MAJOR KUDOS TO THE WELL-HEELED GUESTS who attended the Watermill Center benefit on an unseasonably chilly July night. The step-and-repeat, which wound from the main road down to the nonprofit’s rolling campus, was an eveningwear obstacle course: paths of giant pine needles, steep grassy stairs, and a stretch of river rock, not to mention large installations by Jared Madere and Miles Greenberg.
I walked back and forth three times. Not once did I see a fall, not even in Raúl de Nieves and Erik Zajaceskowski’s temporary sound-cave installation, where a floor of large stones acted as a musical instrument and a hazard for stilettos.
“Did you see anyone trip?” I asked de Nieves from the safety of the other side. “If they did I couldn’t see them,” he laughed, referring to the identity-blurring masks that he and Zajaceskowski wore during their performance as Somos Monstros. “We wanted to greet people with sound. We were unavoidable, we were instruments.”
That night, artists popped up in seemingly every corner of Robert Wilson’s bucolic Hamptons compound. On my way into the forest, I ran into Misha Kahn, a first-timer and a fan. “Within the first thirty seconds, we already had two selfies with two different nudes,” he said, before disappearing into the sun’s rays.
Nudity speckled the evening. There were bodies covered in gold leaf, fake fungi, and bananas. In the auction tent, artist Dana Davenport painted Korean letters in her birthday suit, on hands and knees, for a voyeuristic piece titled 흑인 (heugin)black person, 2017. Around her mural, guests gawked and protected their silent auction bids.
I found Paula Cooper admiring the donations. It was her first time in Watermill in years. “I am so impressed by the amount of programming they do,” Cooper said. “Everything is perfect. The forest, the work, the sunset.”
A purple horizon cued dinner, which was served in a big-top tent. As everyone tucked into appetizers, Wilson took the mic. The four hundred or so guests sat in anticipatory silence. “We built a wall before Donald Trump,” Wilson said. Then another pregnant pause. The director was referring to a large wall in the foundation’s rocky yard. Emblazoned on one side was a text by Jenny Holzer: SHE OUTWITS HIM / SHE OUTLIVES HIM.
Wilson shared that Holzer’s piece was designed for Times Square but had been deemed too political. “We love it,” he proclaimed. The director then invited the evening’s artists to the stage. “We are proud to have twenty-six countries represented here!”
Claude Grunitzky, the new president of the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation, echoed Wilson’s sentiments. “I feel like we could be doing so much more and plugging into the local community,” Grunitzky said. “Quite frankly, I think we need to be dealing with some of the segregation issues we see out here in the Hamptons, where we have the Hispanics on one side, and the African Americans on the other, and the wealthy privileged on another. I want to bring everyone together through the art and education.”
Grunitzky and I ducked back inside at just the right moment. Wilson was soliciting money from the crowd, standing between honorees Isabelle Huppert and Laurie Anderson. After making a $5,000 donation, Robert Downey Jr. surprised the room by jumping up and egging the crowd on: “I’m going to need see some hands at each table or I am going to get crazy.” When threats didn’t work, the actor offered selfies for cash.
“I thought I was out of a job,” declared auctioneer Simon de Pury.
Anderson and Virgil Abloh finished the night with back-to-back performances. “The future of art and the way it interacts with culture is being determined by events and curators like this,” Abloh said, revealing his preparations for a 2019 show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art with chief curator Michael Darling. “There is an interest in what is happening in the real world.”