THEY CALLED THEMSELVES ZERO and their heyday was quick, perhaps even unnoticed by most at the time—the artists will tell you this themselves. Hans Haacke, one of the group’s many noteworthy members, stood on the balcony of the Standard East, the site of the New Museum’s afterparty for its latest exhibition, “Ghosts in the Machine,” curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni. The show digs up a history of kinetic and optical art, some of it centered on Zero, much of it created in the 1950s and ’60s (though art made over the past two decades as well as throughout the early twentieth and even late nineteenth centuries was also included), in hopes of shedding fresh perspective on our iPhone-dependent existence.
“Howard Wise in 1966,” said Haacke, referring to the gallery that first showed several of his works. I nodded. “You don’t know it,” he continued, noting it was the only New York gallery in those days that expressed interest in Zero. “Nobody does.”
The esoteric, however, has the potential to age well. And the crowd that filled the New Museum on a recent Tuesday night seemed positively enchanted by the array of fans, helium balloons, wire sculptures, black lights, and motors scattered throughout the four floors, making up an exhibition that elicited all sorts of breathless ruminations: “When was the last time you saw so much Victor Vasarely? Amazing” (Guggenheim deputy director Ari Wiseman); “It’s a beautiful, absorbing show—how rare to be surprised like this” (Lucy Chadwick of Gavin Brown); “This is by far the most ambitious exhibition the New Museum has ever done” (Sperone Westwater’s David Lieber, co-organizer of the well-received 2008 show at his gallery, “Zero in New York.”).
Carrion-Murayari says that the show’s goal was to reveal a “minor history” of artists enthused by the capacity of machines to enhance our experience of the world. “Ghosts in the Machine” homes in on lesser-known artists—though works by Jeff Koons, Stan VanDerBeek, and Richard Hamilton are also on view—that used industrial materials to explore ways that art, coupled with technology, could alter (or in many cases transcend) one’s physical and psychic states.
Left: Stan VanDerBeek's Movie-Drome. Right: Johannes VanDerBeek, Johanna VanDerBeek, Sara VanDerBeek, and August VanDerBeek.
Or, in the words of Gioni, as he stood shifting from foot to foot, routinely checking his BlackBerry while addressing a cluster of journalists Tuesday morning: “I wish a machine were here instead of a person.” An apt sentiment for a man currently leading the New Museum, the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, and the 2013 Venice Biennale. He laughed and jokingly paraphrased Martin Amis, who noted that humans and machines don’t belong together, a concept that both this exhibition and current daily experience emphatically contradict. By midafternoon Tuesday, Instagram was chock-full of images of Haacke’s cobalt chiffon sheet held in the air by a motorized fan.
Off in the show, Peter Schjeldahl circled Emery Blagdon’s wire sculptures dangling from the ceiling. Blagdon created these by the dozen, shooting electricity through each as a way to harness “healing powers.” He later died of cancer. “But he really thought it would make him well,” Schjeldahl observed, staring up at the intricate webs. A nearby companion nodded, adding, “He did paintings too. Called them ‘my pretties.’ ”
Up on the fourth floor, just off the elevator, visitors sprawled over pillows scattered about VanDerBeek’s immaculately reconstructed, mid-’60s Movie-Drome. VanDerBeek had hoped to develop a worldwide database where film and images could be endlessly shared and viewed. He built a silo where he imagined these would be projected. Inside this contemporary realization of the piece, people snapped images of the images, which streamed from their phones into that now weirdly quotidian international network of databases and beyond.
I wandered through a set of thick black curtains into a black-lit room, where a white elastic cord was pulled from the ceiling to the walls to the floor, creating a massive geometric web, which, controlled by an electric motor, slowly stretched up and down. A photographer with the New York Times shot pictures nearby. “The last time I saw this was decades ago in Buffalo. I took LSD and it was fucking great.”
THE OLYMPICS DON’T KICK OFF in London for another few days, but they’re already inescapable: The Flintstones-meets-street-art logo is visible everywhere, stamped on lamppost banners and smothering tube signs. While many Londoners are dreading the crowds, those with tickets can’t wait for the games to begin. “I’m going to women’s weight lifting,” bragged a publisher friend. “They have three moves: the pull, the jerk, and the snatch.”
For the London art world, however, the summer’s main event took place last week, when Tate Modern opened the Tanks, a new underground extension with a 225,000-square-foot footprint. Once the repository of a million gallons of oil, these vast concrete cylinders have been transformed—by Herzog & de Meuron, who also converted the disused power station that now holds Tate Modern’s principal galleries—into spaces dedicated to performance, installation, and experimental film. Last Monday night, the museum launched a fifteen-week festival programmed by Catherine Wood (curator of performance), Stuart Comer (film), and Kathy Noble (interdisciplinary projects).
VIPs entered a purple-lit Turbine Hall, with spotlights sweeping from floor to ceiling. (“It’s like Speer at the Oscars,” someone muttered.) The audience featured an intergenerational mix of the city’s most renowned artists—including Michael Craig-Martin (1970s), Anish Kapoor (’80s), Rachel Whiteread (’90s), and Jeremy Deller (’00s)—as well as curators, dealers, academics, critics, and directors of other local spaces. As I sipped a sickly sweet strawberry champagne, I was introduced to Brian Boylan, chairman of Wolff Olins, the company that brilliantly rebranded Tate over a decade ago. “It’s too bad you didn’t do the Olympics,” I offered by way of praise. “I did,” came the response, delivered with all the placidity of a man who’s already received an earful.
Left: Artists Richard Long and Michael Morris. Right: Artists Jessica Voorsanger, Bob and Roberta Smith, and Jeremy Deller.
The evening began with speeches, comme il faut, delivered in the Tanks antechamber, a beautiful concrete space with stark, slashing columns. Tate Modern’s handsome director, Chris Dercon, gave a long list of thanks, which included the couplet “Maureen Paley and the government of Flanders.” Next up was Tate chairman Lord Browne, a self-described “oilman,” who trumpeted the fact that the Tanks are just the first phase of an addition that will increase Tate Modern’s size by 60 percent. Nicholas Serota, director of all Tates, was followed by diminutive heavyweight Joan Jonas, come to deliver the New York performance world’s imprimatur. When I wondered aloud why a British performance artist hadn’t been asked to speak, a local replied, “Because none of them is that famous and they’ve all got a chip on their shoulders.”
Finally, we surged into the new galleries for the inaugural performance: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, from 1982. The former oil tank—fully lit and completely empty—could be seen in all its industrial glory, and it was immediately obvious to everyone what Tate Modern has achieved: Nearly a hundred feet in diameter and over twenty feet high, soundproofed and kitted out with theatrical lights, this is an important new space for live performance.
The audience sat or stood around a square marked on the floor, and two dancers—de Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven, dressed in pale gray dresses that matched the concrete—entered through the crowd. In the first part, Piano Phase, the dancers turned in circles, their parallel uniformity matching the regularity of Reich’s score; as the musical structure began to break down, de Keersmaeker gradually sped up, disturbing the symmetry. While the choreography responds to the Minimalist music with repeated phrases of angular movements, here it also seemed to echo the geometry of the Tanks.
Although originally created for a proscenium stage, the dance looked unbelievably stunning in the round. The solo Violin Phase—in which de Keersmaeker repeatedly traced and erased a large chalk circle on the floor—worked particularly well. (This might be why it’s a favorite with museums: She performed the same piece at MoMA a year and a half ago, dancing on a thin layer of sand in the atrium.) “De Keersmaeker’s choreography makes me think of what Yvonne Rainer said: ‘Dance is hard to see,’ ” curator Wood said to me. “The repetition makes it visible.”
After the performances, I ventured into the accompanying spaces, dedicated to commissions and Tate’s collection. Tank 1 was given over to Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim, whose dark and fragmented installation suggested he wasn’t ready for such a high-profile opportunity. (Apparently, a new work by Mike Kelley was to have filled this slot.) In a smaller room next to the Tanks, two new acquisitions were displayed: Suzanne Lacy’s multimedia presentation of The Crystal Quilt, her 1985–87 collaborative performance with women of a certain age, and Lis Rhodes’s 1975 film and sound installation Light Music (unfortunately out of order on opening night).
The first museum to develop a performance program, Tate Modern clearly believes that the contemporary fixation with live art is here to stay. But instead of focusing solely on the stars of this practice, Tate’s curators appear determined to shine a light on a wide range of international players, young and old, celebrated and emerging and rediscovered, many of whom are women. (Note the difference between the Tanks lineup and that of the main spaces: Hirst, Munch, and Tino Sehgal.) The calendar for the Tanks after the next two and a half months has yet to be mapped out—or funded—and I for one can’t wait to see what direction it takes . . . and how other institutions around the world will respond.
IT WAS A BIT LIKE BECKETT at the Whitney Museum the Tuesday before last. A group of us had assembled for a Louis Vuitton–sponsored dinner celebrating the American leg of Yayoi Kusama’s traveling retrospective and the launch of an LV line inspired by her obsessive iconographies. We were, as it were, waiting for Kusama. There were moments during the cocktail when the sea of socialites parted and photographers took their marks. What a disappointment to see instead Martha Stewart or Sofia Coppola enter the lobby! Granted, after crossing fourteen time zones to be here and fielding a battery of interviews for morning and evening (and probably taxi) TV earlier that day, the artist had every right to take a breather. Victoria Miro’s Glenn Scott Wright encouraged me not to give up hope: “She loves dessert. She very well may arrive after dinner.”
We moved downstairs and everyone took their seats at red, mirrored tables. A trustee welcomed guests and, in an innocent slip of the tongue, misidentified the magazine helmed by Stefano Tonchi, the evening’s cohost, before immediately and gracefully correcting herself. The gaffe prompted some gasps, yet nobody really seemed fazed that Kusama’s first name was repeatedly pronounced Yoi-ya during remarks. In this ultimately harmless regard, the through-the-looking-glass nature of the evening was underscored. It wasn’t the usual art-world suspects, save for some artists—Sarah Sze, Louise Lawler, Kara Walker, Tom Sachs—and those directly involved with the exhibition. The art socialites were outnumbered by fashion people representing a constituency that may not be as well versed in Kusama’s work but which was integral to carrying off such an ambitious exhibition. Whether the art-fashion arrangement is an increasingly prevalent quid pro quo or just an increasingly transparent one that has always been prevalent, in the case of Kusama’s work perverse proliferation into the realms of pop culture and consumerism is not only acceptable but absolutely vital.
The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, took the mic and made a heartfelt speech about the exhibition, leaving the audience with a stirring anecdote in Kusama’s own words: “I never thought if art made me happy or not, but I don’t have anything else. Art is everything to me.” Moments later, LV chairman Yves Carcelle concluded his own remarks with confirmation of her famous sweet tooth: “I hope the desire of dessert will wake her up from a nap which is quite justified when you’re eighty-three and you have traveled the world to invade our shopwindows.”
Left: Artists Chuck Close and Yayoi Kusama. (Photo courtesy Whitney Museum) Right: Blonde Redhead (Photo: Billy Farrell Agency)
However, it did not. And so she missed a gastronomically avant-garde bowl of cherries spanning various states of matter, and an impeccably strange red-and-white dish in her honor: an island of halibut the color of computer paper dotting a pool of . . . hibiscus? Some guests donned the buttons scattered about the museum that read LOVE FOREVER, a slogan for the artist born of her hippie-era roots. So did the DJs, who were dressed like Harajuku-influenced Minnie Mouse cosplayers: lots more dots. Dots everywhere! Even the ceiling of the Whitney’s lobby took on new meaning, those circular, gridded light fixtures going on and on. To close the night, Blonde Redhead performed under them; their frontwoman, Kazu Makino, not unlike Kusama, had left her native Japan to find her place in the pantheon of New York alternative culture, albeit as an indie rocker.
The show opened the next night. Unanticipated, Kusama made a brief appearance during the preview. In an altogether different kind of art-meets-fashion moment (and a supreme photo op) she wheeled over to Chuck Close. Entirely attired in a kaleidoscopic blue-and-yellow West African–ish print, Close leaned over and told her: “I wore this for you.”
THE LOS ANGELES ART WORLD is no different in summer than the art world is anywhere else. What does it do? It goes to the beach—namely, Venice Beach. At least, it did last weekend, when Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnick staged a three-day, outdoor extension of “Made in L.A.,” the museum’s current show of new homegrown art, along the boardwalk.
Over the same few days, galleries in Culver City and elsewhere mounted the sort of group shows that are a dog-days tradition everywhere. Starting the week’s engines on July 10, the Venice branch of New York’s L&M Arts opened “Mash Up: Collage from 1930 to the Present,” put together by gallery director Sarah Watson. The show lived up to its title, mixing small, exquisite collages by Romare Bearden and Joseph Cornell with the organized chaos of a floor-bound Paul McCarthy process piece and a large new patchwork painting by Sterling Ruby.
During dinner at nearby Tlapazola, a Mexican place that serves especially potent margaritas, Watson lifted her glass and said, “To collage!” in a seductive stage whisper that drew cheers from the obsessive CK Wilde, a bricoleur of current and obsolete currencies, and Aaron Noble, who confided that when he isn’t painting he mans the bra shops for busty women that he owns with his actress wife.
Fascinating, the economies of the art world. The politics, too. The fallout from Paul Schimmel’s reportedly forced June 28 resignation from the Museum of Contemporary Art after twenty-two years as chief curator hung over LA like its inescapable smog. Schimmel remained mute, at least publicly, as did Jeffrey Deitch, MoCA’s newly embattled director. Unusually for someone in his position—that of a manager and fund-raiser—he now also holds Schimmel’s old job.
Members of the museum’s board of trustees, meanwhile, weirdly aired its laundry in the Los Angeles Times with statements that either supported Deitch or protested his “celebrity-driven” programming and, to some, his failure to increase the museum’s endowment. It was left to artists to point out the evident abdication of fiduciary responsibility on the part of the board itself.
But money was not the reason that John Baldessari, one of four artist-trustees, resigned on Thursday. He was upset by Schimmel’s ouster and a forthcoming Deitch-inspired show about the cultural impact of disco. On Friday, Barbara Kruger and Cathy Opie tendered their resignations, citing (among other reasons) a lack of transparency on the board, their own marginalization within it, and a wider crisis in cultural funding that museums have to address. All of this was painful to watch.
“Perhaps we’re just not the appropriate artists to represent this current version of MoCA,” Kruger and Opie wrote. Other people wondered why any artist would want to be on any museum board, doing the business of accountants and bankers instead of making art. At other museums, artists generally have advisory roles to boards that value their expertise.
Deitch’s continued and uncharacteristic silence fueled anti-MoCA sentiments on Facebook and Twitter, on KCRW radio and in the Times. (Privately, I heard that MoCA’s board and staff had such major internal communication problems that some form of couples therapy seemed in order.) Yet at every opening over the weekend, the situation was the elephant in the room. MoCA hardly came up during Friday’s Venice Beach Biennial reception at the home of Sandy Hill, whose large modern house is wedged between the boho cottages off the boardwalk. That’s where many of the fifty artists in the show planted their work, cheek by jowl with the artist vendors who showcase their wares there every week.
A few, like the man who created a large boa constrictor sculpture out of sand, piggybacked on the show, which Alex Israel virtually stole by placing full-scale replicas of Easter Island heads near the beach’s graffiti wall, facing the ocean. In the light of the sunset, they caught the mystical magic of the originals. “They’re props from a Janet Jackson video,” he allowed at the party, where I picked up a biennial catalogue bursting with images of the handmade signs that proliferate along the boardwalk (“Shitty Advice: $1”; “Occupy Yoga”), and featuring rather touching profiles of the beach artists Subotnick selected.
On the way back to my car, sidestepping skateboarders, bongo players, bike riders, hog callers, and beachgoers, I was thinking how indistinguishable Venice was from a carnival when I bumped into Deitch. He was looking for the VBB art on the boardwalk. “I can’t change who I am,” he said, implying that it would be silly to expect anything else of anyone, and that it was impossible to please everyone.
Saturday morning brought me to the Hammer, where LAXART founder Lauri Firstenberg (one of four curators who worked with Anne Ellegood on “Made in L.A.”) was leading a tour through the exhibition. It took most of the day. That evening brought me to Michael Kohn’s gallery in West Hollywood, where Kim Light had organized a handsome group show of antiformalist works that she associated with Bruce Conner, a longtime gallery artist. From there, it was off to Culver City, where I spotted Jack Black walking unnoticed among the packs of pedestrians making the rounds of galleries on Venice Boulevard. Nearly the same faces appeared everywhere—at Honor Fraser, Cherry & Martin, Nye & Brown, David Kordansky, and Blum & Poe, which was opening two group shows by guest curators (Piper Marshall, and Julian Hoeber and Alix Lambert, respectively) and one solo (by Maurizio Vetrugno), with a taco and In-N-Out Burger picnic to follow.
Matthew Brannon and Jan Tumlir curated the Kordansky show, “Drawing a Blank (On Forgetting, Refusal, Censure and Impotence).” The works on view—by Robert Barry, Louise Lawler, Yves Tanguy, Carol Bove, and Richard Hamilton, among others—were more evocative than that mouthful of a title, which Brannon credited to Tumlir. “I think it looks very much like a Matthew Brannon show,” said the writer. “It’s all about the tension beneath the surface.” A neat analysis of the moment, I thought.
“Welcome to bedlam!” said Tim Blum, as I elbowed my way into his leviathan gallery, where the large crowd of viewers included the building’s architects, a swarm of local artists like Jed Caesar and Carter Mull (both in the VBB), and at least two visiting Frenchmen, Olivier Mosset and Xavier Veilhan. The latter, who claimed Mosset as a mentor, was taking a break from installing “Architectones,” the sculptural intervention he’ll debut next month at the Neutra VDL Research House, curated by his sidekick Francois Perrin. It was hard to miss the Swiss Institute’s Marshall, who was shod in towering gold platforms, but I never saw Hoeber and Lambert. I did catch their upstairs “crime” show, which had the week’s most fetching title, “No Person May Carry a Fish into the Bar.”
Outside, in the back garden, I found Mel Chin and Caroline Huber, the curator whose late husband was Walter Hopps, as well as Slater Bradley, who surprised me with both his presence and the news that he had left Team, his longtime New York gallery. Passing on the burgers, I headed back to West Hollywood, where Kohn was hosting a sit-down for around fifty guests at Lucques, the restaurant that his wife, Caroline Styne, conveniently co-owns. “I’m fortunate in many ways,” he said, gazing across tables seated with Anna Anka (ex-wife of singer Paul), Rosette Delug, Hollywood decorator Waldo Fernandez, and a couple of artists, Dennis Hollingsworth and Owen Kydd. No one mentioned MoCA and the food was good.
Sunday, back in Venice, the artists in the biennial were identifiable by the white patches on their faces that their sunglasses saved from burning. In the early evening, several gathered at L&M for “Ghost Town,” an appealing exhibition that Drew Heitzler pulled together to benefit the Venice Family Clinic—from the look of things, a popular cause. “Drew’s great,” said Watson, who took down her collage show for the day, just to make room for his. One collector viewing the show was Charles (“Chip”) Conlan, a MoCA trustee who insisted that the museum was actually on better financial footing than ever, and that all the talk was based on serious misinformation. No wonder. Is silence not death?
Monday morning brought confirmation of the inevitable—that Ed Ruscha, MoCA’s one remaining artist trustee, had resigned from the board.
Left: Artist Drew Heitzler. Right: Dealer Sarah Gavlak with MoCA trustee Charles Conlon.
HOW IS IT that Cindy Sherman’s had such a paltry exhibition record in San Francisco? Back in the 1990s there were a couple small solo shows—a Berkeley Art Museum Matrix presentation of her history works, an exhibition of her thorny prosthetics pictures at the long-defunct Friends of Photography—but whole series passed by a city where costume play and identity shifts are colorfully visible, and where photographers have long found institutional haven. So the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art might be making up for lost time in picking up a leg of Sherman’s MoMA-organized career survey. Street-pole banners advertising the show popped up in hip neighborhoods like the Mission district and nightclubby patches of SoMa, the artist in various guises melding into the gritty landscape. While she is essentially an East Coast girl, Sherman’s famously good-natured temperament, elusive personae, and proclivity for dress-up dovetail particularly well with California dreaming, its deceptive niceties, and state-of-the-art plastic surgery clinics.
Wednesday evening’s Director’s Circle preview was warm for midsummer SF, which might have helped lend the festivities an unbuttoned vibe. There was, however, a little urgency to find a seat in the packed Wattis Theater; it seemed everyone was hoping to catch opening remarks by the oft-seen but rarely heard celebrity artist. Alas, this would be more of an institutional moment. SF MoMA director Neal Benezra noted that the museum was on a roll with women artists (and photographers to boot), with shows devoted to Francesca Woodman, Rineke Dijkstra, and Sherman, as well as an upcoming Jay DeFeo survey. Benezra introduced the show’s MoMA curator, Eva Respini, who delivered a brief PowerPoint offering the standard read on Sherman: They’re not self-portraits, she chided. There was even the expected nervous laughter from the mature, well-heeled audience when Respini, with art-historical objectivity, pointed out that the shiny polyester stockings of the caftaned character in one of Sherman’s late works were the kind used to mask varicose veins. An artist friend leaned over and whispered what everyone was thinking: “She’s referring to all the people in this room!”
It became clear that Sherman wouldn’t be taking the mic, but Respini encouraged us all to meet the artist upstairs in the show, a seemingly unlikely scenario that actually panned out. Sherman, in a short black dress with a geometric, tropical swath of sequins across the chest, ambled unnoticed through the lobby reception and took the elevator to her show’s entrance, where she warmly chatted with countless friends, fans, and collectors, smiling the whole time. Her grounded generosity extended to acts besides cocktail chatter, much of it concerning if the show was better here or in NY (an even split) and how the implosion of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art might be an apt metaphor for America, this being the first big California museum event since the Paul Schimmel imbroglio ignited art-world Facebook pages.
The relaxed vibe continued at the Phillips de Pury–sponsored dinner, a buffet on a tented terrace at the St. Regis Hotel next door. Large, decorative macramé hoops dangled from the temporary ceiling of the mingle-centric event, which was more democratic than a stuffy sit-down might have been. High-end donors and regular-folk artists all had to wait in line at food stations with regional monikers, like a steak-and-chop table called the “Wine Country Experience.” Simon de Pury earnestly worked the room with his leggy wife, Michaela. Sherman chatted with a couch-bound group that included Tom di Maria, director of the beloved Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, of which Sherman is a supporter, and architect Anne Fougeron. Again, Benezra stood up for remarks, in which he gleefully revealed Sherman’s Bay Area Fourth of July activities to the copacetic crowd. “She biked across the Golden Gate Bridge and back and, when she returned, went to the spa for a massage.” Sherman just smiled and maybe blushed, having this California experience in the bag.
Left: Chef Amanda Michael, Stanlee Gatti, and dealer Jessica Silverman. Right: SF MoMA trustee Yves Behar, Patty Hambrecht, art advisor Sabrina Buell, and auctioneer Simon de Pury. (Photos Drew Altizer)
Left: Dealer Andrea Glimcher with artist Chuck Close. Right: Parrish Art Museum director Terrie Sultan with Anke Jackson and Helen Warwick. (All photos: Owen Hoffmann/Patrick McMullan)
RECOUNTING THE HORRORS of public transit to the Hamptons for New York magazine, Caroline Bankoff paints an unappealing picture in which drunkenness, entitlement, and self-absorption form an unholy trinity. The whimsically named Jitney—aka the bus—at least disallows the first of these, but a neighboring passenger’s irritation at not being able to exchange a crisp hundred-dollar bill for his ticket before anyone else had paid said something about the attitude at large as I hunkered down for the three-hour trip to Southampton. Once in town, my target was the Parrish Art Museum’s Midsummer Party, the institution’s last annual fundraiser before it ups sticks to a brand new Herzog & de Meuron–designed hangar in nearby Water Mill come November.
I arrived on the early side for the event’s 6:30 PM kick-off—too early even for a look around the museum’s current exhibitions, according to an officious attendant. Of course, people-watching from the sidewalk is not without its appeal in this neck of the woods, where passersby tend to have a degree of polish observed less often in downtown Brooklyn. As it turned out, I wasn’t missing much inside. “The Landmarks of New York” is an extended parade of black-and-white shots picturing, without much poetry, well-known buildings around town, while “Liminal Ground: Adam Bartos Long Island Photographs 2009–2011” (gotta love that superfluous span of dates) is a marginally more engaging selection of color shots celebrating picturesquely shabby local backstreets.
Of course, art is just something to look at while waiting for the hors d’oeuvres at an event like this, but fashion is perhaps a more effective diversion. Among the distinctively decked out at the Parrish were National Arts Club curator Stacy Engman in a voluminous golden brocade number, local artist Kevin Berlin in a top hat (worn without clear irony), and socialite Di Mondo in a suit that looked to have been illustrated by John James Audubon. There were a lot of enhanced figures poured into flowing pink and orange gowns, and a lot of überpreppy affectations of the fuchsia socks–and-braces variety that would be a distinctly risky choice on Main Street, USA (or anywhere). Honoree Chuck Close seemed, worryingly, to have hit the town in his PJs again—a tribute, perhaps, to the original millionaire art lounge lizard, Julian Schnabel.
Left: The Midsummer Party. Right: National Arts Club curator Stacy Engman.
After a chat over beers with LA artist Andy Moses (son of Ed) about the relative strengths of the West and East Coasts, I took my seat for dinner between Californian Land art pioneer Michelle Stuart and East End photographer John Jonas Gruen. As Stuart and I bonded over a shared appreciation for W. G. Sebald and an abhorrence of nonsocialized health care, Parrish director Terrie Sultan announced that Close, along with director-choreographer Patricia Birch, choreographer Paul Taylor, writer Barbara Goldsmith, guitarist G. E. Smith (absent with a decent excuse—on tour with Roger Waters), and interior designers Tony Ingrao and Randy Kemper (luminous in matching white gear), would each have a tree planted in their honor outside the museum’s new premises.
Dinner and speechifying over, the dance floor filled up fast and that familiar wedding-disco embarrassment settled over me again. I don’t mind seeing Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher doing Pace Gallery stuff, but I don’t want to watch him pogo. Back in the cocktail tent, more dignified guests made the rounds again; I clocked painters Eric Fischl and Dorothea Rockburne, curator Klaus Kertess, and unvanquishable commentator Anthony Haden-Guest buoyed up by the shrill sea of tycoons and heiresses. Come elevenish, I was ready to roll, and a car home with, among others, Herzog & de Meuron associates Sara Jacinto and Philip Schmerbeck was more than welcome. Had I known that new Knicks point guard Jason Kidd would be arrested that night after wrapping his SUV around a local telephone pole, I might have ducked out sooner yet.
JUST OVER THIRTY DAYS have passed since Documenta 13 opened in the central German city of Kassel, where hundreds of artworks are scattered like trinkets in a treasure hunt, replete with maps, clues, riddles, and the inevitable question: “That, over there, is that art?” The exhibition’s potential for playfulness may be undercut by its capacity for exhaustion, but the feedback so far has been uncommonly good. The critics are overwhelmingly positive about the work of artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, in part because she seems to be saying so much, so deeply, about the purpose of art in relation to time, violence, and trauma. That is not to say the exhibition is friction-free. Where it appears to be creating the most conflict, however, is far beyond Kassel, in Kabul and Cairo, otherwise known as acts two and three in Christov-Bakargiev’s four-part Documenta drama.
Kassel, Kabul, Cairo, and Banff, Canada, are the four “positions” that correspond to the four “conditions”—“on stage,” “under siege,” “in a state of hope,” and “on retreat”—that Christov-Bakargiev has plotted. Each position contains all of the conditions to a degree, but Kabul certainly played its part (“under siege”) when a Documenta 13–related exhibition opened in the Queen’s Palace on June 20, a day before the Taliban attacked a resort hotel outside the city, reportedly looking for foreigners. Undeterred, some two thousand people are said to be attending the exhibition every day. But a sense of unease has crept into the press coverage and reports back from participants, including murmured opinions about neocolonialism, political correctness, elite privilege, the development agenda, and curatorial indifference to political realities on the ground. In Cairo, where a Documenta 13–sponsored seminar did not, in fact, transpire, many of the same issues were more volubly addressed, albeit, as it were, in secret.
Here’s the deal: “The Cairo Seminar” took place from July 1 through July 8, and for most of last week, the sixty-odd people involved—students, speakers, and invited guests (all but two of the twenty sessions were closed to the public)—were actually in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, and more specifically in Miami, a popular neighborhood on the eastern end of Alexandria’s seaside urban sprawl. Then, on Saturday, everyone went to Beirut, which, in the world of Documenta 13, is not the capital of Lebanon but an as-yet-unopened art space in Cairo run by the curators Sarah Rifky and Jens Maier-Rothe. Confusing? Yes, but also unconvincing as a conceptual gesture of enacting displacement or embodying dislocation, and moreover, way too cute.
Rifky, a curator at the Townhouse Gallery who recently established CIRCA, the Cairo International Resource for Contemporary Art, was one of the eighteen “agents” of Documenta 13, and “The Cairo Seminar” was her project. Just as the exhibition in Kabul followed two years of workshops, the seminar followed a trip that brought ten students from MASS Alexandria, an independent study program and studio space that artist Wael Shawky opened two years ago, to Kassel to help install the exhibition.
The seminar was Documenta’s revenge, or fear and loathing in Miami, or an exercise in art tourism at its finest—to the lighthouse, to the library, to the catacombs. A raucous group of participants—including the artists Julie Mehretu, Rania Stephan, Shuruq Harb, and the Otolith Group’s Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun; the philosopher Alexei Penzin of Chto Delat?; and the psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik—came crashing into town as if from outer space, and they were loud, demanding, articulate, inquisitive (some of them), and argumentative (all). The luminaries of the Cairene and Alexandrian art scenes turned up by car, train, taxi, and tram. Shawky, Hassan Khan, and Anna Boghiguian—all of whom have work in Kassel—were there, as were artists Shahira Issa, Malak Helmy, and Rana Hamadeh; art historians Clare Davies and Angela Harutyunyan; and curators Bassam El Baroni, Mia Jankowicz, and Nida Ghouse, among others.
Poised as it was on the edge of a festering political crisis, and occurring in the strange lull between the inauguration, on June 30, of Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president (Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood) and his failure, on July 8, to face down the military and convene parliament, the seminar also rubbed up against what Baroni called “the never-ending season of the Arab spring” and writer Yasmine El Rashidi termed Egypt’s eighteen-month-long “national nervous breakdown.” No doubt when the agents of Documenta first hatched the idea, after eighteen days of demonstrations that toppled a dictator, Egypt must have looked like a great place for “hope.” But then the revolution crumbled, and the cogs in Kassel put “sleeping” and “dreaming” where “hope” had been.
“Originally there was the thought of the Arab spring,” said Christov-Bakargiev. “Today there is a sense of uncertainty. We should just stay and hover in this uncertainty. ‘The Cairo Seminar’ makes Kassel a little more bearable, because there is something absolutely obscene about Kassel at this particular moment. Without Kabul and Cairo, Kassel is obscene.”
What does that mean? Was the seminar interested in the Egyptian predicament or not? If not, then what was Documenta doing there? Why does such a strictly sited contemporary art event happening every five years need international outreach and a de facto foreign affairs bureau anyway? And who was the seminar really for, the students of MASS Alexandria or Team Documenta on holiday?
On paper, the seminar looked beautiful. Every element had musical connotations: “key notes,” “accompaniments,” “instruments,” “nocturnes,” a “chorus.” Each day was tagged with a short poetic text: “on the first or second night,” “they appeared in a dream,” “they appeared trapped in an image, or history.” But in practice, the seminar quickly came unhinged, exposing huge gaps between ambition and ability, between gesture and genuine interest, and between subjects and sites.
On Tuesday, Harutyunyan gave a fine talk about an elevator in Los Angeles, towns in Turkey and Armenia, and the work of the artist Kasper Kovitz (whose video about ice fishing was a bit cruel in extreme heat). But it made no sense for her to do so in the Cavafy House. She’d never been there before and had no knowledge, interest, or connection to the melancholy Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who immortalized Alexandria in the 1930s better than E. M. Forster did in the 1920s or Lawrence Durrell in the 1940s. Boghiguian sat quietly through the lecture, having devoted years of her practice to drawing scenes from Cavafy’s life.
On Wednesday, Clare Davies led the MASS Alexandria students in a performative reading, for which she had dug up the raw material of a remarkable newspaper debate that erupted in the summer of 1939, when the first manifesto attributed to the Egyptian surrealists, in defense of art deemed degenerate in Europe, caught the public’s attention. The links back to Documenta’s founding moment were completely missed. And too little was made of the location—the Mahmoud Said Museum, which, like so many other museums across Egypt, is now closed. We sat on the floor of a gallery, in the dark, with no electricity, leaning our heads shamelessly against forgotten paintings, as the students recited a seventy-year-old argument (academia versus the avant-garde), which the seminar nearly repeated, falling into some of the same binary traps.
“I don’t want an audience,” Rifky decreed on Wednesday morning. “It’s a producing moment.” But an audience she had, and a captive one at that. We watched as the schedule unraveled, as talks and meals and activities were canceled without explanation, as we visited art spaces with six-month-old exhibition announcements and no work, as Team Documenta huddled and seemed concerned. We watched Rifky drifting around the Goethe-Institut barefoot in a black frock one minute, staggering in absurdly high heels the next. We watched the foreign contingent coil tighter and tighter around the MASS Alexandria students, asking them what had changed since the revolution, and what they wanted from life. We watched the conversation fray with words like “opportunism” and “exploitation.” Then we listened.
“The Egyptian surrealists were a movement dedicated to revolution in the psychic sense. They remapped the world according to their fantasies and desires. We who came to Cairo also have our fantasies and desires about Egypt. In the past five or six days we’ve found it difficult to correct them. But if the surrealists taught us anything, it’s not to correct your desires and fantasies but to share them.” Kodwo Eshun saved the day.
On Friday, Christov-Bakargiev and chief agent Chus Martínez shifted into literary mood. Reserved until then, Martínez mustered real enthusiasm for the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Christov-Bakargiev evoked Baudelaire and Mallarmé (but none of the Alexandrian writers, not even Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s most appropriate of novels, No One Sleeps in Alexandria, set at the start of World War II) and ran everyone through the Adorno test. To Malak Helmy: “Adorno would find your talk naive.” To Bassam El Baroni: “If Adorno worked on the German constitution, why can’t you work on a new constitution here? You could do it within a year, I’m sure of it,” a comment that seemed not only cavalier but also ignorant of the realities of Egypt’s deep state. “That’s a dangerous thing to do,” said Harutyunyan. “We’ve all gone mad,” said Rashidi. Perhaps Documenta 13 should have sent in the sanatorium, not the seminar. Or perhaps the projects abroad point to something suspect at the core.
WHEN I ARRIVED at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last Tuesday night for the first of the weeklong celebrations for the Eighteenth Biennale of Sydney, the forecourt was packed with local dignitaries waiting to hear Michael Brand’s maiden speech. It was only Brand’s second day on the job as gallery director, but his opening remarks were charmingly good-natured, good-humored, and, perhaps most significantly, in good taste. His acknowledgment of the gallery’s staff, as well as the other big Sydney institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and its director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, did not go unnoticed. Indeed, after the thirty-three-year tenure of Edmund Capon, the excited buzz over a new order somewhat overshadowed talk of the biennial.
For many among the international contingent, which included Art Basel Hong Kong director Magnus Renfrew and dealers such as Finola Jones (of Mother’s Tankstation), Courtney Plummer (of Lehmann Maupin), and Tyler Rollins, Sydney was the last stop on a vigorous itinerary counting art fairs (Frieze, Art HK, Art Basel), exhibitions (Manifesta, Documenta), and, let’s face it, lots of parties in the name of “work.” There would be no shortage of celebrations here, so before we commenced the carousing, we all got a glimpse of the show.
Left: Collector Stephanie Grosse, biennial artist Alwar Balasubramaniam, dealer Deepak Talwar, and collector Julian Grosse. (Photo: Dave Wade) Right: Biennial artist Pinaree Sanpitak with dealer Tyler Rollins.
Earlier that day, the BoS’s artistic directors, Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, took us through each of the five venues (the AGNSW and the MCA, of course, as well as Pier 2/3, Carriageworks, and Cockatoo Island) and their individual themes. Cockatoo Island (theme: “Stories, Senses, and Spheres”), located in the middle of Sydney Harbor, had been a primary site for the previous two biennials. Its history as a former prison and naval shipyard makes for an evocative viewing experience, although it’s not easy to find works that sit comfortably within its enormous industrial spaces. De Zegher and McMaster underscored this predicament by emphasizing works that utilized ephemeral materials. As the skies opened, I shared an umbrella with some colleagues and began to explore, leaving behind those taking their time with the (impressive) works housed undercover, such as Peter Robinson’s polystyrene sculpture and Cal Lane’s exquisite carpet of red sand. Walking through the mist of Fujiko Nakaya’s cloud installation—even on a rainy day—was disorienting and beautiful. And it was easy enough to be consumed by Philip Beesley’s immersive installation Hylozoic Series, Sibyl, which bustled with variegated white plumage and dangling vials filled with mysterious liquids. It was like wandering through a mechanical forest.
As the week progressed, the public openings (each night was dedicated to one of the venues) grew increasingly convivial. At the recently redeveloped MCA Australia, the speeches were entirely drowned out by the lively crowds that congregated on the outside patio. Overlooking the harbor, attendees such as Emma Bugden (of New Zealand’s Dowse Art Museum), Lisa Havilah (of Sydney’s Carriageworks), and Brisbane-based dealer Josh Milani took advantage of a break in the wet winter weather.
It was an affable, animated meet-and-greet, but when talk turned to the show proper, conversations took a more diplomatic turn. Some lauded the biennial’s “expansiveness.” Others thought it was “earnest.” Some went so far as to call it “boring,” but I thought the slightly more generous “bling-less” was the most apt description I heard. In this glittering harbor city, contemporary art aficionados are accustomed to the spectacular. The artists, at least, seemed happy with the freedom afforded them by de Zegher and McMaster, with Khaled Sabsabi labeling them “artists’ curators.” Among the critics, though, the main question was whether their subtle, erudite approach was good biennial strategy. Does a series of intimate exhibitions make for a galvanizing citywide festival?
Left: Biennial artist Lee Mingwei and Biennale of Sydney chairman Luca Belgiorno Nettis. Right: The Artists' Party at Cockatoo Island. (Photo: Sebastian Kriete)
On Thursday night it was the opening of Pier 2/3 and the Artists’ Party, which brought us back to Cockatoo Island. The Artists’ Party is the highlight in the series of opening fetes, and in the weeks leading up to the event, a plus-one became a valuable commodity for any local hoping to make (or keep) some friends. The cavernous turbine hall is a great place for a shindig, but its obstinate island-ness means there’s always the added drama of making sure you’re at the right dock at the right time with a printout of your ticket. (Unless you’re a pro swimmer, gate-crashing is pretty much an impossibility.) Then once you’re in, tracking down your posse amid the thousand-strong crowd becomes a kind of choose-your-own-adventure exercise, entailing countless reunions with colleagues you haven’t seen for “ages” (meaning, since the last big hoopla opening). I spent an hour making my way to “the right of the cheese stand” only to realize that there were two—one at either end of the hall.
On the ferry back to the mainland, discussions revolved around the overarching idea of connectivity and the BoS’s (deliberately lowercase) title, “all our relations.” Were the wide-ranging themes—storytelling, indigenous reinterpretations of history, collaboration, the planet’s finite resources, the schism between micro and macro viewpoints—merely the catchcry of the standard contemporary-art biennial? Many remarked on the slew of textile works on view, including various participatory projects involving sewing circles. (“Join us to design a garment, craft an environment, take a nap, sew a button, have a conversation,” reads the advertisement for artist Erin Manning’s ongoing “proposition,” Stitching Time.) Will ordinary punters sit down and put needle to thread? Or will they take their tailoring elsewhere? As we disembarked at Circular Quay and sidled to the front of the taxi queue, we figured that, at the very least, this bespoke biennial deserved a second look.
Anthology Film Archives founder/artistic director Jonas Mekas. (All photos: Kim Madalinski)
AH, PATRONAGE. Where would we be without it, especially in these days of extreme income polarization? For good or ill, if a certain subset of the wealthy didn’t help fund the arts in this country—whether motivated by genuine affinity, the tax code, or evil-billionaire image management—all that would remain available for mass consumption would be endless analogues, for every artistic medium, of American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance?, Project Runway, Project Greenlight, etc. One of the primary modes of arts fund-raising—the benefit, often with awards attached—can nevertheless be deadly, with overlong acceptance speeches, contrived prizes, and an Ouroboros-like vibe of self-devouring self-congratulation. However briefly, the rich get to feel like artists, artists get to feel like the rich (if they aren’t already), and everyone gets to logroll it all the way home.
Mercifully, this year’s benefit for the eminently worthy Anthology Film Archives’ film preservation efforts was quick and to the point. Held Monday at the High Line Room and Terrace of the Standard, overlooking the High Line park to the east and the Hudson River to the west, the event, er, benefited from dramatic post-storm clouds and a dazzling Technicolor New Jersey sunset; excellent comfort-food-inspired hors d’oeuvres; decent musicians; and perhaps most important, short speeches.
A downtown New York institution, Anthology Film Archives was founded in 1970 by Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and others to “preserve, present, and promote independent, avant-garde, and artist-made cinema.” The AFA began annually honoring fellow film preservers in 1992, with awards going to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Eastman Kodak to the “United States Senate & House of Representatives, sponsors of the legislation creating the National Film Preservation Foundation.” This year’s honorees were Cinetech (a world-class restoration/preservation lab and a subsidiary of Deluxe, which has been in the film business since the medium’s inception); Richard Peña, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival; and the Women’s Film Preservation Fund.
After half an hour of cocktails and canapés on the terrace, Mekas, AFA godfather and patron saint, delivered opening remarks. Slightly doddering, but endearing nonetheless, the Lithuanian artist-filmmaker told a parable about the creation of cinema and the fiendish art v. commerce struggle that has plagued the expensive medium since its birth. According to Mekas, God created the film camera, and the Devil said, “Hey, you could make money off that!” God then created avant-garde film, but the Devil made film materials pricey and unstable. God created film preservation; the Devil asked where the money for this would come from. With a twinkle in his eye, Mekas said that God responded by creating the film preservation benefit, and hence, here we were. The crowd, a mix of middle-aged people in mildly outrageous clothes and younger, studied film hipsters (I saw several Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman manqués), applauded warmly.
Next, we were treated to several musicians of varying repute, performing songs in different configurations. The standout was Angela McCluskey, a solid Scot who sang like Billie Holiday and claimed her songs were inspired by films. McCluskey got points from me for covering Randy Newman’s gorgeous and occasion-appropriate “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” though her pianist elided the best chord changes (at least from the Dusty Springfield version I know).
During a break, the attendees were gently scolded for not buying enough raffle tickets (prizes included, along with a trip to the set of Boardwalk Empire and tickets to The Colbert Report, “film memorabilia donated by Phoebe Cates & Kevin Kline”). I spotted filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Criterion Collection chief Peter Becker (who went to my grade school), and then, on the terrace, Stanley Tucci accompanied by a taller women in a red dress (like most male actors, Tucci is smaller than one would assume). Back inside, the awards were presented. Cinetech founder Sean Coughlin delivered a humble, appreciative speech. He had the air of a dedicated scientist who would do what he does for no material reward. Coughlin and his team at Cinetech won an Academy Award for Science and Engineering in 2001 for developing a color restoration process to be used on fading color negatives (something akin to what was done to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but with far less controversy).
Next up was Richard Peña, who, if you’re a New York cineast, seems almost omnipresent. Despite the weight he throws around in the top echelon of the city’s film programming world, Peña seemed genuinely moved by the award. He told a story about going to a Von Stroheim film as a young man and seeing Henri Langlois, the famed founder-curator of the Cinémathèque Française, in the audience, an early inspiration for the role Peña has played for so many years. He said that while some think of AFA as a cathedral, he thought of it as a university and has used it as such for decades. He thanked Mekas and the AFA for his wonderfully varied “education” in the art form.
Filmmaker-producer Sara Driver was up next, introducing the Women’s Film Preservation Fund. She said that when she produced Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise in 1984, there were about five working female filmmakers; now there are twelve. This got some rueful laughs. Part of the larger organization New York Women in Film and Television, the Women’s Film Preservation Fund awards cash grants to female filmmakers and offers post-production and restoration resources for films in which women have played a major creative role. Driver showed an intriguing quick-cut montage of many such films from all eras, whetting one’s appetite to access the collection.
Finally, the mostly female post-punk New York band Bush Tetras took the stage and launched into a short set of angular, funky grinds (think early Gang of Four, Wire, and locals Liquid Liquid). The noisenik guitarist looked like she could be someone’s hip granny, but she had her Andy Gill–style guitar skree down and would make an inspirational instructor at a rock camp for girls. The Tetras’ volume and aggression cleared the room of many if not all of the middle-agers, though I saw a few sixty-somethings reliving some private CBGB’s moment, idiot-dancing in ways that don’t even look good when young, impeccably styled people do it. Cornered by a small drunk man in his fifties wearing stilettos, fishnets, a diaphanous babydoll, and makeup (but no wig), I figured it was time to leave. Even at the Standard, I have standards.