THE ANNUAL MONUMENTA EXHIBITION at Paris’s Grand Palais is the opportunity, on today’s international scene, for singular artistic exercises of unfettered, state-funded grandiosity within walls. Given the proportions of the venue (Cathedral of Industry, etc.), getting up to scale is the a priori challenge here. For Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra, the first two Monumentalists, this particular defi was catnip. Never mind that whole sections of French highway had to be closed off for the perilous transport of unprecedented lengths of uncut steel (Serra), or that Bill Katz, an architect-designer of near-mythic sensitivity to artists, was enlisted to build discrete buildings-within-the building in order to subdue the daunting space (Kiefer). At their openings, you could almost hear purring in the vaulted nave, and their dealer-sponsored opening parties—a full-tilt, celebrity-studded bacchanalia in a huge, ramshackle club under a bridge and along a quay of the Seine for Kiefer; a big corporate-style dinner at a dull and fancy restaurant for Serra—were victory, or takeover, celebrations.
Christian Boltanski, the current Monumentalist, is a different sort of cat. He is first of all un chat—indeed the next occupant, as was recently announced, of the French pavilion at the fifty-fourth Venice Biennale, in 2011—and the opening of his epic installation, “Personnes,” was therefore catnip for French bureau-cats and museum officials, who were out in force on a frigorifique January night, to be counted and, most adamantly, to eat—but more about food in a moment.
First, the weather: To complain about the current, frigid season in Paris would be not only bad form but redundant. It is always cold in the Grand Palais, which anyone who has attended FIAC (the annual art fair held there in October), or who has experienced the previous Monumenta exhibitions (both in spring), will confirm. That Boltanski, who surely knows this, insisted on deep winter for this show, tells you something right off the bat. His familiar gestaltkunstwerk—a Holocaust-evoking message of life, death, memory, dispossession, identity, and the subliminal whiff of humankind—reveals itself here as a series of big, steamy exhalations, in his potent and limited visual syntax of unidentified photo-portraits, uninhabited clothing, unlabeled rusting biscuit tins, and low-tech lights.
Left: Artist Giuseppe Penone, Marian Goodman Gallery's Agnès Fierobe, and collector Sylvie Winckler. Right: A view of the dinner for Christian Boltanski's opening for Monumenta. (Photos: Didier Plowy)
A wall of the biscuit tins, impeccably stacked, is the first installation element the visitor comes on when entering, and it functions as a curtain does within a proscenium. In the theater of personnes, which translates as both “persons” and “nobodies,” the clothing has the upper hand. The work comprises sixty-nine neatly rectangular “plots” of strewn garments, measuring three by five meters each and arrayed three-deep, framed by rigged lighting posts. The effect is eerily hydroponic, as if the clothes were meant to grow people. And perhaps to inspire hope for this unlikely outcome, there is the ubiquitous, reverberant thump-thump, thump-thump of sixty-nine individual recorded human heartbeats, part of the artist’s ongoing global project, Archives du Coeur, which as of July will have a home in Japan, on the interior-sea island of Teshima, in a development managed by the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. (You can visit a sound booth at the Grand Palais—also at MAC/VAL, the contemporary art museum in Vitry, just outside Paris, where “Après,” the Halloween-ish coda to “Personnes,” is on view through March 28—and add your own cardio thump to the archive; blank CDs may be purchased on-site for take-home copies.)
Beyond the “germinating” allotments, a big but not quite big enough pyramidal clothing heap looms within an apse, near some of the building’s spectacular structural flourishes, holding its overall shape despite the continuous munching and tossing motions of a towering, brontosaurus-like digger crane.
Mood-busting though it was, the crane proved a trustworthy harbinger of dinner, or more precisely the dinners of parallel worlds in the Palais de la Découverte, around the corner. The cocktail dinatoire honoring “Personnes,” in that building’s rotunda lobby, was the (alas) rather typical French more or less official affair: At once hectic and desultory; no toasts, no sense of occasion, no real conviviality; just pretty good food (risotto and ragout for the wintry night) and pretty good drink, along with the sight of the bureauchats elbowing heedlessly and hunkering down with their cronies and their plates. We chatted for a while with a fellow outsider, Anthony McCall, the New York–based British graphic designer and conceptual light artist, who was in town for a group show at the Martine Aboucaya gallery. He was headed for London and meetings about his project in Liverpool, scheduled for the 2012 Summer Olympics. McCall introduced us to Jean-Hubert Martin, the original as well as independent curator (1989’s “Magiciens de la terre” and last year’s “Une Image peut en cacher une autre” at the Grand Palais)—and French-pavilion commissioner for the next Venice Biennale.
Left: A dinosaur. (Photo: Lisa Liebmann) Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and artist James Coleman. (Photo: Didier Plowy)
But mostly it was us and the dinosaurs—literally. The current attraction at the Palais de la Découverte, concerning the diets of some of the better-known dinos, and involving a goodly number of fetching automatons, as well as an international committee of paleontologists, had been kept open during the Boltanski event. One could even walk around these Cretaceous zones champagne glass in hand. The Bistrot de la Jurassique was the entertaining conceit of the display, and only somewhat figuratively speaking, we sat down at a red-checkered table for two, to relax for a moment and experience our own winter-weary thump-thump.
TWO ISSUES dominated the Chris Ofili private view at Tate Britain on Tuesday. The first involved headgear, or rather, the abundance of outlandish hats worn by art-world figures at the wintery Millbank bash––from Peter Doig’s brown and yellow bobbled creation to Jeremy Deller’s lurid green and pink combination. The other pressing concern was Ofili’s latest works, on view in the last two rooms of his midcareer survey, which prompted wildly diverse opinions from the party floor. The electric colors and expressive figurative forms of these denuded works, stripped of elephant dung and jewels, reflect the spirituality of Trinidad. “Are these meant to be ‘transitional’?” one caustic commentator asked. Others were quick to praise paintings such as the Death & the Roses, 2009, and The Healer, 2008, an opaque portrait of a nocturnal figure eating poui flowers.
Artist Grayson Perry, dressed like a provincial primary school headmistress in unusually somber (for him) garb, was particularly effusive. Standing transfixed before Mono Rojo, 1999–2002, in the museum’s shrinelike Upper Room, Perry declared Ofili the best colorist. “It’s like a musician having perfect pitch,” he said. Further accolades were forthcoming from musician Peter Adjaye. “I want to live in here,” he confessed dreamily, adding that he’s working on a sound installation for “Urban Africa,” a forthcoming geocultural survey of fifty-three African countries at London’s Design Museum, curated by his brother David (who, coincidentally, designed the Upper Room). The headline-hitting architect himself just happened to be around the corner and confirmed that the continental African tour had indeed kept him on his toes.
Left: Architect David Adjaye. Right: Tate Liverpool director Christoph Grunenberg and Stephen Snoddy, director of the New Art Gallery Walsall.
Just then, art critic Ben Lewis strolled past, proclaiming Ofili “the Gustav Klimt of the twenty-first century.” Ofili’s dealers Victoria Miro and David Zwirner were within earshot and no doubt lapped up the double-edged assessment. As the crowd thinned, artists Marlene Dumas, Mark Wallinger, and Isaac Julien circled the meager bowls of macadamia nuts. Yinka Shonibare, meanwhile, remained tight-lipped about his forthcoming fourth-plinth commission in Trafalgar Square, a scale replica of Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory, in a giant glass bottle. “It’s challenging,” he finally conceded. Ofili himself was similarly shy, though his Trinidad-based compatriot Doig was happy to impart that fifteen Trinidadians had made the trip over to London, including “artists, writers, and social workers,” adding: “Ofili’s work gets better and better.”
A convoy of black cabs laden with the Tate glitterati then sped across town for the afterparty in the plush surroundings of the Bloomsbury Ballroom. On arrival, hungry partygoers eagerly quaffed the cocktails and sniffed around for hints of canapés. Food failed to appear, but there were still plenty of encomiums in the air (all for Ofili, fortunately). The opinionated British actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah was on hand in a fetching black porkpie hat, waxing lyrical. “Am I a fan of Ofili’s work?” he hollered. “I’m an addict. He speaks for my generation.” Just over his shoulder, I spotted Francis Outred, Christie’s contemporary art supremo, and the Texan collector Kenny Goss, who was sure to plug his new ten-thousand-square-foot Goss-Michael (as in George Michael, Goss’s partner) Foundation space in Dallas, set to open autumn 2011. The new gallery will house the couple’s impressive Brit art collection with works by more than thirty UK artists (Ofili, of course, included). And what will be the inaugural show? “Probably a greatest-hits display,” he pondered.
ABUNDANT ICE AND A –25°C CHILL pretty much precluded stilettos, but it didn’t stop a crowd of nearly five thousand fur-clad visitors from descending on last Friday’s opening of concurrent solo shows (Sergey Bratkov and Subodh Gupta) at the PinchukArtCentre. When asked to explain the connection between the artists, collector Victor Pinchuk noted a “spiritual synonymity” between the respective exhibition titles: “Ukraine” (Bratkov) and “Faith Matters” (Gupta).
An unofficial retrospective, Bratkov’s exhibition culminates a three-year process that began when the artist was tapped for the PAC-administrated Ukrainian pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. (Incidentally, Bratkov represented Russia four years prior, in the fiftieth Biennale.) Bratkov—born in Kharkov, but long since relocated to Moscow—is frequently caught between dueling claims on his nationality. When Pinchuk asked the artist whether he considers himself Russian or Ukrainian, Bratkov simply shrugged: “Me? I’m Jewish.”
The show might not answer any more questions, but that’s not to say it’s shy. It opens with a self-portrait of the artist, his mournful eyes staring out from a face covered in shaving cream. The photograph is placed at an angle that mischievously corresponds to an image of a girl reclining on a rock with her skirt hiked. In keeping with Bratkov’s gentle, sexually soaked humor, the attention seems less directed at the girl’s impressive grooming and more at the large black fly perched nonchalantly on her labia. A sweet sadness permeates even his most provocative work, including the 2000 series “Kids,” with its images of a forlorn eight-year-old boy in an elaborate women’s one-piece or a sultry seven-year-old, legs spread, cigarette in hand.
“Faith Matters” is more reserved, contained to a relatively spare selection of five sculptures and twelve new paintings. Thanks to the record lows outside, the center’s exhibition spaces were at least 10 degrees colder than usual, making Gupta’s assemblages of metal pots and pans seem even chillier and more pristine (and not entirely unlike one of the magnificent ice formations sheeting the city sidewalks and waterspouts). Visitors stayed bundled in their coats as they circled Faith Matters, the conveyor-belt metropolis—built from towers of cookware set atop revolving sushi platters—which gave the exhibition its title, or as they perused a suite of paintings depicting falling pots as slick puddles of silver and beige.
Gupta makes a dramatic departure from the pots and pans with the startling Cosmic Battle, a large sculpture of a victorious Hindu goddess bearing down on a demon, her ten arms wielding a bevy of weapons limned in light. The goddess’s flickering neon would have been a great addition to the center’s top-floor SkyArtCafe, where a DJ booth and flavored vodkas attracted a mainly younger crowd, including curator Kateryna Taylor and artist Janna Kadyrova, as well as Katya Bochavar and Vladimir Troitsky, directors of Gogolfest, the annual alternative performance festival, which promises to be the city’s premier cultural event in September.
The opening was followed by a quiet dinner at the new restaurant behind the PAC, which boasted works by Pinchuk favorites Masha Shubina and Ilya Chichkan, as well as a view of the plaza once home to Damien Hirst’s shark tanks (now an ice-skating rink). The tiny tables and revolving plates of finger food made for an intimate vibe, encouraging good-natured couch hopping among the fifty guests. Critic Katya Degot and curators Teresa Mavica, Olga Sviblova, and Julie Sylvester sipped wine by the piano, while Bratkov threw back vodka shots at the bar with PAC curator Alexander Soloviev and the artist’s longtime friend and dealer Vladimir Ovcharenko. Dealers June Y. Gwak, Fabienne LeClerc, and Lorenzo Fiaschi traded artist tips over (and sometimes in exchange for) appetizers, while across the room, dealer Peter Nagy held court with the Hauser & Wirth contingent. At the same table, Gupta sat hunched over in a fit of artistic inspiration, as he sketched an ad hoc portrait of the impossibly vivacious collector Mimi Dusselier on his dinner napkin.
Even after the wine stopped flowing, there was still plenty of vodka, the drink of choice when bracing oneself for a bad decision—quite possibly the only kind of decision available in a city where the sole postmidnight entertainment option is a casino. Well, there were a few other options. Discouraged by the $700 per-head cash deposit at the Premiere casino, an ardent few pushed onward and upward to another establishment, where for the more modest $25 entry fee one could enjoy bottles of champagne (starting price: $350) and the talents of what had to be the world’s most melancholic erotic dancers.
The majority of the group made a polite show of ignoring the entertainment, turning their backs to the stage and forcing conversation about upcoming art fairs. Not to be deterred, one dancer––surprisingly lithe on nine-inch platforms––made a determined effort to catch a dealer’s attention. He smiled gamely, “Darling, you have the wrong man here. But I love your shoes!” As the girl sulked off, another dealer flashed me a nervous look and reached for his champagne glass. Suffice to say, the next day’s roundtable discussion was full of knowing smiles and conspicuous absences.
Left: Curator Kateryna Taylor. Right: Collectors Bernard Soens and Mimi Dusselier with Peter Doroshenko. (Photos: Kate Sutton)
THE FRONT COVER of Isabelle Graw’s new book, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, may sport an image of Madonna with her arm slung around a tux-clad Andy Warhol, but there was precious little glamour in evidence at the volume’s Thursday-night launch. The Goethe-Institut’s intimate Wyoming Building in the East Village was instead packed beyond capacity with a mob of neat, earnest young grad students, a sprinkling of the esteemed theoretician’s high-powered colleagues, and—intriguingly—Miami supercollectors Donald and Mera Rubell. Onstage, Graw was joined by art historian Thomas Crow, drafted to interrogate the Texte zur Kunst cofounder at length following her own presentation. Offstage, she was observed with characteristically hawklike intensity by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and partner, seated up front on chairs that arrived at the last minute with strict instructions to leave well alone.
Goethe-Institut director Gabriele Becker introduced the speakers, pinning the crowd’s size on the fact that Graw was a “brand name” (raised eyebrows from Graw) “very well known in New York.” Beginning stiffly but gradually warming to her theme, Graw outlined a view of the contemporary art market as a “dialectical unity of opposites” or “double game” in which financial value and symbolic value continued to assert their own autonomy while to all intents and purposes operating as a codependent pair. “The justification for ‘price’ is art’s ‘pricelessness,’” she exclaimed by way of example, eliciting a wave of gentle laughter from the crowd. “Is that funny?” she asked in response, seeming genuinely surprised. Arguing that the market had helped pave the way for the current proliferation of branded luxury goods, but also that the hyping of new international art-world capitals was as yet unjustified, Graw observed that “the market is a net enclosing the social,” adding a cheeky reminder that “every net has its holes.”
According to Graw, now growing more emphatic by the minute, the term art is “inherently evaluative” and has never been “an economy-free zone.” Nevertheless, she continued, the special status first claimed for it in the eighteenth century (by Kant et al.) was at least partially justified. “I refuse to believe in art as a mythic unity,” she vowed, “but I do credit some examples with a high degree of epistemological potential.” Any artists in attendance might be forgiven for having felt like the targets of some faint praise indeed, at least until Graw’s belated concession that “artists inject life into things.” “Far be it from me to spread cultural pessimism,” she continued, “I try to designate potential spaces for action.” But wholehearted embrace of celebrity culture was not, she concluded, one such way.
With nary a pause (why bother, since the crammed room was virtually inescapable?), Crow leaned in to press Graw on her purported dissociation from “the lament of cultural critique” (Graw responded that she was attempting to break with the apocalyptic tendency of her Frankfurt School forebears) and to question her dismissal of Jeff Koons as an artist coasting on critical props earned for an earlier body of work. “Pinault, Gagosian, Jacques Chirac,” she spat back. “That’s the exclusive VIP art world in which Koons circulates these days. The ‘Banality’ series was his best because it really broke with the idea that art has a ‘rescuing’ function.” Asked about Koons’s flirtation with celebrity, she lumped him in with “the Britpop artists” (presumably the YBAs, unless Damon Albarn has branched out) and rubbished his ass-kissing strategy: “He smiles into every camera! I’m more interested in artists who refuse such expositions or who try to negotiate their relationship to these conditions in a more dialectical fashion.” But—to Crow’s and the audience’s frustration—she refused to name names. “Read the book,” she plugged.
After some perhaps too quick dilations on the varying power and “impotence” of the critic (“There could be a relation between the poverty—the pathetic fees—and one’s credibility”), they arrived at the Q&A. Some unusually serious—and, in one case, comically long-winded and self-serving—questions from the floor saw Graw emphasize that “the market may still allow some freedom” and declare that, “for me, heteronomy is written large.” Queries came and went and Graw refined her position minutely, but one particular voice from the front row wasn’t about to let her have it all her own way. “Not all practices in the past twenty years succumb to your diagnosis; some maintain criticality,” thundered Buchloh. “To what degree is the totalizing nature of your diagnosis handicapping us from constructing alternate oppositional forms of cultural practice?” Graw, somewhat flustered: “I don’t subscribe to a totalizing view. There is, if you read the third chapter, optimism in my approach! I insist on the possibility to reject these conditions, without denying that they reach into my own practice. I . . . claim . . . agency! Hopefully.”
VALLEJO GANTNER, artistic director of Performance Space 122, stood in his institution’s upstairs theater before a group of industry insiders last Monday. He smiled. “Those of you who aren’t from New York—we can’t wait for you to leave. We’re tired.”
There was a pause. Gantner’s colleagues laughed. He didn’t add “Just kidding.”
So goes APAP, the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference. While most industries are just beginning to shake off their holiday lethargy, the performing arts are in full, frenetic overdrive.
There are panel discussions, meet and greets, parties. And performances––more than any army could see––as everyone peddles their wares, often on sampler showcases that offer excerpts from recent works. You can’t move during the long weekend (this year’s fell from January 8 to 12, with some offerings running longer) without bumping into a dazed artist or a harried, lanyard-draped presenter.
“A room full of opportunity, if only I knew where to look,” the choreographer Megan Sprenger sighed during one event, scanning the crowd. She added, “We’ve been joking about selling a ‘Presenter ID’ book with hidden-camera shots of all the important people.”
Left: Under the Radar festival founder Mark Russell, associate producer Meiyin Wang, and artist Doris Mirescu. Right: A view of National Theater of the United States of America’s Chautauqua!
During conferences past, a critic—particularly one interested in the sort of progressive work that rarely makes it outside New York—could sit back comfortably, watching the feeding frenzy unfold around snippets of shows she had already seen. But in recent years, the more adventuresome contemporary houses have begun mobilizing, offering their own fully produced festivals or even anti-APAP events, all of which has only exacerbated the industry clusterfuck. Six years ago, Mark Russell launched the Under the Radar festival for contemporary theater. P.S. 122 followed suit in 2006 with the interdisciplinary COIL, and HERE Arts Center has its Culturemart resident-artist offerings, which fall just after APAP.
And this year, a new player emerged: the American Realness dance festival, produced by arts representative Ben Pryor through his nascent management venture, tbspMGMT. In the fine tradition of agitators, Pryor announced American Realness by offering a rebuttal to Michael Kaiser’s Huffington Post assessment of dance in this country, in which the Kennedy Center president wondered “which companies will have the wherewithal––both artistic and financial––to do justice to” modern-dance “masterpieces” that preceded them, seemingly unaware that the art form long ago moved on from the very models over which he waxed nostalgic.
Pryor’s challenging festival, featuring eight artists at the Abrons Arts Center, included Last Meadow, Miguel Gutierrez’s powerful dance-theater interrogation of American culture, and another ribald “solo” by the polarizing performance artist Ann Liv Young. APAP forces viewers into tough choices, and I was unable to see Young’s apparently, er, colorful show involving blueberries pulled from her nether cavity, her menstrual blood (or at least its appearance), and an exchange with a Kitchen curator in which she called the institution out for supposedly ending, or at least taking a break from, presenting her work. (“I’m not trying to talk sass,” she argued. “I’m just being direct.”)
Left: A view of Jeremy Wade’s there is no end to more.
Earl Dax, an independent producer and curator, detailed what I’d missed while we waited for an American Realness–affiliated show, Jeremy Wade’s one-night stand at Japan Society, in a packed audience that included Gutierrez, Pryor, Gantner, Luciana Achugar (another American Realness choreographer), and Crossing the Line curators Simon Dove and Lili Chopra. The inevitable Young debate—“Is she a crazy bitch or just adept at manipulating a public persona?”—ensued. The latter, Dax claimed. “Although I certainly do love the crazy bitches.”
More mainstream fare could be found at Under the Radar at the Public Theater. Locals like Brian Rogers of the interdisciplinary Long Island City theater the Chocolate Factory and Brad Learmonth of Harlem Stage were joined by out-of-town luminaries like the Walker Art Center’s Philip Bither, to name just a few. Cathy Edwards, the artistic force behind both New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas and PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival (she succeeded Russell and now has one hundred thousand dollars to play with from the Warhol Foundation), poked fun at the small circles in which she and her colleagues travel.
“Scooped again!” she laughed, after detailing how, at yet another festival, she’d approached the hot young Polish director Radoslaw Rychcik about getting him to the US only to hear his and Teatr Nowy’s Versus—In the Jungle of Cities had been nabbed by Russell for UtR. No matter; a highly informal poll concluded that Edwards dodged a major bullet. (Andy Horwitz, Culturebot.org’s intrepid founder, summed things up: “I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.”)
This year, there was some general head scratching over Russell’s biggest-ever lineup, which included veterans like Anne Bogart’s SITI Company and Ping Chong and lacked a defining curatorial vision. But the truth is that UtR is an establishment force at this point, more mini–BAM Next Wave than rebellious upstart. Yet it still provides a wide platform for new international work (Philippe Quesne’s L’Effet de Serge charmed just about everyone) and rising local companies.
Of the latter was the National Theater of the United States of America’s Chautauqua!, a copresentation with COIL. NTUSA had an acclaimed run at P.S. 122 last spring, but we live in a time when touring opportunities are all too scarce for indie performance works, especially those that aren’t proven box-office draws for a wide audience.
Short runs may sell out (like Chautauqua!), but return engagements can be hard to come by. With a few shining exceptions like Edwards, American presenters aren’t exactly a risk-taking species, and current economic realities certainly haven’t done anything to reverse the trend toward safe, milquetoast programming. But institutions have to catch up with artists at some point, right?
WITH MANY SHOWS held over from last year, the lingering vacuum of the recession, and the unbelievably frigid weather, there was an eerie quiet to the windswept streets of Chelsea last Wednesday night, when the Robert Miller Gallery opened the new decade’s art season with “Patti Smith and Steven Sebring: Objects of Life.”
Inside, the atmosphere was different. A huge press of overcooked fans surrounded Smith, Sebring, and movie star Jessica Lange as they huddled for a photo op. Calvin Klein stood nearby talking to friends. Filmmaker Albert Maysles sat in a chair by the reception desk, defining the word nachas for a non-Yiddish-speaking acquaintance. Photographer Edward Mapplethorpe and artist-writer Jack Walls kept their own counsel in the gallery vestibule, and Ryan McGinley appeared, one wrist in a cast and the other in a rehabilitative black glove. “Snowboarding,” he explained, adding that the accident happened in New Hampshire while he was shooting winter Olympians for the New York Times Magazine. So much for throwing yourself into your work.
Smith broke from the crowd to squire Michael Stipe around the exhibition, itself an ode to self-mythology and her other heroes, Robert Mapplethorpe and Arthur Rimbaud. It includes Twombly-esque drawings, large-format photographs (by Sebring) of relics of Smith’s life on the road, and installations of actual relics, like Mapplethorpe’s monogrammed Belgian slippers, Smith’s old typewriter and a few of her favorite books (Joan of Arc), as well as photographs Smith made with her vintage Polaroid Land camera. How did she come by so much of the discontinued film? “I ordered ahead,” she said.
A buffet dinner at Betsy Wittenborn-Miller’s spacious East End Avenue apartment followed, attended by a St. Barts–tanned Klaus Biesenbach, Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, biographer Brad Gooch, and Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith Group’s ever-affable guitarist. Biesenbach had just moved into two new offices, one at MoMA, where he has Kynaston McShine’s old job as curator at large, and the other at P.S. 1, where he now holds Alanna Heiss’s job as director. Is he going to make changes there? “Yes,” he said. “What do you think I should do?” he asked. Where do we start?
Quietude returned over the following three evenings, when most receptions were on the cozy side and art took center stage. On Thursday, Mary Boone gave over her Fifth Avenue aerie to Keith Sonnier, a post-Minimalist star who more recently has been making neon sculptures either large as a government building or small enough to hang in a closet. (All the wall works here seemed gay.) The opening attracted seasoned contemporaries like Barry Le Va, Joe Zucker, and curator Klaus Kertess, Boone’s onetime mentor. “This show really looks good,” Kertess said. And he ought to know: He installed it.
“We actually sold eight pictures tonight,” dealer Howard Read told William Eggleston at the dinner following his opening at Cheim & Read, where the deadpan photographer, three sheets to the wind, literally held court in a back room, signing autographs between pulls on the ever-present cigarette in one leather-gloved hand. Film producer and Eggleston Trust executive director Cotty Chubb stood over his charge, directing traffic, while photographer Terry Richardson, camera in hand, seemed fixed to the spot. “I can’t take my eyes off him,” Richardson said. “That is the most elegant man I’ve ever seen.”
Left: Artist Ryan McGinley. Right: Artist Juergen Teller with curator Diego Cortez.
At the dinner, Eggleston was seated between collector Sondra Gilman and Elisabeth Sussman, curator of the recent Eggleston retrospective at the Whitney Museum (opening at the Art Institute of Chicago next month). Near midnight, when Gilman went home, Juergen Teller leaped to her place, reminiscing about the time he buddied up with Eggleston for a picture-taking tour of Teller’s native Bavaria. “We never even took out our cameras,” Eggleston said. “We had a beautiful time.”
Friday evening it was back to Chelsea again, where dealer Tim Nye greeted Christophe de Menil, Dia director Philippe Vergne, and many other frozen swells spilling from the icy chill outside into David Zwirner Gallery, suddenly a temple to Minimalism. (An enveloping installation of pink, white, and sun-gold Dan Flavin fluorescents remains on view in another space there, too.) The main event was “Primary Atmospheres: Works from California 1960–1970,” which Nye, working from an early obsession with Robert Irwin, had put together with Zwirner director Kristine Bell.
The surprise was how unimpressive the Irwins looked against unfamiliar Light and Space pieces by lesser-known artists like DeWain Valentine, Laddie John Dill, Helen Pashgian, and Craig Kauffman, whose pink and green plastic scroll is the exhibition’s hands-down winner. “I could do thirty shows with this kind of stuff,” Nye said of the art––long neglected by New York. “So much of it is still in the hands of the artists.”
There was no getting close to over sixteen hundred unique postcards displayed on the walls of ZieherSmith Gallery, so dense was the throng at Visual AIDS’s annual “Postcards from the Edge!” benefit preview, where well-muscled drag queens tended bar and sold raffle tickets. Most amusing. From there, I took a swing through Bortolami Gallery for Brit Peter Peri’s first show in New York (of low-register/high-priced paintings) and Les Roger’s choco-brown landscapes at Leo Koenig, before landing at Luhring Augustine for Londoner William Daniels’s first appearance here, with fetching semiabstract paintings of crumpled aluminum objects carried off with Duchampian flair.
Despite the resolutely bad news in the world outside art, spirits remained high during the twelve-course meal the gallery gave for Daniels around the corner at Izakaya Ten. At my end of the table, Daniels and his girlfriend, artist Lisa Penny, were seated with curators Matthew Higgs and João Ribas, and conversation ranged from the iconoclast musician/painter/writer Billy Childish (whom Higgs is bringing to White Columns in March) and the reality show Jersey Shore to the thirty thousand artists living in Hackney, to the (then) fevered rumors of Jeffrey Deitch’s imminent appointment to the helm of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art—the only good news on tap. Astonishment all around.
By Saturday, convinced that art was not as dead as the frozen streets, I ventured out once again in search of a hubbub by which to warm myself. Sharon Hayes was performing a piece at X Initiative that will be part of her video installation in the forthcoming Whitney Biennial. Jerry Saltz was “killing time,” as he put it, at Andrew Kreps. Decor artist Virgil Marti was front and center at his opening at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, the proprietor of which was swooning over the trompe l’oeil swag curtaining her walls. And at reliquary-filled Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Mark Dion and Jeffrey Vallance looked like a match made in tautological heaven.
That left Omer Fast’s double-channel videos at Postmasters. Recent publicity (and well-received works for Performa and the Hamburger Bahnhof) had brought a large audience that actually sat in the darkened space through the entire hour of the works’ collective run time, content to come in from the cold and watch the on-screen suicide bomber play his grisly part to perfection. There’s no business like show business, that’s for sure––unless it’s the art business. That’s different.
Left: Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Right: Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
THIS MORNING, several dozen reporters huddled and gossiped at a crowded press conference held in the lobby (the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Reception Hall, to be precise) of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s flagship California Plaza venue. The reporters and a smattering of others were there to “welcome” Jeffrey Deitch, the museum’s first director since the embattled Jeremy Strick resigned during the fallout over MoCA’s dissolute finances in 2008. There had been some attempts, reported on Facebook, to assemble a group of “concerned members of the community” outside the museum who would make their (presumably contrary) opinions known, but there was no visible sign of protest when I arrived a little before the conference’s official start time of 10:30 AM. Still, the mere inkling of popular remonstration underscored the widespread controversy surrounding the appointment of one of New York’s leading art dealers to one of the world’s top museum positions.
Most of the expected faces were there: MoCA’s curators (excepting Alma Ruiz), a few of the trustees (no signs of any artists, though)—several of whom chatted excitedly about the prior night’s celebratory dinner at Spago. Curator and LAND cofounder Shamim Momin made an appearance as well, paying her respects, perhaps, to one of her more significant early allies.
One could sense the still-palpable relief that MoCA isn’t drowning in debt and also a certain glee at the prospect that Deitch will likely bring in a lot more money—and no one could deny that money was at the heart of this conversation. MoCA cochair Maria Bell kicked off the conference by commending her board’s selection, repeatedly referring to Deitch as an “independent curator,” as though the term itself were some sort of apotropaic charm. I didn’t hear any of the assembled dignitaries refer to him as a “dealer.” Given the number of hats Deitch has worn and that Bell rattled off—editor, critic, curator, adviser, consultant, gallery owner—why not try museum director? She stated (perhaps overmuch) the board’s unanimous decision and noted how “very, very excited” they all were to have him. When Eli Broad, billionaire philanthropist and MoCA white knight, got his turn at the MoCA New lectern, he reiterated his usual chestnuts, noting that MoCA’s recent recovery (largely catalyzed by him) constituted “the greatest institutional turnaround in recent history,” an important save for “the number one contemporary art museum in the number one art center in the world, Los Angeles.”
When they trotted out the impresario in chief himself, he looked more staid and buttoned-up than ever—no small achievement, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not in full suit and tie, whether at his gallery or an “art parade” or one of the assorted sordid events he became famous for producing. Wire-rimmed spectacles supplanted his more usual round, colorful glasses, and he sported a newly trimmed hairdo and double-breasted navy suit: the picture of museum sobriety. He kept his face straight the entire conference, repeating by-now familiar phrases (“There’s probably no museum anywhere that’s as loved as MoCA,” he noted, adding that he hoped to continue to build the museum “so that over the next decade it is indisputably the leading contemporary art museum in the world”) and also reemphasized the mantra that Los Angeles, “with its great schools and museums,” will soon be “the world’s art capital.” “Do you think it will be as fun as running a gallery?” one reporter asked. He paused to look up at the questioner: “I hope it’ll be more fun,” he grinned, a shadow of the former trickster crossing his face before he turned to answer the next question.
AS IF WALKING INTO A DREAM, I entered the Barneys flagship store of yore on Seventeenth Street, which after a brief incarnation as Loehmann’s (the retail version of bardo?) is now reborn as the Rubin Museum of Art, where Prada trinkets have been displaced by Himalayan deities, Chanel by chakra charts, and pricey wrinkle cream by ancient Tibetan mandalas and cosmologies. All suffused in a gentle amber glow, the vaguely Asiatic stylings of a live violinist added to the Zen Palate ambience. In a corner, for no explicable reason, a black-clad modern dancer struck various yogalike poses, like an extra from a beatnik fantasy.
Despite the Barneys-to-Buddhist makeover, the message projected on the wall was Carl Jung’s, though it still sounded like Donna Karan: “Everything begins with yourself,” we were advised, “from the Red Book.” Recently published to much fanfare (after decades entombed in a Swiss bank vault) Jung’s private dream journal was produced from 1914 to 1930 and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Rubin. Traversing the former fragrance section of Barneys, I descended to the auditorium on the lower level: “The ‘subconscious’ level?” quipped a pal.
An ongoing series of Red Book Dialogues pairs Jungian analysts with prominent psyches. (From Andre Gregory to Charlie Kaufman, Jonathan Demme to Cornel West. Perusing the program, a nearby culture-vulture quizzed her companion: “Do you know who Karen Finley is? She’s a performance artist!”) In a mini analysis session onstage, the “analysands” are invited to “actively engage” one of Jung’s elaborate visionary doodles. Wednesday’s program featured graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, deftly probed by Jungian analyst in training Patricia Llosa.
“For Jung,” Llosa primed the pump, the “images had their own autonomous energy—it’s important to engage with the images.” She urged Sagmeister to “feel your way into them, what they evoke for you—listen to the image.” It was tough going, as the album-cover designer had difficulty getting past Jung’s old-timey style: too “ornamental,” he said, “to have a personal association.” The discoverer of the “collective unconscious,” synchronicity, and archetypes was basically an outsider artist—not that there’s anything wrong with that—and the cool contemporary guy had a hard time getting past the Dr.’s anachronistic medieval-illuminated-manuscript mode to “actively engage” the “visions.”
Affable, but impervious to “spiritual” promptings, after half an hour on the spot Sagmeister eventually blurted out that Jung was “an amateur . . . from the craft perspective very weak, not a good gouache painter.” And even: “At that time, calligraphy was much further along. . . . For someone who was revolutionary in other ways . . . . If we had gotten this thing as a design project—there’s no way in hell a medieval illuminated manuscript on parchment would pass for revolutionary thinking.”
During the Q&A, a maven from the audience erupted into a passionate speech defending the master’s medieval-ly Judy Chicago via William Blake and Philip Taaffe–like stylings from Sagmeister’s diss: “So many kabbalistic cosmologies were recodified during the medieval period. I’m reminded of that medieval imagery that Jung is drawing from, tapping into a well-defined tradition that we don’t have the eyes to see,” lamented the bald Jungian in a tweedy jacket and turtleneck. “I see the internal world of Jung’s fantasy! He was creating a cosmology trying to retell the greatest story of the world using this particular kind of graphic imagery as an atmospheric effect. [And] we’re all part of that story.”
The designer and the healers were talking at cross-purposes: Sagmeister couldn’t get past the surface of Jung’s stylistic anachronisms while the Jungians were eager to delve into his iconography. Instead of much psychic probing, what went on was an interesting impasse in itself, an apples-and-oranges dialogue between style and content. No matter how “aesthetic” the Jungians considered themselves, the deadlock reminded me of Nietzsche’s line about mystics: “They’re not even superficial.”
The program director finally jumped in near the end of the discussion, eager to guide our recalcitrant subject, who totally ignored the giant ray of light he was asked to address, toward the Spiritual: “Do you believe in magic?”
“I’m not a big believer in magic,” replied Sagmeister. Nevertheless, eternal questions were raised: how to distinguish between craft, self-exploration, Art, or whatever . . .
“What is art?” asked Sagmeister. “If Picasso shits on a canvas or I shit on a canvas they might look similar, but the interpretation and certainly the value”—titters from the audience—“would be very different.”
I had the fantasy I was surrounded by Jungian analysts from the Upper West Side, each with their own personal collection of Asiatic tchotchkes. Mostly middle-aged, empathetic-looking, and crunchy, before the talk they’d perused the Sacred Art and Jungian relics with alacrity. At the frequent lulls onstage, which were as charged and multivalent as those in an analytic session, they chuckled so readily I wondered whether they were drunk or just happy to be among fellow Archetype Seekers. The lady next to me knitted when she wasn’t scribbling away in a big binder notebook. I also spied Spy-magazine cofounder Kurt Andersen and actor Gabriel Byrne.
Wrapping up the discussion, the engaging program director put in his two cents: The Red Book was “only a tool, a means for self-exploration not meant to be art. Like the Tibetan mandala, a vehicle for self-understanding. The facsimile is a fabulous object, is selling very well, and members can get a discount at the shop!” He then presented each of the Dialoguers with a diaphanous white shawl, like a Tibetan tallis, embroidered with “auspicious symbols to protect the wearer.”