Vanitas Fare


Left: Hans Ulrich Obrist, codirector of exhibitions and programs and director of international projects at the Serpentine, and Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. Right: Artist Tracey Emin. (All photos: Lillian Davies)

Not to be outdone by the YAAs of “USA Today,” Charles Saatchi’s latest Royal Academy blockbuster, Damien Hirst has followed the Serpentine Gallery’s “Uncertain States of America” with “In the darkest hour there may be light,” a selection of his enviable murderme collection. Having begun by swapping works with his friends Angus Fairhurst, Tracey Emin, and Sarah Lucas, Hirst has continued to amass his holdings by strategic purchases through art dealers—and eBay. Yes, he admitted to Hans-Ulrich Obrist that he has a penchant for fake Picassos available through the Internet auction site. This is the first public exhibition of the collection, and Hirst celebrated at the gallery on Friday afternoon with close friends and family—excluding even Serpentine staff. And, perhaps in preparation for his party later at posh hotel The Baglioni, Hirst only appeared briefly at the end of the private view, though he maintained a ghostlike presence in his exhibition—equal parts vanity and vanitas. Ever so humble, Hirst said in an interview on BBC Radio 4 last week that he wants to make his newly acquired three-hundred-room pile in the Cotswolds, soon to house his entire collection, into “the biggest and most ornate tombstone” imaginable.

As I entered the gallery on Friday night, I ran into artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who was standing between an early photocopy piece by Sarah Lucas and a row of aluminium stockpots and leather medicine balls arranged by Haim Steinbach. (Hirst’s consistent obsession with death seeped through works by both his predecessor and his peer.) Smith said the show was “like a Bing Crosby album,” but whether he was referring to 101 Gang Songs or Return to Paradise Islands, I wasn’t sure. As he slipped out the door, he cited an almost uncanny resemblance to the show Hirst curated in 1994 at the Serpentine, “Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away,” and sent me toward John Isaacs’s whale-meat sculpture.

Left: Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota. Right: Artist Gregory Crewdson with White Cube's Craig Burnett.

Careful not to step in any puddles of blood dripping off the very realistic slabs of meat, I ran into Gregory Crewdson, in town to do a lecture for the V&A’s “Twilight” exhibition, savoring the show’s truly cinematic staging—Andy Warhol’s knives pointing down at an icy corpse by Michael Joo as Jeff Koons’s Hoovers cast a sickly light throughout the space. While none of Crewdson’s work was included in the show, he found Hirst’s project “very generous.” Many guests were paying their respects to Hirst’s Francis Bacons and Warhols, but everyone was excited about Isaacs’s work. I found him with his proud family, everyone beaming. Having never shown at the Serpentine before, he said, it was “a dream to be here.”

In the next room, in front of two mesmerizing Jim Lambie works, I ran into a friend, an art handler at Tate, who was in awe of the installation—which Hirst had conceived entirely on his own. We prided ourselves on having our priorities straight and hanging with the medium-thick crowd in the gallery, rather than the veritable mob searching for drinks in the tent outside. (With a cash bar, the crowd stayed sober.) New chief curator Kitty Scott described the exhibition as “a rare chance for visitors to be on intimate terms with the artist.” Hans-Ulrich Obrist elaborated, explaining that Hirst led the entire production of the show: He built his own maquettes of the gallery to play with the hang, and likewise controlled the exhibition catalogue and curated the Serpentine’s limited-edition print portfolio. But how did the omnipresent curator feel about this? “It was a great gift! This is Hirst’s Gesamtkunstwerk!” Did Sir Nicholas Serota wish Tate could have snagged the show? With as much reverence as regret, he told me, “No other living artist has a collection like this.”

Even conservative South Kensington locals were getting into it. Richard Briggs, a philanthropist with Prince Michael of Kent’s local charity, Hyde Park Appeal, admitted, “This time, some of the work appeals to me.” His wife cut in and suggested, “He just wants one of those cars.” The car, Sarah Lucas’s No Limits!, a BMW stripped of its doors and a mechanical arm wanking over the driver’s seat, seemed to pose quite a threat as it careened toward a Francis Bacon with a gold frame almost as grotesque as the hacked A Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion.

Left: Art Basel director Samuel Keller. Right: Artist Dinos Chapman.

Toward the end of the evening, stress levels visibly rising among the event organizers and news of a forty-five-minute queue at the Serpentine’s garden gates spreading through the crowd, artist Richard Wentworth confidently declared the show was “one of the great truths of our time.” As if to trace back the family tree, he explained, elliptically, that it was “the only possible consequence of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1964 exhibition at Whitechapel” and, finally, “the parents are in bed with the children.” The stampede at the exit was inevitable. The mounting frenzy of the ravenous crowd was just as Hirst would have wanted it.

Dreams Team

New York

Left: Cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Right: Writers George Prochnik and Wayne Koestenbaum onstage. (Photos: David Velasco)

“The lions roared,” as promised by New York Public Library director of public programs Paul Holdengraber, who MC'd last Saturday’s “Day of Ideas” celebrating the Atlantic Monthly’s 150th anniversary. I attended a conversation between Wayne Koestenbaum and George Prochnik (whose recent Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology explores his great-grandfather’s relationship with Freud—also 150 years young this year) and a talk by everybody’s favorite Slovenian Hegelian reader of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek.

Part Boston Brahmin, part Viennese Jew, Prochnik is descended from “intellectual royalty,” marveled Koestenbaum. Prochnik’s great-grandfather Putnam, an eminent neurologist, was a pal of William and Henry James and an early ally of Freud. Freud’s relationship to America, noted the dapper Prochnik, was “porcupine-like. Love/hate isn’t right—it’s more hate, but he wanted to get closer to America.” Freud “worried and knew the future of analysis was in America. And money would distort it.” He understood “the degree to which Americans look for salvation in their mental treatment. This line in American desire for something more exists in all pop culture but was banished from the analytic world.” Putnam “was saying to Freud, you couldn’t stop people at the point of ridding them of their demons. You have to give them a goal, after looking inward as much as possible, to look outward in concentric circles. Analysands might,” suggested the prominent New Englander, “become social workers.”

Freud considered this American messianism, like mysticism and Carl Jung, not kosher. Quoting from scripture, The Interpretation of Dreams—“Just as every neurotic symptom, dreams allow overinterpretation, indeed demand it”—Koestenbaum connected Freud’s “overinterpretation” with his Jewishness. America would have difficulty digesting both. Freud, for his part, “developed stomach pains at Putnam’s very waspy retreat in the Adirondacks. [He] complained about what he called his ‘American colitis’: issues regarding his own digestibility within goyish society. People running around playing tetherball and charades.” Koestenbaum appreciated how Freud’s “deepest thinking can take place around a stomach ache, or [how] a spot on his scrotum grounds serious thinking.” The critic and poet, in natty pinstripes and a lavender shirt that nicely complemented Prochnik’s, is clearly inspired by Freud’s MO: “Apart from what the dreams are supposed to express, the sense of dream logic as an entire poetic system . . . has extreme dignity and legs. . . . I have undergone a self-analysis remembering my dreams nightly, mostly to make linguistic connections. I have a tin ear for the wish fulfillment of dreams—I’m more into the decor.”

Left: Wayne Koestenbaum and George Prochnik. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: The crowd at the New York Public Library. (Photo: David Velasco)

After that urbane duet, Žižek took the podium excitedly. His topic: “Are we allowed not to enjoy?” His persona flouts the Freudian cliché: “On the surface we are nice, underneath we are beast.” Like the best comics, his timing (the wild ride of thrilling counterintuitive Hegelian transpositions) and his attitude (like an unruly eruption of the “real” ruffling the seamless surface of ideological consistency) are key to his shtick. Resembling an extra from Life of Brian, walleyed, with a medieval-looking hairdo (bangs and a bob), he’s the Lacanian one most easily imagines in a fairy tale, residing under a bridge, in a jagged-hemmed tunic posing riddles to wayfarers. His thick Slovenian accent imbues his critique of Hollywood “feel-ums” (films) with the retro aura of Mitteleuropean intelligentsia. Like fellow ideological critics Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr, he’s not above recycling his best material. I hadn’t seen him live for ten years (I used to teach the good ol’ Sublime Object of Ideology), yet I recognized many of the old chestnuts he served up to the delighted audience.

“Freud was always interested in the retelling of the dream,” Žižek stressed. “The least important is the original, ‘true’ version of the dream.” His shtick disarms with “proper psychoanalystic causality,” which, defying common sense, is always retroactive: “Traumas determine us, but we retroactively determine our traumas.” Noting the nerd who acts out his fantasies “fighting other men and violently enjoying women” online, but who behaves like a dweeb in his actual social contacts, Žižek demonstrates: “Reality is for those who cannot sustain dreams.” After nailing “decaffeinated multiculturalism” and its flabby misreadings of ambivalence, he rigorously ribbed his audience, “I hate you for asking good questions! I love to hate you!” Žižek left us with a rosy view of psychoanalysis in the twenty-first century. “It used to be that one had inhibitions but one secretly wanted to violate them. In today’s permissive society, we are bombarded with commands to ‘enjoy’ ourselves—but we cannot. Because the superego sabotages you. Psychoanalysis is the only place where we are ‘relieved’ of the pressure to enjoy.” Fabulous.

“He was all about how the ‘medium is the message,’ and just look at his presentation,” observed a nice Upper West Side lady therapist at the reception afterward, “It was a mass of tics.” Žižek plucked at the sides of his pullover, all worked up and bouncing from Job to Hitchcock to Schindler’s List (“I did not like the feel-um.”) Yet he looked way more kempt, healthful, and even trimmer than I remembered. When an audience member asked how his approach might apply in a clinical setting, Žižek sagely replied, “Look at me! Would you go into analysis with me?” “That was the best line of the evening,” said the nice therapist. “It’s performance art.”

Meet and Magritte

Los Angeles

Left: Artist Katherine Ross and Jorge Pardo with LACMA director Michael Govan. Right: Artist John Baldessari. (Photos: Howard Pasamanick)

The art world’s fawning seduction of young Hollywood employs a universal language: parties. From Tinseltown fantasy to Belgian Surrealism, my two-day jaunt through an odd swath of LA art began last Tuesday night at “pARTy 2006,” a New Yorker–sponsored event at Gemini GEL in West Hollywood, where young patrons of local cultural institutions gathered to rub elbows and hawk memberships. An army in well-cut suits and festive polyester shirts arrived to celebrate LA’s cultural capital, with well-wishers heralding from MoCA, LACMA, LAXART, LA Opera, and the Music Center, bearing names reminiscent of street gangs (“The MoCA Contemporaries” and “The LACMA Avant Garde”).

Greeted by a roomful of John Baldessari prints, I moved on to investigate the labyrinthine complex’s galleries and print shops before the party reached full swing. Gemini had some choice recent work on display, including pieces by Jonathan Borofsky and Elizabeth Murray, as well as four incredible prints by Bruce Nauman. When I remarked that Gemini GEL’s selection of artists was, while undeniably impressive, decidedly mature, Joni Moisant Weyl of Gemini replied, “We’re constantly courting younger artists, and in the next few years you’ll definitely see some changes.”

A Kiki Smith–designed carpet replaced the customary red one; it led to a nearby white tent in which the growing crowd gathered, cocktails and cell phones in hand. Lithe cochair Bettina Korek moved with grace and speed amid the peculiar mélange of thirtysomething entertainment bourgeoisie, gliding from Hollywood celeb to respected curator. The constant chatter was evidence that she had successfully melded disparate groups, though it also distracted from a plaintive performance by LA Opera–sponsored tenor David Lomeli. The New Yorker name drew out a number of LA’s usually reclusive writers, including Jori Finkel of the New York Times and Emma Gray of Art Review, whose husband, Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times, pointedly commented, “How ironic that the New Yorker is pushing for LA’s cultural legitimacy.”

Left: Gemini GEL's Sidney Felsen and Joni Moisant Weyl. Right: Artist Mike Kelley. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Such stature seems perpetually at stake for self-conscious Los Angeles, and it often hinges on ambitious museum shows, like the Baldessari-designed “Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images,” which opened the following night at LACMA. Recently, there’s been a spate of artist-curated and -designed shows, with variable results. But to excuse Baldessari from any curatorial malfeasance, he came on board the project just six months ago, at the invitation of Michael Govan, the museum’s universally admired new director. Everyone I talked to—especially women—regaled me with stories of Govan’s intelligence and charm. I found him chatting with MoCA director Jeremy Strick in the show’s main gallery, not far from Vija Celmins’s giant comb. “These things are in planning for years,” he explained. “I couldn’t change the show, but I could change the way it’s shown. Baldessari’s design is both wild and respectful.” A radical departure from largely sterile institutional presentations, the exhibition borders on the theatrical. Guards in bowler hats and suits stand throughout the gallery on floors thickly carpeted with a plush white-clouds-on-blue-sky pattern and beneath ceilings coated with photos of choked and knotted area freeways. The exhibition features sixty-eight works by Magritte alongside sixty-eight works by contemporary artists, including Charles Ray, Ed Ruscha, and Baldessari himself. It’s magnificent, really, and highlights the irreverence in the LA aesthetic, though a few individual works seem too literal or curiously misplaced.

Late in the evening, I found Baldessari sitting on the far edge of the white-marble plaza with dealer Emi Fontana and show contributor Mike Kelley. Kelley wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of certain artists, and at one point demanded to know, “What the fuck is Rauschenberg doing here?” Baldessari simply nodded his great white mane and laughed, saying in his deep, velvety voice, “The first thing I asked Stephanie Barron when I saw the show was, ‘What is a Rauschenberg doing here?’” A young, dark-haired girl in a bowler hat quietly interrupted Baldessari, then put her arm around him while a friend snapped a picture. I slipped away from the table, encountering French artist and provocateur Orlan (and her very surreal white-and-black hair) midway across the plaza. After snapping a quick photo, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a card emblazoned with—of course—a picture of her face. She leaned in close and pointed with a long fingernail to her website address. “You want to see some real work. You ought to go here.”

Andrew Berardini

Left: Artist Orlan. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Actor Pierce Brosnan with Stephanie Barron, LACMA senior curator of modern art. (Photo: Howard Pasamanick)

Worldwide Warhol

New York

Left: Christie's chief auctioneer Christopher Burge. Right: Art consultant Philippe Ségalot with artist Takashi Murakami. (Photos: David Velasco)

A few dealers were literally drunk at Christie’s evening sale on Wednesday, but most of the swanky crowd had prepared by simply knocking back the Kool-Aid. What does it mean when a single auction of contemporary art rakes in $240 million and establishes nineteen(!) record prices? Amy Cappellazzo, the outspoken international cohead of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art division, had an answer: “Belief in the contemporary art market is at an all-time high. After you have a fourth home and a G5 jet, what else is there? Art is extremely enriching. Why shouldn’t people want to be exposed to ideas and artists?”

Takashi Murakami and I were guests of art consultant Philippe Ségalot, so we sat in prime seats in the sixth row, surrounded by big spenders. Murakami had never been to a sale before and had bid by phone only once. In his sashimi-style English, he told me, “I totally freaked out. No control. Bid, bid, bid! Twenty thousand dollars my maximum. In end, paid forty-seven thousand dollars for Aya Takano work at Christie’s Hong Kong.”

I asked the artist for his favorite piece in the sale, and he pointed to lot 16, Andy Warhol’s majestic Mao, 1972. As Warhol is the art market’s top-traded star, and newfound Chinese wealth is contributing to the endless art boom, it’s the perfect symbol of the season. “Which do you like better, Mao or Sixteen Jackies?” If I heard it once, I heard it half a dozen times. One’s answer apparently reveals a lot about one’s taste. The unique assemblage of sixteen canvases chronicling the tragedy of Mrs. Kennedy resonated with those for whom Warhol’s disaster paintings are his greatest achievement. For others, Mao, featuring a globally important icon whose features suture the tension between capitalism and communism, had “stronger wall power." In the end, Mao commanded the higher price, selling for $17.4 million to Joseph Lau, a fifty-four-year-old Hong Kong real estate tycoon with an appetite for international art said to be atypical of Chinese collectors. The painting had toured China as part of an effort to drum up interest, clearly a successful marketing ploy.

Left: Collector Mitchell P. Rales. Center: Georg Frei with dealer Doris Ammann. Right: L&M Arts' Robert Pincus-Witten and Adriana Mnuchin. (Photos: David Velasco)

Lot 29 was Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXV, 1977. The bidding was fast and furious on the crashing abstraction with the fleshy pink paint that harked back to the artist’s '50s heyday. Bidders tend to dwindle to a determined pair as the stakes climb, but this did not happen here until the contest topped twenty million dollars, when it turned into a duel of split bids (of smaller-than-standard increments). The soaring numbers commanded a respectful silence, but when the hammer came down at $24.2 million ($27.1 million with the buyer’s premium), the room erupted in chatter so loud that you could barely hear the progress of the next lot. It was the highest price ever paid for a work of postwar art at auction. (Though, a few weeks ago, Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 sold behind the scenes at Sotheby’s for $140 million.) Bought by dealer Nick MacLean on behalf of a client, the work was also sought by Mary Hoeveler from Citigroup Art Advisory, representing a bidder apparently willing to go even higher if cell-phone contact had not been lost at the crucial moment.

The real trophy de Kooning was up next: a small drawing entitled Woman (Seated Woman I), 1952, on offer from its original, now octagenarian, owner who had acquired the work from the Sidney Janis Gallery for the neat sum of $150 in 1953. The wantonly ravishing figure sold for double its estimate at $9.6 million. A nice return on the original investment.

Christopher Burge, Christie’s chief auctioneer, was in outstanding form. Good-humored and ever so patient, he raised his eyebrows here, lingered quizzically there, and teased the hesitant: “If you want it, you have to bid.” Orange Marilyn, 1962, on the block for a fourth time, was being cast off after only five years by California collector Roger Evans—a sad provenance befitting the life story of the lost bombshell. When the bidding got slow and sticky, Burge skillfully extracted further bids, banging his hammer at $14.5 million. Bob Mnuchin was so impressed he hollered, “How about a hand for Christopher?”

Left: Helena Skarstedt with dealer Per Skarstedt and Christie's Alain Jathiere. Right: Collector Stavros Merjos with Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble. (Photos: David Velasco)

Lot 44, Clyfford Still’s large red 1947-R-NO. 1 provided more high drama. Rumored to be on the market last year for $4.5 million, it was estimated at $5 million to $7 million but sold for a staggering $21.2 million, almost seven times Still’s previous record. The rare, soulful painting received the evening’s loudest round of scattered applause.

Comic relief was offered by dealer Marc Glimcher’s goofy (klezmer-style violin?) ringtone. “Is that your phone?” asked art consultant Abigail Asher, aghast. “You gotta do something about that, Marc,” advised supercollector Aby Rosen.

The sale was exhausting and invigorating in equal measure. Records were set for an older generation of living artists, including Carl Andre, John Baldessari, Sol Lewitt, Robert Mangold, and Louise Bourgeois; by contrast to their younger peers, they now seem reasonably priced. What were the verdicts of my companions? Ségalot, full of apt asides like the skeptical “a signature is not enough,” put it this way: “The sale sets a new level in the contemporary art market. The biggest stars were American, and most sold to American buyers.” Of the triumphs—and the casualties—Murakami, whose Zen-like calm was punctuated by occasional giggles, summed it up nicely: “Artists survive. They can anytime have a revival, coming up like zombies. Auction like cemetery. Maybe I come back in May.”

Sarah Thornton

Left: Dealer Tim Blum. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Public relations specialist Sara Fitzmaurice, Rafaela, and dealer Perry Rubenstein. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Cheap Feel

New York

Left: Collector Aby Rosen and son. Right: Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer (far right of picture). (Photos: David Velasco)

The laughs about last night’s less-than-spectacular Contemporary Art Evening at Sotheby’s started a couple of weeks ago when the auction house spammed the art world with a guided video tour of the sale’s highlights, hosted by its star auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer. The video started innocently enough, with Meyer offering his personal interpretation of the most expensive works. “Artists do have the cruelest eyes, so when they depict themselves you have to look very carefully,” he said about the early Andy Warhol self-portrait that graces the catalogue cover. “Is he trying to be a star? Absolutely not. Is he looking remote? Absolutely.” Slowly, the auctioneer with the high forehead and the uncanny appreciation of the artist’s inner thoughts homed in on the painting’s meaning: “You can see how he is deeply obsessed about losing his hair.” In this instance, the commentary didn’t seem to do any damage, as the work sold for $3.3 million to Alberto Mugrabi, a dealer who admits to owning eight hundred Warhols and who bid against newsprint tycoon Peter M. Brant, said to have a couple dozen of the best. Insiders assume Mugrabi bought the piece to keep Warhol prices high and protect his holdings. The vendor was the son of legendary dealer Leo Castelli. From my standing position, I had a clear view of the late Castelli’s widow, an unexpectedly young, short-haired brunette, her hand covering her mouth, talking on her cell phone. She appeared to be having a decent day at the races.

The video’s comic zenith coincided with one of the sale’s nadirs: lot 33, David Smith’s Voltri XVII, 1962. The late artist is currently enjoying a retrospective at Tate Modern, so you would have thought that the Georges and Lois de Menil Charitable Trust had chosen the optimum moment to sell the steel sculpture. However, Meyer presented a different set of facts: The sculpture is “very . . . sensitive. Despite conservators’ advice against it, I love touching sculpture because sculpture needs to be touched.” As Meyer ran his bare finger along an buttock-like curve in the work, he said, “Voltri XVII has the physical presence of a human being.” Oh, dear. No wonder the piece didn’t sell.

Left: L&M Arts's Robert Mnuchin. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Oliver Barker, Sotheby's head of contemporary art, London, and Anthony Grant. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Sensing the time was right to capitalize on outlandishly high prices, many dealers and collectors cleaned out their closets this season. Evening sales tend to be sixty to sixty-six lots, but such was the supply that Sotheby’s offered a whopping eighty-three (and Christie’s offers the same number tonight). In Vanity Fair’s inaugural “Art Issue,” Meyer referred to buying a work at auction as a “pseudo-orgasmic experience.” Selling, however, does not appear to deliver quite the same sensation. One vendor told me that a successful sale of a work at auction was more like “the relief afforded by a high-fiber breakfast cereal.” Bob Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs man–turned–secondary-market dealer said to have masterful timing, was offloading inventory. When lot 38, a de Kooning sculpture called Hostess, 1973, sold at a record price (for a sculpture by the artist), Mnuchin was expressionless. When lot 43, Jeff Koons’s Ushering in Banality, 1988 (which had been on the L&M stand in Basel), sold midestimate for $3.6 million (hammer), his expression was stone-cold. But when lot 53, Brice Marden’s Au Centre, 1969, failed to find a buyer, Mnuchin forced a grim smile that could be described as . . . constipated.

Despite the fact that seven works went unsold, the evening’s sales total was over $125 million and records were set for Francis Bacon, Anish Kapoor, Robert Mangold, Carl Andre, Piero Manzoni, Niki de Saint Phalle, Josef Albers, and Enrico Castellani. Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s smart, down-to-earth head of contemporary art in London, said that it was a “masterpiece-driven market that one shouldn’t overrationalize.” Art consultant Sandy Heller concurred: “Auctions are liquidity events where quality counts. It’s actually healthy when the market rejects substandard or overpriced works.” Heller was the underbidder on Agnes Martin’s I Love Life, 2001, and the winner of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #196, 1989. He was buying for the Ganeks, who will become players of a different order when Danielle Ganek’s novel about the art world, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, is published by Viking in the spring.

Pussy Galore

New York

Left: Frieze's Amanda Sharp, Sarah Watson, and artist Rachel Feinstein. Right: Artist John Currin (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

There was an amazing amount of pudenda power on the walls at John Currin’s uptown Gagosian Gallery debut on Saturday night, and plenty on the floor, too—at least judging from the “Victoria's Secret Unplugged” atmosphere in the main room. The art seemed to trigger a concordance of emotional responses in the well-heeled crowd filling the hallways, stairwells, and elevators: admiring (Inez van Lamsweerde), alarmed (Currin’s professorial dad), enraptured (Sean Landers), giddy (Helen Marden), gleeful (Piotr Uklanski), guarded (Rudolf Stingel), effusive (Yvonne Force Villareal), and unfazed (A. M. Homes).

So what shall we call these new hard-core paintings? Will “postporn” do? “Sublingual”? “Pre-op”? I heard all sorts of comments as I minced along, all avoiding confrontation with the obvious: “Such beautiful painting!” “I love the pearl!” “That black glove is the best!” “That underwear is perfect!” “This painting would be nothing without the crockery.” “I really wanted to hate this stuff,” one painter confessed. “But I don’t hate it,” he said. “In fact, I love it!” The size queens had a field day, comparing everything from rumps to reputations. Someone insisted that Jeff Koons, who made only a brief appearance, was so jealous that Currin had pulled off such a rub-your-face-in-it triumph that he had to leave, but this voice was immediately trumped by another protesting that Koons was the one who had got it right years ago, by putting his own sex life on the line instead of just borrowing from porn and acting coy about it. “I just want to see what Currin looks like,” one curious onlooker remarked. “I don't know what to think of this show, but if I see him it might help.”

Perhaps Currin is really a feminist who decided, even at this late date, to expose the “male gaze” once and for all, like Stanley Kubrick with Eyes Wide Shut. Or perhaps he is just another sexist pig who refuses to admit that he’s trying to keep this subject matter in male hands. Or perhaps he is simply making fun of his own penchant for Courbet. Or perhaps he really gets off on painting porn. Possibly, he is fatally enamored of the human figure and just wants to paint it every which way, including the Indian. Or perhaps he is headed for disaster. Of course, it doesn’t look that way when every single painting sold for prices rumored to range from $450,000 to $900,000. (Now say you don’t care.)

Left: Marieluise Hessel with curator Tom Eccles. Right: Artist Richard Phillips.

“For people who like this sort of thing, there is a lot to like,” said Currin’s father, paraphrasing Max Beerbohm (evidently by way of Jerry Saltz). It would be nice not to have to take any of “this sort of thing” seriously, but at these prices that may not be possible. As for Currin, he was openly laughing all the way to, er, dinner at the Neue Galerie, while his wife, Rachel Feinstein, had to fend off persistent questions concerning her role in the new sex paintings. Answer: no role.

About that dinner. I don’t know about you, but looking at art gives me an appetite, especially when I’m looking at art that is only about appetites. When no food appeared, I stalked into the Café Sabarsky, only to find most of the tables removed and guests standing shoulder to shoulder, pouncing whenever a tray-bearing waiter came along with a dime-size hors d’oeuvre. Now, I am not one to complain when, out of the generosity of their hearts, dealers treat hundreds of an artist’s best friends to a meal. I expect nothing. But why call it dinner when it isn’t? It doesn't seem fair.

After Richard Phillips made his engagement to Josephine Meckseper official, Cecily Brown swore her love for Michael Fuchs (“She never says that at home”), Perry Rubenstein returned from a visit to the Klimt galleries upstairs with the observation that “the Currins up there are really outrageous,” and Marc Jacobs arrived from Paris flush with the success of his debut as a costume designer with the Opera Garnier, I decided to relax and just drink more cold, flat water. And wouldn’t you know, just as Currin decided to reveal the secret of the “vein technology” he used to paint hard-ons, Alan Rickman arrived with My Name Is Rachel Corrie star Megan Dodds, and Juergen Teller reported how his Berlin gallery sent US friends exhibition postcards backed by the image of his asshole dancing to a piano-playing Charlotte Rampling—no brown wrapper or anything—and they all got through (I think the secret was Charlotte Rampling), when the food finally arrived. Is it any wonder people were talking Borat?

Left: Cynthia Rowley with Bill Powers. Right: Helen Marden.

I was still hungry the next day, when I arrived with Clarissa Dalrymple at Bard College for the opening of the Hessel Museum of Art, where we both had been invited for lunch. The inaugural exhibition, “Wrestle,” curated by Tom Eccles and Trevor Smith, is an extremely thoughtful collection show organized around identity issues (nostalgia!) and what the exuberant Eccles called “a formal morphology,” or something perfectly grand like that. Also wonderful was Martin Creed’s syncopated, all-day oompah symphony, Work No. 593, played by an excellent student orchestra seated in barrier-reef formation across the Lawrence Weiner–lined lobby that connects the original building to its twelve-million-dollar addition. (Hessel anted up eight million herself.) With this week's contemporary sales looming, I asked the patron: Would you spend as much on a big-name artwork? “I would only buy at auction to fill in a hole in the collection,“ she replied. ”And anyway, I doubt I would ever spend a million dollars on a single work. It simply isn’t necessary.”

Paper Chase

Los Angeles

Left: Ooga Booga's Wendy Yao. Right: Paper magazine editors and cofounders Kim Hastreiter and David Hershkovits. (Except where noted, all photos: Andrew Berardini)

On every page of Paper magazine, the message is simple, direct, and to the point: Party, party, party, until you trip away from a hip cultural event in your Balenciaga shoes and puke into your eight-hundred-dollar Marc Jacobs bag. Paper, once a hip local broadsheet for the downtown New York scene, went glossy when the scene did and now relishes a well-constructed reputation for twenty-four-hour fashonista bacchanals that put college fraternities to shame. I joined the fashion rag Wednesday evening for its second annual Los Angeles Paper Project on day two of a caravan of promotional concerts, panels, neighborhood visits, and art walks around LA.

Attempting to avoid the promised crowds at the PR extravaganza, I arrived early to get a good look at the galleries. Paper’s interns and organizers were already gathered amid crates of Italian beer stacked on the sidewalk next to ice-cream trucks blaring reggae and giving away designer cosmetics.

I cut away from the Bernard Street cul-de-sac and up to adjacent Chung King Road, where red Chinese lanterns hung in eerie silence and the gallerists were unruffled by the promise of bedlam to come. I showed Parker Jones of Black Dragon Society the canvas schwag bag Paper was distributing to the chic patrons of the arts who were due to arrive any moment. “I [Adidas logo] Chinatown” was emblazoned on the bag, to which Jones pronounced, with a rakish grin, “Keep your shoes off my town.” Peres Projects, which is featuring hilarious neon one-liners by Dan Attoe, seemed a bit livelier, with five young hired hands typing away at computers, instant-messaging gallery owner Javier Peres, at that moment far away from his LA space. Steve Hanson and Maeghan Reid of China Art Objects and Red Krayola member Tom Watson were sipping Tsingtao beers in true Chinatown fashion, beneath rich paintings of Blakean depth and spiritual darkness by J. P. Munro, throwing a party of their own until Paper’s arrived.

Left: Artist and 2nd Cannons founder Brian Kennon. Right: Artist Patterson Beckwith with dealer Dan Hug.

I meandered back to Bernard Street to see the single art performance of the night, at Daniel Hug Gallery. Patterson Beckwith had set up a portrait photography studio, and the small line awaiting pictures was the nearest thing to a crowd I’d seen all night. “Be sure to get it signed,” Dan Hug whispered to me conspiratorially. But Beckwith would have none of it; he marked the backs of his spectral black-and-white Polaroids with a blue stamp that authoritatively stated, “This Artwork Produced By Patterson Beckwith ©20__.” As the stillborn night rumbled to a close, the army of interns had fled to the next stop of the caravan in Echo Park, and there was nary a free beer to be found. The last remnants of the-crowd-that-never-was huddled around the entrance of the Bernard Street galleries. All the faces around were likable Chinatown artists and dealers: Ooga Booga’s Wendy Yao and her boyfriend, artist Nick Relph, joking with artists Eli Langer, Bart Exposito, and Brian Kennon; Francois Ghebaly of Chung King Project talking about the upcoming fairs with Kordansky’s Natasha Garcia-Lomas and Jack Hanley’s Alexandra Gaty. This evening, New York couldn’t connect with LA's Chinatown, but the neighborhood moves at its own pace and sets its own agenda. As I was leaving, I bumped into collector Michael Gold, surveying the scene through his yellow-rimmed glasses. “It’s hard for magazines to stay alive, especially art magazines,” he said. “So many come and go. Who can blame them for trying to get more advertising?”

Passion Victims

New York

Left: New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni and art historian John Richardson on the panel. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg with Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: David Velasco)

So nu, with the New Museum? It’s building a sleek tower on the Bowery (way above the bums, darling); its trailblazing founder, Marcia Tucker, recently passed away; and it’s welcoming curator Massimiliano Gioni, who all you culture vultures no doubt know is also the artistic director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation and a collaborator (in the Wrong Gallery) with the super-duper-high-priced artist Maurizio Cattelan. Now you also know he’s the cutest curator, ever, and charming. Moderating Wednesday night’s panel at the Cooper Union entitled “Passion: For Love or Money?” was his public debut as the New Museum’s new hire.

Noting the decent turnout, a mélange of Cooper Union students and museum supporters, I scanned the dais and couldn’t help noticing there was a woman up there. And five men. Perhaps the only thing worse would be to not even notice? Surely, they could have dug up another chick—even an annoying one—on “passion”? So let’s just call the panel “Passion: For Love or Money? (According to Several Men and One Woman).” OK, that’s better.

Each panelist exemplified passion, be it for performance art, curating, criticizing, Picasso, or food. Perhaps the most on point, Marina Abramovic presented a rich trio of videos: first, Liberace starting his day (fabulously, of course); then, in Jerusalem, a saint wannabe channeling Christ’s stigmata (“In a world seduced by materialism, lust, and force,” she preached to her weeping supporters, “don’t allow your will to be subdued . . .”); last, “Adoration of the Object, by a Yugoslavian artist,” a long shot of a young man sitting Buddha-like and contemplating a motorcycle. Unexpectedly, Abramovic came out against passion: “Passion creates obsession, which creates attachment, which creates suffering,” said the woman who, according to Gioni, has “walked on the wall of China, lived in the desert, and eaten onions, all in the name of an art she has transformed.” “The worst works we ever made,” said Abramovic, referring to Ulay, her longtime artistic partner, “were based on passion . . . the mystic stuff.”

Left: New Museum director Lisa Phillips with Village Voice senior art critic Jerry Saltz. Right: Chef Wylie Dufresne.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist “tries to read a book a day and interview a person every day,” marveled Gioni by way of introduction. Clearly revved up, and talking ridiculously fast in a barrage of Swiss-accented word pellets (does he read a book a day aloud?), Obrist enthused about his curatorial activities with the zeal of an Asperger’s case perorating about train schedules. My notes from his flyby discourse are goulash: something about “polyphony . . . a less homogenized idea of globalization . . . exhibition as a time line . . . I would like to talk to students in China . . . Agamben.” He showed a “speech bubble pavilion” where he’d staged a series of conversations. He’s passionate, OK? Perhaps more about gobbling and spewing discourse than digesting it.

“You can’t seem to get enough of Picasso, can you?” Gioni turned to the next distinguished panelist, John Richardson, who “has written one million words” about the artist. An actual pal of the modern master (which seemed science-fiction surreal, as the chap looks mature but not ancient), Richardson is a hotline to greatness and didn’t stint on the anecdotes, including one about Picasso’s “uncle who died because he wore a barbed-wire garter belt to chastise himself and purge himself of sin.” He noted Picasso’s regard Andalu (Andalusian gaze), “the feeling you could have something with your eyes. Picasso exemplified that.” Very different, Richardson pointed out, from today’s celebrity-driven obsession with “image.” “What did Picasso want?” asked the moderator. “To live forever,” Richardson shot back instantly. “He was obsessed with death and hated time.” What did he need most? “Other people’s energy. He was exhausting. Like a vampire.”

Wylie Dufresne is an award-winning chef and owner of WD~50, a groovy, “pioneering” Lower East Side restaurant. He roasts chickens like an artist-philosopher: “Now that we know how to roast a chicken according to Careme and Escoffier,” he said, “I’m asking why. It’s very complicated to roast a chicken. We know more about the surface of Mars than we know about what’s going on inside a soufflé.” His stoner-style musings were cut off by queries: What is the strangest thing you’ve put in your mouth? (“I’ve eaten a lot of bugs.”) What taste do you hate the most? (“Dill.”) Love? (“Eggs are amazing.”) Clearly an experimentalist, Dufresne is challenged to practice his art in a restaurant where the public expects, like, to have dinner. He’s passionate “to get people to accept that eating is . . . something to contemplate, an emotion to share. Like you go to a baseball game or theater for an interactive experience.”

Left: Artist Marina Abramovic. Right: John Richardson and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs and director of international projects.

Lastly, Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice did his average-Joe, “What do I know?” shtick, literally playing tourist by sharing slides of his recent road trip to Utah. He hung with Mormons at Brigham Young U. He made a pilgrimage to Robert Smithson’s echt-high-art shrine, Spiral Jetty. Showing snaps of Mormon art (mothers and settlers), the New York, Jewish art appreciator was deeply moved, he said, when he schlepped out to the Jetty and spotted (someone literally gasped when this slide went up) a giant, pasty, naked man just lying there like a beached whale. Clearly a man, Saltz assumed, in passionate communion with site-specific landscape art: “It opened me up to how romantic the Smithson piece really is.” There was a hilarious slide with Jerry’s face as repoussoir; behind him, the Jetty and his naked fellow pilgrim, lying prone, in a “shamanic nap.” Or, just a nap. It “reminded me we have to look at art like that all the time.” Whether Saltz was wildly projecting in that case or not, after dissing art mags, theorists, Rosalind Krauss, and Matthew Barney, he gave the crowd a pep rally for having opinions about art: “There’s no criticism if there’s no judgment. If there’s no subjectivity, it’s not happening.” That, I agree with.

Abramovic commended Saltz’s “pure childish enthusiasm that touched everyone. Really wonderful. A good critic is a live critic. A good artist is a dead artist.” So that’s “passion” for ya.

Manifesta Destiny


Left: unitednationsplaza co-organizer Tirdad Zolghadr, critic Diedrich Diederichsen, and Unitednationsplaza co-organizer Anton Vidokle. Right: Artist Anri Sala. (All photos: Salon Aleman)

There’s more than one specter haunting Europe . . . not only Communism and Halloween revelers but also Manifesta 6, the mobile biennial that recently failed to reach its destination, Nicosia, the partitioned home of uneasily cohabitating Greek and Turkish Cypriots. This week’s announcement that Manifesta 7 will be held in the Italian region of Trentino–Alto Adige (curators to be announced, if willing souls can be found) temporarily drew attention away from that exhibition’s failed predecessor. The proposition of curators Mai Abu ElDahab, Anton Vidokle, and Florian Waldvogel for Manifesta 6 was to set up a school on both sides of the city’s dividing line, but unfortunately the main legacy has been a tangle of legal disputes involving the organizers, Nicosia for Arts (a Greek Cypriot municipal organization), which canceled the event, and the International Foundation Manifesta (IFM). Not one to be spooked by a €430,000 lawsuit, Vidokle took his curriculum to Berlin, where the teaching staff of roughly sixty writers, artists, and theorists will lecture over the next year.

Resituating Manifesta 6 in Berlin—once a divided city, internationally notorious for poor neighborly relations—was a reminder that many of Europe’s old ghosts have yet to be exorcised. Given the logistical failures awaiting correction, expectations among the crowds in attendance at last weekend’s inaugural conference were high. Redubbed “unitednationsplaza,” the school’s Berlin incarnation is named after its location at Platz der Vereinten Nationen, although the building—stuck behind a supermarket and surrounded by low-income apartment blocks—is not nearly as spectacular as the New York address.

Left: Maria Lind and Liam Gillick. Right: Artist and DJ Julieta Aranda.

During the conference, modestly titled “Histories of Productive Failures: From the French Revolution to Manifesta 6,” the tensions of the Green Line patrolled by UN troops were captured by speakers from both sides of the border; their testimonies suggested that Manifesta 6 had been doomed from the start. The Greek Cypriot Pavlina Paraskevaidou had a point when she asked, “Is conflict the new cultural tourism?” since biennials have exhausted the novelty of peripheries. After all, IFM signed the contract with Nicosia after the UN referendum to reunite the island had failed. How could curators, armed with little more than an artist list, succeed where Kofi Annan could not? Friday night ended with a grand dinner attended by Berlin's UN-like international arts community, from Danish artist Jens Haaning to Peruvian-German artist David Zink Yi. Of course, Hans-Ulrich Obrist showed up. Monica Bonvicini, hanging out with artists Bojan Sarcevic and Thomas Demand, had only one comment: “I’m glad school is over.”

But classes were just starting. Day two raised the possibility of something scarier than curators-cum-diplomats: an art school run by magazine editors–cum–fair entrepreneurs. Fresh from his appearance at the London fair, Liam Gillick reported that Frieze founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover had expressed pedagogical ambitions at a recent Serpentine talk. Gillick’s respondent, IASPIS director Maria Lind, professed skepticism about the entrepreneurs’ move into arts education. Jan Verwoert—ever the optimist—came out for the magazine/fair. Never mind conflicting interests or divisive exclusions, Frieze is an “independent project”—and economically self-sufficient to boot. In other words: More community co-op than marketing coup. Watching my neighbor Vasif Kortun take notes in a Moleskine notebook specially produced for the fair, I found myself cheering the magazine on. After an academy, why not a Frieze retirement plan?

On day three, cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen wondered about the impact of awarding artists Ph.D.'s in Europe and then explored the “New Ugliness,” his term for the practice of exhibiting the oppressed as living sculptures, referencing artists from Oscar Boni to Santiago Sierra. Artists Gitte Villesen and Karl Holmqvist rightly did not buy Diederichsen’s decision to add Jeremy Deller to the mix—suggesting that “Dr. Artists” might in fact cure panel discussions of their chronic imprecision. Kortun decided to hold his lecture in the basement bar, which offered free beer and cigarettes—a welcome break until co-organizer Tirdad Zolghadr announced our homework assignment: a series of questions, including, “If failure were an abstract drawing, what would it look like?”

Left: Artists Boran Sarcevic and Hiwa K. Right: Artist Naeem Mohaiemen, curator Hila Peleg, artist Pash Buzani, and artist Fia Backström.

I thought I’d get some ideas the next evening when classes officially started with Boris Groys’s seminar, “After the Red Square.” Once through reminding us that the CIA had funded Jackson Pollock’s first exhibitions in Europe, Groys talked about the fall of Communism and the rise of religiosity around the world. While claiming that nationalism in art was “not internationally sexy,” the Russian philosopher was clearly haunted by his own ghosts: “I miss Communism,” meaning a time when art was not a commodity but rather an ideological weapon. Too bad the CIA did not step in to save Manifesta 6. Without such support, art, it seems, comes out the loser in such conflicts and must be content to make do with failures.

Open Market


Left: FIAC artistic director Jennifer Flay. Right: Architect Pepe Rojas and dealer Pablo León de la Barra. (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)

Tuesday night, holding on to my black leather gift bag (overflowing with invitations) and my guest-of-honor pass (designed by M/M), I headed to a transparent tent inside the Cour carrée du Louvre for the preview of the “dynamic” part of the thirty-third FIAC art fair. Jennifer Flay, the laid-back artistic director, accompanied by Martin Bethenod, the charming general curator, were personally greeting their guests, who included stylish former ministers of culture Jack Lang and Jean-Jacques Aillagon. No doubt influenced by the venue’s extreme architectural sophistication, everyone tried to ignore the vulgar excesses of the frenzied market and attune themselves to the French art de vivre. A lady collector explained to me that art is something “profoundly human—which people have a tendency to forget these days.” Yet London dealer Pablo Léon de la Barra, participating in his first FIAC, seemed just as interested in finding out about the naughty spots of the Bois de Boulogne as he was in selling works by young Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero.

Later on, cooling my heels while I waited for Sylvie Fleury at the Fontainebleau du Meurice bar, I wondered if it was my fate to spend my life waiting for artists in the great palace hotels of Europe without ever enjoying a stay myself. We met Olivier Mosset at the preview for a satellite fair called ShowOFF (it was a little lackluster), held near the Champs-Élysées inside the Espace Cardin. Afterward, as we aren’t indifferent to the French art de vivre ourselves—especially when it comes to filling our bellies—we enjoyed the delicious buffet dinner (prepared by one of Paris’s best caterers) at Galerie Patrick Seguin, which was exhibiting work by artists from Hauser & Wirth. At the end of the night, we drank one last flute of champagne at a cocktail party hosted by Yvon Lambert and Azzédine Alaïa in Alaïa’s hôtel particulier in the Marais, where huge Julian Schnabel paintings clashed with the spare decor.

Left: Dealer Emmanuel Perrotin. Right: Artists Sylvie Fleury and Olivier Mosset.

Wednesday marked the official opening of FIAC’s main section, which is focused on slightly older modern art and takes place in the renovated splendor of the Grand Palais. It felt sacrilegious to talk business here, among the ecstatic oohs and aahs of those with faces turned to the dome’s majestic beauty. At the last minute, most of the galleries had chosen to do without canopies over their booths so as better to enjoy the view. Sadie Coles, delighted with the lunch she had hosted Tuesday at Le Duc, the best fish eatery in Montparnasse, told me it was the Grand Palais’s magnificence that had helped her convince Barbara Gladstone to share a booth with her.

That night, Emmanuel Perrotin was throwing the party, honoring his artists, inside the catacombs under the Alexandre III bridge—elaborately decorated with cuddly toys and Takashi Murakami videos. The gallery owner, proving himself admirably generous, had invited 350 people for a formal dinner and, afterward, a private concert featuring the chanteuse Feist, indie stalwarts Gonzales, and British funkmeister Jamie Lidell. Perrotin’s staff had spent several days sweating over the seating arrangements. So when a guest left the dinner party after telling Perrotin that she’d been seated with a bunch of hillbillies, he admitted to me that the boorishness he encountered in the art world never ceased to astonish him.

Left: MMK director Udo Kittelmann with curator Stéphanie Moisdon. Right: Dealer Yvon Lambert.

I was sat next to Eric Duyckaerts, who will represent Belgium at the next Venice Biennale and seemed to be fretting a little over the performance he was going to give later on. Also sitting at our table were Udo Kittelman, the designer Irie, and Stéphanie Moisdon, cocurator (with Hans-Ulrich Obrist) of the next Lyon Biennial. From Sophie Calle to Leandro Erlich to Murakami, all of Perrotin’s artists seemed to be there, chattering happily in the company of star collectors like producer Claude Berri and literary-world queen Nathalie Rheims.

When it was time for the Le Baron DJs to take control of the night, I decided to head home so as to save up a little energy for the rest of the week. There would be so much fun to choose from, including a very St.-Germain-des-Prés dinner held by Almine Rech at the Café de Flore in honor of Joseph Kosuth and the Ruinart party organized by Praz-Delavallade on Avenue Foch. Or why not go to Kamel Mennour’s “Destricted” party, celebrating the X-rated work of Larry Clark, Matthew Barney, Richard Prince, et al.? The invitation card specified that no one under eighteen would be admitted and that the films contained “strong real sex and strobing effects.” Ooh la la! Would they actually rival the Parisian delicacies tucked away in the Bois de Boulogne?