Diary

Montauk Cowboy

Max Levai at The Ranch in Montauk. All photos: David X Prutting/BFA.com.

“I WAS LAYING STONE this morning with the guys, so it’s been a dogfight,” Max Levai said on Saturday afternoon in Montauk at the debut of The Ranch, his next act following some ugly business and back-and-forth litigiousness that saw him and Levai père Pierre part ways with Marlborough Gallery. Anyway, all that seemed to be in the past, or under gag order. The oysters were on ice and the mignonette was glistening. Levai picked up the property last summer and had been renovating until about an hour before guests arrived. Save for some exposed wiring, it was mostly ready. “It was, as you know, a weird winter,” he said. I was familiar.

Montauk likes to bill itself as “The End”—the last exit on Long Island’s interminable stretch before the peninsula, having tapered into pricier and pricier real estate, mercifully relents. Drive any further and you’ll launch yourself into the Atlantic, which after three hours of lurching traffic out of Manhattan, begins to look appealing. “The End” of course makes for both good souvenir sweatshirts and an attractive psychic pose, even if in recent years it’s been less End than Extension, a spillover annex that beckons weekenders who don’t blanch at paying upwards of $700 a night for a motel room. Or you could make like collector and dealer Adam Lindemann, who bought Andy Warhol’s old compound a few years ago for the better part of $50 million, but just the oceanfront bit, passing on the inland 24-acre ranch next door. Levai was more willing to go into the horse business.

“At the end of my tenure with Marlborough there was very little art-related stuff,” he said. “I didn’t realize until it ended that it was making me miserable.” On one hand, it’s probably easier to keep the art world at a distance when you put the art at such a geographical remove; on the other hand, we used to do Frieze on Randall’s Island. In any case, the inconvenience seemed to agree with him. (Warhol: “Montauk is so far away. It’s not for sissies.”)

View of The Ranch, former Marlborough Gallery president Max Levai’s new art venue in Montauk.

The inaugural offering includes eight Peter Halley paintings nearly blinding in their fluorescence and thirty childhood drawings by Susan Te Kahurangi King in a refitted barn, along with a few sculptures (Marianne Vitale’s burned bridges, one of Virginia Overton’s metal flotsam chimes, some of Aaron Curry’s Calder knock-offs) plonked around the rolling pastures. But the real moneymaker, one presumes, is the actual ranch, which breeds and trains cutting horses, a lucrative setup, or at least a decent tax write-off. As an answer to the Potemkin Madison Avenue that popped up last summer in East Hampton, when New York’s blue-chip collector base absconded the plague-riven city en masse, The Ranch wins by sheer overwhelming Arcadian splendor, as well as novelty. Even if all of it comes up lame, you have to admit “beach town gallery/sculpture park/pedigree horse farm” is a new one—the curatorial version of surf and turf.

“It’s the vibe out here,” confirmed Cynthia Rowley, the designer. “I mean, look at that barbecue. There’s a regular barbecue, it’s not super fancy, there’s all the art, all the sculptures.” A cater waiter offered to collect our empties. “And garbage bags. You wouldn’t find that in East Hampton, come on. People aren’t going around with a garbage bag in East Hampton.”

Rowley knows Levai “through Bill Powers, probably,” meaning her husband Bill Powers, the gallerist. “He’s in Miami, otherwise he’d probably be here.” She didn’t seem bothered. Rowley is a one-woman tourism board for the Montauk brand of easygoingness. She surfs with Lucien Smith. “It was kinda crappy today, but I’m hardcore,” she said. “Montauk to me is like, you never plan anything, you let the universe unfold, and one thing leads to another, leads to another, and that’s the best kind of day you can have. And I don’t even smoke weed.”

A painting by Peter Halley featured in “Peter Halley: Blocks,” the inaugural show at The Ranch.

As for the art, Halley’s work is always spectacular. The paintings on hand were destined for his solo at Dallas Contemporary this fall: a distillation of Hofmannian color theory and hard-edge geometry, in the artist’s signature craggy Roll-A-Tex. Halley’s obnoxiously lurid palette seems cued to short-circuit the viewing experience, which today more often than not means screens. As if to make this point, a passel of lithe twentysomethings entered the barn and immediately began crafting Instagram Stories.

Brendan Fallis, whose wedlock with Hannah Bronfman forms a professional influencer steamroller, was similarly inspired, arranging their new baby in front of a Halley painting for a picture, which he swiftly committed to the internet. Start them young!

“So, who is the artist?” Lindemann mock-inquired of a group admiring a Peter Saul hanging in the main house. Lindemann co-reps Saul, so everyone chuckled politely.

“I’m not really a neighbor,” Lindemann, who lives next door, said, correcting an introduction before accidentally connecting with the head of a small child, who moved along, nonplussed.

“I sell tomato sauce,” PJ Monte said, more agreeable. “Started selling it out the trunk of the car kind of thing and now we’re in 150 stores.” He was wearing a fedora and tiny sunglasses that gave him the not-unappealing air of a young Joe Pantoliano. Monte lives in Wainscott with the gallerist Tripoli Patterson, with whom Levai operated Alone Gallery, a very pandemic-era concept that let you visit, as advertised, alone. Patterson’s younger brother, the artist who goes by Yung Jake and who makes celebrity portraits using emojis, was stretched out in the grass a few feet away, more concerned with the clouds. “You know Yung Jake? He’s a great artist himself. We grew up out here together.” Levai is an investor in the sauce. “It’s full circle, real family-style,” Monte said, balancing a halibut taco. “We’ve got a cool thing going on out here.”

Visitors to The Ranch consider a wind chime work by Virginia Overton, with Aaron Curry sculptures in the background.

“I’m having the best time,” Arden Wohl said. “I don't think I have the collective PTSD that everyone else has, because I’m a weirdo already.” She was wearing an iridescent sequined Moschino cardigan that shimmered in the late afternoon sun and made her look like a mermaid run aground. “I heard about the Delta variant this morning, but we’ll see. I have my end-of-the-world shoes”—an all-white pair of Rombaut sneakers with monster-truck treads—“this French vegan designer.” She’s no longer designing her own. “It just wasn’t perfect,” she said. “I’m waiting for the mushroom leather; better conditions in the factories.”

Speaking of factories, Wohl’s husband, the artist Jonah Freeman, was in the process of moving into one abandoned by IBM, in Kingston. “We’ve got a lot of stuff coming back from Marlborough,” he said. Freeman had been part of Levai’s stable of artists since 2011. Would he follow Max out east? “We’re definitely talking about some ideas for next season. Potentially in the attic in the horse barn.”

“I've created a new form of music called Fee-gong,” said Dave Matterhorn (Rowley: “I call him ‘Dave Whatsthematterhorn,’ or ‘Dave Doesn’tmatterhorn.’”) “It’s feedback guitar combined with bowls and gongs—cross harmonics. It's pretty incredible. It's like meditating for twenty minutes in a minute or two, it just really goes right through you. It's some real L.A. shit.”

“Speed meditation,” Freeman offered. “SpeedMed,” Matterhorn countered, before walking away, presumably to tune the bowls.

Back in the city, the most dispiriting mayoral primary cycle of a lifetime, maybe, had just wrapped. The cops were running blitzkrieg maneuvers in Washington Square Park. None of this mattered out here. It was twenty full degrees cooler by the beach, and everyone’s skin looked well-moisturized. Towheaded children lolled in the grass and took turns staring down Frank Benson’s Castaway, a sculpture of a crouching figure wearing a horseshoe crab shell as a hat. Castaway is nominally a pirate, but with his mesh tank, leather clam diggers, and Cuban heels, could just as well be someone at Mineshaft circa 1983. The exhibition notes describe it as a memorial “for the outcast and displaced,” suggesting some hint of grievance, but no one seemed to want to linger on bad feelings.

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