“WHAT DO YOU GET someone for their 250th birthday?” bellowed Manifesta’s curator Kasper König, employing a tone that suggested he had a few choice ideas. He was addressing a crowd gathered in the ballroom of Saint Petersburg’s Hotel Astoria to celebrate the opening of the itinerant biennial’s contentious tenth edition, sited in one of the world’s most illustrious museums, the State Hermitage, which was marking an impressive two-and-a-half-century anniversary.
Cutting a dapper figure in his tux, König certainly didn’t look as battle-weary as he sounded. It was no secret that the exhibition had encountered its obstacles, weathering not one but two international boycotts—the first in the fall of 2013, a response to the notorious legislation against “homosexual propaganda”; the second in February 2014, an expression of outrage against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Further misunderstandings abounded when the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky—who fancies himself as manning the last bastion for contemporary art after a criminally uninspired 2013 exhibition of the Chapman Brothers came under fire for offending religious sentiment (the cardinal no-no in today’s Russia)—somehow found it flattering that a biennial known for homing in on Europe’s trouble spots would show such interest. Manifesta, meanwhile, quietly maintained its stance on freedom of expression in areas of “political non-alignment,” tiptoeing over one of several leviathans in the room.
International headlines had no such hesitations, double-dipping on Russia-bashing, with a special focus on homophobia. Never mind that the propaganda law has had but one official casualty, or that comparatively little ink was spilled over potentially more alarming laws (such as one that subjects personal blogs or social media platforms to the same restrictions, regulations and liabilities as media outlets). As far as Manifesta’s public was concerned, if the exhibition were to continue, it had an imperative to speak out. The scene in Saint Petersburg, however, was embarrassingly tranquil. Visitors who thought they were flocking to the front lines were met with little to do but soak in the city’s elegant drowsiness. Clutching their orange tote bags, they smiled wryly at König’s toast, though one got the sense most were still deciding whether they were relieved not to have been beaten up en route to the party.
“This edition of Manifesta has been born from a Shakespearean dilemma and questions about whether to engage or disengage,” Manifesta Foundation president Hedwig Fijen admitted afterward in a toast of her own. “Kasper was the right man at the right time.” While none would dispute that the esteemed König has more than earned his stripes, it was also true that some of the curator’s recent struggles were directly linked to his refusal to cater to today’s 140-character reactionaries. His invitation to artists included a statement cautioning that the biennial could likely be “misused by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation” and urging participants not to “resort to cheap provocations”: “The environment and the possibilities for this exhibition are very rich and it would be a mistake to reduce our possibilities down to the level of just making a particular political statement.”
Not surprisingly, this equation of politically engaged art to self-righteous back-patting proved provocative in itself, prompting more than one artist to reconsider participation. Always quick to the bullhorn, the collective Chto Delat? was the first to withdraw, and Paweł Althamer and Artur Żmijewski would disappear from the roster shortly after. (Other names—including Cyprien Gaillard and Cindy Sherman—would also drop, but these were presumably casualties of budget considerations, not geopolitics.) When asked about Chto Delat? at the press conference, König didn’t mince words: “If you ask me, their understanding of politics is a bit simplistic, like on that American television series Desperate Housewives. They feel the political situation is so severe that art doesn’t mean anything anymore. I told them, if that’s how you feel, OK, then do what you have to do. If you leave, it’s sad, but don’t tell me what I have to say or do.”
“If anyone is guilty of cheap provocations, it’s Kasper,” one curator grumbled as we made our way through the General Staff Building, the Hermitage’s newly renovated neighbor to the Winter Palace. Destined to house the museum’s blockbuster collection of twentieth-century paintings, the monstrous complex (several smaller buildings forged into one, Frankenstein style) was given over entirely to Manifesta. In what was surely König’s most radical and revelatory gestures, the curator moved the Hermitage’s storied Matisses into their new home ahead of the gun, so that showstoppers like The Arab Coffeehouse and two versions of The Dance mingled with works by Wolfgang Tillmans and Olivier Mosset. König then filled the freshly vacated galleries in the Winter Palace with paintings by Maria Lassnig, Marlene Dumas, and Nicole Eisenman, interrupting the stream of Picassos, Gauguins, and Van Goghs to the chagrin of many of a tour guide. Dumas won early applause for her cloying series of watercolors, now titled “Great Men” (the original middle modifier “Gay” was theatrically axed in concession to the propaganda law), though it was clear Eisenman’s charming, awkwardly angled portrait of two women having sex (we just see the tops of two heads, clenched hands, and knees askew) was also there to cause some trouble.
Left: Garage Museum director Kate Fowle with artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz. (Photo: Trevor Paglen) Right: Curator Ekaterina Andreeva with Gennady Pliskin at the Hermitage General Staff Building.
For a so-called “Manifesta without a manifest,” König sure spent a lot of time trying to poke the eye of the sleeping giant. Witness the many gasps over the tribute to the ever-ebullient Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe, who took on the image (and surname) of his favorite heroine, Marilyn. The presentation of his works was one of two miniretrospectives of the Northern Capital’s brightest lights (the other being of Timur Novikov) guest-curated by State Russian Museum’s Katya Andreeva. Andreeva had covered the same territory with a far more compelling show last month at the London nonprofit Calvert 22, but to Manifesta’s international audience—overwhelmingly ignorant of the city’s recent cultural history and of its homoerotic New Academy—the inclusion of two openly gay Russian artists was lauded as a triumph for freedom of expression. Never mind that both artists are now deceased and unable to speak for themselves. “Dead artists don’t bite,” shrugged artist Andrey Khlobystin, another veteran of the scene.
A lack of context seemed to plague the biennial, especially when it came to those works that intervened directly into the imperial collection of the sprawling Winter Palace. The tourists streaming by Joseph Beuys’s 1980 work Wirtschaftswerte—a series of commercial shelves plopped amid the Dutch landscapes with solely its title for explanation—registered only bewilderment. “Don’t pay attention to these!” one guide barked at a set of Louise Bourgeois drawings. “It’s all just temporary.”
“They told me they expect two million people to see the exhibition, but I suspect that has nothing to do with how many people actually make it to this room,” artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz lamented, during a requisite break for the World Cup. In the labyrinthine layout of the Winter Palace, even the most dedicated Manifesta-goers struggled to locate which rooms the aggravating, abstract exhibition map indicated. There was little to no signage within the museum itself, and it was no use asking a passing Piotrovsky: He was busy escorting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas around the grounds. Maybe they were able to find the Karla Black?
“The Hermitage has not been so accommodating,” one Manifesta team member confessed in a definite understatement. König was less tactful. His acid-laced toast at the opening cocktail would have raised more eyebrows, had his translator not been so quick to camouflage the curator’s less discreet observations, transforming a phrase like “this curious, truly byzantine museum, carrying on as if in a fairy tale” into “this marvelous, fairy-tale-like museum.” But there was no disguising König’s comparison of Manifesta as a “wonderful, do-gooding organization” to the Hermitage as the institution of “Nyet Nyet Nyet!” As for Saint Petersburg, it’s a city “so stuck on its own tragic history that it doesn’t seem able to properly devour it, to chew it up, and spit it out.” Taking a thoughtful look at his champagne, the curator concluded: “But this happened, so let’s drink.”
König wasn’t the only one with mixed feelings. “I’m not here!” one international artist said, waving me away as he crossed the Palace Square in the company of Moscow curator Daria Parkhomenko. Others owned the opportunity to visit Russia, regardless of politics. Francis Al˙s’s proposal saw the artist and his brother reviving a thirty-year-old dream of taking a Russian-made auto, the Lada Kopeika, from Brussels to Leningrad. The epic road trip ended symbolically with a mild crash into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace, where the car remains. From what Al˙s had observed, today’s Russia is afflicted with “collective apathy.” “There’s a passive resistance to culture here. It’s not like people are going out of their way to oppose things, but there are just a hundred tiny obstacles to clear before anyone can do anything.”
This attitude did not deter Manifesta 10’s curator of public programs, Joanna Warsza, who considered the boycotts a call to mobilization. “We should take them into account as part of the public’s response.” She noted the particular complexity of her position as someone responsible for not just a project, but a whole program. “Withdrawal was a possibility, but it would have had to be a collective decision.”
Warsza developed her program using the destinations board at the city’s Vitebsk Train Station. “You don’t have London or Paris,” Warsza noted. “You have Vilnius, Chișinău, Tallinn, Kyiv, and Warsaw.” Recruiting artists like Slavs and Tatars, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Kristina Norman, the public program did not shy away from political gestures: Deimantas Narkevičius organized a concert of war songs by a choir of Cossacks (the much-romanticized minority, now perhaps best known for whipping Pussy Riot); Pavel Braila filled a minifridge with snow brought in from Sochi, the subtropical climate that miraculously hosted the Winter Olympics; and Alexandra Pirici set the monuments of Saint Petersburg to human scale, by planting performers in and around such postcard staples as the Bronze Horseman and the Finland Railway Station Lenin.
Local artists Ilya Orlov and Natasha Kraevskaya used their commission to explore some of the near-abandoned revolutionary museums, such as the Sarai Museum in the outlying town of Razliv, where Lenin was purported to have hidden for a few days in the summer of 1917. Once receiving 500,000 visitors a year, in the post-Soviet present, the museum would be lucky to get 50,000. Orlov and Kraevskaya enlisted Moscow-based curator Ilya Budraitskis—who was dismissed from his post at the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia last fall after staging an exhibition drawing parallels to the events of 1990–91—to deliver a lecture on the fate of outdated ideological monuments.
The lecture took on a special resonance within the context of Manifesta. After all, if the boycotts accomplished anything, it was to call into question whether there’s still a place for “do-gooding” in today’s art world. With political pendulums swinging across the continent, Manifesta may very well find its work cut out for it in 2016, when it retreats to “civilized” Switzerland.
Left: Manifesta 10 artist Thomas Hirschhorn with Manifesta's Sepake Angiama at the Hermitage General Staff Building. Right: Artists Henrik Olesen, Anders Klausen, Klara Liden, and Wolfgang Tillmans at the Hotel Astoria.
Left: Stuart Comer, MoMA chief curator of media and performance, with dealer Sarah Gavlak. Right: LACMA chief curator of contemporary art Franklin Sirmans with LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne. (Photos: Stefanie Keenan)
“HOLLYWOOD” IS NOT JUST SYNECDOCHE FOR AN INDUSTRY; it’s also a very real, and seriously weird, place. Trawling the flickering neon of its mostly low-rent territory last Thursday and Friday, I found myself at a quartet of gallery openings, the most notable being the inauguration of Gavlak Gallery’s new H’wood outpost, with a dinner at old standby Musso & Frank.
I began in West Hollywood, the wealthy municipal enclave and boys’ town, where I caught “Soft Target,” a group show at M+B curated by artists Phil Chang and Matthew Porter. The only remaining contemporary gallery on Almont, a strip that’s hosted everyone from Gagosian to Regen Projects, M+B has emerged as a gathering spot for a fractured community of photographers. Beautifully captured by Alex Klein’s show “Words Without Pictures” a few years back, a lot of the dialogue on photography in the city revolves around group shows like this one. A gaggle of important shutterbugs were circling the gallery with plastic wineglasses: Jim Welling, Amanda Ross-Ho, Whitney Hubbs, Zoe Crosher, and Owen Kydd, to name a few. I lingered for less than a snapshot before scurrying out of the West and into Hollywood proper.
There is, of course, a Hollywood in Florida too. Besides this and a penchant for sun-kissed weirdos, the two states now also share a Gavlak Gallery. A few years after finishing her MA in critical writing at the Art Center in Pasadena, proprietress Sarah Gavlak went southeast in 2005 to found her first space in the snowbird town of West Palm Beach. Her savviness, coupled with the offbeat location, allowed her to exhibit a starry array of New York and LA artists. At the packed opening, I spotted many of Gavlak’s former Art Center professors and colleagues—writers Benjamin Weissman and Amy Gerstler, artist Stephen Prina—and the gallery itself shows a healthy smattering of Art Center alums: Lecia Dole-Recio, Alexis Marguerite Teplin, and Lisa Anne Auerbach. The last’s newest tapestry features advice she’s received from psychics (“If you let go, the energies can come to you”; “You’re weaving compassion”). Had she ever received any useful recommendations from fortune-tellers, I wondered? Auerbach rolled her eyes with restrained pity and answered a polite No.
En route to dinner, I stopped by a one-night “durational installation” by Joe Zorrilla at Hannah Hoffman Gallery. The ephemerality of the show reflected that of the works—propped wooden doors hinged only with dripping ice. A half-hour later, as the bartender shook my first martini at Musso & Frank, I found myself having moved from the short to the longue durée. Founded in 1919, Musso & Frank has hosted alcoholic writers like Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald alongside matinee idols like Chaplin, existing in some ethereal past under a gossamer nostalgia for a Hollywood that never quite was. Where else in Los Angeles can you find Lobster Thermidor and Welsh Rarebit?
A platinum-blonde Gavlak presided over the affair in a pink pencil skirt and top, perfectly matching the peonies clustered on every table. Gliding from table to table, she welcomed her “tri-coastal” patrons and artists, from Beth Rudin DeWoody and Alan Finkelstein to Pentti Monkonenn and Joel Kyack. Finkelstein had spent a spell in Warhol’s Factory and was a back room regular at Max’s Kansas City. “I guess I was just standing in the right place at the right time,” he said, conceding that there’s always a right place and time, depending on where you’re standing.
The following night I made my way downtown to REDCAT for Allora & Calzadilla’s first Los Angeles show. The exhibition takes as its subject an attempt in Paris, just after the French Revolution, to communicate with elephants using music. For the opening, an orchestra played the entire original 1798 concert including works like Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) and the Revolutionary anthem Ça ira. One strains to imagine whether the kidnapped elephants in the Jardin de Plantes were inspired or mortified by this mix, and I wondered if that spectacle resembled the shuffling crowd (dealer Shaun Caley Regen, curator Anne Ellegood, artists Nick Herman and Kelly Nipper) shifting docilely around REDCAT. Everyone appeared pacified by the melodious ensemble, but my heart wasn’t in it.
From there I grabbed Fundación Alumnos47 director Adriana Maurer Walls and colleague Eva Posas Rasgado and set off for a dinner thrown by ForYourArt, Ooga Booga, and Alumnos47 after a Friday Flights event at the Getty. Artists MPA, Eve Fowler, Piero Golia, Nicole Miller, and Flora Wiegmann clustered in a small side room of La Escuela Taqueria on Beverly Boulevard. The oversubscribed dinner kept me on my toes, and eventually I lost my chair and stood outside watching the diners trickle off to a party in Laurel Canyon or home to rest up for the next night’s round of openings, including Jane and Louise Wilson at c.nichols project and Jesse Willenbring at Thomas Duncan. Maurer Walls sat in the dark, cigarette in her hand. “I love Los Angeles,” she said. “The city never seems to end.”
Left: Artist Brian Roettinger, ForYourArt's Bettina Korek, and Hammer Museum curator Aram Moshayedi. Right: Asma Maroof from Nguzunguzu and artist MPA.
TIME AND AGAIN, Jeff Koons has said that his art is all about “transcendence,” that he wants it to help people feel good about themselves. Last Tuesday night, during an exclusive patrons’ preview of “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum, he achieved that goal a few hundred times over, while giving the Whitney the perfect kiss-off to its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. Whatever could the museum do to top it, except start over somewhere else?
“Have you been upstairs?” asked the Argentine real estate developer Eduardo Costantini—one of two collectors present who each paid a fortune, no doubt, for new Koonses that they were thrilled to see for the first time here. “It’s the yellow one on the fourth floor,” the kvelling Costantini said of Pluto and Proserpina, a stainless steel sculpture from Koons’s “Antiquity” phase. “It’s ten feet tall! And it’s beautiful!”
There didn’t seem to be a soul in the house who wasn’t spouting superlatives. Granted, the viewing audience mingling with Koons family members was restricted to other moneybag Koons collectors (Jerry Speyer, Steven Cohen, Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou), Koons dealers (Larry Gagosian, Almine Rech, David Zwirner), corporate sponsors (mainly H&M), artists whom the Whitney gave midcareer retrospectives long before Koons (John Currin, Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, Terry Winters), other artists (Darren Bader, Urs Fischer, T. J. Wilcox, Louise Lawler), curators from hither and yon (Ann Temkin, Joachim Pissaro), the occasional media celebrity (Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown), and the directors of other museums, like MoMA’s Glenn Lowry and Lisa Phillips from the New Museum. In 1980, it gave Koons his first exposure to the public.
Left: Whitney Museum chief curator Donna DeSalvo and collector Dakis Joannou. Right: China Chow and dealer-collector Jeffrey Deitch.
“It’s great,” said Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman of the retrospective, curated within an inch of its life by the Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf. “Drop-dead amazing,” concluded Norman Rosenthal. Artist Josephine Meckseper, standing in the morbid light of Koons’s vacuum cleaners, was even more emphatic. “This is one of the most important shows we’re going to see in our lifetime,” she predicted. But the most frequent comment heard was, “Jeff Koons is the artist our society deserves.” That was a compliment.
Like or lump the 150 works on view—the perverse readymades, gleaming appliances, fecund flowers, pumped-up porcelains, over-shared paintings, exuberant porn pictures— it’s an entertaining and yes, intelligent, account of Koons’s Ahab-like obsession with perfection in a world that is anything but. It also puts the pathology driving all of the artist’s hoses, balls, sacs, shafts, tanks, crevices, orbs, and humps on naked display. Has Koons ever made a sculpture that didn’t suggest hetero coitus? “It’s great, but so totally psycho,” observed one guest, rolling her eyes at the wide-eyed cat hanging from huge clothespins in its scrotum-like, turquoise sock.
The work was pinioned to a wall facing the show’s deus ex machina, Play-Doh, the mountainous miracle cast in painted aluminum that took Koons twenty years to make and looks as if a truck full of paintings, perhaps his own, had taken a giant poop. “I’m happy,” said Koons, shaking hands or hugging all who came near.
“This is like visiting you at home,” Richard Pandiscio told Joannou, who loaned the show more works than any other collector, including the big tulips painting in the museum’s street window, though the Whitney borrowed B. Z. and Michael Schwartz’s number two edition of the single basketball suspended in a fish tank. “Seeing it here,” Joannou said, “gave me the same feeling I had the first time I saw it, when Scott was probably eight years old. Extraordinary.”
Dinner for the artist, lenders, sponsors, and trustees took place under a tent in the most appropriate location for a balloon-animal specialist, the Central Park Zoo. Waiters standing along the black carpet at the entrance proffered flutes of Dom Pérignon, making sure we knew the vintage. (Dom Pérignon underwrote the dinner with Christie’s, which has profited handsomely from Koons over the past several years.)
“This is the most groundbreaking, comprehensive show ever dedicated to Jeff Koons,” Whitney board cochair Brooke Garber Neidich told the two hundred guests in her welcome speech. There were several speeches, the most self-promotional from an almost giddy Donald Schneider, H&M’s creative director. He had to keep reminding himself that the evening was about Koons, not his company, which collaborated with the artist on a limited-edition balloon-dog handbag to celebrate the July 17 opening of its Fifth Avenue flagship. “One of Jeff’s balloon dogs cost a collector $58 million,” Schneider crowed. “Our handbag will sell for $49.95.”
When it was Whitney director Adam Weinberg’s turn, he acknowledged the “challenges” of mounting the retrospective with a nod to Rothkopf. “We wanted to say goodbye to the Breuer building with a flourish, and thanks to Scott we can,” he said, adding that Larry Gagosian “really came to the floor to make this happen.” Singling out lenders—“Dakis, this show could not have happened without you”—as well as Jeffrey Deitch—“You came to us early on with this idea”—Weinberg also took the presence of other artists in the room as “a tribute to Jeff.”
One of the artists watching Rothkopf walk to the podium was Cecily Brown. “Look at him,” she said. “He’s officially a rock star.” So it seemed, only he quickly outed Koons’s longtime studio manager, Gary McCraw, as “the great expert on Jeff’s work.” Calling the show “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and noting that he and Koons were “still friends,” he also thanked the collectors, extolling the patience of William Bell, the person who waited twenty years for Play-Doh—and has waited nearly that long for the new house in Malibu where it will live to be completed as well. (“It’s complicated,” he said later.)
Finally, Koons stepped to the mic. “The show is wonderful,” he said, “but what has real meaning is that all of us are here together.” He then introduced his family, beginning with his wife and muse, Justine Wheeler. “Celebration, Popeye, Hulk/Elvis, and Antiquity were inspired by our love and I am so grateful to her,” and here, unexpectedly, he choked up. “Art has brought so much transcendence in my life,” he said, as the motivational speaker in him came out. “It can lead people to be excited about their possibilities and be the best people that they can. And I want to be the best person I can.”
Mera Rubell must have been feeling the possibilities when her dinner partner, Christie’s president Douglas Woodham, confessed his fondness for collecting seventeenth-century painting. “That is unacceptable,” she told him. “You have to see the light.”
Left: Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden. Right: Metropolitan Museum curators Sheena Wagstaff and Nicholas Cullinan.
The next day, the sun was definitely shining on Koons when Gagosian hosted a lunch for the artist at the Sea Grill, under the nose of Split-Rocker, the monumental topiary now looming over the Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, it is just as fabulous as, if slightly less endearing than, his flowering Puppy, which stood in the same spot fourteen years ago. “It’s a painting with flowers,” Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume said. “And the architecture inside it is really interesting.”
For a little while, with Weinberg, Donna De Salvo, Agnes Gund, Eli and Edythe Broad, and Bill and Maria Bell in the room, it seemed as if the Whitney party had never ended. But fresh faces belonging to architect Annabelle Selldorf, Richard Prince, Dan Colen, Public Art Fund president Susan Freedman, collectors Jill and Peter Kraus, and Gagosian curator John Elderfield, also arrived to drink special “Split-Rocker” cocktails and sweeten their teeth with “Split-Rocker” desserts.
“Jeff lives in a frictionless universe,” Rothkopf observed. But he also has to share it with other artists, who were chock-a-block on Thursday, the big kickoff for summer shows in Manhattan. There were openings at Marian Goodman, at several galleries on the Lower East Side, at Sean Kelly in Clinton, and all over Chelsea, where there was something for every taste.
Mickalene Thomas powered up at Lehmann Maupin in the lone solo show of the evening, while dealer Alexander Gray exhumed the watercolors of Vera Neumann, whose scarves adorned the heads and throats of countless women from the 1950s to the 1980s. The pungent odor of a stable—the kind for horses, not just artists—wafted through Paul Kasmin Gallery, where Brooklyn Rail editor Phong Bui took a turn as curator of the baffling, “Bloodflames Revisited,” and Todd Levin totally kicked out the jams at both the Marianne Boesky and Marlborough galleries with the archaeological sweep he gave to the last 150 years of art from Detroit, not just the most beleaguered but possibly the most soulful city in the country.
Instead of bringing in a guest curator, Barbara Gladstone turned to Berlin dealers Thilo Wermke and Alexander Schröder for “Galerie Neu at Gladstone Gallery,” hands-down the coolest show of the night. “They have a very clear aesthetic, and I like it,” Gladstone said of her colleagues. “I can learn a lot from them.”
The atmosphere contrasted sharply with the wild scene at Salon 94, which fashion designer Duro Olowu, in his yearly outing as curator, filled to the ceiling with paintings, ceramics, costume jewelry, photographs, and handmade clothing all focused on the female form—material culture at its most colorful, for sure.
Designer Cynthia Rowley, kitted out in an Olowu dress, was fascinated. “This may be the only time I wear someone else’s clothes,” she said. The enormous crowd at the opening included the collector Emily Pulitzer, fashion activist Bethann Hardison, Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell—a decorative arts specialist, after all—and a man who told Olowu that he liked the clothes more than the art. “They’re not as expensive, right?” the man asked. Olowu gave him a helpless look. “They are,” he said. “I made them, and I know.”
Friday night brought platoons of art troops to Bard College, where Amy Sillman and Anne Collier had retrospective shows opening at the Hessel Museum, one stop on a tour for each. “I have to say it looks better here than it did at the ICA in Boston,” said Sillman, who has been teaching at Bard for years and was wearing a medal to prove it. Collier’s show of photographs, curated by Bard CCS director Tom Eccles, was given a super-elegant installation on blue-gray walls. “Is this the most beautiful show ever?” collector Marty Eisenberg asked. “And did you see the guest list? The best people are here.”
During a buffet dinner on the lawn of Eccles’s house in Red Hook, Sillman was ebullient while Collier, though glowing, seemed overwhelmed by the attention. “Excuse me,” she said. “I have to get a Diet Coke.”
The rest of us got an evening in the country, under a full blanket of stars—a fitting end to a celestial week shimmering with possibilities.
Left: Collector Dorothy Lichtenstein and Ballroom Marfa cofounder Fairfax Dorn. Right: Novelist A. M. Homes and art consultant Amy Cappellazzo.
SUMMER CAMP started early this year with a weekend of post-Basel R & R in Greece. Actually, the Swiss fair was still in progress when the first escapees arrived in Athens last Friday. With hardly a stop for breath, artists, collectors, and curators were whisked away to supercollector Dakis Jouannou’s Deste Foundation for the opening of “Macho,” an exhibition of self-portrait photographs by Juergen Teller, curated by Marina Fokidis. This is how art people take the pressure off—by immersing themselves in art that they can’t buy or sell.
Joannou didn’t go to Basel, because, as he said, he didn’t need to go. Artists come to him these days, even “retired” artists like Maurizio Cattelan, and well they should. Joannou doesn’t collect art to flatter his ego or because it’s a good investment. He does it for fun, and takes it seriously. He listens to artists, and curators as well, and if he likes what he hears he’ll support their projects. He also challenges them with ideas of his own, and one of them has to do with the increasingly tangled weave of art and fashion.
Though he makes little distinction between the two himself, Teller’s career as a photographer has been mainly in high fashion, shooting such models as Kate Moss and, indelibly, Charlotte Rampling. Fokidis, artistic director of Kunsthalle Athena, looked at his more personal pictures and wanted to do a show with them. Joannou gave her the shot. “We decided on the self-portraits,” she said during a cocktail party in the small Deste garden, as dealer Sadie Coles (Teller’s wife) chatted in mixed company that included collectors Iasson Tsakonas and Diana Widmaier-Picasso, O32c editor Jörg Koch, and Palais de Tokyo’s Myriam Ben Salah. “They’re less known,” Fokidis said, “and they have a completely different aesthetic.”
Indeed they do. In these pictures, which are quite modest in size if not in content, Teller forgoes the Greek ideal of a hunk (seen in photos of statuary) to make himself look like a sheepish, beer-bellied lout cavorting nude with his family and hopelessly working out in a gym. The show was a far cry from “Magic Numbers,” an exhibition also opening that night at the George Economou Collection.
Economou is the new Stavros Niarchos, as it were, a billionaire shipping magnate who caught the art bug in the 1990s and, following Joannou’s example, opened his compact, three-story exhibition space two years ago. Guggenheim Museum curator Katharine Brinson was tapped to organize Johnson’s edifying, seven-piece show, which begins with an open mahogany vitrine the size of a Ping-Pong table that Johnson filled with glowing, buttercup-yellow shea butter, a commissioned sculpture. Upstairs, a scatter of Persian rugs offered seating for his choreographed film, New Black Yoga, the first Johnson work to enter Economou’s collection.
Though Mark Bradford stopped by on his way to Dubai, and collectors like Richard Chang, Frances Reynolds, and Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo were on the scene with Tsakonas and Jouannou, the opening also attracted a curious complement of art dealers from abroad: Ursula Hauser and Iwan Wirth, Per Skarstedt, David Zwirner Gallery directors Hannah Schouwink and Christopher D’Amelio, Sarah Watson, and Monique Meloche, who was the first to show Johnson in his hometown, Chicago, and still does.
Left: Guggenheim Museum curator Katharine Brinson. Right: Mathias Augustyniak.
Johnson’s entire family also came for the event. So did Re Rebaudengo’s two sons and Economou’s children, Alexandra and Phillip. Buses ferried the whole kit and kaboodle to dinner under a large tent on the patio of Economou’s graceful house in suburban Maroussi, where German art from Beckmann to Baselitz hung on the walls with paintings by Bradford and Johnson. “I’m sure many of you are happy to be out of Basel,” he said at toast time. “You can thank me for that.” People did. You could tell by the wild dancing that ensued after dinner, when Johnson got down with Bradford and Watson, and Christian Rosa spent as much time rolling on the floor as he did upright. Economou didn’t join them but watched from a safe distance “I like to meet the artists,” he said of his switch from older art to contemporary. “We’re friends.”
On Saturday afternoon, a group of us, including Swiss Institute director Simon Castets, PIN-UP editor Felix Burrichter, and artist Angelo Plessas, followed fabulist artist Andreas Angelidakis through the imaginary and repurposed architecture of “Every End Is a Beginning,” a retrospective of his sculpture and video at Athens’s contemporary art museum. That evening, Joannou took back the stage with the opening of “destefashioncollection 1-8” at the Benaki Museum’s contemporary art annex in Pireos. This was something new that caught everyone by surprise. It’s not that Joannou has added fashion to his art and furniture collections. But in his growing role as instigator, he has invited an artist, photographer, designer, and architect to put together a capsule collection of clothing, photographs, or accessories every year since 2007, and this was the first eight capsules’ exposure to the public.
The idea, and a transparent dress by André Corrčges, inspired Charles Ray in 2011 to dispense with clothing or objects in favor of photographs of nude fashion models posed as if they were dressed, and “accessorized” by tan lines and cropped pubic hair, and presented in vitrines as pages from a mail order catalogue. Brilliant.
Equally awesome was an impossible-to-wear, flamboyant Viktor & Rolf dress chosen by poet Patrizia Cavalli (2010) as the centerpiece of her capsule, which also featured python shoes by Alexander McQueen and pages of her manuscripts. Teller picked his own photographs; M/M, the Parisian art and design duo Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyiak (the first to accept the commission), approached fashion connoisseurship with designs by Alaďa, Comme des Garçons, Marc Jacobs, and Yves Saint Laurent, and made drawings of same on enamel.
Last year, Diller Scofidio + Renfro took the plunge and married fashion to architecture by creating, with photographer Matthew Monteith, a cocktail party narrative shot in Philip Johnson’s Glass House and coupling it with designer accessories that could have come from either its time or ours. Diller was on hand for the opening, as were Ausgutyiak and Monteith. So was Kim Gordon, who accepted Joannou’s assignment to do next year’s collection. “I have no idea what to do,” she said. She’ll figure it out, I’m sure.
Judging from the exhibition’s ingenious design, she’ll be in good hands. Working from an essay (“What Is the Contemporary?”) by Giorgio Agamben, Deste curator Nadja Argyropoulou worked with architects Mark Wasiuta and Adam Bandler (both from Columbia University) to organize each capsule within dissolving “rooms” formed by slowly moving chain curtains hung from the sort of track system used by dry cleaners. Works were displayed on poles, in vitrines, on stationary walls, or Plexi shelves, and viewers from Greek collector Alexandra Martinou to Harold Koda, chief curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center, snaked between them as the moving curtains created an enthralling, peek-a-boo experience. “It all has to do with desire,” Argyropoulou said. “It’s very different, not what you’d expect,” observed an admiring Re Rebaudengo.
Joannou has been germinating the art/fashion connection ever since he saw an Issey Miyake bodice on the cover of the February 1982 Artforum. “It took a long time but we finally found a way to do it,” he said during dinner at his home, where he rotates the installation of artworks from his personal collection each year. Roberto Cuoghi was given the marbled atrium where works by Jeff Koons and Paweł Althamer have been exhibited in the past, but recent works by Brooklyn’s Still House Group also got a room of their own while guests sprawled on couches, took tables on the patio overlooking Athens, or arranged themselves around the interior, glass-brick dance floor.
Althamer was the artist whom Joannou selected to deal with the Slaughterhouse, Deste’s project space on Hydra. The company of two hundred—billionaire collectors; fashion designers Christopher Kane and Erdem; artists Cyril Duval (aka ITEM IDEM), Jakob Ziolkowski, and Paul Chan (rumored to be next year’s Slaughterhouse choice); curators Massimiliano Gioni, Cecilia Alemani, and Adam Szymczyk; and dealers Burkhard Riemschneider, Andrzej Przywara, and Jeffrey Deitch (a Deste curator early in his career) reassembled there the following evening.
“I gave myself an assignment,” Diller said, staring into the sunset over the Slaughterhouse, which is felicitously located on a cliff overlooking the Peloponnese peninsula and the Ionian Sea. “I want to have an epiphany here.” It may have helped that Althamer titled his exhibition “The Secret of Phaistos Disc,” after the ancient, cryptic plate inscribed with inscrutable symbols discovered by archaeologists on Crete a century ago. Mysticism was in the air, though inside the slightly creepy, cement building, Althamer had installed a kind of rec room that recalled both his graffiti free-for-all at the New Museum during his recent retrospective there and Urs Fischer’s community of clay sculptors last year. Family members played with puppets of themselves or made drawings with the artist in one of two smaller rooms. “Paweł’s like a hippie generator,” Gioni joked. “He’s into workshops.” As for Althamer, he’d only say the exhibition was “spiritual.”
High spirits definitely prevailed at dinner, laid on one long, long, long table in the road. Diller, absent her own epiphany, surprised Althamer by speaking perfect Polishher native language, as it turned out. Applause broke out among his friends as Joannou made his way down the table to greet them, departing to a party on his son-in-law’s yacht while others danced at a tiny nightclub in town.
Monday morning found the collector on his own yacht, Guilty, which has a razzle-dazzle, Lichtenstein-like exterior finish designed by Koons, the first contemporary artist he collected. With Chan, Gioni, and Alemani, he left for New York and the opening of Koons’s retrospective opening at the Whitney the next day. Joannou loaned ten works to the show. I hoped one of them would be his Balloon Dog (Red), which is somehow the best of five. “No,” he said. “They took one from a local collector.” How had he come by the red one? With a broad grin, he replied, “I got there first.”
Left: Tate curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas and artist Ed Atkins. Right: Writer and editor Bob Collins with artist John Gerrard.
IT WAS A PERFECT SUMMER EVENING: Tuesday earlier this month. The sun shone in Kensington Gardens as flocks of joggers breezed by the ever-lengthening line outside the Serpentine Gallery. Names were given, ticked off lists on clipboards, and even the most august were told, “Yes, you still have to queue.” Though as the BBC’s Alan Yentob arrived on a fold-up bicycle, I got the strong impression he was being specially ushered.
A sense of excitement settled, then thickened. The line was flush with performance artists. There was Nigel Rolfe with Lois Keidan from the Live Art Development Agency; farther along, Anne Tallentire and John Seth; and standing out with a tall pink hairpiece was Silvia Ziranek. With a crowd like that, anything could happen—except nothing really did.
We were waiting to be let into the inaugural session of Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours, and it wouldn’t have been polite for a colleague to steal her thunder… Forewarned, I had come early, so it was only a short wait until we were sworn to silence and handed a card explaining that everything must be left outside in specially installed lockers: bags, coats, and, yes, cameras and mobile phones. So, clad only in dress, shoes, and a waft of the Serpentine’s new perfume (scent by Comme des Garçons, bottle by Tracey Emin, result much nicer than I anticipated), in I went.
People wandered about the hushed, empty galleries, waiting for something. Every day during the run is promised to be different, but this evening black-clad Abramović assistants mingled, occasionally taking a visitor’s hand and leading them off to face a wall or window. The one I thought was Abramović wasn’t; it can be easy to confuse tall, elegant women with epic charisma. But then suddenly, there she was. Holding the hand of Sir Norman Rosenthal, she wore a beatific, almost Stepford Wives expression. Rosenthal was led to the wall, his shoulder briefly touched—anointed. Who would Abramović pick next? She went for Nigel Rolfe, and as the pair clasped hands it was a perfect art moment.
I began to wonder what I’d do. Would I feel cheated if a non-Abramović picked me up? Of course I would. How long would I feel compelled to stare at the wall if she placed me there? Was everyone in black an assistant? Hardly: This was an art crowd, after all. I began to feel rather like I used to at school dances—an increasingly grumpy wallflower—and realizing that this wasn’t exactly in spirit, and as no one seemed prepared to take me by the hand, I took myself in hand and left.
Outside, the line had grown longer, the excitement more palpable there than within. I got the sense that everyone was anticipating the experience of remembering it later. Such is the promise of art celebrity. Richard Wilson was chatting to Joy Gerrard, both perhaps reminiscing about their public art projects at the London School of Economics. Wilson told me he was looking forward to seeing the Queen again. She will be unveiling his new sculpture, Slipstream, at Heathrow’s Terminal 2. “I met her before at the RA, when I was showing the maquette,” he said with a twinkle. “I could tell she wished she’d made it.”
I wondered if Abramović had taken him by the hand. “Of course.” And was it profoundly moving? “Not really,” though he also recalled once clubbing with Abramović and Joseph Kosuth in Japan. “That was a night…”
Ziranek was similarly unimpressed. “I liked looking, but I wanted substance. Someone took my hand, but I said no. I don’t like being led by someone I don’t know.” She told me about her Serpentine performance, in the 1990s: “I came in on a motorbike. Now that was something.”
We decided to stroll through the park to the Serpentine Sackler Galleries for the second part of the evening’s entertainment: Ed Atkins’s solo show. Tallentire told me she had taught Atkins in art school. “I always knew he’d go somewhere, I just didn’t know where. He was just one of the most wonderful students.” Outside the Sackler, Rosenthal was chatting to Lisson Gallery’s Nicholas Logsdail. How had Rosenthal felt when his hand was taken? “I felt the beautiful simplicity,” he said, much moved. “I loved it because it is what it is. So many people try to do things like this, but this…?” He broke off, lost for words.
Inside the beautifully installed Atkins show, there was a different sense of embodiment/disembodiment. Atkins’s CGI films showed such delights as a severed head bouncing down a staircase. In the new Ribbons, a man swoons at a table, burns out a cigarette, and empties the pint before him; as I watched, his head slowly deflated. It was all rather wonderful, and I wondered whether, if we were all waiting to feel nostalgic about the Abramović experience, Atkins’s scene might offer a truer sense of how we might be tomorrow morning.
The afterparty at the Polish Club seemed set to deliver on that promise. Jegors Jerohomovičs, over from Latvia to write about the event, was transported. “She puts you in a trance, when it’s her in the room, she takes over with her presence.” He had also sat with Abramović in MoMA in 2010, for The Artist Is Present. They had talked about telepathy and telephones. She gets some people that way.
Downstairs, Maureen Paley was tidying up her hair before going back up to join Wolfgang Tillmans. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones arrived, with Peyton-Jones’s dog Charlie in arms. Obrist told me that it’s a Gesamtkunstwerk, and Peyton-Jones argued that the pairing of the shows was especially important. I think it must be a hard station to be paired with Abramović.
It was a fun night, the wine flowed, and the party spilled out into the park behind. Atkins chatted with Tate curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas about his imminent trip to Basel for “14 Rooms.” Curated by Obrist with Klaus Biesenbach, it also includes Abramović. That’s the art world for you. If you stay still long enough, it will probably all come to you.
Left: Cabinet Gallery architect Trevor Horn. Right: Curator and writer Ben Borthwick, DRAF director Vincent Honore, and artist Nicholas Deshayes.
IT’S BEEN AT LEAST A DECADE since the term “art fair art” gained critical currency. So perhaps it’s forgivable that, as we hit the ground running at the forty-fifth edition of Art Basel, the peculiar “perform the fair” attitude that once characterized the genre’s golden era seemed largely sublimated, buried in the psyche of the mostly passive-aggressive merch artists churn out to keep up with fair life.
There was a hint of return of the repressed, though, in the repurposed iteration of Tino Sehgal’s 2004 work This Is Competition in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach’s idealistic “14 Rooms,” an exhibition featuring art where “the human body is the material.” Obrist and Biesenbach enlisted Herzog & de Meuron to kit out Hall 3 of the Messeplatz, adding a palatial hall lined with mirrored doors, each of which opened onto identical, boxy rooms with portentously low ceilings. Inside, performers padded about their stalls, enacting works by artists ranging from Ed Atkins to Santiago Sierra and Marina Abravomić. Sehgal’s PR punch line might be a decade old, but it still felt fresh, demanding as it did that his various international dealers take turns standing in the room playing an elaborate game of exquisite corpse, discussing and enacting earlier of his “situations” (The Kiss, Ann Lee) even as they hawked them off.
Left: Dealers Daniel Buchholz and Max Falkenstein. Right: Collectors Mera Rubell, Don Rubell, and Jason Rubell.
A few miles east at the Fondation Beyeler, a cosponsor of “14 Rooms,” Obrist had curated a new, achronological exhibition of Gerhard Richter focused on his series and cycles. In the context of Art Basel 45, which boasted $4.4 billion worth of art (“the defense budget of a small country!” someone cried) and which rode the wave of spring auctions that netted $2.2 billion, it’s difficult to consider the artist’s paintings outside of their market. Looking at the tremendous, smeary canvases in the museum’s sun-dappled vestibules, a friend recounted Richter reservations about this very quandary, Googling an excerpt from his journals, which he read aloud in front of the artist’s still-potent October 18, 1977: “Art is wretched, cynical, stupid, helpless, confusing—a mirror image of our own spiritual impoverishment, our state of forsakenness and loss. We have lost the great ideas, the utopias, we have lost all faith, everything that creates meaning.”
“It’s not his fault his work became worth so much goddamn money,” someone said.
“I prefer the ones in color,” a fledgling collector responded.
On the evening of the VIP opening of Art Basel, Alberto Mugrabi, king of the Warhol market, hosted a dinner for a dozen-plus at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. Mugrabi smiled like a Cheshire cat, explaining that the masters are so cheap these days—$450,000 for a de Kooning, just slightly more than he paid for a Lucien Smith this past fall ($389,000, a record for the twenty-four-year-old artist).
Left: Alex Rotter, head of Sotheby's New York Contemporary Art department, and Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art department. Right: Dealer Alexander Hertling.
Nearby, dealer Philippe Ségalot asked if he should get an Instagram account. I recounted the sparring match his prodigy, Christie’s Loic Gouzer (also present), had gotten into with Wade Guyton, after the artist responded to his “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday,” auction last month, which Gouzer billed as a “curated” event that exposed “the gritty and underbelly-esque side of contemporary art.” Reacting to the $3.5 million sale of one his works, Guyton reprinted copies of said work as a sign that he could flood his own market, documenting the entire affair on Instagram. Gouzer quickly countered by printing a batch of ten nearly identical reproductions of the same work, with THANK U printed over the top, also publicizing the event via the social-media app.
“So brilliant,” Ségalot mused.
“Each is $1,000. Loic is donating the money to the whales or something,” I replied.
“Oceana—to save the sharks,” Mugrabi corrected.
“You have one?” Ségalot responded.
Left: Artist Yngve Holen. Right: Dealer Lisa Overduin.
The sun had set over the Rhine and the dining room was filled with Baselites, each wrapped up in the vagaries of their own private dinners. That evening, at least four people informed me that gallery and museum dinners have become too institutional, “boring!” In fact, the heads of both Christie’s and Sotheby’s contemporary art departments skipped other dinners to join Mugrabi’s private one, an act they stood and toasted to over cheers below.
“It’s so hot in here,” someone complained, and a tuxedoed waiter slid open the window and in gushed the night air. The Rhine looked especially dark, surging downstream under a half-moon sky.
Not everyone at Art Basel was supporting the sharks. The next evening, at a dinner for Design Miami/Basel, I sat next to Eva Franch, architect and director of New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. For years she refused to attend art fairs: “The first one I went to reminded me of the red-light district in Amsterdam. Everything was exotic, a circus of greed and lust. However, as someone who has committed to being part of culture, I feel responsible to participate.” Nearby was Rodman Primack, director of Design Miami/Basel, and writer Jason Farago, and the conversation soon turned to the legacy of the Frankfurt School and whether it still had any momentum in the age of the art fair. I later shared the conversation with a respected curator who scoffed, pointing out the guileless idealism, which most in the industry have long left behind.
Nearing midnight, Franch and I hailed a cab in an attempt to catch the end of a dinner that adviser and collector Eleanor Cayre was hosting for dealers in the courtyard of Restaurant Löwenzorn. Long tables had been shoved together and overtaken by a raucous set that included dealers and artists and dealer-artists from Daniel Buchholz, Peter Currie, Emily Sundblad, John Kelsey, Oliver Newton, Yngve Holen, Margaret Lee, Simon Denny, Alex Zachary, Timur Si Qin, Gió Marconi, and Ales Ortuzar. “It was supposed to be twenty-five, but it ballooned to forty,” said Cayre. “They take us out all year—I never understood why nobody ever entertains the dealers!”
The next day, I returned to the nineteenth edition of Liste, the perennially “young” art fair, which had opened at the very beginning of the week in the warren of halls and stairwells of the former Warteck Brewery. Wandering the fair, one found amid some tepid abstraction and plain-Jane Conceptualism plenty that merited a second look and further investigation. At Dublin’s Mother’s Tankstation, the apt phrase STILTED SINCERITY was projected onto the floor, near a series of Sam Anderson’s miniature sculptures which had been set alongside delicate works by Uri Aran. Upstairs, Ida Ekblad’s jubilant sculptures and paintings at Karma International evinced a compelling lack of affect, while at 47 Canal, Josh Kline’s plaster heads, hands, and shoes overlaid with FedEx logos seemed a send-up of our thoroughly corporatized, transitory times. And at Istanbul’s Galeri NON, one could find Uriel Orlow’s Unmade Film, a collection of AV works that take as their subject the complex, conflicted history of Jerusalem’s psychiatric hospital Kfar Shau’l. Orlow’s work gestures at filmic narrative but eschews resolution, finding harmony in messy loose ends. “He collapsed two nations, two histories of warring traumas—their pain and struggle is united into whole,” said Demir. And as we looked, I thought about that ineffable movement toward making our relationship to art feel more real. Sometimes, even in the expensive yet cheapening context of the fair, you glimpse these splendid moments of shared respite, when even sharks seem worth saving.