Canaan Ball

New Canaan, CT

Left: A view of Philip Johnson's Glass House. Right: Artist Frank Stella. (All photos: Patrick McMullan)

Last Saturday, A-list arts patrons, the usual Whit Stillman–esque twentysomethings, and a smattering of artists and architects descended on New Canaan, Connecticut, to celebrate the public opening of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. The exclusive (and expensive) gala picnic doubled as a fund-raiser, with the goal of purchasing several acres north of the property, thereby preserving the Glass House’s famous view. “Two McMansions were slated to be built on that hill,” announced Christy MacLear, executive director of the property, in her welcoming address. “Not on our watch,” she added to scattered applause. But by then most everyone had already settled down to their picnics, rummaging through the goodies—which included breadboards emblazoned with the designer's signature—provided in their official wicker baskets. Entrance to the much-hyped event came at a cost. (Well worth it: Tours of the property are already booked through 2007.) When an eccentric gentleman apologized at the entrance for arriving without a “ticket” (a Ryan Kundrat sterling and rubber necklace/bracelet designed specifically for the event and already billed a “must-have” by Fashion Week Daily), a young man in a polo shirt shot back, “Then you don’t get in.” “Five hundred dollars right here,” he boasted, clutching his choker.

Picnic blankets dotted the estate from Johnson’s Lake Pavilion to his Sculpture Gallery, but the majority of the five hundred guests colonized the large field adjacent to the Glass and Guest Houses, where two platforms had been erected for a performance by Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The crowd finally focused when the company’s fourteen dancers, clad in mud browns and beige, filed from the Guest House onto the stage. The forty-five minute “Event,” a collage, for the most part, of earlier performances, was accompanied by three composers stationed at the sound booth. The music, a mix of sampled sounds, instrumentals, and electronic noise, which the dancers were hearing for the first time, was at one point overlaid with the metronomic barking of a male dancer—and one of Agnes Gund’s dogs. When I asked Cunningham (at the dancers’ after-party, held at the nearby Calluna Farms, the turn-of-the-century respite of Johnson’s partner, David Whitney, from the Glass House’s uncompromising high modernism) whether he had previously staged a performance on the premises, he paused, then responded, “Yes. Well, forty years ago.” He proceeded (rather remarkably) to detail the exact location of that earlier performance (a small stage by the House), the size of the troupe (eight dancers), the duration (thirty minutes), and the musical accompaniment (David Tudor).

Left: Collector Christophe de Menil. Right: Artist Jasper Johns, Christy MacLear, executive director of Philip Johnson's Glass House, and writer Francine du Plessix Gray.

After the performance, guests were invited to wander the forty-seven-acre estate. I caught up with architect Maya Lin in the earth-berm Painting Gallery, where the outsize “Rolodex” walls had been rotated to reveal a row of Stellas, a sort of royal flush made all the more salient by the artist’s presence at the event. Lin recalled her last visit to the House, with Frank Gehry, when she was most struck by the quiet of the place. “To see it so populated—that’s the biggest difference.” But, she surmised, “he must have had big parties; it’s perfect for this kind of thing.” Artist David Diao, volunteer docent for the day, kept watch over the works on view, pointing out that the stone used in the gallery was the same as that from which Johnson’s Bobst Library (at NYU) was constructed—and that the pink granite used for the AT&T building cropped up elsewhere on the estate. When I asked whether Johnson was frugally picking up scrap, Diao joked, “It’s whatever fell off the truck.”

I ran into architect Paul Lewis along the forested path to the lake. “Most of the people I recognize are journalists—I’ve seen maybe six architects,” he observed before lowering his voice mock conspiratorially and directing my attention toward “not Johnson’s best sculpture”—a monolithic concrete tower dedicated to Johnson’s friend the poet (and patron) Lincoln Kirstein, which rose above the trees like a failed game of Tetris. The structure, a “staircase to nowhere” inspired by the choreography of Balanchine, seemed quite the attraction, as several privileged youths clambered up its back side. But the moment New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff and painter Cecily Brown approached the first step, a woman in the Glass House uniform of straw hat and fanny pack boomed: “We ask that you not climb the sculpture!” scattering the crowd of unruffled strollers. Gone are the days when Johnson would lead guests halfway to its summit. Besides allaying fears of broken socialite ribs and reconstructive surgery bills, the climbing ban might also protect one of the Glass House’s secrets—an inscription to Kirstein at the sculpture’s pinnacle reserved for the viewer’s eyes alone.

Michael Wang

Left: A performance by Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Right: Artist Cecily Brown and New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff.