People at funerals are mourning a death. Memorials are for celebrating a life. Only two weeks after the artist died on August 12, what was billed as Elizabeth Murray Praise Day at the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday afternoon had the air of both. Over three faintly bizarre hours, the program, underwritten by Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, provided a blend of the poignant and the comic that threatened to bring it closer to a Saturday Night Live skit shredding avant-garde performance practice than an actual art-world remembrance.
During the free-form portion of the afternoon—most of it—as the overflow crowd neglected the pizza and champagne laid out on the bar, admirers who admitted they had never known Murray seemed to outnumber family members and friends. Painter Jennifer Bartlett, writer Francine Prose, poet Hettie Jones, and other longtime Murray pals had to share the stage with unidentified folk singers and wannabe poet-habitués of the club who promoted themselves in song and verse, only to be shouted down by no less an eminence than Bob Holman, the club’s founder and Murray’s widowed husband.
Throughout, Holman rescued the proceedings from amateur-hour tedium with appreciative, Amen-like hoots and hollers. In other words, irreverence was the name of the game, as befitted both the place and Murray herself. Her image, in an album of photographs projected on a large screen, captivated an overflow crowd that included Dakota Sunseri (Murray’s son by her first husband, Don Sunseri), her two stunning daughters, Sophia Murray Holman and Daisy Murray Holman, artists Brice Marden and Joel Shapiro, Jessica Hagedorn and Patricia Spears Jones (no relation to Hettie), and choreographers Elizabeth Streb and Yoshiko Chuma.
“Talking to her, I felt strangely Irish,” said Prose of Murray. “Two good-humored old biddies complaining about how the word domestic was used to mean female, minor artist,” she added, to knowing growls and remonstrative “Hear hear”'s from Holman. Strange to think that Murray, the subject of a major 2005–2006 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, is still one of this country’s most undervalued painters. Yet she couldn’t have been more declarative or daring—qualities people seem to admire in men. Personally, I loved her plaid shirts and wild hair, her wide grin and determined air, and whatever unselfish gene made her such an enthusiastic advocate for experiment in all the arts. (She served on the boards of both the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.) And her art! Those suppurating, bent and fractured canvases could be part Cubist fantasy and part bourgeois nightmare, then whip into cartoon lightning bolts, pink-cloud choo-choos, and paper-doll pups within a maelstrom of human body parts. Her painted world was all fire and music, jazzy rhythms spun from the everyday world. It was explosive and enigmatic, punctuated by unlaced shoes, unmade beds, and clattering coffee cups. As Prose noted, Murray’s paintings all seemed to come with a sound track.
One after another, her friends forced back tears as they recalled her difficulties and triumphs, and shared welcome pieces of her wisdom. “Get a boyfriend, she told me,” reported Mary Heilmann, who is, at sixty-seven, Murray’s close contemporary. “This is a great age for having sex!” Alice Hartley and Hettie Jones both recalled Murray’s years as the unofficial art teacher at the Downtown Community School; Jones read from a children’s book for which Murray had designed the cover. Judy Hudson told a hilarious story about Murray’s dressing down of a DJ in an Amsterdam club. Sophie Murray Holman, who is about to enter San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, took the mic to read a tender letter to Murray from family friend Stuart Hanlon, who let on that Murray was utterly in character to the end, when, he wrote, she “winked good-bye.” It was hard not to choke up.
And when it was his turn to speak. PaceWildenstein’s loquacious Douglas Baxter was similarly at a loss for words, so overtaken by emotion was he at the sight of Murray’s three children seated before him. He had known Murray since both joined Paula Cooper’s gallery in its early days in SoHo. Cooper was just as wistful as she remembered the way Murray would pick up cigarette butts from the street when she was trying to quit smoking and asked everyone present to raise a glass to Murray’s memory.
But it was Bartlett who stole the show by reading out of an old notebook a riotous biography of Murray she had written in the 1970s, detailing her friend’s affection for Erno Lazlo cosmetics, yoga, fighting, Holiday Inns, smoking and quitting smoking, and her own work. “Drunk,” Bartlett said, “she told a curator from the Whitney, ‘I am the James Joyce of painting.’” Big applause, much appreciative laughter.
Murray was the living portrait of a major—and pointedly female—artist, a MacArthur Prize winner, a mother, and a hero to many. The last time I saw her was in May, at an all-girl birthday party for Sarah Charlesworth given by Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons. Though diminished by her cancer, Murray was in great spirits, looking forward to the opening of the Venice Biennale, her tongue as pungent and her heart as generous as ever. That night, in fact, she was the one bearing praises—she laid copious amounts on everyone in the room. The hard part was seeing her have to leave before she could get her cake.
Left: Dakota Sunseri. Right: Artist Patricia Cronin and writer Francine Prose.
Zurich’s annual season kickoff is a three-day marathon of openings distributed throughout the city’s three main gallery districts. But the real highlight is Friday night’s joint venture at the Löwenbräu-Areal on Limmatstrasse, where the Swiss art world converges to wheel new deals. It’s a convenient location, as the bulk of the major galleries and institutions all share the same building, with an additional handful across the street. I began the evening’s jaunt at de Pury & Luxembourg, where Jimmie Durham was showing over thirty objects made over the past eleven years along with his 2002 film The Pursuit of Happiness, starring Anri Sala. One of the new sculptures—a car smashed with a large rock and aptly titled Alpine Substance on Wolfsburg Construction—recalled Maurizio Cattelan’s meteoric tribute to Pope John Paul II, La Nona Ora, crossed with Damián Ortega's VW Beetle. Durham himself hadn’t yet arrived, so I made my way toward the recently opened digs of Lange & Pult, where Lori Hersberger was debuting with his show “Smooth Transition” (perhaps a hopeful description of his move from Bob van Orsouw, just across the street). Next was Terry Rodgers’s Swiss solo debut at Nicola von Senger. What can I say? Baroque, realist paintings of decadent society parties; depictions of crowds of the rich and beautiful, half naked and practically lathered in ennui. It’s art for people who hope to spice up their lives by buying into a lifestyle they themselves can only covet. More substantial fare could be found around the corner at Rachel Khedoori’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. Here, the widow of Jason Rhoades showed several sculptures of abstract, model-size rooms, each inhabited by bits of uncanny matter.
But without a doubt the show that stole the most hearts was Olaf Breuning at the Migros Museum. Breuning has a special quality, one largely endemic to the Swiss, but which few are able to harness with such finesse. Let’s call it the giggle factor. Wandering through the installation of odd, wooden sculptures peppered with handmade candles and mazes of crates decorated with tiny drawings and photographic tableaus made for a tour of comedic genius. As the show progressed, snickering erupted into flat-out laughter, and by the time everyone reached the film Home 2, featuring at one point an actor on a hilariously disturbing voyage in Africa, one could see people wiping the tears from their eyes; in Breuning’s work, humor and pain lie in close proximity. The hero of the day was the film’s protagonist, Brian Kerstetter. Waiting nearby, I witnessed several (female) curators approach him and exclaim euphorically: “I love you . . . in that film!“ “You are so funny!” “You are such a great actor!” etc. “Actually, I’m not an actor,” he replied humbly. “Olaf and I became friends in New York, and I guess we just share the same totally stupid, primitive sense of humor.” Later, Breuning explained, “He is usually rather shy, and a great and sensitive writer.”
Left: Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf with critic and curator Daniel Baumann. Right: Dealer Stefano W. Pult with artist Lori Hersberger.
Downstairs, the traditional summer party in the courtyard was already in full swing. (All the galleries participate, excepting de Pury, which pulled out this year in favor of a private dinner held in its space.) The nice thing about the event is that it is truly democratic—everybody is in the same place, there’s open seating at the wooden beer tables, and a smorgasbord of multiculti fast food is served buffet-style. On the other hand, its major flaw is that it’s truly democratic. “I’m always saying we should do the VIP thing,” grumbled one assistant curator while we waited in line for drinks. Impatient, I zigzagged through the crowd and found entertaining company at a table with Migros director Heike Munder, Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer, dealer Giangi Fonti, and author/columnist Sibylle Berg. Elsewhere, at the Hauser & Wirth table, Mick Flick and Iwan Wirth were engaged in serious conversation; one can only speculate how much the Friedrich Christian Flick collection expanded that night.
Soon enough, I found myself dragged to a bar installed in the building’s freight elevator, where two smooth guys served oysters and vodka shots to an illustrious crowd. “My technicians,” remarked Munder, with a trace of motherly pride. Maybe it was the elevator’s up-and-down, but oysters and vodka don’t sit well in a mostly empty stomach, so I ran off to grab something more substantial. Meanwhile, rumor grew of an “illegal” after-party on the second floor of the warehouse space next door above de Pury. (Funny how the term illegal is always read as code for fun.) Who could resist? The party didn’t precisely match Terry Rodgers’s lurid canvases, but, having already missed the last train home, I hit the dance floor.
Left: (Clockwise from left) Mick Flick and Iwan Wirth with a friend. Right: Simon de Pury, journalist Marc Spiegler, and Michaela Neumeister, senior partner at Phillips de Pury.
Left: Artist Slava Mogutin. Right: Artist Taylor Mac. (All photos: David Velasco)
If you’ve ever endured Mondo New York, the cult classic 1988 video tour of the city’s vitriolic, sometimes sophomoric, downtown performance-art scene, you know that Gotham’s nether regions were once a Grand Guignol of voodoo magicians and painted bedlamites decrying the wounds of abjection and rocketing rents. Those perfunctorily documented dog days, well before gender-bending torch singer Joey Arias became a ringmaster at Cirque de Soleil and Ann Magnuson an actress of some repute on the television series Anything but Love, drew thousands to New York—and probably drove an equal number away.
Though those rocketing rents have since forced many artists from the city, and quality of life is now reflected by one’s proximity to a Whole Foods, it seems that some traditions persist, a fact proved again last Friday when I slouched toward SoHo to watch “Live Patriot Acts 2: Alien Nation—An Immigration Odyssey,” a variety show and fund raiser at Here Arts Center promoting virtuosic troubadour Taylor Mac’s forthcoming full-length performance The Young Ladies of. Mac’s one of those rare, unplaceable talents: part Jack Smith, part Diamanda Galas, with perhaps a twinge of antic club kid Michael Alig (dismembered bodies and all). His face made up with paint and glitter into a shard of gaudy thrift-store faience, he effortlessly assumed the role of ringmaster for this, his zany circus of lost boys and girls.
Minutes after midnight, “female female impersonator” World Famous BOB mounted the stage to kick off the show. She vivaciously mimed a series of air-traffic-control signs—naked—to Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (also known as the title song for 2001: A Space Odyssey). “You know, her breasts weigh twenty pounds!” noted an enthusiastic middle-aged woman to my right. Mac took the stage next, performing a sweet three-minute waltz about Arizona’s minutemen on a ukulele. (“They loiter on the border with their mortar to stop the Mexicans . . .”) Slipping effortlessly between tender storytelling and plangent histrionics, Mac elaborated the evening’s theme: Everyone’s work would focus on immigration—even if it didn’t. “They’re all wonderful and socially active people, but some of them don’t read.”
“Boy-lesque” performer Tigger was up next, marching onstage in a Flash Gordon jumpsuit, sporting enough makeup to make a prostitute blush. He did a surreal striptease to Klaus Nomi’s rendition of Henry Purcell’s baroque classic “The Cold Song.” So far, the evening’s sound track could have been pulled from my grandmother’s record stack. That changed quickly, however, as a now-svelte Scotty the Blue Bunny ran up to do a rap about . . . being a seven-foot-tall gay man in a bunny suit. “Are you the bunny? You’re not the bunny. There’s only one-y. Scotty . . . the Blue . . . Bunny.” It’d be a disservice to reprint the rest of the lyrics here—it’s an experience best served live.
More acts followed, including another—more savage—disrobing by trannie performer Glenn Marla (“Men are from Mars, women from Venus, gays are from Uranus . . . we don’t know where Glenn Marla’s from”) and an “Alien Fashion Show” by Machine Dazzle. It was like the Ziegfeld Follies for the performance arte povera. Not all of it was good, mind you, but that seemed beside the point—such bourgeois delusions as taste having been checked at the door along with BOB and Tigger’s clothes—and it certainly didn’t stop anyone from having fun.
As the evening’s end drew nigh, Mac returned to the stage to admonish those who move to New York expecting to find the same comforts they had at home. “We should establish once and for all that the official first language of New York City is liberal kook.” A sea of wigged heads nodded in agreement. “I believe in preaching to the choir,” he added. “Sometimes the choir needs inspiration.”
Left: Museum Director Trudy C. Kramer with Parrish Trustee and contemporary-art collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann. Right: Exhibition cocurators Merrill Falkenberg and Eric Fischl. (All photos: Geir Magnusson)
“I should keep going, right? I’m hot now!” As I arrived at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton for Saturday evening’s opening of “All the More Real: Portrayals of Intimacy and Empathy,” the exhibition’s cocurators, painter Eric Fischl and the institution’s Merrill Falkenberg, had already embarked on the first of two double-act routines, and Fischl was making the most of his turn. Circled by a rapt crowd of silver-haired supporters, the odd couple were midway through a tag-team tour of the galleries that revealed as much about their personalities as it did about their project: Fischl was avuncular and unhurried, the younger Falkenberg ambitious and efficient. Fischl was an able guide, if not always a tremendously enlightening one (on a Joan Goldin photograph: “She saw in the watermelon some potential to talk about something outside the watermelon”); Falkenberg was clearer but a touch mechanical in comparison, even seeming a little naive at times (on Robert Gober’s Untitled [Candle]: “Everyone recognized it as a phallic symbol except me!”). This was a show concerned largely with representations of the human body—hardly an unfamiliar theme, but one that allowed Fischl and Falkenberg to sneak in a few works that might otherwise have been considered too confrontational for a museum best known for its Fairfield Porter collection.
“I was going to use this occasion to announce my retirement!” In a subsequent discussion between the curators, introduced by director Trudy C. Kramer and staged in an adjoining hall, Fischl got some mileage out of the idea of giving up painting for curating. He was clearly having fun, but a curmudgeonly side emerged soon thereafter in his comment about contemporary art’s purported “removal from human values.” “I have strong feelings and no ideas,” the artist continued. The line sounded well worn but nonetheless made an impression on those present, who either lapped it up or tutted disapprovingly.
Left: Ross Bleckner with Emily Eveleth. Right: Susan Chereskin and Alvin Chereskin, chairman of the Parrish's board of trustees
Fischl’s denouncement of cosmetic surgery as “denying the process of life” also evinced some uncomfortable fidgets, but perhaps more surprising was his abrupt request of Falkenberg: “Can we talk about that 9/11 thing now?” “This was supposed to be a spontaneous discussion,” she responded, appearing to sense a well-laid plan going astray, “but OK.” At this, Fischl launched into a rant about his Tumbling Woman, a bronze sculpture commemorating the World Trade Center attacks that was withdrawn from display at Rockefeller Center in 2002. His ultimate point, that portrayals of bodily vulnerability are difficult but necessary, was sound but derailed the discussion, and Falkenberg seemed to resign herself to this being the Eric Fischl Show.
Out in the garden for drinks, I searched in vain for familiar faces, having spotted the New Museum’s Lisa Phillips in the galleries themselves, but recognized only LAXART curator at large Jeffrey Uslip. Most other attendees seemed to be at least part-time locals, who buttonholed me repeatedly to offer their thoughts on the show, the museum, and the questionable dress sense of their fellow guests (ice-cream pastel fabrics, big hair, and heavy jewelry predominated). Dinner was a casual plein air buffet, and easy conversation with my tablemates, among them exhibiting artists Jeff Hesser, Emily Eveleth, and Cynthia Westwood, perfectly countered the earlier push-and-pull.
Left: Artist Robert Wilson. Right: Artist Mick Reinman and actor Bill Paxton. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)
At last Saturday’s summer benefit for the Watermill Center—the annual Hamptons bash thrown by the institution’s founder, Robert Wilson—art and corporate sponsorship dovetailed with unusual ease, all the way down to the evening’s animal theme: “VOOM Zoo” (a not-so-subtle nod to the HD-TV provider). To that end, arriving guests were greeted by a photo-op alongside artist Andrey Bartenev’s performers, who wore frog costumes bedecked with ads.
Reeds and torches lined the steps leading up to the Watermill’s main hall, through which guests had to pass in order to reach the party. For the evening's high-heeled contingent, walking the path was a task befitting a medieval quest. The floor’s large cobblestones—and indeed, much of the grounds—were a death trap; one guest in stilettos was downed on her way. The normally fearless Marina Abramovic, when asked by DJ Spooky whether she had yet seen his sound-art installation ensconced beyond several grassy tiers, responded, “Oh, all those steps!” then muttered something about crutches.
Of course, the evening’s theme wouldn’t be complete without a dress code, in this case “Wild Chic.” Getups ranged from arts patron Christophe de Menil’s understated snake brooch to AOL executive Tatiana Platt's stunning yellow-feathered concoction of a dress, whose saliency nearly outstripped the giant corporate logos that adorned the mural overlooking the center's plaza.
“This year’s sale will be through the roof,” promised Watermill arts and auction manager Maïa Morgensztern, as she monitored her staff’s last-minute preparations. “This time, we decided to go with hot, edgy art.” Her lush French accent at first made me think she’d said “hot, hedgy art,” which might have been equally apt, given the inclusion of crowd-pleasing pieces by the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Robert Mapplethorpe. Soon, though, the unflappable Morgensztern was called away by an urgent plea: Where’s the fish artist? Alfred Taubman’s asking about the fish.” The reference was to Wonjung Choi’s ichthyological mobiles, which hung in a corner of the tent near Robert Wilson’s video portrait of a panther.
Performances punctuated cocktail hour—here a Taiwanese drum troupe, there a woman sitting covered in red paint, as staged by artist William Pope.L. At last, everyone was called into the dining tent, where guests were greeted by a stunning tableau vivant: the burlesque star Dita von Teese, in pasties and garter belt, perched on a swing hung high from metal rafters. It was a re-creation of the scene in Wilson's video up for auction. As von Teese posed, one collector remarked, “It’s nice, but I wouldn’t put it in my house.”
“Your cars have been shipped to Mexico, to be auctioned off for charity,” joked Wilson, joined onstage by Abramovic. Wilson then spoke about the trick to filming a panther: “The most important thing is you listen, listen like an animal. When we shot this video portrait of the panther in the studio, no one moved. We animals listen.” He ended his speech by imitating the cries of an indeterminate species: “Woa woa woahahah.” His yelps made Lisa Dennison’s opening remarks positively sober in comparison, as she pondered, “Could [the Watermill] become one of the most significant artist colonies of all time?” The stage was then turned over to Bartenev and his cast, who performed an “animal competition” replete with people wearing foam chicken suits and wings.
Left: Actress Julia Stiles with artist Jonathan Cramer. Right: Dita von Teese. (Photos: Tyler Coburn)
While the performers cavorted, auctioneer Simon de Pury kicked off the evening’s sale with VIP tickets to Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland show at the Hollywood Bowl. Next up was a Nan Goldin photograph of model James King. Acknowledging the cognitive dissonance intrinsic to all art auctions, de Pury proclaimed, “The piece is invaluable . . . and we start it at two thousand dollars.” Throughout the evening, de Pury continued his mix of praise, strong-arming, and enthusiasm, saying to one participant, “I love the underbidder, especially when as beautiful as you.”
As the auction continued, I caught up with Dennis Oppenheim and White Box's Martin Liu, sitting near Dennison and Ilya Kabakov. Several seats away was none other than the kindly Bill Paxton (most recently starring as the polygamist patriarch in HBO’s Big Love), who talked a bit about his father’s art collection. Then, as I stared agog at the foam chickens’ antics in the auction ring, Paxton remarked, Zen-like: “Just enjoy it. You don’t have to define it.”
Those impatient for a dance party rushed center stage as soon as de Pury wrapped up, and several of us took a break outside, including Wilson administrator (and rumored Wainwright beau) Jörn Weisbrodt and writer/model (and Ryan Adams beau) Jessica Joffe. Collectors keen on acquiring more art made their way to the silent-auction tent, where a Sol LeWitt aquatint and a photo by Hunter S. Thompson made me dream of buying. In the meantime, Wilson’s crew turned their attention toward the after-party at the “Big House,” though many attendees debated moving on to a nearby Russell Simmons soiree.
So while twenty stalwart guests held down the dance floor, others began trickling off into the night. Artist Cory Arcangel, whose Warhol video game was on display, plotted to clear the dance floor, once and for all, by playing Journey’s power ballad “Don’t Stop Believing.” And had he actually been given permission to DJ? “I’ve reached the point in my career where I get to do anything I want,” he said. “Though it’ll probably only last for a month.”
Left: Artist Andrey Bartenev with performers. Right: Artist Cory Arcangel. (Photos: Tyler Coburn)