Happy Returns

New York
02.09.05

Left: Kiki, Jane, and Seton Smith. Right: Paolo Carnevale and Barbara Gladstone.


The most radiant face in the art world last Thursday night belonged to Jane Smith, celebrating her ninetieth birthday at her LaGuardia Place loft with a party given by her artist daughters, Kiki and Seton. Before marrying their father, artist Tony Smith, Jane (ne Lawrence) was a babe of Broadway. She appeared in the original production of Oklahoma in 1943, eventually taking over the romantic lead, and also modeled for the photographer Edmund Teske (1911–1996); his dreamy black-and-white portraits resurfaced in an exhibition at the Getty last summer, where several images of Jane pointed up her ageless beauty. Throughout the early 1950s, she sang with the Salzburg Opera, only returning to the concert stage in 1983, when she appeared in a recital with Rhys Chatham.

Jane married Tony Smith in Hollywood, with Tennessee Williams as best man. A Williams confidante from the moment they met in the 1940s, Jane still keeps her New Directions editions of his plays and stories close at hand. At least two friends from their old circle came for her birthday: novelist Donald Windham and Williams's patron Jeanne Bultman, a former Minsky's stripper who married Fritz Bultman, of the palatial Bultman Funeral Home in New Orleans's French Quarter. The studio and garden behind their residence was the setting for Suddenly Last Summer, which Williams wrote while living under their roof. Seton vividly recalled her mother's horror at the way critics in the 1970s savaged Williams—one of the greatest playwrights this country has ever produced. It was through him, she said, that Jane became part of the glittering circle that included Gore Vidal, Anna Magnani, and Montgomery Clift.

Among the fifty or so guests at the party were artists Richard Tuttle, Pat Steir, and Barry Le Va; the charming Lorcan O'Neill, in town from his gallery in Rome; and the imposing Virginia Dwan, mother of Earth art. Sitting tall and smiling in a red feather boa that was a birthday present from novelist Lynne Tillman, Jane was every inch the welcoming grand dame as Rob Storr (quickly quashing rumors of his imminent return to MoMA), Susanna Moore (in Oaxacan costume), New Directions editor-in-chief Barbara Epler, Susan Ensley, Walter Robinson, and Claudia Gould happily gathered round.

That true party animals do not die young was proved again the following night at Passerby, where Gavin Brown and Barbara Gladstone joined forces to celebrate their exhibitions of new work by Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas. After a respectable interlude for drinks and oddly inappropriate tea sandwiches, Linda Nochlin led the likes of Elizabeth Peyton, Tony Just, Jessica Craig-Martin, Abigail Lane, and T. J. Wilcox onto the dance floor. (Even the demure Gladstone took a turn!) “Nothing much else to do here,” Nochlin said with a shrug.

As the party picked up steam, Lucas (whose show at Gladstone marks her first appearance in a New York gallery in seven years) serenaded new parents Gregory and Ivy Crewdson with creditable renditions of Kenny Loggins and Dolly Parton tunes. This behavior contrasted sharply with the role she took for her opening, where she put in only the briefest appearance and then repaired to the Half King for a pint. “Sarah had been working in the gallery for four days,” explained her beau, Olivier Garbay (“gay boy backwards,” she offered later on). “It was enough.” Her absence left attendees like Richard Prince, Michael Clark, Mary Farley, Hilton Als, and Charlie Atlas with two choices: Talk to each other or study the pantyhose-trailing metal buckets, bedsprings and concrete rugby balls (“sperm”) on view. Many studied. “Look,” exclaimed Gladstone, standing in the reception area. “It's the stars and stripes!” She was pointing to Aunty Jam, a large, rusted, globe-shaped metal cage set on plastered Army boots, with a stiffened pair of pantyhose flying from one side, under a spray of nylon stars on wire spokes. Prices were quoted in pounds. Pounds? “Sarah wants to be paid in pounds,” said one gallery rep. Can't say I blame her—I do, too.

Left: Olivier Garbay and Sarah Lucas. Middle: Visitors enter Urs Fischer's bread house. Right: Gregory and Ivy Crewdson.


Not to be outdone, Urs Fischer had spent the week at Gavin Brown's Leroy Street space doing what one wag called “his Swiss folkloric thing,” and building a full-scale “gingerbread house” out of loaves of sourdough from a Sullivan Street bakery. The exhibition also included a platinum-blond wig that scratched itself with a mechanical hand and three laser-printed photos of Swiss streets and interiors “cracked” by meandering bands of red and white. People seemed to like these best.

For his part, Brown is never less than rousing as an art dealer, but time and again he demonstrates that inside his he-man chest beats the heart of a born set decorator. The back room at Passerby became an indoor oasis with his expert placement of potted palms, a couple of narrow, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, child-proof caf tables and stools, and a surround of dark, heavy drapery. Rudi Stingel arrived right off a plane from Italy and after 10 PM the spillover from Matthew Higgs's “Trade” show opening at White Columns (and probably every other art event in town) thronged the door, the hallway, the bar, the toilets, and the sidewalk outside, where the art world's own Hardy Boys—Tobias Meyer, Todd Eberle, and Mark Fletcher—were venturing to park their car. When last seen, Lucas was leaping into waiting arms on the dance floor. Someone said it was too bad she would never remember the experience. Lucas had another opinion. “I always remember whatever I need to,” she said. Fucking A.

Linda Yablonsky