To get to the Watermill Center from the Montauk Highway, you head north at the house with the white picket fence—away, that is, from the sand dunes and shoreline—and westward at the miniature windmill where Head of Pond Road forks. To people disciplined by the grids of Manhattan neighborhoods, directions like this can sound foreign to the point of seeming fantastical; they might as well be for Gliese 581 d (which is why so many of these same people do venture to places like Long Island, to seek out that alien form called “quaintness”). But those of us from New England are accustomed to the rural signpost and consider it, as you should, only distractedly. More often we intuit idiosyncratic routes, stop at produce stands; we get there whenever we do.
So it went last Saturday. I did make it, of course, to the Watermill’s summer benefit (its fifteenth) but first got ice cream and went to the beach. Then on back roads I circumvented a segment of the Montauk Highway, which around Southampton becomes two narrow lanes and, in the high season, two long trails of cars inching in opposite directions. But congestion would still get me. The Watermill, I found, would have its own summer procession, this one less Week End than 8 1/2. Robert Wilson, the center’s founder, would stand with a cane halfway down the path to the building’s main entrance and would welcome each guest, an affable gesture that would not preclude pomp and circumstance. There would be, in a line, the women in feathered hats or summer dresses posing with the men in suits of material correctly light in color and weight. There would be the “news” anchor with blown-out hair who had gone slack in contrapposto, her large microphone down. (“Nobody,” she would spit to her cameraman when certain people passed.) There would be, between the tiki torches, the white-shirted young men holding out trays of mojitos, which apparently would be not very good, given that a slew of them, still full, would litter the base of a nearby sculpture by Jonathan Meese, whose cryptically titled performance Marlene Dietrich in Dr. No’s Ludovico-Clinic (Dr. Baby’s Erzland) would be underway inside.
I never did learn what that title meant. Inside the sacred exhibition space, my shoes removed, as per regulation, I saw standing on a stage in a Meesian environment of junk and hand-scrawled phrases—DICTATORSHIP OF ART and ART IS NOT RELIGION and ART IS TOTAL PROPAGANDA, etc.—the Artist himself. Guns stuck, barrel-first, into his pants, Meese lifted dumbbells while his “official photographer,” in a shirt emblazoned in red with PROPAGANDIST, played his role. “It makes me think of Jack Smith,” Bill Cunningham said favorably, “thirty years ago!” and then the style photographer darted away to sneak some covert shots.
The bright young things were in back. There was Austin Scarlett—known, one guest informed me, for making a corn-husk dress on Project Runway—who blotted his face evenly, calmly, with a paper napkin, a silk polka-dotted scarf tied around his neck, while Russian artist Andrey Bartenev posed in a Leigh Bowery–like getup: red platform pumps and full-body black-and-white spandex that sealed in three tumorlike balloons. The New York Times once called Robert Wilson the “P. T. Barnum of the avant-garde,” a characterization that now sounded even fairer.
Seen in light of the events that followed, Meese’s installation seemed meant to be taken literally. Established hierarchies appeared intact. Under the tent, Wilson addressed the diners, as did a twelve-year-old boy who had been aiding the artist since 2003, when they met on a shoot for French Vogue. The latter’s speech was eloquent, suggestive of one written by parents: “I am deeply honored to be here tonight. . . . I have plenty of fond memories of the Watermill Center. . . . I remember Bob’s voice, his passion, and his power. . . .” (This syntax and the boy’s skin color must have been what prompted Jörn Weisbrodt, Watermill’s creative director and the evening’s emcee, to announce afterward to a mixed reaction: “Wow! Watch out, Obama!”) If art is a dictatorship, then it was unclear just who was in charge that night: Wilson or Meese or the equally theatrical Simon de Pury, who conducted a spirited auction during dinner, his voice made gravelly in order to really get in there, really drive up those prices. He did, however, soften at one crucial point. “For the next lot, I would like to ask for your total, total silence, do not applaud at any moment, do not make any noise,” he said. “Shhhh.”
The filets de boeuf went momentarily untouched; the tittering died down. Then, from the back of the tent, a shirtless, golden-haired man rode in on a white horse. De Pury was ecstatic: “Now we are going to sell—a horse!” A horse indeed, but not that horse, a horse named Golden Classics—one “much, much better looking” and “totally priceless”—who was currently in Texas. On the block was not only Golden Classics but also two breedings for her with national champions, chosen by the winner, and a seven-day vacation at the Blue Moon Ranch in Texas. My view was blocked, but JD Samson, the DJ that night, leaned over to me and mentioned that the woman giving these latter details happened to be wearing wings. Black feathered wings. But soon enough she and the others had flitted away, the horse having sold for thirty thousand dollars, and JD started up her set: “Awww . . . freak out!” People did, first on the dance floor and then in the hot tub and the pool at the party at the house down the road. And later, in the mood of excess, I stopped my rented car at the drive-through and my filet de boeuf met a Big Mac.