Together Again

New York

Left: Rhizome executive director Heather Corcoran. Right: Pati Hertling with artist K8 Hardy. (All photos: Allese Thomson)

“A KISS CAN change your life,” announced a man to a group of artists, curators, and writers that had gathered at a bar in the Bowery on a cold Thursday night for no other reason than to gather. The topic of conversation was Pati Hertling’s upcoming lecture, “Paris was a Woman. The Future is a Cloud,” part of her “proposition” on the evolving concept of the salon. It was determined over drinks that the salon—be it Café Voltaire, Gertude Stein’s parlor, Café Flore, the Cedar Tavern, the Factory, perhaps Reena Spaulings in the early 2000s—is predicated on a psychosexual stimulation that drives people over and again to a particular space, where ideas are exchanged amid food, drink, and touch, an elixir that has historically brought together people who brought together movements.

Two days later, Hertling stood at a podium in the New Museum’s basement theater wearing loose leather pants and a crumpled white suit jacket. Her voice was soft and shy, and her asymmetrically cut hair fell over one eye as she spoke. She’s the right person to give this talk. In 2005, Hertling started a salon called “Evas Arche und der Feminist” with Petr Kisur in Berlin. A couple years later she moved to New York and continued “Evas Arche” above Gavin Brown’s Passerby, a locus for all manner of art-world activities. Hertling closed the salon in 2010, the same year as Brown closed his bar. (“It became too much of a party,” she said later, smiling slightly).

“If you don’t have anyplace to interact, to have informal, emotional discussions about aesthetics, then ideas can’t move forward outside of the institution,” she claimed during a cursory PowerPoint presentation detailing the history of salons. Hertling is the first to admit that she is not an art historian. Rather, she’s a restitution lawyer, which makes her a sort of privileged cipher within a New York art world where professional stakes so thoroughly define everyone’s identity. Her day job is in many ways what allows her to be at the crux of a certain art community—many of whom had gathered to listen to her speak, including artists A. K. Burns and Katie Hubbard, collector Andy Stillpass, the Kitchen’s Lumi Tan, filmmaker Matt Wolf, curator Anthony Huberman, and poet Ariana Reines.

Left: Poet Ariana Reines. Right: Artists Katie Hubbard, Nik Gambaroff, and A.K. Burns.

That all these people paid eight dollars to spend a Saturday afternoon discussing why there is a lack of space for the creative community to gather seemed a tad ironic. The main strand throughout the conversation—whether or not the salon exists online—is one that has been actively explored at least since appeared in 1995. As Heather Corcoran of Rhizome, Dena Yago of, and Peter Russo of Triple Canopy joined Hertling in a panel discussion debating the salon in relation to “movements” as diverse as relational aesthetics and Occupy Wall Street, what seemed most noteworthy was the audience’s sense of nostalgia—and not for community or conversation, but for the salon as a physical space. “There is no one place that I can go and see my peers, where at any given time there is a consistent exchange of ideas about practice. I’ve tried to provide atmospheres, create spaces that have this feeling, but . . .” Hertling trailed off.

Later, at 208 Bowery, where Hertling hosted an afterparty, artist Ellen Cantor shared that she was struck by how emotional the talk was, motivated by something more crucial than “theory.” At the New Museum, artist Nicola Tyson had argued that “the problem is blood—online communities are bloodless.” To which curator Lauren Cornell replied, “Most on the Internet seem like they are ‘out for blood.’ ” Cornell added that it would be remiss of us to think of virtual and physical communities as mutually exclusive. Instead, they operate in tandem, “cooperating with and facilitating each other.”

Artist Ken Okiishi jumped in: “It seems what we’re really talking about is the making of a home.” A photograph of Okiishi had been projected across the screen of the lecture hall; in it he is caught midtwirl in Gavin Brown’s cozy upstairs space, black hair whipping across his face. Is the Internet—more and more a proliferation of pictures—a breeding ground for our nostalgia?

Left: No Bra. Right: Triple Canopy's Peter Russo, The Kitchen's Lumi Tan, SculptureCenter curator Ruba Katrib, New Museum curator Lauren Cornell, artist Josh Tonsfeldt, and a friend.

“I can’t ever see there being a salon for lawyers,” said Hertling. “We might go out for drinks but it would never influence the way I counsel a client.” Art historian Judith Rodenbeck had noted during the panel how integral food and drink have been to the space of the salon, the way ideas unfold as we put hands to mouth. And then there is skin and all the possibility that comes with skin, the nuances that come with bodies—blushing and touching, eating and drinking.

Gavin Brown hosted his annual Christmas party that night and many from the lecture were there, gathered around two enormous pine trees and lingering near long tables with platters of roast beef, oranges, and ginger cookies. There was the Guggenheim’s Ari Wiseman and the Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf; artists like Nate Lowman, Jordan Wolfson, Adam McEwen, and Nick Relph. Curators Ruba Katrib and Neville Wakefield and dealer Max Falkenstein. Of course Matthew Higgs DJ’d. People smoked inside, and discussions about aesthetics moved on to more visceral explorations of aesthetics. Within the making, critiquing, selling, buying, and curating of art, the professional and personal are inextricable, which is perhaps why the idea of the salon has such currency in the art world.

“The salon has passed,” said Greene Naftali’s Vera Alemani the next night at a benefit hosted at Santos Party House. “It perpetuates dialogue among a set few. We’re more democratic.” There seemed no time or room for nostalgia here; the crowd was too thick, the music too loud, the dancing too fast. Many of the same people from the previous night had came together again, this time to support three nonprofit art organizations—the Kitchen, Primary Information, and Printed Matter—whose spaces and materials had been ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. And here we were.

Left: Triple Canopy's Colby Chamberlain with Primary Information cofounder Miriam Katzeff. Right: Artist John Giorno.

It is entirely possible that the salon as a single, set space belonged to an era, and that era may have passed. Or perhaps the salon has merely changed as technology has changed us. What persists, however, is a quality of titillation, the possibility of an evening, the thrill of an idea or a certain cause that draws people together and binds us into something like a community.

The music paused. John Giorno stepped up to stage and announced that he had three poems to share. A rainbow dangled from the ceiling, bathing him in neon light. The crowd grew still.

“May every drug I ever took come back and get you high.”

“Thanks for letting me be a poet. A noble effort but the only choice I had.”

“May Andy come back and make you a superstar. Then everyone can have Andy.”

Allese Thomson