A modest but conspicuous paparazzi enclosure installed outside the entrance to MoMA’s film theater, and another en route to the auditorium, signaled the hotly anticipated presence of the overground underground’s most fêted husband-and-wife team at Tuesday night’s US premiere of Drawing Restraint 9, a film in which Matthew Barney and Björk demonstrate their love for one another by severing each other’s legs with flensing knives. But even without taking his elfin muse into consideration, Barney’s power as an artist to generate buzz beyond his field remains unparalleled, in this country at least (Tracey Emin might, on a slow news day in London, attract a halfway comparable mob).
With fifteen minutes ’til the curtain went up, I nabbed a seat in the third row and scanned the audience for familiar faces: Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer, impresario Yvonne Force Villareal, Frieze publisher Amanda Sharp, and “Performa” curator RoseLee Goldberg were all settling in. A woman seated next to me complained loudly about a scandalous lack of BlackBerry reception before leaving a message to the effect that she’d be available “only” on her cell phone for the next two hours; a less than reassuring news for her immediate neighbors. In front of me, another woman pulled out a camcorder and appeared to focus on the screen. Would bootlegs of the work show up online that evening, or on Canal Street the next day?
Left: Fashion designer Cynthia Rowley. Right: Cremaster contributor Aimee Mullins with Elise Oberland.
Around 7:45 PM, with the house full to bursting and the Ice Queen seated somewhere towards the rear, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach stepped up to the podium and delivered a brief introduction, noting wryly that despite having invited only four hundred members of “the inner, inner circle,” more than eight hundred had RSVPed. I felt doubly privileged. Biesenbach handed over to Jonathan Sehring, head honcho of IFC Entertainment, then to the artist himself. Barney, svelte in black, commented that he’d appreciated seeing the film first in Japan, where it is set, but was naturally interested in an American audience’s reaction. “Enjoy yourselves,” he concluded with disarming straightforwardness, “and thanks for coming.”
Drawing Restraint 9 is unarguably Barney’s most ambitious and spectacular film to date. The latest part of a “Cremaster”-like multipartite project that has occupied the artist since his late-’80s Yale days, it takes place largely on the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru and follows the gradual creation and dissolution of a massive petroleum jelly sculpture in parallel with the slow coming together and subsequent bloody transformation of two “Occidental Guests.” (Guess who.) There are outlandish costumes and elaborate haircuts, protracted rituals and razzamatazz parades, mysterious natural forms and obscure organic processes. White-clad divers holler into buckets and vomit pearls, our heroine relaxes in a tank full of lemons while hubby gets his eyebrows shaved, and an aesthete’s dream of a tea ceremony runs on and on until the brew must surely be stone cold. Björk makes sparing but effective use of her instantly recognizable arsenal of whispers, wails, and roars on the soundtrack, alternating her own compositions with more dissonant but equally haunting traditional Japanese music.
After two-and-a-half hours of Barney’s visionary parallel cosmos, a cab across town to the Japan Society for the official afterparty brought me back to earth with a dull thump. The interior, lit with colored paper lanterns and festooned with greenery, looked elegant, but as the crowds began to flood in, decorous serenity took a back seat to the usual scramble for the bar. Barney and Björk, the latter luminous in a kimono-style dress and perpetually half-dancing with excitement, held court in an upstairs gallery, while the likes of cable TV imagineer Kid America, artist Chloe Piene, curator Donna De Salvo, and fashion designer Cynthia Rowley mixed and matched to frenetic J-pop on the more spacious ground floor.
On my walk home, I passed a crew of workers laying new tarmac on a stretch of Second Avenue. Identically outfitted men following complicated procedures, viscous ooze and clouds of steam, industrial machinery and chemical alteration . . . wait a minute.
“Is this the show?” quipped one would-be partygoer temporarily stuck in the uncooperative elevator at Hermès Beverly Hills. “Alan Kaprow would have loved this,” she enthused. Doug Aitken might have too. It took a bit of effort to locate the third-floor “Gallery at Hermès,” site of a party celebrating Aitken’s newly published book Broken Screen: Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative (D. A. P.), but the crowd inside appeared unfazed. The upbeat, decidedly well-heeled revelers appeared to appreciate the largesse of the temple to pricey chic. The evening was billed as the first of four bi-coastal eventstwo Hermès presentations, two “happenings”celebrating Aitken’s collection of interviews with artists, filmmakers, and other creative types.
Curiously, copies of the fêted tome were nowhere to be found. Instead, what looked like a big, empty bookshelf greeted visitors as they entered Aitken’s multimedia installation, a labyrinth of indigo illuminated by afterimage-inducing neon spirals and a flashing wall text proclaiming “now new.” On either end of the space, large origami orbs fashioned from the new title’s leaves provided the only evidence of the printed page, though a pair of wall-size video projectionsmeant to communicate Broken Screen’s theme of “non-linear narrative”offered an unmistakably sequential extract.
Left: Colin Donahue, Chad Daniel, musician Devendra Banhart, and musician Noah Georgeson. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: Artist Andrea Zittel with gallerist Shaun Caley Regen. (Photo: Julie Lequin)
I spotted Aitken greeting friends, and couldn’t resist divulging my passion for the films of Stan Brakhage. He warmed to the topic immediately: “I wanted to discuss the older generation of filmmakers who tend to be overshadowed by new trends,” he enthused. “Like Pablo Ferro, who developed these optical innovations, did the titles for The Thomas Crown Affair, and worked with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange. People like Gus Van Sant are really influenced by him and he has just been living out in the Valley.”
The happening occurred two evenings later at the MAK Center/Schindler House in West Hollywood. This time, cool (as a rule) Aitken seemed a bit more anxious as the crowd gathered on the front lawn for his on-stage chat with John Baldessari. Schlinder’s masterpiece of California living was further tarted up for the evening with geometric Duralogs blazing in the outdoor fireplaces, while large, white innertubes provided challenging seating for guests including artists Eddie Ruscha and Marie Jager, LA MAK head Kimberli Meyer and her Vienna counterpart Peter Noever, the artist’s dealer Shaun Caley Regen, fellow gallery artist Andrea Zittel (keeping watch over a precocious toddler), and many younger members of the experimental film set.
Left: Collector Merry Norris and artist Sharon Ryan. Right: Artist Marie Jager, Architect Francois Perrin, MAK Vienna Director Peter Noever, and LA MAK Director Kimberli Meyer. (Photos: Julie Lequin)
The conversation ended around 5:30 PM, but not one “Broken Scene Martini” was shaken or stirred until happy hour proper, by which time a slow-moving drink line snaked through the entire back yard. I noticed collector Merry Norris eyeing the queue in horror, then resignedly joining it. Luckily, a giant video screenfeaturing clips by revered underground filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, design avant-gardists Superstudio, and current Whitney Biennial darling Ryan Trecartin, among others—distracted the thirsty throngs. Between film excerpts, a declarative intertitle (the handiwork of a French language PR firm?) offered: “This has been done by support from Hermès.” The move was none too subtle, but if by “this,” the company meant the welcome hush that fell over the drink-deprived grumblers during Kelly Sears’s adult animation throwback, Joy of Sex, then bravo!
With pulpy peach cocktail in hand, I returned to the front lawn where a DJ set by DFA Records impresario Tim Sweeney was attracting Hollywood hipsters. I was introduced to Ralph Lauren poster boy Colin Donahue before wending my way back toward artist duo Los Super Elegantes and neo-folk star Devendra Banhart, devotees in tow, who offered a cryptic pronouncement“Lots of reptilian sleight of hand”then, like a real celebrity, hastily back-pedaled: “Doug is a friend of mine and I admire his work. He has an appreciation for older filmmakers. His interest in experimental film, like more obscure Italian work, is great.” Nice save.
Left: Los Super Elegantes' Martiniano Lopez-Crozet with friends. Right: Los Super Elegantes' Milena Musquiz with friend. (Photos: Julie Lequin)
Just as the signature cocktail was running dry, the special guestlow-fi alt-rocker Ariel Pinkappeared on stage half-dressed and smeared in chocolate, shouting, “Merde! Merde!” Ten minutes into the feedback-heavy, atonal set, the sky opened up (OK, it was a gentle shower) and the crowd scattered. Still, Kaprow would have loved this. Aitken too.
Left: Biennale curator Massimiliano Gioni looks at a piece by Marcel van Eeden. Right: Anri Sala with Olaf Nicolai.
The idea of The Wrong Gallery curating a biennial inevitably conjures a myriad of preconceptionsdaft japes, irreverent pranks, slapstick-a-go-go. Six months ago, Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick set up a renegade franchise of Gagosian Gallery. It was also rumored that whenever they were asked a question about the Biennale, they replied with an answer/work by Tino Sehgal. Their chosen title, “Of Mice and Men,” thus seemed to auger a panoply of stuffed animals (as befits Cattelan’s oeuvre) and trickster hoaxes, rather than an engagement with John Steinbeck’s melancholic novel. Last Thursday morning, as I wandered down Augustrasse looking for the press office, I encountered three people in medieval garb advertising pizza outside a ballroom (a satirical jab at the two-thirds-Italian curatorial team?); next to them were five dwarfs in Bavarian shorts and capes bearing placards announcing The Midget Gallery. I’d surely arrived at the right place.
But it turned out I was wrong. Sure, the press office was inside this ballroom-cum–pizza restaurant (glitter curtains, mirror balls, bier vom fass) but the midgets were an unofficial intervention by Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra. The show itself turned out to be sombre, poetic, and bleak. “Of Mice and Men” was just a (non-)thematic umbrella for assembling work imbued with anxiety and unease, as Gioni explained at the press conference. He gently ribbed the heaving crowd whohaving endured thirty minutes of mind-numbing pleasantries by no less than six Kulturstiftung des Bundes-type bureaucratswere now hanging onto his every word: “Erwin Panofsky used to say that, given the choice between going to paradise or hearing a lecture about paradise, people from Hamburg would choose the latter. I guess a lot of you here are from Hamburg.” The rest of his talk went down better: The show was about interiority, possible worlds, nostalgia . . . it was antitheoretical . . . in short, it was the opposite of the previous Berlin Biennale (Ute Meta Bauer’s controversial excursus into sociopolitical issues via research-based art).
To these curatorial ends, the exhibition relied heavily on atmospheric environments, from a church to a forlorn cemetery (featuring a poignant sound piece by Susan Philipsz, whose work in the Turin Triennale allegedly turned Cattelan to prayer) to a number of private apartments. Sometimes this intimate mode of viewing worked, sometimes it didn’t. When the art was meagre you found yourself defaulting to apartment-hunt mode (nice light, good-size bedroom . . . how much is the rent?). The heavy redolence reached its peak in the main venue, a former Jewish girls’ school, opened for the first time since 1996. Peeling ceilings, faded colors, and kids’ pictures provided a melancholic backdrop for five floors of beautifully installed work by over thirty artistsa mise-en-scène that made even unconvincing art look passably appealing (in the dock: Paloma Varga Weisz, Marcel van Eeden). It also added an elegiac boost to already elegiac work, such as Mark Manders’s exquisite installation -/-/-/-/-/-/-/-, 1992–2006, and a Francesca Woodman mini-survey. Her photographs, along with Paul McCarthy’s psychotic Bang-Bang Room, 1992, a room with doors in each wall banging diabolically, were clearly a linchpin for this section of the show.
The evening brought only a handful of private views, as most were held on Saturday night. Olafur Eliasson was on a Smithsonlike nonsite vibe at neugerriemschneider, having relocated several large hunks of twenty-eight-thousand-year-old Icelandic ice to the freshly refrigerated gallery (a perfect work for the next Sharjah Biennale, apparently themed around art and ecology, quipped one curator). An Icelandic DJ supposedly accompanied the opening, but he was inaudible in the mobbed courtyard. The Gagosian opening was equally inundated, although this time the show (curated by Martin Germann) was inexcusably dreadful. After the artists had been fed (and the rest of us just drank), it was time to head to the Frieze party. Located in a vast former East German swimming pool, it was hell to get into and occasionally hell to be at. Even Cattelan had difficulty making it through the mob, and bailed outpresumably to link up with his fiancée, the Italian MTV presenter Victoria Cabello. Once inside, the joy of a free bar was countered by a total lack of ventilation that, combined with Germany’s liberal smoking policies and an overactive smoke machine on the dance floor, meant that by 3:00 AM the place looked like an Ann Veronica Janssens installation. Where’s the exit? Have I met you before? And whose idea was it to put the lounge (six empty chairs) in the pool’s deep end and make us dance in the tiny cramped showers? While I tried to remain vertical on a dance floor lethally strewn with spilled beer and broken glass, the rest of the Euro-jugend frenetically pogoed to the tunes of DJ Jeremy Deller. The sharpest moves came from lithe-limbed, slim-suited gallerist Jan Mot.
Left: Deborah Berger and collector Julia Stoschek. Right: Jeremy Deller and Rory Crichton DJing at the Frieze party. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)
The next day’s recovery demanded a big breakfast, but every café on Auguststrasse was brimming with Biennale guests. The first person I bumped into was Sehgal, who entered the bar with a perky wave and compared the bleary-eyed assembly before him to one big family. Across the road, his Kiss, 2002, turned out to be one of the exhibition’s highlights: a “sculpture” in the penumbral and crumbling ballroom above the press office that involved a man and woman making out on the floor, choreographically snogging in poses drawn from an art-historical repertoire of embraces (Rodin, Brancusi, Klimt). Moving to other venues required high-level social slaloming among an onslaught of artists and curators (Roman Ondak, Pawel Althamer, Anri Sala, Tirdad Zolghadr, Ann Demeester, Marta Kuzma . . .) who were also pounding the 920-metre Auguststrasse strip.
I headed to Kunst-Werke, where I was greeted by the fantastic Bruce Nauman installation Rats and Bats (Learned Helplessness in Rats II), 1988, in which the artist is shown noisily beating the crap out of a black bag in front of a yellow Plexiglas maze with video monitors showing a rat scurrying around. The Beckettian repetition/oppression, together with the vermin/human theme, clearly made this the exhibition’s signature work. If only the curators had shown it alone, without putting it alongside a vacuous installation of Roberto Cuoghi paintings. Kunst-Werke, like the Biennale as a whole, often suffered this uneasy whiplash between gravitas and the merely fashionable. Gioni knows how to install a showKunst-Werke has rarely looked betterbut the overall effect was of flipping the pages of a magazine: visual pleasure in spades, and some truly wonderful works, but a total absence of meaningful connections between them. As a result, “Of Mice and Men” never managed to add up to more than the sum of its partseven if most of those parts were admittedly rather good.
Taking a beer break with the exuberant Mai Abu ElDahab for a quick lowdown on the manifold trials of curating Manifesta 6, I then joined the mob queuing for Jens Hoffmann’s “Wrong,” a bijou group show at Klosterfelde. Hoffmann was overheard referring to the show as his “little homage” to the curatorial team, but the main shock was finding that he had selected his own work for the show, and spurning his preferred strategy of curatorial delegation. It was uncannily cosy, but one final queue beckonedthe VIP entrance to the Biennale opening party at the Postfuhramt, the enormous and sprawling former post-office. The phrase VIP had very little meaning in this context, since there were leagues of unknown Italians bearing down on all sides and asserting their privileges. The only civilized option was to join the queue to climb onto the roof and then jump through the first-floor window. Once inside, it really wasn’t worth the effort. Berlin’s deliberate refusal of Venice-style glamour and exclusivity made the Biennale a liberatingly downbeat treat during the day, but generally missable at night.
Left: Ellsworth Kelly with Maria Tuttle and US Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle. (Photo: Roland Kemp) Right: Lady Rodgers with Irving and Jackie Blum. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)
Waving a California driver’s license is not the way I usually gain entrance to a London art event, but on Thursday night the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert Tuttle, hosted a reception for Ellsworth Kelly at which security was particularly tight. Three rifle-toting British police officers were stationed outside; when I asked if they were performance artists, they gave me a stunned look. It was a night of colliding realities. The young black British Minister for Culture, David Lammy, exchanged pleasantries with faceless Republican cultural attachés. The gay art world turned up but warily reverted to restrained handshakes rather than air kisses. English artist Jane Wilson said, “Bless the Yanks. They’re serving delicious gin & tonics and we’re allowed to smoke.”
The Ambassadorial residence is a 1930s fantasy of Georgian architecture of the sort that Europeans will immediately recognize as “nouveau.” Full of chintzy patterns, it’s not an obvious fit for contemporary art, and it was not until the Tuttles moved in eight months ago that the house was introduced to the wonders of abstraction. Still, in the public rooms (where most of the works are on loan from American museums through the “Art in Embassies” program) the only two living artists are Kelly and, the lone non-American, Anish Kapoor.
I relish nothing more than a diagnostic read of people’s bedrooms, so I was delighted when Ambassador Tuttle took a small crowd, including curator Rochelle Steiner and me, upstairs for an enthusiastic tour of his private collection. We saw many reminders of homeworks by LA-based artists like David Hockney, Ed Ruscha, and Sam Francisbut the high point was a face off between two of Picasso’s women in the master suite. A classic grey painting of Jacqueline glared jealously at an unusual portrait of Dora Maar. “It’s all women in my bedroom,” quipped the affable Ambassador.
Downstairs, under a late de Kooning landscape hung between gold-framed Rococo mirrors, I asked Steiner, Why Ellsworth now? “Isn’t it obvious?” she exclaimed indignantly. “He has a completely unique vocabulary that he established over fifty years ago, but he continues to experiment with form and color.” Later, I bumped into art historian Robert Rosenblum and asked the same question. “I haven’t a clue,” he replied. “He’s like meat and potatoes. He doesn’t register with the younger generation, but then neither does Mondrian. I’m taking the Fifth Amendment on this one.”
Left: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans with curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist and curator Teresa Gleadowe. Right: Artist Grayson Perry. (Photos: Dafydd Jones)
The next night, at the official Serpentine Gallery opening of recent Kelly paintings, the paparazzi were out in force. Photographers swarmed around Ellsworth as fans of all kinds desperately sought to get into the frame. The gallery was so crowded that the curator’s talk had to take place in the equally jam-packed drinks tent. During the drone of acknowledgments, I spotted Vicky Hughes, one of London’s more discerning collectors of emergent art, telephone bidding at the back of the room. When I complimented her on her impeccable etiquette, she blushed and said, “It was a charity auction!”
After the talk, I managed an audience with Hans Ulrich-Obrist, who enthused in his inimitable way that Ellsworth Kelly was “an urgent showit is extraordinary that he is making this work now.” About his new job as Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine, Obrist said, “I’m looking super much forward. There will be no shake up, just a rethink. It’s the Serpentine . . . the park . . . the world. We think in concentric circles. It’s not empire building or globalism, but mondialité.”
Back in the gallery, I attempted an encounter with Ellsworth but was repeatedly interrupted, elbowed, and shoved out of the way by Serpentine staff keen to introduce him to people more important than me. Amidst the mayhem, I experienced one strangely intimate moment when Ellsworth sought out Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. The transvestite potter, dressed like a pre-pubescent girl, looked genuinely shocked when the great minimalist painter leaned in and said, “I don’t want to ruin your makeup, but I’m going to kiss you.”
After the opening, a top slice of 170 people headed over to the River Café, where the food was heavenly but the ordeal of standing up for more art world business was hellacious. Everyone (including a high number of White Cube artistsSam Taylor-Wood, Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman, and Darren Almond) listened respectfully during Lord Palumbo’s toast. The indomitable Irving Blum informed me that Kelly is the “least expensive artist of his generation.” He’s “underground” because he works in a “tight, reductive arena.” When I asked how much Kelly material the good dealer had in stock, Blum gave me a sideways glance and said, “More than I care to reveal!” As I left the restaurant, I shared an existential moment with an uncharacteristically weary Richard Wentworth. “Is there a British art market?” wondered the artist-sage as if he were on a Shakespearean stage. “Or is it just parties, just noise?”
David Rimanelli set an 11 AM wake-up call with the opening for “Survivor,” his show of mostly New York artists (and, mostly, friends) staged under the for-now-disused High Line adjacent to Stefania Bortolami and Amalia Dayan’s Chelsea gallery. Nabbing a free coffee and doughnut from the pushcart vendor stationed outside (“our VIP brunch,” Rimanelli quipped) and still feeling a little groggy from having attended artist Li Ping’s “future” Cock (said nightspot resurrected the previous evening at Terence Koh and Javier Peres’s new Chinatown gallery, A.S.S.), I joined the ranks of artists, collectors, curators, and critics, including Brice Marden, Peter McGough, Clarisa Dalrymple, Hope Atherton (who has a solo show on the other side of the lot’s brick wall), and exhibiting artists Jane Kaplowitz, Hanna Liden, Emily Sundblad, Rachel Harrison, Adam McEwen, and Nate Lowman, hiding their bleary eyes behind impenetrable shades while filing out of the sun and into the repurposed garage.
The works on view ran the gamut from Cecily Brown’s oil-painting-and-paper installation and Jonathan Horowitz’s porta-potties emblazoned with the words “Piss” and “Shit,” to Rob Pruitt’s glass heart and Earsnot’s “Irak” tag at the show’s entrance. The exhibition, which will brave the elements for its month-long run, encouraged some innovative working methods, including a first-ever medium departure for Jessica Craig-Martin, who concocted a pig-fat wedding cake. I couldn’t help but exclaim that I’d only seen her photographs. “So have I,” she replied. “I just made this in the gallery yesterday morning."
Left: Ricky Clifton and artist Peter McGough at “Survivor.” Artist Jessica Craig-Martin with pig-fat wedding cake.
The mixed crowd of downtown scenesters new and old and scattered extra-artworld celebs (Keanu Reeves appeared at the stroke of eleven, in a suit and shades, smoking a cigarette) lured in a New York magazine crew ready to catch whatever glamorous gamin or gamine might fall their way. Swatting away a would-be picture snapper with the flick of a wrist, a man in red parachute pants and a bone-buttoned hunting jacket, his face obscured by heavy sunglasses, turned to Brown. “I know you,” he began, and, after a moment of non-recognition, elaborated: “I used to be Rene Ricard.” Quickly composing herself, Brown replied, “And I used to be Cecily Brown.”
Giving the afternoon over to the “alternative” fairs, I headed first to the inaugural LA Art Fair, at the Altman building on Eighteenth Street. Free of Armory Show extravaganza seekers, the sixteen exhibitors did business quietly and efficiently. Bennett Roberts of Roberts & Tilton, one of the fair organizers, outlined their quality-versus-quantity campaign. “I’ve done the Armory before. You have a minute to spend with everyone. Here you have ten minutes to twenty minutes. You can create a miniature relationship with a potential collector. I’ve sold eighty percent of the work already and we’re only halfway into the second day of the fair,” he boasted. Perhaps in a bid to bring in serious buyers only, the fair was sparsely advertised. “Word of mouth is creating the buzz,” explained Roberts. “When people say ‘We’re at the Altman building,’ we want it to be like saying ‘We’re at the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty.’” Presumably sans long lines and bawling toddlers.
Left: Lilah Freedland's performance at Scope. Right: Gallerists Julie and Bennett Roberts at the LA Art Fair.
Scope, back up and running after the Fire Department closed the venue down Friday night (too many forklifts and not enough ventilation in the sprawling industrial space), teemed with the young and the dirty. Brooklyn collective The 62 terrorized fairgoers on RVs while Matt Bua and Jesse Bercowetz set up a paint ball range dripping with rubber masks and treatises on war and power. “Triple Agent” Chris George, in a marabou-festooned Indian headdress, handed me a pellet gun and instructed me to aim at anything in sight (including a man with a paint-splattered shield lifted straight from Coney Island’s “Shoot the Freak”). On the fair’s grassy performance field Lilah Freedland’s “campers” shouted, screamed, and giggled their way through a prolonged food fight amidst scenes of triage. I confirmed my initial sense of having walked into some hybrid of a boardwalk carnival and a technology expo by moving from the paintball and gumball rooms of “the Jaundiced Eye” into the Cinema-scope Gallery, the fair’s new media corner, with exhibitions by Perpetual Art Machine, Rhizome.org, and the New Museum. Despite the fair’s promise to “hunt down that most endangered of species: the emerging artist,” outside of the special exhibitions one was hard-pressed to find much beyond the crafty salables of market-savvy hipster artists.
Finally arriving at Pulse at nightfallhoused in the Lexington Avenue armory that hosted the famous 1913 exhibitionI entered into what really seemed like a miniaturized, if more orderly, Armory Show. Jennifer Dalton’s The Collector-ibles at Plus Ultra, five cabinets displaying Art News’s top 200 collectors for 2005 as gilded comic book figurines, lured me in with the kind of critique that’s almost part and parcel of the contemporary fair scene. “Has anyone recognized themselves?” I asked. Gallery codirector Edward Winkleman informed me that the Rubells had and that a buyer for Michael Ovitz had taken a photo, but the majority, it seems, were miffed at not having been included. I couldn’t quite break Dalton’s codeWinkleman clued me in that a gold base indicated wealth by inheritancebut I did notice that Donald Rubell and Ovitz were both Wolverines, along with Charles Saatchi, David Geffen, and Dayan beau Adam Lindemann. Propping a “Contemporary Art” shopping bag in his retractable adamantine claws, the unstoppable (and amnesiac) X-man seemed an apt embodiment of this weekend’s supercollectors.
Left: Artist Chris George at Scope. Right: The scene at the opening of Terence Koh and Javier Peres's A.S.S. gallery.
Left: Joey Gabriel, Nan Goldin, Lola, and Gail Thacker. Right: Xavier Guerrand-Hermès with gallerists Jessica Fredericks and Andrew Freiser. (All photos: David Velasco)
Last Friday, the first official day of the Armory Show, I earned the purple heart of art-schlepping, trekking all over town to gawk at cutting-edge tchotchkes and their human support system: the dealers, the artists, the merely curious, and most importantly, the collectorssupershoppers who are the target audience and, implicitly, the stars of this fancy trade show.
I began in the morning at an “open house,” a ritual for VIPs, wherein collectors show fellow big spenders their stuff. As press, my status there was uncertainexistentially and practically, as they didn’t quite confirm my RSVP. But it could have been an oversight, right? I showed up anyway at the deluxe apartment in the sky (as seen in W mag) where Sotheby’s auction maestro Tobias Meyer resides with Mark Fletcher on the sixty-sixth floor of the sleek Time-Warner building surrounded by stunning views and a pitch-perfect mélange of current art. The exposed plywood on some wallsà la a cool art installationcombined with sumptuous antique furniture to create a super-manicured Paul McCarthy-meets-Louis Quinze-via-Gagosian vibe.
An assume vivid astro focus wall piece artfully splattered the entire living room like a cartoony membrane enclosing a Warhol “gun,” a John Currin head, the shocking wraparound view of Central Park, and a salmon-colored velvet couch where I kibbitzed with a nice collector couple from Chicago and Miami. They too, have an assume vivid astro focus thingie (“but not as big,” they told our host graciously) and nine hundred pieces of poodle art, I was excited to learn. They were like my parents, but with money. Amidst the “vivid” sprawl, I noticed the giant Warhol Gun aimed right at Madam Collector’s head, as we chatted about the close-knit Chicago art world and the challenges of art-shleppinginternationally, or even just getting out to P.S. 1 in Queens. Our panoramic view of Central Park was jauntily haunted by the lightbulb-covered dollar sign by Tim Noble and Sue Webster reflected in the window.
I had a Proustian moment, not able to place, at first, the familiar-looking dandy charming a clutch of collectors across the room. It was Jonathan Hammer, now based in Barcelona and minus his flowing, Kenny G.–like locks. “I butched up,” the yenta declared. I looked at his ascot. Well, everything’s relative. “Don’t forget to see the Jonathan Hammers in the Matthew Marks booth!” he jested, reminding the collectors as they headed out.
I settled into the groovy Artforum lounge area at the Armory to watch the relatively well-heeled crowd roam the white-cubicled trade-fair setting. “Who are these people anyway?” I heard someone wonder. “Doesn’t look like a lot of people are buying art. Must be dealers. Or artists not in the show checking out the competitionor wondering why they’re not in better booths?” It’s the county fair of the international art world. Instead of a prize heifer, Ronald Feldman, for example, displayed Hannah Wilke’s prescient exhibitionism and pussy-ceramics from the ’70s. It was surreal and kind of ridiculous to look at influential art in this mallish mise-en-scene. A gaggle of middle-age collector ladies appreciated the notorious image of the fetching artist bedecked only with the caption, “Beware of Fascist Feminists.” “My daughter gave me a T-shirt that said, “This is what a feminist looks like,” one of them bragged. Right on, sister.
From the Armory I checked out the Nan Goldin and Fischli & Weiss shows opening at Matthew Marks, since I was going to the dinner later. In the context of schlepping and schmoozing, the Nan Goldin slide show/film about her troubled older sister was an incongruously moving actual art experience, expressing family dysfunction, irremediable loss, mortality, and senselessness, and a reminder that art can be powerful, healing, and catharticas well as a status symbol and home decor.
Sublime in a different way, Fischli & Weiss, dressed as a rat and a panda in their droll video, communed with mythical woodland creatures and frolicked in the Swiss Alps. Along with Nayland Blake in the bunny suit (who I ran into at dinner, though not in the bunny suit), I wondered if Marks might at some point have a group show of all his gallery artists dressed as animals. And if so, which animal would Nan Goldin be?
Alas, there were no gift bags at the Hermès party for John Wesley (whose perky work graces its Madison Avenue windows). And it was not very festive to sip champagne and munch the dainty bonsai snacks surrounded by security guards (seemingly one per guest) protecting the stairway and the wall of purses from the sparse, well-turned out, mostly lady guests (all nonetheless potential perps and purse-snatchersor at least that’s what it felt like!). Quel mixed message: Waiters greet you at the door with a tray of champagne while a phalanx of security guards repels you from the merch. I had a lovely chat with collector, Francophile, and free-spirit Laura Skoler, who I want to adopt as my Auntie Mame. “My daughter gave me a magnet for the fridge,” she told me, “that says: ‘I don’t have tennis elbow, I have Visa wrist!’”
Downtown, the “Ridyke-ulous” opening at Participant Inc. was livelierand aptly named. Co-curated by A. L. Steiner and Nicole Eisenman, it was hopping with performances, lesbians, and friends of lesbians. Gracing the entrance, a petit, pasty fellow gyrated in his skivvies with a fuzzy black fake Hitler mustache. Why did this person look so familiar? He handed me one of the flyers tucked into his waistband, then I realized: Aha! It was curator Dean Daderko. Ridyke-ulous. Downstairs, another guywith particularly hairy legsran around in a bathrobe and wig. Also Ridyke-ulous: a gal cavorting in her panties with a cellphone “earring.” As Eisenman herself de-pantsed, I kvetched with Gary Indiana and Kathe Burkhart, whose recent Liz tableau, No Fucking Way, towered over the salon-style plethora of “ridyke-ulous” art, abounding in penis-substitutes and soiled panties.
Left: Curator Jacob Robichaux, Mike Stillman, and Steve Williams. Right: Gallerist Anne de Villepoix.
By the time I arrived at the dinner for Goldin and F & W, at Barbuto, I was fried. In my overtaxed condition I mistook Terry Winters for Fischlior was it Weiss? It was good to see the avuncular crackpot John Waters, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself seated across from Jean Stein (whose oral history of Edie Sedgwick I love). You can never be too rich or too thin, but you can definitely get enough culture (and champagne) for one day. And I had.
Left: Gallerist Emi Fontana, artist Mike Kelley, and Rosamund Felsen. Right: Artist Lari Pittman, gallerist Margo Leavin, artist Roy Dowell, and MoCA director Jeremy Strick.
“Who is Steven Arnold?” was the question heard most frequently at last week’s opening of “Los Angeles 1955–1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital” at the Centre Pompidou. The LA art world descended upon a freezing Paris expecting to see works by the usual suspects but was surprised at the inclusion of the late gay genre photographer that they’d never heard ofone of Mike Kelley’s curatorial suggestions. With only eighty-five artists and 350 works representing thirty years of art history, literally dozens of visiting art-world heavies debated who should maybe have had his coveted spot: Charles Garabedian, Karen Carson, Kim MacConnel, James Hayward? Or, God forbid, the pre–Ferus Gallery Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, or Rico LeBrun? “It would be impossible to do this show in LA,” said MOCA’s Jeremy Strick. “Who do you include and how do you leave people out?”
Los Angeles is the flavor of the moment in Paris, with a concurrent show of projects by the Angeleno architecture firm Morphosis installed on the same floor of the museum, Allen Ruppersberg and Guy de Cointet at Galerie Air de Paris, and Mike Kelley at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot (the last sold out by the time of the vernissage). The Parisian gallerists Bruno Delavallade and René Praz threw a stylish party to honor the artist-nurturing career of legendary LA dealer Rosamund Felsen at their tony Square de l’Avenue Foch apartment. On the walls was a small survey of their own collection of LA artincluding Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance, and Sam Durantset among midcentury furniture by Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, and Verner Panton. “We picked the furniture up years ago for nothing at flea markets,” said Delavallade. Kelley recognized his early-’80s performance prop in a corner of the room. “Jim Isermann sold this to help buy his house in Palm Springs. That was so long ago it looks like a piece of ancient history!”
Left: Artist George Herms with The Librarian. Right: Gallerists René Julien Praz, Rosamund Felsen, and Bruno Delavallade.
At the opening Tuesday night, with four thousand invited guests, the enormous Los Angeles contingent of artists, collectors, dealers, and museum officials was in for a surprise: VIP entry tickets were meaningless. “This is France,” snarled the burly security guard. “Liberté, égalité, fraternitéyou VIPs can wait like the rest of the people.” In the freezing, rainy darkness, groups of Angelenos reenacted the storming of the Bastille, with pushing, threatening, begging, and outrunning to try to get past not one but three successive guard points to the exhibition. “We couldn’t get inso we had to become ‘ugly Americans’!” said Santa Monica Museum of Art Director Elsa Longhauser. Another museum director pronounced it, “The most disorganized opening I’ve ever been to in my life.” Many artists in the showand heavyweight collectors like Blake Byrnewere forced to wait up to two hours.
Once inside, the war-weary brigade expressed relief at how solid the show looked. “It is definitely a French point of view, but it looks terrific,” said LA fixture Margo Leavin. The consensus was that it is more thorough and better curated than Lars Nittve’s 1997 survey, “Sunshine & Noir”. But there were caveats. The Light and Space artist Douglas Wheeler pulled out of the show because he wasn’t granted enough installation space. “Shouldn’t they have a wait-list for inclusionlike the airlines?” asked one collector.
With curator Catherine Grenier giving greater space to the more established LA art starsEd Ruscha, John Baldessari, Lari Pittman, George Herms, and Mike Kelley among themthere was a refined scramble to fit everyone else in. The result is nooks and crannies of video, film, and ephemera that work primarily because of chic French design. “This is really thoughtfully arrangedand it was not an easy show to install,” approved LACMA curator Stephanie Barron.
At the reception for four hundred at Restaurant Le Georges on the Pompidou roof, all eyes watched the clock, for the next day was the last chance for the LA contingent to catch a plane for New York in time for the Armory opening—and the new LA Art Fair at the Altman Building, the destination of choice for those who intended to pick the Los Angeles art stars for the next museum survey.
Over dessert, one cheeky museum curator asked me if it wasn’t a conflict, writing this piece when I’m a lender to the exhibition. “Pas du tout,” I replied, glancing at my watch…
Left: MoMA director Glenn Lowry. Right: Collectors David Teiger and Kati Lovaas. (All photos: David Velasco)
“A great swath of established galleriesreliable fair exhibitors elsewhereis missing.” So noted White Columns director Matthew Higgs, pinning down one of several ways in which this year’s Armory Show is different from its predecessors; there are also significantly fewer booths and an increased number of one-artist presentations. Contrary to MoMA director Glenn Lowry’s press-conference platitude about fairs offering a “nonhierarchical” view of art, this missing center accentuates a very real hierarchy: At or near the top, one finds blue-chip contemporary galleries occupying more square footage to exhibit fewer artists; at the other end of the scale, young galleries and nonprofits are crammed into Manhattan Mini Storage closets (“I can’t stand anywhere without blocking something I want people to see,” said Guild & Greyskhul’s Sara VanDerBeek) or squeezed into hallways abutting bathrooms.
Among the holdouts are a number of New York dealers, perhaps the most talked-about subject during the Thursday afternoon lull between the arrival of the early-bird collectors, who showed up at noon along with the members of the press, and the evening’s MoMA-benefiting vernissage, which offered staggered entry times beginning at 5:00 PM. Gone are Marian Goodman, Tanya Bonakdar (who participated in last month’s ADAA fair), Luhring Augustine (ditto), and even relative newcomer Daniel Reich. Missing too was Barbara Gladstone, who sent out an e-mail press release for next month’s Matthew Barney exhibition during the evening reception, signaling that it was business as usual down on Twenty-fourth Street.
Gladstone, Bonakdar, and Roland Augustine, all unencumbered, prowled the aisles with collectors David Teiger, Mickey Cartin, and Glenn Fuhrman; a posse from Miami including the Rubells, Rosa de la Cruz, and Craig Robins; Chicago-based museum patron Sara Szold and Londoner Anita Zabludowicz. Activity was low-key, serious, and brisk; by 3:00 PM, when the piers were empty enough for an extended audience with just about any dealer, most reported having already made back their booth fees. (Sikkema Jenkins & Co. partner Meg Malloy noted that she even conducted some business on Wednesday.) Yet the chestnut about artists not being able to keep up with the fairs seemed finally to contain a kernel of truth, as spectacular artworks (and attendant spectacular sales) seemed few and far between.
“I represent over twenty artists, and I still can’t come up with enough art,” noted The Project’s Christian Haye, who had flown in some exquisitely messy Otto Muehl paintings just for the weekend from the exhibition now on view in his LA gallery. One splash was Barnaby Furnas’s lush, abstract, twenty-seven-by-eleven-and-a-half-foot red tide: Subject of a “Talk of the Town” piece in this week’s New Yorker and similar to two recently commissioned by Aby Rosen for the Lever House, it was snapped up from Marianne Boesky’s booth by an (unnamed) institution. Down the aisle, a surprise came from Ronald Feldman, who devoted his booth to feminist art pioneer Hannah Wilke. “So, are these supposed to be, like, vaginas?” I overheard several visitors inquire as they pointed to works from her “Starification Object Series” (and inadvertently pointed out the necessity of this micro-retrospective).
Left: Whitney director Adam Weinberg with Pace gallery's Marc Glimcher. Right: Actor and collector David Alan Grier with Studio Museum curator Christine Kim.
But with few secondary-market jaw-droppers on offer, most pleasures were modest: a slick one-two punch of Anselm Reyle and Vincent Szarek at Almine Rech; swirling, slate-gray Rezi van Lankveld paintings at The Approach and Diana Stigter; Carter Mull’s opulent photos of shattered surfaces at Rivington Arms; a Spencer Finch photo series at Rhona Hoffmann; and quasi-psychedelic Weegee portraits of New York landmark buildings at Matthew Marks. Florian Slotawa presented surprisingly engaging household-object sculptural assemblages at Sies + Höke, where I was told that he is constructing a “twenty-five-foot-tall, Minimalist tower” of items taken from a collector’s homeincluding the bedfor the upcoming Berlin Biennale.
At 5:00 PM, I was told that the crowd-control and guest-list duties switched from the fair staff to MoMA, and I was temporarily stuck between (and without access to) the piers, a frustrating situation until I saw John Waters similarly turned away from the check-in desk. Temporary exhibitor’s passes helped us through the gates, and once back inside I encountered more curators than were evident earlier in the day. MoMA’s John Elderfield held court midway down Pier 92, where I also passed his former colleague (and now UCLA Hammer Museum Senior Curator) Gary Garrels, the New Museum’s Richard Flood, the Whitney’s Donna De Salvo, David Kiehl, and Adam Weinberg . . . I had soon spied so many Whitney staffers that it felt like another Biennial event.
Tomasso Corvi-Mora, standing in front of three small, strong paintings by “Greater New York(er)” Richard Aldrich, was in an expansive mood, countering my reservations with a reminder that, even if people felt the fair was a little enervated this year, we were nonetheless still in the midst of an unprecedented boom that has provided stability for untold numbers of deserving artists. Bellwether’s Becky Smith expanded on the point in her inimitable manner: “It’s not like a Filene’s Basement wedding dress sale, but I’ll take it.”
Elsewhere, David Zwirner announced that he is now representing Sue Williams by presenting a new, large canvas, and I chatted with artist Yuri Masnyj while out of the corner of my eye I clocked Peter Blum substituting fresh Joseph Marioni paintings for sold ones. (Marioni is first up in Blum’s new Twenty-ninth Street gallery, opening April 26.) Artists were hard to find, though I did see Collier Schorr and Karel Funk at 303’s booth and photographer Ryan McGinley cruising the aisles in headphones. When I walked past Mathilde ter Heijne’s life-size mannequin at Susanne Vielmetter’s booth and its recorded voice called me an asshole, I began to think McGinley might have had the right idea and called it a day.
Left: The Project's Christian Haye and Jennifer Orbach. Right: Whitney curators David Kiehl and Donna De Salvo
It turns out that all the artists were in Chelsea at The Park, my next stop. Creative Time was throwing a reunion party of sorts, and dozens were on hand, including Andrea Fraser, Chris Doyle, Christine Hill, Jules de Balincourt, Laurie Simmons, and Marilyn Minter, whose new billboardtitled Mudbath, as was the partywas visible outside the window. A DJ played ’80s pop hits and a portrait photographer was documenting the scene for a soon-to-be-published anthology of the organization’s projects. After ten-plus hours on my feet, the camera flashes, free-flowing alcohol, and the lack of a decent meal had me floating on a hallucinatory cloud; it took a text message“Please pick up dry cat food”to bring me back to reality. I headed down the stairs, past video artist Aïda Ruilova and dozens of others just arriving, and hit the sidewalks in search of a bodega and some rest.
Left: MIT List Visual Arts Center curator Bill Arning and critic Irving Sandler. Right: Artist Coco Fusco with baby.
At the 94th annual CAA conference, outgoing executive director Susan Ball, bidding her constituents farewell after twenty years at the helm, injected a bit of suspense into a largely lackluster convocation with a well-timed “odds are my successor is in the house tonight.” A nice device, but was I alone in sensing a collective shrinking into the seats? What crowd could be tougher to please? A third of the CAA’s fourteen thousand membersMFA-candidate job-seekers, venerable academics, a star curator or twohad gathered at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for four days of networking, discount book-buying, and over 180 sessions on topics from ancient Mesoamerica to “Bio-Tech and Bots.” In short, it was an art-loving binge-thinker’s paradise.
Why then, were “dull as dishwater” and “stale” among the mordant first takes on this year’s session offerings? One veteran reminisced about the ’70s and ’80s, when “everyone knew what the hot topic was and a thousand people would show up for that panel.” In his keynote address, Nation critic Arthur Danto considered the respective roles of the artists’ statements and works themselves in his Apex Art exhibition “The Art of 9/11.” “The objects are indispensable,” he concluded, “but the words are prosthetic.” This dialectic echoed through the chilly halls of what painter and writer Mira Schor dubbed the Hynes’s “Mussolini architecture.” How could words and slides alone cut it for those of us drunk on the object glut of Chelsea, art fairs, biennials, and the studio? A not unrelated lament, from Nick Mirzoeff, director of the visual culture program at NYU: “There are so few fucking parties at this conference!”
Left: Curator Okwui Enwezor. Right: MIT Visual Arts Program director Ute Meta Bauer and artist Judith Barry.
But of course there were parties, and some bracing sessions. By Friday one could detect an attitude shift, as peevishness gave way to relayed highlights from the dais. Among them for me was “Implementing Diversity in Art-History Pedagogy,” chaired by Coco Fusco. Panelist Richard Meyer said that despite students having stormed out of his USC course on “Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Art,” he still shows Linda Benglis’s 1974 Artforum ad and Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of fisting (which the effervescent Meyer helpfully defined). He just takes precautions, like showing not the fisting images themselves, but a portrait of Mapplethorpe at his 1978 “Censored” opening, in which those images appear, quite legibly, on the wall beside him. Susan Cahan, a former Norton Collection curator turned professor, chronicled her search for the least biased contemporary-art survey text. Alas, in those she consideredby Brandon Taylor, Edward Lucie-Smith, Tom Crow, Lisa Philips, and the quartet behind Art Since 1900she found outrageous examples of discrimination. Melanie Herzog and Paul Prindle, a professor-student team, described their thoughtful approach to teaching a class on art, gender, and sexuality to a “shock-prone student body” at a small Catholic school in Wisconsin.
At Saturday’s “Curators as Critics” session, introduced by Irving Sandler and chaired by independent scholar Debra Bricker Balken, the “crisis in criticism” seemed to be an article of faith. Bill Arning, curator at the MIT List Center, recounted his tutelage under the “visionary” former Village Voice arts editor Vince Aletti and introduced the contemporary curator/critic’s thorn in the side: conflict of interest around living artists. Harry Cooper, curator of modern art at the Fogg, analyzed the hybrid role and ended with “a plea for critical criticism.” Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Wexner Center, confessed she’d be a “dark cloud” over the proceedings, but ended with signs of hope: diversified practices like those of artists collective LTTR, a “nascent return” of artist-writers like Andrea Fraser, and new-model galleries like Triple Candie (“it’s a time of small gestures”). Bennett Simpson, associate curator at Boston’s ICA, concluded that “transparency and disinterestedness do not exist.”
Left: Sculpture Center curator Anthony Huberman and artist Mike Smith. Right: ZRC SAZU's Marina Grzinic and architect Kyong Park.
As it turned out, there was a hot panel this year, namely “Art and Politics in Africa: Africans and the Avant Garde.” There weren’t quite a thousand people there, but it was standing room only, a situation artist, writer, and curator Olu Oguibe clearly relished as he recalled an audience of four at his CAA session a decade ago and declared a “unique moment in contemporary African art studies.” The weightiness and promise of the papers (topics included the 1966 First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar), incisive discussant critiques, charming marshaling style of chair Nnamdi Elleh, and engaging audience questions (including one from a scholar of Japanese art seeking parallels of cross-cultural exchange), lent this session real urgency. Art historian James Meyer summed it up as “the liveliest, freshest session at this year’s CAA.”
Ah yes, the parties. On Wednesday there was a champagne reception for CAA awardees of distinction in the Newbury Street townhouse surrounds of Vose Galleries, est. 1841. Among awardees present were Okwui Enwezor and Gregg Bordowitz, who shared this year’s Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism. On Thursday night, Marquard Smith, editor-in-chief of the London-based Journal of Visual Culture, hosted an intimate party at the Charlesmark Hotel, where cold beer and good lighting soothed the corporeal agitation of ten hours of conferencing. The weekend’s “giant art party,” as it billed itself, was at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. On Friday night, a few hundred conference escapees crammed into its main space, where videos by early CAVS fellows (Pat Hearn, Stan Van Der Beek) were projected, and into the Christmas-light-lit barroom, where current fellow Mike Smith’s rough-cut video about a “middle-age self-learner” who never quite makes it to MIT screened. Introductions were made between the likes of a Media Lab researcher bringing ultra-cheap information networks to a sub-Saharan African country and a Harvard fellow focusing on the persistence of the fascist aesthetic. One partygoer observed that it felt “just like New York.” Maybe, but more to the point, it was distinctly fun, and distinctly young, two reads one wouldn’t readily apply to the CAA conference itself. The former isn’t so imperative: CAA’s notorious serious-mindedness might be a necessary counterbalance in the current art-market culture. But a younger membership would seem to be essential, for both the present and future of CAA. That would take a cheaper ticket. At $145 (for early-taker, paid members) to $355 (for on-site, nonmembers), the cost of admission is just plain exclusionary. N.B., successor in the house.
Left: Fireworks by Cerith Wyn Evans and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Right: Tate Triennial artist Daria Martin. (All photos: Rolf Marriott)
Midway through last Tuesday’s opening of the third Tate Triennial, a substantial percentage of the assembled guests set aside their cocktails and their chicken tikka–filled mini-ciabattas, and trooped out to the Tate Britain’s front lawn to watch one of Cerith Wyn Evans’s characteristic firework texts go up in smoke. As the gunpowder parcels ignited on a pair of metal armatures, fleetingly spelling out in white a two-verse poem by Ian Hamilton Finlayin which permutations of the phrases “How blue / How sad / How small / How white / How far” are repeated, each ending once with an exclamation mark, then with a question mark (though I believe Wyn Evans reversed the original order)someone muttered ironically, “Ah, mortality, transience, melancholy.” Actually, it did tug at the heartstrings a little. But the spectator had a point. We had a good idea of what was coming, and we got it.
The same could be said of curator Beatrix Ruf’s choices for the show as a whole, which is presented as a snapshot of contemporary British art practice and had a faintly enervated feel similar to the last oneRuf’s superficial distinction being to leach out the previous show’s colorful palette and spread out the thirty-six artists’ works. Virtually none of the attendants I polled had a word, good or bad, to say about the show; few, though, thought it quite deserved the thorough pasting Guardian art critic Adrian Searle had given itand Ruf’s “abysmal rhetoric”in the morning’s pages. (Tate director Nick Serota was wearing a face like thunder when I glimpsed him, but possibly he’d just eaten one of the caterers’ egg-filled mini-bagels.) Barbican curator Mark Sladen was cautiously affirmative about Ruf’s work, but quickly changed the subject to his recent peregrinations around Scandinavia. My companion summed up, wailing: “Who’s it for?” Well, not anyone who’s seen the main London gallery shows during the last year, of which this was mostly an effective filleting. Assessing the crowd during my return visit a few days later suggested a different audience: students and adventurous pensioners.
Left: Triennial artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz with Tate curator Catherine Wood. Right: Triennial artist Lali Chetwynd.
The show’s thematic hinge is, broadly, neo-postmodernist: “repetition, reprocessing, and the appropriation of images and facts, on a spectrum between tribute and pastiche,” says the Tatewhich leaves the door open for virtually everyone and allows the pointed placement of current elder statespersons like John Stezaker and ex–Throbbing Gristle provocateur Cosey Fanni Tutti (whose roomful of vintage porn-magazine spreads featuring herself was predictably popular) alongside Mark Leckey’s earthy and fatigued comic-strip animation featuring two soporific drunken oafs, a gothic-flavored skull-and-mirrors sculpture by Douglas Gordon, performances directed by Tino Sehgal, and a fair whack of lachrymose figurative painting (with Peter Doig at the head of the class). The backward glance was all that truly unified the show, and the obvious risk in what was otherwise a totalizing of artistic autonomy is that everything becomes acceptable. Summing up something of the event, Art Review’s Lupe Núñez-Fernández told me she’d been waiting in Daria Martin’s film installation during a projector malfunction when one woman walked in, decided she’d “got it”—“Oh, a black film in a black box”and spun on her heel.
Still, it evidently looked different if you were a British artist overlooked by Ruf. After the show, in a nearby pub, neo-formalist sculptor Gary Webb toasted Liam Gillick for his contribution (a suspended text in black plastic) so effusively that the latter almost immediately beat an excusatory retreat, before the tired and emotional tyro proceeded to vent his apparent frustration at his outsider status by flinging ketchup at the hostelry’s walls. Oh dear. But it was gratifyingfinallyto see a bit of unchecked vim and a splash of bright color.
Left: Whitney director Adam Weinberg. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Biennial artist Christopher Williams with artist Jacqueline Humphries. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
“Have you been around yet? Find me later. I need to dish,” urged artist Mathew Cerletty at the opening of “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial exhibition. I popped out of the elevator at the foot of Matthew Day Jackson’s looming Conestoga wagon and found myself on the show’s “downtown” floor. Predictably, it was impossible to get a real sense of the art, not because of the overwhelming crowds or the scope of the exhibition but rather the zigzagging circulation of the opening promenade is more about scoping fellow visitors than whatever was on display behind them. (One errant cruiser had already stumbled into Yury Masnyj’s installation, which Masnyj was hastily trying to reposition in anticipation of an even bigger crush the next night.) With the usual celebrity suspectsChloe Sevigny, John Waters, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Mooreon hand, the game was in the meta-moment: Clarissa Dalrymple attended her portrait by Billy Sullivan; graffiti-chic entrepreneur Aron, who is thinly disguised as the baseball bat-wielding “Arod” in the novel Reena Spaulings, hung out with Biennial-featured Bernadette Corporation members, and Jeff Koons appeared doubled in Adam McEwen’s fake obituary of the neo-Pop star.
Left: Artist Spencer Sweeney with Participant Inc director Lia Gangitano. Right: Hanna Liden. (Photos: Michael Wang)
At the basement bar, I overheard one woman ecstatically describing works that “looked like the back of Artforum” (referring to Galerie Bischofberger’s signature ads featuring Alpine folk scenes)perhaps thinking of Hanna Liden’s ambiguous staged photographs on themes culled from the Nordic folklore and pagan ritual. Indeed, a flavor of the occult mingled with the cult this year, with works by Steven Parrino, Jutta Koether, and Anthony Burdin channeling nihilistic shamanism. Rirkrit Tiravanija and Mark di Suvero’s restaged Peace Tower (which includes the work of many of the original artist-contributors) ambivalently filled the activist-art quota with its deadpanned blend of idealism and post-nostalgia. Of course, celebrity culture and the mainstream press also staked their artworld claim. A man in a business suit asked me where he could find Francesco Vezzoli’s star-studded Caligula remake. “It’s gotten so much press I have to find it tonight,” he explained. “Gawker?” I ventured. “No, the New York Times.” With the crowds filtering down toward the bar and the artists and gallerists disappearing into the VIP room to exchange toasts, I headed to downtown restaurant Lovely Day to partake in the festivities honoring Rivington Arms artists Dash Snow and Hanna Liden. The endless fried rice certainly beat the Whitney’s calculated artistic fare, and Iles and Vergne showed up in time for dessert. Guests, invited or otherwise, kept streaming into the rather intimate venue and the party was forced to move up to Gavin Brown’s Passerby. “The Whitney was b-o-o-o-ring,” complained writer David Rimanelli. “This is where all the glamorous people are.”
Left: Biennial curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne at the press preview. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Jeff Koons with obituary, care of Adam McEwen. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
On Tuesday afternoon tumbleweeds drifted through the Artforum office as my colleagues and I—along with several hundred other members of the press—journeyed uptown for a sneak peek at this year’s Whitney Biennial. All the usual suspects (and, oddly, a scattering of collectors) were on hand, scribbling notes, snapping photos, and corralling curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne for impromptu Q & A sessions. “What are the most important works?” one earnest reporter demanded of Iles. Before the golden answer was forthcoming, I encountered museum director Adam Weinberg, who cheerily volunteered that he didn’t recognize the names of thirty of the artists in the show, “proof that the curators are out there doing their job.” With my own job calling, I completed a quick circuit and headed back downtown.
Wary of suffering a frigid recapitulation of 2004’s blocks-long opening-night line, my date and I were happy to breeze through the museum’s front door when we returned five hours later. The crowd inside was ample but by no means overwhelming, and somehow unconsciously mimicked the exhibition’s layout, ranging from genteel and hushed on the impeccably installed fourth floor to cheerfully garrulous on the second. Artists from Ryan McGinley to Terence Koh to Kembra Pfahler to Jeff Koons to Joan Jonas were on hand, as were innumerable dealers, a fistful of curators, a few students, and David Byrne. Team Gallery’s Jose Freire was out with new best friend Mary Boone, and informed me that he was hightailing it out of Chelsea as soon as his lease was up: “It’s been ten years, and that’s enough. I’m going to SohoGrand Street.” Austin-based Biennial artist and cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston received numerous well-wishers, many of them fellow exhibitors. 1993 Biennial curator Elisabeth Sussman, after hearing me out on my theory comparing the exhibition’s layout to Dante’s Inferno, allowed that her iteration of the exhibition was arranged similarly, and that perhaps this was a Whitney tradition.
Left: Biennial artist Jutta Koether. (Photo: Michael Wang) Right: Biennial artist Daniel Johnston with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
As time wore on, gravityor the need for a glass of wineexerted its pressure, and everyone made their way to the lower level, where a DJ was spinning. Free to wander the galleries in relative peace, I scribbled a few observations. Film, video, and sculpture trump painting and drawing. The much-hyped emphasis on collective practice is nearly impossible to discern in the galleries. Sound bleeding seems like a problem, especially around the Jim O’Rourke video installation and on the second floor generally. A few initial favorites: Liz Larner’s red, white, and blue haystack of what look like bicycle handlebars; Pierre Huyghe’s film and Paul Chan’s video; Anne Collier’s smart photographs; Urs Fischer’s candle-bearing branches; Yuri Masnyj, Chris Williams, and the upside-down plywood board spray painted with the words “Holy Shit!” and stuck incongruously in the stairwell, which was made bywho else?Dan Colen.
Back downstairs, an unofficial poll revealed that most visitors considered this Biennial less populist than 2004’s, an observation reiterated by Michael Kimmelman in this morning’s New York Times. Pocketing my notebook for the evening, I grabbed a glass of wine for my date, only to have it immediately knocked out of my hand, dousing me and whoever was behind my right shoulder in Chardonnay. I spun around to face none other than Iles herself. The horror! Colen, LA gallerist Javier Peres, and others nearby doubled over with laughter. I was mortified, but thankfully the wine was white, Iles’s dress black, and she took it in stride. “Now it’s a party!” she offered gamely. I ventured some awkward chatIles remained mum on personal show favoritesthen, still red-faced, made for the drawbridge.
Left: Biennial artist Adam McEwen. (Photo: Michael Wang) Right: Kembra Pfahler and Rufus Wainwright. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
How do you organize an academic conference on Martin Kippenberger, that most rock ’n’ roll of artists? Well, you don’t. Tate Modern anticipated this problem, and last Saturday presented three informal lectures on the late German rollercoaster. Sadly, all of them fell a little flat. The highlight came in the form of Kippenberger himself, when Daniel Baumann (Museum of Fine Arts, Bern) showed us Christoph Doering’s 3302 (1979) an artist’s film of a taxi ride around Kippenberger’s Berlin milieu: After repeatedly accelerating toward the Berlin Wall, the taxi careens through the city at night, carrying various passengers who get increasingly out of hand (wanking, vomiting, and tit-flashing). Baumann also made us endure an unlistenable song by Kippenberger’s band Luxus, and gave an exhaustive page-by-page rundown of the magazine Sehr Gut Very Good. (Thank God there was only ever one issue.) The already-small audience dwindled further during the break. The plenary discussion perked things up briefly, but the only complex argument to emerge concerned Kippenberger’s ambivalent relationship to the heroic role of the artist: both desiring this position and despising it, and thematizing this ambivalence in the work.
However unresolved, this discussion of artistic personae nicely framed Jonathan Meese’s performance, Noel Coward is Back: Dr. Humpty Dumpty vs. Fra No-Finger, presented the same night in conjunction with the Kippenberger show. The latter’s self-destructiveness certainly has parallels with Meese’s brand of Teutonic abjection. Arriving at 10 PM to a heaving throng on the Turbine Hall bridge, I found that Meese’s epic neo-expressionist self-abasement had begun ahead of schedule. The artist (made up like a geisha, but sporting his usual uniform of layered Adidas tops) was standing in a vast wrestling ring adorned with skeletons, photographs of himself, bells, plastic mannequins, and random piles of detritus. Massive painted screens flanked the wrestling ring, which stood before a video projection that relayed the live action, intercut with clips of Visconti’s The Damned, Meese in his studio, Noel Coward singing, and dozens of other films. Meese swigged a bottle of whiskey and stumbled around, apparently drunk and jetlagged from a trip to Tokyo. Wearing an impressive variety of headgearfrom a safari-style helmet to crusader chainmailhe wailed and crooned a stock of phrases repetitively into the microphone around his neck: “Ree-chard Vag-ner” and “A-dolf Heet-ler” (accompanied by salutes and wanking gestures); “If you want to be huuu-man . . . you must watch 120 Days of Sodom by Pa-so-li-ni . . .” He threw around the furniture and skeletons like a spoiled child and clung to the ropes of the wrestling ring, apparently in psychotic meltdown.
It was quite an onslaught. The girl next to me left in tears; my friends bolted to the bar. I stuck it out for an hour, submitting to the hypnotic effect of Meese’s psychotherapeutic self-humiliation and recurring musical loops (ominous chords, Irish jigs, Coward’s campy English ditties) and trying to make sense of the mélange. When the video and sound track stopped, Meese soldiered on unplugged until forcibly removed from atop his bronze cactus sculpture. The event polarized the audience: Some found it fabulously energizing (“London hasn’t seen anything like this before”), but, frankly, they were in the minority; most were bored and insulted (“I feel like I’ve been used like a nappy”).
It’s true that the viewer seems to perform an absorptive role for Meese’s metaphorical feces. On the one hand, his mise-en-scène was visually compelling, belonging to a tradition of abject, chaotic performance-installations from Hermann Nitsch to Paul McCarthy to John Bock. On the other, the work does depend on a psychological performance of excruciating interiority: Meese’s adoption of an antiheroic persona is uncritically anchored in the Expressionist tradition. Against Kippenberger’s performative exploration of artistic personae (a performativity that leaves an empty center, à la Warhol), Meese’s cathartic performance keeps all notions of subjective coherence intact. While purporting to be about Germany’s repressed history, Jonathan Meese’s work seems more about Jonathan Meese. At a dinner for the artist a week previously, he had half-joked that the Tate performance “will be my grave.” I wouldn’t go this far, but I do now know that unravelling his references is no guarantee of conceptual gratification. This is not to deny the potency of Meese’s all-consuming subjective blitzkrieg, just to acknowledge it simply as that.