ON A RECENT FRIDAY in Naples there were openings at three different galleries scattered across town. Getting from one to the next was a challenge to anyone without a motorcycle and the nerve to mount the pedestrian walkways, a customary mode of travel for Neapolitans, who are in the habit of taking their wives and a couple of children along too—without helmets. (If you wear one it means you have reason to hide.) As it was, we took our chances on foot, dodging the aforementioned vehicles en route to our first stop, Galleria Raucci/Santamaria, on the hill behind the city’s Archaeological Museum.
But for me the real danger in Naples is sensory overdose, the eyes, ears, and the stomach—oh, and the pocketbook (emptied by my own deft fingers, alas). As we exited the Montesanto train station, the audacious aroma of food rose up and assailed our noses. We were forced to pass a series of enticing vendors and fishmongers along the descent through the street market. At the bottom we found the pièce de résistance: Cocktail d’Amore, a mixed bag of genital-shaped pasta.
Arriving at the gallery, we entered the seamless, understated group exhibition “Blind Mirror,” which pondered the treachery of the reflected and/or repeatedly reproduced image. Neapolitan artist Danilo Correale blew up to the edge of distortion iconic photos of historic events such as Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of JFK. Opposite, Liz Deschenes’s photograph of an adjacent black-and-white checkered R. H. Quaytman silk screen provoked dizzying eye twirling. Around the corner I ran into artists Danh Vo and Henrik Olesen, who were in town to see the Fondazione Morra Greco, where they will be doing a show together next year. As we discussed the fantastic potential of the decaying and eerily lit spaces of the gutted old palazzo, Irish artist Pádraig Timoney, a Naples resident for the past several years, joined in and then announced that he would be jumping ship for Brooklyn this summer.
Left: Riccardo Folinea, artist Tris Vonna-Michell, and curator Federica Bueti. Right: T293’s Paola Guadagnino with artist Patrizio Di Massimo and T293’s Marco Altavilla.
We hitched a ride to T293 with Madre curator Eugenio Viola, who expertly navigated the erratic traffic, with only a couple of near misses. We mentioned our earlier, inadvertent lack of bus tickets, à la Napolitana. “Many people don’t pay, but they’ve actually been checking bus tickets the last couple of days,” he warned. “Berlusconi was here yesterday, and it still smells.”
Competing with the visual cacophony and licentious temptations of Naples seemed to pose no problem for artist Patrizio Di Massimo. The video Duets for Cannibals, which was projected in T293’s street-level space, portrays the artist attempting to cast a young African actor, who agrees to appear in his video and then demurs when he understands the salacious act required. The show, “With the Sun in Front of Me,” continued upstairs in the gallery with two videos, projected on walls in separate rooms, of men putting their faces where the sun doesn’t shine: First a black man feasts on a white man, who then returns the favor—a metaphorical examination, let’s say, of the power dynamics behind Italy’s colonization of Ethiopia.
Who could think of food after that? But these are the unsavory juxtapositions the traveling critic must endure. The T293 dinner was served at a very long table after a very long wait at the vegetarian restaurant Un Sorriso Integrale. (Macrobiotic food in Naples seems oxymoronic, and should perhaps be added to the list of deadly sins.) As soon as we finished our whole-wheat and god-knows-what lasagna we bolted out of there and hopped a cab back to Raucci/Santamaria, where we arrived just in time for the antidote: a cake orgy hosted by David Robbins. The party, in the dealers’ residence attached to the gallery, was winding down as Robbins’s Ice Cream Social continued to broadcast from TV monitors around the salon. Out in the garden, Vo mentioned that Neapolitan collector Maurizio Morra Greco is dentist to the cardinals, so he was hoping for a private tour of the Vatican. (One wonders what that might entail, given the reputation of the Catholic clergy these days.)
After an early start the next day, induced by a raucous marching band passing under our window in honor of the Festival of Spring, I managed to take in the “Barock” exhibition at MADRe—vivid-to-lurid evocations of ritual and death reflecting the memento mori of the streets—before arriving at the evening bash inaugurating Blindarte’s new exhibition spaces. The galleries lie just beyond the mouth of a tunnel in the peripheral Fuorigrotta—a tatty retro-futuristic area that saw better times in the Fascist era. The Blindarte auction house, located below, began as a safe facility for valuables of wealthy Neapolitans, many of whom live on the other side of the hill in the posh Posillipo, overlooking the Gulf of Naples. The show, “Undefined Borders for Unlimited Perceptions,” features work of thirteen gallery artists that evoke magical realism, including paintings by Benny Dröscher, Adam Cvijanovic, and Simon Keenleyside.
Among the well-heeled, black-clad crowd, I was surprised to find only one Naples dealer, Guido Cabib, and very few artists aside from those in the exhibition. Gallery director Memmo Grilli, who was flitting around from cluster to cluster bussing cheeks, confided: “Most dealers feel that it is more elegant to arrive when there is not a huge crowd; Lia Rumma will come in the next few days.” Attempting to have a real conversation in the noisy crush, Exibart writer Diana Gianquitto noted how great it is that Grilli “doesn’t pretend that art has nothing to do with money.” Nearby, artist Seulgi Lee painstakingly painted her teeth red with nail polish while Brazilian artist Rafael Lain photographed her. Viola arrived with his boyfriend, fashion designer Rosario Farina, and I spotted Angela Tecce, chief curator of Castel Sant’Elmo, and some clients of the auction house. Anna Milo, who works for shoe designer and collector Ernesto Esposito, was decked out in a motorcycle jacket and sleek black stilettos. By the time Esposito himself arrived, well after midnight, most of the demimonde and their attendants had left.
Viola steered our motorcade across town, where we ended the night at the Ex-Lanificio, a decaying former wool factory taken over by artists, where many of the other Blindarte guests were dancing to ’80s music. The air carried a perfume characteristic of an earlier decade: “It is Amsterdam here,” Viola noted. The taxi driver who took us home cautioned that the street we were staying on was dangerous—as he drove down it the wrong way. (He informed us that traffic signs in Naples are advisory rather than obligatory.) Having been ripped off by our previous cabbie, we gushed: “You are so honest.”
AFTER AN UNUSUALLY LONG, cold winter, spring finally made its way to Paris last week, attended by a much needed injection of energy and an optimism that is rare among the city’s typically unimpressed inhabitants. On Wednesday afternoon, a sizable crowd gathered at the Grand Palais for the opening of ArtParis+Guests. In its previous incarnations, ArtParis was a relatively sleepy affair, overshadowed by its bigger and more glamorous rival, FIAC, which is held in the same space each October. This year, the spring event received a major makeover (no doubt prompted by the involvement of former Art Basel and shContemporary director Lorenzo Rudolf) and was reintroduced as a fair that allowed art to mingle freely with other disciplines, especially that of design: Galleries were invited to choose collaborative “guests”— other institutions, artists, fashion and furniture designers, dancers, musicians, writers, etc. Additionally, the “Platform” presentations focused on international groupings from Africa, Indonesia, Finland, and Ukraine, as well as the more familiar (and less far-flung) Left Bank and Marais districts of Paris.
The fair’s call to “eliminate our borders!” and promote cultural crossovers inspired some feisty juxtapositions; the highbrow booth of Librairie Flammarion shared a wall with a gallery showing baby blankets that moaned with pleasure when touched, as well as a video of dogs gnawing on dildos; meanwhile, the more reserved booths of galleries Christian Berst and Christophe Gaillard, both hosting the recently opened Arnulf Rainer museum, weren’t quite engaging with Alexis Lartigue’s cubicle flush with hyperactive street art across the aisle, which was stuffed with so many graffiti-inspired paintings and sculptures it looked as though it might explode. Amid the chaos, the more cohesive presentations were something of a relief, such as L’Appartement de Collectionneur, which used witty design pieces including Ettore Sottsass’s boxing-ring bed to mimic a flashy fantasy home. Lada Nakonechna’s work at the Ukrainian booth proved extremely popular with its homage to Felix Gonzalez-Torres: In her installation, gold boxes of chocolates were left open for the taking and were immediately pounced on by starved passersby.
Left: Members of the Kaba Modern Legacy dance crew, artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and 10 Chancery Lane's Katie de Tilly. Right: Dealer Laurent Godin.
It was a forced idea of progress, all this desire to move beyond the typical art fair (no one’s comfortable in their britches anymore), but most seemed to applaud the efforts. “It’s cheap, but not bad,” one Parisian curator cheerfully remarked, waving at an abundance of “arty” nude photographs of Kate Moss and Pamela Anderson. Dealer Laurent Godin, smoking a cigarette in a faux log chair by David Kramer in a refreshingly understated booth, was encouraging as a veteran participant: “It has a ways to go, but it’s in the process of an evolution.” Jérôme Lefèvre, the fair’s assistant director, sees it as a long-term project as well. He cited biennials as a model (why does everyone still have biennial envy?), and noted that subtle changes such as higher walls, fewer individual booths, and industrial steel beams allowed the galleries to show bigger work. (This was evident as he stood in front of the Visions booth, where a massive inflatable insect left little room for the gallery employees to stand.) He envisioned the fair as giving “the sensation of something very easy, very cool, and a big step up from what ArtParis was in the past.”
Saturday night brought a slew of openings in the city. I was a bit relieved to go see some work where borders weren’t looking to be so self-consciously eliminated. After a stop in Belleville for the opening of Bugada & Cargnel’s group exhibition “Ever Prosperity” and for Balice Hertling’s gorgeous show of new sculptures and film by Isabelle Cornaro, I headed down to the dependable Marais. Art:Concept inaugurated a new space on rue des Arquebusiers with a show by Los Angeles–based artist Nathan Hylden, whose complex, process-oriented paintings drew much support. Director Olivier Antoine was excited to leave his old neighborhood in the thirteenth arrondissement to be “among friends” in the Marais. (He also expressed delight at finally having an office that wasn’t just a transformed closet.)
Left: Artists Heather Cook and Nathan Hylden. Right: Artist Frank Perrin, Jousse Entreprise director Sophie Vigourous, and dealer Philippe Jousse.
I arrived at Daniel Arsham’s opening at Emmanuel Perrotin’s Impasse Saint-Claude space to be told I had just missed a performance featuring dancer-choreographer Jonah Bokaer, held amid an installation of polystyrene sculptures and gouache on Mylar drawings. Arsham, who has the incredible honor of designing the scenography for the last-ever performance of Merce Cunningham’s company in 2011, was also in France for the premiere of another collaboration with Bokaer and Judith Sanchez Ruiz, as part of a new dance festival, Avalanche-sur-Pompéi, in the suburb of Vanves, featuring a number of on-the-up choreographers like Miguel Gutierrez, Jack Ferver, Trajal Harrell, and others. From there, I went to see the always affable Peter Coffin at Perrotin’s main space, where I stood in wonder at his installation of animated masterpieces from the collection of the Pompidou. It was impossible not to feel a bit giddy seeing a singing Mondrian or a Magritte lit up like a burlesque dancer; it’s H. W. Janson goes to Broadway.
At the relaxed buffet dinner for Arsham and Coffin held in yet a third Perrotin space next door, the two artists drew a friendly group of artists, dancers, collectors, curators, and even a couple of robotic engineers. Stuart Heys has built robots for NASA out of his studio in Brooklyn, but he also programmed Coffin’s roving dining room table, topped with a champagne-glass pyramid, which had silently chased me around for much of the opening. “Working with artists is a lot more entertaining than NASA,” he admitted, surveying his lively surroundings. By the end of the night, he had not only met any number of parties interested in collaborating but also shared the dance floor with them at the kitschy, tropical-themed club (and former Edith Piaf haunt) La Java. Hopefully, the experience provided excellent fodder for future projects.
THE UNSUSPECTING STAR of the third annual March Meeting in Sharjah was a young performance artist named Barrak Alzaid. With a lot of sass and two little handwritten-in-pink-highlighter signs—one reading TWO MINUTES, the other reading PLEASE STOP!—he kept immaculate time over the course of three days, fifty lightning-quick presentations, and two keynote lectures by literary scholar Abdelfattah Kilito (on translations) and curator Okwui Enwezor (on archives).
Seated in the front row of a sterile conference room, with a staff badge looped around his neck and a laptop balanced perilously on his knees, Alzaid gently terrorized each and every speaker with the occasional cock of his head and flash of his sign. Without him, this year’s considerably overprogrammed March Meeting would have fallen apart. With him, it established a nice rhythm, coalesced around common themes, and generated several urgent discussions—on alternative art schools, peripatetic libraries, and the sudden ubiquity of archival endeavors in these lands.
For art-world observers outside the Gulf, it can be fiendishly difficult to figure out what’s going on inside the UAE. At least three of the country’s seven emirates are pushing hard to become the region’s singular cultural hub, and they often seem more opaquely competitive than transparently collaborative.
Of course, there was a time when Sharjah was the most bumping lifestyle destination of the lot. Now Dubai gets all the action, while Abu Dhabi looms like some dark star on the horizon, waiting to suck everyone’s energy into its dense matrix of mysterious acronyms (from the sovereign wealth fund ADIA to the cultural agency ADACH and its archrival TDIC). Sharjah, meanwhile, has become a dormitory town that is, moreover, entirely dry—to get a drink requires a drive to the neighboring emirate of Ajman, which, I assure you, has no cultural ambitions whatsoever, beyond a smattering of seedy beachside bars more suitable to paid companionship than artsy conversation. (Of course, I did experience stabs of regret on waking one morning in Sharjah to the text message YOU MISSED A SPECTACULAR NIGHT OF FILIPINO URBAN DANCE CREW AT BAYWATCH IN AJMAN.)
But while Dubai has the market and Abu Dhabi the monumental museum plans, Sharjah does have a decent biennial, a fund for artists, and the March Meeting (dubiously tagged a “networking” summit). It also has long-standing performance venues, already existing exhibition spaces, and a bit of real pedestrian street life—all ambulating kids and families—which makes for a more pleasant, less alienating milieu than those parts of Dubai hinged on fearsome megamalls, ostentatious hotel complexes, and terrifying ten-lane freeways.
All the 2010 March Meeting attendees lodged at the same modest hotel, the Golden Tulip, and each morning they took a breezy stroll along a quaint canal to the conference room, abutted by a sun-drenched lounge in Multaqa al-Qasba (with the free Wi-Fi, caffeine, and cakes the reigning work ethic required).
A delightfully diverse lineup of artists, collectives, and small-scale organizations made formal presentations followed by open discussions. Sessions of three or four speakers then broke for more informal conversations, called dardashat in Arabic, which took place across the canal in Shelter Sharjah at Maraya Art Center, the newly opened sister space of Shelter in Dubai. The catch this year was that all the participants in the March Meeting were meant to present a work in progress (rather than a review of how they began, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done).
In past years, explained Jack Persekian, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which organized this iteration of the event in collaboration with the New York–based nonprofit ArteEast, “we were presenting ourselves, our projects, and our histories. We talked about our past and present. For 2010, there was a proposal from Rasha Salti”—the creative director of ArteEast and, perhaps not coincidently, the cocurator, with Suzanne Cotter, of the next Sharjah Biennial—“that we look into our future.” The March Meeting, he explained, could be “a mechanism to map out the cultural agenda for the next few years.” Given the fact that it included participants from Africa and Asia as well as from the Arab world, it could also offer a broader and potentially more productive definition of what “the region” has become.
Did it work? Time will tell. Most of the participants seemed to be pitching their projects to phantom funders. But because grant-making organizations did not announce their presence, participants clearly felt free to reflect on—and complain about—funding policies that only recognized certain structures.
Day One began in this vein, with Mriganka Madhukaillya’s presentation of the Desire Machine Collective’s Periferry project on the Brahmaputra River in northeast India. The artist-led group refurbished a ferry from the 1970s and turned it into a media lab that is now literally adrift on a waterway that links Tibet, China, India, and Bangladesh. The ferry had hosted residencies and symposia, “based on funding,” said Madhukaillya, “because those are the formats that funders understand.” His intention, however, was to phase out those formats, funders be damned, because the residencies were too short and the symposia too fleeting.
Christine Tohme of the Beirut-based powerhouse Ashkal Alwan picked up the funding strand when she announced that the long-planned-for Home Works Academy will open in Beirut in November. Just weeks before the March Meeting began, a local patron gave Ashkal Alwan a space for the school—free for the first five years—in a former furniture factory next to the Beirut Art Center. “It’s taken ten years for arts institutions in Beirut to get funding from the local community,” she said.
Tohme’s announcement, along with her rapid-fire preview of the forthcoming Home Works Forum, beginning in Beirut next month, hit one of the March Meeting’s high marks. Another came courtesy of Pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive), presented by the artists Shaina Anand, Sebastian Lütgert, and Ashok Sukumaran. From there, a strong pattern of archival concerns emerged, amplified by artists’ talks—Khaled Hourani hilarious on “Picasso in Palestine,” Jananne al-Ani studious on “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People”—on using historical material in the process of creating new work.
Left: Istanbul Biennial director Bige Örer, Zümray Kutlu of Anadolu Kültür in Istanbul, and Rustem Ertug Alinay of Tiyatro Boyali Kus Theatre Painted Bird in Istanbul. Right: Antonia Carver of Bidoun Projects in Dubai.
Antonia Carver of Bidoun Projects proposed forming a distribution network for independent publishers of art books in the region, and discussed the ever-evolving Bidoun Library along the way. Mia Jankowicz, four months into her term as artistic director of the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) in Cairo, joked that Carver rendered her entire presentation redundant, but offered a no less insightful lecture on merging the libraries of the CIC, the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, and the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum. Then Laura Carderera of Townhouse chimed in with her own plan to organize a full-fledged conference on archival practices this fall.
Across the canal at Shelter, Mirene Arsanios of the 98 Weeks Research Project in Beirut talked about collecting avant-garde magazines published in the Arab world from the mid-twentieth century through today. Rasha Salti referred to her study group with the Beirut-based researcher Kristine Khouri, the History of Arab Modernities in the Visual Arts.
By day three, Sebastian Lütgert of Pad.ma announced the convening of an ad hoc session on archiving at Shelter. “This may be the year of the archive, or simply a year of the archive,” he said, “which is fabulous, but also terrible, because it might very well be the year many of us get tired of archives.” A lively discussion ensued. But by then we were all late for Okwui Enwezor’s keynote on—what else?—archiving in the work of Fiona Tan (however random a work in the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale seemed in this particular context).
I couldn’t find Barrak Alzaid anywhere in the audience, but he must have been there somewhere. Enwezor talked for his allotted time, answered questions, scanned the room, and summed up: “Okay, we all have to go. We’re going to Ajman, I know.”
Left: Rashid and Ahmed Bin Shabib of Brownbook and Shelter. Right: Artist Sebastian Lütgert of Pad.ma and Pirate Cinema.
Left: Judy Taubman with Sotheby’s Alfred Taubman. Right: Dealer Jack Kilgore. (All photos: Lindsay Pollock)
EACH GRAY MARCH, some 70,000 affluent, acquisitive souls converge on the quaint two-thousand-year-old Dutch city Maastricht. The draw is a twenty-three-year-old art and antiques pageant named TEFAF, which sounds like a medical condition but actually stands for The European Fine Art Fair. The most recent edition, which closed last Sunday, went on for eleven days. The event ended on a sour note, with a closing day jewel heist involving a sapphire ring and a diamond pendant worth $1.2 million from London jeweler Hancock. Still, that didn’t dampen the glitz factor. TEFAF is a big-budget affair: About 12,500 champagne flutes are doled out during the invite-only opening day and the local convention center is dolled up with nearly 75,000 roses and 49,000 tulips. Not that people are coming for the flowers.
For dealers, it’s a chance to brush up against the world’s wealthiest, and also to critique (but not too much) the money parade, a crush of stiletto-spiked and fur-swaddled babes and their big-wallet honeys. “Those are not real collectors,” a veteran dealer pal whispered to me a few hours into the fair’s opening. We were seated on a bench outside his stand, stocked with nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings. “Do you know how I can tell?” he asked. I glanced at the trio: two men and a woman. Nothing stood out. “They are carrying their catalogues,” he said, nodding at the five-pound books. “Real collectors pick up their catalogues on the way out.”
The fair is renowned for its museum-quality offerings and attracts a fleet of curators and trustees sleuthing out the rare and fantastic. The wares are presented in 263 stands, some costing hundreds of thousands of Euros to decorate, which are lined up in aisles named for the world’s great shopping thoroughfares––from Madison Avenue to New Bond Street. I tagged along for a while with Susan Talbott, director of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, to get a glimpse of the museum’s selections, including a rare Delft platter and a swirling Baroque sculpture by Balthasar Griessmann. Washington’s National Gallery of Art picked up a 1611 winter landscape by Dutchman Adam van Breen. A private collector snagged Rubens’s fifteenth-century Head of a Bearded Man.
“It’s like the Met—with price tags,” said San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier, standing beside a 1989 Gerhard Richter he had hung front and center in his stand. The mottled, multihued Abstract Bild was tagged $12.5 million. Though works by Richter, Calder, Warhol, and Giacometti, along with other pricey trophies, graced the fair, the throngs of gray-haired visitors weren’t hunting for the latest Koons, let alone a Tino Sehgal. TEFAF’s reputation rests on the caliber of the older art. Among the fair’s exhibitors are vendors who specialize in arms and armor, antiquities, and illuminated manuscripts. Asian art dealer Ben Janssens displayed a trio of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Frisbee-shaped samurai hats in a niche, the simple clean forms reminiscent of modern sculpture. An 1805 French Empire bed, once owned by diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who conducted morning business meetings from between the sheets, was on offer from Pelham of Paris for a little over $500,000. A late-fifteenth-century Botticelli of a sweet-faced Madonna and Child, once owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr., was available at Dickinson for $15 million.
While contemporary art has expanded its presence at TEFAF, looking for it is still like searching for a needle in a haystack. Notable dealers including Gagosian, Richard Gray, and Acquavella have come and gone from the TEFAF roster. “It has huge potential and is something that will happen over time,” said Iwan Wirth, who brought works by Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse, among others. “This is an old-fashioned fair. People come, and meet the experts, and expect expertise. They really want to talk to you. The price is the last thing.”
If TEFAF’s “contemporary” art is familiar, the crowd is not. Part of the fair’s exoticism is that the usual contemporary-art posse isn’t around. Some familiar faces did surface, however. Art Basel co-honcho Marc Spiegler made the rounds. Art adviser Thea Westreich breezed through on opening day, en route to Brussels and Paris. New York collector Adam Lindemann accompanied his wife, dealer Amalia Dayan, who was exhibiting with partner Daniella Luxembourg. Lindemann beamed. “You come here to break out of contemporary art fairs,” he said.
Left: Dealer Rory Blain at Haunch of Venison. Right: Collector Adam Lindemann.
This year, TEFAF featured forty-six exhibitors in the modern section, including newcomer L&M Arts, whose sprawling outpost took aesthetic direction from French designer Jean-Michel Frank, with warm wood paneling. Nearby, Haunch of Venison attracted gawkers to its white-walled stand, which was dominated by a 1996 Hirst hog in formaldehyde. Antwerp dealer Boris Vervoordt, clad in a slim gray suit, stood in his stand, a dimly lit, Zen-infused lair, picture-perfect and ready for an Architectural Digest close-up. A 1978 Warhol oxidation work surmounted one wall. A black 1959 Ad Reinhardt hung on another. Sleek minimalist Peruvian and Egyptian sculptures were artfully arranged on wooden bookcases. “We are not white-box people,” he said.
Toward the end of the fair’s opening day, I joined a group of international writers for dinner at Brasserie Flo. Nightlife in Maastricht is sleepy. (Think supper followed by an early bedtime.) I was famished after ten hours in the warm, windowless convention center, sustained by a glass of champagne. I was startled to discover the dinner entrée was veal cheek, which turned out to be flavorful and moist, appetizing as long as I didn’t dwell on exactly what I was eating.
DOES ANYONE REMEMBER when “jet-set” meant something? With the (art) world continuing to shift about from fair to fair, I thought it might be nice to stay grounded in Los Angeles, my own sun-stroked heartland. Sauntering into Regen Projects last Friday night for the opening of Jack Pierson’s seventh exhibition at the gallery, I supposed we had another New York carpetbagger on our hands. Looking at his work, I should have known better, and indeed Pierson informed me that he lives part-time with his boyfriend out in Twentynine Palms, a desert town a few hours from Los Angeles known more for its military base than its vacationing artist community.
Pierson is a traveling man, and his current exhibition is a blue-chip version of a trunk show. All the images are printed on foldable posters. “The whole thing can be brought down to a portable size,” Pierson told me as we toured “Some Other Spring,” which consists largely of photos from (real or fictional) sojourns: the bowsprit of a cresting yacht in the south of France; some palms being burned at the aforementioned desert pied-à-terre; and a handsome young man, stark naked though chastely turned from the camera, posing on rocks in the sea spray.
I skipped out early to catch another, more performative, “tour” of the residency program set up for Austrian artists at the MAK Center in West Hollywood. The Mackey Apartments, built by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé and Austrian émigré Rudolph Schindler, sit in a quiet residential West Hollywood neighborhood. Outside I heard the typical music and chatter of crowds coming from the studios. I wiggled through the diminutive chambers, built more for single artists than proper shindigs, squeezing past MAK director Kimberli Meyer, artists Analia Saban and Joshua Callaghan, and architectural experimenters Oliver Hess and Jenna Didier of Materials & Applications.
As I made my way back to a tour-guide booth in front of the property, no one could clearly answer my questions on what it was for, though signs announcing AUDITION WAIT HERE and the sight of actors nervously memorizing lines in the hallway suggested that something unusual was afoot. It all began normally enough, but before long the guides had us peering, from an outside stairway, into a room in which a bearded man obsessively cleaned. The guides’ patter began to break down, until finally they began to accuse the residents of being zombies, who, noirishly, were “doomed by their own decisions.”
They led us up to the penthouse for a public “audition” presided over by artist Stephan Lugbauer, who was wearing a bright blue suit and brown cowboy boots. One actor, then another, read lines earnestly: “They only serve caviar and Richard Prince and stuff like that on the walls . . . there you meet Mike Kelley in the bathroom . . . something like that . . .” (Apparently these were real “stories” Lugbauer collected from various passing residents.)
After the final actor walked out (with a hopeful “Thank you!”), Lugbauer broke his directorial veneer and went back to the party, now in full swing. I stumbled past Austrians taking shots of tequila and longed to join them. Instead I headed to my car. Los Angeles can be a sad place to want a drink.
The following night I was back on the road. First stop: Culver City for openings at Susanne Vielmetter and David Kordansky. I showed up early at Vielmetter’s new digs in the neighborhood (another local expansion), where she was debuting shows by Stanya Kahn and Karl Haendel. I ran into Kahn as soon as I arrived. This is her first solo outing since she parted with her longtime performance partner Harry Dodge; she hasn’t lost any of the caustic wit of her earlier performances. She’s especially good at describing her own misfortunes, the most recent being a hard-drive crash that occurred less than a week before the exhibition opened. She reacted with a lighthearted shrug redolent of her battered and bandaged video persona. “It’s cool. I’m good.”
I did a quick drive-by of New Yorker Robert Melee’s opening at Kordansky (captive mannequins covered in marbleized paint), but the party hadn’t yet picked up, so I set off for my next gig: the annual REDCAT gala. I drove into the cement superstructure of the Disney Concert Hall and followed a circuitous path to the theater’s parking lot door. A lonely scrim embossed with the logos of REDCAT and CalArts (the latter institution being the ostensible owner/operator of the theater) hung under the spectral parking lot half-light, nary a photographer to be seen. Inside, everyone seemed a lot cheerier without the popping lights of paparazzi, though there we did have a few authentic celebrities on hand (as opposed to art-world celebrities—I can’t imagine Catherine Opie being hounded by InStyle, but wouldn’t it perhaps be a more interesting world if she were?). Actor (and CalArts trustee) Don Cheadle emceed; fellow actor (and Columbia student) James Franco presented the REDCAT award to Glenn Ligon, who’d flown in from New York for the event. (Ligon’s at work on a big solo exhibition at the Whitney, curated by recent hire Scott Rothkopf, set to open next year.) Speech followed speech and I began to wonder how an institution (however deserving) could charge so much for an infomercial. The congratulations eased mid-dinner to make way for a performance by Laurie Anderson, who had flown in for the event as well. If you wait long enough in Los Angeles, everyone comes to you.
The houselights dimmed, and the mood followed suit. Anderson performed an excerpt from her recent Delusion, commissioned for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The song unfurled according to the warped sounds emitted from her violin, while her voice modulated downward into her deep and creepy trademark electronic whisper. When Anderson hissed the word America, you could feel the chill in the room. “Another day, another dollar, another day in America,” intoned Anderson. Another day in Los Angeles.
Left and right: Anna Halprin’s workshop at Judson Church. (All photos: Ian Douglas)
HAD YOU WANDERED into Judson Memorial Church on Saturday morning you would have heard at least one of the following:
“I am a buzzing dolphin.”
It would have taken a minute to extract such utterances from the cacophony that came from several dozen people growling, chanting, and yelling while dancing improvised solos that ranged from minute shifts to fluid phrases to spastic contortions.
In the middle of all this organized mayhem stood a compact woman with a weathered face and frizzy gray-brown hair, who looked to be in her late sixties. She is actually eighty-nine, and one of the most important figures in the history of American dance: Anna Halprin. A harmonica in one hand and a microphone in the other, she was running a one-day workshop (organized by Movement Research and presented with Danspace Project) framed by the question “Does dance make a difference?”
In the 1950s and ’60s, Halprin’s San Francisco workshops were a formative influence on choreographers like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, and Simone Forti. Amazingly, last weekend's event was Halprin’s debut at Judson, the place where a generation of young dancemakers—including Rainer, Brown, and Steve Paxton—exploded conventional notions of dance in the ’60s, redefining the form through genre-defying experimentation that involved numerous collaborations with similarly minded visual artists and musicians. “When they say I’m a pioneer of postmodern dance—to tell you the truth I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” Halprin told her students. “I just dance.”
As she led them through an exercise in which drawings and words were used as dance scores, I thought of what Art Guerra, the founder of Guerra Paint and Pigment, had texted me about his time at her workshops in 1967: “Most of the time it looked like a mental ward.” And: “It almost broke up my marriage.” Half a century later, some things have changed (certainly no public sex, which once reportedly happened between two unruly Bay Area participants). Others haven’t.
Left and Right: Anna Halprin’s workshop at Judson Church.
“None of this is a radical break from her San Francisco days,” noted the longtime New York Times critic and editor John Rockwell, who danced with Halprin in the ’60s. “But there was more of an emphasis on performance then. She’s evolved to stress more and more the connection between dance and healing.”
Besides Rockwell, the ninety or so participants and auditors at Saturday’s sold-out event included established choreographers (Eiko and Koma, Juliette Mapp), influential artistic directors (Dance Theater Workshop’s Carla Peterson), successful young dancers (Trisha Brown Company’s Leah Morrison; Liz Santoro, whose résumé includes Ann Liv Young and Jack Ferver), and people who looked as though they’d never set foot in a studio. “I love the fact that there’re old ladies here,” said the choreographer Moriah Evans. “Anna Halprin looks hot as hell as a ninety-year-old. Screw plastic surgery, screw Botox.”
Evans and Santoro had mixed feelings about the actual content of the workshop, musing about a lack of sophistication yet feeling a charge from the mere fact of proximity to such an iconic figure. Both can now say they have danced with Anna Halprin: The seven-hour event ended with a simple, rhythmic work consisting of four circles moving in alternating directions and varying speeds. Each participant had to dance for something particular, which they announced as they joined the circles. Halprin named her husband, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who died last fall.
At the day’s conclusion, the writer Wendy Perron asked whether the workshop’s question had been answered. Halprin looked puzzled. “Well, that’s up to you. Of course I think dance makes a difference; otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
FEW HOUSES RISK staging Dmitry Shostakovich’s The Nose because of its daunting demands. With more than eighty solo roles in a prickly, jittery score without memorable arias, climactic moments, or juicy soprano roles, the opera is every bit the work of an impish young genius swatting away the limits of an art form. It premiered in 1930, when the composer was twenty-three, and had a run of sixteen performances. A few years later, Shostakovich proved he could master a genre’s conventions just as well as flout them with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, a truly operatic tale of adultery across class lines and impassioned murder; it drew huge audiences for two years until a notorious Pravda editorial in 1936 effectively banned it from Soviet stages. The quirks of The Nose ensured its run didn’t last long enough to get such bad press.
I’d only seen The Nose staged once before, at a modestly appointed chamber opera in Moscow, and when I navigated the crowds of furred ladies at the premiere of the Metropolitan’s production on March 5, I felt that something significant was happening. William Kentridge proposed directing The Nose when approached by Met director Peter Gelb, and in hindsight it’s easy to see that Gogol’s Major Kovalyov, a lowly clerk in the imperial government who desperately pursues his runaway nose, is a kindred spirit of Soho Eckstein, the South African lawyer of Kentridge’s animated films––another functionary haunted by an oppressive social hierarchy and random, inexplicable misfortune.
Full of allusions to early Soviet life, Kentridge’s production brushes up against a number of clichés. The idea that the fun-house mirror of Gogol’s writing can reflect the Bolshevik bureaucracy just as vividly as its czarist precedents has been around since Vsevolod Meyerhold’s hotly relevant staging of The Government Inspector in 1926, and the projected animation––with hand-drawn portraits of Stalin and Shostakovich, black-and-white footage of Communist functions, the red crosses of Suprematist painting, and the angled headlines of Constructivist posters––sometimes seems like a salad of things easily identified as Russian. Even prima ballerina Anna Pavlova appears for a spin with her torso topped by a nose.
But the curtain’s collage of newsprint from different eras and countries sets up more diffuse layers of reference. Projections scream WRECKERS, SELF-SEEKERS, CAREERISTS!––epithets uncommon in the United States today, but used as much in apartheid-era South Africa as in the Soviet Union of the ’30s. Other text projections on the stage use a half-dozen fonts from Microsoft Office. Rather than setting The Nose in a specific period, Kentridge evokes backward and sidelong gazes––his own, his audience’s, Shostakovich’s––that try to read history through art, by capturing the associations, pertinent or not, that crop up in the process. In doing so, he manages to elicit greater emotional involvement than the harsh score and choppy story line might otherwise have allowed.
Though art-world attendees (including Robert Storr, Adam Weinberg, RoseLee Goldberg, Jeffrey Deitch, Tino Sehgal, and Norman Rosenthal) were vastly outnumbered by the music patrons who frequent Met premieres, the ovation for celebrity conductor Valery Gergiev was dwarfed by the one for the celebrated artist.
THE WEEKEND BEFORE LAST, a massive crowd of art-world denizens made the ascent to the Italian hill town of San Gimignano by plane, train, bus, and auto for the opening of five solo exhibitions at Galleria Continua: Berlinde De Bruyckere, Luca Pancrazzi, Arcangelo Sassolino, Nedko Solakov, and Chen Zhen. The tranquil Tuscan town, once a medieval Manhattan with one hundred towers signaling familial power, is the somewhat surreal site of the internationally prominent gallery. If you didn’t know it was there, you might pass right by its discreet door on the cobblestone street to enter the Museum of Torture and Medieval Criminology next door, mistaking it for one of the tourist shops that sell paintings of landscapes and sunflowers. The gallery’s three young directors, Mario Cristiani, Lorenzo Fiaschi, and Maurizio Rigillo, have been very effective in getting artizens to make the trip by having their mothers serve heaving buffets of Tuscan fare, often in and around installations, in the cavernous ex-cinema space.
Even so, European storms and strikes farther north prevented prominent curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hou Hanru, Udo Kittelmann, and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev from attending a meeting of the “scientific committee” to discuss a future Chen Zhen catalogue raisonné, which took place that afternoon in the dollhouselike Teatro dei Leggieri. The panel included the ubiquitous Fiaschi; P.S. 1’s Tony Guerrero; Jérôme Sans, director of the UCCA in Beijing; Palais de Tokyo’s Olivier Kaeppelin; artist Daniel Buren; and Chen’s widow, Xu Min. (The intrepid Obrist—who rarely lets anything get in the way of traveling—participated as a ghostly apparition projected on a screen, until the technology broke down and he disappeared with a comically abrupt blip.) The rambling discussion, in French, went from debating the merits of realizing posthumous installations to Guerrero’s memories of the Chinese artist gathering cow dung in the French countryside as a mode of direct contact with the environment. “He used natural materials,” Xu emphasized.
“No pun intended,” the US Embassy’s Elizabeth Petrovski quipped as we left the theater, “but it was getting pretty deep.” Arriving at the gallery, we went straight into Pancrazzi’s all-white Temporundum Continuo, a maze of corridors full of clocks with faces obscured by broken glass (and sound installations by Steve Piccolo at each end). Halfway through, I found Julia Draganovic and Steven Music, founder of the Premio Celeste art prize, who blithely noted that the organizers “did well to get all of these people here for a conference on a book that does not exist!”
Emerging onto the balcony of the former theater, I looked down on Sassolino’s Aphasia 1 and jumped out of my skin as a glass bottle hit a steel plate at 900 kph. “At the Palais de Tokyo, it was the most democratizing experience to see the chichi fashionistas and punk rockers shit their pants all at once,” the artist’s Berlin dealer, Aaron Moulton, commented. I noticed some spectators below, including US cultural attaché David Mees, scampering away from the chain-link fence, and remarked on the fitting proximity of the neighboring medieval-torture museum. (One of the choice displays is a barrel that held excrement, in which the victim was to slowly rot.) “And here we have the metronome of terror,” Moulton added.
We set out for a quick breather and a drink on the piazza along with Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois and Guerrero, who reported that he was “on vacation.” By the time we returned to the gallery, the intoxicating perfume of wild-boar stew and warm Tuscan bread salad was emanating from the kitchen, and a mob was waiting to descend for dinner. People ate wherever they could around Sassolino’s shooting-bottle compound (now turned off), sitting either at tables or on the steps leading up to the stage. I, however, could not get my mind off the artist’s Aphasia 2, a sealed steel capsule onstage holding nitrogen pressurized to 250 bar, which I imagined could explode at any moment.
As usual, Cristiani was one of the first on the dance floor, jumping up and down in his singular pogo dancing style. I noticed that the DJ stood right next to the ominously silent capsule, but nobody else seemed to care, many of them up onstage waving their hands in the air. Talking about the remarkable success the gallery has achieved from its base in the middle of nowhere, artist Arthur Duff, who resides in equally picturesque Venice, commented on the impossibility of reproducing such a model. We were standing at the wine table, in front of a large, breathing PVC lung by Sassolino that had stopped. Solakov mentioned that he is afraid of flying, so he had driven all the way from Sofia, which took two days and a night in Zagreb.
When we left, well after midnight, the streets were completely silent and all the shutters closed. We walked through a long covered passageway to look beyond the city walls, where only the muted chirping of birds could be heard, before making our way back to our rooms. The next day, we did not hit the streets to get our first coffee until noon. We asked the local barista whether he had heard the racket coming from the gallery the night before. He looked at us mirthfully: “You did well to stir up some action in this dead town.”
THE BUZZ OF CONVERSATION forms a constant aural backdrop to every Armory Show, but little of it ever rises above the level of sales pitch or insider gossip. At this year’s fair, a series of events curated by Stamatina Gregory and dubbed “Open Forum” offered limited respite from the money talk and a chance to hear from some people with a little distance from the art of the deal. Most promising of the seven events staged on Pier 92 (the remainder were downtown at Volta) looked to be Friday afternoon’s opener, “The World Is Not Enough: The Future of Biennials.” Moderated by art historian Katy Siegel, the panel boasted a weighty lineup featuring Prospect New Orleans curator Dan Cameron, Whitney curators Gary Carrion-Murayari and Elisabeth Sussman, Quadrilateral Biennial curator Christiane Paul, and Singapore Biennale cocurator Trevor Smith. Taking my seat in the (regrettably unsoundproofed) “lounge,” I clocked critic Jerry Saltz (who’d announced his planned attendance on his Facebook page), 303 Gallery director Mari Spirito, and upcoming Harlem Biennale curator Muriel Quancard among the modest crowd.
Siegel kicked things off by suggesting that the generally positive reviews enjoyed by the Whitney’s “2010” might have been scored in the context of lowered expectations and wondered about the role of a diminished market in shaping the emphases and reception of biennials generally. Carrion-Murayari, responding first, dismissed reports (in the New York Times, specifically) that a lack of money had been a key factor behind the decision to include fewer artists in this year’s show, suggesting that the battered economy might rather have influenced the tenor of the work. Cameron felt Carrion-Murayami’s pain, insisting that the smaller number of participants in the forthcoming Prospect.2 was nothing to do with budgetary downsizing—but admitting that it had been a consideration in the show’s postponement to 2011 (at which a few inexpertly suppressed sniggers of schadenfreude issued from the crowd).
Had there been a shift in biennial curating toward paying greater attention to local audiences, Siegel asked. Paul opined that recent reductions in curatorial travel allowances might have been influential in this regard but pointed out that the danger of art-world self-indulgence persisted whatever the state of financial play. Siegel seemed unsatisfied and repeated the question, but the panel wasn’t having it. “I want to change the subject,” interjected Sussman, rerouting the debate toward the problems of the thematic biennial. Smith was suspicious of the form, aligning it with a generalized fear of openness, muttering darkly, “We’re living in paranoid times.” Cameron was similarly skeptical, preferring clever but open-ended titles (“Poetic Justice,” “Dirty Yoga”) to potentially restrictive topics. Paul was less dismissive of the thematic model (“I’m all for a healthy mix”), reserving her distaste for competitive, fashion-led biennials. (“I’d prefer less ‘best-in-show.’”)
Pitching her local/global line from another angle, Siegel asked the panelists how they approached foreign situations. “With my gut!” asserted a swaggering Smith. “I learned to trust my instincts.” Sussman, for her part, recalled frustration that the most interesting things she came across in Sydney in 1995 fell outside her remit as the city’s biennial curator that year. “The rules can be stultifying,” she complained. Citing Rosa Martinez’s inclusion of a Greenpeace boat in the 1990 SITE Santa Fe Biennial and his own inclusion of Mardi Gras Indian costumes in Prospect.1, Cameron wondered who it was that imposed such restrictions: “Is it us, as curators, stopping ourselves?” Siegel fished for a way forward. “The more engaged biennials are with local communities, the better,” responded the studiedly on-point Carrion-Murayami, “but even bad shows are part of the dialogue.” Paul was more positive still: “Biennials have a bright future,” she risked, “though I’d like to see the hype and sensationalism taken out.” Sussman, however, seemed to have had enough altogether: Borrowing an image from Smith, she sighed, “My gut says that there should be no more.” Cameron leaped to her aid, referring to her 1993 Whitney Biennial—rubbished by Michael Kimmelman at the time with the three little words “I hate it”—as “one of the most important exhibitions ever made in the US, even if it’s take us seventeen years to realize it.”
Curator and critic Carolee Thea opened the brief Q&A by comparing an apparently theme-driven Istanbul Biennial with the more open-ended “2010.” A second speaker, apparently dazzled by James Cameron’s recent big Oscar loser, asked whether biennials ought not to include more animation along the lines of the “beautiful” Avatar. And a third, virtually inaudible until eventually handed a mic, moved from a passionate if hard-to-follow speech “in the name of South America” to a plea for restraint in the name of the planet: “We need reduction!” she railed. “Less paper, less oil, less . . . installation!” An unusual take, perhaps, but nothing if not future facing.
ON THURSDAY EVENING, the former Dia, now former X Initiative space, in Chelsea witnessed the dawn of Independent, a “hybrid model” or “transparent financial cooperative” (read: fair with benefits) masterminded by, among others, dealers Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook. Originally, the idea had raised eyebrows—does anything new or of interest in the art world not?—but by the time of the opening, most visitors seemed convinced by the project’s unconventional format and celebrated its dearth of walls, which gave way to an appealing alloverness. (So long as we had something to talk about besides New Museum ethics and Armory economic forecasts.)
“I don’t care if this is a onetime experiment or a recurring event,” participating dealer Maureen Paley said. “I’ve always loved this building and always wanted to show here.” For his part, Flook appeared to have found his calling: “I know what my job is now,” he noted to a friend. Independent made the most of its open floor plan—some even thought it had the feel of a down-and-dirty museum show—and it certainly made for a stark contrast to the claustrophobic, cubicle format of the average fair. “Art fairs typically feel so tight,” curator Ute Meta Bauer noted. “Not here.”
The aesthetic extended beyond the architecture. The four-day event had that young, fresh vibe that satellite fairs aspire to but rarely achieve. Commercial galleries mingled convivially—and, that word again, “democratically”—with nonprofits (White Columns, Artists Space), curated projects and journals (October and Farimani), and razzle-dazzle design-based projects (Moss with Westreich-Wagner). On the first floor, visitors were greeted by a flashy Rirkrit Tiravanija Ping-Pong table, while nearby the now ubiquitous Bruce High Quality Foundation erected one of those giant inflatable rats used in union disputes (and at the climax of An American Tail, as we reminisced with some of the collective’s members). Upstairs, a Jeppe Hein construction of rotating mirrors sent visitors spinning, while Artists Space presented a DeLorean, part of Duncan Campbell’s film Make It New John.
Later that night, I ignored text-message reports on the Friedrich Petzel/Christian Jankowski afterparty at a gritty Eastside bar (“The kind of place where the pool players brought their own cues,” according to NuMu curator Massimiliano Gioni), choosing instead to conserve on cab fare and hit the Standard’s Boom Boom Room, where artist Jordan Wolfson and dealers Andrew Kreps and Johann König were celebrating their shared space at Independent. Late on, when the party had dwindled to about ten people, a tall blonde plucked a piece of wood from the fire and proceeded to mark everyone’s foreheads with Lent crosses, adding two additional marks to König for good measure. “Now you’re saved!” she exclaimed jubilantly, before security forced her to return the log to the fireplace.
While she made for a doubtful prophet, the second half of Armory week did bask in a general sense of relief, with the more or less steady sales (not to mention the return of the prodigal sunshine) bolstering moods. As occasional New Yorker Daniele Balice put it, “America is fun again!”
I wasn’t sure about that, but the tone was outright boisterous the following evening at the Balice Hertling dinner, where Seth Price tested out his Gavin Brown impressions—accent and all—while the dealer egged him on. The dinner was held at Yoyo Friedrich’s place, where gallery artist Nikolas Gambaroff rents a room; he merely smiled when guests such as Beatrix Ruf and Clarissa Dalrymple spilled out of the dining area and into the studio space, colonizing the worktables and couches with plates of chicken and couscous and breaking into reserve bottles of Petit Coeur. The studio was at the top of a flight of stairs so long they were positively Potemkin, assuring guests were breathless on arrival and prompting concerns that the trip down might take, in heels, much longer (or worse, much shorter).
Joining a lively crew (including the Swiss Institute’s Piper Marshall, ascotted artist John Tremblay, and Provence’s Tobias Kaspar), we eventually did make it back down the stairs and uptown to Wade Guyton’s former studio space Burning Bridges, where Fabrice Stroun had curated a show of works by Emanuel Rossetti and Balthazar Lovay. Amid projections of glossily marbleized, computer-generated bagels, a rowdy crowd of pretty, young hipsters—Peter Halley in tow—swigged tequila. (I was relieved when genial host Guyton suggested we toast our Tennessee roots with some of his secret-stash Jack. Who says you can’t go home again?)
The next morning I made a quick stop at former Gavin Brown director Alex Zachary’s debut space on West Seventy-seventh Street. The gallery may rub shoulders with neighbor Michael Werner, but the space assumes its uptownness cheekily, with pastiche panache. (Dank carpeting, check. Bathroom with tub and bidet, check.) I caught a bit of Ken Okiishi’s entertaining update on Woody Allen’s Manhattan and then sped off to the ADAA fair. A decidedly older crowd filled the chairs in the stately aisles, munching on sandwiches or self-consciously scanning suites of Kippenberger drawings. “Oh, it’s lovely, all those pensioners!” dealer Vita Zaman agreed. “It’s like you’re in Lausanne or something. Such a wonderful suspension of chic.” On my way out, I ran into art adviser Sandy Heller and collector Steve Cohen, both boasting MoMA stickers on their jackets, a reminder that I was running late for the installation-in-progress VIP preview of “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.”
At the museum, Abramovic was midperformance on the second floor, while those with the proper papers were given special access to the retrospective’s “dress rehearsal” on the sixth floor. There, a smattering of impossibly fit young men and women re-created five of the artist’s older performances (Imponderabilia, for which visitors have to squeeze through a pair of naked people, being a favorite). I considered hanging around for an intriguing-sounding panel on “re-performance” with exhibition curator Klaus Biesenbach (and Martha Rosler, Francesco Vezzoli, Janine Antoni, and curator Jens Hoffmann), but four days of couscous and gallery-grade Prosecco was beginning to take its toll, and I decided to try to get in a nap (or at least a full meal) before the evening’s openings.
The nap, of course, never happened. Instead I went to Artists Space to get a better look at Duncan Campbell’s documentary and then to the Swiss Institute, for Tobias Madison’s “Hydrate+Perform,” a Vitamin Water–inspired set of pseudoscientific, business-lobby-like sculptures subtly restaging the sponsor’s advertising campaigns. There was also a selection of artist books by Andro Wekua, which I pored over with curator Clare Staebler.
The two institutions held a joint afterparty in a “Neighborhood Watch” shindig at downtown eatery China Chalet—“the best bar mitzvah ever,” according to adviser Joe Sheftel, who stood surveying the back room and its green-lit mirror ball. The giddy, junior-high feel (Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants”—really?) took a Gregg Araki–style turn when the music abruptly cut and a girl wearing (only) pink pumps, pink socks, and tiny yellow running shorts took the mic. Her name was No Bra, which spoke to truth in advertising, and she spewed a set of songs that ranged from biting to baffling (an exchange of casual boasts between art-world friends escalates from “I ran into David Blaine at Opening Ceremony” to “I caught syphilis once in Top Shop”). I tried to avoid making eye contact with Michael Stipe, who stood to the side, occasionally sending out appreciative smiles. If the preparty had promised a night of teenage kicks, things got decidedly Euro after the concert, driving the crowd of New Yorkers and friends to the other section of the bar, where I spotted Darren Flook, Michael Portnoy, Sarina Basta, Negar Azimi, and Pati Hertling amid the booths. During those fleeting moments, America did indeed seem fun again.
NEW YORK IS A MOST ACCOMMODATING HOST for art people. It has yellow cabs, black cars, chic hotels and dark bars, world-class museums, hundreds of galleries, thousands of artists. As if that weren’t enough, this week it also offers a few art fairs. (Upward of seventeen, by some counts.) Not that anyone needed another trade show to occupy recession-sensitive wallets, but the critical mass of parties, performances, and personalities they brought to town did more to make a native feel as restless as a guest than ever before.
On Monday, as a prequel to festivities to come, artist John Bock treated early birds arriving for the opening of his new show at Anton Kern Gallery to one of his mad lecture-with-sculpture performances, accompanied by an equally mad dance by first-time collaborator Colin Stilwell. There was the inevitable party afterward (at the Bowery Hotel), but that was a minor event compared with basketball star Shaquille O’Neal’s debut as a curator for collector Glenn Fuhrman’s Flag Art Foundation on Tuesday night, when this mountain of a man held court at a reception for the exhibition “Size DOES Matter.” Sure seemed like it.
“I love art,” Shaq told reporters, favoring a bandaged hand that had seen surgery the day before. “Everything I love is art. This cast is art.” So is Shaq, who appears in a life-size portrait made for the show by his favorite artist, Peter Max. “How long did it take to make that painting?” he asked the Pop illustrator. “Oh,” Max said, scratching his head, “about four or five hours, I guess.” Even Shaq looked small next to what he called “the big man,” a sculpture by Ron Mueck, but when photographer Todd Eberle persuaded him to climb onto a chair of Robert Therrien’s enormous dining-room set, he was nothing short of gleeful at finding a piece of furniture that made him feel like a toddler.
Left: New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni with curator Tom Eccles. Right: Curator Shaquille O’Neal.
This was definitely a night for giants. There were several among the artworks chosen by Jeff Koons, making his own curatorial debut that night at the New Museum, where the opening of “Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection” brought a record two thousand guests through the doors (including one hundred Joannou pals who flew in from Athens). This is the show that made the Little Institution That Could into front-page news in the New York Times last November, when the very idea of asking the most prominent artist in the collection of one of its trustees to organize a show loaned by said collector stirred up widespread debate on ethics.
No one at the opening cared a whit which way the winds of cultural politics were blowing, certainly not any of the chosen artists present, who are only too happy to be embraced by one of the art world’s most agreeable patrons. And Koons’s one-hundred-plus-piece take on the collection, which now numbers at least fifteen hundred works, found many admirers for his color-coded, pedal-to-the-metal installation on all four exhibition floors. This being the art world, there were detractors as well. “It looks like a fucking auction house,” said one young artist, who added, “Of course, I’m not in the show.” But the collector whose ego the museum was vigorously massaging was all warmth and smiles. “I’m blown away,” he said, embracing Sue Webster—an artist who is part of the show. And New Museum director Lisa Phillips, guiding the Edge through it, pooh-poohed the whole “non-troversy,” as she put it. “Dakis developed his collection together with artists,” she said. “So it’s only right that the first one should organize this show.”
I thought Koons did a pretty handy job of masking the sterility of this mausoleum-like building. His emphasis was obviously, perhaps predictably, on what he often calls “the biological” (read: sex and death): Maurizio Cattelan’s erect JFK in his casket; Paul McCarthy’s orgiastic tabletop tableau, Paula Jones; Janine Antoni’s crawling rawhide woman, Saddle; and Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda’s working-vulva video, Nemesis, being just a few examples. Also predictable for someone who blows up balloon dogs to gargantuan proportions, Koons went for gigantism (Terence Koh’s white-chocolate twin towers, Roberto Cuoghi’s twenty-foot-tall winged demon, David Altmejd’s fuzzy take on Michelangelo’s David, and Charles Ray’s statuesque fashionista).
The genial Koons did have moments of modesty (see Adam Helms’s inked silhouette on Mylar and Christiana Soulou’s penciled costume sketches). “It was all pretty intuitive,” he said of the show. “A lot of the work was black or white, so I put in some color.” The crowd in attendance provided even more. Among the fans lining up to give him congratulatory hugs and handshakes were collectors Jason and Michelle Rubell, Peter Brant, Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo, Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison, and Cyndi Lauper, as well as fellow collectees like Webster and Tim Noble, Urs Fischer, and Andro Wekua, who admitted that he had made a “small adjustment” to the installation of Sneakers 1, one of his two abject works in the show.
Appearing on one of her last nights of social interaction before mumming up for her Museum of Modern Art retrospective next week, Marina Abramovic grew increasingly worried about the health of the actor bound to Pawel Althamer’s Schedule of the Crucifix. The poor loinclothed lad hung from the cross so long his feet and legs turned blue. “You must ask him to get down,” the endurance queen told New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni. “I know better than anyone what that is like, and even I can’t take it!”
Moving down the stairwell between the fourth and third floors, I found the Edge entranced by Nathalie Djurberg’s brilliant video It’s the Mother, which debuted last year at the Venice Biennale. “Who did the music?” he asked no one in particular, hooting at the sight of babies crawling back into the womb. A moment later, a woman tapped the U2 guitarist on the shoulder and asked whether he was Robert something-or-other. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, when he shook his head. “I thought you were someone else, a musician I know.”
Left: Artists Cecily Brown and Elizabeth Peyton. Right: Artists Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili and Andro Wekua.
Just after 9 PM, the crowd started ambling up the street to the party Joannou was throwing for the museum at the Bowery Hotel. No one was expecting dinner, the times having inured many of us to passed-hors-d’oeuvres affairs, but we should have known better. Joannou is nothing if not generous. “There’s quite a big spread inside,” dealer Maureen Paley told me as I lunged, famished, at a tiny cheese tart on a passing tray. “It’s a very good party.”
In fact, it was a fantastic party, much like those Joannou gives at home in Athens. Drinks flowed, tables were laden with pasta, roast vegetables, and sushi rolls, and conversation bubbled over the loud music that eventually would get some of the more hard-core revelers to the dance floor later in the evening. Hundreds of people in town for the Armory Show and the new Independent fair crowded every available space.
Some people were comparing the Koons show to the Whitney Biennial. “That’s like comparing a chandelier to a shoe,” scoffed Biennial curator Francesco Bonami. He didn’t say which was which. At the bar, Webster was drinking cosmopolitans and paying homage to Sex and the City. “I think it’s brilliant,” she said. “My favorite show. It’s inspiring. I mean, I have a man in my life, but I don’t know what I’d do without my girlfriends.”
Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden and curator Rochelle Steiner. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Dealer Leo Koenig. (Photo: John Arthur Peetz)
The art world travels in packs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many people as the thousands who attended the Armory Show’s vernissage the next day. “It’s a good fair,” I kept hearing people say. But it turned out all they meant was that it was better than last year’s, which was dismal.
Who was there? “Everyone you would expect,” more than one dealer said. “You know, the Rubells, the De la Cruzes, Mike Ovitz, Sofia Coppola, Beth Rudin DeWoody, and Dakis, of course.” Joannou was among the first to arrive, though he was still at his party when I left it the night before. Perhaps he came straight over.
Personally, I was most impressed by the single-artist presentations: Josephine Meckseper at Elizabeth Dee’s booth, James Nares at Paul Kasmin’s, Adam McEwen at Nicole Klagsbrun, Kris Martin at Sies + Hoke, Nancy Chunn at Ronald Feldman, Tony Feher at PaceWildenstein. Most depressing was the food situation. It may seem as if I care about little else, but no one can spend an entire day negotiating monsoons of people and art without something more than a sixteen-dollar glass of bad champagne.
There were a few sandwiches in the so-called VIP Lounge (a crowded corner of a tented area), but what was more invigorating were the Icelandic artists supporting I8 Gallery. They included the jolly Ragnar Kjartansson and Björk, who was literally wearing a hair suit—a sweater festooned with fake hair. “I got it years ago at a thrift shop,” she said. It was the most unique object I saw all week: anonymous, intimate, and funny. And not for sale.
LAST THURSDAY, as both the Whitney Biennial and a snowstorm descended on New York, I schlepped through the slush to SoHo, where the third annual Brucennial was happening in a former discount-fashion outlet (lent by Aby Rosen, an art collector and real estate developer regularly featured in the New York Social Diary). In case you haven’t heard, the Brucennial is the “Bruce High Quality Foundation’s ‘sort of democratic’ response to the Whitney Biennial,” I was briefed by an art maven, “which is also a bit odd, because they’re in the Whitney Biennial. All the daily critics seem to love them, and I’ve never completely gathered why (except for the crazy name).” I feared just a crowded hipsterish opening scene—with Julian Schnabel’s son running around. But my source urged me to check out this “cause célèbre of the moment.”
Organized by the aforementioned Vito Schnabel (who resembled the young Henry Hill in Goodfellas, with Julian Schnabel’s features superimposed, and seemed to be wearing a pajama top) and gushed over by the aforementioned art-world validators, I was curious to experience the steak behind the “Bruce” sizzle. The Bruces are “sort of like ‘Art Club 2000’ wannabes, which is something of a weird idea,” explained my informant. Or like the Guerrilla Girls, I thought, but instead of gorilla masks they all go by the moniker Bruce, and instead of exposing sexism in the art world they’ve branded themselves as “pedagogical” in some vague way. “They’re the most cheeky—and thus the most unthreatening/consumable and successful of the ‘pedagogical’ art-group projects to have sprouted up recently.” As an out-and-proud nerd, if pedagogy is “the new black” this season I’m all for it. Instead of curators doing studio visits, Brucennial pieces were self-submitted via Bruces, friends-of-Bruces, or however.
“We wanted a theme that was general enough to include almost anything,” one Bruce told the New York Times. They picked “miseducation,” though I never would have guessed. (Mission accomplished?) The crowded salon-style installation on the white walls of the anodyne former retail space did recall MFA thesis shows I’d attended. And the work looked like a sampler platter of current “practice,” a lot of it figurative, some garbage-based, found objects, textural abstract blobs, assemblages with monitors. A dive-bar-worthy graffitied cubicle labeled FOR DRUGS: NOT A BATHROOM; a motorized bouquet of plastic black-eyed Susans whirling around a platform; a Holy Bible rigged like the retro board game Operation; a cute painting of a dog on a vet’s table by Theo Rosenblum; plus a pornish area. Pieces by David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Terry Richardson (exposing his schlong), and Rita Ackermann “democratically” mingled with the unknowns. A genuine “pedagogue” from a Dumbo Studio art program was delightedly interviewing people, to be posted on YouTube. It was hopping. Gavin Brown, Rob Pruitt, Jeffrey Deitch, and Jerry Saltz wandered around, and Schnabel père looked affable and portly in a fedora, overcoat, and sneakers.
So what’s the deal with this show? I asked an ingratiating-looking artist in a furry hat who was lurking around his piece: “A bunch of connected people doing something semi-interesting?” he guessed, like it was a quiz. Intrigued and puzzled by the hype, I lingered quite awhile. Attempting to process the visual cacophony, a thoughtful sculptor I ran into found herself touching everything (lightly!). “There’s so much stimulation here,” she said, “it cancels itself out”—though she appreciated the silver foil covering the ceiling beams. Also attempting to have some kind of aesthetic moment before I left, I stood regarding a Charles Ray–esque floor piece: A wee Picasso, creepily realistic as a garden gnome, mowed a petite Astroturf lawn with a tiny red lawn mower.
The well-dressed guy next to me soliloquized: “It’s a reflection of a repetition of something that was done before . . .” or something like that.
“Are you an artist?” I inquired.
That always takes them aback. He looked perturbed, then blurted confidently, “No. I get paid for what I do. I’m a commercial artist. Do you know the AT&T logo?”
Then he scurried away.