IT’S UP. IT’S AMAZING. And it’s never coming down. So said its architect at an exclusive, black-tie dinner this past Monday night, when Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg “delivered” Renzo Piano’s new, 28,000-ton baby to the people who paid $422 million for it.
With a select group of artists in the museum’s collection—think Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, Cindy Sherman, Zoe Leonard, Roni Horn, Wade Guyton—and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, they had already seen for themselves what the rest of the world will know on May 1: that the Whitney has put its money where its heart is—on its made-in-America art—and given it a space and a frame so choice it’s almost invisible.
Following the Museum of Modern Art’s dismaying 2004 expansion, New Yorkers had good reason to dread what might be waiting for them inside the Whitney’s new Meatpacking District home. Move the museum out of its storied and distinctive, Marcel Breuer–designed headquarters on Madison Avenue and into an ungainly, industrial-looking structure designed by a hit-or-miss architect? Like the price tag, the risks were enormous.
The excitement was palpable as the four hundred opening night guests filed into the glass-walled lobby. (Unlike the Brutalist fortress uptown, transparency is the keyword here.) Though she has been working in the building for some time, curator Elisabeth Sussman still couldn’t get over how marvelously it turned out. “Just look at the trees framed by the windows!” she exclaimed. “I hate to sound like a convert to a cult, but after the Breuer, the light is amazing.”
Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs was so blown away he couldn’t quite get his sea legs. “Is this the bar or the elevator?” he inquired of a group who appeared to be waiting for liftoff. For this night only, it was both. The doors closed and, as a bartender filled flutes of champagne, the car, with trompe-l’oeil walls designed by the late Richard Artschwager, rose slowly to the eighth floor, where the earlier works in the 22,000 works-strong, permanent collection were about to astonish.
It was almost as if no one present—not Charlie Rose, Chuck Close, Dorothy Lichtenstein, or Brice Marden—had ever seen an Edward Hopper, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, or especially a John Covert before. “The installation is really profound,” said collector Thea Westreich of “America Is Hard to See,” the museum’s inaugural exhibition. As arranged by Donna De Salvo, Scott Rothkopf, Dana Miller, and Carter Foster, the exhibition’s core curators, the show makes such clear, art-historical sense of its decade-by-decade contents that it belies the title. Personally, I don’t think any of the works on view ever had better placement or a more spacious hang. “It’s clean, it’s healthy, and it’s beautiful,” added Westreich. With her husband Ethan Wagner, she has given the Whitney five hundred works. “The show opens in November,” she said.
Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon. Right: Artist Jasper Johns.
The exhibition galleries all have high ceilings that both reveal and hide the infrastructure of the museum. (They also echo the gridded ceilings of the Breuer.) The reclaimed pine floors are warm and gorgeous. Ditto the appropriately rich colors of the flexible walls on the sixth floor. The conservation lab looks like the most glamorous operating room imaginable and a minimalist gallery with an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture and paintings by Carmen Herrera, Ad Reinhart, and Agnes Martin feels like a meditation room here. Outdoor terraces offer not just panoramic views and fresh air but sculpture; Mary Heilmann’s commissioned Sunset installation of painted outdoor furniture is especially joyful.
Inside, comfortable couches face the biggest picture windows, with more artworks on the walls behind them. (Glenn Ligon’s neon, Untitled (negro sunshine), stares down the city to the east.) “It’s downtown architecture and it belongs downtown,” said Leonard Lauder, a leading light of the Whitney for many years and a voice for resistance to the move early on. He wasn’t complaining anymore.
Politicians mixed with the artists and other trustees, like Brooke Garber Neidich, Neil Bluhm, Ray McGuire, Stefan Edlis, and Gael Neeson. The relaxed Bloomberg toured the exhibition with an all-female posse and spoke to nearly everyone, including Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehmann, Rudolf Giuliani’s old nemesis.
From the current administration at City Hall came cultural affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl with first deputy mayor Alicia Glen in tow. (Mayor Bill De Blasio will arrive next week for the ribbon cutting.) Also on hand was Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell, whose institution has the lease on the Breuer building for the next eight years. “We’re his landlord,” chortled De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator. “Modern and contemporary art is an area of high interest to us right now,” he said.
Waiters signaled it was time for the Sotheby’s-sponsored dinner by playing single notes on triangles. They had a hard time getting people to leave the galleries. Some went down slowly on the stairs, which surround a Félix González-Torres curtain of light bulbs hanging in the shaft top to bottom.
With everyone seated at tables in the expansive lobby—clearly the future go-to room for social New York—board co-chair Robert Hurst was first to take the podium. It was the high-level donors evening, and he celebrated them. “We did it!” he began. “We exceeded our goal of $760 million.” Looking to Lauder, who has (so far) donated 950 artworks to the museum, he said, “Leonard, this night, this Whitney, would have been impossible without you.” There was loud applause at Weinberg’s appearance onstage. “Change is good,” he said. “It makes New York, New York.”
But he addressed his first remarks to the reason that the city needs such a museum in the first place. “Every square foot of this building has been designed with the artists in mind,” he said, recalling that Bloomberg, as mayor, had told him, “Don’t screw this up.” Bloomberg also privileged artists, underscoring the way art and culture are inseparable from New York, while De Salvo reminded everyone that the Whitney has always been an artists’ museum. “It’s also a curators’ museum,” she said, describing the opening show as “a novel in twenty-three chapters.”
“I think that this is the real beginning of the twenty-first century,” said a starry-eyed Josephine Meckseper, surveying the room during a break in the speeches. “Adam and Donna did everything right. And for the right reasons.” Finally, just past 10 PM, the main course was served. Unlike most events of this size, the food—from Untitled, the Whitney’s new Danny Meyer restaurant—was actually good, not rubber.
Rufus Wainwright bounded to the Steinway on stage, looking up midway through his first number, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” surprised that his listeners were so rapt. He was just a few bars into “New York, New York” when he went blank on the title words. Recovery was swift; he started over, and the song was perfect. Finally, board president Neil Bluhm presented Piano with a kind of medal—a cement block designed and inscribed by artist Lawrence Weiner.
“To have a great building you need a great client,” Piano said, and went on speak with such honesty and humor that it was obvious why the trustees chose him as architect. “Today is a great moment, a moment of joy,” he said. “Yesterday it was our building. Today it’s yours. It’s still the Whitney,” he added. “Not the new Whitney. To me, an Italian, American art has always been freedom. This building is a house of freedom. I love making buildings. I especially love making buildings for art, because art is about beauty, and beauty will save the world, I’m pretty sure.”
When he returned to his seat beside a grateful Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of the founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, I followed Paul Chan, Rachel Harrison, choreographer Sarah Michelson, and Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould back up to the ’80s/’90s floor—“our floor,” as Gould put it, the one with the Barbara Kruger and the David Salle over the Donald Moffett wallpaper, the one with Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the one with the David Hammons-Fred Wilson-Karen Kilimnik group and the Charles Ray-Jeff Koons-Peter Halley configuration, the one with the art of our time.
Congratulations, Whitney! You’ve always gone to bat for the home team, and this time you’ve done us proud.
Left: Artists Rick Liss and Mary Heilmann. Right: Artist Mark di Suvero.
WAIT FOR THE BEGINNING and the end will have already come. Once, the art world’s more social participants only needed to get in for previews. Now even the previews are too late. The Whitney, officially opening May 1, has already had multiple parties in its new building. At the various Basels the dinner circuit can start a whole week before opening day. As for Venice: mi dispiace, but I’ve already been and gone.
Nearly a month before the vernissage of Okwui Enwezor’s biennial, I bounced into the Most Serene Republic with much of the Paris art mafia for the openings of two new exhibitions organized by the Fondation Pinault. Danh Vo, impish, adorable, and holding down the Danish pavilion in a month’s time, had also taken on the large task of curating a full-scale exhibition in Punta della Dogana, stretching from the late thirteenth century to last Tuesday. Over at Palazzo Grassi—which I hadn’t seen since Rudolf Stingel upholstered it in 2013, and which looks damn fine carpet-free—it was the turn of Martial Raysse, a French hero who stumps Americans, still. After a year in which another French luxury goods billionaire had taken up most of the air, with the opening of the showier Fondation Louis Vuitton, the return to Venice was also a rappel à l’ordre.
Last year’s Raysse retrospective at the Centre Pompidou revalorized his early Pop works, but it didn’t do much for the later figurative paintings. Yet even Bernard Blistène, who’d been showing cameraphone shots from the Pompidou’s new Málaga outpost in our taxiboat, had to admit that Raysse’s Venice show is better than Beaubourg’s—an asynchronous, open-ended exhibition that finally let this American see what the fuss is about. Panoramic paintings that looked dreary and unconvincing in Paris, where they came at the end of a fifty-year slog, turned here in the Venetian light into independent, energetic tableaux whose Day-glo colors and thank-heaven-for-little-girls iconography chimed with his pre-’68 experiments. Best of all were the nearly one hundred small-scale works, displayed in vitrines like Beuysian relics, among which Caroline Bourgeois, the justifiably proud curator, had a few favorites: a pigeon with a tricolor sash wielding a neon longbow, or carefully wrapped packages sprouting psychedelic mushrooms.
Vo’s exhibition, meanwhile: well, santo cielo. At times Vo’s art can be too dependent on backstory, too interested in evocation at the expense of form. But “Slip of the Tongue,” his exhibition at Punta della Dogana, is the best artist-curated exhibition I’ve seen in years—a sober, broken-hearted, and endlessly moving show of suffering and remembrance. His selections from the Pinault collection were shrewd (Sigmar Polke’s potato house is back from MoMA, and there’s almost a Lee Lozano mini-retrospective going on), but Vo has also borrowed many artworks not in the collection: Roni Horn’s shimmering Gold Field, 1980–82, in a gallery whose window gives onto San Giorgio Maggiore, or Nancy Spero, whose biting Artaud collages from 1969–70 have been hung in the central gallery by Julie Ault. “A lot of the works that I’ve looked into have really been introduced by Julie,” Vo confessed over a jetlag-averting spritz. “If a collection like Pinault’s is acquiring a certain amount of works of mine, then they should understand where I’m coming from.” Hence Nairy Baghramian’s titular sculpture, composed of flaccid rubber and polystyrene, which Vo thinks evokes less a tongue than another appendage. “She wanted to make a sculpture related to the form of a penis after ejaculation. Or that’s just my thinking! And it looks fucking good!”
Relics here too: body parts, bodies in pieces. Erections courtesy of Peter Hujar; an encephalitic head, signed Jean-Luc Moulène; an original Rodin plaster from 1890–91, missing a head and arm, lying flat out on the floor. The body in pain, and the potential for martyrdom, arrives first and foremost through illuminated manuscript and Old Master paintings that Vo borrowed from Venice’s museums—a Bellini head of Christ, painted circa 1500 and brutally cut from a larger composition, stares out at passersby, while Saint Stephen in ecstasy gets stoned to death in the center of a big blue letter C. “When Napoleon occupied Venice,” Vo suggested, “it was the first time that all these accumulated collections—from noblemen, from churches—were dragged out. And I thought that was an interesting starting point, where cultural production is a trace of warfare and occupation and destruction.” Or illness, he might have added. Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, Paul Thek, and especially Félix González-Torres imbue Vo’s exhibition with quite literal creation in the face of oblivion—González-Torres’s red beaded curtain hangs in a doorway guarded by a plague-forefending gargoyle. “I felt, like, kind of ashamed how gay-ified it turned out to be,” Vo chuckled. Whether Raysse felt any similar remorse at his show’s raving heterosexuality remains unknown.
I know that you want to hear about the parties. I’m afraid you will have to wait another month. This is why you come to Venice early—the seating-chart politics are for the poor souls who arrive on time, while in April you can breathe, wander, have a spritz with your friends and remember why you love art in the first place. On the morning I left Venice, I wound my way through the empty alleys of Dorsoduro, disconcertingly serene under the April sun. In the little church of San Sebastiano, Veronese’s altarpiece for the ultimate Christian gay icon had no one to genuflect before it but me. Saint Sebastian, as he has been since 1565, remains tied to a column, one arrow piercing his loincloth, another impaling him in his left shoulder. Above, the Virgin and Child are enthroned with angels and musicians, and the steely blue-black wing of one of Mary’s guardians slices down from the clouds into the realm of the living. I thought of Vo’s own saints, many of them gay, as I sat alone in the little church: men transubstantiated, souls but also bodies. And I realized why I loved his exhibition of relics and martyrs so much: Vo turned the group show into an instrument of beatification.
Left: Elmgreen & Dragset diving board with view on San Giorgio Maggiore. Right: Christie's deputy chairman Xin Li in front of Giovanni Bellini, Head of Christ, c. 1500–1505.
MILAN IS THE FASHION and design center of Italy and yet until recently its fair, MiArt, had been a poor stepchild to the grandfather Artefiera Bologna and elegant Artissima. Since director Vincenzo De Bellis took it under his wing in 2013 MiArt has matured into a cosmopolite with a fresh viewpoint. Previously a truly Italian affair, it has grown to include nearly 50 percent foreign galleries, largely American and British—just big enough to be confident and not yet full of itself.
The relaxed tempo of the preview last week was the calm before the coming storm, as the fair was a warm-up for the Salone del Mobile and Expo, both just about to hit the city. I began at the Loro Piana lounge, displaying two luminous tapestries by artist Pae White, made of precious thread and being sold by Kaufmann Repetto, where family members Maria Luisa and Lucia—dressed casually in natty cashmere blazers—hung out and chatted about art for sale. Just outside a nod to Milanese design was embodied by a section of twelve dealer booths, titled “Object,” offering limited editions. Luisa delle Piane’s booth was an appealingly whimsical installation around Plexiglas shelves by Andrea Branzi.
The objects of most desire on the floor seemed to be monochrome canvases by artists of the Milanese Spatialism movement: Paolo Scheggi, Enrico Castellani, Turi Simeti, Agostino Bonalumi, and, as always, Lucio Fontana. “There has been a recent raise in prices and international standing of Italian modern art, pushed by the sales at Italian auctions in London last October,” explained Giovanni Gasparini, of Christie’s Education. The “painting-objects,” termed estroflessioni, look like the work of modernist ghosts trying to punch their way out of pristine canvases in aesthetically pleasing compositions. If Artfiera Bologna is the biggest fair for Italian modern art, MiArt proffered a select squadron of key international dealers with broad offerings, such as Robilant & Voena, Tornabuoni, and Mazzoleni. Galleria Cardi upped the ante with a fantastic selection of Arte Povera—like a Michelangelo Pistoletto mirror and a steel, lead, and coal piece by Jannis Kounellis. Adding to the renaissance, Alberto Burri’s 1973 “Teatro Continuo” is being reinstalled in Sempione Park, thanks to curator Gaby Scardi, in time for the Expo.
The genius feature of the fair was the section called “THENnow” (a cute retort to Artissima’s “Present Future”?), pairing an established and a younger artist and two galleries in one exhibition. A standout was Giorgio Morandi, represented by Galleria d’Arte Maggiore G.A.M., and Sadie Coles artist Paloma Varga Weisz, whose Wunderkammerlike assemblies and sculpture were kindred spirits to the luminously quiet still lifes of the Bolognese painter. Kounellis and Tony Lewis made a felicitous union in a booth curated by the Christian Stein and Massimo De Carlo galleries. I ran into De Bellis giving a tour to some VIPs including Art Basel’s Marc Spiegler, who quipped, “I am then, he is now.” De Bellis explained his winning strategy: “I didn’t want to force young galleries to do solos—it does not serve them well—so I let them do what they want. Highlighting one artist is better for established galleries, who already have clientele and exposure at other fairs.”
Dinner that night was hosted by the Phillips auction house at the Palazzo Visconti, where Francesco Bonami had assembled “Great Wonderful: 100 Years of Italian Art” as a preview for the upcoming New York sale. It was a surreal and voluptuous scene, sundry modern artworks mounted against the florid Baroque setting in the palace of director Luchino Visconti’s family, whose emblem, depicted in the mosaic floors, is a child being devoured by a serpent. Two white canvases by Castellani and Bonalumi flanked a marvelous self-portrait by De Chirico; on another wall a white multilayered Scheggi kept company with a luscious sculpture resembling feather plumes in a box by Piero Manzoni.
“It is so relaxing here, I really enjoy it,” Persian collector Amir Shariat effused. Exiting the palace onto the quiet street, I looked to the right pondering the T293 party and then to the left in the direction of the Christie’s/Artribune bash at the Frigoriferi Milanesi; I so hated to miss either, but all I could do was descend into the Metro, surrendering to a fatigue born of aesthetic-hedonist overload.
Left: Pierpaolo Forte, president of MADRE, and dealer Umberto Di Marino. Right: Dealers Michael Callies and Memmo Grilli.
The word with Italian fairs is that as a foreigner you have to come several times before selling, but here the young dealers seemed quite pleased. On Friday I checked out the international “Emergent” booths to see how they felt and ran into Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo making the rounds. “There is a different pace here, less hurried than fairs in New York, for example, where there is a sense of urgency because they do three fairs in three days,” noted The Sunday Painter’s Tom Cole. Esperanza Rosales, of VI, VII is on her third stint at MiArt: “We did very well here with Eloise Hawser our first time around, and now she is a rising star.” This year she risked another solo, of artist Landon Metz. At the coffee bar, dealer Mauro Nicoletti groused, “The south is coming north!” Although it related to the slow bar service, it is true of galleries; from Naples Lia Rumma and Mimmo Scognamiglio have arrived, and Blindarte’s Memmo Grilli will open a space soon in Milan. “The Neapolitan collectors are esterofilia, but they like to buy things in other cities so they can say, ‘Oh this thing, I bought it in London!’ ”
Friday evening brought the “Spring Awakening” in a flush of openings around town. Lisson threw a party for Cory Arcangel’s show in the enchanting garden frequented by Leonard Da Vinci. No time to stop for long, we headed for the Lambrate area to visit Ida Pisani’s Prometeogallery for Giuseppe Stampone’s show “Emigration Made Pavilion 148,” where a child played with one of three remote-control boats in tubs named the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria; the Elad Lassry show at Massimo De Carlo; Ali Kazma’s “Intimacy” at Francesca Minini; and last but not least, Federico Vavassori’s new space, with a show of Mélanie Matranga and Oliver Payne curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen. Payne’s fantastic “Portal” painting transported us directly into the Gavin Brown’s Enterprise-Bridget Donahue fair booth, where one there is a view into the gallery.
Left: Curator Andrew Bonacina, collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, and dealer Steve Pulimood. Right: Artist Cory Arcangel.
Afterward we attended the dinner in honor of artist Giuseppe Stampone at the home of collector Davide Blei, near the Gucci quarters overlooking a public garden. It was like a family reunion with a largely Italian group of collectors and curators including Eugenio Viola and Gaby Scardi. The effusive host came round and said, “All the food is homemade!” Setting out for a party hosted by twelve galleries at the vintage Sala Liberty, we got waylaid by dealer Michael Callies and a posse heading toward the Mousse party at the 1950s Ex Cinema Manzoni, where everything seemed psychedelic and the crowd dazed, so we ended the night at the jam-packed legendary Bar Basso, hosted by Vavassori and dealer Carl Kostyàl.
On Saturday I made my way to Lucie Fontaine, where Irma Blank’s “Pink Writings,” delicate lines painted on paper to resemble opaque texts in a book, were as Delphic and delightful as the artist herself. It seemed appropriate that the sunny weekend would end at the opening for “Painting, Painting” at Peep-Hole, De Bellis’s first baby, so I walked around the big cemetery and arrived at the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia, the foundry where artists like Giuseppe Penone, Arnoldo Pomodoro, and Marino Marini have cast their work, in time for Oliver Payne’s “Chill Out” session. To be honest, I was late and the artist was manning the door wearing a SECURITY jacket; after a short discussion he allowed entrance, which turned out to be the chilled-out MO in spite of warnings that the doors would close shut promptly at the start time. The music was like a journey by time capsule—snippets whizzing past evoking different places/eras/memories—and it conceptually extended the space to the outside, where crowds were already gathering for the Peep-Hole opening upstairs. “This is my favorite album by KLF,” Payne explained. “They burned the money they made on their music and deleted the band’s back catalog, disappearing, as if speeding up the inevitability of time.”
Left: Collector Raffaella Sciarretta and dealer Francesca Minini. Right: Artist Irma Blank and curator Nicola Trezzi.
TOURISTS AMBLING through Time Square on Monday between 12 and 2 PM encountered something different from the usual melee of naked cowboys and competing Elmos: a tight cluster of people gathered around a soapbox upon which speaker after speaker took a stand for the freedom of speech.
As they spoke, a man held an unusually cooperative white dove upon their right shoulder. The lack of amplification meant the crowd had to lean in to hear the likes of artist Hans Haacke, art historian Claire Bishop, and curator RoseLee Goldberg protest the continued detention of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose performance piece Tatlin’s Whisper #6 this event restaged. In Spanish and English, scripted and impromptu, each speaker took their minute before an attentive audience.
Bruguera herself was incommunicado: She has been under house arrest in Havana since last December, when her attempt to stage Tatlin’s Whisper in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza, as part of the #YoTambiénExijo (I Also Demand) campaign to bring ordinary Cuban voices into the public dialogue about the normalization of diplomatic relations with the US, was firmly shut down by the regime. (You can read details about the events leading up to her arrest and those of other activists on this site’s news column and in a detailed post by artist Coco Fusco, as well as a 500 Words with Bruguera about her project.)
Left: Artist Malik Gaines. Right: Parkett US senior editor Nikki Columbus.
On a day when a handshake between Presidents Castro and Obama was making headlines around the world, the restaging of Tatlin’s Whisper was a forceful reminder that state control of the arts and public expression hasn’t evaporated overnight. And while the speakers were united in condemning Bruguera’s detention (along with many other dissident artists and intellectuals, including Danilo Maldonado “El Sexto”, who was also arrested in Havana in December for attempting to mount a political performance), many also linked her cause to broader struggles for social justice in Cuba and beyond.
“We don’t think of our own context here as one in which freedom of speech is repressed,” Bishop said, “but I think we self-censor ourselves,” offering numerous cases where “speech is unequal and unfree because of fear of retaliation.” Haacke read a solidarity statement from the Gulf Labor Coalition, of which both he and Bruguera are members, and which has been calling attention to labor and human rights abuses in the UAE, where museums and universities are building shiny new citadels. The artist Dread Scott, whose work has been censored here in the US, reminded the audience of the arrest and police harassment of Ramsey Orta, the man who bravely filmed the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer. Another artist, Malik Gaines, told the crowd that Americans love the right to free speech almost as much as we love the right to bear arms, but that even where artists enjoy the freedom of speech, they often fail to use it to confront power.
Tatlin’s Whisper did not only draw art-world luminaries to Times Square; it also brought a proud, banner-bearing contingent from Immigrant Movement International, a long-running activist project Bruguera has been organizing in Corona, Queens. It was moving to see working people take time to attend a protest held in another borough on a Monday afternoon (timing that probably accounted for the fact that the bulk of the other speakers were artists and arts professionals). Laura Raicovich, director of the Queens Museum of Art, told me how this confluence answered earlier reservations expressed in the media as to whether Bruguera’s community-organizing among undocumented immigrants qualified as art. “Those questions seem to be resolving themselves in interesting and unexpected ways.” Raicovich said. “I always say if an artist tells me its art, I believe them, because at the end of the day artists often see things we don’t.”
Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time, who helped organize the restaging, told me the event was intended to keep Bruguera’s case in the public eye at a time when formal charges could be imminent. If charged and convicted of “counter-revolutionary activities”—a disastrous eventuality—Bruguera could face a long prison sentence. In addition to the event at Times Square, restagings of Tatlin’s Whisper were held in Los Angeles, Rotterdam, Chicago, Amsterdam, Knoxville, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. Raicovich told me that future events were also being planned at the Queen’s Museum: “It has got to be this layered, long-term approach, until things get resolved for her.”
With the Havana Biennial opening in May, many wondered how Bruguera’s case would affect artist’s willingness to participate. Filmmaker Ela Troyano, performance artist Carmelita Tropicana, and playwright Jorge Cortiñas, who were all in attendance, felt that continued engagement with artists on the island was crucial. Pulling back now, they told me, would only feed into the disastrous politics of the blockade.
Thompson reminded me that working as an artist today necessarily entails negotiating contradictory relations to difficult state regimes, including our own. “Being someone that operates in the United States, you are always in a state of deep contradiction when you stand up for the rights of people in other countries,” he said. “It’s hard to find a place that we haven’t, either through economic or military means, exploited. So you always come equipped with some kind of humility and awareness of the contradiction. Nevertheless, one has an obligation to stand up for these rights, regardless, in this country and abroad.”
Paul B. Preciado, who is currently facing legal charges of his own after an exhibition he cocurated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (MACBA) was censored for a crime of insulting the king, placed the ongoing detentions of artists in Cuba in a broader context, lest any conclude the problem is quarantined to an island-nation that has, after all, historically stood up against cultural and economic imperialism. “The Right is organizing in Europe to give an ideological coup d’etat to block the cultural institutions where ideas, representation, and artistic experimentation are taking place,” he told me. “This is happening in Spain, France, Italy, Greece… We have to get organized and fight together.”
Left: Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson. (Photo: Malik Gaines) Right: MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey.
Left: Steven Weiner, Fab Five Freddy, Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen, and Stuart Sundlun. Right: Artist Leo Villareal and Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villarreal. (All photos: Billy Farrell Agency/bfanyc.com)
LAST TUESDAY, I listened happily as a woman expounded on the “civilizing effects” of socializing in a taxidermy-friendly room of “people over thirty-five.” We both had had enough of parties full of “so-called young collectors.” Then I tripped over a small, obviously feral child. (In his mother’s defense, which I will not come to, he was wearing a suit.)
Still, the Art Production Fund’s “Gangs of New York” gala was satisfyingly stacked with representatives from all the heavy-hitting cliques, and not just the art world’s. Liv Tyler! Cathy Horyn! Even AOL’s mascot Shingy. No one had heard of the event space, the Down Town Association—once a men’s club for maritime lawyers—but they’d certainly heard of one another. Not that any of our guests-of-record would go on the record as to which art-world “gang” they belonged to. Artists—always thinking they’re in a class to themselves.
A smattering of men and women tried to dress in theme, despite the obvious handicap: Was it a reference to the Scorsese film? Person-about-town Meghan Boody favored this theory, strapping a round of bullets around her midriff; her ex, the artist Randy Polumbo—wandering what seemed a safe distance away—donned fluorescent nipples of his own extraterrestrial design, situated like wingtips on the shoulders of his suit jacket. (No theme there, but a fine personal advertisement.) Too bad the couple didn’t pan out; few others expressed such willingness to engage the night’s possibilities.
Left: Designer Lazaro Hernandez and artist Rachel Feinstein. Right: Art Production Fund director Casey Fremont.
I cozied into a leather couch with Susan Feinstein (of the New Museum gang). We gave each other fake Sean Landers–designed tattoos; she chose a cat with large female breasts for our upper arms. “I feel sexy!” she giggled, and rightly so, in a flirty ’20s-style flapper dress. (“Just a little thing from Paris.”) Dealer Sandra Gering, seated opposite, declined to participate. We knocked over a couple of glasses of champagne and talked about her newly acquired Warhol sketch, then I excused myself to check out the Haim Steinbach installation, sequestered in a side room.
A similarly inspired couple joined me and we three alone stared at the steel shelf, rather certain that none of us was going to be moved. Two pairs of high heels with long, grasslike tassels were placed, archly “haphazard,” on the display. (The other guests of honor were Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of fashion house Proenza Schouler.) “This ‘art’ is not for me,” said the woman, downing her glass, “but I’d wear the shoes.”
In search of my table I realized, quite on accident, I hadn’t spoken to a single man. Thank God I was seated between two at dinner. Fab Five Freddy was on my left. “You can Google me,” he said after introducing himself. I smiled gamely, only to realize he wanted to watch me Google him right then. I waved my BlackBerry in the air as an excuse. He was undeterred. I was saved by the ever-polite Frank Benson, responsible for the show-stealing glossy-green 3-D sculpture of Juliana Huxtable now in the New Museum’s triennial. He watched a documentary on Fab Five Freddy “last night!” Huxtable herself floated over later in the evening, her famously fab braided locks (Google them) churning as she hugged him hello.
The only thing that separates the art world from high school is the ability to leave the lunchroom for a smoke break, so I exercised my status as an adult in control of my whole entire thing. Never mind. It was raining. I’m the only smoker left in New York. What does one expect in the middle of dinner? Sometimes we must look within ourselves and accept the clique to which we’ve been assigned by God, or, in this case, a random PR underling. I returned to my table and spotted the shaggy-haired, tonight disenchanted-seeming artist Jonah Freeman, heretofore opposite me at dinner, and we shared chagrin about our table’s empty seats (two!). Stella Schnabel either was a no-show or had finagled a better spot.
On my way out the door I ran into the always-chic Sarah Morris—in a crisp white pantsuit, black hair cropped and slicked back—repairing to Lucien with her entourage. I failed to convince Marilyn Minter to join—she had “to go home and feed the dogs or they’ll shit all over the rug.” At coat check, the painter Garth Weiser and I realized we’re both from Helena, Montana, and…know a man named Laughing Water, etc. We decide to form our own gang.
“Well, that wasn’t too nauseating,” said a woman, dumping her Kiehl’s gift bag out on the counter. It really wasn’t. What a world where that’s our only requirement for a night out. 2015, my friends, 2015!
Left: Artist Haim Steinbach. Right: Artist Hanna Liden (left) and artist Sarah Morris (right)
Left: Than Hussein Clark and Anja Diettman (wearing Osman) at DZ Hosts the Violet Crab. Right: Artist Zhana Ivanova. (All photos: Josh Redman)
“1865 – CAFÉ ROYAL, London; 1915 – The Moulin Rouge is destroyed by fire and The Cabaret Voltaire was created in Zurich; 1965 – Liza Minnelli made her debut on Broadway; 2015 – The Violet Crab opened in London.” So stated the release for “The Violet Crab” at the David Roberts Art Foundation, a material exhibition of a definitively immaterial form of spectacle—cabaret—curated by Than Hussein Clark, Vincent Honoré, and Nicoletta Lambertucci.
One hundred years after the establishment of the Cabaret Voltaire, Clark used the occasion to homage the genre by organizing “DZ Hosts the Violet Crab,” an exemplary iteration of that historically rebellious form of variety theatre, which has now, for better or for worse, become an oft-mimicked method. The improvisational atmosphere was made clear at the door. There, a greeter hired by Pierre Huyghe emphatically announced each guest’s arrival as they were ushered into the main exhibition room and seated at cocktail tables before the stage. We have seen Pipilotti Rist in her films, but for her proclaimed “first-ever performance” she invoked the ambience of a nightclub, giving her proxy, Javier Aparicio, room to dance his flirtatious, enthusiastically received striptease to a song Rist wrote in 1997. (Including lyrics like “The blood of your shaving wound/Let me sip it like holy water,” some in the audience wondered whether Rist had played a role in the latest Madonna album.) Zhana Ivanova had her own proxies in Borrowed Splendour, for which she invited plants in the audience to the stage while she sat to its right, speaking directives to the ad hoc actors through a microphone. The meta-intrigue enacted a politics of flirtation and power between the two male characters, played by Citizens! lead singer Tom Burke and artist Eddie Peake, who vied for the attention of the central female, played by dealer Pilar Corrias.
Like a courtroom drama, the entire evening was documented with pen-and-ink washes by Isobel Williams, who sat at an easel to the right of the stage. I would like to think that these drawings could record the precision of the ballet dancer Jean Capeille, enacting steps from La Bayadère—most famously performed by Rudolf Nureyev—alongside actor Rory Keys, who read a vivid letter from Christodoulos Panayiotou addressed to a personal friend. In it, Panayiotou describes his stay on the Amalfi Coastal island of Li Galli, which has notorious connections to both Nureyev and the mythical Ulysses, with lyrical candor that departed from the more cartoonish musical comedy routines of the hosts, Hussein Clark and Anja Dietman, who kept to a very Cabaret version a cabaret.
Several of the Violet Crab participants were artists not normally associated with theater, and they employed the stage in developing something different. A first read might infer, from the men’s black leather motorcycle suit Celia Hempton wore as she walked in front of the audience, that she was keeping on-message with the Weimar-era dominatrix theme. But she became a welcome contradiction to the trope as she switched on the room’s stark florescent lights, revealing that her apparel was baggy and ill-fitting; she unceremoniously walked across the stage and punched a man with an unflinching expression, Marco Scuri, in the stomach several times. During an evening that burlesqued sexual representation, the minimal interlude suggested that subversion isn’t always neatly seductive.
This premise had been earlier demonstrated by Matthew Dickman who, while the most deceptively conventional of the evening’s acts—standing onstage, alone, conducting a poetry recital—was also the most innovative, interpolating what are assumed to be personal bedroom encounters—“Your ankles make me want to party, want to sit and beg and roll over under a pair of riding boots with your ankles hidden inside”—with historical and pop-cultural erudition (“The Gettysburg Address is the money-shot of any speech…”). His reading prompted the evening’s most raucous audience response, and confirmed that real inventiveness defies generic notions of bourgeois good taste, and takes us somewhere totally new. To hold the balance, the evening ended with a return to the theatrical cabaret, this inhabited by Wendy Bevan, who seriously delivered in her “songstress” role. Spotlit and alone, wearing a long, sparkling dress, her operatic crescendos shifted the mood from the “experimental” climate established by the preceding acts, emphasizing that a cabaret is, by definition, entertainment.