“How many people have had their picture taken with Paul McCarthy’s Santa with Butt Plug?” asked artist Dave Muller as we looked at the giant bronze sculpture outside Art Basel on Monday evening. The art-market boom is such that works previously considered “difficult” are now perceived as family fun. It was 7 PM, and we’d been ejected from Art Unlimited, a cavernous showroom of the kind of large-scale artworks that were once called “museum pieces,” back when public institutions could afford such things. For Muller, who was exhibiting in Art Unlimited, the most exciting works—Stephen Prina’s Monochrome, 1989, Jeffrey Vallence’s Cultural Ties, 1978, and Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s Cosmococa—Programa in Progress CC4 Nocagions, 1973—weren’t the most recent. Indeed, everyone seemed tired of the vampiric pursuit of the young and the new. With a few exceptions (Kate Davies, Jordan Wolfson, Alexandra Bircken), “blah” was the hasty consensus about the twenty-six solo shows of younger work that go by the name “Art Statements.” After the visual onslaught of Venice, people were attracted to coherent, singular statements and, rightly or wrongly, relieved to dismiss the rest. As one dealer quipped, “It doesn’t take time to look at art.”
“Barbara Gladstone is one of my compass points. There is north, south, east, and Barbara,” said one collector, as we entered the Restaurant Stucki Bruderholz for a dinner hosted by the classy superdealer with London counterpart Sadie Coles. Upper-echelon collectors expressed their qualms about jet travel between Venice and Basel. “I feel too decadent if I am on the plane all by myself,” said one sweet New Yorker. “So I was relieved when curator Laura Hoptman agreed to a lift.” People tried to decide what they felt about the Biennale and quoted the wise words of Robert Storr: “Money talks, but it doesn’t have anything to say about art.” Every conversation eventually led back to the market. “I’m feeling bearish. I’ve only spent—I don’t know—two million dollars since January,” said a gent who has been collecting for fifty years. A few marveled that consultant Philippe Segalot had once again snuck into the fair early and reserved key works by phone. Unlike last year, however, no one seemed to spot him or know the details of his Hollywood-caliber disguise.
Left: Art Basel's new directors, Marc Spiegler, Annette Schönholzer, and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. Right: Art Basel director Sam Keller with NetJets Europe chief executive officer Mark Booth. (Photos: David Velasco)
On Tuesday, the main fair opened, as it always does, at eleven. Collectors and consultants shimmied through the turnstiles as quickly as their dignity allowed, then beelined from stand to stand. Jeffrey Deitch, sporting a cream-yellow suit and matching eyeglasses, was giving a lecture on the ABCs of the art world to a crew from Shanghai Oriental Television. The dealer patiently explained: “There is a difference between what the market pays attention to and what artists look at.” The Chinese crew nodded and offered their business cards. And what attracted the eyes of artists this year? Yoshitomo Nara dropped €36,000 in cash on Hans Bellmer at Galerie 1900–2000. Artist Christopher Williams was keen on Josephine Pryde at Galerie Neu, Cosima von Bonin at Daniel Bucholz, and Merlin Carpenter’s readymade with three Mercedes mountain bikes at Christian Nagel. “Merlin’s been under the radar doing weird work. It is his time,” said Williams wholeheartedly. Apparently, Lucien Freud didn’t zero in on anything in particular. “It was his first fair, and he hardly ever leaves London. He was sort of stunned by the whole affair,” said his dealer, William Acquavella.
Sometimes the sales pitches were footloose. “This artist is my hero!” said one dealer as he hotfooted from one artwork-client combination to the next. Others waded knee-deep in earnest expositions that quoted Badiou and Foucault. Eva Presenhuber’s stand was “smart, with commodity,” as a neighboring gallerist put it. Designed by Urs Fischer, it included a series of large cast aluminum and steel doors, suggesting portals of possible escape.
The fair saw both frustrations and triumphs. “These people are so rich that they don’t want to take up space with inexpensive works,” mused Per Skarstedt about a George Condo domestic-scale bronze sculpture called The Trapped Priest, 2005, that had yet to find a buyer. After eight years at the fair, Paula Cooper had moved to the much-coveted front row. “I have never complained about my location, never played politics. If I thought that way, I would have shot myself years ago,” said the adroit dealer. Provoked by the sight of a round gold Damien Hirst butterfly painting on the Gagosian stand, I wondered aloud: “When is the bubble going to burst?” Dealer Perry Rubenstein’s reply: “We can’t answer that question here. We are in the midst of a macroevent that is uncharted—a scale of expansion unseen since the Renaissance!”
Left: Curator Andrew Renton and dealer Carol Greene (facing camera) with collectors Max and Muriel Salem. Right: Dealer Eva Presenhuber. (Photos: David Velasco)
Samuel Keller, the outgoing president of Art Basel, was on a “walk-through” with his new directors—Cay Sophie Rabinowitz of Parkett, Marc Spiegler of the Art Newspaper (among other publications), and Annette Schonholzer, already employed as the brains behind the fair’s logistics—three well-dressed, intelligent people who looked seriously uptight. Keller told me that he would spend two hours a day introducing the directors to dealers. “I want to help create some intimacy by making a personal introduction. I can save them one or two years.” Without skipping a beat, he then turned to a Belgian dealer and said: “Je vous presente nos directeurs.” Next up was the Pace Wildenstein stand, where Douglas Baxter greeted the foursome. As if to ward off speculation of a three-headed managerial monster, Keller asked Baxter, “So how many directors do you have?” Baxter tilted his head reflectively and counted staff members on his fingers. “Seven,” came the reply.
It was time to head to Chez Donati, Basel’s best Italian restaurant, with two consultants and four dealers. Having spent an intense day caged in their booths, the latter went a tad bonkers. One sat with a good view of the entrance and categorized restaurant patrons according to their role in the art world: “Jackass,” “Pump ’n’ dumper,” “Good collector,” “Jerry Speyer, number one at MoMA—yeah, he’s in a league of his own.” After dinner, someone lit up a joint, and the conversation disintegrated into Bruce Naumanisms. “Run from fear, fun from rear,” said one. “Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence. Pete fell off; who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence . . .” rejoined another. And on it went all the way to the kunsthalle.
Left: Art Statements artist Kate Davies and dealer Sorcha Dallas. Right: Collector Eli Broad. (Photos: David Velasco)
Imagine my excitement on Wednesday when I stepped inside the Turkish galleries at the Arsenale and saw an LCD sign of the word COMPLAIN in bright orange letters. Then I saw the rest of the work (by Hüseyin Alptekin), another sign hanging above a large installation of small shacks with IKEA-style interior decor, meant to represent restaurant dining in Tblisi. This sign said DON’T.
Actually, I had little to complain about. Despite discovering my luggage missing and Wexner Center director Sherri Geldin filling out her own forms at the lost-baggage window on Tuesday afternoon, I was able to retrieve my wheelie only a few hours (and three hundred dollars in water taxis) later and still get to my first Biennale party while the evening was young. At this soiree—like many other social occasions on the art circuit—a number of attractive and worldly people who have known or slept with one another for years gathered around a bar at the start of a big art week to imbibe prosecco and build up their strength for the even longer nights to come.
Of course, context changes everything. For example, Rachel Lehmann and David Maupin regularly host parties for their artists, but they don’t often do so on a yacht owned by the Missoni family and anchored in the Venetian lagoon opposite the Piazza San Marco. And the guest of honor—in this case, Tracey Emin—is not usually sleeping it off below, while a flotilla of the fabulous, led by photographers Mario Testino and Juergen Teller, dealers Sadie Coles and Angela Westwater, artists Guillermo Kuitca and Hernan Bas, curator Neville Wakefield, and many a marvelous Missoni help themselves to champagne and calamari.
Left: Rosita Missoni. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Naomi Campbell with members of the Brazilian art collective Morrinho. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)
“It’s my party,” Emin announced, when at last she appeared on deck wearing hot pants, platform heels, and a low-cut black top. “I thought I ought to mention that.” In fact, Emin seemed to have more lunches, cocktails, and dinners in her honor than any other Biennale artist, including the very social Francesco Vezzoli, corepresenting Italy (with Giuseppe Penone) in the country’s first appearance at the Biennale in umpteen years. It was his new video, Democrazy, that brought Sharon Stone to Venice, so she could pal around with part-time Venetian Elton John, who was supposedly performing on Saturday night.
I didn’t see either John or Stone at the official Italian-pavilion opening on Wednesday night, where Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer, curator Francesco Bonami, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and her board member Stephanie French kept one another company before dinner within. At Vezzoli’s table, where he was the only man, I saw that Geldin had replaced some of her wardrobe by buying a black Prada sheath—only to be seated next to Miuccia Prada herself. I would have been riveted by this coincidence, but Jeanne Moreau, on Vezzoli’s right, was a seductive distraction, even at seventy-nine. Vezzoli was repeatedly called away by curator Ida Gianelli or some state official. “I have gone from being perceived as Jerry Zipkin to being Noam Chomsky,” he said, in reference to stories about his work in several major European magazines, which raised preshow jitters and transformed him from walker to scourge.
For his part, Penone had cast the walls of one gallery in ruffled leather and covered the floor in rippled marble. The installation, which parked two enormous, gold-studded, cast-leather “fallen” tree trunks beside a circular screening room where Vezzoli’s fake election-campaign videos were playing, was really stunning. As Vezzoli observed, “It’s arte povera becoming baroque, and glamour becoming political.” Even though I hadn’t seen much of the Biennale yet, I didn’t see how things could get much better. Then I heard that a dinner for the Adelina von Furstenberg–curated Joseph Kosuth installation at the Mekhitarian Monastery on the island of San Lazzarro degli Armeni was even more spectacular. What’s more, Kosuth’s guests were each given what must have been the goodie of the week: a glass tumbler finely etched with the word for water in different languages (the essence of the artwork on view).
Left: Artist Thomas Demand, 303 Gallery's Mari Spirito, and curator Francesco Bonami. Right: Yvonne Force Villareal. (Photos: Ryan McNamara)
I knew about this because I was brought to the terrace lounge at the Hotel Bauer after dinner, and people stopped talking about the price of art long enough to show off their newly acquired glasses to us have-nots. (I’m not complaining.) Matthew Barney, dealer Shaun Caley Regen, artist Rachel Harrison, Frieze founder Amanda Sharp—and what seemed to be every other native English speaker in Venice—made the scene, as they would every night that week. What else is there to do when thousands of people wanting an experience of art descend on a small town? Look at Titians and Tintorettos?
By Thursday, however, it was getting to be time to see some art, particularly the Giardini’s national pavilions. But first I had to stop into the Palazzo Grassi for a look at Alison Gingeras’s “Sequence I” installation of François Pinault’s vast collection. Gingeras, who had her work cut out for her, made the most of it with Mike Kelley, Martial Raysse, Urs Fischer, and Franz West. And Rudolf Stingel’s carpets have never looked better.
Detouring for a rainy-day lunch at Cipriani hosted by Yvon Lambert Gallery, followed by drinks at the Florian with dealer Curt Marcus, Warhol Foundation stalwart Vincent Fremont, and his wife, Shelly, and a brief repast at the raucous Madonna restaurant (where I found Jeffrey Deitch heading up a table with Kristin Baker and the Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears), I charged off to find the buffet for Felix Gonzalez-Torres at Palazzo Pisani Moretta. Naturally, he was not expected to attend, but eight hundred other people were. A word of caution: No one in Venice ever gives an address, just the vicinity and, if you are lucky, the name of a vaporetto stop. In other words, I got lost—not a bad thing in Venice. Trudging with my companion back to my hotel, grumpy and discouraged, we happened on the city’s “real” nightlife, in the piazzas and colonnades near the Rialto bridge, where a thousand young people were hanging out in the dark, as they have for centuries, murmuring and shouting and drinking and embracing. When in Venice, do as the Venetians do: Make love, not dinner.
By chance, I would find myself in that very same place on Friday, where Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo had organized a lunch and a trip to see the Beuys-Barney show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection with collectors Andrew Schiff and his wife, Karenna Gore Schiff. Though her father, Al Gore, might be many people’s favorite for 2008, politics didn’t come up in conversation—nor did art. Talk here mostly involved child rearing, though I did get a word in about an installation of futuristic new bullet-shaped fiberglass furniture by Zaha Hadid that I had seen in a church that morning with London collector Pauline Skarpitas. “Zaha,” I had said to the architect, “it’s fabulous.” She glowered at me. “Of course it is,” she replied.
Clearly, the week was building to a fever pitch. Friday night, my last in Venice, took me from Marina Abramovic’s surprise birthday party for artist Paolo Canevari on the vanilla WPS1 barge (where the primary language was high Teutonic Italo-Franglais; it felt like the trashy-flashy party scene in any 1960s James Bond movie), to the totally entropic Fantastic Man party in the garden of the Guggenheim. At the same time, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, François Pinault hosted a dinner for six hundred guests, a mix of art-world luminaries and real-world celebs—from Naomi Campbell and fashion legend Azzadine Alaia to Salma Hayek and the former empress of Iran—in two enormous colonnaded courtyards at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, itself a short taxi ride away from the hugely vapid (and very fun) L’Uomo Vogue party (for its special art issue) at Palazzo Grassi, where bouncers cold-shouldered Andre Balasz and which was so reminiscent of Studio 54 that I forgot, for a moment, what year it was.
After that, the Hotel Bauer terrace seemed a refreshing idea, but the place was so jammed with Euros rubbing shoulders with the likes of New York artists Aaron Young, Hope Atherton, and Richard Prince and dealers Tim Blum and Lorcan O’Neill that the management stopped serving drinks on the terrace, forcing everyone into the lobby. There I stumbled into dapper Paul Simonon, the bass player for the Clash. I wondered whether he had come to Venice as a collector. “Painter,” he said, with a gap-toothed grin. “And collector. I am the world’s biggest collector of my own work.”
When does the Venice Biennale experience begin? On a plane full of familiar art-world faces? As one views a Whistler-esque nocturne from the rooftop terrace of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or walks up the Giardini’s historic, tree-lined Viale Harald Szeemann? Perhaps it’s when one forgets the crowd and finally feels the joy of being overwhelmed by a work of art? There are at least seven circles to the oldest, most anxiety-ridden biennale. The trick is not to worry about whether you’re in or out of any of them.
This year, for the first time, two “pavilions,” both curated by the Guggenheim’s petite powerhouse intellectual Nancy Spector, are flying the American flag. Tuesday night saw the opening of the first, unofficial entry—Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys’s “All in the Present Must Be Transformed” at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Since Guggenheim died in 1979, the museum has not dared to deinstall the collection in the summer, but on this occasion no one seemed to care that the move might have violated the difficult terms of the dame’s will. In the words of one official, “reinterpretations” are necessary for “imaginative programming.” And it is imaginative: A drawing-lined corridor is the backbone to an eight-room installation in which both artists’ sculptures burst out of their domestic frames like aliens in a 1970s sci-fi film. Later, at the white-tablecloth dinner held in the garden courtyard, guests were divided between those hot for Barney’s Field Dressing (from the artist’s 1989 Yale degree show) and those keen on Beuys’s Honey Pump.
Wednesday morning was overcast. At 10 AM, the gates of the Giardini admitted holders of coveted VIP passes. No stampede, just a steady flow of cotton and linen in comfortable shoes. I headed straight for the so-called Italian pavilion, curated by Robert Storr, where rooms by mature white guys like Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Bruce Nauman were self-consciously offset by spaces devoted to Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, and Steve McQueen. Early-bird shoppers (like François Pinault), wisecracking curators (everyone’s favorite, Richard Flood), and even the Biennale's director himself roamed the pavilion. Storr was meandering quietly on his own in a panama hat and beige jacket, as if on safari in his own show. In preparing his exhibition, Storr was careful to distinguish between the “zeitgeist” and the “present tense,” explaining that “the present tense doesn’t pretend to forebode.” About his exhibition, the clearheaded Yale professor explained: “It’s not about masterpiece displays. It’s about creating texture out of art, against which art can make more sense and mean more.” Storr has no desire to be a star, impresario curator. “If you do it well and you do it right, curating is an honorable profession, but I don’t strategically seek to enhance my . . . Anyway, I figure I’m due for a good bruising. It’s the way the art world works.”
Left: Artist Kristin Baker, collector François Pinault, and Palazzo Grassi curator Alison Gingeras. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: American commissioner Nancy Spector. (Photo: Ryan McNamara)
After the Italian pavilion, I walked through the Giardini’s Disneyland-like anthology of world architecture—past the folkloric Hungarian pavilion, the Rietveld-designed Dutch structure, the Russian mini-Kremlin—up the symbolic incline to the triumvirate of the British, French, and German pavilions, now showcasing the three graces, Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, and Isa Genzken. The UK pavilion is a parody of British Palladian architecture, the French is a mini-Versailles, while the German is a Nazi wonder designed by none other than Albert Speer. Not wanting to accept that architectural legacy, Genzken cloaked her pavilion in bright-orange-netted scaffold that made the building appear to be under repair.
Tracey Emin’s show took its title from an English-heritage paint color called Borrowed Light. The raving-fragile, jolie-laide expressionist delivered her spread-legged drawings and confessional neons with the humor and media-savvy theatricality that one has come to expect. Apparently, Julian Schnabel, who Emin told me was her “only artist friend in America,” jetted in to help fine-tune the installation. He made it “less polite, more rude.” About representing the UK, she said it was “nationalism on a sweet, lovely level.” A few UK newspapers, however, were bothered that the British Council commissioner chose Emin against the wishes of the distinguished committee, something that surprised few insiders, as Emin is not the kind of artist who gets unanimous votes.
As I was leaving the pavilion with its giveaway goods, I bumped into Anish Kapoor, whose own 1990 pavilion was the first to issue the now de rigueur tote bags. It began to rain as we chatted, so Kapoor rummaged in his recently acquired tote and pulled out a white hat embroidered in pink with the words ALWAYS WANTING YOU . . . LOVE TRACE X. He punched his fist into the hat and put it onto his head inside out.
Tucked away behind the British building like a colonial embarrassment is the Canadian pavilion. Artists are often defeated by this notoriously difficult tepeelike venue, so it was a surprise to enter the mirror-clad wonderland created by David Altmejd. The thirty-two-year-old French-Canadian artist had mastered the space by creating a woodland-boutique environment full of business birdmen, phallic fungi, and a laid-back giant. One lost one’s bearings amid the mirrored walls. I couldn’t help but share the secret pride of being Canadian with Altmejd’s dealer, Andrea Rosen, who hails from Kingston, Ontario.
It was a special day for Rosen. Not only was there a long and not-entirely-orderly queue of collectors (including Greek tycoon Dakis Joannou) vying to buy Altmejd’s work, but the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres (the artist featured in her gallery’s inaugural show, in 1990) was being celebrated down the pebbled path at the American pavilion. When I found Spector, the pavilion’s curator, dressed in the black and silver palette of the exhibition and basking in the warm glow of a lightbulb work called “Untitled” (America), I asked her about the Cuban-born artist’s attitude toward national representations. “Felix embraced the ideal of being an American citizen,” she said. “And he was critical of things that didn’t live up to that democratic ideal.”
Having had enough of G8 countries, I jumped into a water taxi and raced up the Grand Canal to the privately funded Ukrainian pavilion, housed in the fading grandeur of the Palazzo Papadopoli. Its curator, Peter Doroshenko, faced with the problem of drawing attention to the artists of a country better known for exporting vodka, steel, and supermodels, decided on a mix of four Ukrainian and four relatively high-profile Western artists. Doroshenko’s conceptualization of the “branding” of the newish nation was as much pragmatic marketing as high-minded argument. But I’m inclined to agree with an honorary Ukrainian, British artist Mark Titchner, who told me, “The problems of representing another country are as numerous as representing your own.”
Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch with collector Dakis Joannou. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Sydney Biennale board member Amanda Love and artist Tracey Emin. (Photo: David Velasco)
Left: The queue outside Berlin's Magazin. Right: One of the actors hired by Gregor Schneider to create and guide the queue.
Ninety minutes can be long or short, forgettable or memorable. Is it what happens within the time frame, or the thoughts and reflections projected onto it afterward? I hardly expected Gregor Schneider to provoke this question when I made my way last Thursday, in summer-struck Berlin, to the State Opera to attend 7:00–8:30 PM; 05.31.2007, a one-time-only performance by the artist. These are the closing days of Schneider’s heavily debated “Cube” exhibition in Hamburg, and the German art world was curious about the artist’s first theatrical work, commissioned by the Berlin State Opera and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Francesca von Habsburg’s Vienna-based foundation. At the press desk, I was told that after the performance, explanatory materials would be made available. This should have raised a red flag.
Across the street is the Magazin, a huge, austere-looking building used by the State Opera to store the sets of its current productions and to present experimental works like Schneider’s. Fifty people were in line outside when I arrived, nearly an hour early. This was not your usual opera crowd: Art students and young Berlin gallerists waited alongside the likes of Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer and Ute Meta Bauer, the former artistic director of the Berlin Biennale. The queue stretched farther down the block, yet with ten minutes until the scheduled start, the Magazin’s doors remained closed. Excitement turned to disappointment as 7 PM came and went. Was this an unexpected delay? Or part of the performance? At ten past, a juggler appeared, stopped in front of the waiting line, and started juggling silver balls to the accompaniment of tinny circus music played on a boom box. The waiting crowd, finally transformed into an audience, was relieved: It had started at last! The juggler’s act lasted ten minutes, but when he passed a hat for tips, some wondered: Is this really part of the performance?
The doors eventually opened and people were let in one by one. “Let in” meant, in this case, being allowed just across the threshold, where another queue led across the room. One could admire the Magazin’s impressive interior, but that didn’t help those who had had enough of waiting or had hoped to find the kind of architectural manipulation for which Schneider is known. With summer light still shining through the windows, the atmosphere was by no means disturbing. Instead, the Magazin looked as it always does: a spacious inner courtyard ringed with black iron doors, behind which the stage props are stored. Impatience prevailed. Someone grumpily asked, “What the hell are we waiting for?”
Those at the head of the new line were right in front of a big, movable wall that seemed very close to the rear of the building . . . yet most remained confident that the performance would eventually start behind this wall, rewarding viewers with a labyrinth of claustrophobic rooms. When it was my turn, a little door was opened just for me. I stepped through it, turned a corner—and found myself on the street again! This was the performance, or, rather, the end of it: There was nothing more to discover. Well. Some did not want to believe it: Was that all? What time was it? For some, the event was over by 8:10 PM. “At least, we’ve seen the Magazin,” offered one nonplussed guest, but his wife angrily answered: “We even paid for a babysitter to see that shit!” Those who found it funny were a small minority.
Schneider states in the press release that he wanted to “avoid the artifical theatricality that happens in the opera house” by creating a “situationist” setting in which “the spectator is confronted with himself.” The performance was hardly an aesthetic experience, yet it provoked fascinating responses. Some took matters into their own hands, deciding to warn those still waiting to get in. But interestingly enough, when disappointed visitors made their way back to the waiting line, telling the queue to go home because there was nothing happening inside, those in line wondered, quite rightly, “Is this part of the work? Is it a test of how easily we get confused? We’d better wait . . .” Perhaps it was then that one possible meaning of the performance elucidated itself: Hope is the last thing we give up.
Left: ICA director Ekow Eshun. Right: Noa Weintraub with musician Alison Goldfrapp. (All photos: Lillian Davies)
By 7:30 PM Wednesday night, paparazzi lined the red carpet outside the endearingly modest front door of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, eager for snaps of stars from the art, fashion, television, film, and music industries participating in the ICA and Sony Ericsson’s “All Tomorrow’s Pictures” project. A celebration of the institution’s sixtieth anniversary, and an effective publicity and fund-raising stunt, fifty-nine celebs and one mere mortal—Matthew Gordon (lifted from the civilian masses by a panel of judges)—were asked to capture a “vision of tomorrow” on a K800i Cyber-shot phone for an exhibition and limited-edition catalog.
The first-floor galleries were open for an intimate private view, where guests enjoyed Veuve Clicquot and cigarettes on the balconies facing Buckingham Palace. There I chanced on Idris Khan, rising star of the London art world, signing Anna Schori’s copy of the hardcover catalog. I asked him about his initial reaction to the inclusion of his work in a show that also featured “non-artists.” “The Chapmans and Tracey Emin were doing it, so I thought, why not?”
Ekow Eshun, artistic director of the ICA, discussed the roster—“they’re just people we like”—before launching into a speech about the lineup’s reflection of a “culturally promiscuous organization.” The brief elicited a wide range of intimate imagery: Helena Christensen’s sentimental portrait of her young son; musician Beth Ditto, backstage; and Sue Webster and Tim Noble’s shots of their anuses. Noble noted, “You’re looking through the ‘O’ of Sony—it’s all about orifices.” Probably not the sort of promotional pitch the company had in mind. Jo Robertson, one half of art collective Blood ’n’ Feathers, offered a disclaimer for her Hangover 1–4: “These photos are from before I started working out—pre–firming of the tit.”
The crowd trickled downstairs to the ICA bar, where I bumped into artist and musician Martin Creed. He dismissed what he saw as the reductive division between artists and “non-artists.” “Everything everyone does is a creative act. If you stick to the visual-art world, it gets too cliquey.” Besides, variety makes for a better party. I got to meet the legendary Don Letts, who noted that his first film, The Punk Rock Movie, was launched at the ICA in 1978. “I’m not just here for the phone.”
Soon, paddles were handed out, and everyone shuffled toward the ICA’s theater, dramatically dolled up for a benefit auction of the photographs. The Chapman brothers’ haunting photograph of an ecstatic female face was a steal at £2,800, and Zed Nelson’s gory plastic-surgery images were “bought in”—if that’s what you call it when the auctioneer, Rodman Primack, gets frustrated and takes the piece himself. Emin’s self-portrait set the evening’s (admittedly humble) record, with George Michael’s partner, Kenny Goss, picking it up for an easy £5,000. When I congratulated him on his purchase, he said he was excited to support his friend and to add the picture to “one of the best collections of her work in the world.” He also expressed his excitement to show her neon piece Fuck off and die bitch in the Lone Star State, at the opening of his Goss Michael Foundation in Dallas later this month. (You haven’t seen the e-flux?) Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, of Notting Hill fame, didn’t bid, but as a contributor to the show, he was enjoying his momentary stint as a visual artist. “You can bullshit your way up in the art world. If you’re shit in a movie, you’re shit. But if you’re an artist, and you’re eloquent, you can make it.”
Before the music started, I prodded Peaches Geldof, daughter of Live Aid and Live 8 mastermind Bob Geldof, for her opinion of the first act, Hot Chip. “I think they’re really great, yea.” For someone whose idea of DJing is putting on a pout and playing a few CDs, she has exceptional taste. The party ended just after midnight, with the Filthy Dukes playing the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” even as the security guards flicked the lights.
Left: Peaches Geldof. Right: Photographer Anna Schori with artist Idris Khan.
“Elizabeth Murray tells me that the only way to experience a Richard Serra is from a wheelchair—going thirty miles an hour!” said her husband, the indefatigable Bowery Poetry Club eminence Bob Holman. We chatted during the dinner for 550 artists and patrons attending the Museum of Modern Art’s decorous Tuesday-night preview of “Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years.” This is the retrospective that the oft-criticized Yoshio Tanaguchi building was literally designed to show.
It was amusing to watch the other architects in attendance—Richard Meier, Richard Gluckman, and Rafael Viñoly, for starters—as they mingled in the hoi polloi territory patrolled by Rockefellers, Kravises, Cullmans, Shapiro-Gunds, Speyers, Lauders, Marrons, and others—such as Princess Firyal of Jordan. Bernard Arnault was present to inaugurate LVMH/Moët Hennesy Louis Vuitton’s first foray into New York arts sponsorship. (Serra’s Double Torus is permanently installed outside the company’s Paris headquarters.) Meier seemed unusually at a loss during cocktails outside the second-floor contemporary galleries, where Serra’s three new, seductive chocolate-colored arabesques of steel sit, redeeming the artist from vestiges of resentment caused by bad behaviors past.
Now sixty-seven, Serra himself seemed to have mellowed into sociability and, indeed, garrulousness, table-hopping between dinner courses, greeting pals Joan Jonas, Roni Horn, Anthony McCall, Barry Le Va, Robert Ryman, and Martin Puryear, shaking hands, and bussing cheeks like a politician greeting his constituents. I asked Brice Marden if, as a recent veteran of a MoMA retrospective, he had advice for Serra. “I’m still processing,” he replied, while Joachim Pissarro, with only days left before the end of his brief tenure at the museum, insisted that Marden was the most easygoing artist he had ever worked with on a major show. “Not that Richard has been difficult,” he added quickly. We all laughed.
At least, it wasn’t Serra himself who was problematic. Lifting a million-plus pounds of sculpture above teeming New York streets and gently setting them down inside a white-cube gallery without doing harm to either man or museum was a Herculean feat of engineering. (Serra’s chief rigger, Joe Vilardi, got some of the loudest applause of the evening—though not more enthusiastic than Serra’s pleasant and discerning wife, Clara, who was credited by just about everyone, including Serra, with just about everything to do with his career.)
How is it that these corporate occasions always generate the flattest humor? Outgoing board chair Robert Menschel did raise a few titters by calling Serra “a groundbreaking artist—literally.” MoMA president Marie-Josée Kravis, as enthusiastic a connoisseur as one could hope to find, reported asking Clara, “How can I say anything simple about a man who is so complex?” To which Mrs. Serra dryly replied, “You’re telling me!”
Seriously. At my table, which had a terrific mix of artists (Murray, Joel Shapiro, Vija Celmins, Keith Sonnier), critics (Roberta and Jerry), curators (Diego Cortez), and museum pros (Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds; MoMA exhibitions deputy Jennifer Russell and catalog editor David Frankel), everyone seemed faintly puzzled by the speeches. Glenn Lowry went on to tell Serra, “You force us to think, you challenge us, you provoke us,” without saying whether or not “us” included every other artist in the room. Isn’t “think, challenge, and provoke” part of the job description? For his big finish, Lowry boomed, “All I can say is, Richard, welcome home! It’s a home built for you.” He didn’t say that the museum has not offered permanent space to any of the sculptures on the floors it spent heaven knows how many millions reinforcing. That act of patronage belongs to Eli and Edythe Broad, who bought Serra’s magnificent Band for LACMA. (Of course, MoMA already owns the two “Torqued Ellipses” currently displacing the usual collection from its sculpture garden.)
The best lines of the night were actually Serra’s. “If you want to know why I did this show,” he said, “it was to see if I could make Kynaston McShine smile.” And he did—the usually dour curator kept breaking into a happy grin. Finally, the artist shared a few words of wisdom he keeps on a sign posted in his summer house on Cape Breton: “I love the weight I have to bear.”
With this simple measure of the profound to remember, many of us went home feeling—perhaps for the first time since this undistinguished building opened—that we had finally come to the right place.