At the Friday-night opening of Carroll Dunham's second solo outing at Gladstone Gallery, the question on everyone's lips was, “Vulva or rectum?” This conundrum derived from Dunham’s rude new paintings of his beloved protagonist, Mr. Penis Nose, in his signature fedora. We didn’t see so much of the famed proboscis—just the business end—in the plainly autoerotic Square Mule, 2007, the sole occupant of one room in the gallery. The canvas shows Mr. Penis Nose bottom up, with his revolver aimed back at his gluteus maximus. The bullet rictus where the rectum would be had the unmistakable aura of labia. “Thinking a lot about assholes lately?” I asked Dunham. Why did it sound as if I were flirting? “You’re projecting,” he replied. “That is not an asshole,” confirmed Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein, attending with his wife, Buddhist sculptor Arlene Shechet. “What then?” both New Museum director Lisa Phillips and I wanted to know. Replied Epstein, “That is a target painting. It is the key to the whole show.” Jasper Johns, eat your heart out.
In fact, the painting is something like a hinge on which Dunham is swinging front and rear, mixing the elegant with the crude; the show includes both the nervy man-with-a-gun paintings and terrific brown-and-yellow canvases that take the same hapless character, facing forward this time, and fold him flat into abstraction on the surface like a neatly ironed shirt.
The invited crowd of mostly artists—Kiki Smith, James Siena, Alexi Worth, Steve DiBenedetto, Mel Bochner, Matthew Ritchie, Sarah Charlesworth—mingled freely but also took time to examine each work. “What do you think,” I asked Charlesworth. “Vagina or ass?” “I’m reserving judgment,” she said. “But isn’t it both?”
“Dinner” had it both ways, too: Cocktails met down-home blinis at Pravda. At the bar, I overheard Phillips make a play for “the big painting.” “We may be the only museum that would actually keep it on view,” she said. Does this mean that the new New Museum, when it opens later this year, will actually have a permanent collection? I never found out, having moved on to conversation with Matthew Barney (recently returned from Moscow, where he decided that the chilled Lenin corpse is “totally fake”) and novelist Susanna Moore, whose upcoming book, The Big Girls, is set in part in a women’s prison. “What do you think?” I asked Moore. “Asshole or . . . ?” She said, “Isn’t it marvelous?” It wasn’t until I said my good-nights to Simmons that I realized she was sitting with her friend (and cast member in her film The Music of Regret) Meryl Streep. “Didn’t you love our movie?” squealed Streep. She seemed a little tipsy. “Oh, I keep it under my pillow,” I replied and took her picture. She looked great.
For a change of pace, on Saturday night I went to . . . another opening, this one at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Inside, invitees gathered around artist Julian Lethbridge, who was surprised to hear his opening was closed to the public, but beamed at accolades from the likes of food writer Moira Hodgson, ballet dancer Heather Watts, book editor Steven M. L. Aronson, and artists Terry Winters, Kelley Walker, and Cecily Brown. James and Alexandra Brown were there, too, en route from Paris to Oaxaca, where they are producing new books by Joan Jonas and Rob Wynne for Carpe Diem, their exquisite collection (bought by MoMA) of livres d'artiste.
At Cooper, there was no controversy over the two distinct groups of paintings. The smaller, less jungly, beautifully textured abstractions were particularly effective, suggesting that Lethbridge has discovered a new painter within. If a couple of canvases did seem van Gogh–like, it was to their advantage. And so it was, as an even more exclusive crowd gathered at the Wooster Street loft of Clarissa Dalrymple, who cohosted an Indian buffet dinner from Rice (served by Glorious Food waiters) with Lethbridge paramour Anne Bass.
“We spent the '90s here,” said Times critic Roberta Smith, as cohort Jerry Saltz watched Whitney curator Donna De Salvo, Gagosian Gallery’s Bob Monk, writer David Plante, and real estate superagent Jan Hashey chow down while lounging on the parachute-silk-covered divans. Of course, for a large swath of the contemporary art world, the '90s could not have lived up to its name without those intense mixers; by comparison, this one was an island of peace and serenity, an exercise in ease. “If you really want to do the smart thing,” Plante told me, “you’ll buy a house in Damascus. That’s the place to be.” Then how come he bought an apartment in Athens? “It’s doubled in value in just a year,” he said, sounding suspiciously like a certain type of art collector. Well, live and let live—or, as John Cage said, “Everyone is in the best seat.”