Before the Deluge

Arles, France, and Los Angeles

Left: Artist Doug Aitken and LUMA Foundation founder Maja Hoffmann. Right: Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

IN MID-OCTOBER, after head-in-the-sand weeks spent at multiple art fairs, it felt natural to seek a little R&R in the country. For me, that country was France—specifically the south of France, and the Provençal city of Arles. I arrived just ahead of other refugees from Frieze London and FIAC, for an October 20th performance by Terry Riley premiering Doug Aitken’s Altered Earth: Arles, City of Moving Images, a gift to the town from collector Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Foundation.

The following Saturday night, still exhilarated by this experience of art, music, and patronage, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held its second annual Art + Film Gala. This soiree, a fundraiser that feted both Ed Ruscha and the late Stanley Kubrick, attracted so many megawatt Hollywood stars that it virtually preempted Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party. And then some.

I was planning to report on these two exceptional diversions before returning home to New York. Hurricane Sandy was heading in the same direction, so I left LA before I could gather my thoughts. By Tuesday, the 30th, the destructive storm had laid waste to a number of galleries in Chelsea, which is where I live, and my only thoughts were of my neighbors.

The events in Arles and LA seemed to have happened on a strange, dry planet I visited only in a dream. Yet both were real and a lot of honest work went into each. Now, with Chelsea in recovery from its near-death experience, I’m turning back the pages of my diary to the days before the deluge, hoping to find the sort of balance that hindsight can bring.

Left: Musicians Terry Riley and Gyan Riley. Right: Producer Stanley Buchthal and dealer Eva Presenhuber.

FAMOUS FOR SENDING Vincent van Gogh over the edge, Arles has had a more salubrious effect on Aitken. Over the past five years, he’s made numerous trips from LA to gather material for Altered Earth, both an immersive, twelve-screen film installation and a substantial iPad app released the week of the concert. On the afternoon I arrived, a gentle mistral was blowing through the town, past its Roman amphitheater and out through its walls to the seventeen-acre Parc des Ateliers, a remarkable nineteenth-century industrial site abandoned in the 1950s and now a ruin. Within it, Hoffmann plans to build a center for LUMA designed by architect Frank Gehry, pending the approval of local officials. The Aitken-Riley collaboration was part of her campaign to win them over.

The new building, she explained, is actually part of a larger scheme for an art-center complex that will include studios for artists, a research library, exhibition halls, a school, and possibly a Bard College extension. Hoffmann’s hope is that the rejuvenated park will make economically depressed Arles, her hometown, a year-round art destination.

Inside the Grande Halle—a fifty-thousand-square-foot glass and steel shed retrofitted in 2007 as a cultural venue—the white-bearded, seventy-seven-year-old Riley was rehearsing with his son, guitarist Gyan Riley, and the violinist Terry Silverman, while Aitken filmed their movements across four stages within his installation.

Left: Dealer Cristian Alexa with MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci. Right: New Museum director Lisa Phillips with Bard CCS director Tom Eccles and artist Doug Aitken.

Set in roughly circular formation, Aitken’s two fifteen-by-thirty-foot screens created fantastic allées of projected images from the Camargue, the once-endangered delta between the two arms of the Rhône River. (Hoffmann’s father, Luc, now eighty-nine, is a major conservationist who helped found the World Wildlife Fund, turning his vast, Tour du Valat estate into a research center to protect the Mediterranean wetlands.)

“I wanted to see if it was possible to make a conceptual Earthwork,” Aitken said of his project, as scenes of salt flats, windmills, white stallions, black bulls, Roman ruins, World War II bunkers, burning fields, waving poplars, and birds and other wildlife appeared and dissolved into one another on the screens. “And I really got into the experiment.” The Altered Earth app (a free download from contains the same spectacular imagery, along with a millennium-spanning history of the area, essays, maps, and quotes from people living in the region.

“It’s a place of fiction and nonfiction,” Aitken said, as Riley’s music looped through forty speakers positioned around the hall. “The farther out into the Camargue you go, the more extreme and Death Valley–like the landscape gets.”

Left: Chef Armand Arnal. Right: Kunsthaus Zurich curator Bice Curiger with collector Maja Hoffmann and Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Dinner that night was at Villa des Alyscamps, a restored, centuries-old house that Hoffmann keeps as both an office for her foundation and a hotel for guests. The property borders the Saint Honoratus church and its fourth-century Roman necropolis. Stone tombs still line the road leading up to it. “You have to see the crypt,” said Gemma Ponsa, Atiken’s companion. “It’s incredible.”

Under a dark, moonless sky, she led twenty of us—CCS director Tom Eccles, Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf, Serpentine Gallery co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Aitken—through a creaky wooden door in the garden wall and into the necropolis, where Halloween arrived early. With only the light of Ponsa’s iPhone to guide us, we navigated a yawning pit of excavated sarcophagi looted decades before. “This is really creepy,” someone said as we made our halting way back to the candlelit garden. Stepping across the threshold took us from the fifth century to the twenty-first in a back-to-the-future moment that was so stunning it threatened to eclipse the concert.

Left: Kunstalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf. Right: Landscape architect Philippe Cottet, Sotheby's vice president Lisa Dennison, and Centre Pompidou Foundation Executive Director Scott Stover.

Which was awesome. Riley’s romantic music perfectly underscored Aitken’s cinematic love letter to the Camargue, enrapturing an audience of four hundred local citizens who included the mayor of Arles, the director of the Arles Photo Festival, and intrepid art types, Lisa Dennison, Bice Curiger, and Shaun Caley Regen among them.

They were among the two hundred invited to dinner at the back of the hall, where Armand Arnal, the celebrated young chef from La Chassagnette—a Camargue restaurant owned by Hoffmann and her film-producer husband, Stanley Buchthal—was roasting a gigantic pig in a truck parked outside the open door. Every now and then, a train would roar by on the tracks behind it, making the whole scene feel like a movie set. When the pig was done, Arnal’s assistants paraded it through the hall past the applauding diners. After a speech by Hoffmann, delivered in French, to toast the artist and the musicians, thank everyone for coming, and boost her plans for the park, her Gehry building seemed a sure bet.

“When something has been incubating for five years and then comes out, it’s an intense release,” Aitken said, hugging everyone in sight. Riley was just as ebullient. “It was so much fun,” he said. “And the sound was better here than in most symphony halls.”

Left: LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan with consultant Katherine Ross. Right: Dealer Bob Monk with artist John Baldessari.

BY COINCIDENCE, Aitken was the first person I saw a week later at LACMA. “I’m still coming down from Arles,” he said, hiding behind a pole in the BP Pavilion breezeway as a mounting number of Gucci-clad celebrities hit the red carpet beside Chris Burden’s street-lamp promenade, Urban Light. (Gucci was the gala’s sponsor.)

Putting on brave faces for the shrieking paparazzi, the stars kept on coming: Jack Nicholson! Jane Fonda! Warren Beatty! Annette Bening! Diane Keaton! Sean Penn! Robert Pattinson! Ellen Barkin! Slipping by almost unnoticed was John Baldessari, one of the baker’s dozen of visual artists allowed into the $5,000-$10,000-a-plate affair, which raised $3.5 million for the museum.

Barbara Kruger and Cathy Opie were also in the crowd. With Ruscha and Baldessari, they constitute the four recent artist-renegades from the board at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Its director, Jeffrey Deitch, has been vilified (though not by those four artists) for attempting to do what LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan has accomplished with aplomb: bridge the gap between LA’s art and film communities. Once a homely also-ran, LACMA is now the robust, ultra-cool, above-the-title player among its hometown institutions and its gala is one of the city’s top social occasions.

Left: Actors Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. Right: LACMA Board member Carole Bayer Sager and actor Jennifer Aniston.

As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and Govan was clearly in his element as he and his stylish wife, Katherine Ross, greeted the A-listers and trustees like Lynda Resnick and Steve Tisch. Eva Chow worked the room without her no-show co-chair, Leonardo DiCaprio, welcoming industry heavyweights like producer Brian Grazer, superagent (and LACMA trustee) Bryan Lourd, and Disney chief executive Robert Iger.

This year, the event celebrated the green light that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had just given to the museum it will establish in the old May Company building on the LACMA campus. But no one at the cocktail reception was talking about that. Most merely flashed the work of their plastic surgeons, clearly the backbone of the Hollywood set. LACMA Board member Carole Bayer Sager gushed over the enormous rock that the unadulterated Jennifer Aniston snagged from fiancé Justin Theroux. Drew Barrymore, huddling with Cameron Diaz, beamed at her handsome spouse, Will Kopelman. “He’s pretty on the inside too,” she said.

But it wasn’t all show and tell. “I just had the most amazing conversation with Michael Govan about public education,” said Kruger. “Can you believe it—at this event?” Wandering about like fish out of water were the three musicians from Florence and the Machine, the evening’s entertainment—as if the 550, well-practiced guests were not amusing enough.

Left: Agent Bryan Lourd with artist Catherine Opie. Right: Artists Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason.

During the lengthy speech portion of the evening, board chair Terry Semel fumbled through his prepared remarks about Kubrick, drawing unscripted quips from the audience that provided the biggest laughs. “I don’t need a mic,” said Barry Lyndon star Ryan O’Neal. “I’m an actor.” Put on the spot to say something about his work with Kubrick, O’Neal didn’t miss a beat. “If anyone asks you to tell them anything about me… don’t.” Semel, hoping for a personal tribute, reached out to Matthew Modine. “I can’t tell you how many times in the last twenty-seven years I’ve been asked what Kubrick was like,” Modine said. “All I have to say is… none of your goddamn business.”

The laconic Ruscha did well on the podium, but it would be hard to top the guy who came on after that to introduce Stephen Spielberg. “I’m here to talk about a guy who’s going to talk about another guy,” surprise speaker Tom Hanks began. “I’m gonna talk about a guy who is a creative genius who’s going to talk about a creative genius. I’m here to talk about a guy who made the greatest motion pictures of our time, who’s gonna talk about a guy who made the greatest motion pictures of all time.”

Spielberg was the only speaker to give a straightforward tribute to Kubrick, the third in his personal pantheon of directors, with David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock. “I’ve spoken to Stanley on the telephone for longer than I’ve ever spoken to a girlfriend on the telephone,” he said. But he really gave himself away when he admitted to being mystified by all the people who dropped acid and smoked pot to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, apparently unaware that the availability of drugs was one reason such an obviously noncommercial film became a runaway success. “For me, Kubrick was the Beatles,” he concluded. “He was all four Beatles.”

Left: Actors Annette Benning, Warren Beatty, and Tom Hanks with Rita Wilson. Right: Artist Ed Ruscha.

For me, Kubrick was one of the few Hollywood filmmakers who was also an artist through and through. LACMA’s retrospective, which has props, scripts, costumes, photos, cameras, and other memorabilia, doesn’t clue to his genius the way the films do, but it was fun to listen to the filmmaker’s widow, Christiane Kubrick. She began her own speech by giving her unreconstructed age, eighty, and went on to relate what a trial it was to get her late husband to care about the way he dressed. “He was a lovely mess,” she said, before revealing the step-by-step process he employed to make 2001 at his kitchen table at home, before computers did all the special effects.

If only Hurricane Sandy had been such a construct. But then came the flood, and suddenly everything before seemed like science fiction.

Linda Yablonsky

Terry Riley performs in Doug Aitken’s Altered Earth: Arles, City of Moving Images.

Left: Artist Stan Douglas with production designer Patti Podesta. Right: China Chow.

Left: Jane Fonda. Right: Kira Viola and artist Bill Viola.

Left: Richard Buckley with Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Right: Actor Ellen Barkin.

Left: Actor Matthew Modine with Vogue LA contributor Lisa Love. Right: Singer Florence Welch.

Left: Collector Maria Bell. Right: Rodarte designers Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy.

Left: Photographer Firooz Zahedi with collector Beth Rudin DeWoody. Right: LACMA trustee Eva Chow with Christiane Kubrick.