LAST WEDNESDAY NIGHT, I found myself standing on the main stage at the Abrons Art Center, blinded by stage lights, looking at a gently playing string quartet, dimly aware of a full house halfheartedly applauding my arrival . . . and wondering what exactly I was expected to do next. As I circled toward the strings, I noticed a woman standing downstage, frantically beckoning me forward. “Are you K11?” she asked. “Yes, I’m K11!” To my relief, she led me into the auditorium, where I was gratefully given a seat in . . . row K.
Such was my entry, in medias res, to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers’s K.62. But the performance, one of the culminating commissions of this year’s three-week-long Performa gauntlet, had actually begun forty-five minutes earlier, for me and eighteen other Ks, as well as all the members of the orchestra, who were brought to the Abrons from various locations downtown. An inversion was taking place whereby the orchestra entered via the auditorium (and sat in the stalls until going onstage), while the audience entered via the stage.
In fact, I felt as if the work had begun eight hours earlier, when I’d been offered a “solo” or a “group” ticket to the performance. I immediately leaped for the solo option. A subsequent phone call instructed me to go to the Performa Hub on Cooper Square at exactly 8 PM and told me that my experience would last approximately ninety minutes. My informant deliberately cultivated an air of enigma and mystique. On arriving at the Hub, I was handed an envelope labeled “K11.” At the top of the steps was a violinist playing her part of what was clearly a larger score, synced with an earpiece to hear what (I assumed) was the rest of the orchestra. Inside the envelope was an invitation to “After” (a party on the corner of Grand and Pitt streets) and twenty dollars for the cab ride home. Uh-oh. So this was the “solo” option: one audience member getting to watch one violinist for ninety minutes. Avant-garde difficulty writ large.
But I was wrong. A yellow cab parked outside had “K11” on the windshield, so I got in. As we set off, the driver put on a CD of flamenco-guitar music. Gradually, I realized that I was being driven slowly to the corner of Grand and Pitt, i.e., the back of Abrons, which bore the neon sign AFTER (matching the one on the invitation). A video camera greeted my arrival, and I took my place in a line alongside three other Ks (surprisingly calm and unspeculative). From time to time, the bouncer talked to someone inside on a radio and let one of them inside. When it came to my turn, it was pretty obvious that entry into the building was going to mean entry onto the main stage.
Having seen two previous performances by Gonzalez-Foerster, one for “Il Tempo del Postino” (in Manchester) and another, NY.2022, at the Guggenheim last fall, I had some inkling of what might be coming. Both had involved an orchestra playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth and a gradual dispersal, one player leaving the stage after another until a core handful were playing—until there was one. This time, I guessed, the Ks were being fed onto stage to fill the vacated seats.
Again, it was far more complicated. On either side of the stage were whiteboard charts on which the movements of each K were being mapped in relationship to five movements of music played onstage. The house lights were up, and the organizers’ radio links were audible to the audience. Shortly after my arrival there was an audio sample of Orson Welles’s 1962 film of Kafka’s The Trial, and the next K to arrive gave a short speech responding to the excerpt we had heard. At this point, it became clear to me that Gonzalez-Foerster was creating for us an experience of controlled subjugation akin to that experienced by Josef K at the end of The Trial: to walk into a situation that seems predestined but where you have no idea why you are there or the logic behind the gathering. The other point of reference was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), in which a man is stranded in SoHo when his last twenty-dollar bill is blown out of a window of a cab. That film also contains a scene outside a nightclub with dialogue directly lifted from Kafka’s The Trial.
Candice Breitz, New York, New York, 2009. Performance view, Abrons Art Center, New York, November 2009. (Photo: Paula Court/courtesy Performa)
Such a wonderfully dense web of references was a consummate development of Gonzalez-Foerster’s previous performances and took the tropes of avant-garde dispersal, transparency, and fragmentation to a new extreme. (Having said that, I’m glad I wasn’t K18, who arrived just as the evening was winding up.) Its elegantly inscrutable structure could not be further from one of the previous week’s other Performa offerings at the Abrons, by Candice Breitz. She had organized four sets of identical twins to workshop a new character, an alter ego who they would take, in turns, to perform onstage. The event that we witnessed had three sections: a thirty-minute video of the twins talking about their character, and two half-hour live performances in which all four characters were onstage, improvising a situation performed by one half of each set of twins.
The video part was OK: Breitz knows how to edit, and the cutting was sharp and snappy. It was entertaining, if also very light. The characters were more or less enjoyably unbearable: a flamboyantly trashy Asian-American TV presenter in skimpy dresses who lives in the West Village, a wealthy young misanthropic geek who likes to slum it by working at Duane Reade, a disaffected mixed-race sixteen-year-old from the Upper East Side, and a gender-fluid Gypsy-esque performer from the Balkans. Symptomatically, all of them fantasized about great wealth.
However, it’s one thing to relay these fantasies on video, where all the dull interludes can be edited out, and quite another for the twins to embody the characters live onstage. The result was an abortion. Why would these four folks ever occupy a shared space in the first place? The geek had supposedly picked up the TV presenter at Duane Reade and taken her home, where he appeared to share an apartment with the Gypsy performer. The sixteen-year-old reluctantly appeared halfway through, having left her keys there the night before. Even if we could brush aside the unlikeliness of the plot, there was the issue of dire overacting––admittedly a recurrent trope in Breitz’s work, but one that hardly makes it easier to stomach. More than a few audience members voted with their feet and left the building.
Performa specializes in this kind of high-risk tightrope act, getting a blue-chip artist to move from one medium to another, in this case from video installation to live performance. Not everyone can pull it off, and Breitz’s performance seemed all the weaker for being preceded at the Abrons by Omer Fast’s . His Talk Show accomplished the same transition from video to performance, but with understated conceptual deftness. The work did exactly what it said on the can: It was a talk show, complete with two comfy armchairs, an APPLAUSE light for the audience, and two flower arrangements (with the morbid twist of a skull nestling in each one). A middle-aged woman sat in one of the chairs; a sixty-something man in the other. “So,” she began, “tell me about your brother.”
The man launched into a series of anecdotes about his childhood. The reminiscences were detailed, specific, idiosyncratic. Gradually, it became clear that there was something unusual about his brother. The audience was gripped: He was an electric storyteller. It turned out that a few years ago, he suspected his brother of being a serial killer. He explained, candidly and clearly, the pain of having to decide whether or not to go to the police, how to tell his mother, the unwanted attentions of the press, and so on. The story ended rather quietly, and he left the stage to great applause.
A younger man came onstage and took his seat. “So,” he turned to the woman, “tell me about your brother.” She began the same story, with greater or fewer variations. Key differences were detectable, however, and slips of the tongue made you wonder whether the dialogue was scripted or improvised. Her version was (inevitably) far less gripping––being as it was debased, less detailed, clearly secondhand. At the end of the story, she left to our applause. A very tall man came to take her place. “So . . .” he began.
You can imagine how the evening proceeded. Seven different characters appeared, all giving variations on the same story. Eventually, our champion raconteur appeared onstage again, this time as interviewer. We had come full circle, but in the meantime his story had deteriorated and morphed, became more reductive, more entertaining, more narcissistic (“Why’s everyone always asking me about my brother? Why doesn’t anyone ask about me?”). These changes were incremental and seemed to allude to the mass-media simplification and degradation of complex narratives.
Fast’s performance will, I suspect, end up as a video, as the whole thing was being filmed from multiple angles. Breitz’s was also filmed, but it will take some magic in the editing suite to salvage substance from that event. Gonzalez-Foerster and Meyers’s remains indefinitely unrepresentable: a lace of interlocking narratives from eighteen Ks, a fragmented orchestra, and a terminally divided audience. For most of November, it felt as if the only question going was “Have you seen anything good at Performa?” but finally I can say yes. This was the biennial at its experimental best: pushing artists and audiences to new engagements with the medium.
WOODEN SHIPPING CRATES lay baking in the hot Arabian sun last week as workers scrambled to finish the setup for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Art fair. Nearby, a twenty-foot-tall black, red, blue, and yellow Alexander Calder sculpture wafted in the humid air, flown in at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars for the occasion by PaceWildenstein gallery. The mighty Calder, tagged at forty-five million USD, held its own despite an incongruous temporary beachside setting, positioned behind the pink marble Emirates Palace hotel.
I was among the ranks of the curious attending a new art fair in a region I had never visited. The government-run Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) was behind the junket, the fair, and the area’s explosive cultural expansion. Abu Dhabi’s rainmakers, including His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, have committed billions to diversifying their image and economy away from oil derricks. Within five years, art-packed branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim will rise out of the sand, and the prospect of an art spending spree explained the presence of some of the world’s most exclusive vendors, London’s White Cube and New York’s Acquavella Galleries among them. At the moment, there isn’t much besides the beach to lure tourists to Abu Dhabi; if all goes according to plan, in the next decade this will change.
Left: Architect Jean Nouvel. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling.
The fair’s opening last Wednesday evening was sedate—no dense throngs of “VIPs” or collector shenanigans. Visitors from Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, and other Arab localities drifted around the fair floor, where fifty dealers had set up their wares. The most important customer came after the fair was closed. The crown prince’s wife, Sheikha Salama, toured the stands from 11 PM until 2:15 AM, greeting sleepy dealers and studying the offerings.
Abu Dhabi Art was really two fairs under one roof. On the one hand, there was a slew of young galleries from places like Bangalore, Damascus, and Dubai, showing works that ranged from calligraphic kitsch to more promising endeavors. Red dots appeared at the stands of well-known Dubai dealers Third Line and B21, where young Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh’s punchy assemblages caught the eye of megacollector François Pinault, who scooped up a bunch. Pinault, along with Jeff Koons, attended as special patrons, supplying the fair with a much-needed (and -touted) branding edge.
The other fair was a higher-stakes arena, featuring major New York and European dealers. Hauser & Wirth brought a large Louise Bourgeois spider and Subodh Gupta skull, while White Cube offered sparkling paintings by Hirst. Tony Shafrazi hung his ’80s-themed stand with Basquiats, Warhols, and Harings. A consortium of seven dealers, including L&M Arts, Malingue, and Louis Carre & Cie, combined forces with Picassos and Légers. “The art is major,” said Chicago collector Stefan Edlis. “The dealers are smelling money here. People wouldn’t bring thirty or forty million dollars’ worth of artworks if they didn’t.”
Left: Louvre director Henri Loyrette, artist Yan-Pei Ming, and curator Marie-Laure Bernadac. Right: TDIC culture-department director Rita Aoun-Abdo.
Yet this wasn’t a usual fair. Dealers moaned that the visitors weren’t very inquisitive and speculated that some weren’t even aware the stuff was for sale. “I only get one question a day,” said one bored dealer. Fair organizers countered that this was all part of a steep learning curve. They positioned the event as part of the larger cultural evolution. “We need to consider this as a platform instead of a fair,” said Rita Aoun-Abdo, who wields considerable power and influence as director of TDIC’s cultural department. But would sales be made? After all, many dealers were forking over at least nine hundred dollars a night for rooms at the pink palace. “Sales have happened,” said Aoun-Abdo. “It’s a long-term partnership. The dealers who came here, they made a choice, and Abu Dhabi respects this choice. The stakeholders acknowledged the dealers” and were pleased “to have the big guns here.”
Despite the obvious need for patience, the big guns got antsy as the week wore on. But it wasn’t all work. The fair ran from 4 PM to 10 PM, allowing dealers time to tour the world’s third-largest mosque and (occasionally) to play. Paul Gray of Richard Gray gallery went water-skiing. Nicholas Acquavella, who had brought a Bacon and Picasso, went wakeboarding. (Many dealers, though, never strayed from the hotel.) It was even possible to see a “local” museum show. The Guggenheim mounted its first loan exhibition (more than fifty stellar paintings, from Cezanne to Pollock) in gallery space located beside the hotel’s prime coffee spot.
Thursday morning we were bused to Saadiyat (or “Happiness”) Island, a mostly barren chunk of dusty land that will eventually be home to 150,000 residents, in addition to museums and marinas. Architect Jean Nouvel, who is designing the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was on hand to take us around a temporary metal building, constructed to test how light penetrates a ten-layer dome. “A rain of light,” Nouvel described it. That will be a novelty, given that Abu Dhabi gets an average of five days of rain a year. We also visited the adjacent site, where construction on the Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi began a week earlier. En route to the palace we passed old wooden fishing boats, a Brioni store, and flatbed trucks loaded with rebar and cranes.
The fair’s social element ratcheted up on Thursday night with the “Wings” party, conceived as a “multimedia” extravaganza, meaning an impressive fireworks display and an endless stream of disjointed live entertainment. The evening began well, with an exuberant Indian musical performance and a thoughtful discussion with Nouvel. Koons gave one of his cryptic talks, touching on Duchamp, morality, and “acceptance.” Things soon went downhill. A performance by the band CocoRosie, who sounded like Björk on helium, prompted me to flee. Luckily, French dealer Daniel Malingue invited me to join his group for a late-night meal. We sat on the Palace terrace, plates piled high with lamb, salmon, and other buffet offerings.
Even by the end of the week, many dealers still wondered whether (what else?) sales would be forthcoming. “Most fairs are about the first day,” said PaceWildenstein’s Marc Glimcher. “This fair is all about the last.” Glimcher did close a deal on a late Calder. Gagosian sold a blue and red de Kooning. On Saturday evening, the night before the fair’s final day, word ran around that the crown prince was on the way; several hours later, it became evident he wasn’t coming. Nothing like being stood up by royalty. Dealers peeled off their stands and headed for the front door, where two white buses—one for men and one for women—waited to take them to another palace for dinner. Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac stood in the gleaming marble entryway. “It’s definitely an exciting new place,” said Ropac, who has been to Abu Dhabi four times in the past two years. “We have to take it seriously.”
Left: Outside the MoCA gala. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)
MOVIE STARS MAY GET DAYS OFF, but artists are always on the job. Meanwhile, the MoCA museum board worked overtime producing its thirtieth-anniversary gala, which made everyone present forget that one out of ten people in this country are currently unemployed. Entry into the huge tent on Grand Avenue, closed to traffic for the occasion, was under a massive movie marquee emblazoned with the title of Francesco Vezzoli’s performance topped by big red letters spelling out MOCA. “It’s just like a theater!” exclaimed a pleased Edythe Broad to her husband. “That’s what it’s all about,” replied Eli. He wasn’t kidding.
Inside, the walls were draped in red velvet, the ceiling festooned with movie-prop chandeliers. Larry Gagosian headed up one table, Dasha Zhukova another. I was seated with a particularly eclectic art-Hollywood-fashion bunch bookended by earthy Angela Missoni and Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, son of French Vogue editor Carine Roitfield and a curator, or “art tailor,” of recent vintage. Places between were taken up by the likes of Christina Ricci, writer Bruce Hainley, Pin-Up editor Felix Burrichter, CCA Wattis director Jens Hoffmann, actress Kate Bosworth, and a platinum-haired Brigitte Nielsen look-alike named Laurie who must have been arm candy for someone, but no one seemed to know whom.
Miuccia Prada, who designed the costumes for the show (available through November 30 in an online auction to benefit the museum), seated Gore Vidal to her right, Frank Gehry to her left, and John Baldessari and Germano Celant opposite. Around the room I spotted movie and music personalities (Brian Grazer, Eva Mendes, Jessica Alba, Gwen Stefani, Chloë Sevigny, John Legend, Pharrell Williams) who rarely if ever make gallery rounds but may have helped draw momentary attention to the museum. (I did not see most of them inside it.) Artists significant to the collection (Paul McCarthy, David Hockney, Doug Aitken, Chris Burden, Ed Moses, Sterling Ruby, Baldessari, Murakami, Kruger, Pittman, Ruscha) were rendered nearly invisible by this crowd, though they smiled valiantly along with the Hammer’s Anne Philbin, the Whitney’s Adam Weinberg, LACMA’s Michael Govan, and curators Donna De Salvo, Klaus Biesenbach, and Bennett Simpson.
Enough name-dropping. (OK: Brad and Angelina arrived before anyone else and were treated to a private photo-op with Schimmel before disappearing into the night.) The point of the evening wasn’t art, anyway. It was patronage, something that Hollywood historically has given short shrift. Eli Broad, whose money saved the museum from going under, was determined to inspire some form of art philanthropy in opening remarks that gave Count Panza a nod and himself a pat on the back.
Left: Writer Gore Vidal. Right: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie with MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel. (Photo: WireImage)
A few minutes later, the white-haired Michael York hit the long catwalk stage at the center of the tent, his shoulders draped in a heavy overcoat, his hands holding a sheaf of papers from which he read a text extolling impresario Serge Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes so badly it was embarrassing. On his exit, the dancers stepped onstage to perform part of Le Bal, conceived by George Balanchine and retouched for the evening by designer and onetime William Forsythe dancer Stephen Galloway.
Enter the formally dressed Lady Gaga and Vezzoli in carnival masks contributed by Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin. Seating herself at the keyboard of a pink Steinway adorned with blue butterflies by Damien Hirst, Gaga accompanied herself for a new ballad, “Speechless,” while Vezzoli pantomimed the sewing of Gaga’s face on an embroidery disc. They should always be so understated. In fact, the whole performance, which ran all of eight minutes, had an elegance that belied the baroque surreality of the night. Star fucking is really not Vezzoli’s strong suit. It’s irony, something the Hollywood bunch, which watched in respectful silence, seemed to miss.
Most noticeable was Gaga’s squashed tower of a top hat, designed by Gehry, fabricated by Prada in leather and silk and strongly resembling nearby Disney Music Hall—with a difference. “She changed it!” the architect exclaimed afterward, explaining that it was supposed to be taller but that Gaga had adjusted it to suit herself. Since when had he turned to millinery? “I stepped through the looking glass twenty years ago,” Gehry said. “And I’ve been a mad hatter ever since.”
Suddenly four skimpily clad women appeared onstage with Sotheby’s Jamie Niven, who auctioned off the piano to Gagosian for $450,000 (Gehry was an underbidder) in a trashy spectacle worthy of The Price Is Right.
Meanwhile, Vezzoli was hiding backstage, perhaps in fear of the sort of backlash that followed the debacle of his celebrity-infested performance at the Guggenheim two years ago, though the response this time was more admiring. “I think he redeemed himself tonight,” said Jeffrey Deitch, who has produced his share of extravaganzas. “And this is an artist who was in serious need of redemption.”
“This project was made for Los Angeles,” Vezzoli said. Certainly it would not have happened anywhere else. “It’s Hollywood,” Maria Bell reminded me. “We can make anything out of nothing.”
Left: Lady Gaga. (Photo: WireImage) Right: Miuccia Prada.
THE FIRST SURPRISE of last Saturday’s thirtieth-anniversary gala for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was the discovery of Frank Gehry as a milliner. The second was Lady Gaga: The well-packaged “Paparazzi” pop star actually can sing better than Madonna; what’s more, she can do it like a lady. And Francesco Vezzoli can create a work of performance art that transcends mere celebrity to give a town that rarely looks anywhere but its own navel a promising blank slate.
Rewriting history was the theme of the benefit, which began with a gray, clothbound blank book sent to donors who paid a whopping five thousand dollars for individual tickets and up to one hundred thousand for tables––ouch-worthy prices that appalled some boycotting LA collectors, who were still grumbling about the mishandling of the museum’s endowment that nearly closed its doors for good last year. Designed (and signed) by Ed Ruscha, the gift book has one of each of the words MAKE NEW HISTORY stenciled on three sides and would look great on a shelf full of fake volumes with impressive spines, the kind that are so good for stashing cash and love letters––only fitting for Hollywood.
Chaired by trustees Eli Broad and Maria Bell, the event drew nearly one thousand expertly coiffed, self-adoring adults. The serious collectors among them (Wallis Annenberg, Victor Pinchuk, Maja Hoffman, Irving Blum, Laurence Graff, Benedikt Taschen, Billie Milan Weisman, Douglas Cramer, Hugh Bush) left the bar early in the evening for a preview of “Collection: MoCA’s First Thirty Years” at the Grand Avenue building––one of the most impressive surveys of contemporary art I have ever seen anywhere and a high-water mark for curator Paul Schimmel, who outdid himself with the hang. (Clearly, this museum would not exist without Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who donated the core of the collection when the place was new.) But the big attraction for the mostly B-list celebs who attended the dinner (catered by Wolfgang Puck) was Vezzoli’s one-night-only performance, Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again), produced by MoCA with honorary cochairs Larry Gagosian and Dasha Zhukova and starring Gaga and Vezzoli with twelve wide-eyed dancers imported from the Bolshoi Ballet.
The performance (about which, more tomorrow) culminated a driving week that began for me at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where an almost shockingly good show of Joseph Beuys’s multiples at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum makes the New Museum’s plan to exhibit trustee Dakis Joannou’s collection next March seem less controversial and convenient, and more a spin on the zeitgeist of the moment. (Ditto the BCAM show of self-portrait artist photographs, which came not from the Broad Foundation but from collectors Audrey and Sydney Irmas.)
Following a trip to the Hammer to see Robert Gober’s exhilarating installation of paintings by the unsung artist Charles Burchfield and R. Crumb’s oddly tame exegesis of the Book of Genesis, I had my first view of Blum and Poe’s new two-story space in Culver City, where large-scale works by gallery artists (Takashi Murakami, Dirk Skreber, Matt Johnson, Mark Grotjahn, and others) seem almost lost in it. Still, it is unlikely to give Gagosian, who is adding a new Richard Meier–designed building next to his Beverly Hills outpost, reason to fear any grandstanding competition. For contrast, the nonprofit LAXART was putting up a benefit auction of work donated by scads of artists and hung willy-nilly throughout. (Not to be outdone by the big boys, the benefit was advertised by a Mungo Thomson billboard above the building.)
Left: Dealer Tim Blum with Maria Blum. Right: Artist Takashi Murakami.
On Friday night, it was the Broad Foundation’s turn to throw a party for its twenty-fifth year, with a show of acquisitions that juxtaposed Kiefers with Immendorfs and Rauches and featured Wools and Bradfords, among others, before shuttling air-kissing collector pals to Michael’s for dinner. And lest anyone be left with time to fill to no purpose, there was a private party in Hollywood for MoCA guests needing a social transition to the opening Saturday afternoon of Jeff Koons’s new show of gesturally enhanced, benday-dotted, Courbet-nude-on-landscape paintings at Gagosian. Hefty Hulk Elvis catalogues were flying into the hands of eager visitors hankering for an autograph. “Jeff’s not signing any books,” a receptionist kept saying, though the genial, fan-fueling artist was more than accommodating for guests at a separate reception in the back of the gallery, where Koons sketched a personal note and a sexy landscape drawing for each comer on the title page. (I got a labial sailboat; a friend got a spread-legged country road.) “They don’t look it,” Koons let on about the scribbles on the paintings. “But those big gestures were actually done with tiny brushes.” Guess he must have been watching when they were made.
Finally it was time for the caravan to head downtown for the black-tie, red-carpet glamour fest at MoCA. “I want to see the art,” said Beyeler Foundation director Sam Keller, interrupting cocktails in the lobby with Germano Celant and Klaus Biesenbach to make a beeline for the galleries, where I found Pierce Brosnan circulating quickly past collector Eileen Norton, artist Barbara Kruger, curator Ann Goldstein, and Warhol Foundation director Joel Wachs. Brosnan, it turns out, is not a newbie to art. “I do collect,” he said. “And I paint. And I don’t give up the day job.”
The five-hundred-plus-piece show (featuring two hundred artists) begins with the oldest work in the collection, a 1939 Mondrian, and ends at 1979 (and continues to the present with the “MoCA Years” at the Geffen Contemporary), and includes stunning displays of Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, and Oldenbergs as well as the re-creation of an aromatic, 1970 chocolate room by favorite son Ruscha and a kissing-tits pink Plexi sculpture by the obscure DeWain Valentine that would make Anish Kapoor eat his heart out. With a Pollock drip here, an early Tony Smith there, and primo Judds, Irwins, Sam Francises, etc., there was no going wrong at any step. “It’s perfect,” said Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison, rumored to be on the short list of candidates for MoCA director. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Even the artists were pleased. “The best frocks in the closet are on display,” observed pithy Lari Pittman. “And it’s wonderful.” And it is.
So wonderful it suggested that the best way to make MoCA into the world-class destination it hankers to become would be to keep the show in place permanently and use the Geffen for temporary exhibitions. “I agree,” said Broad, when I mentioned it. “I’d love to do that,” Schimmel said. “Just give me another building! You have no idea how deep this collection goes.” (Nearly six thousand works and counting, actually.)
Another building seems out of the question when MoCA can hardly keep the lights on in the two it has. And it remains to be seen how well it will spend the nearly four million dollars that the gala raised, when it needs four times that amount to meet its annual operating expenses. If the party brings new funding (possible) and creates new revenue streams (doubtful) that will revitalize its impact on LA’s forever-burgeoning cultural scene, it was worth the $1.1 million that the gala purportedly cost. But this institution has yet to convince everyone in the LA art world that it can administer itself with the panache its curatorial staff brings to its art. A visionary for a new director could make a difference—if there is one available with extraordinarily thick skin.
A CARPET OF GOLDEN AUTUMN LEAVES paved the somber streets of Turin on my drive from the airport to the Golden Palace hotel. Little did I know then that these were augurs of more fantastic golden showers to come. But not yet. That evening, the Turinese patroness Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (recently “knighted” by the French minister of culture) teamed with Italian Vogue editrix Franca Sozzani to host a screening of Chiara Clemente’s recent documentary Our City Dreams. A comedic highlight in the poignant portrait of five female artists—Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and the late Nancy Spero—was the commanding diva Abramovic training scores of young Thais to crack whips at the sea as a punishment to God for the tsunami. “The women are useless,” she quips.
Afterward, the full house, mostly women, migrated through the rain from the host’s foundation to her residence, where the renowned dessert table once again lived up to its reputation. The sweets were outnumbered only by the invasion of Milanese art denizens, including dealer Francesca Kaufmann, who exclaimed, “I feel at home—all of Milan is here!”
During a coffee break the next day at the opening of the sixteenth edition of Artissima, fair director Andrea Bellini looked surprisingly relaxed. “If you have style, you stay calm when the car accelerates,” he explained. “If you freak out, you don’t deserve the car.” He also reported that first-time exhibitor Friedrich Petzel had already been around and purchased at least seven works the night before. When I caught up later at the fair with the New York dealer, he said, “I am pleasantly surprised by the dry sense of humor in the work—none of this candy-colored crap. I saw so many things I liked—or maybe the fair is not so big, so you can actually see things.” (Petzel, of course, added that he was also happy with how much he had already sold.) “When I come to Turin I am like a pig in shit,” dealer Javier Peres gushed, bringing to mind the local advent of truffle season.
Though opinions may differ among the 127 participating galleries, Bellini says he considers the fair more a cultural event than a profit-making vehicle. (There was a rumor circulating that he will be named director of the city’s august contemporary art museum, the Castello di Rivoli.) Indeed, in its preview issue, Milanese newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore bore the exuberant headline IT’S NOT A FAIR, IT’S A FESTIVAL! The city had commissioned visual artists like Rebecca Horn, Giulio Paolini, Daniel Buren, and Joseph Kosuth to create extravagant installations of Christmas lights that lined streets all over town. In front of La Rinascente department store, a “shopping angel” encased in a giant bubble invoked a Tomás Saraceno piece for sale at Genoa’s Pinksummer booth at the fair. The roster of events and exhibitions was such that those who made it to the nightly DJ’d parties at the Esperia boat club were heroes of sorts. I did not.
The centerpiece of this Artissima’s event marathon was “Blinding the Ears”—defined as “action, behavior, performance, instant theater”—in which artists were invited to produce a series of fifteen performances in theaters around town. The highly anticipated opening-night premiere was Gelitin’s All or the Just, staged at the Teatro Regio, whose luscious labyrinthine interior by architect and photographer Carlo Mollino resembles a gigantic red velvet boudoir. The colorful bacchanal—in which the Austrian collective and friends constructed a giant wooden double arch while prancing around in varying degrees of transvestite dishabille—culminated in a spectacular golden-shower daisy chain. (I vacated the front row early on for fear of being sprayed with bodily fluids.) It all sparked a lively discussion later in the hotel bar, where Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler wryly noted, “Not everyone can do a Tempo del Postino.” The next night on the same stage, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s political dialogue featured actors balancing wooden structures on their heads instead of the other way around. At the afterparty in the lobby, attended largely by local VIPs and government officials, Monopol’s Daniel Schreiber sniped, “It was less watchable than Gelitin.”
Saturday evening in the Teatro Carignano, an eighteenth-century jewel box across from city hall, Pablo Bronstein staged a campy school-play rendition of the Greek tragedy Phèdre, prefaced by the caveat: “Please excuse the naive emotions expressed onstage. They are from a time when we were different people.” The real problem though was that the affected delivery of said naïveté went on long after it ceased to be amusing. During the intermission preceding Jim Shaw’s somber concert A Tone, Meant for Your Sins, I ran into two Gelitiners. The one who had squirted a fountain of red dye out of his bottom onstage explained, “It was exhausting voiding on each other for two hours. And I was afraid the dye would harm my intestines, so I did two enemas afterward.”
Presciently, the elegant Ristorante del Cambio next door was recently the scene of an attack by hooded anarchists who slung excrement and animal entrails at diners. Truth be told, Turin’s prim facade conceals a dark heart pulsating with eccentricity. (Think the houses of Savoy and Agnelli, the Shroud of Turin, and the black-magic triangle, not to mention the risqué Mollino.) And by some collusion of the planets, on arriving at the Franco Soffiantino gallery later that night, I found that artist Tania Bruguera had slathered the floor in pigs’ blood and covered it in plastic so everyone could walk on it as a live “drawing.” When a young man arrived, neatly took off his pants, and drank his own urine from a plastic cup, artist Jacqueline Riva turned to me and said, “I’ve seen a lot of dicks this weekend!” But dicks were the least of the provocative feast.
Putting artists onstage to gaze at their navels—and penises—in front of a captive audience is likely to be risky. Even so, one of the most successful and compelling “Blinding the Ears” events was Matt Mullican’s classroom-style consideration of a video of himself under hypnosis projecting his artistic alter ego Glenn. Kneeling down with his face to the wall and the seat of his pants toward the audience, Mullican repeated to himself, “You are talking the talk and walking the walk, but it’s a losing walk. You’re a fucking fuck.” “Great ad for Levis!” joked curator Cornelia Lauf. Later in the same space—the former royal stables—Tris Vonna-Michell performed his hypnotic rap Photography Is My Punishment, a disorienting half-hour collage of times and places. In a raw black space without a stage, it was the most beautiful, as well as the shortest, piece I saw. As people milled about waiting for more, he asked, “Do you think they realize I’m finished?”
Left: Artist Matt Mullican. (Photo: Nikki Columbus) Right: Artist Tris Vonna-Michell. (Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano)
Left: Valentino with dealer Doris Ammann. Right: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's chief auctioneer. (Photo: Erika Nusser)
OUT ON THE STREET before Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale on Wednesday, collector Alberto Mugrabi told me that Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills, a rare, hand-drawn silk-screen painting from 1962, would sell for $40 million. I assumed it was strategic presale hype or wishful thinking on the part of a man whose family owns some eight hundred Warhol works. The expression “sell the rumor” came to mind.
Inside the cavernous salesroom, 200 One Dollar Bills was hung on the left, above the heads of Sotheby’s senior European specialists. Mounted behind Tobias Meyer, the house’s chief auctioneer, was a pristine Warhol self-portrait from the 1965 series in which the artist has placed his finger to one side of his mouth, transforming a thinker’s pose into a coy come-on.
Forty million dollars would be the second-highest price ever paid for a Warhol at auction, exceeding the Brandos, Lizes, and Maos that came on the block during the boom, deferring only to Green Car Crash, which sold in May 2007 to Philippe Niarchos for $71.7 million. Art-market insiders had been discussing little else. “This season is all about the dollar bill,” said Sotheby’s Cheyenne Westphal. “It’s the only real masterpiece of the week,” said uptown dealer Per Skarstedt. “It’s Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual. Everything is there right from the beginning,” said Georg Frei of Thomas Ammann Gallery. Indeed, Warhol wasn’t just fascinated by fame––he was obsessed with ubiquity. And what is more pervasive than the American dollar?
Until the day before the sale, the identity of the “distinguished private” consignor had been a well-guarded secret, then word swept around like a Factory superstar on speed: Pauline Karpidas, a collector and art-world hostess celebrated for her summer art projects in Hydra, Greece, was the seller. Despite her gregariousness, the provenance of the painting had eluded insiders because it had hung in the Athens apartment of her late husband, Dino. Back in 1986, the Karpidas had paid $385,000 for the picture, the highest price ever paid for a Warhol at auction during the artist’s lifetime.
Meyer opened the bidding on 200 One Dollar Bills at $6 million. Alex Rotter, a Sotheby’s specialist standing to Meyer’s left, shocked the crowd by immediately raising his hand and shouting, “$12 million,” doubling the bid. Art adviser Philippe Ségalot, sitting on the aisle, jumped in at $13 million. Abdallah Chatila, a Lebanese collector, and Jose Mugrabi, sitting next to Alberto in a baseball cap and purple sweatshirt, got involved after that. The price escalated in million-dollar increments so quickly that it was tough to tell where the bids were coming from. Sotheby’s Loic Gouzer and Bruno Vinciguerra were in the running by the time the bidding hit $30 million. It slowed at $34 million, at which point Meyer prodded, “Shall we try one more? It looks great!” Mugrabi took a moment to chew his gum before offering $35 million. Gouzer countered with $36 million. In the end, Vinciguerra won the picture for his anonymous telephone bidder for $39 million hammer, or $43.7 million with fees. After the sale, Meyer said, “I will say something a little radical: I think it’s a good buy.” Fantasists like to think that the final battle was between Niarchos and a member of the royal family of Qatar.
That seminal Warhol was followed by two more works by the Pop master: A drawing of rolled dollar bills, also from 1962, was bought by Larry Gagosian for $4.2 million, while the Warhol behind Meyer sold to diamond dealer Laurence Graff for $6.1 million. The latter had been consigned by Cathy Naso, who’d been given the work by Warhol when she worked as a receptionist in the Factory. After the sale, Naso issued the statement: “Andy has made me famous for fifteen minutes . . . and fifteen minutes of fame is more than enough.”
The fifty-five-lot auction was a spectacular success, achieving $134.4 million with an amazing 98 percent sold by value. Although “the air is thin above $5 million,” as one of Sotheby’s staff put it, the auction house managed to sell seven works for more than that figure. Twenty lots came from the estate of Ohio collectors Mary and Louis Myers. Sometimes good business is boring. The dark, goopy postwar pictures and sculptures were a consistent display of generational taste, but Sotheby’s sold almost all the lots as if they were ageless trophies with global appeal.
A few works from the estate had a fresh-faced, contemporary feel, such as Alice Neel’s Jackie Curtis and Rita Red, a 1970 portrait of the celebrated cross-dresser and her boyfriend. It sold for a record $1.65 million, triple the high estimate. “Double portraits are quite rare. Plus one of the sitters was part of Warhol’s inner circle,” noted Glenn Scott Wright, director of Victoria Miro Gallery. The painting was purchased by the Cleveland Art Museum, where it was on loan this past summer, and will travel along with Neel’s retrospectives to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, London’s Whitechapel Gallery, and Sweden’s Moderna Museet. A fitting world tour for one of America’s most important postwar portraitists.
Left: Collectors Guy Delall and Alberto Mugrabi. Right: Robert Manley, head of Christie's postwar and contemporary art department in New York, with Brett Gorvy and Amy Cappellazzo, international coheads of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's. (All photos: Erika Nusser)
AS WOMEN IN FIVE-INCH HEELS and men in made-to-measure suits headed to their assigned seats at Christie’s on Tuesday night, a man dressed for dog walking slipped unnoticed into a middle row toward the back. Peter Doig had never been to an auction before. He is not a Warholian “business artist,” so you wouldn’t expect him to relish the spectacle of art’s liquidation. Stranger still, the painter was sitting with the seller of the evening’s top lot, a Puerto Rican psychiatrist named César Reyes, who has been a keen supporter of dealer Gavin Brown’s artists. Reyes had consigned Doig’s Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like), a thoughtful painting from 1996, which depicts a man who has turned away from a pond that reflects his image.
The mysterious Doig canvas was Lot 13—an inside joke, given that many of his works refer to the Friday the 13th film series. During a recession, you rarely feel the heat of desire in an auction room, but four bidders fought to pay more than $8 million for a lot in which the high estimate was a mere $6 million. Auctioneer Christopher Burge was so amused that he warned, “I can stay here all night!” In the end, however, Burge appeared impatient and he awarded Reflection to a determined collector on the phone to Christie’s president Marc Porter for $10.2 million, which would have been a world record for the artist were it not for the volatility of dollar-pound exchange rates. The underbidder was dealer Jay Jopling, who looked none too pleased when his bid at around the time of the hammer was rejected.
Outside in the hall after the lot, Doig told me, “Everyone says artists shouldn’t attend auctions, so I wondered: What are they hiding from me? It’s my painting, after all.” Doig, who teaches at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, suggested that, “students should see auctions.” Then added, “But I don’t think I’ll need to come again.” Reyes paid $24,000 for the painting when he bought it in 1996. When I asked Brown whether Reyes would give Doig a cut of the proceeds, the dealer joked: “He’s going to use the money to buy my gallery . . . and I will learn to live!”
Left: David Zwirner directors Ales Ortuzar and Greg Lulay with dealer David Zwirner. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling with White Cube director Daniela Gareh.
The auction had a few other notable highs. It opened with six works from the estate of choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose partner in life and work had been composer John Cage. The lots consisted of a stunning little Jasper Johns crosshatch painting titled Dancers on a Plane, a decent Philip Guston work on paper, and four small Rauschenbergs—one of which was a gift signed “love Bob.” The group was physical evidence of an important all-American and mostly gay creative conversation. The six works sold for a total of $7.1 million, almost double their presale high estimate.
Benedikt Taschen was selling three sculptures by Jeff Koons. Given that Taschen Books had published the closest thing to a Koons catalogue raisonné earlier this year, the decision to consign mustn’t have been easy. Large Vase of Flowers, a wooden sculpture from the “Made in Heaven” series, sold to Dominique Lévy for $5.6 million. An assisted readymade consisting of a pair of vacuum cleaners in fluorescent-lit glass cases from the “New” series was bought by art consultant Philippe Ségalot for $3.1 million, while Koons’s Wishing Well, a faux-Rococo gilded mirror from “Banality,” was rescued by Larry Gagosian for $1.1 million. The total was low compared with what Koons might have commanded in early 2008, but it still made a tidy profit for Taschen, who was able to quintuple his money on Vase of Flowers, which he had bought at auction for just less than $1 million in 2000.
If you usually sit in the salesroom, there is no better way to announce that you are selling than suddenly to opt for a skybox. Even the most seasoned sellers prefer to be surrounded by protective glass. So collector Peter Brant, whose divorce from Stephanie Seymour is daily gossip-column fodder, peered out of his private booth as Brother’s Sausage, a six-panel painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat with a heavy estimate of $9–12 million, failed to entice a single bid. His Tunafish Disaster by Warhol also failed to find a buyer.
Left: Christopher Burge, Christie's chief auctioneer. Right: Dealer Perry Rubenstein with director Sean Anderson.
The Mugrabi family had better luck. They consigned Warhol’s 1984 red and turquoise Michael Jackson, which sold for $812,500 to diamond dealer Laurence Graff, who was sitting in the front row as he always does. “The image is very sharp, and the colors are beautiful,” explained Graff. “I had dinners with Michael. It’s a good memento.” Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo quipped that it was important that the painting depicted the pop star from “his Thriller period, which everyone knows is his best.”
Meanwhile, Lio Malca, a cousin of the Mugrabis, had consigned an intensely expressive 1982 drawing by Basquiat, which, after fierce competition, sold for $3.1 million, a world auction record for a work on paper by the artist.
By the end of the sale, the auction house had sold thirty-nine of forty-six lots for $74.1 million, the lowest total for a Christie’s contemporary art evening since May 2003 and a marked contrast to the towering $325 million total of November 2007. However, in an economic climate in which every stock-market rise is suspected by some to be a “dead-cat bounce,” it was a solid, professional performance.
FOR HER OPENING last Thursday at Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street branch, Tracey Emin wore a tiny gold key on a chain around the plunging neckline of her silvery Vivienne Westwood frock. “It’s the key to my sense of humor,” Emin said, with a twist of a smile. We were standing in what David Maupin whispered was “the speakeasy,” aka the gallery’s basement, where champagne was flowing along with much bubbly talk. Upstairs in the main space, the title of Emin’s fourth solo turn in New York (“Only God Knows I’m Good”) glowed brilliant white in a neon sign hung near the thirty-foot ceiling, in that omniscient position reserved for benevolent gazes and lofty thoughts.
Below, it was friends-and-family night, as it is for most artists’ openings, but this is auction season in New York and the crowd of admirers had a more international cast than usual, accented by Italian, Russian, French, Polish, and Shafrazi. Emin’s crew from London included Tim Noble and Sue Webster, in town to install five of their works in the town house that architect David Adjaye has designed for collector Adam Lindemann, who was not present. Front and center, however, was the woman whom dealer Lorcan O’Neill called “our landlady,” Katy Esquilant, daughter of the proprietor of the Golden Heart, the Shoreditch pub that is a second home to artists in Emin’s East End ’hood. Some people never travel without their hairdressers. The English, of course, just bring their own fun.
But it was the Emin touch that carried the show with that sense of humor, taunting and tender at once. Like much of her work, the show plumbs the heights and depths of sex, love, and its absence in many drawings, both inked and sewn, and in a new backroom video animated from drawings of a woman masturbating that is, like much of the rest, about intense isolation and desperate longing. I spotted menswear designer Thom Browne going in as film producer Richard Brown was coming out. Parisian nightlife wunderkind André Saraiva was on the balcony, while on the floor Mera Rubell made a beeline for Piotr Uklanski, whose art she is hanging in Miami. “What’s this?” asked another a perplexed guest, eyeing two hat-tree-like poles facing off in the center of the gallery, one with a kind of skeletal lampshade on top. “It’s the subconscious,” Maupin shot back.
“What’s so brilliant about tonight is my show,” Emin said to loud cheers, during a short speech at the dinner at Wallse that followed the opening. There over a hundred sophisticates were compelled to stand throughout the evening, balancing small plates of scrumptious morsels in one hand, forks and drinks in the other. “Finger food!” Emin shouted. “What the fuck is that!” Actually, everyone knew, and took that as a cue to get down to serious partying (i.e., laughing and drinking) that included some discussion about Emin’s eminently spread-legged show.
Serious people say that art is not supposed to be this much fun, though most art worth looking at, including that made for the church, is really all about adoration and yearning. In fact, it seemed only fitting that a temple to hard-core Minimalism like the Dia Art Foundation chose the Church of the Intercession (across from Dia’s Hispanic Society outpost in Harlem) for its benefit gala on Friday. The event, which took place on the day of the foundation’s announcement that it would return to Chelsea after a five-year absence, was especially starry-eyed, though that may have been partly because actor James Franco was the benefit’s cochair (with San Francisco collector Frances Bowes, who was in animated conversation with Tate director Nicholas Serota, seated to her left).
Franco’s date was his grandmother from Cleveland, Mitzi Verne, who has been dealing in Japanese art for the past fifty-five years and claims to be the person who introduced textile designer Serizawa Keisuke (subject of the Japan Society’s current show) to the West. “James got his interest in art from me,” she said, beaming at her grandson, who was seated beside Art Production Fund’s Yvonne Force and otherwise accosted by photographers, reporters, and well-wishers requesting pictures, interviews, and personal attention.
Another James––Rosenquist––was at the next table, with Robert Longo, Ingrid Sischy, and Antony, the cherub-faced singer who had just returned from a year on the road and seemed very happy to relax out of the spotlight. Musician Arto Lindsay, appearing suddenly on a balcony high above the floor, started the proceedings with a virtuoso guitar performance that suggested cathedral-like spaces are really the most elevating venues for music, even the thrashing, dissonant kind.
“More artists should be on the boards of art institutions,” Dia curator Yasmil Raymond was telling Glenn Ligon, who had commented on the recent addition of Robert Ryman to Dia’s. Artists Matthew Barney, Zoe Leonard, Kalup Linzy, Tony Feher, and Paul McCarthy were liberally sprinkled among the 340 art personages, who also included Studio Museum chief Thelma Golden, White Columns’s Matthew Higgs, Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison, MoMA’s Kathy Halbreich, collectors George Aul and Beth Swofford, Art Basel’s Marc Spiegel, and PaceWildenstein’s Marc Glimcher, whose Twenty-second Street space, leased from Dia, will be razed to make room for a new building that Dia director Philippe Vergne promised would “disappear” behind future exhibitions and, with apologies to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, would be “a dream house for artists.”
“Dia belongs in Chelsea,” board chair Nathalie de Gunzburg told the crowd, which erupted in applause. “Nathalie helps me get through the day without putting my mouth in my foot,” Vergne quipped. After noting that it had taken his organization five years to land across the street from its previous address, Vergne went on to say that Dia had also acquired three thousand acres of New Mexico desert to protect Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field from any future development that might threaten its serenity.
Money seems to have returned to an art world that is behaving like a spurned lover who is only too happy to renegotiate the relationship on any terms. Yet all anyone in Chelsea talked about at the opening of Mike Kelley’s new show at Gagosian on Saturday night was the art on the walls. Yes, on the walls. “Masterful” was the prevailing judgment. Kelley made the paintings on his own, much like McCarthy did for his show of Snow White (or “White Snow”) drawings on view uptown at Hauser & Wirth. “After all these years of fabrication and working with others, it’s great to be alone in the studio again,” McCarthy said. Clearly an idea whose time has come.
Left: Dealer Amanda Wilkinson with artist Joan Jonas. Right: Artists Mike Kelley and Trulee Hall. (All photos: Amber De Vos/Patrick McMullan)
AS THE GLITTERY, moneyed mass of guests surged toward the open freight elevator Friday night on the fourth floor of X Initiative, it was difficult to escape metaphors involving lemmings and cliffs. Performa’s opening celebration, a made-to-be-eaten food installation by Jennifer Rubell (of, yes, those Rubells) called Creation, was all about quantity and consumption: a show of excess in a time of scarcity.
The elevator contained a tremendously stocked “DIY” bar. Guests needed only to pour, after grabbing one of thirty-six hundred drinking glasses—from goblets to jugs—and scooping out some ice from a giant heap slowly melting on its white platform and onto the concrete floor. Think Allan Kaprow’s Fluids. Sort of.
“Welcome to flu season,” choreographer Will Rawls quipped, digging into the ice with a big grin. “The only thing missing is a giant vat of Purell.”
True, though there were wet naps on the next floor, along with two thousand pounds of ribs. And shoulder-high rubber gloves on the floor below that, the better to fish cookies from vats of confectioners’ sugar. “For it to be really cool, it should have been a big mound of cocaine,” the artist and event designer Avi Adler pointed out. (Where’s Rob Pruitt when you need him?) But chef Mario Batali was in heaven.
Left: Amanda Burden, Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, and Michael Stipe. Right: Chef Mario Batali.
“I am profoundly happy,” Batali said, tucking into his ribs at the end of one of five long tables on the middle floor. He was beaming, resplendent in an orange shirt to match his Crocs and ponytail. “Half the people here look like they haven’t had a good meal in a month. That said, they’re getting one tonight.”
There were lots of tall, suspiciously skinny people in black (“high festive” attire, indeed). But designer Kai Kuhne was observed three-plating it on the ribs floor, while nearby, artist Mike Kelley was sneaking off with a mostly full bottle of vodka tucked under one arm and the flimsy excuse of not having a glass.
As designed by Rubell, each multifaceted level of the installation was meant to be participatory and communal; the movable feast, which Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg called “beyond her wildest dreams,” spent an hour on every floor, and also included three harvested apple trees, a ceiling unit dripping honey onto the ribs, and water coolers full of wine. The focused frenzy of the bar was really just a grander interpretation of what takes place at gallery openings all over this great city, but things got more interesting nearby in the one-ton pile of peanuts roasted in the shell when various people took it upon themselves to dive into the mound, from Alan Cumming to Performa board member Illya Szilak, who tried unsuccessfully to entice another woman into a bout of peanut hurling.
“She didn’t understand the Futurist aesthetic, which was all about food fights,” sighed Szilak’s husband, Chris Vroom, referring to the biennial’s current theme. “This isn’t a food fight, it’s an art event.” (Cindy Sherman, accompanied by beau David Byrne, had another take: “People are a little too dressed up for fighting.”)
Left: Collector Mera Rubell with friend. Right: Actor Penn Badgley.
The food got raves, but as art Creation earned mixed ratings. Some attendees questioned the clarity of Rubell’s vision in a way that recalled how Goldberg’s program of commissioning visual artists to dip into live art—with decidedly mixed results—has drawn skeptical grumbles below the enthusiastic cheers.
Still, Performa always seems to give people something to talk about, and skepticism can be as productive as enthusiasm. But what to make of the most engrossing and disturbing performative encounter of the night, involving collector Mera Rubell and a Jacques Torres chocolate facsimile of Jeff Koons’s blow-up bunny sculpture—the only one of seven that hadn’t been smashed by provided hammers? Claiming her three-year-old granddaughter had asked that this bunny be licked, not beaten, the collector put her tongue to work, cozying up to every camera within view.
“Mera’s really having her moment,” one woman commented wryly.
Jennifer Rubell: “That’s my mother.”
“That’s it, I have to go,” a third observer said, her eyes widening.
Luckily, of course, there was an afterparty in the offing. Perhaps the rabbit went, too.
Left: Jennifer Rubell. Right: The bar.
“WHEN I HEARD ABOUT Rob Pruitt Presents: The First Annual Art Awards, I thought it was a joke” was a sentiment I heard several times amid the glamorous crowd sipping champagne last Thursday at the Guggenheim. It felt like a scene in a Woody Allen movie (as does most of my life). Sponsored by Calvin Klein and featuring a bona fide––though teensy––red carpet (where Yvonne Force and Doreen Remen of the Art Production Fund fussed delightedly in front of the cameras), one felt the frisson of history in the making that people of yore must have sensed at the advent of the Golden Globes (a model for the festivities, according to presenter Matthew Higgs). Or social commentary like The Gong Show. I must confess, thanks to Pruitt’s unprecedented breadth of vision, I broke my red-carpet cherry, holding his steady hand while I did my best impression of a deer in headlights (and rued privately that I hadn’t combed out my hair since I scrammed out of my apartment with a wet head. Damn!). But enough about moi. The whole event hit the perfect head-scratchingly “meta” note.
Indeed, it was the cool lunch table of the art world celebrating itself. The well-executed, Academy Awards–like event tried its best to twit its own insiderness—and muddy the waters between players and wannabes—with MCs the Delusional Downtown Divas. Videos featuring these “three art brats trying hard to be effortless” as they attempt to crash “the art scene” were the ceremony’s connective tissue. The trio of “kids who grew up stealing pretzels from Leo Castelli’s kitchen” (quaint!) now “bunk together in Peter Halley’s TriBeCa loft” as they work their family contacts and their “delusory” entitlement to art-world validation as their shtick—a self-reflexive loop significantly enhanced by this swanky gig, no doubt—to the dismay of equally ambitious though less well-connected wannabes everywhere.
Left: Critic Jerry Saltz with Art Production Fund's Yvonne Force Villareal. Right: Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector with artist Maurizio Cattelan. (Photo: Roger Kisby)
Anyway. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Pruitt who could put his name on a shindig like this and manage not to make it about his ego. With his twinkly, human-size penguin tableaux waddling up the ramp behind the podium to playfully echo the dressed-up crowd and his deft casting choices, Pruitt’s first go at founding a tradition felt strikingly inclusive. Even if no women were nominated as Writer of the Year, the ladies were well represented elsewhere: Joan Jonas (in a fierce white bob) received a Lifetime Achievement Award; Mary Heilmann relished her Artist of the Year moment and crowed “I own this place!” like a champ in a Pucci-esque sheath. In keeping with the star-fucker theme (an implicit tribute to Warhol’s superstars), the best intervention into the archive was the Rob Pruitt Award to Cynthia Plaster Caster—the gal who raised groupieness to Art through her oeuvre of plaster-cast famous-rocker penises. She even toted along her Jimi Hendrix “trophy” like a fashion accessory, waving the plaster member overhead as she received her award:
“I’m a show-off and a name-dropper. That’s what groupies are known for. This here is Jimi Hendrix”—waves him overhead to cheers from the classy crowd—“not at full capacity!”
Pruitt suggested this would be a good night to cast him: “My penis has never been bigger.” (More cheers.)
“I wanna thank you, doll, very much,” beamed Cynthia. “I am really excited about adding your large or small penis to my collection. I dedicate this to Frank Zappa—he called celebrity dicks an art form. Stay hard!”
The smattering of “real” celebrities like Kylie Minogue, Julianne Moore, and the Twilight guy seemed oddly superfluous. “A key moment to me was Klaus [Biesenbach] getting down on his knee to Kylie,” I overheard. “How proud our little art world was to have a few fairly minor celebrities presenting. James Franco waiting in his car outside, not really wanting to mingle with art-world types before he comes in and almost flubs his three lines. Pretty obvious how absurd [pathetic?] any idea of parity with the big cultural heavyweights like film, TV, and music is . . .”
Upstaging the “pros,” my favorite presenter couple was Kembra Pfahler (of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black)—attired in her birthday suit, pasty blue body paint, a humongous matted black wig, and blacked-out teeth—and her “date,” Jeffrey Deitch, who, as always, looked dapper and pleased as punch. Pfahler was the perfect foil for the entire room. It was hilarious to watch the postapocalyptic apparition table-hopping like a weird nude Muppet.
I mistook New York Times style writer David Colman for Jack Pierson: “Everyone does that.” Colman himself has a disorder where he can’t remember anybody’s name, so he calls them “Steve” or “Wendy.” “The ‘Steves’ never mind,” he marveled in a natty burnt-sienna suit perfectly set off by a teal velvet bow tie. Artforum’s Knight Landesman, too, sported deep-persimmon-colored haberdashery. While I’m usually bored by men’s fashion, yet another inspired look was a chap from the Met with flowing white hair, fabulously turned out in plum velvet. When I wasn’t checking everyone out or reading along with the teleprompter that scripted every bit of patter, I would gaze up in wonder at the Modern Icon that spiraled overhead and seemed to entomb us in its belly like tables full of Jonahs, schmoozing away in this Frank Lloyd Wright–designed whale of Art World Prestige. “The museum belongs to everyone and no one,” noted Kaspar König (in the tribute video for his Lifetime Achievement Award).
As Calvin Klein Collection New Artist of the Year, Ryan Trecartin bounded up to “thank my parents and Elizabeth Dee. It’s more than just a dealer,” he gushed. “I mean, I love it!” Eyes were rolling. The person next to me received a text: “Tell me Ryan Trecartin did not just win!” “The art world is so fragmented,” mused an artist at my table. “If they’re making this like the Oscars, it’s weird to make the art world seem centralized when it’s not. . . . And the awards are based on [just] this year . . .”
Someone else gave me the whole megillah about how controversial some people found the event. People “voting against their friends—with their consent—to spare them the embarrassment of receiving such an award . . .”
“What happened to the art world?” asked another observer. “If they can’t simultaneously mock and partake of a cultural phenomenon [like awards shows]—what’s the F–ing point? The question to ask is, What took so long?”