Whatever Works

Sarah Nicole Prickett at the opening of Alex Da Corte’s “Free Roses”at MASS MoCA

Left: Americo Da Corte and artist Alex Da Corte. Right: Alex Da Corte's “Free Roses.”

MORE NIGHTS THAN NOT THIS PAST WINTER, Amanda Bates, a bartender at Public in North Adams, Massachusetts, would see her favorite new customer, Alex Da Corte. He would walk in from the museum across the street, where he and his two assistants and a team of seven workers were installing his eight-room survey, “Free Roses,” and order a glass of sangiovese or a mezcal with ice, depending on his stress levels. By the time it got to be spring, she was pouring a fair amount of mezcal, but she never saw him drunk. She would ask him about work; he would complain, gently, about a lack of sleep or a supply problem or a color or a part that wasn’t working. Then he’d say, tell me about you. A bartender is often a therapist, historically speaking, but it was Bates who began to catch transference. The girls at Public would go, “Why don’t you just ask him if he’s gay?” Bates wouldn’t do that, but she did tell me, with her bright admixture of sincerity and deadpan exaggeration, that she’s “irrevocably in love with the man.”

Bates knew she wasn’t alone. We were standing in a great long hall Saturday night at MASS MoCA, one of the biggest and best-looking museums in the country, with “Free Roses” and Sarah Crowner’s “Beetles in the Leaves” open upstairs and the party for Da Corte and Crowner all around. Twenty-nine minutes out of thirty, someone or other was hugging or kissing Da Corte or thanking him profusely, and in the thirtieth minute, Da Corte, who at thirty-five is young for his success, was drinking from the secret tequila the bartenders were keeping for him behind the wine. A group of his friends from New York—the artist Sam McKinniss, the writer Al Bedell, the artist Elaine Cameron-Weir, the artist Borna Sammak (Da Corte’s collaborator), and so on—were joking-ish about how they would propose to him, a sudden tinkling of glasses, an announcement to make, we’ve never known anyone as kind and tall and patient and like a hot dad who’s also a genius as you, Alex Da Corte, so will you marry us, what do you say.

Left: Jayson Musson. Right: Musician Naeem Juwan aka Spank Rock and artist Scott Ross.

It did feel like a wedding reception. There was a white-clothed buffet table of chicken tacos with what a sign referred to as “Latino-spiced rice and beans,” a liberally seasoned upgrade, you presume, from the erstwhile Hispanic-spiced variety. There was the slow-drifting tinsel noise of adult pop from elevated speakers. Plus, there was the fact that half the guests were in from out of town. A good few, like the rapper Naeem Juwan aka Spank Rock, had come from Philadelphia, where Da Corte lives. Da Corte’s family, in which three different males are named Americo, had come from New Jersey. Several top curators were in attendance, like Chrissie Iles from the Whitney and Massimiliano Gioni from the New Museum and the High Line’s Cecilia Alemani, and so was a contingent from Luxembourg & Dayan, where Da Corte had a big-hit solo show last year. Susan Cross, the curator at MASS MoCA, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a massive rose, which looked in the middle like a vulva when she pinched it and stretched it out, laughing. Bates’s gift for Da Corte was a T-shirt that said SHOW ME YOUR KITTIES, because he specializes in the terrible pun, as well in the sexualized pet.

Like a lot of the people who know him and a few who don’t, Bates lasted less than ten minutes in the show before getting emotional, and another fifteen or twenty before deciding to come back the next day, or the day after that, to try to absorb the whole saturnalia in peace. One of Da Corte’s collaborators, Jayson Musson, spent most of the night leaning against walls, mostly because leaning against walls is just what he likes, but also because the installations are vertiginous enough to make giants reel. Da Corte is the greatest to ever do it, which is a direct quote from another of his collaborators, Dev Hynes, sent to me by text from LA. The “it” that Da Corte is doing, with all the hot trash at his disposal, all the compromising evidence of youth, is as much for people who never really go to see art as it is for people who only ever seem to see art. People floated up from the dinner, getting stuck in front of the three malevolent videos of “Night in Hell / Delirium,” a room laminated in jagged black-and-white-and-purple tessellations, or the absurdly sad 2010 Chelsea Hotel No. 2, named for the Leonard Cohen song that soundtracks its splashes of meat and stuff. 

Alex Da Corte, A Season in Hell, 2012.

“I’m going to cry again,” said Bates, thinking about the white plastic swans holding candles in a neon pink-lit, Plexiglas pond. “My grandmother had those exact swans in a pond in her front yard, with all these hydrangeas, and she’d always let the hydrangeas die, and she’d never throw them out. Every piece in the show gives me a memory like that. It’s all these things I thought were dead or forgotten or no one else remembered them, but that’s just like Alex. He remembers everything.”

When Bates first got to know Da Corte for real, it was when a guy on Tinder was messaging her all the time, and she thought she was into it, but she didn’t know how to respond. The guy lived an hour away. “I’m outgoing, but I’m not that spontaneous,” she said. “But I told Alex about the guy, and he was just like, do it! Whatever! But do it now! It’s hard to explain, because it’s not what he says, it’s like, he says it and you feel like you can do it. He brings out the whatever in you.” Bates says whatever in the voice you would use to order another bottle of champagne at T.G.I. Friday’s before the strip club. She’s now in mad happiness with the Tinder guy, like five-hours-on-the-phone, drive-to-see-him-at-four-in-the-morning happiness. Recall the first time you felt that alight in your head, but imagine you also knew that feelings cause cancer, albeit a form of cancer curable by ecstasy: I can’t better describe the sensations of Da Corte’s work.

Left: Artist Borna Sammak. Right: Curator Linda Norden.

Da Corte himself walked through the door of the Mohawk Tavern, another bar right across the street, a few minutes after the opening ended, and bowed a little like a young Marc Jacobs at the sweetest applause. Bates handed Da Corte a drink, and Da Corte, for whom it was already too much, insisted I have it. The next morning, in the parking lot of the museum, he would take a bouquet he’d been given and toss it out the window of his van as he drove away: “Free roses!” Whatever! Rolling her eyes, Bates said, “He introduced me to his mom tonight, and I can’t even buy him a drink.” Da Corte put his number in her phone.

I asked her, when Da Corte was elsewhere again, what she had said to his mom. You’re probably not going to believe this, but I did. She wasn’t exaggerating. “Oh,” said Bates, “I told her he changed my life.”

Left: Artist Sam McKinniss. Right: Writer and dealer William Pym with Alex Da Corte.