Beer Goggles

Andrew Berardini on Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art

Left: Artist Ed Ruscha. Right: Artist Tom Marioni. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)

DRINKING AND LOS ANGELES tend to be a bad mix. Or so I pondered as I puttered through weekday rush hour traffic in my car, en route to the Hammer Museum to drink beer with Tom Marioni and bartender Ed Ruscha for a fortieth-anniversary iteration of Marioni’s Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art. I also wondered if Marioni was my “friend,” but in an age where “friend” is a social-networking verb, I supposed I was close enough.

I was the first drinker to belly up to the bar, where Ruscha, wearing sunglasses at night, asked simply: “Beer?” Suntanned and laconic, he made me wonder whether he had been born that way or had just assumed the appropriate traits with time. Having Ruscha serve me a beer seemed the apex of some unrealizable dream from days when I’d butcher his name to girls at smart-set parties in the beer fuzz of early college. A fridge full of free booze, the evening just kicking off, and Ruscha at the bar––it was a decent way to close the summer.

The crowd fleshed out slowly, everyone ambling through the sterile corporate lobby (somewhat countered by a colorful suite of paintings by Friedrich Kunath) to get to the beer hall/gallery, where a small coterie of cameramen and videographers carefully mediated the experience. Pacifico in hand, I circulated through the exhibition, which featured Juddlike shelves for empties, a couple of birch tables with matching chairs for assembled drinkers, and some recent examples of Marioni’s long-term projects––including 2007’s “Out-of-Body Free-Hand Circle,” a series of wall drawings that document the length of the artist’s reach. Halfway through the night, Marioni stood up nervously to a microphone with a neat stack of index cards in hand, and began a stand-up routine of one-liner quotes and yuck-yuck jokes. “Why is abbreviation such a long word?” “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy—Benjamin Franklin.” After ten minutes, Marioni invited us to have another beer. I did.

Left: Actor Will Ferrell. Right: Hammer Museum curatorial associate Corrina Peipon with Hammer Museum senior curator Anne Ellegood.

It was mostly Los Angeles locals: actor Will Ferrell, artists Jonas Wood and Anthony Pearson, collectors Linda and Jerry Janger. There was also out-of-towner RoseLee Goldberg. Though oft cited as a precursor to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Thai kitchen and other “relational aesthetic” colleagues and imitators, Marioni’s drinking-as-art felt goofier, more relaxed—something like what you’d expect San Francisco Conceptual artists to have been doing in 1970. Though repeated many times (including at Art LA with SolwayJones Gallery in 2007), Marioni’s beer-drinking parties happily lack the refined intellectual strategies of the later productions of hanging-out-as-art. Refreshingly, it just felt like hanging out.

This didn’t mean the beer drinking was any less serious. The shelf on the wall filled up quickly. Artist and future guest-bartenders Lisa Anne Auerbach and Barbara T. Smith were on hand to observe and imbibe. Auerbach closed out the evening with Hammer curatorial associate Corrina Peipon, Los Angeles Times scribe Jori Finkel, and master of ceremonies Marioni, with Ruscha in the background taking the last few sips of a beer tucked beneath the bar. Tipsy, just a few of us left, it finally felt friendly, and I’d almost come to actually believe that drinking beer with friends was the highest form of art.

The traffic on Wilshire Boulevard seemed to be thinning out, along with the crowd, so I ordered one last beer from Ruscha. He clicked off the cap with a single easy gesture. “You were the first and last drinker,” he told me. “I suppose that’s worth something.”