Chance Meeting

New York

Left: Artists Agathe Snow and Rita Ackermann. Right: Whitney Biennial curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin. (All photos: David Velasco)

On Easter Sunday, for the final Whitney Biennial performance at the Park Avenue Armory, bewigged artists Rita Ackermann (frizzy blond bob) and Agathe Snow (Orange Crush Afro) hosted a much-buzzed-about “gypsy-themed feast, in which . . . the guests themselves become materials in the work of art.” Titled Abat-Jour, the piece “refers to bajour,” explained the Whitney website, “the traditional gypsy confidence game. Using barter and chance as central themes, Ackermann and Snow explore issues related to gender, community, and celebration.” Softly humming Cher’s classic ditty “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” I entered the Armory ready for fortune-telling, swindling, and, as advertised, vintage Dom Pérignon. You know, an art-world dinner.

In case you haven’t been, the Armory is a paragon of the American Aesthetic Movement and a veritable moose Treblinka loaded with mounted game, arcane club rooms, memorial plaques, busts and oil portraits of military types, lavish paneling, Tiffany flourishes, and, on two of the top floors, a women’s shelter (!). On the bottom two, behind peek-a-boo blackout curtains, a Biennial art piece was installed in each room. Most seemed to be plugged-in gadgets of some sort.

Reached through these anachronistic halls, the mise-en-scène of the dinner was Fellini-esque: a lo-o-ong table dramatically beached in the middle of the Drill Hall, a vaulted, cavernous space the size of a football field. Along with the champagne glasses, the bar area started to overflow with the art-slash-fashion “community,” as the hostesses and their helpers cavorted giddily in gypsyish frocks and head scarves, hugged guests, and posed for pictures.

Left: C&M Media's Angela Mariani with Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal. Right: Jessica Weiner and Danielle Weiner with Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen.

You know, sometimes you just don’t feel like chatting. But the great thing about these events is that everyone there is a pro: They wouldn’t show up to such a thing if they weren’t willing to work, so they’re always ready to meet you halfway in the chat department. I adjusted my social autopilot and scanned the room: the Three as Four guy, a wee Bob Dylan gadding about in a cape; Björk, cute and tiny in a not-flattering vintage-y silvery dress; the Soy Bomb guy, Michael Portnoy, in a dandyish suit; Biennial curators Henriette Huldisch and Shamim Momin. Jeffrey Deitch, always dapper, with his signature cat-that-ate-the-canary expression, surveyed the scene approvingly. Cynthia Rowley admitted she was nervous. (“We’re expected to perform?” she asked.) Artist Rob Pruitt had news: He had ridden a mitzvah tank from Grand Street to Saint Mark’s Place doing shots for Purim last week with the Lubavitchers (“They were cute!”). On her way in, Yvonne Force Villareal looked gypsy glam in a fur jacket and head scarf, purposefully schlepping some bags.

The “feast,” food-wise, was kinda gross (to this vegetarian) but mercifully sporadic (pig rolls, sweets, tasteless cocktail pumpernickel with spread I later found out was chicken fat and aioli. Blech). There was an open bottle of Dom Pérignon at every place setting. A whimsical centerpiece of Hummel-esque and crafty tchotchkes was scattered along the length of the table. When I saw an esteemed colleague glide by coolly eying which ones to pocket, I quickly slipped a crude ceramic ornament into my purse, signed: HOME SWEET HOME, LOVE BERNARD.

Manic facilitators in Rhoda Morgenstern head scarves periodically rushed around the feasters. Wildly emoting, they waved cue cards: LOOK AROUND YOU!, YELL!, CHANGE SEATS!, and, finally (inspiring my favorite image of the evening—Yvonne Force standing on the table in her fur, kerchief, and best hostess smile, hollering), GET THE HELL OUT! People were tipsy enough to oblige—the “interactive” part—but it felt contrived. If art is the constant process of emptying stuff out, mused my inner geek, it is nevertheless possible to experience bogus absurdity. Beyond the random seating (each guest drew a card deeming them a SWAN, a DOLPHIN, or a SHE-WOLF and was placed accordingly), if this was supposed to be about “bartering and chance” and “issues related to gender, community, and celebration,” then maybe that was the swindle? One smarty-pants observed: “It all seems like some sort of cynical comment on Rirkrit Tiravanija's dinners. I wonder if buzz and no content is simply the donnée these days. Curse you Warhol.” I was disappointed there was no tea-leaf reading. But on the plus side, my pockets weren’t picked!

Rhonda Lieberman

Left: Designer Cynthia Rowley. Right: Rivington Arms's Melissa Bent, artist Marina Rosenfeld, and Ange from Three as Four.

Left: A roasted pig. Right: A view of the table.

Left: Artists Rob Pruitt and Josh Smith. Right: Artist Will Cotton.

Left: Artist Nate Lowman. Right: Dealer Javier Peres.

Left: Art Production Fund's Casey Fremont and Mike Skinner. Right: IBID Projects's Vita Zaman.