Scene & Herd

Fringe Benefit

New York

Left: Antony of Antony and the Johnsons at the National Arts Club's Paris Bar. Right: Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Antony. (All photos: David Velasco)

On a bitterly cold Sunday evening in Manhattan, while most of the country was reportedly engrossed in something called the Super Bowl, I joined fans of a rather different stripe at the tony National Arts Club off Gramercy Park for a “Secret Show” by Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons. A benefit for Lower East Side gallery Participant, Inc., the performance promised to be the most intimate that the Mercury Music Prize–winning androgyne had given in some time, so its coincidence with the gridiron event of the season was barely mentioned and soon forgotten. Sorry, sports fans.

Arriving early, I negotiated a grumpy doorman and headed up to the sixth-floor Nyehaus Library (the club’s building houses, as well as a number of apartments, Tim Nye’s gallery) for preshow cocktails. The high-ceilinged, balconied room was soon filled to bursting with a well-heeled mix of patrons and collectors, artists and dealers, who had each shelled out a different amount, depending on whether they wanted a seat for the show or were prepared to crane their necks from the bar. (“I’ve never paid for a benefit in my life before,” admitted artist Kathe Burkhardt, “but I did this time. Lia [Gangitano, Participant’s founder] has done so much for me.”)

As Hal Willner spun unobtrusive party tunes, gallerist Marisa Newman admitted to me that, having once hefted Antony’s equipment, she still harbored roadie ambitions. Also very visible on the scene in the elegant room—hung with prints and drawings by Georg Baselitz in conjunction with Nyehaus’s current exhibition down the hall—were artist Jack Pierson (who had contributed a photographic edition to Participant’s cause) and Nan Goldin muse Joey Gabriel, Le Tigre’s Johanna Fateman and Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black singer Kembra Pfahler, Genesis P-Orridge with wife Lady Jaye, nèe Jacqueline Breyer (aka, as a couple, Breyer P-Orridge; whew!), and performance-art icon Marina Abramovic.

Left: Participant Inc. director Lia Gangitano. Right: The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black's Kembra Pfahler with Joey Gabriel.

After an hour of mingling, we were ushered downstairs for the main event. Progress was momentarily stalled by a bureaucratic attempt to funnel everyone through the elevator rather than down the stairs, but sensing impending gridlock, the organizers hastily reversed the decision. (“You look like a well-behaved lot.”) We trotted down, past a chaotic jumble of inhabitants’ bric-a-brac, to the first-floor Paris Bar. Vintage Scott Walker was playing as we arrived: a perfect theme for the long room’s crumbling antique glory.

Standing as close to the action as we could without actually stealing a chair, my companions and I searched in vain for the Amazing Disappearing Barman, as P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss, ubiquitous independent curator Clarissa Dalrymple, and dealer Becky Smith filed past us en route to their first-class seats up front. Eventually, the most genteel of bum rushes on empty chairs began, the assembly went quiet with anticipation, and the man we’d come to see ambled onstage, followed by Johnsons Julia Kent and Doug Wieselman.

“I’m slightly terrified tonight,” the pale, heavy-set singer declared before launching into “Everything Is New.” Not having seen him perform before, I’d wondered whether his otherworldy warble could be reproduced outside a studio. The answer: Yes, and then some. Its effect was immediate and entrancing, and even Charles Atlas’s heavy-handed live video mix couldn’t detract from his voice’s eerie beauty. Forgetting his supposed jitters, Antony took breaks to show us a floral screen saver on his laptop sent to him by an old boss—he was a gardener in a former life—and to read us a new poem about toxic-waste site Yucca Mountain. (“It’ll be a good song, right?”) Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie contributed a ramshackle chorus to “Kiss My Name,” but for the remaining, delirious forty-five minutes, the crowd was Antony’s alone.

The show over, we found ourselves in unnervingly close proximity to a veritable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson rubbing shoulders with a startlingly youthful-looking Kim Gordon, a typically hangdog J Mascis, and Rufus Wainwright. We also got to talking with Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell, whom my companions later joined for dinner at nearby L’Express. 303 Gallery’s Mari Spirito and dealer John Connelly occupied a large table with friends, Elizabeth Dee and company also sat nearby, and Mitchell’s crew held the center. Antony himself was absent, but I’d be surprised, and a little disappointed, if his album I Am a Bird Now didn’t hit the stereos of most of those assembled later that night.

Left: Collectors Barbara Morse, Howard Morse, and Laura Skoler. Right: Musician Kim Gordon.

Left: Musician Rufus Wainwright. Right: Breyer P-Orridge with Kembra Pfahler.

Left: Marina Abramovic and Charles Atlas. Right: Foxy Production director John Thomson with dealer Elizabeth Dee.

Left: Musician Devendra Banhart. Right: Producer Mark Tusk with filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell and Sunmin Park.