Friends with Benefits


Left: Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick with artist Gillian Wearing. Right: Artists Sophie Calle and Damien Hirst. (All photos: Richard Strange)

“It was like a bomb site three weeks ago,” said Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick. “If it hadn’t been for the generosity and punctuality of the artists, we’d have been nowhere. Even Lucian Freud promptly turned in his wonderful work, The Painter’s Garden, and he's notoriously hard to pin down. Back in 1987, Nick Serota held a seminal charity auction when he had my job. The chairman at the time told Nick that he wouldn’t be able to pay his wages, so an auction was the only way to go. This year’s auction will raise funds for an endowment to secure the gallery’s future.”

Last week, I attended the preview of the Whitechapel auction, titled “Defining the Contemporary,” where Blazwick, along with curators Bettina von Hase, Bina von Stauffenberg, Andrea Tarsia, Jack Kirkland, and Candy Stobbs, had installed the sixty-one spectacular pieces that will go on the block at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street on October 13. They hope to raise 2.5 million to supplement the 7.5 million already harvested for the gallery’s expansion and thus replenish the public space’s dwindling endowment. The disused Passmore Edwards Library, located right next door and the site for of the Dia Foundation–inspired development, played host to the exhibition and dinner. The library has a fine East End history: It was used in the early twentieth century as a meeting space for the Jewish artists and intellectuals—sculptor Jacob Epstein, painter David Bomberg, and poet Isaac Rosenberg—who laid the foundations of British modernism.

Downstairs were parquet floors, crumbling cornices, and much art-star spectacle. Tracey Emin arrived in tracksuit bottoms and talked a great deal, but had to “get off to the Holbein,” which was opening at Tate Britain. Damien Hirst, who was given one of his first serious exhibitions by Blazwick at the ICA, paid back the favor by donating Raffinose Undecaacetate, 2006—an enormous dot painting likely to fetch upward of 500,000. He dropped by in his current trademark, a black leather jacket studded with a diamante skull. He seems to be maintaining a more, shall we say, sober image by leaving most parties before they’ve begun. Richard Wilson looked in, too, but was opening his own exhibition at the Barbican the next night and so had to return there to tweak the installation of “my black cab, my burger stand, and my rotating caravan.” He explained, “They wouldn’t let me cut any holes through the Barbican walls, so I’m cutting holes through my own black cab.” Artist Gillian Wearing, dealer Nicholas Logsdail, and Sotheby’s dynamic contemporary team—Cheyenne Westphal, Oliver Barker, and Francis Outred—also showed up to keep an eye on the proceedings.

Left: Artist Gary Webb with dealer Jake Miller. Right: “Defining the Contemporary” curators Bettina von Hase and Bina von Stauffenberg.

Von Hase, of the Nine AM organization, was astounded by the munificence of the donations. “Gary Hume surprised us all by calling very early to say his painting was ready. Peter Doig offered his painting early on—it’s a thing of such exquisite beauty. Albert Oehlen made an early promise, as did Rachel Whiteread and Damien Hirst. They were all locomotives for us.”

Indeed, Doig’s first snow painting, Charley’s Space, 1991, is an exceptional donation. He kept it for himself but has now given it back. Not only does it “have great significance for us,” said the museum director, but it “marks the beginning of one of the most innovative and important projects in contemporary painting.” Doig clearly regards the work as one of his most important pieces; he borrowed its title for a 2003 exhibition of his paintings at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.

Upstairs at around 9 PM, a roast-chicken dinner was served on three long tables for two hundred chattering donors, curators, dealers and other supporters in the low-lit old reading room, still lined with dusty, dog-eared books. No place names meant the dinner was informal and slightly chaotic, a refreshing change from the hierarchical nature of many London social affairs. Wolfgang Tillmans (“Wait, don’t take a picture of me in front of the Hirst”), Paul Noble, Gary Webb, and Oehlen stayed on for the three Perrier Jout–inflected courses that culminated in Blazwick’s appreciative speech. Most agreed that she had gathered an extraordinary range of stand-alone pieces with the kind of integrity rarely found in charity auctions. The Heritage Lottery Fund gave the initial 3.67 million to get the ball rolling so, without a single reference to the hotly speculative booming art market, we merrily thanked God for gambling.

Left: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans. Right: Artist Mark Wallinger.

Left: Artist Tracey Emin. Right: Artists Rachel Whiteread and Richard Wilson.

Left: Curator Sigrid Williams and dealer Fred Mann. Right: Artists Zatorski & Zatorski.

Laura K. Jones