GORGEOUS THOUGH THEY WERE, the cherry blossoms that literally burst into bloom last Thursday were not what brought a swarm of New York art moths to the newly kindled flame of Washington, DC. I speak not of the Obamas’ fire but of the candlepower of Multiverse, an LED light sculpture by Leo Villareal newly installed in the National Gallery of Art.
“This is the first time I’ve been to Washington that hasn’t been for a demonstration,” said artist and Obama campaign booster Susan Jennings, on the arm of her husband, painter Alexander Ross. They were one of the several art couples (Sean and Michelle Landers, curators Cay Sophie Rabinowitz and Christian Rattemeyer, Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer and consultant Mark Fletcher) arriving for the dinner christening the Villareal work, commissioned by the museum to enliven the underground corridor connecting the institution’s east and west wings. “It’s tremendously popular,” said curator Molly Donovan of the two-hundred-foot-long configuration of forty-one thousand LED nodes that Villareal has programmed to dim, brighten, and create random patterns on one wall of the hallway and its lowered ceiling—never appearing the same way twice. “Two guys come over from the Justice Department every day,” Donovan reported. “They go down there just to clear their minds and cleanse their souls.”
Good to know our feds have found a sweet spot where they can wrestle their demons in public, though I doubt this is part of the new transparency. Actually, I think Villareal meant the project, three years in the making, to be more luminous than enlightening. “I made it so you see sound and hear shapes,” he said. It’s trippy, all right, but also serene, just like the soiree in his honor. It isn’t often the National Gallery touts a single work of contemporary art with any fanfare. Then again, it isn’t often that a single work costs around two million dollars. The piece was paid for by philanthropists Victoria and Roger Sant, as well as West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon Percy, CEO of Washington’s public-television station and the person Donovan credits most for getting the Villareal commission approved. On loan from Conner Contemporary Art, Villareal’s Washington gallery, it will be on view until November, though Donovan said there were no plans to replace it with something else. Pointing to an installation of nine hivelike mounds of stepped slate by Andy Goldsworthy installed in a project space just beyond the building lobby, she said, “That was another dead space until the Goldsworthy commission, and now the museum owns it, so who knows?”
A Washington friend who attended the event with me called the buffet lavish by the usual DC standards. And the crowd, she said, was much better dressed. That was because most of this fashion-conscious bunch came from New York and has been well trained by Art Production Fund directors Yvonne Force (Mrs. Leo Villareal) and Doreen Remen to be sanguine and stylish at all times. Set behind a hedge of potted plants that camouflaged the museum cafeteria behind it, with a string quartet playing throughout dinner, guests found their own seats at tables strewn with a generous outlay of white tulips that I wished had secreted hidden microphones. (This whole event was almost defiantly white.) Saint Louis Contemporary Art Museum director Paul Ha recalled how he gave Villareal his first New York solo show ten years ago, when Ha was director of White Columns. Retired P.S. 1 founder Alanna Heiss, still reeling from the imbroglio that followed her announced eviction of the Film-Makers' Cooperative from the Clocktower home of her new project, Art International Radio, swore she was letting the group stay. And Miami collector Mera Rubell tipped us off to the opening of her new restaurant in the Morris Lapidus–designed hotel that she and Don Rubell own and operate just south of the Capitol. (Who knew?)
Helen Marden, wearing a conspicuous squid bracelet, sat down with artists Lisa Yuskavage, Sarah Sze, John Currin, and Rachel Feinstein. Tony Oursler buddied up with Hirshhorn Museum acting director and chief curator Kerry Brougher and his wife, Nora Halpern, not far from the artist’s racehorse-breeder father, while Villareal’s mother held down another table with her family members at one end and dealer Leigh Conner and Washington/New York/Miami collector and megalawyer Aaron Fleischman at the other. “This is the best party we’ve ever had here,” Fleischman said, heading for the moving walkways running back and forth within the twinkly Multiverse tunnel that took us to the dessert tables on the other side. What they usually get is far more boring, he noted, all Supreme Court judges and lobbyists at a formal, sit-down, black-tie dinner. And the DJ isn’t usually composer James Healy, a sometime Villareal collaborator who created a live mix of “early techno,” as Force put it.
“I’m hoping to light the Washington Monument International Klein Blue,” said Brougher, who will be overseeing an Yves Klein retrospective at the Hirshhorn next year. Sounds doable, I thought. Just check out the Empire State Building: a new color for every occasion, red for Valentine’s Day, lavender for Gay Pride Day, white for Easter. Not so easy to accomplish in Washington. The red tape involved in defending our nation’s patriotic symbols from an attack of spectacle is pretty thick. Didn’t all hell break loose when filmmakers had an alien spaceship land at the indifferent white obelisk in 1951 for The Day the Earth Stood Still? “I’m hopeful, though,” Brougher said. “Now that the freedom-fries thing has died down, we might be able to push it through.”