Left: Gallerist Claes Nordenhake with participating artist Magnus Wallin. Right: Curatorial Assistant Mia Zeeck with Quadrennial co-curator Magdalena Malm.
“Not a punch in the stomach,” ventured the Goethe Institut‘s Dr. Berthold Franke last Friday. He was summarizing “The Moderna Exhibition 2006,” the Moderna Museet’s first-ever quadrennial of contemporary Swedish art and the reason I found myself in the frigid Scandanavian capital last weekend. The show, which features fifty-nine artists and is impeccably installed across about a dozen spacious galleries, is indeed understated, almost to a fault. The private reception and dinner for 220 guests held on Thursday night was equally restrained, with chatter at the dinner table, where I sat with video artist Annika Larsson, artist and writer Amy Simon, K21 deputy director Julian Heynen, and artist Jockum Nordström, ranging along a narrow, familiar spectrum, from notable names not on the artist list to wagering on how long the welcome speeches would drone on for.
The pleasantries were interrupted by a burst of Swedish from artist Dorinel Marc, who grabbed the microphone to passionately (though somewhat incoherently) castigate all this English-language civility as a product of forces undermining the Swedish identity that the exhibition was supposed to project. My neighbors translated his screed on the fly; the assembled dignitaries, vivified at last, whooped and cheered.
The next day, on a tour of the city‘s commercial galleries, each dealer offered a variation on the same story: “I find young artists at the art schoolswhich are really very goodgive them their first exhibition, and then try to find international exhibitions for them.” The refrain pointed up the need for “The Moderna Exhibition,” which aims above all to foster greater local awareness of Swedish art production. But the artists themselves seem uncertain about what, if anything, this exhibition will mean to them. At Thursday’s dinner, Larsson noted how odd it feels to be shown in a Swedish context, given that she has lived abroad for years. At Friday night‘s after-party, held at the opulent Berns restaurant on Berzelli Park (the setting for August Strindberg’s novel The Red Room), a young painter dismissed the whole affair as “just another line on my résumé.”
Left: The magnanimous Karen Diamond. Right: Quadrennial co-curator Pia Kristoffersson and curator John Peter Nilsson.
“Berns was, until recently, one of Stockholm‘s hottest nightclubs,” reported magazine editor and critic Kim West, but on this night the one-thousand-plus visitors who trekked across the bridge from the museum (where three thousand had packed in) were greeted by a jazz combo playing standards in one of the restaurant’s two wood-paneled, chandelier-lit grand halls. Nathalie Djurberg, a young Berlin-based artist included in the survey, tried in vain to find dance partners, while in a smaller lounge fashionable studentscandidates for “The Moderna Exhibition 2010,” perhapsmade their own fun, alternating lascivious and disaffected poses for a friend with a tricked-out digital camera.
I returned to the museum on Saturday for a panel discussion on art‘s boundaries, featuring Heynen, Christoph Tannert, director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Elena Tsvetaeva, director of the National Center for Contemporary Art in Kaliningrad, and five others. The conversation ping-ponged between outlining formal and ethical frontiers for art; a closer look at the show upstairs revealed little work exploring either. There were, of course, underknown talents among all the large-scale projections (about one-third of the artists in the show make videos). Jenny Magnusson’s intuitive, barely there sculptural assemblages stood out, albeit quietly, and Christian Andersson's tableau, ringed by floodlights, of a brick flying through the wall was an engaging visual trick. But most of the artworks seemed to be on their best behavior, and a visiting critic aptly summed things up: “Where are the bad boys?”
Left: MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and David Hockney in front of Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1970–71. Right: Boston Symphony Orchestra Director James Levine with David Hockney and brother Tom Levine.
“This is going to be one of those cozy Boston events,” said my friend as she steered us into the Museum of Fine Arts parking lot. We maneuvered past crowds of fragile, pink-cheeked men and ladies in mink moving towards the gala for “David Hockney Portraits,” a show co-organized by the MFA and London’s National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Caught incongruously in a group photo with other “sitters” flown in for the occasion (apparently at the artist’s expense) was Chloe McHugh, teenage daughter of California-based photographer Jim McHugh—otherwise the average age was sixty-something. While the show itself felt peculiarly alive (like all collections of portraits), those subjects who were actually in attendanceas easily distinguishable from the Boston crowd as peacocks from penguinsbecame hyperreal versions of themselves. As the real-life, laughing group portrait (in which the adorable artist of the moment sat between the wild-haired James Levine of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his brother Tom) broke up, another friend in a gorgeous plaid shirt, cummerbund, cravat, and white sneakers told us that Hockney had painted him five times, “and none are in the show! Isn’t that total crap, to use the technical term?”
There’s not much to say about portraiture, possibly because portraits say so much. My companion and I most enjoyed the drawings that married virtuosity with plain old glamour, especially the delicious Celia in a Black Slip Reclining, Paris. Dec. 1973 (Elizabeth Peyton, eat your heart out!), while a photocollage of friends and Mum playing Scrabble tiled one homely moment on another, revealing something living in each individual. Of everyone, perhaps Henry Geldzahler’s presence/absence was felt most strongly, from his direct stare, glasses glinting, out of the painting in 1969’s Henry Geldzahler and Howard Scott to a 1994 pencil sketch showing him on his deathbed. Sarah Howgate, contemporary curator at the National Portrait Gallery and cocurator of the show with the MFA’s Barbara Shapiro, told us that Geldzahler had had no mirrors in his house but lived “surrounded by portraits of himself by the artists he loved.”
Left: David Hockney with exhibition curator Barbara Shapiro and Malcolm Rogers. Right: Arthur Lambert, Charlie Scheips, and David Hockney pose before their respective portraits.
While taking on a buffet that featuredin a nod to the artist’s homelandan upmarket version of Yorkshire pudding, we heard a somewhat incongruous performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Boston and had a conversation with Lawrence Weschler. “I could be walking around listening to my own thoughts,” he mused: He’s sat for (and written much on) Hockney but also happened to have recorded the MFA’s audio tour. I took the opportunity to tell him I love and habitually reread Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, his 1982 biography of Robert Irwin. “Funny you should say that, because every time I write something on David, Bob Irwin calls and says, ‘I read the whole thing, it’s really bothering me, I disagree profoundly with everything,’” replied Weschler. “And when I write on Bob, David calls and says exactly the same thing.”
Left: Artists Ruth Weisberg and Hans Haacke with USC MFA Graduate Program Director Jud Fine. Right: Art historian Thomas Crow. (All photos: Tamara Sussman)
I‘ve never known the title of my favorite Hans Haacke piece, and have always thought of it as “East Bunny, West Bunny.” It’s a photograph of the former “death strip” along the border looking into East Berlin that features two bunnies in a face-off, one gaunt and desperate-looking, the other fat, smug, and potentially aggressive. Its subtle humor is something of an exception for Haacke, who tends to be a bit literal for my taste. But on account of the political catastrophe we now face, I was eagerly anticipating his three talks last week, given as the twenty-fourth annual Getty Lecturer and hosted by USC's School of Fine Arts.
Divided into accounts of Haacke‘s career as a whole, his reconfigurations of existing museum collections, and, finally, his recent work, the lectures were all overbooked. The first evening diehards even watched by simulcast from the courtyard, as Grad Program Director Jud Fine introduced the artist with a spirited vignette about encountering Haacke while a student at Cornell, on the occasion of Willoughby Sharp’s decisive 1969 “Earth Art” exhibition. The 1969 show included Haacke‘s Grass Grows, emblematic of his early, often slyly brilliant natural systems work. As Fine and his peers eagerly assembled with their clunky reel-to-reel tape recorders turned on, Haacke’s “explanation” of the piece was a glib repetition of its title. Frances Stark, who teaches at USC, said in her own introduction the next night that her students asked her “why we‘re so skeptical of political art.” I did overhear the shabbily handsome kid behind me quip that Haacke reminded him of nude beaches—“too much ideology to relax and enjoy the flesh.” But the many students in attendance, notebooks and pens at the ready, seemed not at all too-cool-for-Haacke. Personally not a fan of nude beaches, or any beaches for that matter (I’m with Adorno on the inanity of tanning), I was, in fact, up for some ideology. Unfortunately, little was forthcoming.
On the first evening, held in USC‘s Gerontology Center (“the largest conferrer of degrees in intergenerational relationships!” a banner announced), Haacke referred to his lecture notes as a “musical score,” but as a friend pointed out, it wasn’t a score with much room for improvisation. But if his delivery was slightly terse, his demeanor was warm and gently professorial, and at the dinner (whose intergenerational guest list included Tom Crow, MoCA director Jeremy Strick, Frances Stark, and Charlie White) held in his honor at USC‘s Faculty Commons before the second lecture, Haacke seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. MFA candidate Justin Beal filled me in on Haacke’s visit to the grad studios that afternoon, where he had asked the elder statesman what he thought of the new cohort of “political” artists like Sam Durant (who turned up at the lecture that evening). Haacke would only commit to distaste for Santiago Sierra, a suspicion of Vanessa Beecroft's motives, and—surprisean affinity with Alfredo Jaar and Walid Raad. (“Amazing,” Beal said, “all three have double ”A“s in their last names!”)
There were even longer lines for the final lecture, held at MoCA. Everyone I spoke to was keen to find out what Haacke would say about the disgraced “state of the union,” after which his recent Paula Cooper invective was titled. A description of witnessing 9/11 from the roof of Cooper Union segued to his submission for the WTC Memorial, which included a proposal for a video loop of the collapsing towers projected on a forty-foot slurry wall. Forcing a continuation of televisual destruction jouissance seemed ill thought-out at best. I remembered the slogan on the sweater that craft maven Lisa Anne Auerbach had finished knitting during the first lecture: “There’s nothing left to burn / Set yourself on fire.” It seemed more appropriate to these dark times than Haacke‘s bizarre embrace of received ideas, to say nothing of the tragedy-lust that marked his discussion of Hurricane Katrina. Of Ripped, an image of a torn flag, he said, “This one speaks for itself,” only to intone five minutes later that interpretations are “never authoritative.” I began to wonder if leaving nothing to interpret is Haacke’s escape from this contradiction.
During the Q & A session the subject of Middle East reactions to the Danish Muhammad cartoons arose. Haacke claimed opposition to censorship, citing the Helms-Serrano debacle, but said that people should be sensitive to what might offend. Framing the furor as a culture war seemed inexcusably lazy coming from someone on the Left. But when a skeptic bluntly asked him why he chose art as his outlet for anger, I suddenly felt protective of him and the bold endeavor he's sustained for so long, and nostalgic for the early work, whose “literal” quality evoked unspoken depths.
Left: “Cluster” organizer Katie Holten with Participant Inc director Lia Gangitano. Right: Artist Lisa Kirk.
“It smells like dirty knickers!” exclaimed project organizer Katie Holten while sampling one of artist Lisa Kirk‘s three “revolutionary” scents at the opening of Holten’s “Cluster” last Friday at Lower East Side nonprofit Participant Inc. The patchouli-and-body-odor perfume (“like gas and soot and shit” according to one of the ski-masked “insurgents” offering up testers) overwhelmed the lower level office space, the site of Holten's informal two-day show, and effectively suffused an already cramped opening with the stink of that much more humanity.
The sporadic, loosely curated venture brought together an ever-expanding network of contributors, most for the first time. (All the participants, artists or otherwise, are friends or acquaintances of Holten‘s, who is herself an artist and a neighbor of Participant director Lia Gangitano.) “I just met Lisa two hours ago,” one of Kirk’s spritzers informed me, “down the street at the Hotel on Rivington bar.” “Cluster” was organized around the premise that the show‘s contents will fit in a small Fresh Direct box left in Holten’s studio, which will be sent to galleries in LA, Dublin, and Mexico City. “This is the third, or fourth, or fifth time I‘ve done Cluster,” Holten guessed. “It happens after I’ve traveled a lot and met new people.”
Left: Maskedbut not anonymousartists Tom Brauer and Pete Milne. Right: Astrophysicist Priya Natarajan.
Holten‘s “little community,” as she described it, includes faces she’s never even seen before: A finely freckled, red-haired man caught her in a familiar greeting, but it was the first time she‘d encountered him in person. “We’re both in the US on Fulbright scholarships and we're both Irish, so we have this connection,” Holten explained. A drill was called for as artist Greg Smith fished his contribution, a plastic catapult, out of the aforementioned box (balanced in a corner), and Holten scampered through the crowd brandishing the tool to help with the impromptu installation.
The crowd thickened even as the odors proliferated (Smith‘s catapult, it turned out, hurled a potent blend of pepper and burnt newspaper), gathering around the small table where the majority of the show’s contents, ephemera ranging from an environmentalist-themed script by LA performance group My Barbarian to a Ziploc-sealed bag of Joe Scanlan‘s Ikon Earth, were casually arrayed. “A lot of the projects are environmental, which I think is very important right now,” Holten explained. “And not all of the participants are artiststhere are scientists here too.” Priya Natarajan, a theoretical astrophysicist at Yale whom Holten met through Anthony Gormley, contributed a diagram of her area of expertisea galaxy cluster. “It’s a little tongue-in-cheek,” Natarajan admitted. Holten graciously explained the hodgepodge event as “an excuse to have a big party with all of my friends and have a kind of explosion.”
With the opening scheduled to close momentarily and a promised series of readings still outstanding, Holten and Gangitano flicked off the lights and urged the room quiet for the words of Houston-based writer (and Artforum contributor) Domenick Ammirati via a CD that was supposedly hand-delivered earlier that evening. Imagining what it‘d be like to be stuck inside Holten’s cardboard box, Ammirati's disembodied voice started up on “several claustrophobic episodes.” Suddenly feeling a bit boxed in, I angled out for a breath of much-needed fresh air.
Left: Artur Barrio‘s photographer Christina Motta with Artur Barrio and a fan. Right: Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Carlos Basualdo, Museu de Arte Contemporanea curator Cristina Freire, Palais de Tokyo’s chief curator Akiko Miki, Villa Arson director Éric Mangion, and Fabienne Clérin of Fonds Régional d‘Art Contemporain Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. (All photos: Amanda Mott)
“Actions After Actions,” the first major American survey of the puckish Brazilian artist Artur Barrio, opened Wednesday night at Moore College of Art and Design, the small all-women’s school across from the Rodin Museum on the boulevard that local romantics call the “Philadelphia Champs-Elysées.” I dashed through rush-hour traffic, grateful for how busy the civic schedule is getting in this town. The evening’s event commemorated the first local exhibition that involved curator Carlos Basualdo since his recent hire at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Basualdo consulted with the Centre Pompidou’s Christine Macel and ICA Philadelphia’s Ingrid Schaffner for this show, part of Moore’s “International Discovery Series”; assembling so noteworthy a team in Philly is itself cause for celebration.
Moore Galleries’ Executive Director Molly Dougherty greeted me on arrival, pressing a drink ticket into my hand and advising a cocktail before entering the exhibition. One gallery housed a massive array of Barrio’s notebooks, sketches, proposals, snapshots, and other documentation of work produced since 1967; the other an installation, adapted from a version originally shown at Documenta 11, of a barely lit cave whose walls were smeared with coffee and scrawled with rantings. Hundreds of pounds of ground beans dusted the floor. A busted couch slumped nearby. “It would help if we could read Portuguese” was often heard as visitors stepped back into the light, tamping coffee off their pumps.
They were marginally right, for the thrust of all but the most straightforward works (such as Mona Lisa’s Ass, 1977, a hairy, latex orifice stuck to a piece of cardboard) will be somewhat opaque to the non-Portuguese speaker. The at-press “scholarly” catalogue will make good with vital translations and a full spectrum of essays, but for now there’s a short wall text at the entrance, then you’re on your own. In accounting for the reticence of the exhibition, curator Brian Wallacevisibly relieved that the yearlong rollercoaster ride of exhibition planning was overexplained: “Barrio is intense and selfishthese are not not compliments. He’s just too well read and too self-conscious for us to regress to the Euro-American view of ‘the Brazilian,’” meaning the Black Orpheus stereotype. “At the same time, anxiety about the resilience of this old characterization means Latin America can be defined in a way that leaves little room for discussion about the primitive or the primal. It would be great if this pocket retrospective could flip off this whole deadlocked approach.”
Courage is brewing in the city of brotherly love, certainly spurred by Basualdo’s assignment (along with Robert Storr) to beef up the PMA’s contemporary collection, a mandate that has so far led to the purchase of a large-scale Thomas Hirschhorn sculpture in December. On the back of this and the now-touring “Tropicália,” it’s clear that his strategies for international assimilation are flitting through the city. “This is not festivalism,” said Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative Director Paula Marincola, anticipating the “It’s a Small World”–style globalism now attached to the term. “Institutional critique is softening and poetry is allowed to enter, and that is the pace with which we must consider this material.” Sounds perfect, but this is no mean feat when sliding around on a slick-as-ice bed of java.
Later, diners snaked around every corridor of the tall, narrow, South Philadelphia row house where the dinner for fifty was held. Basualdo perched with his plate on his lap on the top step of the front stairs, while local lights like Schaffner, the Inquirer’s newly appointed art critic, Edith Newhall, and collectors Peter and Mari Shaw made the rounds around the artist below. The big Barrio entourage included the artist, his wife, curator Cristina Freire from the Museu de Arte Contemporanea in São Paolo, Palais de Tokyo chief curator Akiko Miki, and Leo Teixeira and Marcos Bonisson, two young artists from Rio who served as assistants, bodyguards, and translators. The mob stuck out: “Who’s Nosferatu?” a somewhat intoxicated codger asked from a corner, pointing at the rake-thin, bald-headed Teixeira, who was clad in a turtleneck and fur coat. Barrio himself ate cannolis, drank wine, and began a fitful exchange with me when I told him I was a writer. “Ah, Mallarmé!” he boomed. “Apollinaire!” “Prévert?” I ventured, having not quite figured out the game. During the course of the evening it became apparent that one could best communicate with him in French. Once we’d eased into the tongue foreign to us both, he continued: “Do you know Greenberg? I don’t like him, but I admire him. He knew what courage was. Brazil is a beautiful, sensorial, violent, difficult country, and I know you need courage to find beauty there.”
Left: Christie‘s Laura Paulson, Brett Gorvy, and Amy Cappellazzo. Right: The bidding begins on Francis Bacon’s Self Portrait, 1969.
Record-breaking auction prices are the norm today, so the fact that Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale achieved the highest ever UK total for such an event Wednesday evening is not really big news. The auction room was more crowded than usual, with elderly and self-important attendees complaining like only the rich can about the lack of seats. The pre-sale babble was louder and the ringtones were more diverse. Most importantly, it was just a little harder to resist being seduced by the tantalizing hum of acquisition and profit. The art market, as one insider noted, is “hot but solid with lots of depth.”
Christie’s UK doesn’t use paddles so the bidding took the form of hand flicking, pen wagging, bid-card waving, reserved nods, and insistent eye contact. I sat next to a notoriously grumpy Swiss dealer, who grunted, sometimes even shouted his bids, and not far from a female British consultant who did a lot of insistent finger snapping. Amy Cappellazzo, International Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art, joked, “I’ve always suspected that people’s bidding strategies are connected to their sexual performance. Some bidders are not afraid to let the auctioneer know what they want. They’re shameless in their desires and transparent about their needs.” Presumably, other bidders like to keep you guessing, so discrete that they’re either alluring or plain frustrating. Art consultant Sandy Heller saw it another way: “I need to be shy with my clients’ money. I want the auctioneer to think that every bid is my last bid. The key thing to avoid is regret. You really don’t want to take the wrong girl homeparticularly for the wrong price.”
The crowd was keen for the first four lots of British paintings, but the energy in the room really shifted with Lot 5, a 1969 Francis Bacon self-portrait from the collection of the artist’s devoted spinster friend, Miss Valerie Beston. Sitting in the fifth row in a pale-blue shirt and dark grey blazer was expansionist dealer Larry Gagosian. Although not known first and foremost as a Bacon man, Larry has exhibited him in the past and, given his evident interest in the Lot, he must have inventory back at the gallery whose collective worth would be bolstered by a high price. When the bidding started out slowly, he wore a slight frown. His head swiveled with the bids, trying to keep track of who was doing what, and he looked concerned. He may have made a bid at around £2 million in his casual “why not” arm-swinging style, but I couldn’t be sure from where I was sitting. When the bidding hit £3 million, his face started to relax, then at £3.5m, it cracked into a broad smile. At £3.7m, he started to look like a big kid, and his eyes kept shifting up to the currency converter to confirm the dollar value of what he was hearing. With each increment, Larry’s eyes expressed increasing wonder. When the painting finally sold for a whopping £4,600,000 hammer (£5,160,000 including the buyer’s premium), the audience applauded and Larry had a good belly laugh.
And that was the highlight of the sale. Auctions usually climax with the highest priced lot and then slowly deflate, and this sale was no exception. There were a few other momentslike when a small painting by young Leipzig painter Matthias Weischer went for £190,000 hammer (five times the estimate) or when an Andy Warhol dollar-sign painting went for £2.3 million (heads shook in disbelief). Of the sixty-two lots in the sale, only nine were by American artists and, of those nine, six were Warhols. As the crowd filtered out of the building to have dinner at Le Caprice and The Wolsey, I overheard somebody claim that he could “shift Warhols on a street corner in Seoul.”
Left: Designer Rogan Gregory with Ali Hewson and Bono. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: Salon 94's Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn with daughter and Bono.
All those still lamenting fashion’s invasion of the art world were right to stay in hiding on Sunday afternoon. While the Rolling Stones prepared to play the Super Bowl, Edun, a rock-star-financed clothing line, was at Salon 94 to stage a promotional event featuring its retro-grunge outfits, a jazz combo from New Orleans, and two dozen small artworks by the likes of Cecily Brown, Marilyn Minter, Rob Pruitt, Marlene McCarty, Erik Parker, and Laura Owens.
The few artists in attendance were virtually ignored by the platoons of entertainment-television crews and fashion photographers all hoping that Bonowhose wife, Ali Hewson, founded Edun with designer Rogan Gregorywould attract other celebs. Lindsay Lohan was expected. So was Robert de Niro. Neither showed while I was there, though apparently de Niro arrived later. But Moby cameand went. (“I never expected this event to be such a clusterfuck,” he said, on parting.)
For those who haven’t been, Salon 94 is the former orphanage where Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn has a gallery on the ground floor and, in the most stylish fashion imaginable, lives with her family and art collection above the shop. The immense Julie Mehretu painting in her living room quickly became the favored backdrop for interviews by reporters from Entertainment Tonight, E! Entertainment Television, and morenot exactly the kind of press that most openings attract. (Unless, of course, they’re for Damien Hirst.)
With her baby daughter in her arms, Rohatyn paced the floor dressed in a form-fitting Edun T-shirt and stiff blue jacket, clearly having misgivings about the whole affair. “They don’t understand that we’re installing Wolfgang Tillmans in here,” she said, eyeing the photographs taped to a wall painting by Chiho Aoshima. New Museum curator Laura Hoptman looked equally bewildered. “What are we doing here?” she asked, as she scurried to a couch at some distance from the cameras where Hewson and Gregory were giving interviews every eight minutes. Since I wasn’t on the schedule, I had to jump in during the few seconds it took to change crews.
“What is your role with this company?” I asked Hewson, who seemed perfectly nice. Before she could answer, Rogan jumped in. “I’m not a conventional designer,” he boasted. “And Ali and Bono are not conventional company people.” Hewson added, “Rogan is the best designer in the world!” Then a publicist whisked them away.
Organized for Edun by onetime SoHo gallerist Bronwyn Keenan, the party was planned as an old-fashioned salon where artists, musicians, and designers could let down their hair in good conscience. Edun, you see, is a company with a missionin addition to the mission to turn a profit, that is. (“Make no mistake,” Bono would tell me later. “This is first and foremost a commercial enterprise.”) One that actively promotes “conscious consumerism.” The clothes may be sold at stores like Saks, Barneys, and Nordstrom, but locally owned factories make them in poor African townssomething to do with sustainability and providing a living wage in places where the Bonos hope to “shift the focus from aid to trade.”
Left: Actor Peter Sarsgaard. Right: Ali Hewson, Lou Reed, Bono, and Laurie Anderson. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)
I didn’t really get how it worked, but I know that in the world of the celebrated, Bono is as serious a social activist as they come. (Edun is also doing things like building wells and a medical center in sub-Saharan Lesotho.) “Alicia Keys . . . Angelina . . . they’re an inspiration to me,” I heard him tell one interviewer. “Oh, stay with me, stay,” he pleaded, taking my arm as the publicist tried to drag him away again. “Let’s keep talking.” Clearly the Grammy powerhouse preferred the art world to the entertainment world. Can’t say I blamed him.
Bono also put a toe in the fashion world by wearing the rosy Armani wraparounds that he introduced at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. (Profits from the glasses go to fight AIDS in Africa.) His clothes, however (black hoodie, black leather jacket, black pants), were not by Edun. “I'm the bodyguard,” he said. “I’m not much of a model. I just make sure people pay their bills.” The U2 frontman really seemed intent on the African thing. “Was that a Chris Ofili painting I saw over there?” he asked Rohatyn. He had never seen one in person. Explaining that she was a dealer as well as a collector, she offered to show him some drawings in the back, but he seemed to lose interest when she also offered to send him an invoice.
Later on Bono and Hewson were to select three of the paintings contributed to the event for an eventual sale of limited-edition prints thereof. Profits will go to the villages Edun is helping. But when I went downstairs to the jam-packed party, no one was looking at the art, or the artists. Not even at Jeff Koons. Did he ever wear Edun? “I don’t really buy clothes,” he said, with a rueful nod to his conservative style. He was there for Bono. Me too, I thought, and after Cabinet magazine editor Sina Najafi talked me into buying a piece of Cabinet-size land in New Mexico, for one cent, I went home to soak my head.
Left: John Szarkowski, MoMA director emeritus Richard E. Oldenburg, and Irving Penn. Right: The New York Times's Philip Gefter with MoMA Trustee Chairman Robert B. Menschel. (Unless noted, all photos: Spencer T. Tucker)
At the Tuesday night opening of “John Szarkowski Photographs,” the Museum of Modern Art was cold. Not just temperature-wise, on the drizzly night fate provided for the event, but psychologically, too. There’s something a bit dark gray and businesslike about the high-end photography scene, I thought, as we ascended to the cavernous, fun-proof atrium—Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk presiding over the crush of sushi-feeding suits like a scolding exclamation point. As openings go (photography or otherwise), this one was older and richer than most, more like the Met or the Morgan, though with a few less “social X-rays” perhaps. I recognized hardly anybody from my neck of the woods, save dealer Max Protetch, who’s been known to show a photograph or two, and painter David Reed, who’s been known to show with Max.
Persevering, nevertheless among such overheard snippets as “I’ve been looking at Aperture lately…” and “I’d like you to meet one of the world’s great photo historians,” I discovered some serious looking at small, framed photographs going on in the galleries upstairs. The Szarkowski aesthetic can be rather philatelic—nuances of tone, cropping, and weird shadows reward the viewer who’s willing to peer and ponder. Not much color of course in this Walker-Evansish, Helen Levittian fare (mostly from the 1940s and ’50s); perhaps that’s why my first bit of banter, with Art News editor Robin Cembalest, turned to, of all things, her bright persimmon suit, a wardrobe staple greatly missed on this evening. With Betsy Baker, Cembalest’s counterpart at Art in America, chat (inevitably) returned to gray tones. A recent fire at 575 Broadway had made nomads of the Brant magazines, as well as part of the Guggenheim’s downtown operation. “We’ll be moved back in six weeks, maybe two months,” Baker said hopefully.
Left: John Szarkowski, SF MoMA curator Sandra S. Phillips, and MoMA curator of photography Peter Galassi. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Irving Penn, Lee Friedlander, and Sandra S. Phillips.
Cutting to the chase, I butted in on a clutch of well-wishers surrounding a robust-looking eighty-year-old Szarkowski to offer up regards from a Newsweek colleague who’d written a profile on the photographic lion several years back. “Yeah, but what has he done for me lately?” our octagenarian honoree replied, only half in jest. Sort of charming, I guess, when you consider that Szarkowski was already an exhibiting photographer with a couple of Guggenheim fellowships under his belt back when Edward Steichen handpicked him in 1962 to succeed him as head of MoMA’s photography department-this at a time when hardly a gallery in the city deigned to show what was known as “fine art photography.” Szarkowski, who ruled with an iron loupe until his retirement in 1991 (some say he put the medium on the art-world map), was, it happened, in the midst of regaling longtime MoMA photo committee member (and federal judge) Pierre Leval with tales of ’45 and Harry Truman’s coming to the Presidency. The pretext: scouting, of course, for some ray of hope re the Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation of Samuel Alito earlier in the day.
I was raised on Szarkowski’s brand of politics, and on the same kind of photography: black-and-white reportage, rural-town grit, and people on street corners in the big city. The appreciation is supposed to be: “Wow! The photographer was arty enough to notice this when it happened, and professional enough to have had his camera ready.” Such pictures are nice enough today as art history on institutional walls, but can they command anybody’s attention in this pixelated, video-on-demand age? On my way out, I saw two student-age women looking at a Szarkowski shot of futures traders on a Chicago sidewalk. “Hey, that’s cool,” one said. MoMA got a tiny bit warmer.
Left: The masses at MoMA. Right: El Museo del Barrio director emeritus Susana Leval, justice Pierre Leval, and John Szarkowski.
Left: Bernard-Henri Lévy chats it up. Right: Lauren Bacall, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Arielle Dombasle.
During her tenure at Vanity Fair, legend has it, Tina Brown read a draft of a commissioned piece from Isaac Bashevis Singer, and, either not realizing who the Nobel laureate was or simply not caring, scrawled “Beef it up, Singer!” across the manuscript. I expected a similarly muscular stance from Brown in her face-off last week with fêted French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy at the New York Public Library. After all, the promotional materials promised a hardball exchange, and Lévy hadn’t even won a Nobel. Quel dommage, then, that this transatlantic logroll left unanswered my nagging question regarding BHL: Òu est le boeuf?
I can forgive him the presence of Lauren Bacall and Diane Von Furstenberg in the front rowthey’re most likely Tina’s guests. Probably unfair, too, to blame him for the complimentary champagne and cheese twists, the throngs of elderly ladies in fur coats, the cornpone flourish of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” as entrance music. Certainly below-the-belt to hold BHL accountable for the unmitigated bling of Tina’s lapel pina tasteless Internet-bubble artifact resembling, from my seat, a diamond-studded police badge. Nevertheless, if you are a Frenchman who purports to be updating Tocqueville’s magisterial two-volume throwdown on American culture and politics, you’d better have something more substantial to say than “Americans are no more obese than Europeans.” And no matter what you have to say, you’d be wise to button your shirt somewhere above Studio 54 levelswaxed or not, Americans aren’t used to chest-baring intellectuals.
BHL is here as part of the promotional push for his new book American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (which, he says, aims to “clear the fog of clichés” that separate America and France), and to be “grilled” by Brown on the same. Early on, Tina barks down BHL’s rather gracious attempt to thank his editors and translator, but otherwise BHL remains as lightly seared as your average Ahi. While her jewelry suggests she is the law west of Park Avenue, Brown quickly abandons her take-no-prisoners style to escort BHL down the footpaths of his bookthe policies of George W. Boosh, our shameful penal system, the dismal Clinton Library ceremony, BHL’s arguments with William Kristol and other neocons, his favorable impressions of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obamalike an expert flak.
Along the way we learn that BHL likes America“like a good mistress,” no less. That Obama is the first African-American politician to project “a promise, not a reproach.” That “Empire is not a good paradigma” [sic] for thinking about America. That BHL “is not France.” Call me snooty-pants, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at this soufflé rhetoric. The po-mo jive of Baudrillard’s aphorisms, at the very least, asked your mind to work in a different way. BHL isn’t telling me anything that I don’t already know or that I wouldn’t expect to hear from any reasonably educated European. To use an old American maxim, he neither dazzles with brilliance nor baffles with (pardon my freedom) bullshit, and I expect one or both from visiting French theorists. Middlebrow commentary grows on trees amid our gold-paved streets. No need for the imported variety, merci beaucoups.
To be fair, the questions from the audience are similarly uninspired. With few exceptions, they amount to permutations of “Which is better, America or France?” Indeed, the entire event feels like a reassuring press conference at the French Embassy: “I am a prominent French intellectual, and I’ve written a book about your country. But don’t worry! I like America a whole lot, and hey, us French have our failings too!” I’m all for strong Franco-American relations, but this isn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some precise rhetorical salvos from both sides could benefit us all.
But few others seem to be immune to BHL’s calming charm. The pair of ladies who complain that I was pushing my seat back too far (“But he’s got long legs.” “So what, I don’t care!”) pronounces him “cute” with a titter minutes later. He receives hearty, welcoming applause. He says “sacrificize.” Everyone feels good. Pourquoi pas?