Left: MoMA President Emerita Agnes Gund with dealer Marian Goodman. Right: Jeannette and Jeff Wall. (Unless noted: All photos David Velasco)
When I learned my friends at “Scene & Herd” were poised to pass on the big opening-night party for Jeff Wall’s MoMA retrospective due to the probable difficulty of securing a place at a table for one of their scribes, collegial spirit kicked in. “Plus,” my editor reminded me, “You share your name with one of Wall’s photos! You have to write.”
Wall, as it happens, is one of my all-time favorites, and having seen the capacious 2005–2006 Schaulager retrospective and Sheena Wagstaff’s radical edit for Tate Modern, I was itching to see how the show’s organizers, Peter Galassi (the museum’s chief photography curator) and Neil Benezra (the director of SF MoMA, where the exhibition will end its three-city tour), would parse this rather thoroughly sliced-and-diced material. The MoMA show is not, as one might reasonably surmise, the third stop of the Basel tour, but an all-new MoMA-originated production with its own tour (it stops at Chicago’s Art Institute on route to SF), complete with its own full-scale catalogue. What do we get in New York? A bare-bones Wall (the Galassi show is even smaller—though not by so much—than the Tate’s); a consistently thoughtful selection of images; a show that is sensitively installed, though it must be said that despite the exhibition’s relatively modest size, it is not, in the end, a roomy hang. Perhaps these still-new galleries are a mite small for the retrospective task.
Of course, I am the wrong person to ask. Being something of a Wall fanatic (not that Galassi isn’t, too), each picture held back is, for me, a baby murdered, and I can’t help but feel a little cheated by this spare selection. Do we lose too many recalcitrant but supremely worthy pictures, too many quirky scenes in the name of magisterial poise? Does Wall’s signature terrain vague get a little "terrain pretty” in this sampling? Where are Diatribe and Bad Goods and The Crooked Path (at least one of these!), and where is The Stumbling Block? Oh, bother, this nitpicking is tiresome. I respect Galassi’s tough-love determination to craft an exhibition for his space, and the results will serve MoMA’s audience well. Still, Galassi writes in his essay for the catalogue (which I’ve only had time to peek at) that “part of our pleasure” is debating the triumphs versus the less successful experiments, so just for the pleasure of it (and I am not merely being naughty), I will confess that my personal peeve is the cover choice. I do not think After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue to be one of Wall’s greatest works. It is too illustrative, even a touch cloying in its literariness, for my taste. But I digress . . .
Left: MoMA curator Peter Galassi with Jo Carole Lauder, president of the MoMA International Council. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: SF MoMA director Neal Benezra and Ava Benezra.
“Scene & Herd” is about not art but its mise-en-scène, and the scène on Tuesday evening was low-key but entirely congenial. I tripped from hello to hello through the pleasantly undercrowded galleries: Just past the coat check, I bumped into Times “Inside Art” columnist Carol Vogel, whose professional-grade gossip kept my ears perked well into the fourth gallery. There goes Rüdiger Schöttle, the Munich-based gallerist who provided the artist with his first internationally significant home. Wall’s work, of course, was relatively slow to get its due in this country, and the few words of Schöttle’s partner, Jörg Johnen, to me registered perfectly the mix of pride and maybe just a touch of regret that comes of having done the history-making due diligence and then stepping a bit to the background as the glory (and the spoils) roll in: “Here we are at the top of the heap—MoMA! It was inevitable, I guess, that we would finally meet here.” Speaking of glory, I ducked below the horizon of heads to greet Marian Goodman. The first lady of New York dealers, she squired Wall through the next stage of his career and into the two-continent big leagues. This was her night as much as Jeff’s, and she radiated what she always radiates these days: practiced noblesse oblige. “Don’t look now,” I thought to myself, “Here comes Jay Jopling.” Everybody likes Jay, of course, including me, because he is soooo charming—and so Jay. And being as Jay as he ever is, he hit me right off with a hard-driving question re the identity of a passing MoMA-board honcho. I thought I was the journalist! I divulged nothing.
My next hello went to Hans Bodenmann and Maja Oeri, the great Swiss patrons and the forces behind the grand Schaulager show and the catalogue raisonné that accompanied it, not to mention important funders of this exhibition. It is nice, of course, when lots of money comes with even more taste, and Jeff did not forget his thank-yous when speech time rolled around. Oh, and there was my old colleague David Frankel. Frankel labors someplace backstage at MoMA turning art criticism into English. I hope he gets a secret salary.
One virtue of Galassi’s extrataut selection is that I had time to make four laps of the exhibition before the dinner trumpets sounded. When I located my table in a part of Russia where some of you have likely done time, a glance at the place cards revealed another happy/worrisome sign of global warming. I drew the Guggenheim’s Lisa Dennison, who is very good company at affairs like these, and also San Francisco’s Carla Emil—she has great taste in art, which, of course, means taste like mine.
The speeches came—they always do—but each was well turned and to the point. Robert B. Menschel, the museum’s chair (and the guy, by the way, Jopling asked about), was appropriately official; Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, was crisp and full of fire as is his way (and after what can only have been a trying week); Galassi, who is a perspicacious student of his media (photography but also words), was perspicacious; and Jeff . . . now, Jeff is a very special speaker, and he showed his rhetorical stuff by pulling off that rather rare thing—authentic thanks in a setting in which such sentiments, because obligatory, are wont to feel rote. Despite his intellection (much mentioned this evening), Jeff has a plainspoken way about him that can be disarming—because (not tonight, of course) he says rather weird and often inspired things. He thanked his Canadian friends who, he noted, traveled far to be with him; he praised his curators, calling the experience of working with them “a blast,” words a less imaginative speaker might have reserved for fill-in-the-blank—post-Oscar party-hopping with Courtney Love—and he told a story about the serendipitous appearance of Matisse’s The Piano Lesson in the museum’s conservation room as he installed his show. Running into this great painting (a childhood favorite of his) frameless and at close quarters drove home the honor—and maybe the magical strangeness—of his own work taking its place in the great sequence of modern art that is synonymous with MoMA. It was nice.
The evening passed quickly, with the first fidgeting husbands holding off on watch-checking till well past nine. One of my partners remarked that people were maybe lingering over dessert a little longer than usual; the smell of coffee more often than not signals mass exodus at such events. But then Wall rose, and the ribbons of good-night wishers began to snake toward his center table and then back out to the periphery—and, eventually, the street. “Good night,” in fact, were my first words to Wall all evening, so congratulations were also in order, but there were a lot of people, so they would have to be quick. “It is a busy week, but maybe we should have that drink,” he offered. That’s awfully nice, I thought, but I won’t hold him to it.
As I headed downtown, musing about this beautiful show, my thoughts kept turning to a recent, relatively small picture, After “Spring Snow” by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34. It is a color image, and it was not on a light box. I have always wondered about those light boxes—how they would feel as time passed and their period-specificity began to show. Of course, I love them, but I also love dented Minimal sculpture. Both have their poetry. I wonder, might this little image auger the shape of things to come? Who knows. There was lots of talk about the rigors of converting the museum to European voltage (converters, apparently, can muck up the color). Perhaps next time it will be that much easier.
Left: Collector Glenn Fuhrman and Jeff Wall. Right: Collector and New Line Cinema CEO Michael Lynne with dealer Jay Jopling.
Left: Thomas Lawson, artist and CalArts dean. Right: Art historian Linda Nochlin with Andrew Brown, commissioning editor of Thames & Hudson. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)
Some art worlders lead sexy lives, others spend Valentine’s Day at the Hilton in midtown. Six thousand participants converged on the generic hotel with garish carpets for the academic talk-a-thon otherwise known as the annual conference of the College Art Association (CAA). With more than two hundred panels, receptions, meetings, and reunions, it is a polymorphous event kicked off by an awards ceremony, which one speaker said is “as close as art historians get to the Oscars.” Indeed, award winners were limited to a two-minute speech, and as most of the accolades honored lifetime achievement, many came prepared with a joke about aging. Some winners expressed their gratitude in meticulous detail; others simply offered a sketch. Upon accepting the Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work, Betye Saar was effusive: “I want to thank anyone who has ever shown a slide of mine.”
Jerry Saltz won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism. “I’m writing as hard as I can,” he assured the crowd. “I love the art world. It’s my family and my subject.” To shed further light on his motivations, he explained that when he first started writing, his wife, New York Times critic Roberta Smith, told him that if he didn’t get better at it, she would kill herself.
Artist Duane Michals, with Scotch tape on his eyeglasses and green Wellington boots, delivered the keynote address. His half hour of autobiographical wisecracks was punctuated by the inquiring plea: “Are you teaching amazement in your schools?” He showed slides of his photo narratives, which included a drag version of “Untitled Film Stills” called “Who Is Sidney Sherman?”
The next day, it was back to the serious business of academia. Bigwig art historians wandered the corridors with entourages of grad students nipping at their heels. When they encountered dons of similar rank, they made sure to confirm the time and place of their postpanel powwow, while their students hung back in a tribal huddle, taking mental notes on the protocols of scholarly interaction. All observed with empathy the anxious gait of recent Ph.D.'s in dark suits on their way to interviews in hotel rooms, where members of the hiring committee might very well be sitting in a prim row at the foot of a king-size bed.
Is this academic conference the obverse of an art fair? Both are markets. But here, art historians are marketing themselves. Moreover, for the cost of a work by a mid-ranking German photographer (one in an edition of six), you can obtain a unique art historian for an entire year. Also, both occasions are increasingly focused on new art. Doctorates used to be written about work that was at least thirty years old; now, artists unheard of six months ago are being “historicized” at CAA. However, between the conference and the fair, there are deep schisms in taste. The fashionable artists at CAA—like Walid Raad’s Atlas Group—may be enjoying exhibitions at the erudite Paula Cooper Gallery, but they rarely produce the high-end hotcakes that pay for a dealer’s booth.
The conference bore witness to the glories of academic argot. Panels were resplendent with hackneyed jargon like the banal “dialectics of desire,” the predictable “challenge to essentialist identities,” and the deadly “rearticulation of the specificity of hegemony.” Some audience members played hangman. Others pondered the curious clear-plastic-encased gold braid on the conference-room chairs. I contemplated the conspicuous absence of blondes and concluded that CAA was a brunette affair.
The hottest panels were organized by the “new October junta” and attended by older October editors and contributors. The biggest draw of the weekend, “Virtualities: Contemporary Art Between Fact and Fiction,” played to a ballroom packed with people nervously scribbling notes. The panelists, largely contributors from October and Artforum, including Artforum’s editor-in-chief, Tim Griffin, were arguing (sometimes implicitly and always ambivalently) against the notion that there is, as Mark Godfrey put it, “no criticality in virtuality.” I sat next to Andrew Brown, commissioning editor for art at Thames & Hudson, who eventually whispered: “The irony is that this is a virtual discussion. The CAA is, by its nature, spectacular.” Indeed, it was excellent theater. The first four speakers performed their positions with struts and frets, while the fifth speaker concluded the friendly competition with a series of theoretical pirouettes on utopia. Then the session’s impresarios, T. J. Demos and Margaret Sundell, invited questions from the floor, and Tom McDonough stood up and delivered a devastatingly clever antidenouement. When I caught up later with McDonough, he admitted, “You need a complex language to analyze complex ideas, but there is a performative aspect. We have to admit it’s a code, signaling to an in-group.”
While “Virtualities” offered its fascinations, my favorite panel was an off-Broadway session organized by Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice. “The Fall of the Studio: Reassessing L’Atelier d’Artiste in the Post-studio Era” consisted of five well-researched case studies presented in chronological order, pulled together in a feminist tour de force by respondent Kirsten Swenson. All seemed to agree that “poststudio” is a misnomer. Although no longer a celebrated site of individual creativity, the studio is still a frame (for artists as diverse as Mark Rothko and Bruce Nauman), a center of interrelation and exchange (e.g., Olafur Eliasson workshop and office), and a subject matter (Jason Rhoades’s My Brother/Brancusi, now clearly canonized, was shown by several speakers).
When I finally hit the book fair, I was a little worse for wear. The “dialectics of tedium and engrossment” had taken their toll. Still, it was a pleasure to bump into Linda Nochlin. She’d been feted with a “Distinguished Scholar Session” and was doting over manuscript copies of her collected writings on Gustave Courbet, which come out in June. With essays going back to 1965, the book is as much about Nochlin’s intellectual development as it is about the artist. Pointing at the cover illustration, Courbet’s self-portrait The Wounded Man, the fabulous feminist twinkled, “Isn’t he the Mick Jagger of the nineteenth century?”
Left: Liane Thatcher with artist Mary Heilmann. Right: Curator Katy Siegel. (All photos: David Velasco)
In the aftermath of one of those nasty snowstorms in which one’s face is pummeled with what feels like ground glass and every sidewalk becomes a slippery slope to oblivion, Thursday night was bitterly cold. The dignified but cramped lobby of the National Academy Museum—right up Fifth Avenue from where a candlelight ceremony at the Guggenheim was welcoming the stolen-and-recovered Goya canvas to its Spanish painting show—was filled with a comparatively grizzled crowd trying to unbundle itself of dark and puffy coats and get up the narrow, curving stone stairs to see the New York debut of “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967–1975.”
Odd as the academy might initially seem (brown rooms, parquet floor, linen walls, yellowish light) as a venue for an exhibition of—as Annette Blaugrund, the museum’s director, put it at the dinner after the opening—work that emphatically tried to repel the first iteration of the “painting is dead” virus, the place was weirdly appropriate. After all, the show’s subject is the heyday of artists being militantly out of place: young, bell-bottomed aesthetes with masters’ degrees and Led Zeppelin hairdos living in cavernous, poorly heated former sweatshops in order to try to save painting by physically defining it as spray-gunned imagelessness, latex poured directly on the floor, dangling vertical strips of canvas, and festive tents. The nine years covered by “High Times, Hard Times” are probably the last time—before they discovered the market in the ’80s, networking in the ’90s, and self-marketing in the twenty-first century—that artists earned their chops simply by being totally into their work. The sight of all those vets of pregentrification SoHo—Lynda Benglis, Carolee Schneemann, Dorothea Rockburne, David Diao, Joan Snyder, Elizabeth Murray, Michael Venezia, Howardena Pindell, Richard Van Buren, et al.—navigating rooms decidedly not constructed for their kind of art was pure ’70s. Had the academy let people smoke and booze in the gallery, admitted a couple of dogs with paisley bandanas, and had on hand a couple of crying babies (the show’s curator, Katy Siegel, left her infant at home), the affair could have been a time trip to Broome Street back in the day.
Though the exhibition is of my time, it ain’t of my place; I was in LA and elsewhere while all this crucial stuff was going on. So, of course, I recognized the writers (Michael Brenson, Phyllis Braff, Howard Singerman, Raphael Rubinstein, et al.) more than the artists. One of them, Thomas McEvilley, spied me scribbling in a reporter’s notebook. “You’re taking notes, Peter,” he said from behind me. “Are you going to write something?” Ah—pace Janet Malcolm—journalism as betrayal! I didn’t tell anyone to his or her face that I thought the gathering had the ring of a forty-fifth high school reunion—participants checking out the condition of their confreres and wondering how many of them would be around for the fiftieth. I didn’t tell anyone there, either, that I was moved by the palpable optimism of the work—a feeling that abstract art could change the world, without the addition of political bumper stickers.
To catch that vibe, I think, one had to be of a certain vintage. As the now-upstate painter Frank Owen (“I’m old enough to be in this show, and I’m not. Should I be irked?”) said to me, “Notice that the people in the galleries looking at the art are geezers like us. The young painters are downstairs pounding the booze.” At the dinner afterward—no hard liquor, but the wine flowed freely—I sat at a back table with the art historian and catalogue contributor Anna Chave; Diao (who’s in the show); Christine Williams, the academy’s press person (and, incidentally, daughter of Rockburne); and, later, a few table-hoppers. I picked up what gossip I could. Rumors were afloat that lack of money dictated that some artists would be represented by misleadingly small pieces; that the show could’ve gone to Europe (which, early on, was often more simpatico to such art than America) to Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Lange in Krefeld, but the exhibition organizers (Independent Curators International) demurred because of no climate control; and that Mel Bochner (in the catalogue as a participant, but nowhere to be seen at the Academy) pulled out “because he always thought he was better than the rest of us.” That last remark prompted me to wonder where the hell was Brice Marden.
Afterward, I rode the subway home with Venezia and his wife. We got off at the same downtown stop and walked through the small icy mounds together for a couple of blocks. Then we parted company, and I went back to my loft. Which was in pretty civilized and comfy shape when I moved into it sixteen years ago—thanks, indirectly but in no small measure, to the artists in “High Times, Hard Times.”
Left: P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss, Crown Princess Mette-Marit, and artist Tom Sandberg. (Photo: Keith Smith for P.S. 1) Right: Actor Tim Robbins. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco)
Observing the long, shivering queue waiting for admission to last Sunday’s winter openings at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, I almost turned back, Scene & Herd be damned. But the line moved swiftly enough, and my perseverance was rewarded with a clutch of excellent shows (eight commenced simultaneously), as well as good people-watching. The schoolhouse was flooded with everyday patrons, art-world aristocrats such as Jonas Mekas and Marina Abramovic, and even some official royalty, namely Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, on hand for the opening of countryman Tom Sandberg’s installation of elegant black-and-white photographs.
Beginning on the third floor with Alanna Heiss’s “Not for Sale”—a show of works that artists have refused to part with—I spied some Oscar nobility, too. A well-bundled Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins stood with friend Rufus Wainwright admiring Squaring, Jennifer Bartlett’s calm painting of matrices of dots. When I approached Robbins, I promptly dropped my press kit, spilling checklists at his feet. P.S. 1 may be a museum now, but it remains the perfect mise-en-scène for awkward high school moments. I watched with some humiliation as Robbins and a security guard—gentlemen of the first order—rushed to gather the papers. Sarandon herself was all grace, too, when, a bit later, standing in front of Dana Schutz’s painting Ryan, I took a plunge and introduced her to the serendipitously present artist. They spoke for what seemed like forever. (“So where exactly is Zach Feuer Gallery?”) Afterward, I chatted with the overwhelmed Downtown for Democracy rep, who admitted: “I couldn’t bear to tell Susan Sarandon that I’d just taken my picture with her replica in the wax museum.”
Nearby, Richard Tuttle silently held court in a room devoted solely to his work, while curator Eugenie Tsai spoke with Shirin Neshat about her own contribution. Roaming about, I bumped into an exhausted Lawrence Weiner and his wife, Alice, just back from an opening in Chicago. “It was insane—too much flying. Yesterday was my sixty-fifth birthday, and I completely forgot,” he said. I pushed on to yet another room of beloved artifacts. While I was standing next to a tire sculpture, a curmudgeon on crutches approached: “You can sit on it, you know.” Weary after witnessing several other patrons chastened by guards for attempting just that, I asked how he was sure. “Well, I made it. I’m Mark di Suvero.” Fair enough. So why didn’t he sell this piece? “You don’t sell toys!” he gasped.
If “Not for Sale” offered a few inspiring glimpses into the creative process, the experimental fourth-floor show “Emergency Room,” curated by Dane Thierry Geoffroy (inexplicably known as Colonel), made an argument for why some pieces should be held back. The show, a revolving door of work by over thirty artists, is replaced every day by art responding to world events of the past twenty-four hours. On my way up, I noted several people clad in headbands marked in red Sharpie with headlines variously obtuse (SUBJECTIVITY IS IMPOSSIBLE) and ignominious (DON’T THINK). It made me long for Fashion Week, where at least airheaded commentary is coupled with sartorial savvy (or a gift bag).
The museum was soon to close, so I raced to the main floor to catch a glimpse of “Silicone Valley,” P.S. 1 curatorial advisor Nick Stillman’s more nuanced exploration of superficiality. Stillman said that he wanted to make an exhibition that was “quick and sexy—something you can walk through and leave with a good impression.” I can vouch for its success in that department, but I knew I’d have to return later for a better look. The tired cliché holds water: You don’t go to an opening if you want to see the art.
My companions and I learned the hard way that cabs don’t exist in Long Island City, so we made the short trek to the G train and slouched toward the after-party for Stillman’s show at Brooklyn gallery Jack the Pelican Presents. Somewhat subdued, and certainly less star-studded, a few artists roamed the space, including “Silicone Valley” participant William Pope.L, who complained about P.S. 1’s bureaucratic attempt to bar visitors from entering his smelly installation, a corridor of stuffed animals covered in peanut butter and mayonnaise. While surely not without its failings, after spending a day with Peter Caine’s gyrating sculptures, Julian LaVerdiere’s piles of eagle heads, Dennis Oppenheim’s giant bloody nose, and other artist curios, I thought that a little red tape was a small price to pay.
A surge in Chinese confidence and the daily drop of the dollar against the yuan were the deep background for last weekend’s opening of “Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation,” a show generated in the high times of the Clinton era as a sort of kickback for the selection of loans that made up the Guggenheim’s 1998 exhibition “China: 5,000 Years.” At every turn, one was reminded of the absurdity of such goodwill cultural diplomacy, given that America’s reputation is so thoroughly tarnished and China's so doggedly ascendant. And yet China is still good, for the moment, at having it both ways: The National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) insists on the distinction of “hosting” an exhibition organized by the Guggenheim (and the Terra Foundation for American Art, which stepped in to save the plan two years ago) while at the same time disregarding a great deal of protocol that attends to such claims. Enthusiasm about working in China, coupled with a Western sense of “laying groundwork,” insures that they can, at least for now, get away with it.
At the opening, dignitaries sat in the excruciatingly calculated Chinese order—whereby power diminishes the further one is from the center of the room—as Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng and US ambassador Clark Randt Jr. (the latter was President Bush’s fraternity brother) both spoke in front of a giant red ribbon. The minister deployed the obvious metaphor of the two countries as an old couple, constantly quarreling but learning in the process. NAMOC inserted additional sponsors into the Guggenheim’s own precisely calibrated sponsor lineup, such that Yang Zilin of the China Bohai Bank (founded in December 2005 in the port city of Tianjin) joined Terra Foundation for American Art president Elizabeth Glassman and Alcoa CEO Alain Belda at the podium. (The Bohai Bank head used his five minutes to praise the amateur calligraphers in his ranks.) Cadillac China, another sponsor NAMOC courted independent of the Guggenheim’s impressive capital-mongering operation, used the opportunity to roll out its new SLS, with a line of the cars labeled “Art in America Special Luxury Vehicle” parked in front of the museum (a humble imitation of the BMW fleet at both Basels).
Sun and Randt cut the ribbon, the migrant-worker security guards hoisted open the imposing Soviet doors, and the crowd made its way into a series of rooms that actually did a nice job of telling the national artistic story. A Gilbert Stuart George Washington portrait and Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians led gradually to Cassatt and Hopper, then Pollock and Rothko, Warhol and Rosenquist, Lawrence Weiner and Carl Andre, Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring, Kara Walker and Matthew Barney. The curators—a trio comprising Susan Davidson from the Guggenheim, Betsy Kennedy from the Terra Foundation, and Nancy Mowll Matthews from Williams College Museum of Art—had pulled together an impressive range of loans from more than seventy museums and collections around the country, all willing to put their prize holdings on an Air China cargo liner.
The NAMOC had been remade by preparators sent from New York, who brought things like track lighting and precision digital projectors. Dan Flavin’s green crossing green (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) has probably never looked so good. Walker even shipped three overheads for her installation Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, yet We Pressed On), the cruel pathos of which was thoroughly lost on opening-night viewers, who used the projections as backgrounds for their own shadow puppets. Overheard in front of John Currin’s Thanksgiving: “Americans are so skinny!”
Left: A musician at the opening ceremonies. Right: Dealer Pi Li and artist Cai Guo-Quiang.
No Chinese bureaucratic milestone is complete without an awkwardly MCed banquet, and this one was spectacular. NAMOC research head Chen Lusheng, an archetypal Communist Party middle manager, read off names of dignitaries present in groupings spaced by musical interludes from a Chinese Kenny G wearing a white dinner jacket and playing “American music” (Carpenters, anyone?) on a soprano sax. NAMOC director Fan Di’an stood a few steps to the side through each of these naming marathons, scanning the crowd to search out faces that had not yet been introduced and then semidiscreetly whispering these into his MC’s ear in a valiant effort at bureaucratic damage control. The main table, reserved for people like Krens and the Cadillac brand manager, was graced with an impressive flower arrangement that later found its way onto the atrium floor in front of the exhibition’s title wall. I asked Beijing’s gallerist of the moment, Pi Li, who was seated next to me at table eighteen, where he would be now had he chosen to follow his old mentor Director Fan from the Central Academy of Fine Arts to the museum a year ago. Without a pause, he pointed to Manager Chen holding the name list on the podium and said, “Right there.”
Saturday night brought the real party. A fairly slim Guggenheim list gathered in the former prince’s palace that developer David Tang long ago turned into the China Club for cocktails and dinner hosted by Guggenheim-trustee hopefuls (and China-hedge-fund billionaires) Wilbur and Hilary Ross. It was one of those quarterly everyone-who’s-anyone-in-Beijing gatherings, loved by people like OMA partner and CCTV project manager Ole Scheeren and real estate magnate Pan Shiyi of Soho China. Artist Liu Xiaodong, whose Three Gorges painting cycle currently holds the auction record for a living Chinese artist (snapped up by a restaurateur during the November Beijing sales), sat next to me reminiscing about the year he spent in New York (1993–94) living in the basement apartment on East Seventh Street that had previously been occupied by Ai Weiwei.
Artist Cai Guo-Qiang (who will get the full-rotunda treatment in New York in January 2008) showed up halfway through dinner, fresh from meetings at the Olympic committee, with whom he is planning the opening-ceremony pyrotechnics. He missed a speech from Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, head of the American delegation to the “six-party process,” who joked about how nice it was not to be having dinner at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse with the North Koreans. The crowd-pleasing Krens ended the night by declaring that the Guggenheim is “inching closer to acquiring a significant building here in Beijing.” Like Minister Sun’s old couple, we may just be stuck with each other.
Left: Artists Zhan Wang and Zhang Xiaogang. Right: Artists Liu Xiaodong and Liu Dan.
Left: Antony of Antony and the Johnsons at the National Arts Club's Paris Bar. Right: Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Antony. (All photos: David Velasco)
On a bitterly cold Sunday evening in Manhattan, while most of the country was reportedly engrossed in something called the Super Bowl, I joined fans of a rather different stripe at the tony National Arts Club off Gramercy Park for a “Secret Show” by Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons. A benefit for Lower East Side gallery Participant, Inc., the performance promised to be the most intimate that the Mercury Music Prize–winning androgyne had given in some time, so its coincidence with the gridiron event of the season was barely mentioned and soon forgotten. Sorry, sports fans.
Arriving early, I negotiated a grumpy doorman and headed up to the sixth-floor Nyehaus Library (the club’s building houses, as well as a number of apartments, Tim Nye’s gallery) for preshow cocktails. The high-ceilinged, balconied room was soon filled to bursting with a well-heeled mix of patrons and collectors, artists and dealers, who had each shelled out a different amount, depending on whether they wanted a seat for the show or were prepared to crane their necks from the bar. (“I’ve never paid for a benefit in my life before,” admitted artist Kathe Burkhardt, “but I did this time. Lia [Gangitano, Participant’s founder] has done so much for me.”)
As Hal Willner spun unobtrusive party tunes, gallerist Marisa Newman admitted to me that, having once hefted Antony’s equipment, she still harbored roadie ambitions. Also very visible on the scene in the elegant room—hung with prints and drawings by Georg Baselitz in conjunction with Nyehaus’s current exhibition down the hall—were artist Jack Pierson (who had contributed a photographic edition to Participant’s cause) and Nan Goldin muse Joey Gabriel, Le Tigre’s Johanna Fateman and Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black singer Kembra Pfahler, Genesis P-Orridge with wife Lady Jaye, nèe Jacqueline Breyer (aka, as a couple, Breyer P-Orridge; whew!), and performance-art icon Marina Abramovic.
Left: Participant Inc. director Lia Gangitano. Right: The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black's Kembra Pfahler with Joey Gabriel.
After an hour of mingling, we were ushered downstairs for the main event. Progress was momentarily stalled by a bureaucratic attempt to funnel everyone through the elevator rather than down the stairs, but sensing impending gridlock, the organizers hastily reversed the decision. (“You look like a well-behaved lot.”) We trotted down, past a chaotic jumble of inhabitants’ bric-a-brac, to the first-floor Paris Bar. Vintage Scott Walker was playing as we arrived: a perfect theme for the long room’s crumbling antique glory.
Standing as close to the action as we could without actually stealing a chair, my companions and I searched in vain for the Amazing Disappearing Barman, as P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss, ubiquitous independent curator Clarissa Dalrymple, and dealer Becky Smith filed past us en route to their first-class seats up front. Eventually, the most genteel of bum rushes on empty chairs began, the assembly went quiet with anticipation, and the man we’d come to see ambled onstage, followed by Johnsons Julia Kent and Doug Wieselman.
“I’m slightly terrified tonight,” the pale, heavy-set singer declared before launching into “Everything Is New.” Not having seen him perform before, I’d wondered whether his otherworldy warble could be reproduced outside a studio. The answer: Yes, and then some. Its effect was immediate and entrancing, and even Charles Atlas’s heavy-handed live video mix couldn’t detract from his voice’s eerie beauty. Forgetting his supposed jitters, Antony took breaks to show us a floral screen saver on his laptop sent to him by an old boss—he was a gardener in a former life—and to read us a new poem about toxic-waste site Yucca Mountain. (“It’ll be a good song, right?”) Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie contributed a ramshackle chorus to “Kiss My Name,” but for the remaining, delirious forty-five minutes, the crowd was Antony’s alone.
The show over, we found ourselves in unnervingly close proximity to a veritable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson rubbing shoulders with a startlingly youthful-looking Kim Gordon, a typically hangdog J Mascis, and Rufus Wainwright. We also got to talking with Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell, whom my companions later joined for dinner at nearby L’Express. 303 Gallery’s Mari Spirito and dealer John Connelly occupied a large table with friends, Elizabeth Dee and company also sat nearby, and Mitchell’s crew held the center. Antony himself was absent, but I’d be surprised, and a little disappointed, if his album I Am a Bird Now didn’t hit the stereos of most of those assembled later that night.