Washington Heights

Washington, DC

Left: Arts patron Olga Hirshhorn. Right: Hirshhorn Museum director Richard Koshalek. (All photos: Eric Uhlir)

SOME TWO HUNDRED well-wishers, friends, colleagues, and descendants of art collector and philanthropist Olga Hirshhorn gathered last Friday night at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for the benefactor’s ninetieth birthday party, a black-tie affair that began with opera tributes and modern dance and concluded with heavy-metal covers and Kanye West shutter-shade handouts. Over the interim, Hirshhorn’s friends and family—including tennis partners and Cove Inn regulars from Naples (Florida), fly-fishermen from Martha’s Vineyard, and diplomats from Washington, DC—enjoyed a private, twilight dinner in the sculpture garden. There, one presenter after another, including Hirshhorn Museum director Richard Koshalek and former Corcoran Gallery of Art director David Levy, toasted Hirshhorn’s productivity, her longevity, and her devotion to art. If any of them noticed the striking juxtaposition of the dais and its backdrop—the looming, angsty figures of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais lit up in festive, purple party lights—none made a point of mentioning it, though the sculpture earned praise in several toasts.

The partying Burghers would not be the most surprising visual from the evening; instead, that honor belonged to the mounted tail of a forty-pound striped bass, a trophy that angler and author David Kinney presented to Hirshhorn for her lifetime achievements at the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. She neared—but never quite managed—the Derby’s “grand slam,” which involves capturing a false albacore, bonito, striped bass, and bluefish of a certain size over the course of five weeks. (She fell “a millimeter short,” offered Kinney.) That Hirshhorn took up competitive fishing well into her eighties represents an accomplishment in and of itself—and not, it would seem, an atypical one for her.

Left: Attendees at the party. Right: Artist Philip Pearlstein.

Though he was not able to appear at the party personally, Bill Clinton addressed Hirshhorn via video and, in his own inimitable fashion, spoke best to her charms. Recalling the times they had spent together at Martha’s Vineyard, Clinton said, “I remember when we were at our first dinner together, and I asked to sit next to you.” He chuckled. “And, well, it was the beginning of quite a friendship.” Another appreciative gesture, a portrait by Philip Pearlstein, shows an unrefined likeness of Hirshhorn holding Man Ray’s Indestructible Object (and bears the stiff inscription OLGA HIRSHHORN IS 90); it was commissioned by Levy, an old friend of Hirshhorn’s. (Levy’s gift inspired some tittering from the crowd: In 1995, Hirshhorn surprised insiders by announcing that she would donate all the art she collected after her husband Joe Hirshhorn’s death—some seven hundred American and European works, worth, at the time, $10 million—to the Corcoran, rather than to her husband’s namesake institution.)

“We were gossiping like hell,” Levy said, describing a session in advance of the party during which he and Pearlstein signed and numbered (respectively) 185 prints of the portrait—one party favor for every guest. Pearlstein taught at Pratt with Levy’s father. For his part, Pearlstein noted that the portrait was only the second time he had ever worked from a photograph, and he said that he had a tough time deciding what to make: “I couldn’t think of anything quirky.”

Before dinner, it was a more staid affair. Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre programmed a dance performed by Andile Ndlovu; art collector Aimee Lehrman preened in the reflective glass of Dan Graham’s For Gordon Bunshaft. After dinner, the champagne came out—and so did the glow sticks. And the light-up Kanye West shades. An adolescent girl with a deep alto, backed by a rock band of other youngsters, saved the party with a cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” among other numbers. Onlookers peered over the sculpture garden’s walls as Hirshhorn’s many relatives and admirers danced well beyond sundown.

Kriston Capps