High Society

Aspen, Colorado
08.17.09

Left: Artist Fred Tomaselli with Aspen Art Museum director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. Right: Kyle MacLachlan with artist Jason Middlebrook. (Except where noted, all photos: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan)


THERE ARE FEW THINGS more scenic than cruising at twenty-five thousand feet over the green and white Rocky Mountains of Colorado’s high country; but as my Bombardier Turboprop approached Aspen’s tiny airstrip last Wednesday, it was the views of the private ranches, man-made lakes, and sprawling vacation homes that caught my eye. Though the picturesque (and hard-to-reach) community is famous for its exclusivity, it has garnered a new reputation as a fund-raising powerhouse, and the three days of events benefiting its own Aspen Art Museum were proof positive. I arrived in town with just enough time to find my way to the modernist mountain home of collectors John and Amy Phelan, who were hosting a benefit wine tasting and four-course meal as a kickoff to the fifth annual “ArtCRUSH” events.

Guests included Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak and artist Mike Starn; dealers Jim and Jane Cohan, Marianne Boesky, and Perry Rubenstein, who remarked at the lack of phallic symbols among the many objects and paintings in the Phelan’s decidedly sexy collection; and Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison and Anthony Grant, who hosted a barbecue with bluegrass quartet on Thursday night. There were also Aspen locals and collectors, namely Paul and June Schorr; Nancy and Bob Magoon, who generously opened their own home the following day for an intimate collection tour; and Debra and Dennis Scholl, whose Betts & Scholl wine was a highlight of the tasting. By the time the third course (elk) and the ninth wine (bordeaux) were served, I realized the high altitude (and likely the ninth wine) was taking its toll, and I began to weigh the possible repercussions for next morning’s exhibition walk-through with Fred Tomaselli, who, in addition to being awarded for his achievements, is having a midcareer retrospective at the museum.

Left: Anna Hansen and Lance Armstrong. Right: Collector Mera Rubell with dealer Perry Rubenstein.


Around 9 AM, Tomaselli and I, both a bit bleary-eyed, met at his impressive exhibition, which features around forty works produced since the early 1990s. (It will travel to the Tang Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in the coming year.) The show offers many of Tomaselli’s unreal landscapes made from layered and loaded materials like psychoactive plants, bugs, and pharmaceuticals. Between anecdotes of his work being seized by French customs and his punk days in ’80s LA, I asked Tomaselli about his first impression of Aspen. “I don’t know if I’m qualified to comment,” he replied, “but Aspen seems like a parallel universe. There is definitely a culture around pleasure and pleasure seeking here.” The night prior, a handful of local collectors had also described Aspen as an “an adult Disneyland,” “an alpine amusement park,” and a “fantasy land”; I was beginning to wonder whether this culture of escapism had anything to do with the museum selling all of the twenty-five stout, psilocybin-like sculptures donated by artist Jason Middlebrook and dealer Sara Meltzer as part of the fund-raiser.

My suspicions were confirmed the following evening when I arrived at the psychedelically festooned tents (inspired by Tomaselli’s chemical sublime) that had sprouted across the museum lawn. At a tent holding yet another wine tasting and silent and live-auction artworks, I spotted Lance Armstrong, who was no doubt doing some post-Tour escaping of his own. But Armstrong vanished quickly as the well-heeled crowd of locals and émigrés began filing toward the tent that housed a Willy Wonka–esque bar decked with jars of candy and little plastic toys redolent of the kind you might have found at a mid-’90s rave. There was even a flavored-oxygen bar that I happily saddled up to (having found Aspen’s altitude more than just figuratively breathtaking).

Left: Collector Amy Phelan with MoMA trustee James Niven. Right: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's head of contemporary art.


Narrowly locating my table before the start of the live auction, I took my seat next to Don Rubell, whose editorials throughout the bidding revealed both an incredible wealth of art knowledge and a good-natured sense of humor. The bidding wars were intense—a Tomaselli fetched $110,000, and works by Peter Coffin, Robert Mangold, Rineke Djikstra, and Raquib Shaw also fared well. An Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin–commissioned portrait prompted one onlooker to note that “vanity is a powerful force.” Director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson took the stage with trustee president Nancy Magoon to offer thanks for raising one million dollars over the week’s events. (Keeping in line with the week’s numerous drug references—this could have doubled as a sequel to the opening for LA MoCA’s 2005 show “Ecstasy”—the feisty Magoon offered that “the generation that took acid is now on antacid.”) As the revelers headed out for the afterparty (billing a Prince tribute act, Purple Reign), I took one final look at the full moon silhouetting the rocky peaks and decided that this indeed had been a very good trip.

Catherine Taft

Left: Aspen by Gondola. Right: Purple Reign. (Photos: Catherine Taft)