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.
Left: Dealer Eva Presenhuber. Right: Chan Marshall of Cat Power with artist Slater Bradley. (All photos: David Velasco)
William Burroughs’s bed is exactly as you’d imagine it: A modest, low-set full-size draped with a patchwork quilt, a box of Kleenex and a small lamp on a bedside table. If it weren’t for the three bullet-ridden, human-silhouette shooting targets on the facing wall (Burroughs was a killer shot), I’d be tempted to call it monastic. The bed sits in Burroughs’s old boudoir, a perfectly preserved room on the first floor of John Giorno’s storied “bunker” on the Bowery. Though our Buddhist poet host was out of town on the occasion of my visit last Thursday evening, he’d agreed to lend his pad to Ugo Rondinone—Giorno’s lover of eight years—for a dinner party celebrating the artist’s recent Creative Time–produced public sculpture: two gorgeous, ghostly white aluminum trees planted outside the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park. “This is where the lamas stay when they visit,” said Rondinone. Curator Francesco Bonami deadpanned: “But what do you do about all the llamas’ hair?”
The Creative Time crew played host, balancing poise and whimsy, though there was a speck of sadness in the air, perhaps due to curator Peter Eleey’s impending departure for Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center later this month. Eleey was his typical affable self. When I caught him chatting up Dana Farouki, the newest Creative Time board member and also a recent hire as a special coordinator for the Guggenheim’s massive Abu Dhabi project, he was friendly but skeptical of the Gugg’s expansionist tendencies, remarking that the whole thing will “surely be a palliative for the jihadists.”
The dinner was an exercise in incongruity: Handsome male servers attended to the half-dozen tables, set in a large room filled with Giorno’s witty screenprints, an ornate Tibetan altar, and the occasional painting by Keith Haring. I dined with Creative Time producer Gavin Kroeber and Gianni Jetzer, the new director of New York’s Swiss Institute. (He replaced Marc-Olivier Wahler, who recently split to preside over Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, where Rondinone is curating a group show this September inspired by Burroughs’s book The Third Mind—see, everything’s connected.) Jetzer seemed impressed with the States: “Las Vegas is the cultural capital of the twenty-second century.” He elaborated, describing a surreal road trip he took in 2000, traveling from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Los Angeles with artists Olaf Breuning and Daniel Buetti. “Olaf loved Vegas. He’d absolutely live there if he could.” After polishing off my spice cake, I got up to take a few pictures of the crowd. Some, like PDA mascots Hope Atherton and Gavin Brown, are coy when it comes to the camera. Others, like dealer Eva Presenhuber, are more enthusiastic. “It’s about time I’m on this thing! Let me get a cigarette,” she said, lighting up. “I want to be seen smoking.” God bless the Europeans.
Left: Creative Time director Anne Pasternak and artist Ugo Rondinone. Right: Curator Neville Wakefield, Creative Time curator Peter Eleey, and New Museum curator Laura Hoptman.
The next night, I attended the less exclusive, more rambunctious opening for “Radical Living Papers,” a show of alternative magazines at Gavin Brown’s Passerby. Bearded men milled the throng in what appeared to be '60s counterculture drag. What happens, I wondered while eyeing the crowd, when today’s youth become simulacra of their parents circa forty years ago? “We’re having a love-in on Valentine’s Day,” said Francis Coy, who worked on the show. The exhibition, comprising photocopied pages of psychedelic zines like Oz and International Times pasted on the wall, as well as a few copies of the original mags locked away in vitrines, is somewhat underwhelming—an exercise in pure nostalgia—even if its heart is in the right place.
No time to ponder. I hailed a taxi and headed to my next stop: Another Creative Time shindig, at MoMA, where Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall)—one of the stars of Doug Aitken’s sleepwalkers video currently projected on the museum’s facades—was due to play a concert. Crowd control—not to mention sound quality—isn’t the museum’s forte, and the whole affair was a bit bloated. Despite the artsy digs, the crowd was less Artforum and more Gawker/Radar/New York (each of whom had representatives on hand), though I did eventually eye Lawrence Weiner and Sarah Morris hanging about the balcony. Marshall’s voice was lovely and haunting as usual, though difficult to discern amid the crowd of Chatty Cathys. After a disappointingly short set, she returned for a brief encore, performing a strangely animated cover of Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler,” which she sang directly to Aitken onstage. “Look at her, she used to be a 'fraidy cat, and now she’s fucking Charlie Chaplin,” shouted a naysayer. “Nah . . . it’s more like she’s channeling late Nico,” said a friend.
At the after-party at Star Lounge, Marshall was the perfectly charming, offbeat hostess. What’s it like working with Aitken? “He’s a superdude. Really down to business.” Did you just call him a superdude? “Yeah, superdude . . . super Do-o-u-ug,” she sang. She’s a weird girl, but sweet, ya know? I bumped into artist Slater Bradley, who claimed not to know Marshall well, though he did spend last Christmas with the singer in Miami. So if they’re not tight, I pointed out, then why were they both working the same look: extra-long-sleeve white button-ups (Marshall’s Dior Homme, Bradley’s Thom Browne) with fingerless gloves? “No way. We’re doppelgängers!” Marshall exclaimed, posing for a portrait. See? We’re all connected.
Left: Ugo Rondinone, Matthew Marks's Sabrina Buell, and curator Francesco Bonami. RIght: Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer.
Left: Centre Pompidou-Metz director Laurent Le Bon. Right: French president Jacques Chirac. (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)
Last Wednesday, the Pompidou Center celebrated its thirty-year anniversary. The prime of life! But that term didn’t characterize the evening’s attendees, a serious clutch of geriatrics. President Jacques Chirac himself was in attendance, so the guest list had been run through with a fine-tooth comb by the ceremonial service of the Elysee (the equivalent of the White House). After being whipped by a cold wind during a long wait on the piazza, you had to show your credentials and ID just to enter the main hall, a fact that put the museum’s generous donors, unaccustomed to waiting in line, in a somewhat middling mood. Having failed to alert the authorities to the fact that I wouldn’t arrive alone, my friend and I were directed toward the line of “problematic cases” being prepared for outright rejection.
So it was alone that I eventually penetrated the interior of the den decorated with giant flowers by artist Jean-Pierre Raynaud. Now upgraded to the “Quadra” category, I was still among the junior members of this grizzled crowd. I set out to find Pipilotti Rist, who had received the only contemporary art commission marking the anniversary—an enormous outdoor video projection and a sound installation in the infamous escalator tubes. No dice; Rist wasn’t in attendance. It was consequently in the company of Christine Van Assche, curator of new media and producer of Rist’s piece, that I found myself in a roped-off VIP area. At first, we didn’t recognize many of those there with us. But on seeing the mayor of Paris and his learned assembly of black-clad advisors, as well as the black-leather-bound matriarch of the Ricard family, we understood that these similarly monochromatic unknowns were bodyguards. I had missed the instructions to dress for a funeral and felt even more out of place.
President Chirac made an announcement regarding the expansion plans of Beaubourg and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, pending the approval of “Russia, India, Africa, and South America.” Vincent Noce, a Libération journalist, remarked that the audience dubbed Bruno Racine, the current president of the Pompidou, “Global Bruno.” Finally, Chirac announced that while awaiting the opening of new Beaubourg branches in Shanghai and Metz, it would be the Palais de Tokyo’s empty halls that would be requisitioned for the Pompidou’s exhibitions of contemporary French and international artists. Marc-Olivier Wahler, the current director of the Palais de Tokyo, heard the news as we all did, was livid, and confided that he needed to put back a glass of champagne on the spot. Had the glass been in hand, he might’ve done a spit take.
Left: Collector Katharina Faerber and Pompidou new-media curator Christine Van Assche. Right: Pompidou president Bruno Racine.
Chirac finished with a lively homage to Mme Claude Pompidou’s historic engagement with the avant-garde. (Her avant-garde gesture that evening? Dressing entirely in violet.) Agnès Fierobe, the director of the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, informed me that Mme Pompidou had shown only lukewarm appreciation of Beaubourg’s new visitor pass, designed by Annette Messager to be read as “FREE PASS” or, depending on how you read it, “FREE PISS.” Slightly annoyed, Messager’s group, composed of Gloria Friedman and artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, had left early to gather in the corner café with Samuel Keller. Glancing around at the video screens tracing Beaubourg’s greatest moments, you couldn’t help noticing that they might’ve had the right idea: The museum’s inauguration, when Warhol demanded that guards gallop across the forum on horses draped with flags depicting Mao’s effigy, seemed much more fun.
I finally gained access, with artist Xavier Veilhan, to the new collection installation, of which only the modern art section was open (showcasing pieces from 1906 to 1960). It was a parade of classics. Since the hang emphasized monographic depth emanating from the museum’s relationship with artists and their families, donors came to verify that their masterpieces were being showcased. “Not a bad location for the new Rothko!” While I was nonchalantly looking at a Picasso series, a young woman came over to me and said, “He’s a very good artist. I’m writing a thesis about him . . . He was my grandfather. Good evening, I’m Diana.”
Certain guests concluded that this sedate affair nonetheless made sense since, at the opening in 1977, the numerous curators were at least thirty years old and, as they were nearly all still around, must necessarily be over sixty today. Gabrielle Maubrie, an unnerved gallery owner, challenged us to come up with the names of at least five of those original staffers. We couldn’t do it.
On leaving, we received a surprise gift bag that contained a chocolate truffle (only one?), a silk screen by the graphic artist Jean Widmer, a miniguide to Beaubourg for children, and a minikey USB player (produced by Samsung, a main sponsor). “Not even an iPod!” my neighbor exclaimed. After this somewhat forgettable evening, we stood looking at the immense banner on the sublime facade announcing the “Tintin by Hergé” exhibition—this season’s crowd-pleaser—and remarked to each other that even though the times have changed, the museum was still one of the most beautiful in the world.
Left: Collector Don Rubell and dealer Kevin Bruk. Right: 1301PE director Alexis Johnson. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)
The second half of January has been surprisingly hectic in the Los Angeles art world, though last weekend’s offerings—museum-exhibition openings and an art fair—brought a quiet denouement to the frenzy of activity. The third-annual Art LA fair, held in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was the most recent attempt by local boosters to compete with more pedigreed rivals—in London, New York, Basel, and Miami—and prove that the West Coast can also support a big-deal commercial showcase. But I learned quickly that market-driven cheerleaders are about as convincing as used-car salesmen, especially when no one’s buying.
Art LA felt a bit like an adventure in munchkin land: Everything seemed diminutive, from the number of galleries (an expectedly small turnout) to the size of the booths (imagine a midsize bathroom). Nevertheless, a number of quality spaces were brought into the fold, including Daniel Hug, Patrick Painter, and Susanne Vielmetter Projects. But the most charming contenders at Art LA were the nonprofits, which injected the sales floor with a little mirth and experimentation, including editioned cupcakes at LACE and a squelching Styrofoam orchestra from Machine Project that sent more conservative collectors scurrying for the outside bar.
At the Thursday-night opening, full-time fair director and Midwest transplant Tim Fleming exuded inexhaustible cheer, flecked with moments of self-reflective honesty. “Most of the big LA galleries signed on in the last month,” he conceded, the thinking being, “‘Let’s do this scrappy little art fair.’” There were supporters and customers, of course, including Don and Mera Rubell, Dean Valentine, Seth Geller, LACMA’s Lynn Zelevansky, and MoCA’s young collectors group (the beneficiaries of the opening-night festivities). But conversations with dealers, normally eager to inflate sales statistics, brought news of few transactions. Tellingly, the dealers’ gossip centered around other fairs—anecdotes from Miami, booth locations at the Armory, and, in one case, the viability of the upcoming Gulf Art Fair in Dubai.
Wilshire Boulevard stalwart SolwayJones made the best of the situation, setting up a classic Tom Marioni installation in their booth, where, above a primrose-yellow refrigerator stuffed with bottles of Pacifico, a sign announced, “THE ACT OF DRINKING BEER WITH FRIENDS IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF ART, 1970.” I couldn’t help but sit and knock one back with the veteran conceptualist. “I got asked to do a show in a dry county in Tennessee,” he explained, pausing to sip the dregs of his bottle. “They told me I couldn’t bring any beer.”
Two days later, the Hammer Museum orchestrated Vija Celmins’s triumphant return to her alma mater, UCLA. The Celmins drawings retrospective—which opened last fall in Paris—was accompanied by soft openings for the current batch of Hammer Projects, including exhibitions by Erik van Lieshout, Ezra Johnson, Jan van der Ploeg, and the debut of a new film by Austrian artist Mathias Poledna. I spent half the night combing the crowd for the notoriously shy Celmins, to no avail, but I did manage to meet van Lieshout, a reputedly rambunctious Dutchman (“My challenge is to lose control!”), who seemed well behaved on the arm of new Hammer adjunct curator Ali Subotnick. Through the revealing interviews in his disarmingly funny documentary video on view, van Lieshout came off as a friendlier and more humane version of the aggressively bleak Lars von Trier, if such a thing can be imagined.
Strolling through the Celmins retrospective, one wondered how the artist’s labor-intensive, mostly grisaille drawings, dating from the late ’60s to today, would cope if they had emerged in the current frenzied climate. Here the work had space to breathe, and while most, it seemed, gladly succumbed to its genius, I heard one youthful upstart pronounce it “boring” with a dismissive flourish of his hand before disappearing into the tony crowd. Leaving the main lobby, I bumped into artist and CalArts dean Tom Lawson, whose artwork is as ripe for revival as Celmins’s. He filled me in on the previous night’s dinner, where literary luminaries Gore Vidal and Jean Stein held court alongside art-world heavy hitters. I asked how Celmins was surviving amid all this pomp and circumstance. “She’s shy, but she’s tough. And though Vija’s been through a lot, she’s come out quite all right,” he assured me.
Left: Hammer director Ann Philbin. Right: Artist Erik van Lieshout with Hammer adjunct curator Ali Subotnick.
Left: Coco Fusco and the Guerrilla Girls. (Photo: Brian Sholis) Right: Curator Catherine de Zegher and artist Martha Rosler. (Photo: David Velasco)
On Friday, I attended the first half of a two-day symposium at MoMA on “The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts.” The sold-out Roy and Niuta Titus Theater was packed with vintage women artists, as well as chroniclers, comrades, and frenemies, whether they identified with the “f-word” or not. Thankfully, not much time was wasted quibbling over that, as is customary in such situations, though one questioner did complain about the “c-word,” which she found as deeply offensive as the “n-word.” The lady next to me wondered, “What’s the n-word?” Oy. I helpfully wrote it on her program. She later crossed it out.
The day started with palpable excitement. It seemed a roomful of underacknowledged women artists were about to taste vindication at MoMA, the stern, withholding mothership. The venerable Lucy Lippard kicked things off with a minihistory of our struggles, contrasting early feminist ideals of community and revolution with the more cynical early-twenty-first-century careerism. To an art-history student who earnestly asked how to overcome her peers’ allergy to the “f-word,” the sage elder replied: “It hurts our feelings when people don’t want to use the word feminist.” See? Feminists can be funny! Lippard went on to marvel that this conference was the “biggest sellout the museum ever had for such an event”—then quickly chuckled at her own hilarious Freudian slip.
The morning’s panel was zippy. Coco Fusco, in character as a military drill instructor, gave a brilliant strategy lesson: “Following these tactics, everyone will forget there was supposed to be a feminist future.” For example: “Bitch your way to the bank: Rebellion for rebellion’s sake—bad girls, erratic behavior, erotic exhibitionism—is easily sold,” she advised. More pointers: “The Personal Is the Profitable” (a slide illustrated “The Tracey Emin School of Art: It’s All About Me!”), “Fair and Balanced: Give opponents to feminism a place at every table as if they are a disadvantaged minority,” and, of course, “Tokenism, Not Quotas.” If anyone asked, as many did at the end of the day, what any of the mostly historical talks had to do with the “feminist future,” I would refer them back to Fusco’s spot-on diagnosis.
It was gratifying and a bit weird to see the Guerrilla Girls do their shtick at this museum, whose paltry representation of women inspired their oeuvre. Alas, their material remains true, outrageous, and provocative despite the fact that they are now museum pieces themselves. And like the best vintage fashion, the black gorilla heads are still fab on the dais, transforming their copanelists—and the entire room—into their “straight men”: “Keep Making Trouble,” the masked avengers advised. “Keep finding better ways to do it.”
Left: Artist Marina Abramovic with curator Okwui Enwezor. Right: Artist Orlan. (Photos: David Velasco)
Not making trouble, Carrie Lambert-Beatty was the delighted art educator with perfect diction, presenting the ingeniously subversive “Women on Waves” project, the floating clinic devised by Dutch Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, which provides abortions twelve miles offshore to women in countries such as Ireland, Poland, and Portugal, where the procedure is heavily restricted or largely illegal. The art historian, in a pixie haircut à la Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, pronounced the piece “activist assemblaaaahge” using art to “figure a space apart, an extralegal sphere [that] provides activism a safe harbor.” Completing the panel, Richard Meyer’s art-historical interest in cocks—that is, in censorship of gay male artists and in the Effeminists, the “flaming faggot” movement of the early ’70s—lead him to research art of that period in which “women were fighting to paint cocks, too—or photograph them.” Like a savvy vintage shopper, he served up three early-'70s finds that look great right now: Martha Rosler’s “Bringing the War Home” pieces, which collage House Beautiful glamour shots with militaristic horrors; Anita Steckel’s zesty phallic cityscapes, including what should be an iconic image of a giant woman straddling the Empire State building; and Joan Semmel’s not-glamorous naked couples experiencing “the reality of desire and aging.” He quoted Steckel, who philosophized, when her penis-filled tableaux provoked controversy in 1971, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums, it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women. If the erect penis is wholesome enough to go into women, it should be considered wholesome enough to go into museums.” Right on.
The Q&A was like a Gong Show of pent-up sharing. Emerging from the woodwork, some of the questioners were in the collectives researched by Meyer. Several had to be “gonged” to let others have a turn. Sitting next to me, an MFA student from Hunter observed: “There’s all this talk about collectivity and the movement,” then she gestured at the mike and added, “but everyone gets up there and blows their own horn. It’s like this underdocumented moment, and everyone is searching for their own art historian.” Indeed, the “questions” were rambling reminiscences, promoting current projects and urging scholars to chronicle their work. The event had the uncanny tone of a High Holy Day when the heavenly accounts were to be reopened and Kafkaesque petitioners—hitherto neglected by the archive—might lobby the powers-that-be to inscribe them in the Book of Art-Historical Life.
After lunch, Marina Abramovic showed Balkan Erotic Epic. Posing as a pedagogue, she introduced video vignettes featuring genital imagery and practice from a very “other,” pagan Balkan tradition: men masturbating into the earth, women baring their privates to “stop the rain.” Next, professor of architecture Beatriz Colomina delivered a lengthy analysis of Le Corbusier’s perverse violation of a woman’s villa by mural. With copious documentation, Colomina traced the modern master’s fetishistic mishmash of figuration and violation, from obsessively sketching les femmes de la Casbah in Algiers (in his words, “By drawing we enter the house of a stranger”) to literally violating a woman’s house by vandalism: “Defacing her [villa with his Picassoesque murals] gave him his identity.” The old-school feminist painter in front of me started to squirm as Colomina elaborated and elaborated upon the modern master’s perversity: “Why is she talking about him?” she poked the elder next to her. “Oy, she’s killing me!” The analysis went on . . . “She’s trying to kill us.” “Murder! Enough already,” she actually heckled.
Left: Curator Ute Meta Bauer. Right: Eva Einhorn, LTTR's Ginger Brooks Takahashi, artist Carolee Schneemann, and LTTR's K8 Hardy. (Photos: David Velasco)
Next, the stately Geeta Kapur of New Delhi presented a careful deconstruction of two woman artists working in “desecularized India” who demonstrated “a testing of identification rather than the claiming or embodying of identification.” Unfortunately, whether due to the postlunch slump, several hours of confinement in the packed hall, or the previous talk (which was delivered in a thick accent to boot), a little deconstruction went a long way. The feisty seniors in front of me were restive as bored teens. There was tension between the old-school feminists—who had long awaited their validation moment at MoMA—and the academics whose abstract musings seemed to perpetuate the status quo. Finally, Martha Rosler took the podium with a big white cast on her wrist and a black T-shirt that said “WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.” By then, the morning’s promise had seemed to fizzle into a poststructuralist fatigue, and we were sorely in need of refreshment.