Sin and Redemption

New York

Left: Dealer Gavin Brown. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Collector Aby Rosen with artist Tom Sachs. (Photo: Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan)

People tend to use the word transformative to distinguish art from anything that isn’t. In art itself, after all, it’s not always easy to tell. That’s a good thing. Art needs ambiguity. Yet it was another, even more evangelical term that kept popping up during the tony events scheduled around New York’s spring modern and Impressionist auctions last week, when that roving band of tragedy and privilege called the art world threatened not just to transform but to “redeem” itself from all that falls at its feet.

Thursday night, PaceWildenstein saved face at the somewhat compromised opening of Zhang Huan’s exhibition, which was divided between the gallery’s two Chelsea venues. At the Twenty-fifth Street location, the Chinese art star had installed a furry, brown, and pregnant fifteen-foot-tall simianlike figure (apparently a surrogate for China) with a smaller cub (apparently a surrogate for the artist) portraying the monkey on its back. There seemed to be blood on it. The Twenty-second Street space, to which I traveled in one of the pedicabs supplied by the gallery, had an even more colossal, five-by-twenty-foot gray slab made of Zhang’s medium of choice: compressed incense ash collected from temples all over China. I had initially assumed the firemen on the street were part of the show, but the sweet smell of smoke soon made it clear that something was actually burning inside—incense, of course, but enough of it to set off alarms. Unfortunately, among the restive crowd of swells impatiently waiting at the door, there were no altercations, only exhalations of hushed reverence once the fire chief was satisfied that the building was not burning down and no terrorist had planted a bomb. A VIP line quickly formed at a side door for collectors, who were admitted ahead of the hoi polloi and who viewed the slab from a catwalk built high above it.

What they saw was a young seated woman sliding along a track and dipping a brush into pots of dark or light ash, with which she was reproducing the vintage black-and-white photo, depicting Chinese workers digging a miles-wide canal, that she held in her hand. The work was quite beautiful and hugely ambitious, but it also seemed nauseatingly patriotic, a paean to Maoist socialism. Or perhaps it was just an overstated appreciation of exploited laborers everywhere. In any case, something—perhaps even the heavily incense-scented air—made me queasy, so I hied over to Sperone Westwater, where Tom Sachs had reconstructed the usually dour gallery into a series of theatrically lit, museumlike rooms displaying his latest foamcore, Con Ed–barricade, and burned-wood creations for “Animals,” his best show in years.

Left: Lou Reed with performer Richard Belzer. Right: Artist Zhang Huan. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

I heard more than one person say it would “redeem” Sachs from his pandering to socialites and launch him into the serious art stratosphere. His prices would soar, they said. Women would fall at his feet. Grown men would grow weak in the knees when he appeared. Yet when a rather dazed Sachs showed up later the same evening at Lever House for the socialite-heavy dinner and dance party that collectors Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabe and dealers Thaddaeus Ropac, Richard Edwards, Angela Westwater, and Gian Enzo Sperone threw for him, all he could say was, “Malcolm McClaren is spinning in the other room!” But McClaren, dressed in dark glasses and a cropped gray jacket, was taking a break. “I can’t believe they expect me to follow a wedding band!” he moaned, speaking of the lounge act that was playing in a bar off the lobby.

In fact, most of the 750 Rockefellers, Boardmans, Gugelmans, Gubelmanns, Guinnesses, Loebs, and other Park Avenue princes and princesses stayed in the Lever House plaza, shielded from the street by realistic-looking plastic privet hedges. Buffeted by the likes of John McEnroe, Peter Brant and Stephanie Seymour, Larry Gagosian, Adam Lindemann, and “Johnny” (Jean) Pigozzi, they bent elbows with equally royal downtown bohos like Philip Taaffe, Donald Baechler, Laurie Simmons, Glenn O’Brien, Will Cotton, the Starn Twins, and Hope Atherton. On view, in what Mugrabe told me was a two-million-dollar exhibition, were DieHard-car-battery towers and a bronze skateboarding quarter-pipe in the lobby and Sachs’s signature Hello Kitty sculptures, here redeemed from duct-tape limbo and reproduced, in white-painted bronze, at a sensibly monumental twenty-one feet in height. One rescued the plaza from the sin of Damien Hirst’s monstrous Virgin Mother, which had been removed to make room. The other two, including a weeping Miffy rabbit, were pissing outdoor fountains.

The only time the waters actually parted, however, was when a suitably bronzed Valentino entered with his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, after which they were swallowed by the crowd. Did Valentino own any work by Sachs? “We commissioned a shopping bag a few years ago,” Giammetti said, sounding a bit sheepish. “Perhaps soon we will get an actual piece.”

Left: Dealer Angela Westwater with Samantha Boardman. (Photo: Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan) Right: Dealer Marc Glimcher with a fireman. (Photo: Jason Augustine/Patrick McMullan)

Many of the Lever House guests—along with Lou Reed, Richard Belzer, Elizabeth Peyton, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—showed up the next night at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery for the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” A collaboration between dealer Gavin Brown and artist Urs Fischer, the show was pulled together in just three weeks. Fischer had covered the entire gallery with a startlingly realistic trompe l’oeil wallpaper reproducing the walls, ceiling, ceiling fixtures, and works on view in Shafrazi's most recent group exhibition. For his part, Brown had the floors covered in a white Rudolf Stingel carpet, gathered two dozen actual artworks (formerly in Shafrazi's inventory), hung them on Fischer's wallpaper (versions of which are for sale, made to suit each customer's home or office).

It's the zingiest and most perceptively organized group show so far this year and has the best poster ever: a 1974 tabloid photo of New York's Finest leading a handcuffed, almost unrecognizably young Shafrazi away from the Museum of Modern Art, where he had just sprayed Picasso’s Guernica with the phrase KILL LIES ALL in red paint.

This gesture, though performed as a Vietnam War protest, proved far more effective as an act of self-promotion, apparently qualifying the perp for a storied career in art dealing, while compelling the museum to return the painting to Spain. Some critics have never forgiven him—but this was redemption week, after all, and Shafrazi, whose fame has been somewhat waning, was poised to benefit—and he knew it. His excitement was palpable as he led visitors through the show, encouraging men to drink from Rob Pruitt's site-specific “Viagra Falls” installation along the staircase, shaking his head at the thirteen thousand dollars it cost to ship paintings like Malcolm Morley’s Age of Catastrope from the Broad Foundation, waxing lyrical over Fischer’s Richard Serra wallpaper in the hall, and giddily pointing out the fine points of a room in which Jeff Koons’s polychromed wood Wall Relief with Bird hung over Kenny Scharf wallpaper on a brick wall I didn’t realize was not there until I reached out and found it to be more wallpaper. “It's not often you get to paint over another artist's work,” said Lily van der Stokker of the hot-pink cave she painted around Fischer's Scharf wallpaper in another room.

Left: Sotheby's Lisa Dennison and Tobias Meyer. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Dealer Tony Shafrazi. (Photo: Chance Yeh/ Patrick McMullan)

“Tony’s back!” someone said, as everyone who wasn’t going to the Bowery Hotel, where Luhring Augustine was holding a grown-up dinner for Christopher Wool, jumped into limos headed for the Tribeca Mr. Chow’s and a Peking-duck–and-champagne birthday party for Shafrazi. When it came time for dessert, the reveling Brown stood up on a chair to give a toast. “Growing up in the suburbs of Europe,” he began, “we heard all about Tony Shafrazi.” He called the evening “a dream come true,” told Shafrazi that his guilt was now assuaged and that he was “redeemed,” and presented him with a large cake decorated with a blue-icing facsimile of Guernica. The crowd, which now included Irving Blum, Simon de Pury, Massimiliano Gioni, Andrew and Christine Hall, Anton Kern, Clarissa Dalrymple, and Adam McEwen, hooted and hollered as the cake was wheeled around the room on a gurney and two busty babes clad in leather, cleavage-enhancing motorcycle-cop gear handed Shafrazi a pastry bag containing hot-pink icing and left it to him to vandalize his own cake with the graffito I AM SORRY—NOT. Jerry Saltz, a longtime unbeliever in Shafrazi, anointed the moment “historic.”

A hard act to follow, though Lisa Dennison gave it her all on Saturday night, with a sophisticated and delicious family-style dinner (catered by Craft) for Cindy Sherman at Sotheby's, which is offering her Untitled (A, B, C, D, E), 1975, a five-part work estimated to bring sixty to eighty thousand in its afternoon sale on Thursday. The second of two artist dinners Dennison organized to promote a sale since leaving the Guggenheim for the auction house (the first featured Ellsworth Kelly), it brought out a crowd of about one hundred, including heavyweight collectors like Don and Mera Rubell, Marieluise Hessel, and Christophe de Menil (none of whom are known for buying or selling at auction) plus Blum and the Broad Foundation’s Joanne Hyler (who most definitely are) plus Thelma Golden (could she be in line for Dennison’s old job?) and a smattering of longtime Sherman cohorts like Louise Lawler and Betsy Berne.

Why did Sherman agree to such a dog-and-pony act? “I think it's creepy,” said Metro Pictures’ Helene Winer. Sherman shrugged. “It seemed like it might be a nice way to have a party for some friends,” she said and noted that, because the art on the surrounding walls was for the evening sale and didn’t include hers, “It doesn’t really feel like this dinner is about me.” She was right. “Don’t you feel like maybe you’ve died and no one bothered to tell you?” Don Rubell joked. “It’s a very clever promotion,” said Mera. Dennison called it “a dream come true.” I guess, unlike some of us, she had already been redeemed.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Collectors Mera and Don Rubell with artist Cindy Sherman. Right: Malcolm McLaren. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: NV Investment's Vivi Nevo with actress Zhang Ziyi. (Photo: Chance Yeh/Patrick McMullan) Right: Valentino with Giancarlo Giammetti. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Artist Hope Atherton. Right: Tony Shafrazi with critic Jerry Saltz. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Right: Collector Alberto Mugrabi and John McEnroe. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Artist Christopher Wool. Right: Collectors Marieluise Hessel and Warren Eisenberg. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac with literary agent David Kuhn. (Photo: Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan) Right: Artist Louise Lawler. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Investor Richard Evans with art adviser Kim Heirston. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Lance Armstrong. (Photo: Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan)

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch and New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni. Right: Metro Pictures's Helene Winer. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Writer Dodie Kazanjian and artist Francesco Vezzoli. Right: Collector Jean Pigozzi. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. Right: Artist Eli Sudbrack. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Artist Rob Pruitt. Right: Artist Donald Baechler. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Artist Larry Clark. Right: Dealer Gian Enzo Sperone. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: T magazine editor Stefano Tonchi and artist Ross Bleckner. Right: Artist Fred Wilson. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)