THE INVITATION CAME on White House stationery. It was the menu for a three-course dinner, cast in slightly outré terms. On arrival at Marian Goodman’s gallery for the March 20 opening of “Mother Tongue,” Danh Vo’s much anticipated New York debut, there were no tables in evidence, no white-gloved waitstaff, no food. A closer look at the menu, one of several odd artifacts displayed in lighted cases, showed it to be dated November 25, 1963. That was three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The dinner had never been served.
An air of melancholy settled in, centering on the battered wooden frame of a single chair isolated at one end of the front room. Arrayed around it were the evening’s guests. They included dealers Isabella Bortolozzi, Niklas Svennung, and Johann König; artists Jim Hodges and Sung Hwan Kim; and an impressive cohort of institutional heft: Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector, MoMA curator Doryun Chong, Kunsthalle Basel president Martin Hatebur, Artists Space board vice president Igor DaCosta, and Metropolitan Museum curator Nicholas Cullinan. Gazing down at a pile of black horsehair on the floor—the chair’s stuffing—Cullinan said, “This is beautiful.” And somehow it was.
The Vietnamese-born, Denmark-raised Vo has a way of personalizing material totally unrelated to him. A primary example is his current installation of the late Martin Wong’s effects at the Guggenheim, which awarded him the latest Hugo Boss Prize. “I had an early moment with him,” said the Berlin-based König before confessing that he didn’t quite understand the show. “He said, ‘I have a gallery already.’ ” That was Bortolozzi’s. “We’ve been working together for eight years,” she said proudly.
As König would soon learn, nearly every object in the show resulted from the auction of the estate of former defense secretary Robert McNamara, who presided over the shameful American war in Vietnam. Goodman and Vo took home a good third of it. The artist spent ten days in the gallery trying to figure out what to do with it. The chair, which cost them six figures, was particularly problematic, the artist said. There was nothing to do but take it apart and make sculpture from the parts, but the process was nerve-wracking. “It was so expensive!” he said, though it’s probably more expensive now. “I was afraid of what Marian would think.”
“It was a labor of love, the whole experience,” she said, almost misty-eyed at the memory. Among the objects in the back room was a wall piece of flattened cardboard beer cases. It had gilded labels and was hung with steel animal traps. “What I really wanted to do,” Vo giggled, “was to turn Marian’s gallery into an S&M club!”
Downtown, at the Hotel Americano, the 1963 dinner was served at last, carried off to perfection by chef Joseph Buenconsejo, who had clearly done a great deal of his own research. “I think the last time I had escargot was in 1963,” said collector Phil Aarons, helping himself to one of the delicious hors d’oeuvres that Buenconsejo added to the menu on his own.
“I think Danh’s brain is like a giant synapse in the sky,” Goodman said in a heartfelt dinner toast to Vo. “I just keep thinking about that chair, that lonely chair. It’s an object that bears witness to that time. All those people that are dead or damaged. It’s the soul of this country, so tragic and so moving to be able to comment on such a deep level.” The speech seemed unusually emotional for Goodman. “Not at all,” said gallery director Rose Lord. “Not since we bought her a microphone.”
The following night took another politically tinged tack at the Jack Shainman Gallery, which was hosting a reception for Richard Mosse’s forthcoming multimedia installation in the Irish pavilion at the next Venice Biennale. A $4,500 print of a landscape photograph by Mosse—for sale in an edition of thirty to benefit the exhibition—hung on one wall, a larger image from the same series on another. Mosse shot it on the Rwandan border with Eastern Congo, using expired military reconnaissance film normally employed for camouflage detection. In Mosse’s hands, it turned the landscape a surreal hot pink or blood red that is as beautiful as it is sickening. “It’s about disease and nightmares,” Mosse said. “The conflict there has killed 5.4 million people since 1998.” One day while he was filming, he narrowly escaped death as well. “It’s brutal,” he admitted, “to explore human horror with kitsch.”
The atmosphere was very different at Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street space, where Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld was presenting paintings by Nicolas Pol, and even more elevating at Metro Pictures, where B. Wurtz was showing grandly fey new sculptures of reconfigured found objects—tiny flags, straws, wires, buttons, broken clocks with hands dangling yogurt container lids—that easily capture the artist’s light-hearted spirit. “I think this show is really good,” said White Columns director Matthew Higgs, before departing for a buffet dinner at Zampa with dealers Kate MacGarry and Jose Martos. Higgs had a surprise in store: At Shoot the Lobster in May, during Frieze Week, Martos will show objects from the personal collection that Higgs has built with Anne Collier. One can never be too creative these days!
Friday night was supposed to bring the opening of Justin Matherly’s inaugural exhibition with Paula Cooper’s second-floor gallery, but late that afternoon came an e-mail that said the complicated installation was still in progress and no reception would be held. The dinner at Bottino, however, went on as scheduled—absent the artist, who was still in the gallery, waiting for the concrete in the massive sculpture he had to haul up to the space, a few pieces at a time, to dry. His mother was there, however, along with Whitney curator Carter Foster, collectors Peter and Jill Strauss, private dealer Lisa Schiff, and John Auerbach, the e-commerce director of Christie’s online auctions of the cache recently let loose on the market by the Andy Warhol Foundation. The results so far, he said, have been spectacular.
So are the rising rents in Chelsea. They have now forced out the venerable Postmasters Gallery after fifteen years on West Nineteenth Street. Fortunately, it will reopen in September in a downtown location that dealer Magda Sawon was not prepared to disclose. On view in an exhibition titled “TMI” were paintings that look back over the checkered career of David Diao, one the first artists to show with the gallery when it opened in the 1980s heyday of the East Village. His exhibition explores the mysterious values that the market has assigned to art over the past few decades, but it might as well be about New York real estate. If there are fifty ways to say goodbye, this is definitely one of the more stirring.