PRINT Summer 1998


Vanessa Beecroft

MY DESTINATION ON THURSDAY, April 23, 1998, was Vanessa Beecroft’s Show, at the Guggenheim Museum, but I began at the Tibor di Nagy Gallery, where Jane Freilicher’s new exhibition of paintings opened. I spent forty-five minutes absorbing their colors. I wish I had been a drop more moved. If I am not bowled over by a work of art, I usually blame myself: it’s the viewer’s duty to manufacture a passionate response. I certainly wanted to lose consciousness within Freilicher’s represented flowers, but I found myself wondering instead whether the time when I could undertake joyous fits of immobility over landscapes in still lifes had passed. I was pleased, however, to see the artist herself, a historic figure of the New York School, modestly presiding, in a smart suit, over her show, and to find that the gallery served free champagne.

In the rain, I chose to take a bus uptown to the Guggenheim. I decided to arrive a half hour early, because I wanted a restorative cup of tea at the museum restaurant. Alas, the entire building was closed, and wouldn’t open until 6:30. I grew grumpy standing outside for a half hour.

I don’t like to wait in line for art. The last time I waited in line for art was when the Book of Kells came to New York, a few epochs ago. The point of contemporary art is not waiting in line for it.

When I covered the Christie’s auction of Princess Diana’s dresses last summer, no one made me wait; Christie’s graciously hosted a special press preview. Beecroft’s performance was a fashion show, so why no press privileges? At the Princess Diana event, the auction house served finger sandwiches, miniature croissants, and orange juice. Press expect finger sandwiches.

Show was an “invitational” art event. As the publicity release stated, “SHOW is not open to the public and may be attended by invitation only.” (Scuttlebutt informed me that five thousand invitations were issued. Hardly an exclusive party.) If Show was not open to the public, then everyone attending was an insider, a guest, and therefore complicit. Invitees can’t throw tantrums, can’t object to snobbery, can’t begrudge Beecroft her drollery.

I was a fool to arrive at Show thirty minutes early, but my prematurity meant I was the first to be admitted once the doors opened. I had the treat, for a few seconds, of being the only layperson confronting the models. Assembled for my eye, they stood, neo–Ziegfield Follies, appareled by designer Tom Ford for Gucci, in the pit of the Frank Lloyd Wright snail curve: fifteen models in red bikinis and high-heeled rhinestone shoes, and five unclad models wearing only the high heels. I thought to walk directly into their nude and near-nude midst to say hello, disrupt their calm, scrutinize skintones and beige body makeup, but the rest of the audience, keeping a shy, respectful separation from the animate exhibit, stayed on the rotunda’s first ramp.

Emboldened by the company of an intrepid young artist friend, I decided to sit directly on the ground floor’s curving bench, so I could be the nearest of the near. The women were more striking when seen head-on, and the task of trying to establish eye contact undid any residual traces of the human/animal binary: if this was a human zoo, the specimens were not responding.

I am curious about women’s bodies, though I don’t know beans about them. (I was edified by the Jeff Koons porn show, years ago, because I could observe the precise configuration and position of the vagina of his then-wife, Cicciolina.) I have not often seen profoundly skinny women in the nude. I was surprised to see that each model in Show had significant separation between her noncontiguous upper thighs. Is such separation healthy? No one I asked, that night, seemed to think it abnormal or worrisome.

Invitees poured in, a glittering bunch, among them Leonardo di Caprio and Condé Nast editorial director James Truman, and Show began to resemble a party with a risqué ice sculpture, slowly melting, on which guests desultorily commented, though the artifact remained a sidenote to the headier labor of gossip, flirtation, rubbernecking, and networking. The twenty women, the ice, were melting—losing their shock value, their hold on our attentions. Two nudes—possibly twins—seemed on the verge of collapse: one was apparently having trouble with her shoes. Was a heel disengaging? I was afraid she might fall. Eventually she sat on the ground and looked a bit Déjeuner.

The women looked like the cover of the Valley of the Dolls soundtrack album: clustered sisters, mod squads, avengers, queens of outer space, half Helmut Newton and half terra-cotta army of Qin Shihuangdi (also on display at the Guggenheim). Early in the evening, a truculent, unkempt critic stormed out of the museum; he loudly branded the audience a bunch of idiots (“twenty-five years of feminism” coming to naught!). He was, however, the only audible dissenter. One straight guy, an artist, was enthusiastic about the tableau. He said, “Naked chicks! Great!” Then he excused himself: “I need to go to work.” (He meant work the room.) The fun of the evening, a friend said, was picking which model you preferred: “like choosing your favorite Spice Girl.”

During Show, Beecroft industriously took pictures of her women. (Unauthorized photography was not allowed.) I wanted to speak to the models (“Are you having a good time? Do your shoes hurt? Do you hate the audience?”), but I thought it best to beg the prime mover’s permission. So I approached her and asked, “Are you Vanessa Beecroft?” She said yes. I asked if she would mind if I addressed the models. Decisively, politely, she responded: “Thank you. No. It is forbidden.” Perhaps her refusal was part of the performance. Nonetheless, contrast Beecroft’s directorial authoritarianism (however ironic) with Carolee Schneemann’s unannounced enactment of Interior Scroll at the 1977 Telluride Film Festival—an action that consisted, in part, of the artist extracting an inscribed scroll from her vagina while she read the inscriptions aloud. Art actions, at their most transgressive, intend to erupt, to confuse, to undercut a set proceeding. _Show, forewarned, well-publicized, may have been a curious, pretty spectacle, but it forbade fissure and error, an artist’s best friends.

I’d worn my black ankle-high Gucci boots, despite the leather-damaging rain, because of the remote possibility that I might meet Tom Ford. Perhaps he would glance at my feet and see the shoes he’d designed, and subliminally approve of my unrequested collaboration with his event. I was disappointed, therefore, not to spot him. Evidently a no show, his absence made our knee-jerk presence seem servile, secondary.

Conspicuously present, however, was Yvonne Force, of Yvonne Force, Inc., a company whose name, “Force,” is one linguistic degree of separation from (Tom) “Ford,” as in Ford models and Ford cars—applied arts of the assembly line, the replica, and the readymade. Yvonne Force, Inc., dominated the press materials, which dramatically and unironically announced: “Yvonne Force, Inc. Presents VANESSA BEECROFT’S MOST ELABORATE PERFORMANCE TO DATE featuring wardrobe by Tom Ford for Gucci.” “Force” and “Show” were the evening’s keywords, and a witness inevitably sought, by playing with the two resonant terms, to make sense of the presentation. Show of Force? Forced to show? Forced show? To show is to force? Force majeure? (For her part, Beecroft, in her statement of purpose, relied on the metaphorical resonance of “Force”: “Beecroft visualizes this force safe and born as if it was the most ideal and unique performance she has ever done” [emphasis mine].)

Though the stiletto mules were beautiful, I do not think Beecroft needed the imprimatur of Gucci. It might have been more appealing if she had used the items without Tom Ford’s permission or had obtained a Gucci-resembling wardrobe at the Salvation Army and fooled us into thinking it was the real thing. And yet the mules inspired, among my acquaintances, covetous admiration: a curator wryly said she would be happy to acquire Show if Beecroft bribed her with a free pair of shoes.

Though the event was billed as “a performance by Vanessa Beecroft,” she did not perform; the models—the bodies at stake—went uncredited. Anonymity was deliberate: “Beecroft views her live material as purely visual: no accents on the women’s personalities or origin, nor is any emphasis on femininity intended.” I don’t relish hearing the models described as “live material” (shades of the petri dish, the test tube, the meat rack); nor do I applaud the artist’s quest for the Riefenstahlian or Eliotic erasure of personality.

The women, however, were beautiful: makeup, shoes, faces, repose. Standing at relaxed attention, they recalled deer, or moose, or zombies, or auditioners for a haute-couture summer-stock production of Village of the Damned. “Beauty creates shame,” Beecroft claimed in her circulated statement, but where, in Show, was the shame? Shame might have meant one fat body. Shame might have required a model disobeying the Beecroftian credo, and diverging from her assigned task, perhaps by taking a nap, or a dump, on the Guggenheim floor. We invitees might have contributed a measure of shame by stripping, posing beside the models, making conspicuous our clumsiness and discomfort.

I fear I have been unnecessarily churlish toward Beecroft, who has a wonderful sense of the incestuous interplay between repetition and variation: she is attentive to the uncanniness of near-miss mimicry, one model almost resembling another but then failing to observe the mandate of sameness. She understands that a person standing still is never completely motionless; that the inanimate and the animate are specular twins; that nudity is a form of clothing; that sexuality is sometimes the opposite of touch and intimacy; that museums, like many sacred repositories, are vital but compromised institutions; that the only thing art ever needs to do is show, or point, or place, or juxtapose, or omit—its gestures so simple and everyday that we all at moments deserve to call ourselves artists. I love nudity, Gucci mules, and voyeurism, and yet I might not be the ideal viewer of Show, because I also require shame, and there was not much shame in Show. I would have liked to see Tom Ford, nude (save for red sandals and body makeup), join Beecroft’s models in the eye of the rotunda. That might have been a show that punctured propriety.

Wayne Koestenbaum’s third book of poetry is being published by Persea late in 1998.