Good Company

Linda Yablonsky at Ross Bleckner’s UN appointment and a Visual AIDS benefit

New York

Left: Critic Douglas Crimp and ICA Boston curator Nicholas Baume. Right: Helen Marden with artists Ross Bleckner and Brice Marden. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

POLITICAL ARTISTS can be ruthless agents for change when need be, even when knocking down a set of tenpins. They certainly were last Monday night, when Visual AIDS, the artist-activist organization born at a peak of the AIDS pandemic in 1988, honored three shameless humanitarians at its fourth annual bowling-for-dollars benefit on Chelsea Piers.

Art dealers Jack Shainman, Brent Sikkema and Michael Jenkins, Pavel Zoubok, and Matthew Marks’s Jeffrey Peabody helped host the affair, which was joyously gay in every sense of the word. Lanes (for teams of six) were twenty-five hundred dollars; a double lane was twice as much, though it’s not too late to donate. Ever. As Visual AIDS director Amy Sadao and her associate director, Nelson Santos, reminded us, “AIDS is not over.”

Those who had never donned bowling shoes, or wouldn't admit to it, carried on valiantly, while some of the more determined bowlers, like Artforum’s own Tim Griffin, racked up winning points. Collector Diane Ackerman proved something of a superwoman of the alleys (as well as an indefatigable cheerleader), stopping only long enough for the presentation of the awards—snow globes—to critic Douglas Crimp and artists Nayland Blake and Hunter Reynolds.

Left: Artist Nayland Blake and art historian David Deitcher. Right: Michelle Paterson, Alec Baldwin, and Marisa Berenson.

Karen Finley made a surprisingly schoolmarmish MC, coming to stentorian life only long enough to read her poem of loss and rage “The Black Sheep,” written in the heat of the disease’s early and most deadly days in New York. It may not have been the best choice of material. “How ’bout we get a little more positive at this point?” a voice called out.

The presenters—Chrysanne Stathacos, David Deitcher, and Nicholas Baume—did just that, though there were a few meows in the audience when Blake began his acceptance speech by saying, “I hope someone will play music or something if I go on too long.” Crimp assured the gathering that, despite what anyone might have assumed from his angrier diatribes of years past, he does love art and artists and always has. True to form, he didn’t take back a single word.

All anyone had to speak was praise on Tuesday night, when art and politics collided head-on with celebrity culture for Ross Bleckner’s official appointment as the United Nations’s newest Goodwill Ambassador. The occasion was truly historic. As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted during a ceremony in the UN delegates dining room, Bleckner is the first artist ever to be given this honor. (Think Audrey Hepburn, Mia Farrow, and Angelina Jolie.)

There aren’t many people, much less artists, who could bring Calvin Klein, Alec Baldwin, New York First Lady Michelle Paterson, Republican fund-raiser and cosmetics exec Georgette Mosbacher, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, designer Rachel Roy, actress Famke Janssen, Page Six editor Richard Johnson, Eric Fischl, Brice and Helen Marden, and a tall man in a ten-gallon black hat to one room without anyone having to force a smile. But then the UN is used to forging alliances between people of wildly competing interests. “We sneaked into the General Assembly to have a look,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith confessed, as awed as everyone else to be on this particular class trip. “Isn’t this the spot where Cary Grant got into trouble in North by Northwest?” asked writer and former Times Style-section columnist Bob Morris. More awe.

Left: Nicolas Cage. Right: Designers Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

The ceremony, sponsored by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (and underwritten by Egyptian businessman Shafik Gabr), included valedictory speeches not just by Ban but also by Nicolas Cage, who began by saying, “I’m here not as an actor but as someone who cares about children.” He then spoke in brutally earnest tones about the billion-dollar human-trafficking business in Africa, which has turned more than three hundred thousand prepubescent girls and boys into sex slaves and child soldiers—the horror that had brought Bleckner to the town of Gulu in northern Uganda, where many kidnapping victims are from. There he taught twenty-five such children to paint, a task that clearly has had just as powerful an effect on him as his presence did on them.

Some two hundred of their works on paper were tacked to walls around the room for the evening and selling for four hundred dollars each. (The exhibition, “Welcome to Gulu,” has raised more than $150,000 so far; it continues this week at Lehmann Maupin.) The money is to go to the art-therapy program that brought Bleckner to Uganda. “You may not have the same painting skills as Mr. Bleckner,” Ban told the crowd, “but each and every single one of you can make a difference in your own sphere of influence.”

Alec Baldwin was vocal in his determination to help. “I want to do what people like Mia Farrow have done,” he told me, in a brief moment of respite from the paparazzi. “I want to get out of New York, do hands-on relief work in Africa. That’s what’s next for me.” Have they heard this at 30 Rock?

“It isn’t often that the UN has so many bold-faced names in one room,” Ban told the crowd, as Eli and Edythe Broad left for the auction at Sotheby’s. “You could be at more fabulous parties and in more glamorous locations, but you are here because you care about putting an end to human trafficking.”

Left: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Right: Dealer Mary Boone with MoMA president emerita Agnes Gund.

“This is what art is really about,” Bleckner told friends and well-wishers like collectors Agnes Gund, Jane Holzer, and Barbara Jakobson, as well as his longtime dealer Mary Boone. “It’s not just about you and your work.” He was profuse in his praise of Eleanora Kennedy, the philanthropist whose foundation paid for the art materials Bleckner brought to Gulu.

Truly a modest man, Bleckner is one of the few privileged artists today who is following Robert Rauschenberg and lending his name and his connections to humanitarian causes. Over ten years ago, he helped found the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America, dedicated to researching new treatments for HIV. And though his art star has dimmed in recent years, he keeps making preternaturally luminous paintings.

Some of us had to fight back tears when Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, draped the goodwill ambassador’s blue-ribboned medal over Bleckner’s shoulders. It was really quite moving to see an artist from downtown recognized for the critical role art can play in giving dignity to human life, instead of value to the “market.”

A moment later, an enormous tomb of a cake with white frosting and reproductions of picture postcards of the UN on top was wheeled in front of the podium. This was Bleckner’s sixtieth birthday, Costa said as he lit six candles—one for each decade. “Oh, my God,” Bleckner protested, actually blushing. “Did you have to say the actual number?”

Left: Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, with Ross Bleckner. Right: Collector Barbara Jakobson.

Left: Alec Baldwin with critic Jerry Saltz. Right: The View cohost Joy Behar.

Left: Visual AIDS director Amy Sadow with Visual AIDS associate director Nelson Santos. Right: Dealers Jack Shainman and Michael Jenkins.

Left: Artists Brian Meola and Jack Pierson. Right: Artist Julia Jacquette.

Left: Artist Zoe Leonard. Right: Dealer Richard Edwards with artist Bryan Hunt.

Left: Artist Will Cotton and Rose Cotton. Right: Architect Charles Renfro.

Left: Singer Kat DeLuna. Right: Publicist Nadine Johnson with writer Bob Morris.

Left: Dealer Sarah Gavlak with artist Hunter Reynolds. Right: Georgette Mosbacher.