Remaking Haye

New York

Left: Jessica Rankin, Matthew Ritchie, and Christian Haye. Right: Julie Mehretu and Jenny Liu.

I accompanied Michele Maccarone to the Julie Mehretu drawings show at. . . what’s no longer the Project, on West 57th Street. One consequence of the ugly legal battle between Swiss businessman and mega-collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann and dealer Christian Haye—an internecine quarrel over some Mehretu paintings that Lehmann had wanted but didn’t get—was that the young dealer had to relinquish the name of the maverick gallery he founded in Harlem in 1998, and thereafter expanded with a Los Angeles branch in 2001. So he’s dubbed the “new” enterprise Projectile; a prominent “X” partially obscures the letters “ct,” but there’s no doubt that a cheeky rechristening hasn’t altered Haye’s program. “Projectile vomiting on Lehmann,” I suggested. “Whenever Americans hear that word, they think projectile vomiting,” Haye replied. “Europeans tend to think of missiles.” The mood at the gallery seemed a bit schizo, at once buoyant and freaked out. Haye, still obviously very unnerved by ending up the loser in “l’affaire Lehmann”—to the tune of $1.7 million—is looking to the future. He beamed throughout the opening and party, but privately confessed to feeling fried; the lawsuit continues. He mentioned that he and Maccarone are planning a jointly owned space in Los Angeles called MC (“For Michele and Christian,” Maccarone interjected), where they will show artists from their own stables and also do—oh dear—“projects” with others. (Haye’s West Coast gallery is now defunct, another casualty of the Lehmann imbroglio.) Christopher Mason’s recent article on this mess in New York magazine was criticized by some art-world insiders for what they saw as grotesque bias in Lehmann’s favor. Aside from Mehretu herself, Stefania Bortolami was the only person who testified for Haye during the trial. “It’s ridiculous,” she told me. “Poor, poor billionaire Jean-Pierre Lehmann didn’t get all the Mehretus he wanted—like the one that’s now at MoMA—and Christian, who is one of the very few black dealers in the entire art world, and one whose program is strongly political, was made to come off as conniving scum.”

The opening was packed; collectors buzzed incessantly. The exhibition consists of fifty medium-to-large-scale works on paper; the more complex ones look like smaller versions of Mehretu’s paintings, reveling in skeins of topographic and calligraphic lines that imply, however indirectly, some sociopolitical comment on our perilous global situation. The pencil drawings are rather more intimate. “Money on the wall!” as a dry-as-bones German curator of my acquaintance would say, but very handsome all the same. Lehmann’s lawyers attempted to prevent the exhibition but this time the judge disagreed. A swank blond hairdresser who had come along with a sassy art consultant said of one pencil drawing, “That looks like a really dirty pussy.” The consultant shrieked at me, “I didn’t say that! Don’t you dare use my name or I’ll cut your balls off.”

The party was held in a tent erected on the roof of the Hudson Hotel; a helpful sign directed guests to “Julie Mehretu’s apartment tent.” Not your usual gallery event: At least half of the guests were not white people! I went outside to the terrace for a smoke, where I immediately found myself in the company of P.S. 1’s Alanna Heiss and Klaus Biesenbach, two of the minds behind “Greater New York 2005,” which I gave a tepid review in the current issue of Artforum. It was slightly but not terribly awkward, as Alanna assured me she had read my review, but passed on making excessively pointed comments. Biesenbach was the picture of cordiality but appeared almost sheepish. “Oh, I haven’t read your review, David,” he remarked repeatedly. “Don’t,” Alanna insisted. “I have.”

Inside, Heiss exuded conviviality, introducing me to Mickalene Thomas, a painter whose work I had admired in “GNY 2005”; Thomas then invited me to meet her friend Deborah Grant, another painter featured in the P.S. 1 behemoth. We’re having fun. I regaled them with the tale of yet another “GNY 2005” artist who, definitely in his cups, complained that Thelma Golden was an influential black curator who ran the Studio Museum in Harlem—historically a neighborhood with a substantial African-American population—and yet one who only wore black Prada clothes. The unintentionally cuckoo humor inherent in this critique of Golden’s attire wasn’t lost on Thomas and Grant. “How is she supposed to dress,” Thomas queried, laughing. “In Kente cloth robes with a huge African head wrap, like Erykah Badu?”