THE VEIL OF THE DOWNTURN covers everything these days, especially parties, typically good barometers of both mood and money. Moments after arriving last Saturday at Norah and Norman Stone’s summer soiree at their Napa Valley weekend home, someone told me that the number of RSVPs to the party had exceeded expectations. No doubt this was a reflection of a “staycation” summer (a casual assessment of the group’s demographics confirmed that suspicion), but it had the odd, and welcome, effect of adding a good shot of conviviality to what easily could have been a staid art-world affair. It’s funny how pleasant people can be when they’re not making money. How refreshing it was, too, that not once during this warm evening of eating, drinking, swimming, and art viewing did I hear mention of the Venice Biennale.
Nearly two hundred guests flocked to the town of Calistoga to catch the second installation of works in the Stones’ “Art Cave”—a full-fledged gallery bored into the side of a wooded hill; most of those who came from distant cities were probably taking advantage of cheap flights, though some had enjoyed a leisurely drive up the coast from Los Angeles. Angelenos made up a sizable portion of the party, with dealers such as Marc Foxx, Rodney Hill, Lisa Overduin, and Kristina Kite; curators like Shamim Momin and LA MoCA’s Paul Schimmel; and artist Sterling Ruby, who has work in the cave, in attendance. Walker Art Center director Olga Viso flew in from Minneapolis, apparently to check in with members of her board, many of whom have Valley homes. Chicago dealer Rowley Kennerk showed up for the weekend, and there were even a few San Francisco dealers, including Claudia Altman-Siegel, Chris Perez of Ratio 3, Margaret Tedesco of 2nd Floor Projects, and Matthew Marks West Coast director Sabrina Buell. SF MoMA was well represented, with nearly the entire curatorial staff present, as well as director Neal Benezra, who planned to spend the next day bicycling. It was more of a question of who wasn’t there.
If it was any strain to accommodate the larger crowd, the hosts didn’t let it show. They happily greeted everyone as they alighted, in small groups, on golf-cart shuttles from the parking area. Norah, dressed in a 1960s mod dress and shimmering silver leggings, was posing for pictures with a large group when we arrived. She paused to suggest we pick up one of the thirty-eight-page gallery guides. “Go see the art,” she urged.
The works inside the cave—a cross between a subway tunnel and a Chelsea superspace—were mostly by younger artists working in scrappy mode, with inexpensive materials and unmonumental swagger. A Buren-like Styrofoam and MDF sculpture by Canadian artist Scott Lyall was gilded with a few gold sequins and flattened muffin cups placed on the floor. One work by Sean Paul featured a balloon tethered to a shrink-wrapped stack of Paris Match magazine.
With a few exceptions (Jorge Pardo, Jamie Isenstein . . . not to mention the deceased), nearly all the artists were in attendance, and everyone had the opportunity to chat over mojitos, wine, and oysters, either on a lawn down the hill or by the pool, which itself consists of two James Turrell structures titled Stone Sky. The pathway to the cocktails was accented with an audio piece by Alex Waterman, a series of speakers sunk into the earth that broadcast the recorded sounds of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, bringing a little city to the bucolic wine country. (In a performance later in the evening, he added live cello accompaniment.)
It all made for a picturesque backdrop when we sat down to dinner—local, seasonal, natch—at a really long table adjacent to a field of lavender and in view of the vineyards. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there, chattering in the gloaming. Artist Frances Stark, who had happened to be at a family reunion in the area, was experiencing some pleasant culture shock. “A few hours ago I was hanging out with my relatives drinking Buds,” she told me, wide-eyed. While conversations occasionally meandered toward the art, most attendees dispensed with even the pretenses of loftier discourse and instead expanded on the easy icebreaker: “Are you going swimming?” The hosts’ changing rooms were well stocked with toiletries and paper swimsuits and monogrammed bathing caps, but it wasn’t always an easy sell. Having taken the plunge last year, I tried my best to persuade the timid; it was not only a wonderful visual experience (for viewing the night sky) but also a democratizing social scenario. Nothing beats seeing a major collector in a one-piece.
Perhaps the naysayers were softened by the wine (the Stones’ own impressive 2005 Cabernet) and the warm night, or maybe it was the desire to forget about the recession, but by 10 PM the pool was well populated with people who, over dinner, had said they wouldn’t dare. Inside the watery Turrell I ran into Altman-Siegel, Buell, and Perez, each of whom had given in and gone with the flow. They quizzed Norman Stone on the finer points of the installation. “You’ll never see a truer black,” Stone said, pointing to the perfect square of night sky. Outside, DJs (and artists) Jimmy Raskin and Cheyney Thompson drew both the bathing-suited and the fully clothed to the patio-cum–dance floor. By midnight, when I headed back to the shuttle, the crowd had thinned to a lively core of guests who clearly had better things to do than worry about tomorrow.