AT 8:30 PM LAST TUESDAY, I arrived at the invitation-only dinner for the 24 h Museum behind two good-looking fellows who also had forgotten their invites and thus had to wait outside for the keeper of the guest list. There was something nice—can we call this consolation?—in knowing that for at least a brief moment an art critic was on equal footing with twins Alexandre and Victor Carril, Paris’s latest enfants terribles. Their attendance was not surprising. During the recent men’s fashion week in Milan, the brothers had walked the catwalk for Prada alongside other actors in a show the fashion house had described as a “parody of male power.”
“Parody” was the theme of this evening, the opening of a fly-by-night museum, conceived by Francesco Vezzoli and Rem Koolhaas’s OMA/AMO with the support of Prada, inside Auguste Perret’s Palais d’Iena, just around the corner from the venerable Musée d’Art Moderne. “Conceptually speaking, this is a parody of a baroque feast.” That’s how Vezzoli described the project to Hans Ulrich Obrist in an interview from the slick press pamphlet. The OMA/AMO team made similar comments. The four spaces of gallery, staircase, cinema, and “Salon des refuses” were meant to destabilize the austere neoclassicism of the Palais (erected between 1936 and 1946), a building whose staid appearance befitted its use for government bureaucracy. You have to hand it to Prada, OMA, and Vezzoli for consistency across the brand.
Inside, the first casualty in a night practically defined by them was some poor woman whose ravishing heels did not agree with the fuchsia shag carpet laid on the concrete entrance stairs (no doubt as a parody of the red carpet). Her crash seemed like pay dirt for the scores of trigger-happy paparazzi.
Whatever its guise, the concept of parody always implies a distance from the object of ridicule. Without this separation, the parodist risks becoming his or her own subject. Upon entering the pink, fluorescent cage that was the theatrical backdrop for the evening’s meal, I looked around for this elusive parody. Was it sitting next to Catherine Deneuve, cigarette in hand? Or maybe at the table with Miuccia Prada and Louis Garrel? Or perhaps it was hiding in Kate Moss’s stunning gray fur jacket or in Salma Hayek’s six-inch stilettos?
Eventually, though, it became clear that the whole spectacle was no different from any other opening dinner I’ve had the honor of attending, save for the fact I was seated with fashion editors (Anna Wintour, Alexandra Shulman), actors (Isabelle Huppert, Diane Kruger), and models rather than dealers, curators, and artists (apologies to Alfred Pacquement and Carsten Höller, who were among the token representatives of the art world). That and the food and tableware were better. This Milanese cenacolo via Paris and Rotterdam made no mockery of the baroque feast outside of the caricature already inherent in such art-fashion gatherings; it was its contemporary updating, gluttony and egomania included.
Around 11 PM, as the B-list invitees began to congregate outside the cage for the nightlong party and as the A-listers snuck away to their drivers, I saw some curious onlookers snapping pictures of those of us still lingering inside. It was only at this awkward conjunction of la foule with le demimonde that the tragedy of the 24 h Museum truly emerged. Beyond the fact that navel-gazing here had reached such epic proportions that you didn’t even need the semblance of a critical project—just the three D’s (dinner, drinks, and dancing)—to create a work of art, the descending hierarchy of events from VIP dinner to members-only party to press walkthrough to public tours replicated seamlessly and without comment the unjust inequity of society at large. Um . . . Parody?
Left: The crowd at the 24 h Museum. Right: Catherine Deneuve and Melvil Poupaud.
It remains an open question whether 24 h Museum is no more than highly stylized party decor organized around the theme of the museum or a cynical artwork that riffs on artists’ installations by the likes of Duchamp or Fontana or Broodthaers to prop up a dystopian “museum without walls” in which Fashion is both the beginning and the end.
However, I’ll give one thing to Signora Prada and Signori Koolhaas and Vezzoli. They throw a great party. At some point between midnight and 4 AM, when the music was driving and the alcohol flowing, a friend asked me if I wanted to check out Kate Moss at the turntables or instead get another (free) drink. I didn’t even have to think: Given the choice between celebrity and champagne, I’ll take du champ every time.
“LOS ANGELES IS POTENTIAL,” said dealer Thomas Duncan. It was the first weekend of his new gallery as well as his first fair, Art Los Angeles Contemporary. “New galleries open every week in New York, but starting in LA feels special.” This past weekend was marked by a whole host of beginnings, including the launch of the Getty and LAXART’s Pacific Standard Time Performance Festival and the opening of Matthew Marks’s pristine new West Coast space.
This array of special events is a new turn for Los Angeles, another coming of age in what’s becoming a series of coming of ages. Ours is, after all, a city perpetually in the throes of self-realization. The fair, now in its third edition, felt downright manageable this year—in a good way. And the dealers seemed to be selling: Thomas Solomon’s booth was hectic, to say the least, and Night Gallery, with its raspberry sherbet carpet and broken-mirrored bed (the latter by Samara Golden), attracted its own (buying) crowds, with both the Hammer Museum and Dean Valentine gunning for a Peter Harkawik light box. (Valentine got there first.)
I saw (almost!) every booth before heading to catch the much-anticipated opening of Matthew Marks’s LA gallery in West Hollywood. Inaugurated with a show by Ellsworth Kelly, the new space is all Space Odyssey—nearly totemic in its futuristic coolness, with its high ceilings cut with long narrow shafts for the skylights. I walked across the street with the building’s architect, Peter Zellner, to admire the Kelly-designed facade: The gallery’s long white front is graced with a forty-foot-wide, five-thousand-pound black bar floating along the top. Zellner parlayed a story about a little old Russian lady who pointed out the black bar as she walked by: “So, what’s it going to say?”
Back in the car, I headed to the classy Tower Bar along the trashy Sunset Strip for the dinner in honor of the eighty-eight-year-old luminary. This was one of a whole series of prandial celebrations that also included a luncheon at LACMA for a retrospective of Kelly’s prints and a more intimate dinner in which Kelly painted actress Catherine Keener’s face. At the Tower Bar, I sat at a back table and tried to register who was who: artists Jeff Wall, Robert Gober, and Jennifer Bolande were present, as were collectors Tony Ganz, the Rales, and Rosette Delug; writers A. M. Homes and Rachel Kushner; and a quartet of museum directors: the Getty’s James Cuno, LACMA’s Michael Govan, the Hammer’s Annie Philbin, and the Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong. I slipped out a little early alongside artist Mark Bradford around the time Kelly’s partner Jack Shear commenced a hearty Happy Birthday to collector Alan Hergott.
Saturday found me rushing to Pomona to catch three performances as part of the PST Performance Festival. This particular triad was set in conjunction with Glenn Phillips and Rebecca McGrew’s three-exhibition gem “It Happened in Pomona,” which chronicles Pomona College’s incredibly rich anni mirabiles, 1969–73. I sadly missed John White’s piece, featuring football players stripping and then playing up close inside the gym. And since I arrived too late to secure a seat in the public bleachers, I instead made my way to the other side of the field where the bleachers looked empty. (Apparently we weren’t actually supposed to be there, but if you look like you know where you’re going when you trot past security guards, it sort of works.) Curator McGrew was kind enough not to toss us out, and we ended up watching Judy Chicago’s pyrotechnic extravaganza with Chicago herself, who, in case you didn’t know, is a totally badass lady. She shot off stories and cracked jokes as we waited for the spectacle to start.
The stadium lights flicked off and seconds later the flares sparked in unison, revealing the shape of a butterfly writ large across the field. As the first fireworks exploded bright and white in the air, Chicago called out, “That’s the biggest orgasm in the world!” The butterfly flapped and fluttered with occasional (orgasmic) firework fusillades.
As the lights flicked back on in the stadium, I rushed to the next performance, a re-creation of a site-specific piece that James Turrell made at Pomona in the early 1970s. Huddled in a field, we watched as flares flickered on behind the neoclassical building’s columns. Hearing some fire truck sirens, I followed Turrell as he strode down to the road. He was met there by former Pomona professor Roland Reiss in a kind of jokey reenactment of the fire department showing up the last time Turrell did this piece (in 1971). After exchanging a few friendly words with the firemen, Turrell was beset by old friends and well-wishers. A question, surely a common one, arose from the crowd about Turrell’s long-delayed, forty-year, multimillion-dollar Roden Crater. “I swore I was going to open it in the year 2000,” Turrell said, “and I’ll be damned if I’m not sticking to it.”
I got back in the car and headed west again to Chinatown to catch Eli Hansen’s opening at the Company and then scurried to a dinner at the elegant townhouse of M+B gallery’s Benjamin Trigano, hosted by Trigano himself along with China Art Objects and American Contemporary. The walls of his Hancock Park place are festooned with vintage photographs and works of contemporary art (Walead Beshty, Raymond Pettibon, Rashid Johnson), with waist-high towers of books throughout; it’s the kind of place you (or at least I) want to live in when you grow up.
I ate quickly and then bolted over to Liz Glynn’s Black Box, a speakeasy and performance venue open late every night of the PST festival, arriving just in time to catch artist-musician Brendan Fowler perched over his keyboard before a packed house. I looked around and recognized nearly every face—some of my favorite artists, curators, writers, musicians, and scoundrels from around Los Angeles, all in one place. Getty curator Glenn Phillips was surrounded by artists: Glynn next to Ry Rocklen next to Stephen Prina next to Stanya Kahn next to Mateo Tannatt next to Eli Langer. Fowler began to play a doleful piano number, the kind of wistful melody that feels both like the beginning and the end to something. Half-drunk on a warm January night, Los Angeles felt ready, after so much posturing and growing, to finally and unapologetically celebrate itself. We all clapped loudly at the end.
Left: The crowd at The Last Word in the Guggenheim's Peter B. Lewis theater. Right: A video of Tracey Emin. (All photos: Andy Guzzonatto)
WHO DOESN’T SHOW UP to their own funeral? And who, in god’s name, sends friends and strangers as surrogates? Maurizio Cattelan, that’s who. The ostensible occasion for The Last Word, Saturday’s seven-hour-long endurance “symposium”/roast at the Guggenheim, was the end to Cattelan’s much-ballyhooed retrospective and the beginning of his early retirement from artmaking. Too bad the artist wasn’t present. (He and many of the advertised speakers were probably at a better party).
You want to die. Me too. Especially when the incentive of the main event is a cash bar, and I’m on antibiotics. By the way, this is being live-streamed, so please powder your nose in advance, and if you’ve got to go to the loo, bring your iPad with you. The Wi-Fi password is cattelan. (True.)
I kept asking myself: Is this tragedy or comedy? The Last Word was made for you to crave its ending, and for some, I suppose, to mourn, process, and frame. If only the organizers had asked, “What would Tinguely do?” A literally self-destructing event could have been at least more. As one of the evening’s most entertaining speakers, Matmos’s Drew Daniel, put it, “How best to end, and why strive to end well, rather than poorly?”
This theatrical toast to morbidity played out as three rings of a hellish circus. It is still undetermined who exactly was the biggest dunce—the eager spectators vying for free admission in a queue that wrapped around the block into the cold wintery void (ring 1!); those who snaked up and around the Cattelan merry-go-round to be rewarded with the vertigo and nausea normally saved for an amusement park (ring 2!); or those of us in the belly of the beast (the Peter B. Lewis Theater) who sat through seven hours of speeches, plays, pontifications, performances, Freudian case studies, fertility council (yes, tubal ligation), and critical analyses. This overwrought eulogy was set to a dirge by philosopher and ringleader Simon Critchley, his slow and refined cadence tiredly trying to keep the procession going.
His mission proved futile in advance, especially when many of the thirty-odd speakers subscribed to the romantic construct of the artist, exemplified by Arthur Danto’s use of John Ruskin and his Pre-Raphaelite brothers. Sorry Arthur, I’m more interested in other brethren. Anyway, wasn’t it Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson who wryly coined the term “museum as mausoleum”?
The night may have peaked at 7:45 PM, with sports guru George Vecsey, who had all the chutzpah of a good NFL commentator. He educated us on the mucho macho ritual known as “hanging it up,” i.e., the retiring of one’s old jock strap, an uplifting celebration consecrated with copious amounts of beer. Need to burp? #Nobigdeal.
Vecsey’s quick-witted, cute commentary had me on the edge of my seat. It effortlessly matched Dada scholar Francis Naumann’s reminder that Duchamp did it first, and did it better—both the hanging, and the quitting. We always return to the daddy of Conceptual art, who slung his readymades from the ceiling to, um, differentiate them from the prosaic non-readymades in the studio. (Ceci n’est pas une pipe! Right on, Magritte!) Duchamp also “quit” art for other activities, such as chess and product packaging.
Q: When you get down to it, Maurizio Cattelan is not dead, so what do we have to mourn? A: This tome of an exhibition, sepulchered by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Gugg opened its homestead and offered light snacks to the public, so we could process and supplicate our soon-to-be-departed (but also, actually, not even here) Maurizio.
And why do we have to grieve anyway? I suppose there wasn’t that much to be upset about—except perhaps the unfortunate juxtaposition of an #ows speech followed by Proenza Schouler fashion videos. Thanks, Harmony Korine. In the end, though, as economist Stephen Schwartz (not an artist) and Courtney Love (artist, rock star, movie star) reminded us, it’s all about the Benjamins: the potential profit and power of any practitioner rests in recognizing their choice—to be or not to be . . . an artist, or, conversely, editor of a magazine called Toilet Paper. In her closing remarks, Love noted, “No matter the yacht, oligarch, my-dick-is-so-big bullshit—isn’t there this thing called ‘enough’? But our dealers, our agents, our lawyers want us to die, because when we do, they’ll be so much richer.” So it goes, Eros and Thanatos. Before the end of the evening, I managed to wander up the ramp, where I overheard the lamentations of a gray-haired Upper East Sider:
“See that Zoro painting? I tried to buy it, but I was too late. It already went at auction for $500,000.”
The end is nigh. The end is here. You want to die? Me and Maurizio too.
Jennifer Lacey, Gattica, 2011. Photo: Ian Douglas.
“I’M GOING TO HAVE MY EYES CLOSED for a little bit. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not with you.”
So spoke Jennifer Lacey, the highly regarded American choreographer who has been based in Paris for the past twelve years. It was a line from her whimsical, agile solo Gattica, which had its American premiere here last week as part of the American Realness festival at Abrons Arts Center.
Her words could have been the slogan for APAP, the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York, where there aren’t enough hours in the day or shots at the bar to manage the absurd onslaught of performance and performance-related events. APAP might in fact consider printing this disclaimer on the lanyards sported by its members; it would perhaps sensitize everyone to such awkward moments as when, say, the artistic director of a certain theater was observed taking ever-longer “blinks” while sitting next to the artist whose work he was, at that very moment, presenting.
Officially, APAP lasted for five days this year, from January 6 to 10 at the midtown Hilton. But for increasing numbers of presenters, artists, writers, and the odd civilian, especially those interested in contemporary work, the unofficial APAP is the main—even the only—APAP. And this one lasts for a good deal longer, thanks to the festivals, such as Under the Radar, COIL, and American Realness, that have sprung up around the conference to capitalize on booking opportunities, and which now stretch days and, in some cases, weeks beyond it.
The out-of-towners are mostly in attendance that first weekend, of course, and mostly in a constant state of flight. There goes PICA’s recently appointed artistic director Angela Mattox, breezing through the Abrons lobby. Here comes the Walker Art Center’s Philip Bither or On the Boards’ Sarah Wilke sprinting up the theater steps as the lights dim for an Under the Radar show.
One theater director mentioned that, not surprisingly, pretty much every artist on his roster wanted to open on that first weekend; at least one of his companies threatened to go elsewhere otherwise. But how much are these curators actually able to take in, and is this frenzied environment really where we want them to be making decisions about what will fill their stages? As I filed into La MaMa for an afternoon UtR showing on day four of APAP, I overheard this exchange:
Woman: “It was the Heather Kravas.” Pause. “No. I have to check my calendar so I know what I saw. It was Heather Lang.”
Man: “Oh. So I can cross that off the list?”
I didn’t catch their names. But they both wore lanyards.
“It’s a little easier this week,” an exhausted-looking Ben Pryor said when asked how he was weathering the second half of his American Realness festival. Of course, now he had a new problem: filling his houses with audience members who had already overdosed on performances and were now spending more time questioning their sanity than actually, you know, paying attention to art.
As one beleaguered writer texted to her editor, midperformance: “What are we doing?!?”
Response: “Where are we???”
“Art purgatory,” the writer answered.
Counter: “Group therapy.”
Davis Freeman, Too Shy to Stare, 2011. Megan Harrold and Matthew Morris. Photo: Ryan Jensen.
I had the eerie sensation I was at the intersection of both while at a 9 PM showing of Davis Freeman’s Too Shy to Stare. Part of COIL, the work is meant for only ten audience members at a time, all of whom must have their pictures taken a day or so in advance of the piece. The work unfolds through minishows in little rooms for solo audience members, who sit watching anonymous performers, their faces covered with photographs of, you guessed it, the faces of their respective audience members.
(“Davis Freeman creates an intensely intimate environment where you sit down, relax, and discover who is left confronting you at the end of the day,” the advance press read. The answer: Some stranger papered in pictures of you?)
A day or so later, at an 11 PM run of the Elastic City walking tour Salve, it was we ourselves who were the performers. We walked barefoot (outside). We made up a sound score for the street (inside). We ended by offering our best silent performances, cocooned within the silence and darkness of the stage under the pit at Abrons. Artist and curator Andrew Dinwiddie mimed slow-motion escape, to no avail.
The Portland-based singer-songwriter and performing artist Holcombe Waller might have had such traumas in mind when he devised his gentle concert Visions of a song man, performed with Ben Landsverk at American Realness. “It’s the restorative yoga” session of the festival, he joked after the show.
“I have been ripping my nails to shreds in the last week,” he informed his audience. “It’s been a lot of anxiety. That’s my American Realness.”
SLATER BRADLEY’S most recent video, Don’t Let Me Disappear, casts the artist’s doppelgänger as a contemporary flâneur, à la Baudelaire (or Holden Caulfield). From the looks of it, “botanizing the pavement” today resembles lots of stoned, slow-motion wandering around Chelsea, an allegorical frame that seemed more and more apt last weekend as I braved the cold for the second round of season gallery openings.
Early Thursday evening began in SoHo with Team Gallery’s exhibitions of Bradley and Ross Knight, but quickly moved on to Chelsea, where the sudden chill had done nothing to discourage the crowds. While it was a surprise to count the puffy coats pouring out of Jeff Keen’s supposedly “private” opening at Elizabeth Dee, they were nothing compared to the movie theater–like lines forming outside Gladstone Gallery, where Shirin Neshat was debuting her most recent portrait series, “The Book of Kings.” Those who made it inside found themselves pressed between the photographs and their subjects, many of whom had flown in for the opening. “I’ve never seen so many Iranians in one room in New York,” one patron whistled, admiringly.
Across the street at C24, Amy Smith-Stewart had curated the politically charged group show “Campaign,” featuring artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Kate Gilmore, and K8 Hardy. The art’s everything-goes vibe did not carry over to the front door, where bouncers manned a velvet rope. I would have sworn the rope was a piece itself, except for the fact that artist Glen Fogel was waving his smartphone at the security detail: “Look, I have all the invitations. I have work in the show . . . ” But the doorman did not budge, shooting back a grim, “Everyone’s saying something tonight.” I was grateful for the refuge of the Gladstone reception around the corner at Moran’s, where guests Cindy Sherman, RoseLee Goldberg, and Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs made gentle use of the open bar.
Friday, I started off at the Swiss Institute, where curator Massimiliano Gioni shared his thoughts on Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, whom he touted as a kind of genial anti-Beuys. “If Beuys taught that every man is an artist, Schnyder reminds us that every artist is still just a man.”
Or a woman. Back up in Chelsea, the lovely ladies of Wallspace had joined forces with Kelly Taxter to present a group show whose roster was more than half female. The wind was so bitingly cold that by the time I made it indoors, the beer bottle pressed into my hand actually felt warming. Greeting artists Sanya Kantarovsky and Leigh Ledare, I burrowed further into the masses, nearly knocking into Anthea Hamilton’s splay-legged sculpture. I cast a nervous glance at Lisa Williamson’s thin sliver of canvas, which scrolled down the wall and onto the floor. The press release describes the work as “quietly asserting” itself, but it might have been too quiet for this crowd. “That’s what touching up is for,” Williamson shrugged.
Even more hazards abounded at 303 Gallery, where Nick Mauss had installed a mix of glazed ceramic tiles and screenprinted aluminum sheets that curled up and around the room. I picked my way to the corner where curators Clarissa Dalrymple and Stefan Kalmár and collector Andy Stillpass were standing at a safe distance between two floor pieces. “This stuff looks like it bends, you know,” Stillpass warned, with a raised eyebrow. “I think I’m just going to enjoy it from back here.”
Left: Artists Amy Sillman and Collier Schorr. Right: MoMA associate curators Christian Rattemeyer and Doryun Chong.
Guests were more relaxed at the dinner held next door in a rustic, open space that reminded me of a chic college co-op. Under the quaint lighting of a mason-jar chandelier, artists Lorraine O’Grady and Emily Sundblad shared the center table with curators Jenny Schlenzka and Peter Eleey, while over on the couches, a cluster of young artists picked at plates of flatbread, olives, and mini gherkins. I claimed a chair beside Visionaire’s Cecilia Dean and writers Nikki Columbus and David Colman at a table near the bar. (Christopher Bollen and actress Natasha Lyonne must have had the same idea, staking out the table adjacent.)
Saturday night, Doug Wheeler brought one of his “infinity environments” to David Zwirner, but I opted for the cozier-sounding “Interiors” show at Andrew Kreps. A refreshingly bold gambit eight years in the making, the exhibition pairs works by the elusive Marc Camille Chaimowicz with paintings by Pierre Bonnard, William Copley, and Édouard Vuillard (several of which are on loan from the Brooklyn Museum). “My director Liz Mulholland and I have been working on this show for years now,” Kreps recounted. “You’d be amazed how much work it takes.” I was more amazed at how effortless they made it all seem.
George Ortman’s exhibition at Algus Greenspon was another breath of fresh air, despite (or because of) the fact that the median age of the turnout for the eighty-six-year-old artist was remarkably higher than any other show that weekend. (To be fair, this may have had something to do with the presence of painter Will Barnet, who is pushing 102.) Around the block, the young and the restless had gathered at Gavin Brown, where Udomsak Krisanamis had transformed the back room into a sanctuary of teak golf tees, planted upside down in front of a series of collages. More difficult to decipher was the rest of the gallery, which Uri Aran had mapped with tables, each bearing complicated arrangements of junk, from shellacked photographs to cookie dough.
“I understand Uri’s process as similar to those people who have to rearrange the saltshakers and ketchup bottles on diner tables,” associate director Bridget Donahue explained. “It’s all according to his own sense of order.” It was clear that the artist had his hand in everything, from the artificial nooks to the purposefully low lighting. “I always thought exhibition openings should be candelit,” artist Mae Fatto mused. “So long as everyone is just here to see everyone else, they might as well all look good.”
The see-and-be-seen aspect was a bit dampened by the fact that the majority of the attendees—including Darren Bader, Elizabeth Neel, and Negar Azimi—already saw-and-were-sawn by one another the previous two evenings and were therefore woefully short on small talk. Nabbing a spot with Cay Sophie Rabinowitz and Christian Rattemeyer at the afterparty later at Westway, I nodded across the room at Stillpass. “At this point, do we even need to exchange greetings?” he called back grinning.
Sunday, geography proved just as foreboding as the below-freezing temperatures. While I missed the opening at SculptureCenter, I was able to catch the kickoff of “Bulletin Board,” a new series of salon events spearheaded by Pati Hertling, which launched in an upstairs space on the Bowery with a screening of Ulrike Meinhof’s 1970 film Bambule, preceded by a short intro film by Silvia Kolbowski.
Bundling back up against the cold (with the “Real-Feel” temperature holding steady at 6ºF), I dashed over to Orchard Street, where Untitled Gallery was hosting its first solo show of Ian Tweedy and dealer Joe Sheftel was inaugurating his first space at 24 Orchard with “Specifically Yours,” a selection of works by freshly minted gallery artists Alex da Corte, Adam Henry, and Rory Mulligan. With no time for trains, I took a taxi up to the newly conjugated gallery Alex Zachary Peter Currie. (“We’re still working on the name,” Currie confessed. “The initials could be good, though. Sort of like ‘easy-peasy.’ ”) By this point in the weekend, most of the crowd had already been gallery-hopping together for four days straight—“We’re all on the same meal plan this week,” Currie cracked—but the knowledge that this would be the last event for a spell gave the evening a familial aura. Besides, Jordan Wolfson’s two new films provided ample reason to skip the small talk.
After the opening, guests braved the wind for the two-block walk to the Ukrainian Institute, a slightly defunct architectural wonder, made all the more mysterious by faux candlelight. (“I’ve been unscrewing lightbulbs all day to give it more of a haunted house feel,” Zachary admitted.) “Will there be Ukrainian food?” Laura Mitterrand ventured cautiously, eyeing the platters of cheese, salami, and pickled vegetables. “Actually, we brought in this vegan restaurant from Brooklyn.” Currie explained, before following our dubious looks toward the charcuterie. “Well maybe not vegan, but, you know, organic and local and all of that.”
Whatever it was, it was good, capped off with a series of increasingly enthusiastic toasts. Wolfson was first, thanking his animators before announcing his resolution to take himself less seriously. Wolfson’s mother, Patty Burrows, was on hand to help him out, and she followed curator Linda Norden’s smart speech with some choice words of her own. Burrows opened by sharing the artist’s very first joke (Q: “What’s the one part of your body you should never move while dancing?” A: “Your bowels.”) before praising her son for “recognizing that art and real life are two separate things.” Wolfson’s father, Milt, was next: “Well, in this family, we always have to one-up each other, but all I can say is this: I’ve never understood one fucking thing about Jordan’s work.” He paused, beaming proudly, “But it is interesting.” At my table, artists Cory Arcangel and John Trembley grinned in complete agreement: “These dinners just keep getting better and better, don’t they?”
WITH FOUR KEYNOTE LECTURES, six panel discussions, and a grand total of forty-two speakers divvied up over two full days of heavy-duty talk, the so-called summit meeting titled “Art & Patronage: The Middle East” trundled into London last week with no heads of state in sight but so many elephants in the room that the hosting venues—the British Museum on Thursday, the Royal College of Art on Friday—felt squeezed and suffocated by their collective heft.
Explicitly billed as a gathering of minds and implicitly sold as a pooling of funds, the summit was the brainchild of Hossein Amirsadeghi, who, according to his own rags-to-riches, Bentley-to-bicycle mythology, was the shah’s last spokesman before the revolution in Iran, came into great wealth through oil and gas and aircraft, lost it all, and then took to the seemingly lowly task of publishing art books five years ago.
A series of titles on contemporary Iranian, Arab, and Turkish art culminated in late 2010 with a back-breaking, hardbound volume on collectors in the region, which was essentially a social register dolled up as a luxury coffee-table tome. All of Amirsadeghi’s books carry the veneer of vanity publishing, but they also pack in a decent amount of art-historical scholarship, along with an abundance of fighting spirit. It was the latter that saved the two-day London summit from collapsing under the weight of pomposity, pretension, and bald desperation for a Middle Eastern buck.
Day one was a power play. Tickets to enter the British Museum’s BP auditorium (elephant number one) were well oversold, and the idea—I think—was that anyone willing to spend three hundred pounds to hear a bunch of museum directors effectively pitching their own institutions probably had money to burn and enough to be a patron.
“You are powerful people,” said Jude Kelley, artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre. “You have access to great wealth. You are potent. You can collect work that’s nostalgic and romantic and that’s wonderful”—a diplomatic riposte to a pair of rather obscure presentations by Shafik Gabr, collector of Orientalist paintings (who credited auction houses as educational institutions), and Olga Davidson, collector of Persian artifacts (whose fundraising tip was “throw a Nowruz party; people love Persian food”)—“but to support the stamina, brio, and bravery of artists and arts institutions is something we need you to do. The quixotic nature of art is so primal that we must have it next to health and education.” Whew. “She sounds like a Ted talk,” said a colleague by my side.
What was the point of this mingling of minds and money? After so many hours of confabulation—Hans Ulrich Obrist on Édouard Glissant’s creolization and archipelic thought, Chris Dercon on soft power and cultural diplomacy—I’m none the wiser and I’m not alone. A video letter that beamed in the artist Shirin Neshat for a pubic service announcement, like Alanis Morissette playing God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, did not so much clarify as confound. Ditto a to-describe-it-as-“perplexing”-would-be-kind performance by the artist Amir Baradaran. Certainly, one massive mystery that the summit did not solve was whether or not the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will ever be built (elephant number two).
With that project sliding ever more perilously into the conditional tense, its associate curator Reem Fadda gave a great and impassioned speech on the importance of museum collections as accumulations of material history and bulwarks against political erasure. (“It’s not just Egypt today, it was Egypt a hundred years ago.”) But she dodged any and all practical questions about the planned-for museum’s future. “I was really invited here as a moderator,” she said. “We’ll have a lot to say when the time is right.” At this, curator Norman Rosenthal was gruff, while the Art Newspaper’s Anna Somers Cocks was apoplectic.
Left: Artist Yto Barrada. Right: Arif Naqvi of Abraaj Capital with Art Dubai director Antonia Carver.
In the meantime, Barry Lord, of Lord Cultural Resources, gave what was, to my mind, a chilling analysis of how Arab states could command control of their resources, then their industries, and then, with the advent of the Arab Spring, their cultural energies, suggesting a seamless cooptation of political discontent by and for the (depressingly undemocratic) regimes that have historically hired him to plan their museums.
Yto Barrada, founder of the Cinémathèque de Tanger, and William Wells, founder of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, provided much-needed counterweights to Lord’s argument. In Morocco, the push for political reform was coming hard and fast from artists in the nonprofit sector. In Egypt, Wells said he had never wanted Townhouse to become an institution but rather a space that stood apart from the models of cronyism and corruption that characterized the infrastructure of the state. Anyway, he added, most artists he knew had put down their tools, were busy with other things—“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s been a little noisy in the neighborhood”—and were using Townhouse to address the urgency of a dangerously unfinished revolution.
On face value, the summit was almost utopian in its intent to convince the rich to lend support to the long-term sustainability of independent arts organizations in the region with the capacity to bring about social justice and political change. If that’s not instrumentalizing art—or expecting artists to succeed where activists, diplomats, and dissidents have failed—then I’m not sure what is. But at least the summit made good on its claims by handing out three sizable grants on Friday morning to Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program in Beirut, the Townhouse Gallery’s Independent Study Program in Cairo, and Echo for Contemporary Iraqi Art’s Sada education portal in Baghdad.
Day two was an altogether feistier affair. To disclose, with a brief talk on the risks artists and arts organizations take in the course of doing their work in the region (from the threat of assassination to being caught up in wars, corruption, and mind-numbing bureaucracy), I had the daunting task of trying to set the right tone—to question and be critical without it being perceived as ingratitude, insurrection, or betrayal. But it was the artist Haig Aivazian who captured it perfectly with an image of a drawing showing an artist asking a guy in a suit for a grant to finish a portrait that read “Fucking Assho . . . ” underneath.
Two boisterous sessions unleashed a stampede of elephants—censorship, patronage for social prestige, no money is innocent—and introduced a dozen worthy artistic and curatorial projects, from Khaled Hourani’s Picasso in Palestine (as heartbreakingly simple as it was tortuously complex) to Vali Mahlouji’s probing work on the archive of photographer Kaveh Golestan. Even the patrons entered the fray, with everyone from the Delfina Foundation’s pint-size, silver-haired eponym, Delfina Entrecanales, to Maya Rasamny and Maria Sukkar of the Tate’s Middle East and North Africa Acquisitions Committee (who, along with Maryam Eisler, were recently anointed “The Middle East’s New Medicis”) grabbing the mic and pumping their fists. It wasn’t always pretty, but by peeling back the gloss of how art should be funded to the raw nerve of what art is for, it also felt just about right.
OF ALL THE DAMIEN HIRST SHOWS at individual Gagosian satellites, the particular set of spot paintings chosen for the Twenty-First Street press preview on Wednesday featured the widest range of spot and painting sizes, from extra small to extremely large. This “curatorial decision” (there’s a different conceit for each of the eleven locations) nicely emphasized the gallery machine’s wishful differentiation, searching for the supposedly local and unique in the fundamentally global and repetitive condition, labeled here “Damien Hirst the Complete Spot Paintings 1986–2011.” This may or may not work as a sales strategy—they do have to sell them one at a time, I guess—but it misses the real crux of the collision of the specific and the general here. That collision is not between artworks of different sizes, colors, and dates, but between one person—the artist—and society. The cold and cavernous room, with its hysterical shifts in scale and color, only demonstrated the former’s failure to master the latter.
Allover abstraction is fundamentally monotonous. As Greenberg saw the painting he championed, the lack of a center, corners, and figure/ground relations embodied capitalism’s hyper-materiality. This “polyphonic” art was a vision of a world of either total democracy or total exchangeability, depending on your point of view. Metaphors of the horizontal and allover have only become more compelling since the 1940s, moving from Greenberg to Deleuze to the Internet; abstraction by the yard, with its tight imbrication of self, market, and materiality, still almost automatically raises interesting questions. Pollock, Stella, Richter, Hirst—none of it is ridiculous, or even nihilistic, if you’re willing to put in the time and thought. If you’re not, though, this kind of painting, found in every museum, collection, and art-ish site, makes the perfect neutral background for multinational capitalists and the aspirationally fashionable (not to mention earnestly apoplectic art scribblers). Hirst courts the friction between the bleak and the dumb, reducing expressive materiality to bare chemical compounds; his particular allover is shot through with Debord and smattered with Dick (Phillip), a degree of alienation that even Greenberg never imagined, although he and Hirst agree on art’s basic function as homeopathic. Greenberg stressed the healing; Hirst seems to revel in the poison as well.
Hirst’s career tells this story just as bluntly as his art. Like Warhol, Koons, and Murakami, he has met the supertrich, and seems torn between admiration and contempt. These artists know they aren’t any less smart than the speculators (sorry, collectors)—why shouldn’t they be the ones who get paid for their own work, as Robert Rauschenberg, Billy Al Bengston, Richard Serra and many other artists have asked? Frustrated by the money he’s made for others, Hirst wants to master his own market, running his gallery exhibitions and also his auctions. (For a lucid read of the vagaries of the actual Hirst market, see the reliably excellent Sarah Thornton.) Now, of course, as pointed out by David Hockney (who mightn’t be so quick to brag about personally painting his own recent work), Hirst isn’t the one making these paintings, but, in the parlance of the day, they are his intellectual property. In effect, Hirst, Murakami, and Koons run medium-size businesses; exploiting their workers, they are in turn exploited by speculators, who themselves make nothing but money. There’s something slightly pathetic about the artist’s ambition to join their ranks, to be a big man—a painting with a million spots! $100 million for the diamond skull!! Golly!!!—on the scale of the real assholes. But Damien Hirst is not Roman Abramovich (or Margaret Thatcher either, p.s.).
The artist’s desire to control his own market is tied up with the wish to control his own fate. The weakness of his art is its generality, but I think if you wanted to try to make something more specific of Hirst’s art, you’d look to the desperation over death and how life is spent. It’s the obvious content of the shark, the maggots, and the dead animals, as well as his flip comments about suicide and self-destruction; the paintings tackle the subject obliquely. One spot painting is easy-listening, but all together they function as a hideous allegory of the individual in society. Even the most successful individuals are eventually reviled for churning out their stuff, rejected for being themselves (however distanced or ironic that self), but even so they are not allowed to stop and do something else. Witness Hirst’s disavowal of the spot paintings before his self-engineered 2008 auction/exhibition at Sotheby’s. After feinting at something new (failed authentically expressive paintings), he’s back to playing the old stuff. That temporary cessation of the spots—whether midlife crisis–inspired self-appraisal or frank market manipulation—rhymes with Maurizio Cattelan’s current retrospective at the Guggenheim, a summing up and also putative end to his artistic life. But the playful/melancholic Cattelan seems to be honestly confronting his own limitations amid the impossible dilemma, taking control through career suicide. Despite his own “fun” persona, Hirst seems angry at the spot he’s in—unable to make resonant decisions about his own work life, he is trying to drag art down into the grave with him. The latter is a fool’s game; the diamond skull is more Ed Hardy than the end of art. Life without death, a kind of wan immortality in the form of the endless spot paintings, feels equally empty.
Hennesy Youngman, Art Thoughtz: Damien Hirst, January 10, 2011.
Not inaccurately, art comedian Hennessy Youngman pegs Hirst as Bono; fair enough, they probably share vacations and stock advisers as well as sunglasses. And we can see Bono making the endless circuit of concerts, playing on and on, not meaning any of it, just getting bigger (like Hirst’s recent spots), trying to run the joke rather than be it. But the difference is that Bono always sucked. I want, perhaps foolishly, to think that there also lurks within Damien Hirst a little John Lydon (the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten), who yelled during a PiL concert I saw almost twenty years ago, “How many of you idiots bought the fucking T-shirt?” Because otherwise, there is something (and here I’m going to get a little weird and project-y) sad about seeing the artist pinned against one of those spot paintings as photographers fire away; is this really what it looks like to master one’s fate? It seems silly to feel sorry for successful artists, or for rich people in general, but in the end, there is no attitude to strike that can beat the house. Or, to put it another way, no one gets out of here alive.
THE POST-OCCUPY art season in New York got underway January 5 with a trickle of gallery openings in Chelsea and no talk of money or jobs. For the most part, receptions were intimate and subdued, though the just-concluded Iowa caucuses weeding out the Republican nominees for president did provide those with strong stomachs (or drugs) with a few belly laughs. Some observers claimed the candidates as the new performance artists, forgetting that the word art does not always follow performance.
Meanwhile, a bunch of actual artists and their friends showed up for some actual art, which looked more back than forward. At Luhring Augustine last Thursday, photographer Joel Sternfeld unpacked four series of color street scenes made between 1971 and 1980, most of it not published or exhibited before. “Isn’t it amazing how healthy everyone looked then?” Sternfeld said, though in the ’70s people high on life, or whatever, were often beaming. Sternfeld himself was still sporting his trademark ’70s bubble-Afro, which is all he would allow this reporter to photograph (and even that, only from the rear).
The group show on Casey Kaplan’s walls, on the other hand, was very now: All the recently minted works in it looked wonderful together without advancing a single comprehensible idea. While Peter Coffin, Emma Reeves, and Matt Keegan were puzzling it out, it was back to the future at both of Paul Kasmin’s galleries, where Santi Moix had covered the walls of one with watercolor murals and drawings illustrating the Spanish-born painter’s Kara Walker–ish version of Huckleberry Finn.
In Kasmin’s skylighted new space on West Twenty-Seventh Street, which night owls might remember as Bungalow 8, James Nares was showing films, photographs, and drawings from 1976 that he recently discovered in storage, featuring the variously sized concrete and lead balls that were the painter’s brushes at the time. Over dinner at Bottino, some guests—Anthony McCall, Glenn O’Brien, Christopher Wool, Amy Taubin, Douglas Crimp—recalled seeing the premiere of Pendulum, a hypnotic film Nares had exhibited at the Jay Street Garage back in the day. “I’m very happy and very hungry,” Nares said, diving into his filet mignon.
Friday night brought the preview for the boisterous return of Visual AIDS’s annual “Postcards from the Edge” benefit, held this year at Cheim & Read. It drew more than 1,400 contributions of postcard-size artworks—drawings, photos, and assemblages. Posted anonymously, each was priced at eighty-five dollars, making the potential take for the advocacy agency’s coffers a good $119,000. Even in the first hour, the place was jammed with enthusiasts for both the art and the cause. The next day, they would line up for the chance to nab a desired piece, first-come first-served, though as one collector told me, those that paid a premium would be favored with early admission. “So even here the 1 percent come out ahead,” he said.
At Foxy Production, artist-architect Michael Wang put up the week’s most intriguing project. On view in his eco-conscious show, “Carbon Copies,” were tabletop paper models of well-known contemporary artworks—by Richard Serra, Matthew Barney, Marina Abramović, Richard Prince, and the like—all scaled to a size determined by the carbon emissions that Wang calculated each had made in its production. (Damien Hirst’s diamond skull: 17.6 tons of CO2.) Proceeds from sales—prices were the dollar equivalent of each emission total—are to be converted into carbon offsets, as if to cancel out the carbon footprint of the original works. “It’s like Rauschenberg erasing a de Kooning,” Wang explained.
Nothing was polluted at Jack Shainman Gallery, where the structuralist Canadian filmmaker-artist Michael Snow was welcoming friends like Ken Jacobs, MoMA curator Barbara London, Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni, and select others to a private preview of his first New York show in seven years. The main event was a new, and deeply beautiful, seven-channel projection that mirrors the movement of the eye as it studies an artwork—art seeing art.
Snow’s wife, writer Peggy Gale, said that her eighty-three-year-old spouse had made the work on an iPad, no cameras involved. As curator Christopher Eamon noted, some old film purists have discovered digital technology and they’re running it to the outer limits of perception; Snow himself had recently experienced those limits rather viscerally, due to recent surgery on a tear duct. “I never want to do that again,” he said, speaking of the operation, not his art, as we headed once again for dinner at Bottino. “I love this place,” said Shainman. “They always know exactly how to do these parties.”
Jean-Claude Baker knows how to do them even better. As he will be the first to tell you, Baker is the adopted son of Josephine Baker, to whom his palm-tree-and-banana-themed Theater Row restaurant, Chez Josephine, is dedicated, floor to ceiling. That is where neighborhood gallery Balice Hertling & Lewis held its dinner for the equally mad Greg Parma Smith, and where I found Michael Stipe and Thomas Dozol, consultant Rob Teeters, MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka, photographer Benjamin Alexander Huseby, collector Andy Stillpass and about fifty others chowing down before the all-female entertainers at the piano. “I’ve never seen a woman trumpeter before,” Stipe said, agape.
“They’re ninety years old,” said Baker, who pointed out “the last big star of the Folies Bergère” as she waved good night. Baker can remember at which table he seated every personality who has patronized his wacky, bordello-like establishment in its twenty-five-year history. Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, once sat at Table 11 and ordered ten bottles of Cristal for a party. “He paid me with a check,” Baker said. “Of course, it was good, but it made me very nervous, because I didn’t yet know who he was!”
When was the last time you were in a restaurant where a stranger could pay with a check? On my way out, Baker handed me a brochure printed with a very funny letter he had written to the last Pope (“the good one”), who had passed by on a 1995 visit to New York. It beseeched His Holiness to petition the Lord to send more business Baker’s way. “I figure He knows how tough the restaurant business can be,” it said. This was definitely the most entertaining art dinner of the year so far.
Saturday afternoon found me back on the hustings in Chelsea, where Murray Guy Gallery was holding an early reception for Corey McCorkle and Dan Graham, except that Graham had just hopped a plane for Portugal. So McCorkle held sway for the show, which was dedicated to art about public gardens. More Boschian delights were on view at Postmasters, where Monica Cook entered Nathalie Djurberg territory with the horrifically beautiful, fuzzy pink, half-human/half-chimp sculptures that are the eviscerated featured players of Folly, her new animation. “They’re based on a sad, stuffed monkey I had as a child,” she said. “I always wanted to do something with monkeys.”
At Mary Boone, the absent Ai Weiwei had done something with sunflower seeds, the ceramic ones recently featured in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Here, a smaller number—only about four million—were laid out like a large mat, surrounded by spectators who respected the proscription against walking over them. Together the seeds weigh five tons and cost $2.75 million to take home, though collectors with New York apartments can choose a more modest version for $600,000. It’s big art all right, from a large mind.
The only suitable follow-up was the Big Art Group’s premiere of Broke House at the Abrons Arts Center, part of the third annual American Realness festival. Led by director Caden Manson, the Group is one of my favorite theater companies. I try not to miss any of their visually slam-bang shows whenever they occur, which isn’t often.
At least six video cameras showed the live action on as many screens. They hung above the apron of the stage, where an extended family of 99 percenters even more hysterical than the one depicted in Ryan Trecartin’s videos cavorted in and out of the shambles of their house, while a documentary filmmaker recorded their chaotic path to homelessness. Best were the costumes, which ultimately included parts of the skeletal set, including the cardboard boxes in which they would soon be taking up residence.
I actually needed the program to clue me into the story. “Beyond the topical symptoms of foreclosure crises, credit crises, occupy movements, and extremist rhetoric,” it said, “we suppose that the metaphorical heart of the country has been suffering, and perhaps has decided to rebuild the body that surrounds it.”
Was there ever a better entrance to an election year?
ON THE LAST THREE NIGHTS OF 2011, I attended five of the final six performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Even a few dance journalists, from whom you might expect a degree of sympathy, suggested it was a bit eccentric to see so many.
To sign off on my own delusion, I’ll admit that my only nagging thought was, “Why did I not get tickets to all six?” (Several friends had.) I explained to skeptics that, with multidirectional dance going on three different stages simultaneously, there was just so much to see, and that I would have just been at home otherwise, so why not spend the extra ten bucks to catch, as one especially wired reporter put it, “the most significant event in dance history”?
But the truth was, I just couldn’t get over it being over.
Staged in a vast, 55,000-square-foot drill hall, the Park Avenue Armory Events, with their triumphant Battlestar Galactica lighting, cinematic sound design, and three-ring setup, were clearly designed to impress. That the dancing was actually elevated rather than reduced by all the superfluous gear is a testament both to the finessing of the individual elements and to the staggering capacity of the dancers. (My notes from the evenings read like an exhaustive taxonomy of the superlative form—“most,” “best,” “greatest,” “last.” To say the Event was “charged” is an understatement. This was Holy Communion at the final Mass.)
The three black Marley stages were raised to about chest height. You could watch from the floor or from above, standing on one of six eight-foot-tall “balcony” platforms that ringed the perimeter. At the appointed time, the lights would focus, trumpets would blare, and the dancers would enter single file straight into the heart of the crowd (1,500 people per show), onto the stages, and begin to dance.
There wasn’t a single unremarkable moment. Excerpts from fifty years of choreography were on display, all at once. Things stuck out, but largely that was serendipity; like the aleatory relation between music and dance, it often had to do with where one happened to be at any given time. (That’s what Cunningham was: serendipity versus rigor.) I remember each night watching Dylan Crossman, Jennifer Goggans, and Jamie Scott join arms for the elated off-kilter thumping from Rondo. I remember racing between Melissa Toogood’s ecstatic solo full of brutal twists and hyperextensions on the westernmost stage to catch Silas Riener entering the easternmost stage, running on, landing on one knee, leaning back (“like the light is just exploding from his chest” a friend said) to just hold.
Cunningham’s dancers are all the more memorable despite (because of?) the strictly nonnarrative, antiexpressive quality of the choreography. Andrea Weber beams when she dances, but she does not beam because she’s been instructed to smile, or even because the movement is particularly buoyant. She beams because . . . that’s how she dances. With Cunningham you see the dancer herself, denuded of theatrical affectation. The steps are inhabited, not imitated.
Douglas Crimp had been thoughtful enough to make reservations for each of the three nights at Sel et Poivre, a French restaurant around the corner from the Armory. Every evening, after the 6:30 PM show, we would head there with a small, rotating coterie of the devoted and hash out what we’d seen before running back for the 9 PM.
During one dinner, a friend described his way of conveying the loss to his family over Christmas:
“Imagine if your favorite sports team were to suddenly just disappear,” he said. “Teams are supposed to last forever, right?”
“But it’s more than that,” I argued. “It’s as though a whole sport disappeared. It’s like, suddenly, baseball’s gone.”
“I hope you like basketball.”
In times of loss we resort to analogy, some metaphor we could stick there to put some sense to what’s happening. Another friend stopped me at the Armory: “Is there anything in the history of visual art that’s like what’s just happened?” No. Maybe? It’s as though they burned down a museum, a big one, like the Whitney. And we all turned out to celebrate.
Dance is all about death and dying. Our heroism (or not) in the face of it too, sure, but our denouement is inscribed in the whole apparatus. Dancers are acutely attuned to finitude. Dancer bodies in the current body regime have an early expiration date, and dances are organisms too, as quick and volatile as life. Repertory is an easy fix for the audience, a temporal bandage that says, “Don’t worry, it will happen again.” But it won’t happen again. Not like this. Not ever.
Unlike the rest of the two-year-long “Legacy Tour,” which comprised whole works, the Park Avenue Armory Events were Cunningham samplings, largely a commemoration of the dancers. Robert Swinston, the company’s ferocious elder statesman and the director of choreography, organized the material into the familiar, collage-style format of an Event, and each of the dancers was allowed to choose a piece of Cunningham choreography to perform. (Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber each picked the same brilliant solo from Fractions (I); Melissa Toogood selected a severe and impossible-looking trio from the legendary Torse, which she danced with Daniel Madoff and John Hinrichs.) It was not a Cunningham piece but a Cunningham tribute, coordinated and performed by the people most fit to pull it off. In other hands, or for a lesser artist, it would have come off as overwrought pastiche, a That’s Entertainment!: Fifty Years of MGM Musicals kind of thing; but here the elements joined perfectly, an exemplary wake for dance as dance.
Left: A Merce Cunningham Dance Company family portrait on December 31, 2011. (Photo: Bonnie Brooks) Right: The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Park Avenue Armory Events. Rashaun Mitchell. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
It was impossible to take in. I’m not the first to note the challenge of trying to see Cunningham choreography. The dances themselves are built to kill lazy looking: You have to make decisions. The Events, particularly those with multiple stages (an invention of the past decade), amplify this effect. This wasn’t theater-in-the-round; it was theater-in-the-surround.
Seeing and moving were simultaneous. (Even when you were standing still you were deciding to stand still; you might as well have been moving.) This made you, to some small extent, like the dancers, but also made you all the more alert to the scission between dancer and audience. To different kinds of seeing and moving. To different relationships between seeing and apprehending. Theirs and yours. Yours and everyone else’s.
Over and over again there was the question: How should you see? Should you turn on your eidetic memory, so as to “return” to it later, or turn off your camera-eye and lose yourself in the mix? Should you stand in one place and let it unfold in a single grand, cinematic sweep? Do you sweep the floors hunting for the “best” bits? What are the “best” bits? What do we do with this seeing? “That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering,” Jill Johnston wrote in a review of the debut of Cunningham’s Aeon fifty years ago—which at least had a nice ring to it, a useful koan. The urgency of these questions about experience became a frame for the experience; that movement of “entering” was also an exiting. Every looking-decision was a goodbye to other possibilities, a million minigoodbyes to set you up for the big one.
After fifty minutes, the fourteen dancers, all dancing across the platforms, simply walked off those black Marley stages with the same quiet authority with which they’d mounted them. The lights and music quit, and that was it.
“Well, so what do you do after you’ve witnessed the end of modern dance?” a friend asked, without a trace of irony. Someone raised a glass. And suddenly it was a new year.
Left and right: Sandra Bernhard at Joe’s Pub. (Photos: Julian Ross)
LAST WEDNESDAY, I attended the first of an “unprecedented eight” back-to-back holiday shows by Sandra Bernhard at Joe’s Pub. “So great to be back again and again and again,” the sassy celeb quipped of her return to the downtown venue. “I wasn’t going anywhere—literally or figuratively.” Festive!
The space, newly renovated to squeeze in more bodies, was packed with fans. My friend and I took our places and were dismayed to be seated across from a glum tween. She was there with her mother to see her piano teacher play with Bernhard, who scanned the room from her little perch: “Looking out at you all from this big stage, it feels like Carnegie Hall. But I always feel like that—I’m delusory.” (“She has the same plastic surgeon as Nicole Kidman,” I heard behind me.)
In a sparkly black A-line sheath, russett curls, and oozing JAP-py glamour, La Bernhard opened with a vigorous rendition of “Laughter in the Rain.” She was sellin’ it. Then, mercifully, she switched to the patter, which seemed to be a work in progress. Stuff about her condo board; cleaning out her daughter’s closet and donating the clothes she outgrew to the needy—like Taylor Momsen; “rough sexual fantasies” about an old plumber of hers she looked up on the Internet (“I hope this gets ugly,” I overheard); Bristol Palin’s purchase of a $350,000 house and her confusing role as spokesmodel for both abstinence and Candies shoes. Riffing on all manner of celebrity kitsch (from royal weddings to Cindy Crawford’s JCPenney sheets and “Meaningful Beauty” products, “full of parabens,” SB sniffed, that her WASP girlfriend uses nevertheless) with the trio of musicians installed behind her like potted plants. (“This is the easiest gig these musicians have ever had.”) She usually has a lady drummer, she explained, for sisterhood and solidarity—and then the backstabbing, the bitchiness, and competition . . .
There were only five songs, but the audience wasn’t there for music or even witticisms—they were there for personality and attitude, which they received in spades. For the intimacy of Bernhard’s exhibitionism in full throttle (and her superpower: managing to be entitled and needy at once). She was both arch and eager to please with that archness safely diverted toward others: Tyra Banks and her “alien forehead” (“You’re no Linda Evangelista!”); Kim Jong-il “in a swing coat and a pair of Chanel glasses”; and Gwyneth Paltrow (“Are you the macrobiotic chef or are you the arbiter of everything European?” Make up your mind, Gwyneth!). My favorite was her riff on Lady Gaga always reaching out to “my gays,” protecting “my little monsters, my gays” (faux-weeps in sympathy). “The gays are fine!” said Bernhard to hoots of applause from the gay-filled room. “They have taste! They do everything better. It’s the straights—with their ill-fitting pants—who need help!” (I paraphrase.) There were existential moments, too, when she paused to ponder: “Why does the fingerless lace glove make a comeback every few years?”
She sang with the gusto and imperfection of a karaoke singer living the dream (that people actually paid fifty dollars to see). Her song choices were a nostalgic mix of 1970s radio hits, vintage Prince, and the poignant “When the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly!, which Bernhard saw as a child in Flint, Michigan, starring Carol Channing. (She was surprised, she recalled, that her parents hadn’t arranged for the young Bernhard to go backstage to meet the star. Always entitled!)
After regaling us thusly, she disappeared for the one costume change of the night, reemerging in black fishnets (sans pants, à la Elaine Stritch), a white V-neck T, and a saucy black hat for her finale, belting out “Sex Shooter” (by Apollonia 6, of Prince’s “Purple Rain” era) and gyrating with unsettling sincerity.
“It’s like she dares you to say she’s bad.”
Indeed, it was an “intimate” evening as advertised with the hard-working performer. And oy, she’s doing it seven more times before New Year’s. Near the exit, sporting a comfy flannel shirt against the draft, Bernhard was installed behind a table signing merch: a tote bag that read MAMA’S GOT A BRAND NEW BAG! SANDRABERNHARD.COM, T-shirts, DVDs, and glamour shot posters of herself. Fans clustered around the table while another line formed for the 9:30 show.
“It’s a factory here,” said my friend.