Open City

Rejection and rebirth in New York

An audience member is pushed through a painting as part of an Ei Arakawa performance at David Zwirner last week. Photo: Santiago Felipe.

A LOT WAS GOING ON LAST WEEK. The opening of the season sloughed off the last couple years’ tentativeness for something that verged on overcompensation. Wednesday, for example, was VIP day at the Armory Show and Independent 20th Century. Thursday saw the Wolfgang Tillmans opening at MoMA; a reception for Nan Goldin at the Swedish Consulate in honor of her exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet; various downtown gallery openings and fêtes by and for places like Company, Essex Street/Maxwell Graham, Derosia, and Housing, the last at newly designated hotspot Skinos; and a rave, loosely defined, at a club in the shadow of the mass of cemeteries that bulges up on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. It was thrown by Courrèges and Interview magazine, the latter of which maintains its chic despite tossing its stars-and-stripes-draped September cover to one of the most famous people on the planet, Kim Kardashian, at a point when her entire dynasty might better be consigned to cultural studies departments. Though Kim does deserve some sympathy for dealing with Kanye of late, it’s true.

As is often the case, I gazed up at a Webb-telescope galaxy of options, found it overwhelming, and did almost nothing. With consummate professionalism, I tried at 4:30 p.m. to cadge my way into the Tillmans afterparty at Le Rock and was duly dismissed by the event’s organizer. It’s nice when you ask for something that you know is ridiculous and the person you ask knows you know: The sense of respect conferred by a casual you-must-be-joking door in the face is greater than that of being invited in the first place. Instead, I attended yet another of Thursday’s events, the first show of the season thrown by Blank Forms, which starred the grizzled post-Fahey improv duo Gray/Smith, whose name is so dryly antithetical to the cultural imperatives toward self-nomination and SEO optimization as to be a form of self-harm. Their music sounds like a more lucid and compact Grateful Dead, an influence so broadly and unexpectedly popular in recent years as to make the pair strong candidates for the cover of Interview magazine.

Gray/Smith perform with drummer Rob Smith and guitarist-vocalist Keith Connolly at Blank Forms in Brooklyn. Photo: Blank Forms.

On Friday, one night shy of the Pisces full moon, but certainly under its lunatic sway, David Zwirner launched a benefit exhibition for Performance Space New York with a “block party.” Throwing its doors open to the gorgeous weather—the old garage rolling up its glass facade for indoor-outdoor foot traffic, in a marginal diminution of the odds of the event becoming an Omicron superspreader—Zwirner set up an impromptu burger stand, hired a Mister Softee truck, and distributed cocktails in paper cups from a source I never could divine. There were sunglasses at night and men in khakis. There were guests in tuxedos, guests in bustiers, and a group of stoned teens on bicycles slavering at the prospect of free ice cream. The crowd seemed in the high several hundreds, its fervor dampened only by the Woodstock ’99–like conditions that quickly overtook the portable toilets and the ankle-wrecking possibilities of the asphalt on Nineteenth Street, which had been inopportunely ripped up for repaving.

The show itself happily dispensed with the delusion that anyone would want to buy anything other than a painting at the moment by including nothing else, save for a few works on paper, three photos by Lorraine O’Grady, and some fake lemons by Pope.L that clung to the ceiling like barnacles. The selection was made by an Avengers-style dream team of artists: Ei Arakawa, Kerstin Brätsch, Nicole Eisenman, and Laura Owens. Five colorful banners that they made collaboratively hung low from a girder near the front of the space, with the works on sale tacked up uncomfortably edge to edge at the level of Zwirner’s neck-craning ceiling. An elevated platform akin to a boardwalk ran to the back wall, through it, and back around to the front. The “backstage” held a small area that theatricalized the process of painting, with the platform’s plywood giving way to clear plastic; underneath it, one could see a colorful assortment of open paint cans as well as brushes, drop cloths, and a few more of Pope.L’s lemons. It was all meant in fun. Even the height of the paintings came across as a flippant provocation, as if one were supposed to gaze up reverently at them.

At the opening of “A Maze Zanine, Amaze Zaning, A-Mezzaning, Meza-9” at David Zwirner. Photo: Santiago Felipe.

Fittingly for the carnival atmosphere—the only thing missing was a dunk tank or bounce house—Performance Space asked the gleefully anarchic Arakawa to do a little something. In the spirit of Andy Kaufman, he exasperated the buzzing crowd by taking a seemingly endless period of time to solicit a dozen volunteers, a delay he cultivated by explaining that the performance itself would take half an hour. When the action finally commenced, it was with inaction, a ten-minute audio clip of the four artists conducting a roundtable discussion of their feelings about painting, spoken by four different computer-generated voices. Eventually things got into motion, with the recruits rotating a little framed structure on casters (a hallmark of Arakawa’s painting-related performances), then proceeding to pantomime daubing themselves and audience members with undipped brushes.

Just as even I stopped paying attention, the troupe hoisted Brätsch up to their shoulders as if on a bier and began parading her along the full route of the platform. At the end of the full circuit, back at ground level, they unexpectedly rammed her into a painting hung at shoulder height—which was revealed to be flapped canvas covering a hole in the wall. On the other side waited an art handler on a platform to help avoid any liability issues. This turn of events was genuinely unexpected and kind of fun, and the crowd’s glee returned. A number of people passed through the painting’s threshold to be reborn, including David Zwirner himself.

To cap the week, on Saturday was the awarding of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, at which Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed—the moving story of Goldin’s life, her art, and her anti-opioid crusade—took the prize. Poitras was soon spotted with the trophy on the beach. Our hometown heroes had beaten twenty-to-one odds, according to a bit of bookmaking I had found as the festival kicked off. You could have made a quick two grand for what essentially has become the cost of dinner and two drinks in Manhattan. Perhaps it was the Pisces moon, but reader, when I heard the news, I wept.