After Earth

Linda Yablonsky at the opening of Doug Aitken’s “Electric Earth” at LA MoCA

Left: Artist Doug Aitken and dealer Shaun Caley Regen. Right: LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

ON THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, more than a hundred galleries in New York held opening receptions all at once. By comparison, the season kickoff in Los Angeles that day was a picnic—literally.

At sunset, three generations of hometown artists in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gathered for a rare, possibly historic, communal meal. And what a pretty picture these seventy-five personages made! The mere sight of David Hockney and John Baldessari having a tête-à-tête with Frank Gehry was enough to send younger artists like Glenn Kaino, Alex Israel, and Liz Glynn over the rising moon. Sterling Ruby chatted with Walead Beshty, Catherine Opie with her neighbor Mark Bradford. Mary Corse, Larry Bell, and Helen Pashigan stood up for California Light and Space at a buffet replete with delectable grilled sausages, sauerkraut, salads, and crispy fries.

Under a text piece by Sam Durant posted high on the side of the Ahmanson building, Rodney McMillian hung with Charles Gaines and Roxana Landaverde at one picnic table, where architect Kulapat Yantrasast, Thomas Houseago, and art historian Muna El Fituri were also chowing down. Other art couples—Durant and Ana Prvački, Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason—were so glad to see old friends that they hardly sat. “I think we’ll have to make this an annual event,” said LACMA’s smiling director, Michael Govan. “I hope we do,” nodded LACMA curator Stephanie Barron. I think they’ll have to, once the word on the joy in this one gets around.

Absent the presence of the usual cohort at museum events—dealers, trustees, students, assistants, collectors—everyone relaxed and talked shop, not business. “You might think we all see each other all the time,” Beshty told me. “But we don’t. Some people haven’t seen each other since art school and others never met at all.”

Left: Artist Mark Grotjahn and dealer Jeff Poe. Right: Artist Henry Taylor.

Speaking of new acquaintance, just across Wilshire Boulevard, the Sprüth Magers Gallery’s left-coast satellite was presenting a magnificent display of 1980s and 1990s installations by Hanne Darboven, virtually (and strangely) still an unknown quantity in this town. Any of the three room-filling spreads here could easily suit Govan’s museum. Nevertheless, the opening’s sparse attendance spoke to the late German Conceptualist’s relative absence from Angeleno radar thus far. “I’m lost,” said collector Grazka Taylor. “I know it’s hard,” replied dealer Sarah Watson, going on to explain Darboven’s fetishizing, numerical, and diaristic approach to folklore, geography, and passing time. “I’m still not sure I get it,” Taylor was honest enough to admit, before gamely plowing on.

Former Museum of Contemporary Art curator Phillip Kaiser, who had staged a Darboven show during a brief stint as director of Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, had no such trouble. Nor did Barron, who walked over from the picnic with gallery artist Thomas Demand. The show is something of an artist’s and curator’s dream, and Philomene Magers clearly was proud of it. The dinner she hosted at Lucques in West Hollywood brought together Hammer Museum curators Anne Ellegood and Aram Moshayedi, artist Analia Saban, collectors Teri and Michael Smooke, dealer Adrian Rosenfeld, art adviser Kimberly Chang, and actress Zoë Saldana. At this late date, can such a group create a groundswell for Darboven in LA? As the auction house people are so fond of saying, the market is smart, as if there were no manipulating hands at work. As Darboven might say, time will tell.

The following night, David Kordansky continued the German theme, sort of, with a debut show at his gallery by Andrea Büttner, which he paired with another for the Belgian Harold Ancart. But the evening really belonged to Doug Aitken.

Left: LA MoCA chief curator Helen Molesworth with Hammer Museum chief of staff Curt Shepard. Right: LACMA director Michael Govan.

That’s how it looked on the plaza in front of MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary, where a large crowd of young museum members lined up at food trucks and a free bar, and shouted over loud music. That gave the opening of Aitken’s midcareer retrospective, “Electric Earth,” the feel of a street fair—mainly because people could see each other out there. Guests entering the Geffen’s cavernous hall were immediately plunged into darkness.

Here’s a lesson. If you want people at thronged openings to look at your work instead of art-directing their own selfies, turn out the lights. In this case, that was the only way the exhibition’s curator, MoCA director Philippe Vergne, could show the wealth of film installations, light boxes, sound works, and projected videos that he included in the show. In the dim but sultry ambient light, Aitken dealers Shaun Caley Regen, Eva Presenhuber, and Lisa Spellman literally bumped into one another all at once. “Oh, it’s you!” was a common refrain. Eyes needed time to adjust.

And people took time to wend their way through the succeeding chapters of Aitken’s career. I didn’t come across a single person who didn’t enjoy it. “This show is hot!” Spellman exclaimed. “So many memories.”

Indeed. One could pick them out, starting with the multiroom, eight-channel title piece, a jittery walk on the LA wild side that, back in 1999, established Aitken as a master of what he calls the fractured screen. The show has many examples of that, though Vergne had installed an actual cinema for seven of Aitken’s more linear films. He also let Aitken dig up the floor of one gallery to reproduce the artist’s dripping and rubbled goodbye-to-all-that piece for the closing of Spellman’s previous location in Chelsea. Much of the work in the show was commissioned for far-flung sites and never seen before in LA—or by the artist since their first installations.

Left: Dealers Katy Erdman and Lisa Spellman. Right: Dealer Eva Presenhuber.

“It’s just incredible to have everything back in this city,” he told the lenders and funders present for the Christie’s-sponsored dinner that followed at Vibiana, a downtown event room that was built originally as Los Angeles’s first Roman Catholic cathedral. What better place to worship art and money?

“I don’t know much about religion,” Vergne began his remarks. “And I don’t know anything about entertainment. What I know is that Doug Aitken pushes the limits of what an exhibition can be,” though perhaps not as much as Aitken’s upcoming “Underwater Pavilions” promise to do. Announced earlier in the day, they are mirrored caves that Aitken has built up to depths of sixty feet off Catalina Island. Like his participatory “happenings,” willing snorkelers can dive or swim around the caves, his version of a living Earthwork.

I’m guessing that Maja Hoffmann, Aileen Getty, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and her son Eugenio, the Kramlichs (Pamela and Richard), and New York’s Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, who were among those at the dinner, are not going to take that dive. MoCA curators Connie Butler and Helen Molesworth? Or Aitken’s dinner partner, Beck?

The singer wasn’t there to perform. That job went to Tim McAfee-Lewis, music director of Harlem’s United Palace House of Inspiration, who flew in to surprise the crowd by walking through the room and crooning the Flamingos’ doo-wop standard, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a touchstone for Aitken’s film Black Mirror. I’ll be damned if he didn’t sound exactly like the original.

Left: Artist Charles Gaines and Roxana Landaverde. Right: Artist John Baldessari.

Absent from the dinner was MoCA trustee Eugenio López Alonso, who was in New York. Nonetheless, he lent his Beverly Hills estate to the museum for a midnight afterparty, where guests could dance under the stars. One, Scott Bolton, was personally intimate with those stars. He is the space physicist who dreamed up the current Juno mission to Jupiter (the planet), and then made it happen. I was fascinated. Like the universe, the art world keeps expanding.

It looked pretty big the next evening, when Chelsea-style crowds swarmed the sidewalks amid openings in Culver City. Rodney McMillian, fresh from a triangulated presentation on the East Coast at the Studio Museum, MoMA PS1, and the ICA in Philadelphia, had a whole new, sharply political body of work, “Chisholm’s Reverb,” at Susanne Vielmetter. The title refers to a speech by the late Shirley Chisholm—those were the days!—broadcast in a front room arrayed with black ceramic vessels on white tables and a small mountain of black tape that McMillian called a “pod.” It was there to represent the congresswoman and many other black figures who have been shoved in history’s attic despite their ongoing influence. Another sound work was in a curtained room with no way in. “I really like the room you can’t get into,” said artist Alex Israel. “That’s cool.”

So far beyond cool it was hot were the immense “gardens” that Henry Taylor made at Blum & Poe. Despite the gallery’s huge space, it was almost too crowded to move across the dirt floor to see any of the painted portraits or found-object sculptures, though I did trip over a rusty water pump and a shopping cart lined with Astroturf and embedded in the dirt. A long line formed around a floor-bound swimming pool painting for entry to a black box viewing room, where Rastafarians were “performing” by rolling medicinal weed and smoking it. On the walls, a lyrical black-and-white film by Kahlil Joseph showed the same people doing much the same thing. You couldn’t just look at this work. You breathed it.

Left: Artists Larry Bell and Alex Israel, and Suzanne Ponder. Right: Artist Rodney McMillian.

“We had to buy three ounces,” Jeff Poe confessed, though the legal limit per person is one. Clearly this involved teamwork—same as Mark Grotjahn’s show of 1990s works in the upstairs gallery. “It’s nice to see this stuff again,” Grotjahn said of the handmade signs he cadged from a variety of shop owners in exchange for paintings, just after leaving art school. Where are those paintings now? “Trashed, probably,” he said.

Lest we forget this is an election year—as if!—the evening turned to current events in the form of Sexy Beast, a benefit for Planned Parenthood organized by Night Gallery partners Mieke Marple and Davida Nemeroff with producer Eliah Perona. For its second edition, held in the theater of the Ace Hotel downtown, the trio was costumed in colorful neoprene designs by the diminutive, loudly made-up Barf Queen. This was the fun part.

The rest, as driven home in a speech by Planned Parenthood LA CEO Sue Dunlap, was serious business. Dunlap emphasized the terrifying future facing women in need of abortions, should the wrong person get elected to the presidency. Host Andy Richter personalized the issue with a story about him and his wife that had a happy ending, and filmmaker Dawn Porter made an equally heartfelt speech about abortion providers before receiving the Sexy Beast award for her documentary Trapped. Then came the inevitable auction of donated artworks, paddles by Math Bass.

It seemed to be going well when I left for the 1642 Temple bar in Echo Park, where friends of Erika Vogt were gathering to toast her opening that night at Overduin & Co. But I couldn’t help thinking of Durant’s sign at LACMA: “Like, Man. I’m tired (of waiting).”

Isn’t it about time people in politics made the right move? If art can do it, why can’t they?

Left: NASA’s Juno Mission principal investigator Scott Bolton. Right: Dealer Philomene Magers and curator Philipp Kaiser.

Left: Planned Parenthood LA CEO Sue Dunlap. Right: Sexy Beast producer Eliah Perona with dealers Mieke Marple and Davida Nemeroff.

Left: Architect Kulapat Yantrasast, art historian Muna El Fituri, and artist Thomas Houseago. Right: Artist Catherine Opie.

Left: Artist Lita Albuquerque and dealer Tim Blum. Right: Artist Mary Corse.

Left: Artists Erika Vogt and Shannon Ebner. Right: Artist T. Kelly Mason.

Left: Darryn Harris, director of external affairs for Congresswoman Karen Bass, and United Palace music director Tim McAfee-Lewis. Right: Collector Maja Hoffmann.

Left: Dealer Emi Fontana and artist Stanya Kahn. Right: Dealer David Kordansky.

Left: Dealer Susanne Vielmetter with collectors Paul and Linda Gotskind. Right: Designer Barf Queen.

Left: LACMA curator Stephanie Barron. Right: MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci and dealer Cristian Alexa.

Left: Hammer Museum curators Anne Ellegood and Aram Moshayedi. Right: LACMA curator Christine Y. Kim.

Left: Artist Sam Durant. Right: Hammer Museum chief curator Connie Butler and dealer Glenn Scott-Wright.

Left: Dealer Adrian Rosenfeld and developer Geoff Annenberg. Right: Wife in performance at Sexy Beast.