Magic Mike

Dawn Chan at a benefit for the Watermill Art Center

Left: Collector Lisa Anastos with artist and Watermill Art Center founder Robert Wilson. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman and musician Lou Reed. (All photos: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan)

HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED that whenever the leisure class receives its comeuppance, the women get the worst of it? Just ask Marie Antoinette, or Imelda Marcos, or the women who braved downpours to attend the Watermill Center’s annual summer benefit in the Hamptons. Thanks to the rain that just wouldn’t let up, we were at a severe disadvantage—“we” being those of us with hair that could deflate, eyeliner that could dribble, and heels that sank directly into the muddy grounds. (And have you ever noticed that men’s dress shoes are practically rain boots?) As guests made their way up stairs to the Watermill Center itself, cutting through waist-high grasses and tiki lamps, and then traversing the building’s front hall, the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida played on loop. “Is this a joke?” said one girl in stilettos, eyeing the cobblestoned floor.

The silent-auction tent was big enough to shelter everyone, and so we all huddled together, but convivially, and drank, and watched performances: Out on the plaza, artist Heeran Lee, wielding a leaf blower, inflated a giant white balloon and then kept it hovering in the air, for one drawn-out moment, before it popped. Meanwhile, Paula Garcia had put on a full-body suit of magnetic armor, and her assistants were pelting fistfuls of scrap metal at her that collected on her torso and transformed her into a rusted junkyard scarecrow. “Maybe that’s a signal that she’s had enough,” someone observed, when her carapace began to writhe around, somewhat stiffly, looking ready to topple over.

“The dress code’s just for women, not men,” said dealer Joel Mesler, explaining why his understated getup didn’t personify the evening’s theme, “The Big Bang Is Pop.” Performance artist and singer Kembra Pfahler had opted for red body paint, author Jay McInerney for a blue pin-striped blazer. The crowd included Dorothy Lichtenstein and Bob Colacello, Klaus Biesenbach and Stefano Tonchi. James Franco wasn’t there, but he had a piece in the silent auction.

Left: Artist Paula Garcia. Right: Artist Heeran Lee.

“I’m going to sue.” A paparazzo lingered under an umbrella in the middle of the forest, beyond the tent, where various sculptures and tableaux vivants were situated among the trees. He had arrived in search of Hollywood, to no avail, and so contemplated “throwing in the towel”—heading back to New York. Besides, it was about time: “All the cool kids come for the cocktails. The old fogeys stay for dinner.”

Dinner took place in a separate tent. Installed in its center was a multistory-high, cotton candy–like form: inflated translucent-white garbage bags tied together by pink streamers.

“Now, I would like my wife to bid because I really like this work,” said auctioneer Simon de Pury into a mic. It was the live-auction portion of the evening, and de Pury was peddling a scratched ink-jet print by Jim Hodges. “And you’re allowed to bid against my wife.” A de Kooning charcoal, up next, went for $55K.

The evening would have been your typical (if rainier) version of the annual fund-raiser, except for one odd, heartfelt addition: a mini-retrospective of works by artist Mike Kelley in the Watermill’s south wing, many of which were being shown in the US for the first time. Curator-collector Harald Falckenberg had rounded up everything from audio tracks by the Poetics (Kelley’s band with Tony Oursler) to his video Heidi (with Paul McCarthy) to the sculptural models he made of Kandor, Superman’s home. Ambitious for its nonprofit venue, the exhibition nonetheless confined itself to mostly video, avoiding the performances, and the rooms full of detritus, wax, and stuffed animals that littered his oeuvre.

Left: Curator and collector Harald Falckenberg. Right: Writer Jay McInerney.

“It’s so sad,” said RoseLee Goldberg, pausing between Kelley’s videos of Kandor. And if the show was poignant, it wasn’t just because viewers were reminded of his tragic end but also because one began to see—or perhaps hallucinate—traces of his dark, spirited, and outre sense of play throughout the evening’s variety of installations and performances, whether in Misaki Kawai’s cartoonishly costumed performers or in Desi Santiago’s magenta neon-tube outline of the rear end of a dog or in Kitty Huffmann’s tableau vivant—a man and woman, both in red satin hoop skirts and black corset jackets, pulling each other’s long braided hair. As curator Noah Khoshbin said: “In some ways everyone tied into Kelley, but that is enviable given his diverse practice.”

Watermill founder Robert Wilson had proposed the Kelley show to Center board members Bill Campbell and Roger Ferris. “They told me, ‘You can’t afford to do this.’ And I said, ‘We can’t afford not to do this.’ ” He also brought up Paul Thek, who was friends with Kelley and whose Big Bang painting inspired the evening’s theme. “I was with [Thek] when he died,” said Wilson. “He said to me: Take care of Mike Kelley.”

Left: Harry Brant. Right: Revelers at the afterparty.