“It’s good that people have to wait—it’s like a rock concert,” remarked Marc-Olivier Wahler, director of the Palais de Tokyo, last Wednesday night, as a growing crowd anxiously paced outside the entrance to Loris Gréaud’s “Cellar Door.” Two years in the making, Gréaud used every second before the gate rolled open to prepare his unprecedented solo show. (This was the first time the institution’s entire space had been devoted to the work of someone under thirty.) Eager to get a look at Gréaud’s ambitious project—the expansive charred forest, the paintball arena, and the full-scale replica of his 2005 exhibition at Le Plateau—I’d snuck into the space early. Inside, Gréaud was racing around, cell phone glued to his ear, pausing only briefly for a photo op with soprano Marie Devellereau. Bedecked in diamonds and flaunting an open-backed black lace gown, Devellereau was slated to perform that evening, singing—with the support of a sixty-piece ensemble from Radio France’s Philharmonic Orchestra—the eponymous libretto specially written for “Cellar Door.”
Well after the official 8 PM start time, Gréaud gave the go-ahead to allow everyone inside. As the crowd spilled in, peeking into the central “Production Studio,” checking out the crumpled neon sculpture, Distortion of Space, Gréaud cracked a smile. We were now in his thrall.
While exploring the surreal facsimile of Gréaud’s Le Plateau exhibition, I came across Caroline Bourgeois, chief curator of that venue. She explained that the Palais de Tokyo installation was the exact inverse of the show presented earlier: The entrance had become the exit, and vice versa. She was clearly enchanted by the project, dubbing it “tellement genial.” We were interrupted by gunshots, a signal that the paintball action had begun. Inside an immense black net cage, three geared-up combatants were in battle, dodging behind black sculptural outcrops as they unloaded pellets of Gréaud’s patented M46 paint.
As the action continued, I chatted with Wahler. “The project’s scale scared the hell out of a lot of people.” He continued: “The curator has to protect the artist by putting things in perspective—be the guy that spots the core of the work and lets it blossom. Like a coach, if you have a striker and make him play defense . . .” Gréaud himself seems to have a clear sense of his project. When questioned about the influence of the previous generation of French artists, Gréaud differentiated himself from “those artists from the ’90s—Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe.” He sees his work as “antiromantic”: “Rather than producing illusion, we are bringing utopia into reality.”
That night, at least, dream and reality seemed to converge. Once the paintball battle finished, Devellereau and the musicians took their places, playing a series of enchanting excerpts from Cellar Door the opera. After the performance, I met Aaron Schuster (described by Gréaud as “a philosopher and a magician”) and curator Raimundas Malasauskas, the duo responsible for the libretto. Malasauskas explained that “the opera functions as a synthetic version of the whole exhibition.” Schuster clarified: “It’s more an interpretation of the project than a summary.”
Left: Composer Thomas Roussel and Raimundas Malasauskas. Right: Loris Gréaud and soprano Marie Devellereau.
A little after 9 PM, a small party made its way over to Tokyo Eat, the museum’s trendy restaurant, for a dinner hosted by Gréaud’s Paris gallery, Yvon Lambert. I took my seat next to Nicolas Bourriaud, former codirector of Palais de Tokyo and father of relational aesthetics. Bourriaud and I discussed his book coming out this summer, Altermodern, as well as his work on the Tate Triennial. (He has proposed replacing the institution’s colonialist method of categorizing artists as “British” or “International” with the contemporary, and decidedly more jet-set, triumvirate of terms: “UK-born,” “Resident,” and “Passer-by.”) Bourriaud was quick to remind me that he had included Gréaud in “Notre Histoire . . . ,” the last exhibition he curated (along with former codirector Jérôme Sans) at the Palais de Tokyo. “It’s like I was planting little seeds, and now they are starting to grow.”
At a nearby table, I spoke with Mark Sladen, director of exhibitions at the ICA London, Gréaud’s next stop. He offered me one of Gréaud’s “Celador” candies—a reference, perhaps, to a neologism J. R. R. Tolkien cooked up in a 1955 discussion of the euphony of cellar door—from his gift bag. I chose a red one, but the whole idea is that the candy has no actual flavor. “You can project any flavor onto it,” Sladen explained, “but it’s actually quite hard to find inspiration. It’s so wonderfully inert.” Back at my table, artist Saâdane Afif compared the candy to a monochrome canvas or an empty film screen—“you project what you wish.”
After midnight, the crowd began to thin, so I went over to say good-bye to Gréaud, joining the queue next to his table, where he’d been holding court between Wahler and LVMH Foundation artistic director Suzanne Pagé for most of the dinner. The person ahead of me quipped that it was like “giving oblations to the king.” “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Gréaud asked when I finally reached him. Wahler cheerfully assured me, “Tomorrow, we’re going to party.”
Left: Mark Sladen, director of exhibitions at the ICA London, with Alfred Pacquement, director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Right: Independent curator Vincent Honoré with Marie-Laure Bernadac, chief curator of contemporary art at the Louvre.
Some compared it to the Grammys and others to the Oscars, but when Barbara Kruger called it “anthropology,” she nailed it. The black-tie gala introducing the Renzo Piano–designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum to Los Angeles society last Saturday night, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was interspecies communication at its best, very like The Day of the Locust. Except that this event was strictly postfiction, with competing narratives involving movie stars, pop stars, studio heads, philanthropists, politicians, museum directors—and a smattering of people who make art, most of them male. (Eighty-seven percent male, according to an e-mail from the Guerrilla Girls, whom BCAM brought out of hibernation.)
“I think they could have invited a few more artists,” said painter Lari Pittman, during cocktails in the breezeway dubbed the BP Grand Entrance, after the oil company that paid twenty-five million dollars for it. Cindy Sherman, Bill Viola, Philip Taaffe, John Baldessari, David Salle, and Jack Pierson did seem lost in the crowd of twelve hundred, as they huddled together protectively, bolstered now and then by curators like Ann Goldstein and Ari Wiseman (MoCA LA), Donna de Salvo (the Whitney), Kerry Brougher (the Hirshhorn) and Kathy Halbreich (MoMA); dealers Marian Goodman, Thaddaeus Ropac, Paula Cooper, and Mary Boone; celebrity collectors Michael York, Dennis Hopper, and Steve Martin; and the occasional celebrity artist (music legend Tony Bennett).
However, the gala’s purpose was not to make (or look at) art or artists. It was to make (and look at) money: over $5 million, the amount it raised for the museum, minus the $1.5 million it cost. Organized with military precision by LACMA’s crack development and marketing team alongside J. Ben Bourgeois Productions, an event planner that seems to specialize in airplane hangar–size tents (“That’s what cost the million,” chirped gala chairperson Jane Nathanson), the arriving guests thought they had shelled out big bucks (tables cost $25,000 to $100,000) to witness the unveiling of the $56 million BCAM. And they did. But they also had to endure the canonization of Eli Broad.
The party began on a red carpet rolled onto the Wilshire Boulevard sidewalk, where celebrities could stop for photo ops with paparazzi, before a line of taiko drummers and valet-parking attendants dressed in black BCAM BORN 02-09-08 T-shirts bearing the image of Jeff Koons’s cracked red egg that LACMA adopted for its BCAM opening. Performers on stilts, costumed as dragons, nudged guests through Chris Burden’s outdoor allées of vintage LA lampposts (a permanent installation called Urban Light) and into the pavilion, where tray-carrying “waiters” carved from blocks of ice proffered flutes of champagne.
Throughout the cocktail hour, the building that everyone had come to see remained hidden from view by fabric curtain walls. That mystified many patrons, who wondered what they were supposed to talk about during dinner, if not the art. Some strolled into the older Ahmanson Building, where Tony Smith’s 1967 sculpture Smoke, a 2005 black-painted aluminum edition of which was being exhibited for the first time, looked for all the world like a honeycombed version of a giant Louise Bourgeois spider. “Who would give a museum five million dollars and be anonymous about it?” asked a perplexed Steve Martin, pausing before the Ahmanson donor wall.
Just before dinner, personally catered by Spago’s Wolfgang Puck, so many boldfaces began pouring into the enormous tent it seemed as if a bus had unloaded them all at once: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Tom Ford and Rita Wilson (Mrs. Tom Hanks), Dustin Hoffman and his wife, Lisa, Angelica Huston and Robert Graham, Nicole Richie and Christina Aguilera. Having just been regaled with hunky producer Lawrence Bender's prescient discovery of marketable Chinese art during the filming of Kill Bill, and with Don Johnson’s interest in California artists like Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston, I had to ask Cruise whether he, like Broad, collected art. “Not yet,” he said, flashing the famous smile. “But I like to look at it.” And Hoffman? Was he a regular at LACMA openings? “You mean there have been others?” he quipped. Well, not like this. There has never been a night in the art world quite like this. As another show-biz personality would put it later, “Even for Hollywood, it was appalling.”
Actually, it was hugely entertaining: the ludicrous scale, the cracked-egg dessert of cream-filled red chocolate, the sheer moxie that put Maria Shriver on a program with Lionel Richie and Richard Meier, while Koons hobnobbed with Terry Semel, the former Warner Brothers executive who also left Yahoo! not so long ago, Disney CEO Robert Iger, and Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton (a lifelong collector of art). You don’t see this kind of thing in New York! Seldom does the art world rival Hollywood on such even terms. It’s even more rare to find anyone promoting a museum as strenuously. For me, that is a welcome development, particularly at LACMA, an ugly duckling transformed into an art-loving swan thanks largely to the diplomatic skills of director Michael Govan, who was sitting on top of the world—hardly its safest place.
Left: Artist Chris Burden. Right: Dustin Hoffman with Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Natalia Villaraigosa. (Photos: Stefanie Keenan for Patrick McMullan)
Still, it was hard not to appreciate the ironies of an event that included, along with the ritual speeches of congratulation for anyone not an artist, a bar mitzvah–like set by Lionel Richie. I don't think I’ll ever forget watching the seventy-four-year-old Broad dance to “Brick House,” cheek by jowl with several hundred other people on a narrow strip of lighted Plexiglas floor. What really set tongues clucking, though, was the overproduced commercial for Broad, starring Boone, Baldessari, Koons, Damien Hirst, and even Richard Serra, all testifying to Broad’s generous patronage and “talents” as a collector.
No sooner did the film end than those attempting to flee were stopped in their tracks by the pounding chords of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” played loud from a stage descending from fifty feet above and carrying the pouty young pianist William Joseph, a sexy, hair-tossing violinist, and a hardworking drummer. “Couldn’t they afford Led Zeppelin?” asked new Brant Publications editorial director Glenn O’Brien.
Just then, the tent wall behind the players fell to the ground and there, klieg-lit and framed by Robert Irwin’s palm-tree garden, was the three-story BCAM in all its travertine glory. A dozen violinists with faces painted bright red to match Piano’s exterior escalator were also playing “Kashmir” as the crowd at last ascended to the building’s glass-ceilinged top floor. Here, amid a veritable playland of Koonsiana, bookended by Andy Warhol and Baldessari paintings (as if Koons were the key to these artists), the crowd gathered to grouse and coo at what was clearly the most expensive, rather than the most representative, display of works in Eli and Edythe Broad’s collection.
Left: Tony Bennett. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Disney CEO Robert Iger and Michael Eisner. (Photo: Stefanie Keenan for Patrick McMullan)
Koons himself seemed uncharacteristically sheepish. Standing before his still-wacky ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, the artist told his onetime patron Jeffrey Deitch, “You were the first to say my vacuum cleaners were important.” Now Deitch looked embarrassed. “I have always had complete faith in you, Jeff,” he said. The work of other 1980s-era art stars, like Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner, Susan Rothenberg, and Julian Schnabel, represented by a single work apiece, were ghettoized in a room on the second floor, in the shadow of a spectacular and spacious installation of fifty-one Cindy Sherman photographs and several butterfly paintings by Damien Hirst.
“One can't really complain,” said Fischl later, speaking truth perhaps for many, while wondering whether the show wasn't more exposition than exhibition. It certainly did bare the machinations of power in art. As Kruger’s pungent text work, commissioned by LACMA for BCAM’s glass elevator shaft, put it, PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH. If only we could all be as perfect.
If I were to apply a “Thrilla in Manila”–style sports sobriquet to Anne Carson’s reading/performance at NYU last Friday, it would be “The Skein at Skirball.” How else to describe an event where a poet—a Canadian poet, no less—drew some seven hundred people to hear her read while an amiable ponytailed fellow wrapped yellow yarn around her person and three young dancers tied themselves in knots on the surrounding stage? Did I mention that the poet had the audience vote—from three choices—on the correct pronunciation of skein? String may talk, but yarn talks louder. Let’s uncoil it and see where it leads.
Carson, the Lillian Vernon Writer-in-Residence at the NYU Creative Writing Program, has under her name as many awards as books and is one of a very few surviving examples of a nearly extinct species: the famous living poet. (Seven hundred people, Friday night, New York City, poet—any questions?) Her outsize fan base can be partly attributed to the fact that Carson is not really a poet, exactly, or not only a poet. Rather, she is a postmodernist-classicist textual artist, as comfortable writing about Aretha Franklin and Joseph Beuys as about Sappho and Ovid, as likely to deploy spare bursts of arrhythmic prose as dactyls and trochees. Since the 1960s, a playful bunch of Renaissance Faire types calling themselves the Society for Creative Anachronism have carved a place for themselves in the Bay Area. While Carson is not, academically speaking, a medievalist—nor, judging from her slim frame, a mutton-and-mead kind of gal—the title suits her: She is a creative anachronist.
For a writer fixated on the color red, the Skirball Center was a sympathetic venue. The seats lining the handsome, wood-paneled auditorium were upholstered in a fetching fire-engine hue. These were filled by an equally attractive all-ages crowd that radiated the kind of anticipatory excitement usually reserved for rock stars. Without flourish, Creative Writing Program director Deborah Landau emerged onstage, welcomed the audience, and introduced Mark Bibbins, who in turn introduced Carson, announcing that he had made a film to kick off the evening. Quoting Brian Eno, Bibbins said his film was guided by the principle that “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” After ten or so minutes of close-up shots of paintings, collages, and pages from Carson’s books, scored by ambient electronic music, Bibbins had succeeded in meeting this standard.
Then Carson appeared, resembling a fashionable student in her naval-inspired jacket, black floral pleated skirt, black tights, and red cowboy boots, accompanied by the yarn man and the three dancers (two males, one female). In a tiny voice, Carson said that tonight was a “neo-post-Fluxus evening,” deadpanning that we were looking at the entirety of the movement. She explained that the first fragments she would be reading were from the subject index of Roni Horn’s forthcoming 2009 Whitney Museum retrospective catalogue, the writers of which, including Carson, had been asked to base their entries on the artwork titles. Carson admitted that she had misunderstood the instructions, writing on individual words in the titles instead. One fragment involved H. G. Wells’s long-suffering wife. Carson read in a breathy, affectless voice, occasionally rolling on her ankles.
She then began the titular “String Talks,” “thirteen-second lectures” on far-flung subjects, probably drawn from her 1992 book Short Talks. Topics included Gertrude Stein, trout, Ovid, “major and minor,” rectification, walking backward, hedonism, ducks, and “things that happen again.” She interspersed the talks with fragments from her poem “Memoir of Orpheus,” in which the mythological figure suffers everyday, modern-world problems. Meanwhile, the yarn man spun various asymmetrical loops around the stage, sometimes using Carson’s hands or limbs as a joint, and the dancers did a kind of push-me-pull-you Chaplin/Keaton routine. The relationship of all this kinesis to Carson’s words was unclear, but hey, it’s art, and if I were a poet reading to seven-hundred-plus people in a grand auditorium, I’d want some visual aids, too.
Next, your correspondent was treated to a flush of home-team pride as Carson announced that she would be reading a longer piece she wrote, commissioned by Artforum, on a painting by Betty Goodwin. One of the 1000 Words essays by writers on individual artworks, Carson’s effort consisted entirely of seventy conditional if clauses. After digesting other Artforum pieces, she had concluded that the critics “covered the artwork with an opinion,” and however she racked her brain, she could not muster an opinion of Goodwin’s painting. Hence, her conditional essay about lacking an opinion of an artwork. She apologized in advance for its length—“It’s only three pages, but it will seem endless”—and joked that once we heard the name Freud, it was two-thirds done (“the only time that Freud’s name will inspire hope”).
Seventy if clauses later, the yarn man and dancers lined up chairs on the lip of the stage, facing Carson, and the poet concluded with two final short talks, in which the audience was asked to participate. We said “James Joyce” on cue, completing a rhyme on “Joseph Beuys.” We said “Deciduous?” in response to “Hair on female flesh.” The women in the audience said, “Let’s buy it!” The men said, “What a bargain!” And then it was over. Carson received big applause, and the crowd seemed sated. Not exactly an Obama campaign rally, but given the impoverished status of poetry in contemporary culture, a cause for hope nonetheless.
Some people believe brown shoes and black pants should not be paired, but Mikhail Baryshnikov is not among them. In fact, Baryshnikov will also throw in striped socks that peek out when he crosses his legs, as he did last Tuesday night during the first of seven shows put on by the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Joyce Theater, the Art Deco former movie house on Eighth Avenue whose marquee is now lighted mostly with names like Pilobolus and Momix. For the duration of the performance, “Misha,” Brown’s sometime collaborator, sat with crossed legs, his left foot dangling in the aisle between us, and looked enthralled. Then again, few viewers did not look enthralled. “Easy,” dancer Todd McQuade noted afterward. “It was all friends and family.”
“Friends and family” in this case meant Barbara Gladstone (a longtime benefactor of the company), Laurie Simmons, Alex and Ada Katz, Matthew Barney, Elizabeth Peyton, and about five hundred others. The program, which consisted of three works, old and new, began with Foray Forêt, first performed at the 1990 Lyon Dance Biennale. Faint drum rolls segued into the sounds of a full marching band—an homage to Brown’s hometown, Aberdeen, Washington, where “the Thanksgiving football game was always such a thing”—that played, from the lobby, “Korobeiniki” (the Russian folk song better known as the Tetris theme) and “Sweet Dreams” (by Eurythmics). In shiny metallic blouses and culottes designed by Robert Rauschenberg, the dancers cut elegant figures in the air, made gestures at once stiff and fluid, and were halted midleap by one another. The lights were barely up when the conclusions were drawn: “Absolutely strong and absolutely soft at the same time,” “It does have an Asian feel,” “So gorgeous,” “Tantalizing.” And then it was time for the second act: If You Couldn’t See Me, a 1994 number in which one woman dances alone to discordant, synthesized strains under warm-colored lights, her back turned to the audience.
Left: Deborah Harry, promoter Johnny Dynell, and John Reinhold. Right: Collector Jane Holzer with dealer Barbara Gladstone.
The final work, I love my robots, was having its New York premiere. The eponymous characters were two upright poles attached to wooden platforms that zoomed around the stage amid the dancers, pausing here and there. For the last segment, Brown herself entered from stage right and pawed her way along the brick wall in back. She appeared in front of the black scrim that, in a quick lighting change, had cut her momentarily from view, and enacted a playful pas de trois with the robots. She lay down and rested her head on one of their bases. A woman behind me gasped. Soon Brown spoke the only words in the show: “How old are you? I hear my mother calling: Come home and take a nap. See you tomorrow.” And with that, she scampered off to a standing ovation.
The unmarked buses parked across the street did not bring us to New Jersey or the Bronx Zoo, as some riders worried they would, but to the gala at PaceWildenstein’s Twenty-fifth Street branch. It was the type of staid affair where blue-suited gentleman pay however many dollars to mingle with figures like Debbie Harry—who that night had set up shop, her head wrapped in a bandanna, with DJ Johnny Dynell on one of the white cloth couches (think Diane Keaton’s Hamptons home in Something’s Gotta Give) placed before coffee tables topped with champagne buckets. Tables and trays were loaded up with dumplings, tuna sashimi, and lo mein, but Laurie Simmons and Rosalie Benitez, Gladstone Gallery director, were holding out for the miniburgers. Brown, in a shimmering black outfit and a long string of pearls, stood in back entertaining a revolving cast of conversation partners. Matthew Barney, looking shy, hung next to her and finally had his turn. Brown and I talked a bit about the robots (her dance with them constituted the only “freeform” choreography in the show) and about their designer, Kenjiro Okazaki. And then something shifted. “That’s my professor,” Brown said. She locked eyes with a white-haired woman with a cane across the gallery, and the two danced seductively toward each other as I made my exit.
That the Juergen Teller event Thursday night at Lehmann Maupin Gallery was an art opening seemed beside the point. You heard it at Ruth Root’s opening at Andrew Kreps, and at Carrie Mae Weems’s at Jack Shainman: Those who were actually going were going for the promised sausages (served from an authentic cart with a Lufthansa umbrella) and to satisfy morbid curiosity about “the scene.” After all, if you wanted to see the work, you might as well just open up a copy of Vogue. This is not to say the crowd was filled with major fashion players—it was Fashion Week, mind you. “People sent their assistants to check it out,” was one guest’s verdict.
Most of the photographs were placed on tables under glass. (“What is this—a new German thing?” artist Kathe Burkhart wondered, making reference to the similar layout of Wolfgang Tillmans’s recent show at Andrea Rosen Gallery.) Teller’s series of pictures shot in Kiev (commissioned by the Ukrainian pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale) was virtually indistinguishable from the other, more “Western” works: those of (and for) Marc Jacobs, Victoria Beckham, Björk with inky linguine spilling from her mouth. There were many (Ukrainian?) breasts, some natural, some enhanced. Of the latter category, one work in particular caught people’s attention. “I like how one nipple points up and the other down,” Artforum’s Rhonda Lieberman said thoughtfully. “It makes it painterly.”
Film crews and photographers elbowed through, followed by young people dutifully jotting in notebooks. At one point, a fresh-faced Patrick McMullan cornered Teller for his “Party Flash” segment on Full Frontal Fashion.
“How many times did you go to the Ukraine?”
And later: “Do you have another country in mind?”
“No, not really. It was just an opportunity.” McMullan quickly made to hold Teller’s drink, as the artist fumbled with his cigarette pack. Teller lit up and inhaled, deep. And so it went until McMullan departed, and Teller began to lose patience with the crowd. He looked straight ahead, as one blonde scribe from W—the magazine whose fashion shoots Teller had taken as inspiration for his portrayal of Ukrainian life—beat around the bush, pen in hand, and then shouted over the din: “Are you going to the Marc Jacobs show tomorrow?” Teller rolled his eyes.
“I don’t know, some people—”
Left: Visionaire's Greg Foley with Michael Stipe. Right: Dealer Rachel Lehmann with artist Do Ho Suh.
That was the last straw. He mumbled something and wandered away, seeming to toss up his arms at the whole affair. It was a peculiar reaction for someone who had invited (the show’s press agent had noted one week prior) Anna Wintour, Mary-Louise Parker, Urs Fischer, Roni Horn, Gisele Bündchen, Helmut Lang, Sofia Coppola, Dennis Freedman, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore. An eclectic list, to say the least, but one that guaranteed a certain number of flashbulbs, hangers-on, and tedious interviews. When Michael Stipe hobbled in on crutches—a “go-kart accident,” he said—one visitor slid a photograph of the REM front man from a thick envelope stuffed with celebrity portraits (he had clearly come prepared for the arrival of just about anyone) and handed it over to be signed.
Jasper Johns was in such animated conversation with Matthew Marks on Friday night, at the Chelsea dealer’s opening of “Jasper Johns: Drawings 1997–2007,” that I wondered whether the two were talking politics—like everyone else. All weekend before Super Tuesday, presidential primary day in New York and twenty-three other states, no matter who was opening what show at which gallery, people who never seem to venture beyond the art world were stumping for candidates and getting in deep.
To sing Barack Obama’s praises, Jerry Saltz was taking prisoners. “The Clintons just bring chaos,” he said at the Johns show, sounding more like Kenneth Starr than even Hilton Kramer. Saltz was surprised to hear I felt so torn between Obama and Hillary Clinton that I had joined the swollen ranks of the undecided. (Not my usual position.) He asked where I stood on Johns. Choosing to keep my powder dry, I related what had happened a few moments before, when I caught the seventy-seven-year-old artist smiling so broadly it prompted me to ask whether he had always enjoyed his openings this much. Not really, he responded, then reversed himself. “I like other people’s openings,” he joked. “But I probably enjoy my own a bit more.”
Maybe it’s more fun than I realized to be represented by Marks. Over at his West Twenty-fourth Street gallery, Nayland Blake was front and center at his own show’s reception, laughing uproariously. Perhaps he was amused to find himself surrounded by hirsute henchmen, though Blake’s voluminous salt-and-pepper beard is magnificent enough to be presidential itself. His politics were all wrapped up in his work. “Isn’t that the best antiwar statement you have seen anywhere?” marveled novelist Lynne Tillman at one of Blake’s new sculptures, a plywood stool flying a blood-red pennant from a tall pole embedded in its seat, with a black, sausagelike metaphor for a wasted body sagging limply from pole to floor.
It had some kind of correspondence with the Matthew Ronay sculptures I saw at Andrea Rosen Gallery a few minutes later. A spiritual crisis, Ronay said, was partly responsible for the big change in his work, from small, toylike objects to human-size, oddly churchlike tableaux. Pharynx, a freestanding Gothic arch and wood “pulpit” dressed in a woven black leather skirt, couldn’t be an antiwar statement, could it? About what can get caught in the throat? “Everything here has to do with Joseph Campbell,” Ronay said, his big brown eyes burning bright. “I love Joseph Campbell.” Did anyone know that Ronay was a mystic? Since committing to the life of the spirit, he said, he has been one happy artist.
Even more spirited, perhaps, was the ongoing Obama-Clinton debates at the dinner Sikkema Jenkins & Co. hosted that night in a second-floor salon at the Carlyle Hotel, following the close of Kara Walker’s show at the Whitney Museum. Only Carlo Bronzini Vender seemed more interested in talking about art, perhaps because he cannot vote in an American election. He regaled curator Chrissie Iles with his top-ten list of the greatest artists of the past two thousand years. Actually, I’m not sure there were even ten, not after he skipped from Duchamp to Hirst. Warhol did not make the cut. Strangely, considering the company we were in, Walker didn’t, either.
For her part, Walker seemed happy just to know her retrospective was behind her, though it reopens in a few weeks at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “This was the hard part,” she said, meaning New York. As if to congratulate her, collector Nancy Portnoy gave her an OBAMA '08 button. Leonardo Drew was going for Obama, too, but sometime Walker collaborator Paula Wilson was for Hillary. I asked Wangechi Mutu whom she would choose. “I can’t vote,” she said. “I’m not from here.”
That didn’t stop British-born artist Matthew Ritchie from commanding the floor the next afternoon at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, where the husband-and-wife artist team of Susan Jennings and Alexander Ross, with Janice Caswell, had organized a pro-Obama rally in three days’ time. On a program advertising the New Museum’s Laura Hoptman, Saltz, and New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, among others, as speakers, Ritchie read from a pro-art statement by novelist Michael Chabon, inserting pro-Obama remarks of his own.
“I don't expect him not to make mistakes," Ritchie said. “I expect him to make new ones.” The seventy-five or so people sitting on the floor cheered at whatever the hell that meant. Unlike Lucy Mitchell-Innes, another British transplant who became a US citizen in time for the 2004 election, Ritchie is ineligible to vote. “I can give money, though,” he said. (He donated twenty-three hundred dollars, the campaign limit.)
Saltz compared Clinton to MoMA (the status quo) and Obama to the New Museum (the challenger). It makes me nervous to see art-world friends and colleagues speak of a politician in messianic terms. Still, it was heartening to see art critics and curators trade on their “celebrity,” as it were, to promote their candidate. The more people spoke up for Obama, the more I wanted to vote for Hillary just to keep the race going, to keep people talking and asking questions instead of sermonizing. Maybe painting never died, but the art of public discourse sure did. It has been nothing short of exciting to see it come back. It’s the exchange of ideas and values, not an individual candidate, that could really elevate the level of discussion.
At least that’s what I thought till I got to Leslie Tonkonow’s gallery for a panel on Christopher Eamon’s “Accidental Modernism” show, with Eamon and art historians Yve-Alain Bois and Klaus Ottman (Tonkonow’s other half). Interestingly, about the same number of people showed up for this exercise in semantics as for the Obama rally, and it, too, was a kind of contest: intention versus chance. I was happy—this was my only relief from political swashbuckling all weekend. But the only illumination came when Ottman and Bois were talking about Ann Craven’s moon-painting palettes, entered into the show as “accidental” art. They didn’t know she was in the room. “So are they unintentional artworks?” Bois asked. She thought about this for a moment. “That’s a good question,” she said. In the end, it was decided, what makes an object art has less to do with the kind of artist who made it than whether or not it spoke to the viewer.
I kept thinking of the playwright Edward Albee, whom I had found studying the Chris Martin paintings on the wall at Mitchell-Innes and Nash as the rally was breaking up. Was he supporting Obama? Not usually at a loss for words, he looked at me blankly. Hadn’t he come for the Obama event? “Not at all,” he said. “I came to see the art.”
Left: “Rose Colored Glasses” cohost Jesse Willenbring. Right: Virginia Lee Smith and “Rose Colored Glasses” cohost Joseph Montgomery. (All photos: Dawn Chan)
There are gallery dinners and then there are gallery dinners, but Friday night’s meal at Gavin Brown’s Chelsea space was—as cohost Jesse Willenbring’s remark, “The napkins are by Amanda Ross-Ho,” implied—somewhat out of the ordinary. Not only had an unusual amount of care and attention been lavished on certain particulars of the event (or rather events, since this was the first of eleven to be hosted over as many nights), it had been integrated into an exhibition (a rambling group affair titled “Rose Colored Glasses”) such that invitees could expect to be looked at, as well as to look. The repast was also a potluck, on the rather challenging theme of “chocolate cumin” (forthcoming themes included “Pig,” “Cilantro vs. Parsley,” and “Root Veggies Reggae”), though as it turned out, few had stuck to the instructions.
Arriving at the tail end of the “opening” (unadvertised, meaning that most attendees were simply spillovers from Brown’s bar Passerby), I grabbed a beer and reminisced for a few minutes while activity in the gallery’s makeshift kitchen intensified. My nostalgic frame of mind was prompted by the Fifteenth Street standby’s imminent closure, supposedly slated for the end of March. Precise information about this proved, in typical Brownian style, hard to come by, but it was eventually clarified that “Rose Colored Glasses” is part of a range of programming called “New York Is Dead,” curated by Darren Bader, which began last fall and constitutes the gallery’s last hurrah. The press release, however, concentrated less on the trajectory of the gallery and its amiably roguish owner and more on the idea of challenging and extending Rirkrit Tiravanija’s frequently discussed and periodically tasted “experiments with the gift economy.” “Rirkrit where are you? It is 2008 . . . Is there no pushing forward?” asks the press release. In answer to the first question: Apparently, he plans to attend later in the week.
Left: The dinner table. Right: Artist James Hyde.
While barflies sorted themselves into diners and nondiners, I pushed forward into the gallery and took a look around the show. Ranged around the walls were hundreds of paparazzi-style snapshots of personalities both well and lesser known (“There’s an intense Yvonne corner,” I overheard, a reference to the far-from-camera-shy Ms. Force Villareal)—remnants from last summer’s exhibition “Who Am I?,” Brown’s tribute to Patrick McMullan—while distributed throughout the space were twenty bamboo poles that acted as supports for works by a disparate crew of artists including Brian Calvin, Tony Feher, Emily Mason, Sherrie Levine, Alex Kwartler, and Betty Woodman. While a Giorgio Morandi painting mentioned on one of the checklists was nowhere to be seen, a life-size sculpture of Peggy Guggenheim by Red Grooms was unavoidable, looming maternally over proceedings.
En route to the kitchen with my offering (chocolate cumin truffles), I bumped into artist James Hyde carrying a garbage bag full of salad, an enormous jar of olives, and a roast. He eventually parked himself on the opposite side of the large, round table (knocked together on-site for the occasion), while I took up a seat next to experimental filmmaker Bevin McNamara. Eating from compartmentalized trays and drinking from steel beakers, the thirteen of us whiled away an easy couple of hours as the odd spectator (most acquainted with at least one diner) dropped in to say hello and filch a spoonful of dessert. A posse of Tiravanija’s studio assistants showed up at one point—for recipe ideas, perhaps—and by around 11 PM, most guests had taken their leave, to be replaced by late-arriving drop-ins. Ten dinners and two months to go.
Left: Red Grooms' sculpture of Peggy Guggenheim. Right: Artists John Finneran and Trenton Duerksen.