Game On

New York
05.05.17

Nancy Spero, Sheela-Na-Gig at Home, 1996, handprinting on paper, underwear, clothesline, clothespins, video, dimensions variable. (Photo: Paige K. Bradley)


IF YOU AREN’T THERE TO SHOP, art fairs are like plugging into a video game where someone’s already taken care of the bosses. Down this aisle, a friend to talk to, down that one a costumed bear spinning out on the floor at your feet; maybe go watch a digital film, ogle some colors, take the ferry—it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you ride the ride. It all blurs and holds together if you don’t slow down to remember you’ve been chewing on dried mango all day.

Relentless attention to art and society keeps the body’s needs at bay—at least until a rainy day, with storm clouds looming over the weekend. But the key thing, on this Thursday vernissage of Frieze New York, was NOT YET. It was bright on the outside, and bright on the inside for preview hours. Let me name a few lights:

Henry Taylor painted Deana Lawson—the two are also chummily installed next to each other in the current Whitney Biennial—and the results were hung up by Blum & Poe. 303 Gallery brought elegant black-and-white Collier Schorr photographs along with small gorgeousness in two strains—loopy from Karen Kilimnik and spooky care of Maureen Gallace.

Left: A visitor in front of Henry Taylor's Deana Lawson in the Lionel Hamptons, 2016, at Blum & Poe. Right: Dealers Alex Mor and Philippe Charpentier. (Photo: David Velasco)


Meanwhile, art historian Maika Pollack’s Southfirst featured a solo presentation by Jared Bark—a performance artist whose keen 1970s-era exploration of photo-booth photography’s affinity with abstraction was the subject of a 2015 show at the gallery—memorable for both the breadth displayed and his gallerist’s smart enthusiasm. NYC- and London-based Hales showed paintings by Virginia Jaramillo, who, in addition to being featured in the recently opened and absolutely fantastic exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” at the Brooklyn Museum, had a 1971 work bought by the museum through the inaugural Frieze Brooklyn Museum Fund—Yahtzee!

Perambulating along: Michael Krebber’s adamant anemia cycled through making itself known and slumping back under the radar throughout the course of its day, hung as it was in the form of two drawings at Maureen Paley’s booth. A friend noted that she’d seen more plastic surgery within the first ten minutes of strolling in than she could recall encountering before.

You know what else was taut? Daiga Grantina’s comely, freaky strung-up fabric works at Galerie Joseph Tang. Betty Woodman clocked them, and I was pleased to see them IRL, for once. Nancy Spero’s clothesline at Galerie Lelong was another highlight, making the so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-notice-it-before connection between artworks and old, washed intimates—all get hung out to dry at some point. Speaking of dry, would Société’s Daniel Wichelhaus have some of my mango? Affirmative.

An e-mail from a German writer begins: “I hope you are well and the current political climate doesn’t affect your daily live negatively!” ¯\(ツ)

Left: Herald St's Ash L'ange and Nicky Verber. (Photo: Paige K. Bradley) Right: Bunny Rogers reading at Swiss Institute. (Photo: Jessica Butler)


As our Chief Orange One (too bad we couldn’t reject preexisting conditions last November) headed to the USS Intrepid at Pier 86 for a thirty-minute dinner reception with the Australian prime minister, we headed downtown for quieter affairs: Juliana Huxtable’s opening at Reena Spaulings, Tabor Robak at Team, a dinner at Bottino for Leidy Churchman’s Mary Boone debut, and a Bunny Rogers reading at the Swiss Institute. A small group of Rogers’s friends and admirers noshed on an array of cheeses until it was time for earnest and sincere speeches from Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist on when they first met Rogers and came to work with her for their “89 plus” project. After a few rounds of applause, the artist—looking the happiest I’ve ever seen her—read her slivers of poetry. They glide right by, veering from phrases clipped from some heightened drama to blunt exposition with a sharp nick of allusion: “I’m going to leave you / Should you want blood you’ve got it / In a world where she counts / What do you want from me besides the four legs I rip off the seat / He said class will be over soon and can I take you home?” I would never not say yes.

Paige K. Bradley

Fair Exchange

New York
05.05.17

Left: Gallerist El-Yesha Puplampu and artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. Right: Curator Koyo Kouoh and founder of 1:54 Touria El Glaoui. (All photos: Allison Young)


“ART HAS ALWAYS BEEN A SITE OF RESISTANCE, A SITE OF REFUGE IN HARD TIMES,” Dakar-based curator Koyo Kouoh mused while we were discussing the impressive lineup she had organized for this weekend’s discursive and artistic program throughout the third iteration of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. During the morning preview at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, we stood in front of Nú Barreto’s monumental Disunited States of Africa, 2010, an American flag reconceived as pan-African icon. Black stars representing African nations cascade down the composition, crossing gold and red stripes, which are adorned with cowrie shells, prayer beads, medicine bottles, and books. Koyo describes it as “the black flag, the Vodou flag, the resistance flag, the reparation flag, and the African American flag.” We also discussed the growing sense of sorrow in today’s world, an increasingly standard topic of conversation––but, as hate grows more visible, so shall resistance and art.

Fairgoers will complain all they want about 1:54’s location in Red Hook, which is not reachable by subway, but apparently we weren’t remote enough to be shielded from the ripple effect of our dear president’s first official visit to New York. Aboard the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier and military museum on the Hudson River, Trump commemorated a 1942 battle between the allied US and Australia with Japan, all while we immersed ourselves in the “global”—once a postmodern ideal, now a lifeline.

Left: Caroline Hussey-Bain. Right: Artist Tahir Karmali.


At Ed Cross Fine Art, whose booth was conceived as a kind of basilica by curator Katherine Finerty, works by Kimathi Donkor and Modupeola Fadugba also explore the nexus of faith, resistance, and power. Fadugba’s “Flowers and Prayers” series conflates the iconic shape of the Brookes slave ship with the stained windows of Gothic cathedrals. I chatted with artist liaison Caroline Hussey-Bain about religion’s dual capacity to heal and uplift, control and suppress. She drew my attention to Fadugba’s other paintings, wherein synchronized swimmers balance atop one another and reach toward a red sphere, signifying the coveted red sticker that marks an artwork as sold. She explained that the artist is interested in how women strengthen one another and find success in the power of our collectivity. I’m convinced that we have no other choice. The next time I looked at my phone, I was alerted to the upcoming House of Representatives vote over a healthcare bill that would include sexual assault and pregnancy on a list of “preexisting conditions,” rendering one ineligible for coverage. Later that day, the bill would pass muster.

On the third floor of Pioneer Works, resident artist Tahir Karmali has a solo exhibition that will be on view through May 28. It is a powerful, subtle meditation on the bureaucracy of immigration, expressed through the materiality of paper. A Kenyan artist of Indian heritage, now living and working in the US, Karmali is cognizant not only of the colonial crossroads in which his ancestry is entangled, but also his own experiences of border crossing. “With this project, I’m looking at how paper is used as an authenticator, a way to document identity,” he told me. He grinds his own identification documents down to a pulp. The mesh filters used for making paper by sifting the pulp become the armature for his installations, encompassing concepts such as “vetting, screening, the filtration and porousness of borders.”

Left: Artist Malala Andrialavidrazana. Right: Artist Jeannette Unite.


Despite the tightening of such demarcations, there’s definitely a buzz around African art, and the mood among the exhibitors was optimistic and infectious. I talked to South African artist Jeannette Unite about the upcoming debut of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, and later heard about the growth of the South African art world from Maria Fidel Regueros of Johannesburg’s ROOM. This edition also welcomes several international newcomers to New York. Notable among these is Gallery 1957, a trailblazer in Accra’s budding contemporary art scene. Founded only one year ago, the gallery has already made the rounds in fairs from Lagos to Cape Town to London, and is off to Istanbul later this year. I asked dealer El-Yesha Puplampu about their successful first year, and she justifiably takes pride in the fact that “we’re showing how it should be done.”

Leaving a bit later than I had planned, and realizing how hungry I was, I prepared to dine solo and made a beeline for a burger at Hope & Anchor. But a few other fairgoers had the same idea: Artists Ousmane Mbaye, Saïdou Dicko, Evans Mbugua, and writer Jacqueline Ngo Mpii generously invited me to join them. Based in France and originally from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, respectively, they are mostly Francophone, and my French leaves much to be desired. But we get by, speaking in disjointed Franglais about food, art, and moving around New York. There’s nothing better than a meal with new friends—barriers be damned—to stave off the ennui of the day’s political tragedies.

Left: Artists Evans Mbugua, Jacqueline Ngo Mpii, Ousmane Mbaye, and Saïdou Dicko. Right: Entrepreneur Simone Small and gallerist Sitor Senghor.


Allison Young

Just Between Friends

New York
05.03.17

Trajal Harrell performing at the annual Friends of Artists Space dinner. (Photo: Dawn Chan)


SOME FUND-RAISERS, you can tell, are held together by the type-A wrath of a corporate-events planner. But not the annual Friends of Artists Space dinner, which is sweeter and much more interesting. It is held at the beginning of Frieze Art Week at the Ukrainian National Home in the East Village. There is no assigned seating. Everything unfolds leisurely, under the grand Art Deco¬–esque, mirrored ceiling of a banquet hall above the main restaurant, where old New Yorkers decide if they want their pierogies boiled or fried.

Last night’s dinner honored, in absentia, the artist, philosopher, and yogi Adrian Piper. As many know, she has refused to return to the United States since 2005, after being deemed a “suspicious traveler” on a TSA watch list. By underscoring the void she’s left, Artists Space gave fuel to a form of protest that seems particularly challenging: A body can always at least obstruct, in the worst case. But its sustained absence can’t do much, if others let it become forgotten. Piper did include the reproduction of a piece of hers from 1978, titled Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma, in the evening’s program, though. Its text leads you through an uncomfortably self-conscious monologue as you look at a photograph of black people, all in the context of art. If the digital world’s algorithmically protected echo chambers let people constantly slink back to a state of unexamined outrage, Piper’s artwork is needed more than ever for its ability to leave us seized with self-doubt.

According to Jay Sanders, newly at the helm of this nonprofit, Piper agreed to the suggestion to be honored “in this generative way,” as Sanders put it, by having “other artists presenting their own work that would speak, in whatever manner they chose, toward her work.” And indeed: The evening included a restaging of Trajal Harrell’s 2015 performance The Return of La Argentina, which hinges on movements drawn from Butoh and vogueing. (It’s worth noting that one of his costumes was a Comme des Garçons piece, which was more Kawakubo than most Met Gala attendees managed to pull off the night prior.)

Artists Richard Kennedy, Kyle Luu, and Stewart Uoo. (Photo: Dawn Chan)


Following Harrell—and braised fennel with saffron, and winsome remarks by Sanders—dancer and musician Richard Kennedy performed. His mix of looped vocals, processed into chords, evoked the a capella choral harmonies of American folk music. He sang lyrics such as, “There’s never a reason for violence against living things.” He explained to me that he was inspired by Piper’s iconic piece Catalysis III, 1970—where she went to Macy’s with WET PAINT painted on her clothes—and aimed to make something that would “disrupt the institution and represent the other.” He chose his outfit, by Iranian designer Pedram Karimi, to show solidarity with refugees and those banned from entering the US. “The material is very light and moves freely; unlike my refugee brothers and sisters in 2017,” he told me later.

Liam Gillick and Rachel Harrison, two board members, gave closing remarks. “It’s especially hard, these days,” Gillick said, “to create spaces of beauty and difficulty.” These days feels like a fraught term, these days. Almost exactly two years ago, down to the week, Piper unveiled her ongoing piece The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, at the Venice Biennale. Participants chose to sign agreements with rather ambitious terms: “I will always be too expensive to buy.” Or “I will always mean what I say.” Or “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” It feels like a different world now, one in which breaking contracts is passed off as a sign of business acumen. You have to wonder how the Probable Trust’s registrants are faring with their promises—and what vital, prophetic work Piper will make next.

Dawn Chan

Last Calle

New York
05.02.17

Sophie Calle at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. (Photo: Leandro Justen)


SOPHIE CALLE WAS SMOKING AND TEXTING on stone steps in a green velvet dress, which I wanted to touch. She said sure, so I felt up the hem. It was heavy, deluxe. I asked her where she got it, and instead of answering, she asked me why I liked it. Suddenly I heard myself talking about my childhood, my mother who sewed dresses, and the velvet dresses I always asked her to make me, even after I knew how much the material cost. I stopped, embarrassed. Was I telling a secret? But anyone could see I had been a child, and it was obvious green velvet would suit me. Calle opened a map on her phone and asked if I knew the address where we were. I said that we were in Brooklyn, and that if she searched for Green-Wood Cemetery Chapel on the map, the address and directions would be given. “No,” she said. “That is not the right answer.” She went inside, where seventy were being seated for dinner, accompanied in silence by an unplayed pipe organ.

The occasion was the opening of a new public artwork by Calle, presented by Creative Time, called Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery. A high knoll is now home to a slight marble obelisk with a single slot, into which a visitor may slip a piece of paper (provided) on which she’s written whatever she wants to hide. It’s a quicker way of taking something to the grave. Twenty-five years from now, the work will be over, the secrets safely cremated––unless a thief who is also a handwriting expert gets there first.

Asked to give a speech, Calle began by looking around and announcing that “none of the people at the dinner had played the game.” (“The game” was what she was calling the work.) One woman raised her hand, au contraire. Calle seemed to wonder whether the other sixty-nine guests deserved a speech, and abruptly sat down. “When I have an idea,” she said, “I’ll start again.”

A man sitting next to me took a pen from his pocket and wrote this line on his place card in cursive. I asked him why. Surprised, he said simply: “Because I love her.” Calle had changed his way of thinking about the world and his work, and in particular had taught him to listen. I asked what his work was. “Communications,” he said. Before joining the New York office of Doctors Without Borders, he was employed by what he vaguely described as a travel company in San Francisco, which he called “San Frantastic.” I did not ask in what year of his communications career he had discovered the importance of listening.

Calle stood up again, having had an idea. She explained that she tried to buy a burial plot in Montparnasse, but the Parisian cemetery, home to some of the most respected corpses in France, doesn’t take reservations. Five or six years ago she bought one in Bolinas, California, where she lived and started making art at the end of her teen years. Now that she has been offered a plot in Green-Wood, she is wondering how many places she can be buried in, her body split up and deposited, like an inheritance among children, into (plural) graves. Calle said all this as though it had just now occurred to her, and we listened like we were receiving special information; in fact, she had said the same things in a T magazine profile, out three weekends ago. She added only a joke, saying that if she must be buried in one place, and if Montparnasse decides, after all, to reserve her a spot, “I will say no and be buried in Bolinas, because they took me first.”

Left: Katie Hollander, Creative Time executive director, and Elvira Dyangani Ose, Creative Time senior curator. Right: Creative Time artistic director Nato Thompson and Peggy Leboeuf of Emmanuel Perrotin. (Photos: Leandro Justen)


Katie Hollander, the director of Creative Time, explained between courses that the foundation had been trying to work with Calle for seven or eight years. Finally, Calle said she had the time and wanted, in Hollander’s words, “to bring a concept to life in a cemetery.” (Zombie conceptualism?) Several months earlier, the people at Green-Wood had told the people at Creative Time that they’d love to collaborate. Fortuitous, I thought. “Cosmic,” said Nato Thompson, the artistic director. “There’s no other word for it.” Thompson had spent his whole life avoiding death but was now beginning to plan for the after party. “I think I want to be cryogenicized,” he told me. “Like Walt Disney.” Hollander was likewise optimistic. “I don’t usually think twenty-five years ahead,” she said, “but now I know that’s how long I have to come up with a really good secret.”

The French-born photographer Pascale Lafay stepped out to find her husband smoking Camels with three different women. Lafay said they had been married in Atlantic City astride a huge wooden elephant and had moved to Jersey City for the studio space. She was working on a series wherein she projected photos of friends’ faces onto identical white plastic masks, “to make the faces more alike, the way plastic surgery makes them alike.” She had been, while living in Paris, “Sophie’s neighbor.” I said that Lafay must know things about Calle that were secret, even if banal: what time the artist got home at night or up in the morning. She said, “I know that people want to know many things about her.” Maybe, I said, she should be buried in Green-Wood next to Calle, so they’d be neighbors again. “No,” Lafay said, strangely. “Never.”

Calle’s neighbor at dinner was the actress Kim Cattrall, who was Samantha on Sex and the City (1998–2004) and has been the voice of Calle’s mother, may she rest in performance, in various iterations of Rachel/Monique (2006). After dessert, Cattrall and her tall younger boyfriend went with Calle to see the obelisk under cover of dark, then to share a ride home—that is, until Calle ghosted, leaving the couple stranded with no cabs for miles. “The first thing she said to me at dinner was that I was late, and the second thing was that I hadn’t seen the art,” said Cattrall. “Halfway through dinner, she says again that I was late. Of course she’s totally joking. Well, not totally. Then as soon as she’s satisfied, she disappears! That is so Sophie.” I was about to take a car to the city. Of course I could drop Cattrall off. “Park Avenue, please,” said the actress, and proceeded to talk in the backseat, in her luculent, stage-trained way, for the next forty minutes.

Sophie Calle. (Photo: Heidi Krautwald)


Years ago, an editor at W called Cattrall to tell her a story. “I thought he was going to tell me about a Calvin Klein model committing suicide,” she said, “or whatever it is that editors talk about in fashion.” He relayed, instead, that the magazine had done a piece on Ingmar Bergman at his far-out island home and that Bergman said his favorite TV show, which he liked to watch alone in his screening room, was Sex and the City, and his favorite character was Samantha. I would not have taken Bergman for a Samantha. “Nor would I,” said Cattrall. “It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Nothing embarrassed him.” Elaborating on her love for Bergman’s 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, she noted that television doesn’t often get to “the grist of reality,” and said that, in acting, “the truest thing you can express is often the most painful.”

Calle seems to think so too. “With Sophie,” said Cattrall, “you know she’s trying to open you up emotionally, and you know she’s going to play on your vulnerabilities in a subtle and mysterious way, and you think, ‘I know what you’re doing, you can’t fool me.’ Then as soon as you get in your head and forget about your feelings, bam! She’s got you.”

The next afternoon I went to the cemetery, where a tired Calle was taking secrets in person. Of the four thousand visitors who came that day, three dozen had been chosen on a first-come, first-serve basis to share their secrets with the artist face-to-face, seat-to-seat, on two benches. When she had seen the last visitor and heard her secret, Calle stood and held her gray wool blanket aloft like a surrendering soldier’s flag. The visitor, with her professional camera, snapped quickly a triptych: Calle talking and laughing at the camera, then laughing at the sky, then at us. The knoll drained slowly, abscess-like. “I thought it would be bigger,” said a post-teen goth with a Gucci backpack. “The thing?” asked her goth friend, meaning the obelisk. “Or the idea?”

The last visitor’s name was Heidi Krautwald, a German photojournalist living in Kiel. She had been in New York for two months; it was her last day in town. “I only had a little secret,” she said. “For Sophie, it was okay. She was happy to end with something light.” An hour later, Krautwald sent me two of the three photos. I wrote back asking what Calle had said when she lifted the camera, but she didn’t reply.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sophie Calle's Here Lie the Secrets of The Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery. (Photo: Sarah Nicole Prickett)


Mirror Mirror

Los Angeles
05.02.17

Left: Artists Justine Koons, Jeff Koons, and Alex Israel. Right: John Legend. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)


LAST WEEK, the Santa Ana winds came in hot and blustery across Los Angeles just as Jeff Koons hit town. Their convergence cannot have been a coincidence. An artist who staked his career on inflatables would naturally be on equal terms with high winds. Generally, they blow in his direction. And these did.

On Saturday, the Museum of Contemporary Art was to honor him at its star-studded annual benefit gala. On Thursday, Larry Gagosian—not one to let an opportunity slip by—opened a kind of popup Koons show that his Beverly Hills gallery assembled from three different bodies of work. Suffice it to say, this was not your usual sample sale.

Many people see only the reflective surface of Koons’s sculpture, because it can distract from the deep vein of melancholy that runs below the folds in the best of it. Yet Koons was positively buoyant, despite the death of his mother, at ninety, less than a week earlier.

For nearly forty years, Gloria Koons was a proud fixture at nearly every one of her son’s openings. I offered condolences. “My mother would have wanted me to be here,” he replied, with a wink. Then he moved through the gallery, attending to core collectors including Bill and Maria Bell and Benedikt Taschen.

Left: Philanthropists Lilly Tartikoff Karatz and Eli Broad. Right: Collector Maurice Marciano and LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne.


Justine Koons, the artist’s wife, carried a Titian handbag from the collection Koons produced in a recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Like so much of his art—or anyone’s, really—it looks better in the flesh. Ditto Ms. Bell’s white Stella McCartney dress with Koons’s Pink Panther image on the back. She also wore a silver Koons bunny on a silver chain around her neck and carried a Koons clutch. What was she planning to wear to the gala? “I may go for some of my normal clothes,” she said, blushing. What’s normal? “I have Rodarte,” she offered.

Irving and Jackie Blum were in the room. So were Mike Ovitz, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art director Michael Govan, Vanity Fair contributor Wendy Stark Morrissey, Jared Leto, and Leelee Sobieski. But the greater number was made up of lesser-known fans seeking autographs and a chance to pose for pictures with the artist. To their unconcealed delight, he complied for each.

One woman, a commercial photographer, told me that she’d driven from Las Vegas just for this opening. She wanted to see the work and its creator, whom she regarded as among the most culturally significant figures of our day. “He gets people talking,” she said. “That matters.”

Several works were on loan from their owners—at least three came from Eli Broad alone. They provided context for the one new sculpture—a dazzling blue bird of ultra-polished painted stainless steel that doubles as a fertile planter holding spring flowers. Based on a porcelain knickknack, it absolutely stole the show from the giant red Balloon Rabbit, the colossal Gazing Ball Hercules, the blue Sacred Heart, the liquescent Seated Ballerina of more recent vintage, and the “Gazing Ball Paintings” on view.

Left: LA MoCA director of education and public programming Amanda Hunt with artist Charles Gaines and LA MoCA assistant curator, Lanka Tattersall. Right: Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin.


“I didn’t want to like this show,” said one patron, “but I can’t help it. I really do.” That was the general consensus. “Doesn’t the show look like the ’70s?” Koons asked, on the way to dinner at Mr. Chow. “It’s so minimal,” he explained. I love the way Koons talks. But when I looked back, I saw that, for him, the installation was actually quite pared down, even spare. Continuing in this historical vein, he compared Balloon Rabbit to Nefertiti. “It follows the same lines,” he said. “And it’s so female, so vaginal.” Frankly, if you look closely, that isn’t a stretch either.

Dinner was of a more intimate scale than usual for this artist, but the weekend gala was ahead. Michael Chow circled the room, handing Koons and other artists present—Alex Israel, Jonas Wood—thick black markers, prodding them to make a drawing on their plates for a collection that will commemorate his restaurant chain’s upcoming fiftieth anniversary. “Can’t I do it on a clean plate?” Israel pleaded. Chow refused. “It’s art,” he said.

“It’s so good to see three different bodies of work together,” gallery director Deborah McLeod began the evening’s toast to “one of the greatest living artists.” She added, “Your art always makes us feel optimistic, which is what we need now.”

Koons stood. “You know,” he said, “you come into this world and you don’t need much. You can just be an artist. You can do anything. You can give people hope.” Noting his mother’s passing, he also acknowledged the many friends who were present, naming Eli and Edythe Broad, Taaschen, and the Bells. “Duchamp had Philadelphia,” he concluded. “I have Los Angeles.”

That was a good one.

Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian and the artist Jeff Koons. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch.


For many artists living in LA—Laura Owens, Tacita Dean, Toba Khedoori—Friday night belonged to the premiere of Frances Stark’s feature-length adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute on the big screen at LACMA’s Bing Theater. A student orchestra recruited from area schools performed the sound track, if you can say that about an eighteenth-century opera. Only the instruments actually had a “voice.” What there was to watch was the libretto, which Stark brilliantly translated into current vernacular, doubling lines and adding color. “I’m nervous,” she said, before the screening. “Mozart died five weeks after he finished writing this opera.”

Over at Blum & Poe in Culver City, seasoned Carroll Dunham and young Tony Lewis introduced new paintings. Lewis kept to the abstract. Dunham’s canvases depict naked caveman types in the hairy, complicated, genital-extending twists of a wrestling contest demonstrated on the exotic island where female sexuality was on display his last time out. I guess you could say, if pressed, that the new pictures are politically correct. “In art,” Dunham said, “all things are possible.” Even a modified southern menu of baked beans, potato salad, corn bread, and shoe-leather beef. It didn’t go late. The gala was coming!

It arrived Saturday night, in living color, in a big black tent with a magenta interior parked outside the Geffen Contemporary. Sharon Stone, Sean Penn, Ryan Seacrest, Pierce Brosnan, and Ricky Martin walked a purple carpet to slake the paparazzi’s thirst for celebrities who aren’t artists. Pace Barbara Kruger, Doug Aitken, Sam Durant, Dan Colen, Charles Gaines, Mark Grotjahn, Sterling Ruby, Ana Prvački, and the inimitable Genevieve Gaignard, coiffed in the world’s tallest beehive. “We have sixty artists with us tonight!” exulted gala and MoCA board cochair Maurice Marciano in his address to a crowd of eight hundred seated guests. “We have thirty trustees!”

Left: LACMA curator Christine Y. Kim with artists Frances Stark and Toba Khedoori. Right: Wendy Stark and LACMA director Michael Govan.


Then who were all these other people? Collectors and their friends. Dealers and their friends. Real-estate moguls, entertainment lawyers, and their friends. And MoCA’s former bad boys, Jeffrey Deitch and Paul Schimmel, though not together. Deitch, who kept a low profile, is opening an exhibition space in Hollywood. Schimmel had just returned from touring the Pharaonic Valley of Kings. He was dressed in a Bill Blass suit given to him by Nancy Rubins shortly after the death of Chris Burden. “She said he only got to wear it once!” Schimmel exclaimed. Now it’s his.

Scarlett Johansson narrated a film by Oscar Boyson that glimpsed various stages of Koons’s life, with cameos by Frank Gehry, George Condo, Scott Rothkopf, and Gagosian. Then it was MoCA director Philippe Vergne’s turn to wax poetic about Koons, whose editioned balloon-dog plates with Bernardaud—displayed outside the tent—has raised a ton of money for MoCA. Brosnan, who has attended the event before, introduced the honoree by characterizing him as the contemporary artist who “unites the power of art and celebrity.” Didn’t that hit home with this crowd! “We are inspired,” the actor said.

The artist then did exactly what his sculptures do—flattered the guests by flipping the focus back to them. “What we are celebrating tonight is the vitality of the art world in Los Angeles,” he began, connecting to his own local exhibition history from 1983, at LACE, through Daniel Weinberg, Margo Leavin, Luhring Augustine, and Hetzler galleries to Gagosian and the 2015 opening of the Broad. “Marcel Duchamp has Philadelphia,” he said again. “I have Los Angeles.”

Left: Artist Dan Colen. Right: Artist April Street and curator Philipp Kaiser.


If that line went over well the first time, it touched a nerve in the tent. The audience roared its approval. “This is the most concentrated area of my work anywhere in the world. If you want to see it, come to Los Angeles.”

John Legend came to the stage, and many women rushed it, hearts a-throb. The singer played right to them. “I hear he’s going to bring on a surprise guest,” said one. “I’m holding out for Beyoncé,” said her friend. Sorry, ladies. Legend’s guest was . . . Miguel!

Meanwhile, the LA art scene had reached a rolling boil, particularly in its museums. LACMA’s self-generated Picasso and Rivera exhibition was pure rock ’em, sock ’em bliss side by side with its imported Dwan Gallery and Moholy-Nagy shows. The Hammer’s Jimmie Durham show is probably his best ever, anywhere. And the Carl Andre retrospective on view that evening at the Geffen could not have suited that space better, especially paired with an affecting, politically minded group exhibition organized by Helen Molesworth that shattered, and enlightened, the American dream embodied by Koons with works by Arthur Jafa, Catherine Opie, and Sterling Ruby.

The next afternoon, Theaster Gates arrived from Chicago to close “Non-fiction,” a collaboration with MoCA at the late Noah Davis’s Underground Museum, with a performance by the Black Monks of Mississippi. The show, dedicated to victims of racist violence, featured work by David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Deana Lawson, Kara Walker, and Henry Taylor, among others. Los Angeles belongs to them too.

Linda Yablonsky

Here Comes the Judge

New York
04.28.17

Two panels adapted from publicity for l'Internationale situationniste #11, October 1967.


“THERE’S NOTHING THEY WON’T DO to raise the standard of BOREDOM.” When I was living in San Francisco during the 1990s, this sentence caught my eye as I passed a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. Printed on yellow paper, the flyer contained two rectangular comic panels. In the first, a short-haired woman in mod ’60s attire walks through a boutique, grimacing as she says the line. A sidebar to the panel read “In our spectacular society where all you can see is things and their price . . . ,” leading one’s eye to the second panel, where a bar at top continued, “Ideology tries to integrate even the most radical acts.” On the right side of the second panel, two straight-looking adults dance what appears to be the twist. The man says, “How right you are to steal books! Culture is everybody’s birthright.” His partner, triumphant, declares, “Maybe you can get the hippies, baby. But you can’t get us.” The short-haired woman, now in facial close-up at left, responds indignantly: “CULTURE? UGH! The ideal commodity—the one which helps sell all the others! No wonder you want us all to go for it!”

This, of course, was a Situationist detournement—a subversive, deadpan repurposing of pop-cultural detritus to radical political ends. At the time, its message seemed both dated (the decade of the early ’80s to the early ’90s was the last era when strains of American pop culture—hardcore punk, political rap, Riot Grrrl—seemed genuinely oppositional to mainstream consumer culture) and prescient (one could already see these underground styles being co-opted by corporations and sold back to us as “rebellion”—MTV’s Alternative Nation, Urban Outfitters, Subaru Impreza = punk rock, etc.). By the late ’90s, this recuperation process was complete, to the point where the tribally tattooed, heavily pierced dude sitting next to you on the train might be as rapacious a capitalist as Peter Thiel. At that point, it became unfashionable, even within ostensibly underground precincts, to fault anyone for their market ambitions. “Selling out,” once an unpardonable countercultural sin, became “cashing in,” resulting in, among other jarring tableaux, former Riot Grrrl Carrie Brownstein starring in an American Express ad. Maybe you can get the hippies, baby . . .

After roughly twenty years of this, during which the economy crashed to its lowest depths since the Great Depression and a vain, idiotic real-estate developer–cum–reality-TV star was elected president, it appears the time is right yet again for what paranoid right-wingers call “cultural Marxism,” a long-dormant tradition that includes, among other efforts, the Frankfurt School’s postwar critique of the “culture industry”; the Situationist International’s campaign against the spectacular nature of modern life in the form of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and various disruptive activities (including detournement); critical theory generally; Stewart Home’s The Assault on Culture (1988) and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (1989), both histories of counterculture; Joe Carducci’s puritanical, peerlessly intolerant anti-Pop rant Rock and the Pop Narcotic (1991); the original late ’80s to early ’90s run of The Baffler and its editor Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool (1997); and most recently, Ian Svenonius’s Censorship Now!! (2015), a scattershot screed of quasi-communist scolding, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, that makes this aging Gen-Xer weep with joy (even as I find much of it ridiculous, even dangerous).

Svenonius, the other Ian of Washington, DC’s ’80s punk scene who has fronted numerous bands (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War, Chain and the Gang), written various essays and books, and hosted Soft Focus, an online talk show, has walked a very fine line for a very long time. On one level, he’s a zero-tolerance high priest of anticommercialism (much like his DC counterpart, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye); on another, he’s a louche, ironic thrift-store fashion plate, inspired as much by ’60s bubblegum (particularly French yé-yé) as ’60s radicalism. Imagine if radical separatist feminists such as Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin were half kidding, or if Serge Gainsbourg were a critical theorist, and you might begin to grok the rarefied row Svenonius has hoed for nearly thirty years.

Ian Svenonius performs at the Whitney Museum of American Art, April 14, 2017. Photo: Filip Wolak.


For this year’s Whitney Biennial, the artist Frances Stark painted eight spreads from Censorship Now!! (rendered as giant pages of text) and recommended that the museum host a performative lecture by Svenonius as a supplementary event. Called “On Re-Education,” and structured like a rock set list, the lecture involved Svenonius—in a black vinyl suit with black rubber nubbins, white shirt, and skinny black tie—playing quiet, ironic electric guitar solos over rudimentary drum loops while testifying on topics from the book in a mannered, talk-singing style. He was introduced with the line, “Either you’ve never heard of him, or you regard him with messianic fervor,” and the full-house audience seemed to agree; it was a very friendly room. Svenonius has a slight lisp and was simultaneously abject and charming, resembling the Kinks’ Ray Davies with dyed black hair.

As he semi-rapped passages from Censorship Now!! over self-generated, purposely dinky music, Svenonius exhorted the crowd to “turn the radio and TV off,” to accept “re-education to get rid of false consciousness, which is caused by the homicidal condition called capitalism,” and to vote for him so he can “have his finger on the button (I need a button).” He had helpers distribute an absurd nondisclosure agreement to audience members, as well as lapel buttons reading “I Survived Re-Education Camp.” Despite working a shtick that owes much to the ’60s and ’70s, Svenonius ranted extensively about the dire sociopolitical effects of marijuana (apparently to blame for the “nonsense logic we live in today”), claiming that the legalization trend was responsible for the 2016 election result: “Trump voters pulled the lever in a psychotic pique of resentment on their way to Ben & Jerry’s.” “Pot was okay for ‘all you need is love’ hippies; it was weaker then.” he concluded. “But not for today’s paranoid, Alex Jones–watching libertarians. It seems irresponsible for Bob Dylan to continue to insist that ‘everybody must get stoned.’” In his (consciously?) awkward, amateurish delivery and crackpot theorizing, Svenonius recalled the diversionary weirdos populating Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991); linking Smurfs to Hindu deities in the service of some grand, if daft, conspiracy theory is closely analogous to the completely baked (though not stoned) theses Svenonius regularly puts forward without warning or explanation.

Among many other deliciously unsupportable allegations, Censorship Now!! includes the following observations: “The music on the radio . . . is the thrown voice of Wall Street”; “The twist was a revolutionary force in breaking apart social units and enforcing individualist ideology”; “All this shaving [of facial and body hair] had another function[:] to enforce insensitivity, militarism, and a brutal machinist ideology”; “The yuppie aesthetic of connoisseurship has infiltrated everywhere and now there is only—for many of us—either luxury gelato or food made of chemical waste. IKEA, Martha Stewart, and Whole Foods make yuppiedom no longer a chic and extravagant choice but an enforced mode”; and “Just as the aristocracy had employed priests to explain their own divine right, the bourgeoisie invented their own magical imp, called ‘the artist,’ to explain and celebrate their own rise to power. It’s not a coincidence that ‘artist’ sounds very much like ‘atheist.’ The artist was invented as a gladiator to kill the old god for his paymaster.”

Addressing the book’s titular imperative, Svenonius writes, “We need a guerrilla censorship which uses all the cruel tools of a revolution. Pain, terror, absolute mercilessness; not to placate some hypocrite Christian morality or idiotic social code but to stomp out the grotesque subliminal mind control and hate speech of modern culture, media, news, politics, and art.” Despite its ominous Stalinist resonance, Svenonius’s plea for censorship essentially boils down to “corporations aren’t people / money isn’t speech.” His Adorno by way of Maximumrocknroll stance also means “censor all commercial crap and the cultural institutions that rationalize and abet it,” which puts him at odds with prevailing modes of pop-cultural reception. If contemporary pop is finally revealed to be a mass mind-control operation, as Svenonius believes it is, a great deal of pop criticism from the past decade will be instantly vacated, dismissed as the automatic writing of unwitting corporate stooges, intended to kill the old god for their paymaster.

So, not exactly the Unabomber Manifesto, but then, what is? Svenonius means it, man, even as he’s willing to allow a magical imp to appropriate his textual work and hang it in a group show sponsored by Tiffany & Co., J.P. Morgan, and Sotheby’s. He is simply carrying on the punk tradition, which he characterizes as a “psychotic, sci-fi-cartoon, cul-de-sac version of leftism” developed in response to the “ex-hippies’ reminiscences of sixties street fighting, narcotic bravado, and bohemian politics.” He doesn’t urge us to steal his book but to buy it (and his other books) and hide them in public libraries. After all, culture is everybody’s birthright.

Andrew Hultkrans