Horn of Plenty

Catherine Taft at the Aspen Art Museum’s annual artCRUSH

Left: Collector Amy Phelan with artist Roni Horn. Right: Lance Armstrong with Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. (All photos: Billy Farrell)

FOR A NON-COLLECTING INSTITUTION, the Aspen Art Museum has certainly accumulated a critical mass of donors, fans, and collectors. On August 3, these supporters began their pilgrimage from points across the globe (or from their second homes across town) to the kickoff of the high-altitude museum’s series of annual fundraising events, wineCRUSH, which is hosted each year by patrons Amy and John Phelan. The Phelans’ home is like Aspen itself—a treat for the eyes, an illusory paradigm of style, a dizzying and rousing diversion—but the posh digs belied the attitude of our down-to-earth hosts, who welcomed their guests with warm embraces and flutes of champagne. Visitors flooded the entryway, mingling with friends, associates, and artists, while a fleet of white-dressed models wore Sotheby’s diamonds, and a few carefully placed security guards kept a watchful eye.

A Rocky Mountain monsoon blew as I set off toward the garden tent, which stood impressively still amid the bluster. Near the table of master sommeliers, I found artist Lawrence Weiner (whose work was scrawled over the home’s entry: BEFORE AFTER A HOLE IN TIME). “In Switzerland, they drink their wine young. That’s also how I enjoy my scotch,” he said, sipping on his barely time-tested spirits. After musing on swills, Viennese Actionism, and the artist’s visits to Aspen in the 1950s, we each found our table. Over dinner, artist Rashid Johnson talked about his upcoming installation at MCA Chicago; Philippe Vergne gushed about the expansion of DIA (and a new baby); and Michelle and Jason Rubell hinted at their family’s collection show in December. “It’s called ‘American Exuberance,’ ” offered Jason. “But doesn’t that sound just a little cynical?”

Left: Dia director Philippe Vergne with Lehmann Maupin's Courtney Plummer. Right: Artists Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.

As the night wound down and guests began to trickle out, I stopped to say hello to AAM director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson and board member–at-large Lance Armstrong (who humbly downplayed his own collection). Having already raised forty-four million dollars toward the museum’s new Shigeru Ban building (which will soon break ground), Jacobson was aglow and urged me to visit the future site—a dirt lot near the base of Aspen Mountain outfitted for the summer with works by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pedro Reyes, Franz West, and a Ban-designed temporary shelter. (A selection of Ban’s shelters will be among the first exhibitions at the new space.)

The following night—after a very full day of local collection tours and the not-so-exuberant news of another market downturn—the Baldwin Gallery hosted a preview of the live auction works that would support Jacobson’s new vision. A handful of artists were on hand, including Delia Brown, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin (fresh from shooting videos for Lady Gaga in Nebraska), Jason Middlebrook, Richard Phillips, and Josephine Meckseper. After a postopening BBQ, Rose Dergan and artists E. V. Day and Will Cotton coaxed me back to room 222 of the historic Hotel Jerome for a midnight party to watch Day’s husband, chef and author Ted Lee, sell his cooking wares on the Home Shopping Network. After waiting on hold for nearly an hour, dealer James Solomon finally got through to HSN to sing the praises of the The Lee Bros. 11.5qt Steel Corn Pot with Porcelain Enamel Coating and give a live broadcast “shout-out to E. V. Day and all my friends in Aspen.”

Left: Artists Rashid Johnson and Lawrence Weiner. Right: Artists Will Cotton and Richard Phillips.

Things were really cooking by Friday’s artCRUSH gala. Apparently the excitement had been mounting, as RSVPs for the event had reached capacity by the time my invitation arrived a month prior. Dropping by the AAM that afternoon to see the museum’s striking Haegue Yang exhibition, I ran into Jacob Proctor, who will be joining the museum in September as “just ‘curator’—unmodified.” “I can’t think of many American institutions that operate more successfully on the kunsthalle model than Aspen,” he continued. “It feels very Swiss somehow.”

The silent auction garnered enormous attention that evening when the gala partygoers—among them curators Anne Ellegood and Michael Darling; collectors Bob and Linda Gersh, Eugenio López, Dana Farouki, Larry and Susan Marx, and Don and Mera Rubell; and Vanity Fair’s Mark Seal—arrived, a handful smartly dressed for the theme, “an evening at the ice hotel.” (Somehow, the icy chill of economic downturn was a distant and inconsequential thought.) As guests were seated for their surf-and-turf dinners, Roni Horn took the stage to accept the 2011 Aspen Award for Art and, in keeping with the theme, read intimate poetic texts she had written in Iceland: “It was the coldest, wettest summer on record. So you want to know who I am? That’s it—six months outside in the wet . . . ” The introduction proved useful, and when Horn’s thirty-two-print artwork Clowd and Cloun (Gray) appeared in the live auction, auctioneer Tobias Meyer frantically juggled a flurry of bids. Paparazzi flashbulbs lit the collectors who drove the value upward in a sporting bidding war. As the piece approached its sale price of $420,000 (the most the AAM has raised on a single work of art at the event), Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison continued to work the crowd, moving from bidder to bidder whispering, “Go on. You can do better than that.”

Left: Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer. Right: Collector Don Rubell.