Stone Circle

Calistoga, CA

Left: Power Plant director Gregory Burke with Norah Stone. Right: 1301PE director Amy Divila with Matthew Linnell.

Weekend weather reports predicted haze from a thousand Northern California forest fires, but the air was surprisingly clear the Saturday before last on the drive to the famous-for-the-waters town of Calistoga in Napa Valley. There was, however, a bit of static when we pulled up at the gate of Stonescape, the weekend getaway vineyard and art compound of collectors Norman and Norah Stone. Our arrival was followed by a guest-list discrepancy, an overzealous security guard, and a parking snafu, but thankfully the vibe softened once we boarded the shuttle bus, which a friendly driver maneuvered up the short, winding road to the property. “Don’t look down,” he facetiously warned—the pavement barely accommodated the vehicle. He dropped us off on the idyllic grounds: hillsides with rows of grapevines, a spiffed-up farmhouse, and, to the left, the arched entrance to what is called the “Art Cave.”

Sporting a vibrant pantsuit and a large gold necklace that splayed in a full half circle over her collar, Norah Stone stood at the unofficial bus stop, greeting us warmly before sending us on a tour of the cave with Thea Westreich Art Advisory rep Suzanne Modica. “You really must check out the Turrell,” Stone added, pointing to an infinity pool in which seemed to float a large white cube.

Modica lead us through the glass doors into a vaulted chamber of the cave, where we encountered Caged tool #1 (hammer drill), an appropriately titled sculpture by Monica Bonvicini, which was surrounded by Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Magazine Station n. 2, Receiving Station, a gauzy curtain in rainbow shades that serendipitously reminded us that it was gay-pride weekend in San Francisco. Though separate works, Modica noted that the sculptures were first displayed together at Basel, and so they remained linked. As she took us farther into the 5,750-square-foot space, the architectural achievement was apparent. Designed by Bade Stageberg Cox and constructed from scratch by experts in subterranean building, the Cave is the realization of the Stones’ desire to reenvision the common subterranean wine chamber as a white-walled gallery with few right angles and a ceiling that artfully (and bafflingly) integrates lighting and sound. “Norman was very concerned that it not be echoey,” Modica relayed. Indeed, we could barely hear another small group (comprising collectors and SF MoMA art conservators) nearby.

Left: Dealer John Berggruen with collector Norah Stone. Right: A view of James Turrell's Stone Sky. (All photos: Drew Altizer)

Farther on were a group of Mike Kelley sculptures and photographs, along with John Baldessari’s A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation, an early text work that gains new elements each time it’s exhibited. We then passed an arrangement of Serras, Judds, and an elaborate recent work by Keith Tyson. A bar was set up just outside, and I was poured a glass of the Stones’ own AZS Cabernet—actually quite delicious. (Norman later announced that only fifty-six cases were produced that year.) Numerous black-clad servers offered one flavorful appetizer after another as we toured the property’s renovated 1887 old farmhouse. It’s modest in scale, though ennobled by some stellar examples of midcentury Scandinavian furniture, Campana Brothers chairs, a guest room filled with Cady Nolands, and a Sherrie Levine “Walker Evans” by the bathroom.

The grounds featured some spare, inventive landscaping, and the gradual arrival of other guests strolling through made the place look like a California update of Last Year at Marienbad. From the perspective of the farmhouse, I could see a bikini-clad woman—the Stones’ yoga instructor—standing at the edge of the Turrell pool. “There are disposable bathing suits in the changing rooms,” Modica noted, adding that sunset is the best viewing time. But that was at least an hour away, leaving ample time to imagine the social anxiety of swimming with a high-powered culture set—dealer John Berggruen, SF MoMA director Neil Benezra, Gagosian’s Andy Avini, and former Dwell editor Allison Arieff among them.

Left: Collector Gordon Freund with SF MoMA trustee Chara Schreyer. Right: Dealer Lucien Terras with Sabine Spahn.

While chatting with LACMA curator Leslie Jones, who is organizing a forthcoming Baldessari retrospective, we were gently alerted that dinner was served—an impressive buffet of burgers (beef, turkey, rock shrimp, black bean) and summer salads. As we ate, Norman and Norah passed a microphone back and forth to tell their guests (perhaps a hundred of us in all) of the arduous experience of building the cave—storms, potential collapse, brave workers—and to remind us that we really shouldn’t miss the Turrell. “The water’s ninety degrees,” Norman announced.

Pleasantly sated at dusk, I ambled down to the compact men’s changing room, which was filled with elder collectors in various states of undress. (“I think they enjoy putting us in awkward situations,” one of them deadpanned.) I donned a paper swimsuit—snug and slightly waxy—and dove into the warm water. Entering Stone Sky requires some underwater maneuvering that one guest wittily likened to emulating Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure. I surfaced inside what looked to be a large square sauna cross-bred with a planetarium laser-light show. There, I encountered Norman Stone, LA MoCA director Jeremy Strick (who had toted his eyeglasses in a waterproof Ziploc bag), photographer Marion Brenner, artists Jimmy Raskin and Deborah Cox, and a few other nearly naked folks whose names I didn’t catch. The shared experience of getting inside made for a surprisingly democratic social space, and we splashed, conversed, and quietly looked upward, losing ourselves in the work’s eye-tickling color cycles and the warm Napa Valley night.

Left: Ava Benezra, SF MoMA director Neal Benezra, LA MoCA director Jeremy Strick, and Wendy Strick. Right: SF MoMA trustee Michael Wilsey and Bobbie Wilsey.

Left: Artist Jimmy Raskin with Thea Westreich's Suzanne Modica. Right: Architect Martin Cox with collector Norman Stone.

Left: Chad Tingley with Gagosian's Andy Avini. Right: Writers Bryan Burkhart and Allison Arieff.