Tempting Fête

Joseph Akel at the 11th Aspen ArtCrush

Left: Artists Lorna Simpson and Mickalene Thomas. Right: Collector John Phelan, Aspen Art Museum director and CEO Heidi Zuckerman, and Sotheby's Oliver Barker. (All photos: David X Prutting/BFA.com)

HIKING UP A PARTICULARLY VERTIGINOUS SECTION of Aspen’s Hunter Creek Trail, a breathless art collector lamented a private property development recently foiled by local ballot initiative. “Having recently returned from Cuba,” she declared, “there are only two communist states left in the world—China and Aspen.” With its notoriety as a winter—and apparently summer—playground for the uber-wealthy, such sentiments struck me as incongruous. Indeed, as we looked down from our rocky perch upon the hamlet below, with the newly built Shigeru Ban–designed Aspen Art Museum effulgent and the roar of incoming private jets heard in the distance, the Rockies’ favored colony dégagé looked more like Et in Colorado, ego. If anything, the slated schedule of lavish dinner parties and wine tastings that accompany ArtCrush, the museum’s annual fundraising gala, promised to be more fête accompli than coup d’Etat.

It would be hard to imagine that this year’s benefit—the eleventh to date—could top the last, which coincided with the opening of the aforementioned museum space. Heidi Zuckerman, the AAM’s CEO and director, notes the whole affair very much helps sustain the museum, whose “largest line item continues to be its exhibitions.” Indeed, the past three years saw solo presentations by the likes of Rob Pruitt, Ernesto Neto, and Agnes Martin. “The success of ArtCrush,” she continued while sipping an iced macha latte, “directly impacts our ability to put on a great show.” Or was it the success of ArtCrush depends on putting on a great show?

Left: Kris Jenner and Corey Gamble. Right: Artist Richard Phillips.

The festivities kicked off with WineCrush, quite possibly the most luxurious pregaming session ever, held at the home of museum benefactors and true party people John and Amy Phelan. Sponsored by Chanel, the evening’s attendees included artists Mickalene Thomas, Will Cotton, and Richard Phillips; industry titans such as mega-agent Bob Gersh; local denizens and collectors the Magoons and Marxess; and a smattering of celebrities, Kris Jenner (with new beaux in tow) and Lance Armstrong among them.

Ushered by devilishly handsome men into the sleek tent erected on the grounds of the Phelans’ property, guests were treated to a Chanel-infused evening, right down to the gold-plated silverware and signature white camellia centerpieces. Upon taking her seat, Dr. Katy Rodan, founder of the Proactiv skin-care line—yes, the one on TV—wistfully remarked, “They have really outdone themselves this year.” As we were plied with nine rounds of wine tastings, including several vintages Armstrong assured me were “really quite good,” the evening progressed into a billionaires’ bacchanal, with Cotton and his wife, Gagosian’s Rose Dergan, tearing up the dance floor to a house remix of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” From there it got more blurry.

Thursday was PreviewCrush, something akin to a disco nap before the main auction event on Friday. Aspen’s very own Baldwin and Casterline Goodman galleries played host to a pop-up exhibition of works that were to be sold off the following evening. Spotted entering the former gallery was artist of the moment Simon Denny, as well as dealer Jessica Silverman beaming alongside her partner, the art world’s resident sociologist, Sarah Thornton.

Left: Artist Will Cotton and Rose Dergan. Right: W editor in chief Stefano Tonchi and collector Amy Phelan.

Friday’s titular ArtCrush dinner and auction was the week’s apex. Guests descended upon a virtual tent city erected in downtown Aspen on the grounds of the former museum. Parading before the Sotheby’s and Dom Pérignon step-and-repeat, where a line of women in Cinderella-like tulle dresses waited patiently to be photographed by Billy Farrell, the evening’s attendees were funneled into two adjoining structures where they could sample yet more wine while bidding on works for the silent auction, which included medium-rare works by Lutz Bacher, Dan Flavin, and Bjarne Melgaard. Oddly, there was no work by Chris Ofili, the current solo exhibition at the museum. Seen flitting among the various tents were collectors Don and Mera Rubell, as well as the dealer David Maupin and his partner, W editor in chief Stefano Tonchi.

With the appropriate cue, guests crossed a bridge spanning the Roaring Fork River and streamed into the main tent for the dinner and live auction, some electing to take pedicabs the final distance from bridge to big top. Entering through a Dom Pérignon–branded portal where hands jutted out from walls to offer flutes of champagne, guests sat down to a lavish surf and turf dinner. Before the bidding began, Zuckerman duly presented artist Lorna Simpson with the museum’s 2015 Aspen Award for Art. Then, taking the stage, Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker led the evening’s proceedings, corralling collectors while works on the block were paraded by handlers, the whole procession choreographed to a Top 40 playlist compiled by Phelan and Zuckerman. Highlights included a Tom Friedman neon-green Styrofoam sculpture suspended from the tent’s trusses. When Simpson’s work came up, the artist turned away and closed her eyes. As the gavel dropped for the winning bidder—Amy Phelan, natch—Simpson was overheard requesting “a double shot of tequila.” Heading to the afterparty at the aptly named Belly Up Club, a collector gestured toward several stumbling guests who had elected to throw off their precarious footwear, blithely remarking, “Shoes aren’t the only things high in Aspen tonight.” Indeed.

Left: Collectors Mera Rubell and Donald Rubell. Right: Gersh agency founder Bob Gersh.

Left: Dealer David Maupin. Right: The Haas Brothers.

Left: Shari Applebaum. Right: Collectors Jane Nathanson and Marc Nathanson.