Paradise Garage

Linda Yablonsky around the opening of Moscow’s Garage Museum and in Athens

Left: Collectors and Garage Museum founders Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova with dealer Larry Gagosian. Right: Garage Mjuseum project architect Ekaterina Gotovatynk with architect Rem Koolhaas.

ONCE KAZIMIR MALEVICH painted his first Black Square—one hundred years ago—art was never the same again. That’s particularly true in postrevolutionary Russia, where any form of revolutionary art either died or went underground once Stalin came in.

Last Wednesday night in Moscow, it resurfaced—hopefully for good—when the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art opened its permanent home in Gorky Park. Founded, and mostly funded, by collectors Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich, it too could change the future of art in Russia. It may also alter the way we think about museums in general.

In a city where a seemingly imposed tranquility hides most activities behind closed doors, architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA designed the Garage—named for its first incarnation in a Konstantin Melnikov–designed 1920s bus garage—for maximum transparency. Keeping its open plan, he wrapped the remains of a failed, fifteen-hundred-seat, Soviet-modern restaurant built in 1968 with a double layer of translucent polycarbonate. In daylight, the fifty-eight-thousand-square-foot building looks like an opaque silver Minimalist box floating six feet above a solid black bottom where an open breezeway once was. At night, lit from within, it becomes a shadow play of mysterious silhouettes.

Left: Dealer Sadie Coles and artist Urs Fischer. Right: Artist Erik Bulatov and his wife Natalya.

Enormous, appropriately garage-like glass doors open vertically to make entrances on two sides. Inside, Koolhaas restored concrete floors and staircases, exposed ductwork, added steel rails as well as a few plywood touches, and cleaned the graffiti off the original brown brick and green tile walls. Against the industrial elegance of the rest of the building the walls still look tacky, but in the context of history, also just right.

At a press conference that morning, Koolhaas posited the building as an argument against what he termed the “excessive architecture” common today, and expressed not just an admiration for 1960s Soviet buildings—in fact, he said, they inspired him to become an architect. How did his work at the Garage compare to his most recent triumph, the reinvention of a former distillery in Milan as the Prada Foundation? “There were many complications,” he told me. “But the main difference is that this in Russia.”

There’s another. On the evidence of its six opening shows, it was obvious that this was not yet another private museum for rich collectors to display their wealth for people who have little or none. For one thing, the Garage has no permanent collection of trophy art. Instead, under the direction of Anton Belov, a thirty-two-year-old former scientist and the publisher of Moscow’s Art Guide, it means to become a civic-minded research center and event space that will stage forums for debate and build an historical archive of “unofficial” Russian art, the kind not sanctioned by the government, within a program of exhibitions by established artists from abroad. Zhukova, meanwhile, characterized the museum as “the first public art library in Russia.” (So far the archive, directed by curator Sasha Obukhova, contains two hundred thousand publications.)

Left: Artist Jeff Koons and collector Francois Pinault. Right: Artist Jenny Saville.

“No one thought the Garage would last,” chief curator Kate Fowle told me over lunch at the Shigeru Ban–designed intermediary Garage nearby, where Katharina Grosse had created a magnificent “exploded” painting over rough terrain—one of the best in her career. (The pavilion will be demolished next year.) “Things change fast in post-Soviet Russia,” Fowle said. “Things change often. But we’re programmed through 2018. That’s unheard of.”

It isn’t possible to present contemporary art history in Russia through a collection of objects, she said, because they were either destroyed or taken out of the country. “The only way to talk about contemporary art here is to build an archive that makes public the ‘evidence’ of contemporary art from the 1950s to the 1990s, so people can unravel for themselves what was actually happening. Once that framework is established, then we can start to develop a collection of Russian and international art.”

For the opening, two infinity rooms by Yayoi Kusama—never before seen in Russia—competed with Tomorrow Is the Question, a three-part installation by Rirkrit Tiravanija that paid homage to the late Czech Conceptualist Július Koller, for whom table tennis was a presiding metaphor. Members of the Moscow Ping-Pong Club did their stuff on black tables set on a purple carpet, while guests joined in or helped themselves to dumplings cooked on site as well as T-shirts printed with question marks and also Russian-language questions like, “When is tomorrow?”

Left: Garage Museum chief curator Kate Fowle. Right: The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

Also present was eighty-three-year-old Erik Bulatov, the first Russian artist to receive what will be a regular commission to create an artwork for the double-height atrium—in his case, an immense text painting. A line formed at the staircase leading to the rooftop terrace. The impatient wandered through an exhibition of artifacts relating to a temporary thaw in the Cold War, when Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev staged their famous “kitchen debate,” and watched the first of a planned trilogy of films by Anton Vidokle based on Cosmism, a nineteenth-century philosophy of immortality and resurrection that, he said, was the origin of the Russian space program.

Meanwhile, here, in inner space, Zhukova and Abramovich don’t seem to be getting anything out of the Garage other than the satisfaction of creating something larger than themselves. “They want to change society in Russia,” Belov told me. “We’re the post-Soviet generation,” he added. “We have free minds.” But the founders are not shouldering the entire cost. (This year’s operating budget is $15 million.) “All I do is fund-raise,” Belov said.

Thursday night’s exclusive dinner for the very VIPs who arrived that day was for show, not money. It was about privilege. "You know how people make guest lists for their fantasy dinner parties?” Jeffrey Deitch asked. “Dasha not only did that, but everybody actually came.”

Left: Artist Hope Atherton with dealer Gavin Brown. Right: Filmmaker George Lucas and Mellody Hobson.

Did they ever. The event was a like a party in Davos with a little Anderson Ranch thrown in. Scientists and tech geniuses mixed with two generations of collectors (Len Blavatnik, Wendi Murdoch, Victoria Mikelson, Jakob Berggruen, Oscar Engelbert, Maria Baibakova, Jean Pigozzi) who joined those with those other private museums (Francois Pinault, Dmitri Daskalopoulos, Pamela Kramlich, Griet Dupont). Figures from the world of fashion (Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, fashion models Karli Kloss and Natalia Vodianova) rubbed shoulders with architects David Adjaye, Fernando Romero, Elizabeth Diller and Charles Renfro (who are restoring a huge park opposite the Kremlin), and Sergei Kuznetsov, the city of Moscow’s chief architect (his title).

Standing up for other institutions were the newly camera-shy MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, Serpentine Gallery codirectors Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Petyon-Jones, Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg, who just opened his own new museum—“the last one I ever want to build,” he said—and LACMA director Michael Govan, who is raising money to build another. “Dasha sits on my board, I’m on hers,” Govan said. “So I’m here.”

So was Arianna Huffington, who arrived with her daughter Isabella in the company of filmmaker George Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson. Huffington was there to moderate the following day’s three art and technology panels, including one with Jeff Koons and Marc Newson, for a select roster of thirty guests—very, very VIPS like Metropolitan Museum director Tom Campbell. Why was Lucas there? “Dasha and my wife are friends,” he said. But he’s creating a new museum too, in Chicago.

Left: Serpentine Gallery codirector Julia Peyton-Jones. Right: Collector Victoria Mikelson and New Museum deputy director Massimiliano Gioni.

“It’s a museum for narrative art, the kind people in contemporary art ignore,” he said. Did he mean comic books? “Yes,” he said. “It’s mostly illustration, Norman Rockwell stuff.” Every few seconds, he was interrupted by young guests who said their lives were shaped by his movies and asked if he would pose with them for pictures. (In the Instagram age, no one asks for autographs anymore.) “The trouble with being very popular,” he said, when they stepped away, “is that you’re always popular.”

He wasn’t the only Hollywood presence. Producer Harvey Weinstein was another. So, to the surprise of everyone, was Woody Allen, who came with his wife Soon-Yi and their daughter Bechet Dumaine, and would be seated for dinner at a table with Larry Gagosian, New Museum deputy director Massimiliano Gioni, artist Francesco Vezzoli, and Mrs. Prada. But the most surprising guest of all was Alexander Boroda, introduced to me as “Roman’s rabbi.” He is also in charge of the Jewish Museum for Tolerance, the current inhabitant of the Melnikov garage and one stop on a daily sightseeing tour that the Garage arranged for visiting VIPs.

Another was the Tretyakov Gallery, the state museum of Russian art and home of Black Square, so neglected for so long that the underpainting is now visible—an amazing sight. But the museum, which is overburdened with government-approved art since Stalin, is about to undergo its own transformation under new director Zelfira Tregulova, a member of the post-Soviet generation that is determined to remake Russian culture. (In the early 1990s, when he was deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum, she worked with Govan on “The Great Utopia.”) The change will include an association with the Garage intended to bring the public to both museums, which are across the road from one another. “People will come here and also go there to see the emergence of this artistic revolution,” she said. “Russians don’t know this heritage.”

Left: Architect Charles Renfro with City of Moscow chief architect Sergei Kuznetsov. Right: Collector Maja Hoffmann.

The evening suffered two cocktail-hour interruptions, one planned and one not. The Russian performance artist known as Fyodor staged the guerrilla intervention, when four accomplices carried him into the museum, naked and folded into fetal position in a glass box that they set on the floor. It was creepy. Instagrammers circled like vultures. Temporarily flummoxed security guards carried the box out.

Tiravanija was responsible for the other performance, for which Zhukova ushered her bewildered guests outside onto a plaza that workers had finished making only that morning. Suddenly, a loud explosion shocked everyone to attention. It wasn’t a bomb, but fireworks that formed a square of black smoke in the sky over the museum—Tiravanija’s celebration of the Malevich painting’s centenary. It was also the dinner bell.

During the speech portion of the evening, Zhukova promised a surprise. It came a few minutes later, when the traditionally dressed Kuban Cossack Choir took the stairs to the exhibition floor and let out with rousing Ukrainian songs—a bold move at a time when relations between Russia, Ukraine, and the US are particularly tense. “I don’t think the non-Russian speakers here know what’s happening,” Baibakova said.

Left: Collector Maria Baibakova. Right: Architect Elizabeth Diller and Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg.

They didn’t, but people were having such a good time in such rarified company that it was well past midnight before they left for the afterparty at a new club called LOL. No doubt it went on till daybreak—3 AM in Moscow. By that time, I was packing for an early-morning flight to another economically compromised hot spot, Athens.

In an unintentional snub to Zurich Art Weekend, the collector and Deste Foundation founder Dakis Joannou had scheduled his own annual round of events for a rather different set of art tourists, among them filmmaker Tamra Davis, fashion designer Philip Colbert, Wallpaper magazine art director James Reid, and restaurateur Michael McCarty. They arrived at the Benaki Museum on Friday for the opening of “Design Office: Noise Name Paintings and Sculptures of Rock Bands That Are Broken Up” by Kim Gordon, artist, best-selling memoirist and cofounder of the broken-up Sonic Youth. With Bill Nace, her current bandmate in Body/Head, Gordon gave a transporting free performance on the terrace.

After Moscow, it felt like the other side of the world. The following day’s schedule included a visit to the Museum of Cycladic Art and this year’s Deste Prize exhibition, the best I’ve seen yet, and a show of public sculpture in the gardens of the French School at Athens curated by Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick. But the main event was the opening that evening of “Ametria,” an exhibition of centuries-spanning artworks culled from the collections of the Benaki and the Deste at the other, modern Benaki. Organized by a team of curators working under the direction of artist Roberto Cuoghi, it was so sexy, dense, and fascinating that it was easy to feel lost within the maze of an installation created by architect Alessandro Pasini. Also making its debut was a new project space for Family Business within the museum. It opened with “Dirty Linen,” an excellent exhibition of unknown works by mostly Greek artists curated by Myriam Ben Salah and housed in a structure designed by Joannou.

Left: Collector Dakis Joannou and Benaki Museum director Angelos Delivorias. Right: Restaurateurs Kim and Michael McCarty.

Andra Ursuta was the featured artist at the collector’s home that evening, where Urs Fischer, Deitch, and Gioni arrived from Moscow to join about a hundred other people for dinner and dancing. It was merely the a prelude to a cruise to Hydra the next morning, and the opening of “Hippias Minor,” an exhibition by Paul Chan at the Slaughterhouse, Deste’s project space on the island. That show included sculpture, a book that Chan published with a new translation of “Plato’s most controversial dialogue” on the truth of lies. For the opening, Chan staged a symposium to replace trivial chatter at the dinner that followed. “Hey,” Chan said, as the sun set over the Aegean. “When was the last time anyone launched a book about Plato in Greece?”

The message of the evening was that there are no answers. There was only Art Basel, and feeling the call of Ulysses, I went off to pack.

Left: Lily Lewis, 6th Moscow Biennale director Bart De Baere, and artist Anton Vidokle. Right: Fashion model Karli Kloss.

Left: Artist Alex Israel and dealer Almine Rech. Right: Collector Alberto Mugrabi and Colby Jordan.

Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Right: Fireworks homage to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square by Rirkrit Tiranvanija.

Left: Zona Maco founder Zelika Garcia. Right: Tretyakov Gallery director Zelfira Tregulova and Garage Museum director Anton Belov.

Left: Collectors Hilda and Phillip Sutton. Right: Garage Museum project architect John Paul Pacelli.

Left: Collectors Pamela Kramlich and Griet Dupont. Right: Dealer Richard Edwards.

Left: Isabella Huffington and Arianna Huffington. Right: Urban planner and restaurateur Peter Kudryavtsev.

Left: MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci. Right: Guerrilla intervention by Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich.

Left: The Kuban Cossack Chorus in performance. Right: Collector Oscar Engelbert.

Left: Designer Tara Subkoff with filmmaker Tamra Davis, artist Kim Gordon, and dealer Rebecca Camhi. Right: Musician Bill Nace.

Left: Collectors Argyro and Iasson Tsakonis. Right: Hala Matar and Hind Matar with designer Phillip Colbert.

Left: Artist Andra Ursuta and dealer Mike Egan. Right: Palais de Tokyo special events curator Myriam Ben Salah and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrara.

Left: Artist Paul Chan. Right: Philosopher Paul B. Preciado.

Left: Dealer Kathy Grayson. Right: LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory and dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

Left: Dancer and choreographer Maria Hasabi. Right: Producer Miggi Hood, 032c editor Jörg Koch, Wallpaper art director James Reid, LACMA curator Jarret Gregory, and Marie Koch.

Left: Artist Seth Price, dealer Vera Alemani, and art historian Bettina Funcke. Right: Dio Horia founder Marina Varanopoulou.