000 (following the opening of “Berlin2000” at PaceWildenstein). While both events featured white clown makeup, they were otherwise yin and yang: one female artist, one male; one way east in LIC, the other in the West Village in what appeared to be Saatchi & Saatchi’s lobby. One foregrounded passivity (twenty live nude girls displayed like undead statuary “inspired by Sicilian funerary sculpture of the Renaissance”), while across town, Bock cavorted “actively” in macho-toddler mode—flinging wurst à la Paul McCarthy, splattering beer on makeshift rigs and pulleys, raving in English and German, hoisting himself into a big brown turdlike getup, rushing the crowd. For an encore, the artist shoved his head into a giant lens that magnified his face like a giant guppy and crooned “Mackie Messer” to his rowdy well-wishers. (It would have been genius if he had got stuck, like the I Love Lucy episode with the loving cup.)
Earlier at Deitch’s, near the glittering NYC skyline, the Armory crowd hovered around the perimeter of the Beecroft piece, mesmerized by the naked gals in white body paint, “indistinguishable,” said the press release, “from gesso sculptures cast from live models, resting on coffin-like bases.” Like black crows, the art fans massed around the installation, staring in rapt contemplation of the naked posers, the classical art references, the inexorability of death, and the fact that we were stuck out in LIC and there were no refreshments (except for Poland Spring water). I checked out the crowd checking out the bodies, live and plaster, in this fiesta of objectification. Indeed, we were all part of the piece: gawkers and gawkees. A notice informed us that upon entering the gallery, we consented to be filmed. I commenced to eavesdrop on two young, artist-looking guys nearby: one cute, one weird in a plaid beret and cadmium-red cords:
“What do you think this is about?” teased the dandy, faux-seriously.
“What do you?” shot back the cutie.
“I asked you first! What do you think this is about?”
“What’s the big deal? Maybe it’s about nothing?”
Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch and Amber Rose. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Installation view of VB 64 at Deitch Projects, Long Island City. (Photo ©2009 Vanessa Beecroft)
“Well cast,” offered somebody else, admiring the high production values of the cast bodies—or the live-real-people-type mannequins, it wasn’t clear. Effectively aestheticized, abstracted by the gessolike spackle, the women were literally ornamental figures, their breath unobtrusive, their movements very, very slow. They eerily aped their plaster sisters (whose hollowed-out heads were a nice touch). (“It would be funny if someone who couldn’t see very well, like my grandma, came here and couldn’t tell the difference!” I heard behind me.) I got the classic vibe of docile women playing dead; compliant “nice” girls who are seen and not heard (“Which one should we take home?” quipped a collector type); paid models at their gig. As an “enactment” of traditional decorative figurative art, this felt like one step up from an editorial photo shoot, slightly more self-conscious about the “objectification-of-women” factor since we were gaping at live models rather than depictions.
“The thing about editorial photo shoots,” mused a pal later, “however high the production values, is they put enough references together and hope it insinuates enough to ‘mean’ something . . .” Something like that.
“The filming of VB64 is produced by Kanye West,” said the ad. The rapper (who’d flown in from Paris Fashion Week just for the event, I was told, then flew right back) and Beecroft, in a white duster coat, black leggings, and bronze pumps, posed for photos in the back of the gallery, near an orderly row of black plaster bodies on a table.
Left: Fab 5 Freddy and Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen. Right: John Bock and designer Tara Subkoff.
In contrast, Bock was going nuts at Bar2000. The Aryan art clown pushed through the delighted crowd as busily and messily as a toddler in garish makeup, hot-pink leggings under baggy red shorts, a ridiculous fancy blue sweater, and stuffed fabric “tails” that dangled from his rear. Hurtling between several platforms, he manipulated contraptions that didn’t quite work (one slapping wurst at an affable gallerist’s forehead from a pulley system attached to his belt), made nonsense demonstrations (“This diagram means nothing”), guzzled Pepto-Bismol mixed with ale, gobbled a dripping wet wiener, lunged at the ladies, and vogued like “Klaus Kinski” and “Winona Ryder” to appreciative hoots from his supporters. (“Too much!” a cougarish woman egged him on, sipping her cocktail and getting loud, as if she were about to have a performance-art orgasm.)
I pondered the mystique of the macho-toddler thing with the Aryan guys, the mythic “idiocy” of Kippenberger, Nitsch’s self-harming antics. The “acting out” gets mythologized, and then the artifacts become Art relics. This Jew admittedly found it disconcerting when the artist bellowed in German as he ran amok. A perky, blond, Jennifer Aniston–coiffed publicist who couldn’t be more incongruous locked my gaze with terrierlike enthusiasm: “It’s a totally new piece, very interactive.”
PERHAPS THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN has prompted a revival of community spirit in the New York art world (is there anything we can’t blame Wall Street for?), but this year’s Armory season—away from the main fair at least—seemed a little funkier than usual. On Thursday evening, having made the obligatory trek around the piers (and office buildings, if you include Volta), I began a long weekend of events both associated and parasitic by dropping into Location One’s tenth-anniversary benefit gala. A prompt arrival at the nonprofit’s Greene Street digs allowed ample time for a look and listen to audiovisual installations by senior artist-in-residence Laurie Anderson before joining the likes of Marina Abramovic, dealer Sean Kelly, and writer Sarah Douglas for hors d’oeuvres. Squeezing into the “intimate” 125-person dinner was, however, a no-no—a pity, since Anderson was slated to perform exclusively for those assembled.
The previous evening’s paucity in mind, I made sure to grab a slice en route to Friday’s fixtures, of which openings at Bortolami and PaceWildenstein in Chelsea were the first. But turning up at the former a little before seven, I found myself wrong-footed yet again. In place of the anticipated throng was a gallerist still hauling out the beer coolers; artist Piero Golia’s opening had been scheduled an hour later than the customary six-’til-eight. But three blocks down, “Berlin2000,” Birte Kleemann’s thirty-seven-artist survey of that city’s scene from the year the wall fell to the turn of the millennium, was already well attended. Klaus Jörres’s Tyco Not Tyco, a fully functioning slot-car racetrack, attracted a particularly enthusiastic throng, though the tendency of the diminutive vehicles to go spinning off the track and into the crowd elicited anxious glances from Hammer-chief-curator-to-be Douglas Fogle and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery director James Lavender.
Left: Dealer Jesse Washburne Harris with curator Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. Right: Artist Piero Golia with dealer Stefania Bortolami. (Photos: Ryan McNamara)
Hoping for a smoother ride, I hopped a cab to Harris Lieberman for the opening of a new show by Matt Saunders. The room was packed, but the evening was mild enough that the crowd eventually spilled out onto the street in a refreshing foretaste of spring. A shortage of booze also saw some attendees heading for the local bodega, artist Nathan Carter among them. “This is a good time not to be involved with art fairs, dealers, curators . . .” he opined on his return, toasting the currently waning market as a harbinger of new creative developments. Pondering the verity of this meme, I headed east to Le Poisson Rouge for a musical and spoken-word performance by the X-Patsys, a band featuring artists Robert Longo and Jon Kessler and fronted by Longo’s wife, the German actress Barbara Sukowa. Exuding a noirish air entirely appropriate to their chosen theme, “a journey into night,” the group worked its way through a battery of classics by everyone from Patsy Cline to Joy Division, Sukowa’s Teutonic glamour and the musicians’ bluesy riffage making for a combination that fans of David Lynch would surely die for.
Friday’s last stop was the opening night of the Fountain Art Fair, by far the humblest of the weekend’s rummage sales, with just nine galleries represented, but possessed of a scrappy, youthful verve lacking in its more prestigious neighbors. Staged on Pier 66 but extending into the Frying Pan, an old lightship salvaged from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay, Fountain was distinguished by a vintage downtown street/self-taught aesthetic and a stack-’em-high, sell-’em cheap approach. Stars were beside the point, though I was heartened to see filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad making the rounds. Any lingering preciousness was dismissed by the unavoidable presence of a gyrating go-go girl, a stack of cupcakes frosted with the slogans FUCK YOU and BLOW ME, roaming performance artist Coco Dolle, three guys dressed as pirates, and the rabble-rousing exhortations of one MC Chris. The keg helped, too.
Left: Firemen outside X. Right: Kunsthalle Zürich curator Beatrix Ruf, producer James Mackay, and artist Richard Phillips. (Photos: Shaun Mader/Patrick McMullan)
And so, somewhat blearily, to Saturday. First up was the opening of X, a one-year-only not-for-profit venture housed in the former Dia Center space on West Twenty-second Street. Working my way from Mika Tajima’s sprawling installation on the ground floor via Dan Flavin’s reinstated light installation in the stairwells through three floors of early Derek Jarman films, and finally to Christian Holstad’s Light Chamber (Part 2) on the roof, I had the dreamlike sensation of returning to an old house to find nothing changed; the building’s capacious interior looks exactly as it did when occupied by Dia. Most of the galleries were illuminated only by Jarman’s flickering visions, making it hard to discern who else might be experiencing the same sense of déja vu, but I did clock curators Klaus Biesenbach, Shamim Momin, and Bob Nickas, critics Jerry Saltz and Ken Johnson, and dealer Elizabeth Dee, who was responsible (along with a bevy of friends and advisers) for spearheading the project. Punctuality paid here; late arrivers were confronted with firemen responding to a petty 911 call about overcrowding. Officials didn’t shut down the party, but they did close Holstad’s roof installation—some cavil over permits. Cutting and running to Brooklyn, I checked in at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery for the tail end of a performance by Jennifer Sullivan (part of Williamsburg’s “Chain of Love” live art evening). As Fountain was to the Armory, so “Ladies Night Live” was to X, and the memory of Sullivan accompanying Brina Thurston’s video of her own colonoscopy with a tremulous karaoke rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” isn’t likely to fade anytime soon.
While von Nichtssagend’s Rob Hult, Ingrid Bromberg Kennedy, and Sam Wilson continue to make the most of a small space, Pierogi’s Joe Amrhein evidently feels that the time is right for expansion; he’s taken over a former factory boiler room on North Fourteenth Street, retaining his longtime HQ on North Ninth. The opening was crammed, artist Daniel Zeller echoing Carter’s belief that, creatively, there’s no time like the otherwise troublesome present. As the crowd ebbed and flowed between the lofty gallery and the adjacent bar and bowling alley, I surfed back to Manhattan for the weekend’s last hurrah, a party organized by James Fuentes and the Swiss Institute. In a grungy second-floor loft on Canal Street, any worries about the health of the market and the state of art melted away as the sake flowed and rapper George Positive took to the area-where-a-stage-might-be, reaching for the ceiling like the only way was up.
TO WEATHER OUR TURBULENT economic climate successfully, everyone will have to get very creative. And where better to look for creative thinking than the art world, where ideas alone have currency—particularly when it comes to keeping up a front? On Tuesday night, for instance, the chill from Wall Street insinuated itself into the very air over New York, dropping the temperature near zero and turning the city into a ghost town everywhere but Chelsea, where crowds so recently accustomed to lavish parties and lava flows of spirits banded together for a week of less-is-more gatherings around, if not in, the Armory Show.
To kick things off, galleries along barren, windswept West Twenty-seventh Street threw open their doors for exhibitions by Walead Beshty (at Wallspace), Alyson Shotz (at Derek Eller), and Mungo Thomson (at John Connelly). Wallspace co-owners Janine Foeller and Jane Hait put on a particularly brave face by doubling the size of their operation. “Their expansion is sort of counter-recessionary,” said White Columns director Matthew Higgs, eyeing Beshty’s cheerful, Thomas Ruff–like photograms. “You gotta make art with muscle in these times,” said the diminutive Shannon Ebner, another gallery artist, in town from Los Angeles to introduce her new book, The Sun as Error, at White Columns. Humor helps, too. Beshty’s “artist statement” consists of quotes from reviews of his previous shows––arranged in rhymed couplets, no less.
The crowd was just as jubilant at Connelly, where the darkened gallery was screening Thomson’s new 16-mm silent films and a sound work that no one could hear above the burble of chatter—which seemed fitting for the artist who provided the last Whitney Biennial with a film of a tree falling silently in a forest. Meanwhile, Tony Oursler provided a veritable forest of cigarettes (video animations projected on tall white cylinders) for his new plays with scale at Metro Pictures, where everything big and rich (like family relations) was made toylike, and everything small and worthless (like lottery scratch cards) loomed large. It was a nod to a world gone topsy-turvy. “Tony’s just trying to get me to stop smoking,” said artist Jacqueline Humphries, Oursler’s wife, lighting up on the sidewalk outside.
It was too cold to stand around so I trotted over to Twenty First Twenty First Gallery. There, landscape architect Nathalie Karg was launching her Cumulus Studios in a nearly raw but beautifully decrepit third-floor loft that had no heat or insulation. The hundred or so people attending––artists Rob Pruitt and Cecily Brown, New Museum curator Richard Flood, dealers Tim Nye and Toby Webster, and Art Production Fund founders Doreen Remen and Yvonne Force among them––admired the eighteen pieces of commissioned outdoor furniture designs on show by as many artists. They included Rirkrit Tiravanjia’s gleaming chrome Ping-Pong table, a waxed steel table and chairs with red neoprene cushions by John Bock, and a stack of various rubber tires that Pruitt had turned into a working fountain/birdbath. “I waxed this table myself,” Karg said, affectionately brushing the Bock with her hand. “Over and over again.”
On the other side of a long wall was a bar serving wicked Mojitos, a long table, and, oddly for this funky place, a pristine carbon-black kitchen. The main course consisted of small chive-and-cheese omelets prepared to order by two lines of cooks working small burners. Picnicking guests ate them off dessert plates, standing up and with their mittens on. “We look like refugees on a station platform waiting for the next train to freedom,” Princess Alexandra of Greece observed.
Wednesday, the Armory Show opened to a generally cheerful crowd attending the preview and vernissage, benefits for the Museum of Modern Art. “The collectors have won!” exclaimed Miami’s Dennis Scholl, who then equated the hedge-fund speculators who have roamed the fair’s aisles like predatory beasts in recent years with Bush-era terrorists.
After several hours at this fair, I can say that the nonprofits are working the least hard for the most benefit. The New Museum quickly sold out of its limited-edition Rudolf Stingel paintings and Mark Bradford papier-mâché soccer balls (both terrific). Smaller galleries like Marc Foxx, the Modern Institute, and Murray Guy seem to fare much better than larger ones. I heard one collector ask a blue-chip Chelsea dealer how he was doing. “Personally, very well,” came the answer. “Professionally, very poorly.”
I heard of plenty of sales, but this fair has not been very good for art in some time. What it is good for is conversation. Bumping into Massimiliano Gioni and Maurizio Cattelan every few minutes was great fun, especially when our paths converged, at the booth for Reykjavik’s I-8 Gallery, with that of Roland Augustine and Lawrence Luhring (pointedly not exhibiting this year), which spun into an excited discussion regarding some drawings by Ragnar Kjartansson. Watching MoMA media and performance curator Klaus Biesenbach squire around subdued Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall brought big smiles to those few who picked her out of the crowd.
Kenny Scharf’s total takeover-by-pink-and-purple painting of the Paul Kasmin booth was one of the lone bright spots. Allen Ruppersberg’s memorial posters to significant figures in his life at greengrassi was another. And Christine Hill’s Armory Apothecary installation and performance at Ronald Feldman brought quite a few takers to her twenty- and forty-dollar consultations, though I don’t think even the power of her “metaphoric treatments” could heal what ails this trade show anymore. (Even cofounder Matthew Marks jumped ship this year.)
I’ve had satisfying and even pleasurable experiences in galleries and museums of late, so it can’t be that artists and dealers have run out of steam. After making my way through the noisy, rather trashy crowd at MoMA’s afterparty, I tiptoed into the guac-and-chips, wine-tasting preview that Nicole Klagsbrun was holding for Adam McEwen and friends in yet another raw, unheated temporary space in Chelsea. (A recession bonus—plenty of room!) This one was painted white and was empty, save for McEwen’s beautiful and spare installation of fluorescent-light fixtures fitted with machined-graphite tubes and hung from the ceiling on long silvery chains. I see Dia:Beacon in its future. “Graphite is carbon, and our bodies are mostly carbon. It’s the life substance,” McEwen said. Better yet, it looks like art.
IT CANNOT HAVE BEEN A COINCIDENCE that the public viewing of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Collection was slated for the height of what in Roman Catholic Europe is widely celebrated as Carnival Week, and that the auction itself, which began last Monday evening and continued day and night through Mardi Gras, concluded on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent—which in France is the perfumey-sounding Carême.
As news reports have proclaimed, this was an extraordinary event in terms of its demographics (more than thirty-three thousand people waited as long as five hours to wind their way around the Grand Palais during the presale weekend) and its proceeds (at close to five hundred million dollars, the record for an auction of a single collection). But it had extraordinary emotive and theatrical aspects to be reckoned with as well.
Produced by Christie’s in collaboration with Pierre Bergé & Associés (Bergé’s own smaller firm), this sale and its elaborate trappings (loosely reconstituted “rooms” from YSL’s revered rue de Babylone apartment; dramatically lit, museum-style installations of works of art from both YSL’s somnambulist’s lair and Bergé’s grander and more Apollonian two-floor apartment on the rue Bonaparte) were an almost-ecclesiastical ceremony for pilgrims from the realms of fashion, design, and art and a virtual affair of state for France, like some new kind of multimedia “La Marseillaise.”
At a brief press conference that followed last Monday night’s very successful sale of Impressionist and modern art, the rather likably pugnacious, left-leaning Bergé, now seventy-eight, issued a veritable call to arms for the resurgence of Paris as a commercial and cultural center. With tears in his eyes and a catch in his throat, he invoked the sight of “le peuple parisien” lined up outside the palace as if at the barricades of marketable taste in art—all of which seemed at once poignant and quizzical in light of the fact that international auction houses have only been licensed to hold sales in protectionist France since 2001.
The cavernous, glass-domed central hall of the late-nineteenth-century cathedral of industry that is the recently renovated Grand Palais (also the annual site of FIAC, Paris’s preeminent art fair) was rigged in such a way as to evoke an actual Gothic cathedral, with perhaps two dozen eight-branched heat-lamp chandeliers dropped low between dome and floor; an abstracted, yellow-green rosette suggesting stained glass projected onto the arched wall behind the auctioneers’ “altar” podium; sales representatives on a hundred phones split into two long “choir” stalls on either side of the “sacred” dais; and a pair of “pulpit” lookouts hovering over wide, deep rows of straight-backed chairs at midpoint in the salesroom “sanctuary.”
At roughly fifteen-minute intervals during the viewing period, the sound of Maria Callas singing “Casta diva” wafted out of a three-screen-slide-show enclosure, and the same double-diva theme heralded the arrival of the auctioneers before each of the six sessions, beginning with Monday evening’s, for which the quicksilver Francois de Ricqlès served as high priest of the gavel.
Left: Francois de Ricqlès, Christie's vice president France. Right: Ricqlès (third from left) with others during the YSL/Bergé sale. (Photos: Lillian Davies)
Most otherworldly of all was the unaccountable yet unmistakable sensation, during the Callas-accompanied course of a last-minute ladies’-room dash past the black-sheathed outer walls of the deserted viewing galleries full of things, of being in the vicinity of a corpse—as if YSL had through some divine and/or decadent process of . . . transubstantiation? . . . slipped into the objects one last time before they were to be scattered. It seems germane to point out here that in French the word dépouilles means bodily “remains” but also material “spoils,” as in booty or “the spoils of war.”
But enough of that, says Brooks: The event got going for us here on terra more or less firma at the Friday-night invitational preview with the sight, at about 11 PM, of one live French bulldog. Sarkozy had in fact already left the building, but there he was, Moujik IV, the designer’s last pet—a leggy, lightly brindled, anxiously sniffing fellow on a leash held by a handsome young man. They were in the entourage of Francois and Betty Catrouxes—the well-known decorator of 1970s “tough chic” fame and his ageless wife, the meta-blond, haute-glam-rock YSL alter ego and muse. (Moujik IV, along with his walker and the Catroux, was present at some point during every day of the sales. The last time we saw him, after Wednesday night’s closing session, he had just drawn a small crowd while slurping water from a cup at a stand of coolers and was sniffing sadly at a Greco-Roman Minotaur that on its peed-on plinth had once presided in his master’s garden.†)
The milling crowd was echt-urbane in the Paris way: lots of streaky, ratted hair and streaky, ratty furs; ephebic young men in gossipy thrall; pretty young women of unclear purpose; deranged-looking dowagers being steered about; and, of course, dealers and clients. Then, round midnight, Larry Gagosian whisked in on what seemed to be . . . a date?
At it again bright and early Saturday morning, along with fellow members of the press and a first wave of le peuple parisien, we headed straight for the biggest room, the ersatz grand salon of the rue Babylone, wherein were displayed some of the most highly estimated modern works of art: Matisse’s Le Coucous, tapis bleu et rose, 1911, Léger’s La Tasse de thé, 1921, and Brancusi’s Madame L. R., circa 1914–17, along with many of the outstanding Déco objects.
Left: The scene at the Grand Palais. (Photo: Lillian Davies) Right: Fernand Léger, La Tasse de thé, 1921.
There we spied the Dublin-London-Paris-based big-league collector-patrons Marie and Joe Donnelly, chatting with a Christies’s expert. Joe was busy asking questions about a very big brown 1930s rug by Ivan Da Silva Bruhns (1881–1980) spread out on a platform in the middle of the room. Marie, however, seemed the whole time to be eyeing one of the major stars of the collection, the uniquely weird and wonderful fauteuil aux dragons, circa 1918, by the great, also Anglo-Irish Eileen Gray (1878–1976), who also lived in Paris—on the rue Bonaparte, like Bergé. (The chair was estimated at around three million dollars but went for almost ten times that amount—to the Paris dealers Robert and Cheska Vallois, we heard, who had already once before owned and sold it. Still: the look in the eyes of Marie . . . Might she, could she, did she, will she somehow get it after all?)
An aside about upholstery and tastes: Walking out of that heady room, Brooks recognized Peter Adam, the prolific Anglo-German BBC producer, filmmaker, and author whose definitive 1987 biography of Gray is about to be reissued. (That book, together with the French designer Andrée Putman’s 1978 re-editions of Gray’s later, more industrial models, was instrumental to the Gray revival.) “You should know,” said he, pointing toward the chocolate-brown-leather-covered fauteuil aux dragons, “that that chair was originally covered in silk that was salmon-colored . . . and it was much better that way.”
The Trachten-clad Adam, who was pushing a companion in a wheelchair, seemed to grow a tad impatient as we queried him about another of Gray’s remarkable works on nearby display, a twelve-legged enfilade, or sideboard table, with funky lacquer veneers, heraldic hardware, and discernible signs of wear. One of Gray’s earliest-known pieces, from circa 1916, this odd-looking lot evoked at once the Chippendale style and what one might think of as its opposite, the late-nineteenth-century reformist-aesthetic movement known as Arts and Crafts: “Eileen hated all that stuff,” he snarled. “She wanted chrome!” (It sold for about $4,500,000.)
THE WUNDERKAMMER (OR “WONDER CABINET”) is an antiquated exhibition concept that, while as old as the sixteenth century, has surprising traction in the twenty-first. The earliest European iterations were ornate rooms hung to the rafters with oddities of the natural world—narwhal tusks, exotic coral, stuffed crocodiles—and relics of dead religions and remote cultures. By the seventeenth century, they included man-made curiosities associated with the sciences and engineering—dioramas, automatons—as well as artworks and ceramics. Born in an era when the lines between art, science, myth, and folklore were blurry to nonexistent, this tradition helped inspire phenomena as disparate as museums, the Scientific Revolution, and P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. Some claim today that blogs (and the Internet itself) are direct descendents of these eccentric collections. Their similar fact-to-bullshit ratio alone is enough to grant the argument merit.
The Wunderkammer is also an elastic and durable metaphor, one that Lawrence “Ren” Weschler—whose fine nonfiction book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder celebrates the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA—dusted off for this daylong symposium of artists, scientists, writers, and filmmakers the Saturday before last. The director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, Weschler spoke in an interview for The Onion of looking for those “pillow-of-air moments” when one is left agape and agog in the presence of something truly amazing. And indeed, throughout the day, no one was more openly thrilled than Ren himself, his wry grin and twinkling eyes visible even in the dark as he sat at the side of the stage during the various presentations.
While I am a glutton for ecstasy, nine straight hours of unmitigated wonder seemed a bit much, so I skipped the first offering—Robert Krulwich and Roger Hanlon on octopus camouflage—and arrived in the middle of a charming animated short, drawn by Chris Ware and featuring an Ira Glass interview with Krulwich, about the author’s wife mistakenly believing that Jackie O. was waving at her from across a New York street. Then we were introduced to Bill Morrison, maker of the celebrated experimental film Decasia—which marries decaying vintage celluloid to avant-garde music—who showed two shorter distressed films, Who by Water? and How to Pray.
The former uses footage discovered while he was assembling Decasia, and both films were nautically themed: the first of steamship passengers from the 1920s awaiting departure in New York Harbor; the second of contemporaneous icebergs and floes off the coast of Newfoundland. Both were scored by bombastic, portentous music, giving the decomposing footage an almost horror-film undercurrent of dread. Questioned by Ren, Morrison noted that nitrate film stock is highly unstable, much like gunpowder, and the visual noise obscuring the footage was composed of volatile chemicals and mold, which he enhanced by slowing the projection speed. He sees “fireworks, not science” in the effects, likening the distortion to a visual representation of the passage of time.
Ren then introduced New Yorker illustrator Richard McGuire—who fans of No Wave and early rap will also recall as a member of the band Liquid Liquid—and his episode of a multidirector animated feature called Peur(s) du Noir (Fear of the Dark). A suitably dim, black-and-white cartoon of a thuggish oaf breaking into an empty haunted house and being menaced by a decapitated head and a ghostly murderess, the entertaining film evoked a Pink Panther cartoon as reimagined by Henri-Georges Clouzot.
The next wonderboy was novelist Jonathan Lethem, who read a story-in-progress called “The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear,” about a crabbed, lonely crank and his underattended blog, which is under assault from a snarky, anonymous commenter known as “The Whom.” The story is chronologically backward and epigrammatic in form, and Lethem punctuated the pauses between its short segments by striking notes on his son’s toy xylophone. Calling it a “satire of the deflatable optimism of blogs,” which start out with such enthusiasm only to peter out from neglect or the relentless flames of abusive trolls, Lethem said it was partially inspired by Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Kenneth Koch’s poem “The Artist.” “A blog offers up something vulnerable,” he mused, “and someone comes along and puts a cigarette out in its eye.”
Two artists followed, Tara Donovan and Lauren Redniss. Donovan’s site-specific installations of grandly massed ordinary objects—hay bales of toothpicks, ice walls of drinking straws, nimbus clouds of Styrofoam cups—are genuinely wondrous, producing optical effects that mimic nature on micro and macro scales. The pieces are all installed-to-order and can’t be perfectly rebuilt or replicated. By way of example, Donovan recalled that her drinking-straw piece was once undone by the vibrations of a pile driver working on a Richard Meier building next door to the gallery. Redniss, who frequently writes and draws op-art pieces for the New York Times, read from her illustrated book-in-progress Radioactive, about the life, work, and love affairs of Marie Curie, interspersed with passages about more recent developments in nuclear science. Her presentation was illuminating, if a bit scattered.
Cultural historian Norman Brosterman then gave a presentation based on his book Inventing Kindergarten, which traces the patterned geometries of modernist art and architecture—Wright, Fuller, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, etc.—to the kindergarten movement started in 1840s Germany by former crystallographer Friedrich Fröbel. Needing a break from all this admittedly fascinating novelty, I skipped paper-folding wizard Matt Shlian and materials scientist Max Shtein and returned for John Underkoffler, a computer scientist whose company, Oblong Industries, is transforming the graphical user interface into a gestural one. Pronouncing a death sentence on the lowly computer mouse, Underkoffler and his team have developed interfaces that allow users to control their computers like conductors guide orchestras. If you’ve seen the Spielberg film of Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report,” you have a good idea of what it looks like. No coincidence, as Underkoffler was a consultant on the film.
Finally, we were treated to several short films sponsored by Wholphin, the McSweeney’s-related DVD magazine edited by Brent Hoff, who was there to introduce the work. The first, Fantaisie in Bubblewrap, was a deliciously twisted little piece directed by Arthur Metcalf that gives voice (and faces) to Bubble Wrap cells as they are cruelly popped out of existence by a casually sadistic human. The second, directed by Hoff, splices gorgeous NASA footage of gaseous explosions and sunspot activity on our sun’s surface into a symphonic fugue—until intertitles proclaim the chilling fact that sunspots have virtually disappeared in the past couple years. It is then intimated that this may have something to do with 2012 and Mayan prophecy without getting all Daniel Pinchbeck about it. A model short film.
Third and last, rotoscope guru Bob Sabiston—best known for his work on the Richard Linklater films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly—presented two of his shorts: the first of his trip with an autistic friend and several others to a Six Flags amusement park near San Antonio, the second of an interview with an old Buddhist sage in Washington Square Park, musing eloquently on the true meaning of life. Both are at once warmly touching and disturbingly trippy, with faces distorting wildly and random psychedelic flourishes troubling their backgrounds.
At 9 PM, with the nearly full house totally awed out, Ren concluded the program by saying that the common denominator of the day’s presenters was that they all loved what they did. This seemed about right. To a person, they had all managed to transform play into a high level of adult achievement, and what could be more wonderful than that?