Tooth or Consequences

Linda Yablonsky at galas for the Frick Collection and The Kitchen

Left: Ian Alteveer, Metropolitan Museum associate curator of modern and contemporary art, with artist Arlene Shechet, Phillips Collection curator Klaus Ottman, and dealer Leslie Tonkonow. Right: Composer Glenn Branca in performance. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

FUND-RAISING SEASON never really ends for nonprofit institutions, but last week the Frick Collection brought a modicum of relief by offering its patrons a nosegay instead of a self-addressed envelope. The gift was the museum’s annual spring garden party, the first I’ve attended. That’s why I didn’t know that three generations of the Town & Country set treat this occasion as an opportunity to wear their West Egg best so New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham will take their picture. “You’re not Bill!” one huffed.

The dress code was white and gold, so tropical suits dominated, along with frilly white or gold dresses. But many guests put their best efforts into their headgear. Never mind the straw boaters and Mad Hatter top hats. The number and variety of crowns was astonishing. Some were made of vines and leaves. Some had feathers. One had antlers. Another was a pillbox fashioned after a caviar tin.

Amusing though it all was, the few familiar faces in the crowd—dealers Michael Jenkins and Leslie Tonkonow, Phillips Collection curator-at-large Klaus Ottmann, Met Breuer curator Ian Alteveer, writers Deborah Solomon and Leslie Camhi, collector Elisabeth Wingate—seemed like fish out of water. Literally. “Those English people at the bar just spent twenty minutes on the subject of Dover sole,” wailed writer Catherine Corman.

Left: Ed Ankudavich and costume designer Rosemary Ponzo. Right: Frick Collection director Ian Wardropper.

After sweeping through the museum’s galleries, and a superb show of van Dyck portraits, some guests mounted the stairs to the usually off-limits offices, once the private apartment of Henry Clay Frick. (No access to the basement bowling alley, sadly.) But the reason I was here was to preview the museum’s first exhibition by a living artist.

Yes! Even the hidebound Frick—beloved for its Ingres, Fragonards, Rembrandts, Vermeers, Holbein, and more, prized for its art reference library—has succumbed to the allure of contemporary art. Mind you, the transition has been subtle.

Only people who drifted from the garden into the adjacent Portico Gallery and looked very closely at the objects in “Porcelain, No Simple Matter: Arlene Shechet and the Arnhold Collection,” noticed that some of its Meissen bowls, vases, tea sets, and figurines were a bit too fresh for the eighteenth century. A white-on-white plate, for example, had the legs of a female figure dangling over the edge.

It was, in fact, mainly the difference in sensibilities that distinguished the traditional Meissens on view from the ten witty pieces designed and installed with the others by Shechet, who made her plasters from Meissen molds during a two-year residency at the company’s Albrechtsburg Castle in Germany. “I had PTSD when I came back,” said the Dries van Noten–clad artist. (That was not a casual reference. Shechet is married to Dr. Mark Epstein, the psychotherapist author of Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, among other books for the traumatized.)

Left: Frick Collection decorative arts curator Charlotte Vignon. Right: Writer Catherine Corman and dealer Mark Murray.

Charlotte Vignon, the Frick’s curator of decorative arts, had let Shechet loose among the Meissens in the collection of Henry H. Arnhold, some of which the Dresden banking family has promised to the Frick. “Charlotte was very brave,” noted Shechet, whose usual ceramic abstractions and unique glazes bear no resemblance to anything here. Her exhibition design likewise upends the Frick’s conventional, straight-as-a-soldier displays of decorative objects. Platters and cups, for example, were turned to the wall. “They were artists,” Shechet said of the Meissen craftspeople, “and they made amazing things. That’s why I turned them around, so you can see that they’re really sculptures.”

The threat of rebellion in search of greater truth reemerged a few nights later, when the Kitchen made a play for patronage with a gala dinner at Cipriani Wall Street honoring two giants of video art, Dara Birnbaum and Charles Atlas. “This is not a conventional gala,” Kitchen director Tim Griffin announced at the top of his rather poetic remarks, but the Kitchen has license to stand against anything formulaic, which it has been doing faithfully for forty-five years.

Nonetheless, the evening could not have been more decorous. Even after Griffin warned the four hundred or so guests that they would need the earplugs provided to each table, and Robert Longo introduced Glenn Branca by promising relentless, brain-sizzling feedback—“John Cage was afraid of Glenn’s music,” he said—the composer’s solo on double-barreled guitar was as sweet as Longo’s admission that, “Glenn’s last concert at the Kitchen left me in tears. And still,” he added, welling up at the memory.

Left: Artist Dara Birnbaum. Right: Artist Charles Atlas and writer Joe Westmoreland.

Perhaps Branca only took special heed of Griffin’s estimation of a nonprofit’s value. “The beauty of institutions,” he said, “is that in them you can still hear the whispers of the past.”

Philanthropist Elizabeth Sackler certainly gave them a shout when she introduced Birnbaum, basically by reading aloud the artist’s lengthy résumé. Sackler, founder of the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art, got her biggest rise from the audience by reminding everyone of the center’s motto: “Equal pay and equal wall space!” But Birnbaum got right to the heart of the matter, as this wonder woman always does. “It’s easy to call yourself an artist,” she said, “but much harder to make good art.” Amen.

Dinner was served. Griffin seemed unable to eat. He was nervous. Yvonne Rainer, on tap to introduce Atlas, had not yet arrived. He was worried. Had something awful happened to her? Something had. His iPhone lit up. Her e-mail reported that painkillers given to her following a tooth extraction that afternoon left her “too fucked up to talk.”

Probably, this would never happen at an uptown venue. Fortunately, downtowners are always ready, even hope for, the unexpected. Suddenly, art historian Douglas Crimp was at Griffin’s side, displaying the same email on his smartphone, with the addition of Rainer’s speech.

Left: Artist Matthew Ritchie and Kitchen director Tim Griffin. Right: Artist Ryan McGinley.

A moment later, Crimp was onstage, reminiscing about both Atlas and Rainer, past collaborators on several video projects. “Yvonne always said that Charlie had the best giggle,” Crimp said, then read from her text, which characterized the Kitchen as “the greatest subcultural purveyor of outliers and outcasts.” Atlas concurred. “The Kitchen is a place where I could really take chances,” he said, taking time to note the passing of Art21 founder Susan Sollins, a close friend and another collaborator. “More of my work is behind than in front of me now,” he concluded. “But I feel like a midcareer artist!”

At that, choreographer Stanley Love appeared on the floor with a company of dancers dressed in loose, brightly colored, hippie-like costumes. For a moment, their rhythmic, happy-face rainmaking—they entered playing long spoons—took me back to the days of Hair. Good days! And then the high-haired Lady Bunny appeared on the balcony, wigging out over the decks.

However hard it is to make good art, it’s even harder to give a good party—especially for outliers and outcasts. This one was.

Left: The Stanley Love Performance Group in action. Right: Lady Bunny at the decks.

Left: Curator–art historian Douglas Crimp and New Museum curator Johanna Burton. Right: Artist K8 Hardy and curator Piper Marshall.

Left: Choreographers Stanley Love and Michael Clark with producer Jackie Pine. Right: Collector Melissa Schiff Soros.

Left: Artists Lucy Sexton and Mike Iveson. Right: Artist Nina Beier.

Left: Artists Jon Kessler and Robert Longo. Right: Vogue arts editor Mark Giuducci and artist Haley Mellin.

Left: MoMA film curator Josh Siegel with writer Leslie Camhi and art historian Satish Padiyar. Right: MoMA curator Stuart Comer and Participant Inc. founder and director Lia Gangitano.

Left: Alan Marks, Kristina Alexandra, and Joy Marks. Right: Dealers Peggy LeBoeuf and Josée Bienvenu.