Stone of Venice

David Rimanelli around Venice


Left: The Guerilla Girls and Yvonne Force-Villareal. Right: Gilbert and George with Rufus Wainwright. (Photos: Jessica Craig-Martin)

It’s a dismal truism that a writer’s life is hell, but it has its moments—like this one, as I begin my Venetian epistle on the terrace of my hotel overlooking the Grand Canal and the gleaming white domes of Santa Maria della Salute. John Ruskin had a no less splendid view of the comparatively austere but even more distinguished San Giorgio Maggiore from his window at the Danieli, where he habitually stayed when visiting the city he described in such loving detail in The Stones of Venice. But by just cocking my head thirty degrees to the left I have a fine vista of that grandest of Palladian churches too. Waiters are busily shooing away the pigeons that settle on tables, as well as the cuter but probably no less desperate uccellati that circle incessantly. Luxurious and desperate: Are these adjectives not adequate in evoking the atmosphere here during the Biennale’s opening week? But hey, the weather’s great, a glorious contrast to the 2003 inferno.

At 11am I meet Stefania Bortolami and Amalia Dayan, the glamorous former Gagosian directors who will open a gallery in New York together in September, at the Giardini for the first day of the four-day “preview.” We make a beeline for “The Experience of Art” at the Italian Pavilion, where Stefania introduces me to its curator, María de Corral, a relatively patrician presence. (Corral made Madrid’s Reina Sofia a venue of note during the roaring ‘80s.) She tells me that press information is available at the Arsenale. As if I wanted to hit her up for a catalogue! But she looks seriously weary and it isn’t yet noon. “No talking, just looking,” Stefania admonishes as we navigate the show. The many projections and videos in the Italian Pavilion make this feel more like the typical Arsenale installation (this year’s “Always a Little Further,” curated by Rosa Martínez, is no exception), especially because, overwhelmingly, they are a chore. The shadows of people nattering on their cell phones constantly pass by the often black-and-white, concerned projections: Concerned with something political, or racial, or genderish, and tedious. The great exception: Francesco Vezzoli’s new film, Gore Vidal’s Caligula, which looks like the succès fou of this Biennale.

It seems that dead artists are quite favored at Corral’s show: I counted Francis Bacon, Philip Guston, Agnes Martin, and Antoni Tapies—the last incorrectly, as Stefania informs me that in fact Tapies is still alive. The Bacons are great, the Guston’s tepid, the Martins rather less than A+. And Marlene Dumas, whose paintings occupy one gallery in the Bacon-Guston-Tapies enfilade, looks dead on the wall. As I recall, there was only one dead artist, Andy Warhol, in the show organized by Francesco Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum for the Italian Pavilion in 2003, which in retrospect looks all the more lively. Corral includes a great deal of contemporary Spanish art in her show, which is unsurprising but also telling in a bad way. Almost all of this work is of little consequence—odd, considering that Spain occupies an important place in the geography of modernism. Corral paired mostly black-and-white Agnes Martins with mostly black-and-white Joan Hernández Pijuans, apparently in the interest of fostering a dialogue—a failed one, as it happens, because the Pijuan paintings are simply awful.

Left: Rufus Wainwright. Right: Guests entering Francesca von Habsburg's birthday party. (Photos: Jessica Craig-Martin)

I meet Amalia and Stefania for drinks on the terrace of the Hotel Bauer Grunewald—the best hotel in Hamburg, except it’s in San Marco. We don’t tarry, because the birthday party for Francesca von Habsburg (Archduchess of Austria to you) is apparently in full swing at the Palazzo Volpi. As we depart, I see Ron Wood, looking glamorously Death in Venice in a white suit that matches his spectral pallor, not to mention his Dirk Bogarde-black hair: Ron von Aschenbach. The Palazzo Volpi is beyond. I particularly admire the vast salon in which immense gilt-framed mirrors alternate with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits of Counts Volpi. I stop to kiss-kiss Elizabeth Peyton and Tony Just, before making my way to another table, where artful paparazza Jessica Craig-Martin, her father, London painter and YBA éminence grise Michael Craig-Martin, Art Production Fund co-founder Yvonne Force-Villareal, and the photographers Todd Eberle and Vera Lutter are settling down for dinner. “Tim Noble and Sue Webster love Mother Inc.,” Stefania tells Yvonne regarding her art-world girl-power band. “They listen to it all the time. They know all the lyrics.”

Should we or shouldn’t we go to the Gilbert & George fête at the Palazzo Pisini Moreta? Yvonne rings art consultant Mark Fletcher. “It’s fun, really fun!” he exclaims over her mobile, which is equipped with speakerphone. So we go, arriving on the late side. As we enter the candlelit Palazzo, Rufus Wainwright is in the midst of a shortish—or longish, depending on your taste—set, which has gone rather underappreciated by all but a gaggle of the faithful, including cohost Jay Jopling, who is pressed to the stage. The party’s packed with people eager to congratulate the duo on their belated British Pavilion debut, but soon the crowd begins to thin. Those who remain happily supply details of the glittering soirée we missed preceding this “after party” hosted by the British Council. Apparently, while we were breaking bread chez the archduchess, some 150 guests sipped prosecco in the courtyard of the Ca’ Rezzonico and then proceeded to dinner upstairs, in a grand (even by Venetian palazzi standards) trompe l’oeil-resplendent salon, hosted by Sonnabend, White Cube, Lehmann Maupin, and Thaddeus Ropac. The guests of honor chatted conspiratorially with their long-time dealer and the grandest of art-world grande dames, Ileana Sonnabend, and with Sir Nicolas Serota (the Tate has recently announced a hometown retrospective for G & G). The evening’s highlight came when British Council Visual Arts Director Andrea Rose’s very sweet toast brought real tears to Gilbert’s eyes and the room erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation.

Left: Artist Justin Lowe and P.S. 1 curator Bob Nickas. Right: Jerry Saltz and P.S. 1 director Tony Guererro. (Photos: Larissa Harris)

Losing track of my party, I hook up with P.S. 1 curator and Artforum colleague Bob Nickas, who is the pasha of a clutch of young artists, among them Fia Backstrom, the curator of “Lesser New York,” and some Greater New Yorkers, including Justin Lowe, Jen DeNike, and Peter Coffin. Justin prevails on me to go with them to the usually reliable after-party spot Haig’s Bar—a mistake, it turns out, because by the time we arrive the booze has run out.