Passion Victims

Rhonda Lieberman at “Passion: For Love or Money?”

New York

Left: New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni and art historian John Richardson on the panel. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg with Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: David Velasco)

So nu, with the New Museum? It’s building a sleek tower on the Bowery (way above the bums, darling); its trailblazing founder, Marcia Tucker, recently passed away; and it’s welcoming curator Massimiliano Gioni, who all you culture vultures no doubt know is also the artistic director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation and a collaborator (in the Wrong Gallery) with the super-duper-high-priced artist Maurizio Cattelan. Now you also know he’s the cutest curator, ever, and charming. Moderating Wednesday night’s panel at the Cooper Union entitled “Passion: For Love or Money?” was his public debut as the New Museum’s new hire.

Noting the decent turnout, a mélange of Cooper Union students and museum supporters, I scanned the dais and couldn’t help noticing there was a woman up there. And five men. Perhaps the only thing worse would be to not even notice? Surely, they could have dug up another chick—even an annoying one—on “passion”? So let’s just call the panel “Passion: For Love or Money? (According to Several Men and One Woman).” OK, that’s better.

Each panelist exemplified passion, be it for performance art, curating, criticizing, Picasso, or food. Perhaps the most on point, Marina Abramovic presented a rich trio of videos: first, Liberace starting his day (fabulously, of course); then, in Jerusalem, a saint wannabe channeling Christ’s stigmata (“In a world seduced by materialism, lust, and force,” she preached to her weeping supporters, “don’t allow your will to be subdued . . .”); last, “Adoration of the Object, by a Yugoslavian artist,” a long shot of a young man sitting Buddha-like and contemplating a motorcycle. Unexpectedly, Abramovic came out against passion: “Passion creates obsession, which creates attachment, which creates suffering,” said the woman who, according to Gioni, has “walked on the wall of China, lived in the desert, and eaten onions, all in the name of an art she has transformed.” “The worst works we ever made,” said Abramovic, referring to Ulay, her longtime artistic partner, “were based on passion . . . the mystic stuff.”

Left: New Museum director Lisa Phillips with Village Voice senior art critic Jerry Saltz. Right: Chef Wylie Dufresne.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist “tries to read a book a day and interview a person every day,” marveled Gioni by way of introduction. Clearly revved up, and talking ridiculously fast in a barrage of Swiss-accented word pellets (does he read a book a day aloud?), Obrist enthused about his curatorial activities with the zeal of an Asperger’s case perorating about train schedules. My notes from his flyby discourse are goulash: something about “polyphony . . . a less homogenized idea of globalization . . . exhibition as a time line . . . I would like to talk to students in China . . . Agamben.” He showed a “speech bubble pavilion” where he’d staged a series of conversations. He’s passionate, OK? Perhaps more about gobbling and spewing discourse than digesting it.

“You can’t seem to get enough of Picasso, can you?” Gioni turned to the next distinguished panelist, John Richardson, who “has written one million words” about the artist. An actual pal of the modern master (which seemed science-fiction surreal, as the chap looks mature but not ancient), Richardson is a hotline to greatness and didn’t stint on the anecdotes, including one about Picasso’s “uncle who died because he wore a barbed-wire garter belt to chastise himself and purge himself of sin.” He noted Picasso’s regard Andalu (Andalusian gaze), “the feeling you could have something with your eyes. Picasso exemplified that.” Very different, Richardson pointed out, from today’s celebrity-driven obsession with “image.” “What did Picasso want?” asked the moderator. “To live forever,” Richardson shot back instantly. “He was obsessed with death and hated time.” What did he need most? “Other people’s energy. He was exhausting. Like a vampire.”

Wylie Dufresne is an award-winning chef and owner of WD~50, a groovy, “pioneering” Lower East Side restaurant. He roasts chickens like an artist-philosopher: “Now that we know how to roast a chicken according to Careme and Escoffier,” he said, “I’m asking why. It’s very complicated to roast a chicken. We know more about the surface of Mars than we know about what’s going on inside a soufflé.” His stoner-style musings were cut off by queries: What is the strangest thing you’ve put in your mouth? (“I’ve eaten a lot of bugs.”) What taste do you hate the most? (“Dill.”) Love? (“Eggs are amazing.”) Clearly an experimentalist, Dufresne is challenged to practice his art in a restaurant where the public expects, like, to have dinner. He’s passionate “to get people to accept that eating is . . . something to contemplate, an emotion to share. Like you go to a baseball game or theater for an interactive experience.”

Left: Artist Marina Abramovic. Right: John Richardson and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs and director of international projects.

Lastly, Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice did his average-Joe, “What do I know?” shtick, literally playing tourist by sharing slides of his recent road trip to Utah. He hung with Mormons at Brigham Young U. He made a pilgrimage to Robert Smithson’s echt-high-art shrine, Spiral Jetty. Showing snaps of Mormon art (mothers and settlers), the New York, Jewish art appreciator was deeply moved, he said, when he schlepped out to the Jetty and spotted (someone literally gasped when this slide went up) a giant, pasty, naked man just lying there like a beached whale. Clearly a man, Saltz assumed, in passionate communion with site-specific landscape art: “It opened me up to how romantic the Smithson piece really is.” There was a hilarious slide with Jerry’s face as repoussoir; behind him, the Jetty and his naked fellow pilgrim, lying prone, in a “shamanic nap.” Or, just a nap. It “reminded me we have to look at art like that all the time.” Whether Saltz was wildly projecting in that case or not, after dissing art mags, theorists, Rosalind Krauss, and Matthew Barney, he gave the crowd a pep rally for having opinions about art: “There’s no criticism if there’s no judgment. If there’s no subjectivity, it’s not happening.” That, I agree with.

Abramovic commended Saltz’s “pure childish enthusiasm that touched everyone. Really wonderful. A good critic is a live critic. A good artist is a dead artist.” So that’s “passion” for ya.