Last Supper

New York

Left: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach and MoMA president emeritus Agnes Gund. Right: Artist Marina Abramović and dealer Sean Kelly. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)


Last Monday afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, Marina Abramović rose from the Judd-like throne where she had been sitting since the middle of March, silently absorbing the egos of thousands, and bowed to the floor. By Tuesday night she was ready to party.

“My life is so incredible,” gushed Abramović, who had returned to New York’s temple of modernism for a drop-dead face-off with fashion and celebrity. It wasn’t much of a contest. The opposing team, rounded up by Givenchy, the evening’s sponsor, was dressed by Riccardo Tisci, the designer for the Abramović art squad as well. He had provided the performance goddess with a black crocodile jacket for which, she said, many reptiles had given their lives, but oh well.

Abramović is a proponent of participatory art. Tisci’s idea of collective responsibility seems to be to turn out beautiful dresses that require at least two attendants to slip on or off. Paper-thin models like Joan Smalls and Maria Carla were strapped into narrow transparent frocks tied or buttoned in places impossible for their own hands to fasten. Björk was smothered in a plume of ruffled gold. Even the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black’s Kembra Pfahler needed help for her getup, which consisted of white body paint with golden glitter accents on her naked flesh and a voluminous black veil that fell from the top of her black, flower-bedecked hornet’s nest of a wig nearly to her feet.

Left: Liv Tyler. Right: Antony Hegarty with Kembra Pfahler.

With Christina Ricci, Liv Tyler, and Courtney Love on hand amid the many models (male and female), Givenchy treated the event as a promotion for the brand, though the occasion was nominally a celebration of Abramović’s marathon, seven-hundred-hour love-in with her audience. Her top-floor retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” attracted more than seven hundred thousand visitors, only 1,545 of whom actually got to bask in her personal aura in the museum’s central atrium. Nearly seven hundred showed up on Monday afternoon for the final moments of her performance, also called The Artist Is Present. They included one who did not require designer clothes, Lama Doboom Tulku, head of the Dalai Lama’s Tibet House in New Delhi, though his maroon and gold robes made another kind of fashion statement.

When he took his seat before Abramović, no sparks flew and no one came down from a mountain. All was serene. Only the exhibition’s curator, MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, was in a sweat. As the closing sitter, he was granted fifteen minutes in the chair. He lasted for eight. That left Abramović alone on the floor to bow to thunderous and extended applause from the crowd, which by then included the thirty-nine lab-coated “reperformers” from the show and the heavy security staff that had protected them from the occasional streaking, vomiting, tearful, and self-aggrandizing crazies and inappropriate touchers who had lined up to join the circus.

Tuesday’s equally showboating dinner for three hundred included other kinds of performances, one of them unplanned. But first there were the paparazzi to deal with. For Orlando Bloom and James Franco, this was water off the proverbial duck’s back, but Pfahler, singer Antony Hegarty (clad in Tisci robes), artist Terence Koh, hotelier André Balazs, and musicians Michael Stipe and Patti Smith were equally accommodating, as was Abramović herself.

Left: MoMA director Glenn Lowry with Susan Lowry. Right: Lama Doboom Tulku.

“I hope she’s having a good time,” MoMA president emeritus Agnes Gund said, as Abramović engaged in a tête-à-tête with the wheelchair-bound art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, one of her greatest enthusiasts. “I told her she better!” said her dealer Sean Kelly, disappearing behind the clutch of cameras and microphones trained on her by a documentary film crew that has been following her every move over the past year. Trustee Anna Marie Shapiro, collectors Willem Peppler, Melva Bucksbaum, and Raymond Learsy, and Abramović’s nutritionist and healer, known as Dr. Linda, stayed out of the limelight, while reperformers made themselves known by mingling with the crowd Abramović-style, one-to-one.

Dinner began with a speech by MoMA director Glenn Lowry, extolling Abramović’s effect on the city as well as the museum. (He didn’t mention the news media, which were even more enthralled.) Lowry also thanked everyone who played a part in the show, particularly Biesenbach. “He helped transform the way MoMA thinks about its exhibitions and its public,” Lowry said, while calling attention to Marco Anelli, the photographer who recorded the faces of every single sitter during the show, and Tunji Adeniji, the head of museum security, who stood up for the loudest cheers. Praising Abramović’s endurance and vulnerability, Lowry said, “This lone figure was able to change a building and a city. She allowed the public to experience the making of a work, instead of just looking at it.”

For entertainment, Abramović had imported a Montenegrin vocalist, Svetlana Spajic, who appeared in traditional dress and sang a haunting Serbian folk song a cappella to more cheers. But the most unsettling part of the evening came when the tippling Biesenbach took the podium. He didn’t thank anyone. Instead he used the moment to make public his two-decade-long unrequited love for Abramović. “Look at me, Marina,” he began. “Listen to me, Marina,” he went on. “Why don’t you look at me? You know,” he then said to the guests, tossing aside his prepared remarks, “she can’t see anyone without her glasses,” thereby negating the experience of all those sitters who thought she was paying special attention to them. This brought loud murmurs. “Will you stop talking and listen to me?” he said. “OK, don’t listen. I don’t care. Marina? Are you listening?” It didn’t stop there.

Recalling how he had fallen in love with Abramović, twenty years his senior, at first sight, he said that he believed she had fallen in love with him too. “Biggest mistake of my career,” he said, though clearly not bigger than this one.

Left: Whitney curator Chrissie Iles. Right: Musicians Patti Smith and Michael Stipe.

Embarrassing though this was—the fashion mob was tweeting like mad—Biesenbach had the crowd’s sympathies. As too many of us probably know, a wounded heart never quite heals. When it was Abramović’s turn to speak, she couldn’t help blurting, “I could kill Klaus Biesenbach for that.” But if Abramović is a diva, she is a gracious one. “He also brought me to MoMA and the biggest show of my life,” she said. Looking straight at him, finally, she said, “You are unpredictable, and I love you for that.”

Introducing Tisci, she said, “I also love vanity and I love fashion,” and then thanked the museum, her collectors, the Kelly family, the reperformers, Spajic, Dr. Linda, Lama Tuklu, Anelli, and the security team. “I have never felt safer in my life,” she said. Which was saying something. The speech was both eloquent and funny, and included a minute (but only a minute) of silence for the passing of Louise Bourgeois and Butoh master Kazuo Ohno, whose name Hegarty had written on his forehead.

Abramović also addressed the people who had come before her during her show, whom she saw struggling with themselves, each one. “I believe art should be and will be more and more immaterial,” she concluded. “And this was the most immaterial piece I could imagine.”

After the applause died down, Martha Wainwright appeared, unannounced, to perform “La Vie en rose” in a voice so sweet and full and longing it left mouths open. That was good timing, as the dessert, provided by Kreëmart, was on the table, gift-wrapped in clear Plexiglas boxes. A limited-edition chocolate ball with a gold-leafed mold of Abramović’s teeth embedded in it, it required the guests to paste gold foil over their own mouths, and they left licking their lips.

Left: Dia director Philippe Vergne with dealer Nicholas Logsdail. Right: Björk.

Left: James Franco. Right: Martha Wainwright and Jörn Weisbrodt.

Left: Designer Riccardo Tisci. Right: Saskia Bos with MoMA associate director Kathy Halbreich.

Left: Raphael Castoriano and Ella Cisneros. Right: Artist Terence Koh.

Left: Marco Brambilla & André Balazs. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg.

Left: Anna Marie Shapiro and Bob Shapiro. Right: Angela Freiberger.