How the West Was Won

Left: Collector Eli Broad with artist Doug Aitken. Right: A cowpuncher at the LA MoCA gala. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

WHERE HAVE ALL THE BOHEMIANS GONE? Not to Los Angeles, a city once so jeans and T-shirt casual that it always felt like summer camp. Now even its artists are starting to look as if they live in New York. Those attending last Thursday’s opening for Doug Aitken at Regen Projects—including Cathy Opie, Walead Beshty, Laura Owens, and Thomas Demand—appeared only slightly less style-conscious or prosperous than the barbered and bejeweled collectors around them. Aitken, on the other hand, was attired in a bright madras plaid shirt with a label that said, HELLO, MY NAME IS DOUG stuck onto it.

During the reception, he stayed in the hallway under his new terrarium SEX sign, talking to friends and supporters such as Jeffrey Deitch, whose obvious weight loss since becoming director of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art he attributed to daily uphill runs in Griffith Park, not anxiety. (That would be too New York.) So Aitken didn’t see all the stiletto-heeled women pick their way through the splintered ruins of his former home in Venice Beach, which were scattered around the gallery, to view House, the video playing on a monitor set into a long table placed at the center of the room. It is the same table that’s pictured in the video, where his parents sit motionless, staring into each other’s eyes, while the house slowly comes down around them—a demonstration of lasting love till death do them part that was as moving and delirious as it was beautiful. “I thought there had to be a better way to demolish an old house than taking it out with a wrecking ball,” he said. At the moment, he’s living in his studio. No word on whether collectors buying the installation will take the rubble with it.

It looked like the aftermath of one of LA’s earthquakes, though the dinner for 120 that Shaun Caley Regen gave for Aitken at Soho House offered sweeping views of a town steady enough on its pins to admit artists into its obsession with models and movie stars, especially when they are the same people. When I complimented Ed Ruscha on his wordless performance in Frontier, the video Aitken showed last June in Basel, he quipped, “Well, I didn’t have too many lines,” but I couldn’t tell whether he was complaining or expressing relief.

Left: Collector Giovanna Panza di Biumo. Right: LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch with Paz de la Huerta.

Bubbly as the evening was, it was just the first shot fired at a weekend of glittering events anchored to “The Artist’s Museum Happening,” the gala benefit that Aitken designed for MoCA on Saturday night. On Friday morning, Deitch led a very exclusive tour at the Geffen of “The Artist’s Museum,” a collection exhibition featuring work by LA-based artists. The big surprise was how many artists, including Liza Lou, had never made it into a MoCA show before. Further enhancing the tour was Giovanna Panza di Biumo, widowed by the death this year of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, whose enormous gift to the museum gave its collection its start thirty years ago. Ms. Panza wasn’t staying on for the gala. “It’s hard to be here without Giuseppe,” she said. “And seeing everything again . . . ” she added, her voice drifting off. “So much of it used to be ours, you know.”

That evening, while Aitken held rehearsals at the museum and the new Venice branch of L&M Gallery opened a de Kooning show, MoCA invited a select group of patrons to Mike Ovitz’s new Michael Maltzan–designed house in Benedict Canyon, where a contingent of beefy security guards kept out the paparazzi and anyone with any ties to the press. Since the weekend was all about bridging the art world with Hollywood, I went to the Fox lot for a producers’ preview of Black Swan, the new psycho-ballerina film by Darren Aronofsky. It stars a bonkers Natalie Portman and dipsomaniac Winona Ryder, and has costumes by Rodarte sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy—the best element of the film, as it turned out.

The fashion pair showed up at Dasha Zhukova’s table in the big tent set up on Grand Avenue for the MoCA gala, where B-list starlets paraded the red carpet in what Barbara Kruger memorably observed as “the anthropology of procession,” outfitted by the event’s sponsor, Chanel Fine Jewelry, while Deitch led another exclusive tour of the show inside the museum with Francesco Vezzoli (last year’s gala artist) in tow as well as Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, Anthony Kiedis, producer Brian Grazer, W editor Stefano Tonchi, and Deitch’s date, actress Paz de la Huerta. In a room hung with paintings by Kenny Scharf, Robert Williams, and Mark Ryden, Tonchi voiced some surprise at their appearance in the show. Deitch nodded. “Some people are outraged by this room,” he said. His grin told us how much he liked the high and low of it.

Left: Gwen Stefani. Right: Katharine Ross with LACMA director Michael Govan.

Inside the tent, the other nine hundred guests were already chowing down the salad course, seemingly oblivious to the inexplicable absence of every big art event’s best friend, James Franco, a favorite this year to take home an Oscar. Instead, Kirsten Dunst, Rachel Griffiths, Michael York, Will Ferrell, Chloë Sevigny, Patricia Arquette, China Chow, and Rachel Zoe were on hand to remind us that art can’t live without celebrity anymore. But there was plenty of evidence that MoCA really is an artists’ museum. Mike Kelley, Kruger, John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, Chris Burden, Nancy Rubins, Diana Thater, Mark Grotjahn, Thomas Houseago, Barry McGee, and Mark Bradford were among those scattered at tables with Eli and Edythe Broad, Gil Friesen, board cochair David Johnson, Eugenio López, Jeffrey and Catherine Soros, Frank Gehry, Benedikt and Lauren Taschen, Ovitz, dealers Tim Blum and Michael Kohn, and filmmaker Werner Herzog. A man with a shock of white hair, sitting to the side, turned out to be former governor Gray Davis.

Aitken had a theme for the event, “The Idea of the West,” the title of a handsome artist’s book funded by collector Grazka Taylor and placed on everyone’s $5,000 seat. It contained photographs by Aitken and responses from a thousand Californians asked to state their idea of the West. (“Fun,” “Nothingness,” “Free Spirits Keepin’ It Together,” and “David Lee Roth” were some.) MoCA board cochair Maria Bell began the speech part of the night with the revelation that honorary gala cochair Larry Gagosian couldn’t make it because he was at the Vatican, a part of which the superdealer had rented, incredibly enough, for the dinner following Takashi Murakami’s opening that night in Rome.

After that bomb dropped, further remarks by Broad (“the best is yet to come”) and Deitch more or less faded into the ether. Then a clean-shaven Devendra Banhart took the round center stage to perform one number accompanied by a violinist, two cellists, and a bongo player. Beck joined them for another number, followed by the Brazilian guitar virtuoso Caetano Veloso, and the three played and sang as sweetly as if they had worked together for years instead of never before. It was gorgeous.

Left: Devendra Banhart. Right: Architect Frank Gehry and artist Jeff Koons.

Aitken had seen to the food as well. In California style, it was organic and came from local farmers, prepared by chef Joanna Moore of Axe, the artist’s favorite restaurant, recently closed due to a fire. People began to mill about as tables were cleared. Five were really cleared, even of their tablecloths. They were Sonic Tables, an artwork by Aitken, sold at $100,000 a pop (mostly to trustees) to benefit the museum. As the lights went down, twenty members of the drum corps that had been thrumming at the entrance started playing the tables with mallets. Suddenly the first of five farm auctioneers began wailing away like a gospel singer, except her only mantra was a litany of prices, and one by one, from different points in the tent, their voices ping-ponged against the drumming. They were the same farm auctioneers who appeared in Basel two years ago for Aitken’s part in Il Tempo del Postino, but here they moved into the crowd, the numbers rising with their voices, auctioning nothing but sound.

Four actual gospel singers from South Central then mounted the center stage to perform a number that seemed to confuse the crowd, but no sooner had they exited than they were replaced by a burly cowpuncher wielding twenty-foot-long bullwhips and doing a cracking, stomping dance that was startling and unusual enough to drop every jaw in the house. Clearly, someone’s idea of the West is to scare every critter off. Most stayed for dessert, however, still shaking their heads. “This was such a calm evening,” said Koons, taking special note of the lighting by architect Barbara Bestor as well as the whipper. “It was all just so calm,” he said again, and indeed the event had proceeded with a California ease that was, in the end, not so predictable but weirdly intimate. “I didn’t want megastars,” Aitken would tell me later. “I wanted something warmer. I wanted moments of vulnerability and aggression.”

Left: Collector Dasha Zhukova and artist Francesco Vezzoli. Right: Beck.

During a VIP brunch the next day at the Gagosian outpost in Beverly Hills, where late Joan Mitchells were on display, Michael and Pat York were still going on about the bullwhipper, adding that he had come close to tearing off the head of Broad Foundation director Joanne Heyler, who had slipped into a seat beside the stage. Bell said the benefit had raised over three million dollars for the museum, which is going to post a video of the event on its website—free for the asking. That’s nice. But I left thinking of something Deitch had said at Aitken’s gallery show. “Sometimes we get into sticky situations,” he admitted. “But we also get out of them.”

Left: Andrew Taylor and Rachel Griffiths. Right: Artist Mike Kelley.

Left: Doug Aitken with dealer Lisa Spellman. Right: Kirsten Dunst.

Left: MoCA gala co-chair Maria Bell. Right: Dealer Shaun Caley Regen.

Left: Collector Eugenio López. Right: PIN-UP editor Felix Burritcher and Black Frame's Brian Phillips.

Left: Artist and critic Thomas Lawson. Right: Pat York and Michael York.

Left: Producer Brian Grazer, pianist Chau-Giang-Thi Nguyen, and musician Anthony Kiedis. Right: Artist Ryan Trecartin.

Left: Christie's Amy Cappellazzo. Right: Collector Maja Hoffmann with dealer Eva Presenhuber.