On my way to the press conference last Friday afternoon for the opening of the new Museion in Bolzano, Italy, it was abnormally difficult to circumnavigate the drunken men in lederhosen and Alpini hats munching on speck. The local prosciutto is so ubiquitous that I quickly learned in the region’s two principal languages (German and Italian) how to ask for food without it. I would like to think they were celebrating the beautiful new building for the museum of modern and contemporary art overlooking the Talvera River in the city’s center, but in fact they were enjoying the carnivorous bacchanal known as Speckfest.
Past the proud revelers extolling their favorite meat in Piazza Walther, the central square, and farther down the quiet Via Dante, lined with Alpine trees, stood the new, starkly modernist Museion. Workers carrying shovels and boxes hurried about busily. “As you can see, we’re still working, but we’ll be done by 10:59 AM tomorrow—in time for the 11 AM opening,” joked Corinne Diserens, the Museion’s director, halfway through the protracted press conference, which was conducted haltingly in three languages. (German and English seemed to dominate, to the ruffled chagrin of a few Italian journalists.) Diserens was flanked by the president of the Museion, local vintner Alois Lageder, who looked the part of the aging playboy with his yacht tan and inexhaustible good cheer, and one of the building’s three architects, Bertram Vandreike, who sat looking stiff and bureaucratic in his gray suit.
That evening, a bus shuttled a handful of journalists to Lageder’s countryside villa in the shadow of the Dolomites for an ostensibly unofficial concert and dinner. Composer Johannes Maria Staud conducted the jarring and beautiful musical program in what appeared to be an old wine cellar, complete with bowed beams and candles casting spooky shadows along the walls. The one-two punch of Lageder’s wine and the two-hour-plus concert sent more than a few guests into a sort of torpor.
I awoke to the shuffling of the wooden chairs as the crowd flocked to the sushi and more Lageder wine out on the ground-floor terrace, where our host had flown his two favorite Japanese chefs (and a gaggle of traditionally clad female servers) in from Tokyo for the occasion. At the sushi dinner held on the villa’s fourth floor, in candlelit rooms filled with stressed frescoes and gloomy ancient paintings, there was little talk of the Museion. However, a few of the artists present were happy to eulogize Rudolf Stingel as the hometown boy made good, noting his teenage success as a traditional South Tyrolean dancer of the knee-slapping, lederhosen-wearing variety.
The next morning, I rolled out of the creaking cot a local friend had secured for me in the principal’s office of a Catholic school and ran to catch the scheduled walk-through, getting my first glance at the Museion’s collection. Letizia Ragaglia, one of the exhibition’s energetic curators, led a handful of foreign journalists on a twenty-minute jaunt through the exhibition, which, despite its bloodless title (“Peripheral Vision and Collective Body”), appeared thoughtful and complex—if only a tad like an overstuffed strudel. (A Richard Prince joke painting was relegated to high above a doorway, while a Tacita Dean was stuck in the stairwell.) The museum prides itself on being an advocate for alternative positions, and one can roughly trace an experimental history from the early-twentieth-century avant-garde to the present. The collection includes everything from architecture (of which there were few examples, like Yona Friedman and Tatlin’s Tower) to dance and performance (of which there was plenty, from Bruce Nauman to Yvonne Rainer).
Left: Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska's Tilman Treusch and artist Peter Kogler. Right: Explorer Reinhold Messner.
During the tour, Ragaglia stopped to point out a set of carefully arranged metal sheets on the floor made by the lesser-known arte povera artist Emilio Prini, noting the work’s delicacy and recalling how difficult it was to secure for the exhibition. As Ragaglia left to prepare for the opening, a bemused crowd ambled into the Museion. About a half dozen people stomped on the Prini in the five minutes I stood watching it, one woman marching straight across its unpolished surface with nary a look down.
After more briefings from regional officials discussing this year’s Manifesta 7 (which will be based in Bolzano), I set off for an adjoining building, where Portuguese artist Angela Ferreira and curator Jürgen Bock were giving an impromptu talk about her installation, one of many pieces purchased from the last Venice Biennale. Midway through, an Englishman slipped into our circle and began to prod Ferreira with questions about her project involving Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale. (Three prototypes in Africa had been disassembled and sold on the auction block—the last one for around five million dollars.) Ferreira finally teased the name out of the Englishman, who turned out to be Nicholas Logsdail, founder of Lisson Gallery, at which everyone around me seemed to tense up a bit.
After a brief chat with him, he motioned to step away. Shaking my hand, he said, “Pleasure to have met you. I suppose if you’re successful, I’ll see you everywhere, and if you’re not, you’ll disappear.”
Left: Lisson's Nicholas Logsdail and writer Silvia Sgualdini. Right: A view of Lageder's villa.
Left: A still from the monument's film. Right: (From left to right) Bernd Neumann, Germany's minister of culture; Klaus Wowereit, mayor of Berlin; Linda Freimane, representative for the International Lesbian and Gay Association; Günter Dworek, representative for the LSVD; and Albert Eckert, member of the initiative for the memorial. (Photo: Daniel Boese)
Even in the hubbub of Berlin’s political life, such a queer mixture is seldom to be seen: Last Tuesday, the conservative minister of cultural affairs, Bernd Neumann, stood amid hundreds of gay men of all stripes. There were guys in bomber jackets and skinny jeans, in suits and kippahs, in brogues and a bow tie—even one with a neon-red Mohawk. A few lesbians were among the crowd. A special occasion, to be sure, for the culture minister that day had the honor and duty to inaugurate Germany’s national memorial for homosexual victims of National Socialism—a monument, it should be noted, that his party had frequently opposed, as it also does gay marriage. But other high-profile politicians, among them Berlin’s lively mayor (and gay icon), Klaus Wowereit, were on hand.
The memorial sits on the edge of Berlin’s biggest park, Tiergarten, within view of the Brandenburg Gate, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the new, terror-proof American Embassy. It consists of a concrete stele, thirteen feet high, with a small window through which viewer’s can watch a looped video, shot by Robby Müller (Wim Wenders’s cinematographer) and directed by Dogme 95 cofounder Thomas Vinterberg, of two men kissing. The memorial was designed by Elmgreen and Dragset, who submitted their proposal to two consecutive competitions (the first open, the second invite only) and beat out fellow artists like Wolfgang Tillmans for the commission.
The unveiling was not without its tensions. The ministry of culture’s invitations to the unveiling did not depict the kiss, which angered the artists, who voiced their frustration a week earlier in an interview (which, full disclosure, I published in Zitty). “The kiss is central to the memorial,” Michael Elmgreen said. “We would have liked to show it on the invitation. But the minister made clear that this was not desirable.” His partner, Ingar Dragset, added, “So the memorial is more relevant than ever, when the kiss poses a problem even for the minister. Not to show the kiss was his personal decision.” At Tuesday’s ceremony, however, Neumann praised the work, saying, “This memorial is a sign against intolerance. It has sparked important debates and marks Germany’s mature culture of remembrance.” He even praised the video itself, which “directly links the memory of victims with the situation of gays and lesbians today.” But when Neumann approached the stele to be the first person to see the kiss, the artists did not accompany him. Neither did they pose for pictures with the politicians. “Politicians come and go. We stay,” Elmgreen joked from the sidelines.
So why all the fuss? Elmgreen elaborated: “You can grant us homosexuals all rights: marriage, adoption, inheritance. But as long as people are grossed out when they see us kiss, something is missing.” In his frustration, Elmgreen overlooked that it was Neumann who made the memorial possible: A year ago, the minister negotiated an agreement after the artists’ initial proposal had met with criticism. “Women have been forgotten once more,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most notorious feminist and publisher of the magazine Emma. She called Elmgreen and Dragset’s work kitschy and phallic, and her protestations led to many discussions and petitions. With Neumann’s help and blessing, the artists decided to change the video every two years, with an open call for submissions for other depictions of homosexual love.
Mayor Wowereit’s first words were directed toward representatives of the Jewish community and of the Sinti and Roma, reminding the assembled, “There can be no hierarchy of victims.” But this particular memorial has arrived too late, he added. No gay survivors of the concentration camps were present at the ceremony; the last-known survivor, Pierre Seel, died in 2005. Günter Dworek, representative of LSVD, the German lesbian and gay association, read excerpts of Seel’s testimonials. As a seventeen-year-old boy, Seel was arrested in Alsace and tortured by the Gestapo. In a camp he was forced to witness the execution of his boyfriend. All early-summer festivity and political banter came to a halt as Seel related the horrendous details: “Music was playing . . . Wagner and some military tunes. They stripped him and placed a bucket on his head, then let loose the German shepherds, who tore him to pieces in front of our eyes.”
Dworek’s testimony also reminded us that the gay victims were sent back to prison after being liberated from the camps, to serve the remainder of their sentences for committing “homosexual acts.” The Nazi law criminalizing homosexual love remained in place until 1969 in West Germany, and fifty thousand men were sentenced during the four decades it was in place. One of them was at the ceremony; he hassled Wowereit for a picture and an autograph.
Finally, Albert Eckert, who fought for the memorial for sixteen years, performed the dedication: “It is for all the people who find us scandalous and repulsive. If they are bothered by the memorial, all the better!” Neumann watched the video for two minutes.
Later that night, the artists celebrated with friends and Eckert at Basso, a bar in Kreuzberg. The party was laid-back, and one could see immediately why the Danish-Norwegian duo call Berlin’s gay scene the best in the world. Let’s hope that their monument to a traumatic past helps affirm that gay people today no longer have to live up to others’ expectations. And if anyone’s bothered, all the better.
Last Friday afternoon, after a short flight to Granada, I followed a tour through the summer house that Federico García Lorca’s family bought in 1925. Laura García Lorca de los Rios, dressed in tailored black linen, evoked the memory of her uncle by way of a recollection of footsteps on a rocky path—the sound of Lorca and his friends as they would return to the house after an evening in town. The lively group would usually wander back around 2 AM, and Lorca would head straight to his desk to write. He would wake for lunch, then begin writing again as the rest of the house settled into a siesta. The images lingered as Laura plainly explained that we were standing inside the house that the poet was taken from before he was shot, in 1936, shortly after Francisco Franco came to power.
Opened to the public in 1995 as Huerta de San Vicente, the house has played host to a series of musical, theatrical, and literary events, but Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s “Everstill/siempretodavía” (title text and its gothic typeface care of Douglas Gordon) marks the first time the site has housed work by contemporary visual artists. Obrist introduced his project, the latest in his ongoing series of exhibitions presented in homes, as “a kind of laboratorium in which the house is inhabited by artists.” Following shows in the Nietzsche House in 1992, Sir John Soane’s former residence in 1999, and the Luis Barragán House in 2003, the Huerta de San Vicente project is meant, according to its omnipresent curator, to reconnect literature to art: “Contemporary art has so many connections with music, with fashion, with architecture, but with literature, it’s much rarer.”
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Blue Carpet, installed in the wood-floored salon to the left of the house’s front door, provides an antidote to contemporary art’s alleged illiteracy. The artist’s plush indigo carpet, edged by stacks of books by her “reading heroes,” pays tribute not only to Lorca but also to Joseph Conrad, Jean Echenoz, and Tristan Tzara, among others.
Upstairs, in Lorca’s bedroom, Gilbert & George’s In Bed with Lorca, a photograph of the pair lying side by side in the poet’s single bed, hangs above his original desk and typewriter. Somehow the work doesn’t seem to approach Lorca in the same way as Rivane Neuenschwander’s Orange and Lemon alphabet or Bestué and Vives’s charming miniature marionette theater, Story of the Lovelorn Scorpion. So I asked Obrist and Laura what the response to the image, not to mention the show, has been in Spain. “Euphoria!” Obrist cried. And Laura concurred. “We had an incredible response. In Spain, I haven’t seen anything like it since maybe when the Guggenheim in Bilbao opened.” The Spanish media has fully embraced the Gilbert & George image. El País ran the photograph on the front page when the first stage of Everstill/siempretodavía officially opened last fall, and, according to Laura, “literally every person in Spain was talking about the project.”
Shortly after 8 PM, we gathered at the Alhambra Palace Hotel, a grand venue overlooking the historic town center. A buffet of Spanish tapas was set up in the hotel’s glass terrace, where a small crowd gathered for Trisha Donnelly’s performance, part of the exhibition’s live program. I’d heard that Donnelly’s work was to involve the evening’s cocktail, and I asked Isabel García Lorca and Gloria García Lorca, Laura’s sisters, whether they had heard the same. “She wants us to drink,” Isabel concluded. Overall, she said, she admires Obrist’s exhibition: “The sensitivity of the artists is the most outstanding. There’s a generosity about the works that’s very moving.” Writer Frederic Tuten, due to read his story about Lorca as part of the performance program the following afternoon, was happy for the occasion: “When I was coming into the world, writers and artists and poets all knew each other. We all knew each other, and we all went dancing together.”
A little after 9 PM, Donnelly quietly asked individuals to move into the theater. Once inside the darkness of the Alhambra-inspired ballroom, Donnelly directed our attention to a series of images projected onto a screen set up on the stage. “Watch this, not me.” Her performance was in English, while many in the audience were Spanish speakers, so there was audible confusion when the artist spoke about the phenomenon of the double vortex. The murmurs quieted when one viewer stage-whispered a translation. Donnelly then approached her audience with a long braided whip, likening the dynamics of the double vortex to the crack of the tapered rope—a convergence of material, space, and sound. She ultimately signaled the end of her performance by saying, “It’s OK. I thought everyone was coming out for a drink.”
For dinner, a small group walked past the rich rust-colored walls of the Alhambra to La Mimbre. Obrist and Donnelly arrived late to the cozy restaurant, to applause from the assembled guests. Both seemed happy and shared the news that they had convinced the hotel to run the sound and images of Donnelly’s work until a wedding reception the following evening. Sitting down next to me, Obrist and Donnelly revealed a few more details on the performance: The sound in Donnelly’s piece belongs to “11/11/11—the Armistice, the sound of peace.”
As we wandered outside after dinner, artist Marc Vives, one half of Bestué and Vives, told me that he felt that the project in the Lorca house was “very scary.” “In Spain, you grow up with Lorca, you are in awe, and then you are asked to make a work in his house, in his bedroom—it is a big responsibility. For foreigners, it is much easier.” Very soon after that, Donnelly slipped into a taxi, and Obrist excused himself to work on a text. It was almost 2 AM in Granada. Time to start writing.
As people arrived from all over the world to attend the opening weekend of the Reykjavik Arts Festival and participate in Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Olafur Eliasson’s “Experiment Marathon Reykjavik,” the mood resembled a summer camp—albeit one attended by Björk, who was on my flight from London, and the country’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grímsson. Festivities kicked off with receptions at both the president’s residence and at Reykjavik city hall, where mayor Ólafur F. Magnússon spoke with guests. Iceland’s intimate social landscape, along with its intimidating physical landscape, brought the eclectic crowd together, and it seemed that whenever someone was mentioned in conversation, they appeared just around the corner.
The marathon began Friday morning at the Reykjavik Art Museum–Hafnarhús and featured a diverse lineup including artificial-intelligence expert Luc Steels, physicist Thorsteinn Sigfússon, artists Tomas Saraceno and Hreinn Fridfinnsson, and architects Neri Oxman and David Adjaye. The most successful presentations were often the most straightforward. For example, Indian artist Abhishek Hazra plotted a sine curve by laughing and crying into crescendos of hysteria. Another highlight was the touching performance Table Piece One, in which filmmaker Jonas Mekas, his son, Sebastian, and actor-filmmaker Benn Northover ate lunch and made toasts to elves and trolls; the whole thing resembled a hall of mirrors as a giant video of Mekas shushing the audience was projected above while the performance was simulcast on a smaller screen to the side.
That evening Frida Bjork Ingvarsdóttir, culture editor of the daily Morgunbladid, improvised a cozy last-minute dinner at her home, partly in honor of her daughter, Elín Hansdóttir, whose immersive, mazelike installation was featured in the exhibition “Art Against Architecture” opening later that night at the National Gallery of Iceland. Arriving with Obrist and Eliasson, our posse was soon followed by Rebecca Solnit, writer-in-residence at the Library of Water in Stykkishólmur, as well as marathon participants John Brockman, Marina Abramovic, and Carolee Schneemann. On hearing the song “Sveitin Milli Sanda” (The Land Between the Sands), performed by Ellý Vilhjálms in the late 1950s, Abramovic proclaimed that she would use it in her performance the next day.
Later, at the National Gallery, guests lounged and swung on Monica Bonvicini’s leather and chain hammocks. Finnbogi Pétursson’s calming poetic installation used magnifiers to project quivering flames on four walls, while outside in the Tjörnin pond, the evocative Atlantis, a sunken little red house by Tea Mäkipää and Halldór Úlfarsson, squared architecture against nature—and the winner seemed clear.
Afterward, collector Ingunn Wernersdóttir led us to the gritty Hressingarskálinn restaurant, where we were serenaded by a deadpan Icelandic duo’s stiff renditions of classic rock tunes. Between bites of City’s Best hot dogs, designer Gudrun Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir informed me that in Reykjavik, it’s not unusual to wander into places at random, following the common philosophy that “it is about the journey, not the destination.” Putting that into practice, we later stumbled into a party sponsored by I8 gallery in honor of Ernesto Neto’s exhibition, where we again spotted Björk and reeled to the live music while balancing bags of greasy fish and chips.
On Saturday, our troupe flew northward by propeller plane to Akureyri (pop. 17,300), the country’s second-largest city. President Grímsson sat in the first row reading his newspaper while his Israeli-born wife, Dorrit Moussaieff, recommended her favorite Icelandic fashion designers. Arriving in the city at midday, we visited the exhibition “Facing China” at the Akureyri Art Museum, then moved on to the lovely Safnasafnid folk-art museum, where contemporary installations by “outsider” artists were juxtaposed with traditional cultural artifacts. From there, we flew on to Egilsstadir, making our way to the Eidar Art Center, where we were greeted by young dancers running about and posing in the grass, then hiked through the mud to Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades’s 2004 installation of a Macy’s in the middle of a field.
After a visit to the Slaughterhouse Culture Centre, we drove through the snow-covered peaks above Lake Lagarfljót, haunted by the legendary Worm monster, to Seydisfjördur, the small-town home of the Skaftfell Centre for Visual Art, founded in memory of former resident Dieter Roth. After being greeted at the door with handshakes and hugs from Gudni Gunnarsson and Lieven Dousselaere of the art collective Skyr Lee Bob, we gawked as dancer Erna Omarsdóttir growled, twitched, and scratched at the walls from within a glass room. Outside, Pétur Kristjánsson used his tractor to “Paint by Numbers,” lining up milk cartons containing various liquid foods on the pavement and running them over to create a splatter pattern, eventually moving on to crushing vacuum cleaners while children danced on the sidelines. “Welcome to Iceland,” a local resident commented.
Bringing together art and science, the experiment marathon seemed like an inspirational DIY manual for life itself. Describing reality as a nonlinear process of input and output in which we ourselves are the instruments, Brockman noted, “You are not creating the world, you are inventing it.” In “Laughing at Leonardo,” filmmaker-composer Tony Conrad made a sort of Vitruvian Man joke using his own body as a stringed musical instrument. Brian Eno led the audience in a sing-along of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and proposed choral singing as the key to civilization: “In a group you stop being me and start being us. I encourage you all to start your own a cappella group and change the world.” He added, “The three keys to happiness and a healthy old age are dancing, singing, and camping.”
In the end, the marathon also demonstrated that experiments can be most interesting when they fail, as when a curious collaboration between Abramovic and Dr. Ruth Westheimer was canceled due to a blowout between the two personalities. After screening a video explaining how she had been rejected by the elderly sex adviser, Abramovic led the audience in breathing exercises, then instructed everyone to hug each other. Hugs may do it for some, but it wasn’t until Sunday night’s closing party at the Blue Lagoon that our group came upon the true secret to Iceland’s famously high happiness rate: relaxing in a volcanic hot pool under the midnight sun.
Process art was alive and kicking last Sunday, when Regen Projects in Los Angeles had no trouble persuading over six hundred art-worlders to a baking-hot spot an hour south of town to be extras in the filming of Ren, the first of a series of unique performances to be staged by Matthew Barney and his longtime collaborator, composer Jonathan Bepler. A funeral rite with an origin-of-the-world soul, the work is based on Ancient Evenings, a book by Barney hero Norman Mailer that riffs on the seven stages of the afterlife as imagined by the ancient Egyptians. Mailer took a trip down the Nile. Barney chose to turn a former RV sales lot just off the I-5 into an eerily authentic Chrysler dealership complete with bunting, balloons, a hundred new Chargers, Rams, and Sebrings bearing “Ren 5-Star Chrysler” stickers, and a convincingly coiffed sales force of a half-dozen suited men who nonetheless had a hard time finding buyers. “There aren’t any Hemis,” explained artist attendee Billy Sullivan, easily slipping into unscripted character.
On the roof of the building, three mobile snack trucks parked in a semicircle on the roof of the building sold water and energy drinks to the friends from the Left and Right coasts. Most would have preferred something harder. Aside from Barney reps Barbara Gladstone, Shaun Caley Regen, and Sadie Coles, the crowd included artists Mike Kelley, Shannon Ebner, Raymond Pettibon, Doug Aitken, Amy Adler, and Jack Pierson, dealers Jose Freire and Tim Blum, LACMA director Michael Govan, and curators Paul Schimmel, Ali Subotnick, Clarissa Dalrymple, and Klaus Kertess. (Collectors were conspicuously absent.)
Those expecting entertainment were destined for disappointment. For the ninety minutes it took Barney’s cast and crew of 140 to position themselves for what turned out to be the equivalent of shooting a feature-length, multicamera film shot in one amazingly well-coordinated, continuous take, more tolerant veterans of the avant-garde expertly occupied themselves by doing what they know best: schmoozing. “I hear we're going to see locusts and bison,” one woman said. “We can always leave early,” someone else chimed in. This amounted to an idle threat.
The performance officially began at 6:40 PM, when a drum-and-bugle corps approached the car lot from surrounding roads and sprinted up the ramp to the roof, playing Bepler's percussive music. With the audience lined up on either side, the trucks parted to reveal a lime-green 1967 Chrysler Imperial with a Barney seal (both familiar from Cremaster 3) on the hood and a large, eggshell-white orb covered in dirt and roots on the back, chained to a smashed-up Port-a-San. Cremaster 3 star Aimee Mullins, who plays The Entered Novitiate, was interred on the roof, under a mound of rock salt and Idaho potatoes.
Though just a hop and a skip from the freeway, we were now deep in Barneyland—a landscape of the risible and the awesome. A salesman-actor appeared to intone a nearly unintelligible monologue involving piss, feces, mud, gas, and other typical Mailerisms, like “Isn't time itself born in shit?” Led by the musicians, a thick complement of burly men accompanying the car began to pull it down the ramp like Volga Boatmen, while all six hundred of us followed them into the showroom below. This took about an hour. No one bailed.
The two-story showroom had double-paned glass on three sides; parked in its center was a gold Pontiac Firebird with its windows blacked out. Interspersed among the spectators, the musicians carried on while the Pontiac drove out and was replaced by the Chrylser. From under the hood came plumes of smoke, cuing the great Oaxacan singer Lila Downs to appear with a mariachi band on the balcony above to perform a haunting dirge. When they were done, the salesmen thanked us for our “business” and asked us to leave so they could clear the smoke. (Mullins was also carried out.)
As a nearly full moon rose above, an interior garage door opened and out came a front loader with a big steel wheel attached to its crane. Six hundred noses pressed against the windowpanes, only to be repelled by the smack of debris thrown by the carnal wheel as the machine tore at the car like a mad, lustful dog humping and grinding its prey. It took about thirty minutes to exhaust itself in the most erotic machine-sex act in recent memory.
Of course, any live performance comes with risks. The front loader’s passion shattered a pane of the exterior glass, which caused three people to suffer minor injuries and firemen and EMS technicians to make an unexpected (if necessary) appearance. The accident temporarily delayed our steady descent into a “tomb,” actually a garage of football-field length. There, the Firebird, now bearing Mullins, was parked between two long rows of Chryslers in need of service. Mouse, the British performance artist, was standing naked at the center, leaning on one of Barney's signature white resin canes and holding a white snorkel-like thing that was sticking out of her vagina.
I found myself standing next to Paul McCarthy, an artist who has played with his share of simulated bodily effluents. He watched, fascinated, as Lila Downs reappeared to sing another dirge, a cappella, and one of the dealership's “mechanics” reached up between Mouse's legs to draw out a long piece of black plastic turd. With majestic patience, the mechanic and his cohorts slowly unfolded it into a large shroud that they placed over Mullins—and the performance ended in a blackout.
Because this was only one of seven distinct performances that, a few years from now, may cohere into a single vision, it felt too soon to judge the whole as anything but a mystery wrapped around a particularly sociable enigma. All the same, I asked McCarthy where this stood on his performance meter. “I haven't any idea!” he said, shaking his head. “I think I was standing in the wrong spot.” I recalled John Cage's aphorism—that everyone is always in the best seat. “That's right,” McCarthy said. “All you have to do is pay attention.”
His words were still ringing in my ears when I arrived at a dive karaoke bar called Bobo's Cocktail Lounge for the afterparty, feeling less than alert. After all those hours in Barney's “cauldron of emotion,” to borrow a phrase from Ren, I eagerly joined the hundred ravenous people who were lunging, like Barney's sex-crazed Terminator, for the free drinks and take-out chicken, ceviche, guacamole, and chips laid out on picnic tables out back, opposite a supermarket parking lot. The artist himself arrived late, with a smiling but pale Mullins, who had fainted when the crew took her down from her automotive pyre. Barney was ebullient, relieved that most of the accidents had been lucky. “There's a lot of new faces in here,” observed a karaoke singer, one of Bobo’s regulars. “It must be someone's birthday."
Is any genre more despicable, more dependably hollow, than the rock documentary? The avalanche of peripheral figures; the unflagging unanimity of praise; the dull, paradoxical insistence that “you had to be there” (if we had to be there, why watch now?); the turgid arc, from humble beginnings to sound-barrier-shattering innovation; the undistinguished archival footage, presented onscreen like an unveiling of the Dead Sea Scrolls?
So all credit to Matt Wolf, whose documentary on the downtown cellist and disco auteur Arthur Russell, Wild Combination—which had its raucous New York premiere at the Kitchen last Thursday—turns out to be one of the genre’s few incandescent exceptions to the rule. Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992, is hardly an easy subject, but his story begs recounting. Its archetypal reach—a young, acne-scarred teenager leaves behind the bullies in his native Oskaloosa, Iowa, cello in hand, for a Buddhist commune in the orbit of Haight-Ashbury, before arriving in New York and being adopted by everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Philip Glass—seems familiar, but Wolf's film reveals Russell to be anything but typical.
A genuine obscurantist, even when making the disco hits (as Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, and Indian Ocean) that underwrote most of his varied and abstruse career, Russell left behind thousands of hours of recorded material and scant documentation of any other kind. Wolf stitched together his portrait from a handful of VHS tapes provided by Russell’s longtime partner, Tom Lee; interviews with a few select friends and family; and his own impressionistic takes (Iowa cornfields, the wake of the Staten Island Ferry) on the artist. The result is an intuitive, remarkably personal love letter—to Russell, to Russell’s enduring and happy relationship with Lee, and to Russell’s parents, whose understanding of their difficult child is given equal weight alongside the musician’s own unnerving achievements.
As Wolf pointed out before the screening, the documentary was particularly suited to its locale: In the ’70s, Russell was the Kitchen’s music director. It was not uncommon to find him there, alone, playing Bach to an empty room, or, as shown in some grainy footage included in Wild Combination, an eerily circular and incantatory composition about an unloved dog to a room half-full of mystified observers. The Modern Lovers’ Ernie Brooks, a longtime collaborator who is featured in the film, ruefully noted afterward that there were “five to six times the number of people” in attendance for Wolf’s homage to Russell “than were ever at his shows.” To see what little footage Wolf includes is to understand why: Russell sits uncomfortably on a metal chair, or stands indifferently with his cello, his voice cracking and going in and out, his instrument crackling with distortion behind him, simultaneously self-conscious and disconcertingly unreserved. “Who knows what this guy is up to,” reads a Warner Bros. memo dated 1979 and featured in the film. “You figure it out.”
The next two nights of the Kitchen’s “Let’s Go Swimming: A Tribute to Arthur Russell,” were an attempt at just that. Friday saw an ensemble performance of Russell’s album Tower of Meaning, originally conducted by the radical pianist-composer Julius Eastman and played by a loosely organized coterie of young disciples. Saturday was devoted to interpretations of Russell’s songs and to “The Singing Tractors,” an open-structure composition directed by Russell’s longtime collaborator and friend the trombonist Peter Zummo. Worn out by the intensity of Wild Combination’s raw peek into Russell’s work, I skipped Friday but returned Saturday to see his old friends—Brooks, Zummo, and the percussionist Bill Ruyle—pay their respects.
Nat Baldwin, a fit twenty-eight-year-old bassist sharply reminiscent of Russell (if, say, Russell had played a bit more basketball), began the night with the composer’s “A Little Lost,” brought back to the light with Soul Jazz’s 2004 reissue The World of Arthur Russell—the record that also sparked Wolf’s productive obsession with the artist. The Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates, the Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb, and New York avant-gardists Nick Hallett and Alex Waterman then took turns with Russell’s material. Wolf’s act had been a kind of magic trick, a vivid conjuring of the absent artist; the tributes were more melancholy, their remove suggesting the finality of Russell’s departure. A ragged, noisy, seven-person take on “The Singing Tractors” (“The situation was often confused, but the notation is extremely elegant,” noted Zummo’s wry liner note) brought him back, a bit. It was anarchy, but anarchy always was Russell’s mode.
Left: Musician Nat Baldwin. (Photo: Dawn Chan) Right: Photo of Arthur Russell by Chuck Russell. (Courtesy Audika Records)
Left: Artist Takashi Murkami. Right: Dealers David Nash and Robert Mnuchin. (All photos: David Velasco)
A few decades ago, people spoke of the shock of the new. On Wednesday night, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale was all about the incredible wealth of the few. The auction, which totaled $362 million, was the biggest in the company’s history. Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s chief auctioneer, said the sale was the result of “global hunger” on the part of “global individuals” who “live everywhere.”
Facing eighty-three lots, Meyer began by speed-reading the rules. The first few works flew off the block with remarkable efficiency, but it wasn’t until Lot 9, Takashi Murakami’s naked and fully erect My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998, that mouths began to drop. Word had it that dealer Marianne Boesky had consigned the work and that, some time ago, Meyer himself had almost bought the seminal sculpture. (Meyer told me that he'd decided against it because his mother was coming to visit.) The crowd delighted in a virile volley of bids between Philippe Ségalot on the aisle and Sotheby’s Alexander Rotter, who was on the phone with someone who many suspected was Steve Cohen but others thought might be Viktor Pinchuk (although the Ukrainian billionaire usually has a dealer like Larry Gagosian or Jay Jopling bid for him in the room). Eventually, Rotter’s client won the sculpture for $15.2 million, nearly four times its $4 million high estimate. Even Murakami, who was sitting at the back of the room with artist Chiho Aoshima, was wide-eyed with amazement.
The next battle was for Yves Klein’s shimmering, gold-leaf MG9, circa 1962, the first of twenty-one lots consigned from the collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs, which had been on long-term loan to the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld. Mrs. Lauffs (Walther died in 1981) had sold 155 stellar connoisseur’s pieces, including a fantastic Bruce Nauman, a Cy Twombly, and a Lee Bontecou, to David Zwirner and Iwan Wirth and consigned about 150 equally credible but slightly flashier works to Sotheby’s.
Some fantasized quaintly that the bidding on MG9 was a style war between French luxury-goods rivals François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, as Ségalot (Pinault’s main consultant) bid against Gregoire Billault, Sotheby’s Paris rep, who could have been on the line to Arnault, a known Klein supporter. The canvas carried an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, but the bidding increased to an engorged $23.6 million, the price at which the gloriously outsize bullion sold to Ségalot.
Left: Art adviser Sandy Heller. Center: Dealers Rachel Lehmann, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, and Emmanuel Perrotin. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling.
The six Lauffs daughters sat in a row at the window of a large skybox and watched another Klein (a signature IKB), a folded white Piero Manzoni canvas, a copper Carl Andre floor piece, a much-admired cadmium-red Donald Judd, and a set of four Warhol boxes, among other artworks, command high and often record prices. By the end of the evening, the Lauffs lots had brought in $96 million, double their low estimate, but as my press-pack colleague Walter Robinson observed, “They look bored up there. Do you think they’re knitting?”
The next breath-holding episode in this pecuniary pageant was Lot 33, Francis Bacon’s allegorical Triptych, 1976, a complex picture whose central panel depicts a black bird of prey devouring the innards of a headless human figure. Despite the challenging subject matter, the bidding started at $60 million. Three telephone bidders took it up to $67 million, then one dropped out, and a client on the phone to Sotheby’s London-based Oliver Barker and another on the line with Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, knocked it back and forth in million-dollar increments.
At $76 million, the bidding stalled. Meyer, who seemed to be having fun, cajoled Wong’s bidder by saying, “Look at it in euros, it’s cheaper,” then, “Be brave,” and finally, “I can feel one more.” When Wong’s client split the bid and offered only half a million more, Meyer replied gallantly, “$76.5 million, of course.” Then Barker’s bidder offered $77 million, and Wong was back into protracted negotiations with her caller, who declined to go higher. “Are you sure, Patti? What if I beg?” asked Meyer. The hammer finally came down and set a worldwide record price not just for Bacon but for any postwar work of art. The final figure with buyer’s premium was a massive $86.3 million. Gerard Faggionato, a dealer who represents the Bacon estate, told me there are twenty-eight major triptychs, but only eight or nine in private hands. Appreciative of the landmark price, he said, “It gives me confidence in the value of art!”
But who bought and underbid the work? Why would Meyer evoke euros if Wong’s client came from the region in which she is chairwoman? The bids were so slow, one got the feeling that Wong might be on the end of a chain of phone calls. With regard to Barker’s collector, the auction house admitted he was “European private.” Rumors were circulating that the intellectual Bacon went to London but was not bought by Damien Hirst. The tall, dashing Barker explained, “Of the group of postwar artists who are ordained by the market, Bacon is the only non-American. The market clearly understands that he is a groundbreaking artist. A year ago, we sold the Rockefeller Rothko. Now, in a completely different financial climate, we have shattered that price.” Indeed, that Rothko went to Qatar, and the power axes of the art world continue to shift.
One very American and less successful part of the sale involved the lots consigned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant, who is said to have eked guarantees worth $70 million to $80 million out of the auction house. In the age of the Internet, it is hard to believe the official line that Brant was “raising money to buy another paper mill,” and some suggested that he was seeking cash to pay for his rumored half of Larry Gagosian’s $200 million purchase of Warhols from the Sonnabend estate.
Absolutely everyone describes Brant as extremely shrewd, but Perry Rubenstein waxed most lyric: “Peter is a genius. His level of connoisseurship is above and beyond. His sophistication allows him to sell these things without compromising his collection.” Indeed, looking at the lots, which did not fare well, one would assume he was better off without them. Dealer Jose Mugrabi ended up buying Warhol’s vast Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times), 1986, for $9.5 million, while Gagosian got lumbered with Jeff Koons’s Caterpillar Chains for $5.9 million.
When the hammer came down on the final lot (Yoshitomo Nara’s Light My Fire, which was picked up by Murakami for $1.2 million), eight works of art had sold for more than $10 million and fourteen for over $5 million. There were loads of highs. The late Robert Rauschenberg’s homage to lower Manhattan, Overdrive, 1963, commanded $14.6 million, a new record for the artist. And a few lows. Rothko’s limpid Orange, Red, Yellow, 1956, which was owned entirely or in part by Sotheby’s, was “bought in,” i.e., didn’t sell, at $33 million. Sotheby’s staff seemed relieved and happy. As Francis Outred, a London-based specialist, quipped, “The art-market boom has only just begun!”
Left: Trader Liam Culman with art dealer Marianne Boesky. Right: Sotheby's Alexander Rotter, Tobias Meyer, and Anthony Grant.
Left: Collector François Pinault. Center: Giancarlo Giammetti with designer Valentino. Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian. (All photos: David Velasco)
What happens to the art market when other financial markets are suffering a grim credit crunch and liquidity crisis? It experiences an unexpectedly high volume of rich and varied gossip. Whisper campaigns about who is guaranteeing what for more than the high estimate, apprehensive speculation about foreigners’ taste in art, and fractious squabbles about the quality of competing “masterworks” by the same artist punctuated the days leading up to Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Tuesday night. Against this background, the Christie’s team was methodically peddling forty-three paintings, eight sculptures, two works on paper, an installation by Mike Kelley, and a house designed by cult modernist architect Richard Neutra. They called it “a smarter, tighter, sober sale, which accurately reads the market.”
The auction began sluggishly but then started to ascend when Lot 11, Tom Wesselmann’s erotically charged Smoker #9, 1973, sold for $6.8 million, a world auction record for the artist. Next up was Andy Warhol’s black and beige Double Marlon, 1966. Peter Simon, the British-based owner of fashion retailer Monsoon, was selling, and David Martinez, the Mexican megacollector, was said to have guaranteed. The auction house had thrown an over-the-top party meant to “bring the cultural history of the painting to life” at the Soho Grand Hotel. Evidently, the marketing hoo-haw paid off. After a ping-pong of telephone bids taken by Christie’s Brett Gorvy and Ken Yeh, the work sold for $32.5 million.
Next up was Richard Prince’s gory Man-Crazy Nurse #2, 2002, which was being sold by Douglas Cramer, the producer of the television series Dynasty. Ever since art-industry newsletter the Baer Faxt made the pithy announcement that “Richard Prince is working independently,” the rumor mill has been in the kind of overdrive that would befit the 1980s-era soap. Some say Prince sold paintings out of his Guggenheim show directly to billionaire Ukrainian collector Viktor Pinchuk. Others say Larry Gagosian took a commission on the deal. A dealer colleague of Barbara Gladstone, Prince’s gallerist since 1988, said, “His lack of loyalty is less than appealing.” Indeed, word has it that Gagosian Gallery has lined up an exhibition in Rome. Although the gallery would not confirm that Prince had joined the roster, one of its senior directors was willing to assert, “Unlike other artists whose markets are ahead of their reputations, Prince has earned his market and will sustain it. A new gallery with a new tier of collectors can take an artist up an echelon. The Gagosian empire competes more with the auction houses than with the galleries.” Needless to say, a world auction record for the artist was set when dealer Christophe Van de Weghe bought the Prince painting for $7.4 million.
Left: Dealers David Zwirner and Philippe Ségalot. Right: Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995.
From there, the auction mostly glided along, with auctioneer Christopher Burge conducting the momentum like a maestro. The bidding on Lot 22, Adolph Gottlieb’s Cool Blast, 1960, ended with a genuine burst of applause. Robert Manley, head of the evening sale, described the painting of a red orb above a black blast, as “a perfect-storm picture, similar in size and color to one in MoMA,” and the lot had the additional support of a Gottlieb solo show at PaceWildenstein on Fifty-seventh Street. The iconic picture sold for $6.5 million, almost quintupling the urbane Abstract Expressionist’s previous auction record.
Next up was Mark Rothko’s red and yellow No. 15 from 1952, described by Christie’s Brett Gorvy as a “rare wow painting, with glorious color relationships and an ideal scale, offering both monumentality and an intimate exchange.” Like the Gottlieb, it was put up by top-tier California collector Roger Evans and, after a well-mannered volley of bids, sold for $50.4 million to Andreas Rumbler, head of Christie’s Germany, suggesting the lot went to Europe, perhaps even to a Russian with a taste for happy abstraction.
When Warhol’s 1978 Oxidation Painting, Lot 25, hit the block, I was treated to some minor comic relief. In the back row, I overheard an endearing conversation between two upscale Beavis and Butt-heads.
“That’s a Warhol, you know,” said one gentleman to the other.
“No, it’s not!” said the other.
“Yes, seriously, they call it a ‘piss painting,’” the first one snickered.
“No!” replied his incredulous friend.
The work, whose materials are described as “copper metallic pigment and urine on canvas,” sold for a wholesome $1.9 million.
Left: Collector Peter Simon. Center: Collectors Jacqueline and Irving Blum with art adviser Mark Fletcher. Right: Auctioneer Christopher Burge.
Everyone took a deep breath when Lot 37, Lucian Freud’s large-scale Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, appeared on the revolving turntable, if only because it was a miracle that Christie’s art handlers had managed to get the big girl on there. The chunky nude, a modern-day Rubens/Renoir, was perhaps too visceral to be “commercial,” but the bidding started at $20 million and someone on the phone with Gorvy took it for $30 million ($33.6 million with buyer’s premium), the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Lucian, the grandson of Sigmund, is eighty-five years old. A respectful round of applause ensued.
At Lot 42, Burge said, “A slight change of pace, ladies and gentleman,” then introduced Kathleen Coumou from Christie’s Realty International, who announced Neutra’s five bedroom, five-and-a-half bathroom Kaufmann House, 1946–47. Earlier in the day, she had explained that “putting the house in the evening sale was a competitive part of our pitch to the consignor. We’re presenting it as an art object, which has never been done in quite this way before.” She added that they’d received positive responses from “people who collect significant properties,” as well as from international buyers who usually purchase in Manhattan or Palm Beach but were considering Palm Springs. The house sold for its low estimate: $15 million hammer.
In the end, the auction totaled $348 million, the second-highest total ever, with 95 percent of lots sold. Only three works, including Roy Lichtenstein’s Ball of Twine, 1963, failed to sell. Moreover, eight world records were set. Toward the end of the press conference, I congratulated Marc Porter, president of Christie’s Americas, on the tremendous price achieved by Freud’s thought-provoking fat lady. He smiled and said, “Yes, the painting makes you go home and look at your own body. On that note, I think I’ll be off now!”
Left: Christie's Robert Manley, Laura Paulson, Amy Cappellazzo, and Brett Gorvy. Right: Collector Douglas Cramer with writer Joyce Haber.
People tend to use the word transformative to distinguish art from anything that isn’t. In art itself, after all, it’s not always easy to tell. That’s a good thing. Art needs ambiguity. Yet it was another, even more evangelical term that kept popping up during the tony events scheduled around New York’s spring modern and Impressionist auctions last week, when that roving band of tragedy and privilege called the art world threatened not just to transform but to “redeem” itself from all that falls at its feet.
Thursday night, PaceWildenstein saved face at the somewhat compromised opening of Zhang Huan’s exhibition, which was divided between the gallery’s two Chelsea venues. At the Twenty-fifth Street location, the Chinese art star had installed a furry, brown, and pregnant fifteen-foot-tall simianlike figure (apparently a surrogate for China) with a smaller cub (apparently a surrogate for the artist) portraying the monkey on its back. There seemed to be blood on it. The Twenty-second Street space, to which I traveled in one of the pedicabs supplied by the gallery, had an even more colossal, five-by-twenty-foot gray slab made of Zhang’s medium of choice: compressed incense ash collected from temples all over China. I had initially assumed the firemen on the street were part of the show, but the sweet smell of smoke soon made it clear that something was actually burning inside—incense, of course, but enough of it to set off alarms. Unfortunately, among the restive crowd of swells impatiently waiting at the door, there were no altercations, only exhalations of hushed reverence once the fire chief was satisfied that the building was not burning down and no terrorist had planted a bomb. A VIP line quickly formed at a side door for collectors, who were admitted ahead of the hoi polloi and who viewed the slab from a catwalk built high above it.
What they saw was a young seated woman sliding along a track and dipping a brush into pots of dark or light ash, with which she was reproducing the vintage black-and-white photo, depicting Chinese workers digging a miles-wide canal, that she held in her hand. The work was quite beautiful and hugely ambitious, but it also seemed nauseatingly patriotic, a paean to Maoist socialism. Or perhaps it was just an overstated appreciation of exploited laborers everywhere. In any case, something—perhaps even the heavily incense-scented air—made me queasy, so I hied over to Sperone Westwater, where Tom Sachs had reconstructed the usually dour gallery into a series of theatrically lit, museumlike rooms displaying his latest foamcore, Con Ed–barricade, and burned-wood creations for “Animals,” his best show in years.
I heard more than one person say it would “redeem” Sachs from his pandering to socialites and launch him into the serious art stratosphere. His prices would soar, they said. Women would fall at his feet. Grown men would grow weak in the knees when he appeared. Yet when a rather dazed Sachs showed up later the same evening at Lever House for the socialite-heavy dinner and dance party that collectors Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabe and dealers Thaddaeus Ropac, Richard Edwards, Angela Westwater, and Gian Enzo Sperone threw for him, all he could say was, “Malcolm McClaren is spinning in the other room!” But McClaren, dressed in dark glasses and a cropped gray jacket, was taking a break. “I can’t believe they expect me to follow a wedding band!” he moaned, speaking of the lounge act that was playing in a bar off the lobby.
In fact, most of the 750 Rockefellers, Boardmans, Gugelmans, Gubelmanns, Guinnesses, Loebs, and other Park Avenue princes and princesses stayed in the Lever House plaza, shielded from the street by realistic-looking plastic privet hedges. Buffeted by the likes of John McEnroe, Peter Brant and Stephanie Seymour, Larry Gagosian, Adam Lindemann, and “Johnny” (Jean) Pigozzi, they bent elbows with equally royal downtown bohos like Philip Taaffe, Donald Baechler, Laurie Simmons, Glenn O’Brien, Will Cotton, the Starn Twins, and Hope Atherton. On view, in what Mugrabe told me was a two-million-dollar exhibition, were DieHard-car-battery towers and a bronze skateboarding quarter-pipe in the lobby and Sachs’s signature Hello Kitty sculptures, here redeemed from duct-tape limbo and reproduced, in white-painted bronze, at a sensibly monumental twenty-one feet in height. One rescued the plaza from the sin of Damien Hirst’s monstrous Virgin Mother, which had been removed to make room. The other two, including a weeping Miffy rabbit, were pissing outdoor fountains.
The only time the waters actually parted, however, was when a suitably bronzed Valentino entered with his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, after which they were swallowed by the crowd. Did Valentino own any work by Sachs? “We commissioned a shopping bag a few years ago,” Giammetti said, sounding a bit sheepish. “Perhaps soon we will get an actual piece.”
Left: Dealer Angela Westwater with Samantha Boardman. (Photo: Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan) Right: Dealer Marc Glimcher with a fireman. (Photo: Jason Augustine/Patrick McMullan)
Many of the Lever House guests—along with Lou Reed, Richard Belzer, Elizabeth Peyton, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—showed up the next night at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery for the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” A collaboration between dealer Gavin Brown and artist Urs Fischer, the show was pulled together in just three weeks. Fischer had covered the entire gallery with a startlingly realistic trompe l’oeil wallpaper reproducing the walls, ceiling, ceiling fixtures, and works on view in Shafrazi's most recent group exhibition. For his part, Brown had the floors covered in a white Rudolf Stingel carpet, gathered two dozen actual artworks (formerly in Shafrazi's inventory), hung them on Fischer's wallpaper (versions of which are for sale, made to suit each customer's home or office).
It's the zingiest and most perceptively organized group show so far this year and has the best poster ever: a 1974 tabloid photo of New York's Finest leading a handcuffed, almost unrecognizably young Shafrazi away from the Museum of Modern Art, where he had just sprayed Picasso’s Guernica with the phrase KILL LIES ALL in red paint.
This gesture, though performed as a Vietnam War protest, proved far more effective as an act of self-promotion, apparently qualifying the perp for a storied career in art dealing, while compelling the museum to return the painting to Spain. Some critics have never forgiven him—but this was redemption week, after all, and Shafrazi, whose fame has been somewhat waning, was poised to benefit—and he knew it. His excitement was palpable as he led visitors through the show, encouraging men to drink from Rob Pruitt's site-specific “Viagra Falls” installation along the staircase, shaking his head at the thirteen thousand dollars it cost to ship paintings like Malcolm Morley’s Age of Catastrope from the Broad Foundation, waxing lyrical over Fischer’s Richard Serra wallpaper in the hall, and giddily pointing out the fine points of a room in which Jeff Koons’s polychromed wood Wall Relief with Bird hung over Kenny Scharf wallpaper on a brick wall I didn’t realize was not there until I reached out and found it to be more wallpaper. “It's not often you get to paint over another artist's work,” said Lily van der Stokker of the hot-pink cave she painted around Fischer's Scharf wallpaper in another room.
“Tony’s back!” someone said, as everyone who wasn’t going to the Bowery Hotel, where Luhring Augustine was holding a grown-up dinner for Christopher Wool, jumped into limos headed for the Tribeca Mr. Chow’s and a Peking-duck–and-champagne birthday party for Shafrazi. When it came time for dessert, the reveling Brown stood up on a chair to give a toast. “Growing up in the suburbs of Europe,” he began, “we heard all about Tony Shafrazi.” He called the evening “a dream come true,” told Shafrazi that his guilt was now assuaged and that he was “redeemed,” and presented him with a large cake decorated with a blue-icing facsimile of Guernica. The crowd, which now included Irving Blum, Simon de Pury, Massimiliano Gioni, Andrew and Christine Hall, Anton Kern, Clarissa Dalrymple, and Adam McEwen, hooted and hollered as the cake was wheeled around the room on a gurney and two busty babes clad in leather, cleavage-enhancing motorcycle-cop gear handed Shafrazi a pastry bag containing hot-pink icing and left it to him to vandalize his own cake with the graffito I AM SORRY—NOT. Jerry Saltz, a longtime unbeliever in Shafrazi, anointed the moment “historic.”
A hard act to follow, though Lisa Dennison gave it her all on Saturday night, with a sophisticated and delicious family-style dinner (catered by Craft) for Cindy Sherman at Sotheby's, which is offering her Untitled (A, B, C, D, E), 1975, a five-part work estimated to bring sixty to eighty thousand in its afternoon sale on Thursday. The second of two artist dinners Dennison organized to promote a sale since leaving the Guggenheim for the auction house (the first featured Ellsworth Kelly), it brought out a crowd of about one hundred, including heavyweight collectors like Don and Mera Rubell, Marieluise Hessel, and Christophe de Menil (none of whom are known for buying or selling at auction) plus Blum and the Broad Foundation’s Joanne Hyler (who most definitely are) plus Thelma Golden (could she be in line for Dennison’s old job?) and a smattering of longtime Sherman cohorts like Louise Lawler and Betsy Berne.
Why did Sherman agree to such a dog-and-pony act? “I think it's creepy,” said Metro Pictures’ Helene Winer. Sherman shrugged. “It seemed like it might be a nice way to have a party for some friends,” she said and noted that, because the art on the surrounding walls was for the evening sale and didn’t include hers, “It doesn’t really feel like this dinner is about me.” She was right. “Don’t you feel like maybe you’ve died and no one bothered to tell you?” Don Rubell joked. “It’s a very clever promotion,” said Mera. Dennison called it “a dream come true.” I guess, unlike some of us, she had already been redeemed.
It seemed a tad contradictory to walk through Brooklyn in a howling nor’easter to see a movie about nihilistic Southern California skate kids, but so it goes. I was at BAM Rose Cinemas last Friday night to catch Ken Park (2002), the as-yet-undistributed-in-the-US feature by chameleonlike cinematographer Ed Lachman, and to hear Lachman and codirector Larry Clark talk about the film. Kicking off a festival of Lachman’s lenswork, which includes I’m Not There (2007), Far From Heaven (2002), The Virgin Suicides (1999), Less than Zero (1987), True Stories (1986), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and many other award-winning films, Ken Park turned out to be very much a Clark project—Kids II, say, even though, as the audience learned, it was supposed to be Kids I.
I found a seat in the packed theater as Lachman was introduced, and we were informed that Clark would be late. Lachman, a slim, compact man with a black fedora and wooden cane, said he was pleased to be back in Brooklyn, as one of his earliest features was The Lords of Flatbush (1974), and that he’d let Ken Park speak for itself. With that, the lights went down. The Kids parallels were immediately signaled in the credits, which noted that in addition to being codirected by Clark, the screenplay was written by Harmony Korine (who cowrote Kids). The boy-on-skateboard-with-punk-rock-sound-track intro sealed the connection—even if this was sunny, suburban Visalia, not the gray, gritty environs of New York City. Watching as the freckly, redheaded skater arrives at a crowded skate park, sits on one of its plateaus, removes a digital video camera and pistol from his backpack, and unceremoniously blows his brains out, I braced myself for the partly empathetic, partly exploitative vérité treatment of teenage wasteland that is Clark’s stock-in-trade. Indeed, Korine wrote the screenplay from real-life stories Clark had collected from young people he had known, met, or heard about.
Our suicidal lad is the titular Ken Park, or “Crap Neck” as his friends called him in a literal reversal of his name. The ensemble narrative unfolds as we meet several of Park’s teen friends, neighbors, and their families, whose bleak-to-bittersweet lives are introduced in segments focusing on each. There is an unassuming kid enjoying a Graduate set-up, having sex with a daughter and her mother in parallel. Another sensitive skater is verbally and physically abused—and then drunkenly molested—by his macho butthead father. A beautiful young Filipina with a devout Catholic father successfully plays the dutiful virgin when Dad is around—until he catches her in flagrante delicto with her Bible-study boyfriend. A tightly wound kid who lives with his treacly, solicitous grandparents ends up stabbing them to death in their bed, though not before indulging in autoerotic asphyxiation while watching a women’s tennis star on TV.
Ed Lachman. (Photo: Jonathan Barth)
As with Kids, it’s hard to know what to make of this stuff. The characters and situations are compelling, and Lachman’s cinematography is masterful throughout, with sickly green lighting for interiors and crisp, bright sunny exteriors heightening the contrast with the teens’ dark lives. He uses long shots when one would expect close-ups and lingers on unexpected visual details. Occasionally, he lingers too long—as on the tennis masturbator’s rope of sperm (quite authentic) and the bullying father’s penis as he urinates and chugs a beer simultaneously. But as tender as some scenes can be, a whiff of voyeuristic exploitation hangs over the film, which, given Clark's prior work, can probably be safely attributed to him. Ken Park culminates in a protracted, authentic threesome between the barely legal teens, and without my being moralistic, it’s hard not to imagine the filmmaker getting off on the proceedings.
Afterward, Clark and Lachman took the stage and fielded questions. According to Clark, the film was shunned by US distributors not, as one might assume, for the very long, very real sex scenes, but because one of its producers didn’t pay to clear the music rights. This seemed implausible, but the questioner didn’t press further. Asked about a falling-out with Korine over the project, Clark feinted, saying that yes, they did have a falling-out, but not over Ken Park. He didn’t elaborate. Responding to a question about multiple takes, Clark revealed that the autoerotic asphyxiation scene was (thankfully) only done once and that the young actor was devastated afterward.
For his part, Lachman said he was inspired by Eastern European films for this project, hence the many long shots and close-ups from low angles. He recounted how he and Clark met at an art fair in Austria some years ago, noting that it was Clark’s photography, along with Robert Frank’s, that made him want to become a cinematographer in the first place. When they met, Lachman asked Clark whether he’d ever wanted to make a film. The answer was yes, and Ken Park was supposed to be Clark’s directorial debut. The distribution problems led Clark to make Kids in the meantime. Clark said that, coming from the art world, he was unprepared for the censorship involved in making feature films.
Lachman mentioned that he thought of Clark’s photo books as diaries, and it was this concept, along with Stephen Frears’s film Bloody Kids (1979), that informed Ken Park. He also noted that kids like the ones portrayed are only able to survive by creating their own “families” among themselves. Clark said that the threesome scene “is like salvation” and called it “the cleanest scene in the film,” compared with the various horrors inflicted by the parent characters on their children. Clark concluded by admitting that Korine came up with the Ken Park/Crap Neck name and was very attached to it, forcing the filmmakers to seek approval from the real-life skateboarding star Ken Park, who apparently consented.
Lachman is a champion cinematographer of protean range and skill, but Clark’s singular vision can leave viewers feeling unclean, and I am no exception. Leaving the theater and facing the rain, I felt like I needed a shower.
Left: A view of the Am Vets Building. Right: Chinati Foundation director Marianne Stockebrand. (All photos: Andrea Claire)
Before his death in 1994, Donald Judd spent two decades buying up land in West Texas and installing his work in the buildings of the old Fort D. A. Russell, now home to the Chinati Foundation. The Am Vets Building in the center of Marfa, site of last weekend’s symposium on Judd’s writings, felt like an installation of an entirely different sort. Handpainted panels with US military insignia hung in the entryway. Metal folding chairs with the names of dead soldiers painted in white letters on their backrests stood in front of a painting at the back of the room that resembled a Neo Rauch rendition of Joe Rosenthal’s famous Iwo Jima photograph.
On Saturday morning, I installed myself on a metal chair as Chinati director Marianne Stockebrand began outlining Judd’s beginnings as a writer. He was, she recounted, hired by Hilton Kramer in 1959 as a reviewer for Arts magazine and wrote for various editors for nearly six years. (“Hard to believe, but Hilton Kramer was easy to work for,” Judd says in his introduction to the Complete Writings 1959–1975.) Mel Bochner, who wrote for the magazine after Judd, was the first of eleven presenters scheduled over two days. He offered an overview of Judd’s writing—and tossed a few rhetorical grenades into the audience. “So much of what’s being done now lacks passion and purpose,” he said, unlike the early ’60s, when “something was at stake.” Bochner cited Judd’s criticism as an antidote to the “bad and bland” writing of the era—save Greenberg and Rosenberg, of course—and compared him to Truffaut, whose writing for Cahiers du Cinema essentially “created the climate for his own work.”
David Raskin, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed with a discussion of Judd’s scale, then Richard Ford, a Texas professor emeritus who translates Judd’s writings into Spanish for Chinati, analyzed Judd’s style, noting the short sentences, borrowed from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and his fondness for funky word constructions like isolable, presageful, and awesomely.
We were then released, blinking, into the Texas sunlight. Lunch could be purchased from trucks parked nearby and eaten on tables set up like a church picnic. It felt like a picnic, too, with attendees eating alongside presenters like New York Times critic Roberta Smith, art historian and symposium moderator Richard Shiff, and Rainer Judd, who’d screened her biopic short starring Martin Donovan as her father the day before at the first Marfa Film Festival.
After lunch, Smith took the mic and offered the symposium’s most personal account of Judd’s critical thinking and influence. Smith worked as his assistant in the mid-’60s and penned the featured essay for the artist’s 1975 catalogue raisonné (which she dismissed during the Q&A as “juvenilia”). She talked about how “everything in his vicinity had been considered and criticized,” then homed in on “Specific Objects,” Judd’s influential 1965 treatise on postwar art—an essay “not about Minimalism”—and likened his approach to “language as a specific object” in that you have to consider what’s left out as much as what’s left in.
More presentations followed; audience members came and went. Among them were local(ish) artists Jeff Elrod and Michael Phelan; Miles Bellamy, owner of the Spoonbill and Sugartown bookstore in Brooklyn and his wife, architect Leah Kreger; affiliates of Ballroom Marfa, whose delirious Christoph Büchel/Mike Nelson–ish “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun,” by Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe, and Alexandre Singh, is perhaps the most talked-about show in town at the moment; and a variety of Texan academics, architects, and art tourists.
After the presentations, I walked over to the Judd Foundation to check out the presentation of handwritten and typed drafts of “Specific Objects” organized by archives manager Valerie Breuvart—a kind of drawings show for writers, accompanied by a Shiff essay. Then it was on to Chinati, where we wandered at dusk through the former artillery sheds and adjacent buildings gazing at the Judd and Dan Flavin installations, and into the Arena, a gymnasium restored by Judd, for a buffet dinner of upscale paisano fare surrounded by the same people we’d seen all day—and a wave of dressed-up folks we didn’t recognize.
After dinner, we headed over to the lounge at the Thunderbird Hotel—actually a renovated midcentury motel—for drinks and talked with Phelan, who, with his wife Meghan Gerety, runs United Artists, Ltd., when they’re in town. Two weeks earlier, UAL’s opening for their current exhibition featuring Nate Lowman, Aaron Young, and Agathe Snow drew the kind of art-world merrymakers that would have made for a, well, slightly different evening. This was an assignment, however, with a nine o’clock morning call.
I was up early enough the next morning to stumble into a power breakfast behind the Brown Recluse, where Smith and Bochner were rehashing some of the previous day’s arguments. Fellow presenter Nicola von Velsen showed up in time for Bochner to offer his assessment of German art history (“Nothing’s happened since Durer”), and then art historians Molly Nesbit and Ann Reynolds appeared. Apparently, they’d moseyed into town for something other than the symposium, but we didn’t see them again.
Back in our seats at Am Vets, we were treated to presentations by Kunsthalle Bielefeld director and curator Thomas Kellein and a discussion about anarchist lit (with some Judd thrown in) by Canadian art historian Allan Antliff. MoMA’s Ann Temkin was forced to cancel and dispatched a curatorial assistant to read her paper. The finale was a room-clearing presentation-cum–endurance artwork by artist David Rabinowitch (whose “Fluid Sheet Constructions” from the mid-’60s are currently installed at Chinati), in which he read fragments culled from Judd’s writings with copious decontextualized references to Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Wittgenstein, Leibniz, and others. “He just pulled all the sentences that have the word object in them,” one of my seatmates pointed out.
Another al fresco lunch, then the symposium wrapped up with a panel discussion that wandered into strange territory around the question “What can we do?” in a world that is falling apart. Then it shifted to Judd’s legacy—Shiff suggested that he “killed” AbEx—and feelings about nature and land preservation (the artist was critical of Earthworks that marred what he called “new land”), a subject that would make a great starting point for a future gathering.
Left: Book dealer Miles Bellamy, Delilah Bellamy, and architect Leah Kreger. Right: Briar Bear Phelan with artists Michael Phelan and Meghan Gerety.
Left: Collector Axel Haubrock with dealer and Gallery Weekend manager Michael Neff. Right: Curator Daniela Palazzoli, Isabella Bortolozzi, and artist Danh Vo. (All photos: Saskia Draxler)
Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has described his city as “poor but sexy.” Cheap, safe, and social, Berlin offers haven to all kinds of creative freelancers. Although it may be laid-back, however, it is not particularly cosmopolitan. Thus the annual Berlin Gallery Weekend, initiated in 2005 by a number of established Berlin galleries as an attempt to glamorize and internationalize the local art world, has in the past seemed more hopeful than realistic.
This year’s edition opened last Thursday with a VIP tour of the private homes of select dealers. Collectors and journalists were driven through Berlin’s thin traffic in black Audi limousines. What we saw, basically, was a variety of interior-decorating styles. Guido Baudach’s place, for example, had a vintage, flea-market look, while Markus Lüttgen and Thomas Flessenkemper’s apartment high up in one of the Soviet-style towers at Straussberger Platz—where a new showroom for Axel and Barbara Haubrock’s collection and the new Texte Zur Kunst office have recently opened—had a slicker aesthetic. The latter’s interiors were designed by architect Etienne Descloux, who has been hired by many dealers (to design both their homes and galleries), including Giti Nourbakhsch, Isabella Bortolozzi, and Jörg Johnen. Lüttgen pointed out his living-room window to the opposite tower, where David Adjaye is renovating collectors Gaby and Wilhelm Schürmann’s apartment and where Adamski Gallery is located. Straussberger Platz, it seems, is shaping up as something of a hot spot. Many of the hosts seemed a bit reserved (some might say “German”), except for Baudach, whose house has a natural openness and has probably seen many jovial get-togethers.
In the evening, the caravan moved on to the new five-star Hotel de Rome for Gallery Weekend’s opening reception, sponsored by Axa Art. The atmosphere was professional yet stylish. Lively conversations went on between collectors—among them the Haubrocks, Kasia and Pawel Prokesz, and August von Joest—and dealers. “Independent collectors” were also present, an Internet-based organization formed by Wilhelm Schürmann and others who think that not only artists but also collectors have to group together to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the multiheaded monster called the art market.
Left: Artist Carroll Dunham. Right: Collectors Kasia and Pawel Prokesz with dealer Giti Nourbakhsch.
Many of us reconvened at 1 PM the next day for a Felliniesque event: the laying of the cornerstone for an avant-garde condo building at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, designed by architect Roger Bundschuh in cooperation with artist Cosima von Bonin, that will be inhabited mostly by art-world players like Munich collector Peter Wiese and Chinese artist Zhao Gang. Sunglasses were needed, perhaps because, in the bright sunlight, the guests’ morning-after faces looked just a bit too real.
Some of the openings that night were sparsely attended, leading us to wonder whether the whole event was a bit overambitious, given the actual size of the local audience. Bortolozzi had her hip, youngish crowd, while the “serious” people went to David Claerbout’s brilliant show at Galerie Johnen. Carlier Gebauer was exhibiting many Erik Schmidt paintings in their giant new gallery in Markgrafenstrasse. It seemed, however, to be just a regular night of openings—except, of course, for the black limos. Eigen + Art, which was opening a Carsten Nicolai exhibition, was full as usual, as was Contemporary Fine Arts, exhibiting work by Tal R. Both galleries held their dinners, which were somewhat rowdy affairs, at Clärchens Ballhaus, an old GDR dancehall that has been turned into a kind of touristy pizza place. Everybody was there: Gerd Harry Lybke’s male artists (Martin Eder, Jörg Herold, et al.) made a powerful impression, while August von Joest told anecdotes about his first Neo Rauch purchases and about the neighborhood complaints regarding the penthouse swimming pool he shares with Corinna Hoffman.
Left: Artist Erik Schmidt. Right: Artist Kirsten Ortwed with dealer Aurel Scheibler.
Saturday had two events titled “The Opening” by British artist Merlin Carpenter, who is represented by my partner, Christian Nagel. The first took place at the Mercedes headquarters—the largest auto showroom in the world—where Carpenter made guests wait about an hour until he finally drove by in his own polished 1980s Mercedes. Leaning out the open window, he painted four white hanging canvases with a comically oversize brush, leaving only a few hasty marks. A similar performance took place two hours later at the Cornershop, a clothing store in Mitte. Both were attended by what Diedrich Diederichsen once called “hipster intellectuals”—some Texte zur Kunst writers, Volksbühne music booker Christoph Gurk, curator and Frieze editor Jörg Heiser, Diederichsen himself, and artists Michael Beutler, Sarah Staton, and Josephine Pryde, all of whom mixed amicably with Gallery Weekend VIPs like Jeane Freifrau von Oppenheim and her friend Ingeborg Baronin von Maltzahn. Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, who had just left her position as Art Basel codirector, made a surprise appearance.
The weekend’s main event was meant to be Saturday’s grand gala dinner at the Berlin Convention Center. Following Thursday’s luxurious kickoff at the Hotel du Rome, however, the gathering seemed anticlimactic. The party just never took off. Gregorio Napoleone was dying for a hamburger and begged his gorgeous wife, Valeria, a ravenous art collector, to leave early. Freda and Izak Uziyel, opting for kindness, made no comment. Christian Boros seemed still to be riding high on the opening of his collection’s showroom during the Berlin Biennial. Still, everybody tried to be as cheerful and entertaining as possible, toasting to Berlin’s great future—a future that we have been anticipating for more than a decade. But if you really want “sexy,” better drinks and cozier spaces would do the trick.
Left: Collector Christian Boros. Right: Artist Katja Barth with dealer Guido W. Baudach.
“Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?” Sounding a bit like the promotional spiel for a sci-fi convention, the tagline for the Fifty-fifth Carnegie International—which curator Douglas Fogle blithely titled “Life on Mars,” after David Bowie’s 1971 classic—inspires visions of Roswell, tinfoil hats, and Heaven’s Gate. Not an entirely unappealing set of connotations (for this conspiracy theorist, at least), but a strange one nonetheless for North America’s most venerable periodic exhibition of contemporary art.
Arriving in Pittsburgh early Friday morning for the opening festivities, I spotted a placard at the museum’s entrance featuring a skeletal Tyrannosaurus rex inviting visitors to ROAM OUR WORLD. I took a moment to nudge my inner child, though there were plenty of outer ones at hand. On that particular morning, the museum seemed a veritable Kid Nation, with middle schoolers stomping around Manfred Pernice’s deconstructed installation of vitrines and eating lunch in the courtyard amid Susan Philipsz’s a cappella recording of “The Banks of the Ohio,” two of the exhibition’s 204 works (by forty international artists).
Upstairs, however, the galleries devoted solely to the International were much quieter. Curators, artists, and installers (performing last-minute touch-ups) roamed the halls, surveying Fogle’s handiwork. Hovering near one of his installations, A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, Ryan Gander pondered his piece, as well as the city’s unique history. (In his hotel room the night prior, he and gallery mate Phil Collins had reenacted scenes from Dawn of the Dead, which was filmed at the nearby Monroeville Mall.) The work typically consists of one hundred laser-cut crystal balls, but Gander only used forty here. “I didn’t want to interfere with Wilhelm Sasnal’s area,” he claimed. “That’s not proper biennial artist behavior,” joked former Whitney director David Ross. “You’re being far too generous.”
Other artists were perhaps more willing to indulge their inner diva. When Fogle placed one of Maria Lassnig’s curiously deformed self-portraits behind a set of Matthew Monahan’s towering, misshaped sculptures—a clever, though imposing, juxtaposition—Monahan disagreed. “I’ll move it myself if I have to,” noted the artist’s resolute mother. In the end, though, it seems a compromise was reached, and Lassnig’s painting was simply placed on the wall opposite.
Spelunking Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation Cavemanman, a vast horror vacui warren of brown packing tape and photocopied historical and sociological scholarship, I bumped into trustee emeritus Ann Wardrop. “I simply love being in the museum when it’s empty. Don’t you?” she exclaimed with a childlike grin. In another large room, filled with Wolfgang Tillmans’s variegated photographs, a host of curators—Daniel Birnbaum, Lars Bang Larsen, Richard Flood, and Fogle himself—congregated. “I have the distinguished honor to be the youngest-ever curator of the Venice Biennale,” the fresh-faced, forty-five-year-old Birnbaum jokily boasted. “And after this year, you’ll never look quite this young again,” teased a glowing Flood, before turning to receive Fogle with a warm, congratulatory hug.
Perhaps most surprising in “Life on Mars”—especially given recent trends in major New York surveys, such as the 2008 Whitney Biennial and the New Museum’s “Unmonumental”—is the preponderance of figuration (or disfiguration): works by Monahan, Hirschhorn, Andro Wekua, Mark Manders, Kai Althoff, and Barry McGee each feature distorted humanoid sculptures, while Lassnig, Sasnal, Bruce Conner, and Daniel Guzmán play with the figurative in two dimensions. Also common are evocations of swiftly tilting planets and the universe’s terrific, alienating vastness, beginning, of course, with Paul Thek’s much-disseminated brochure-cover work Untitled (Earth Drawing I), but also including pieces by Friedrich Kunath, Vija Celmins, Mark Bradford, Rivane Neuenschwander, and quite a few others. Everything chimes. Dramatically cinching it all is Mike Kelley’s wondrous, colorful laboratorylike installation, inspired by the fictional city of Kandor (the capital of Superman’s homeland of Krypton), which dominates the ground floor of the Hall of Sculpture. For all Fogle’s talk in the press about “Life on Mars” as a metaphor for human connection, the exhibition also comes across as a literal enactment of its title. There is “Life”—numerous mutated, alien forms—and there is “Mars”—solemn representations of planets, suns, and nebulae, entropic horizons.
Left: Ann Wardrop, Carnegie Museum trustee emeritus. Right: Architects Ravi GuneWardena and Frank Escher with artists Sharon Lockhart and Alex Slade.
That evening, a largely black-tie crowd descended on the museum for the gala benefit. A bevy of Chelsea dealers (Barbara Gladstone, Tanya Bonakdar, Anton Kern, Brent Sikkema, Michael Jenkins, Paula Cooper, and Andrea Rosen among them) chatted with their artists and Pittsburgh’s elite; they didn’t seem to talk much with one another, though. Most everyone seemed ebullient about the exhibition. Madeleine Grynsztejn—curator of the lauded fifty-third survey in 1999, and newly minted director at the MCA Chicago—gave praise in passing: “It’s beautiful, tender, and human. He really hit it out of the park.”
Following a formal awards ceremony, during which Carnegie Museum director Richard Armstrong announced the winners of the Fine Prize for emerging artist (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and the Carnegie Prize (Celmins), attendees spilled into the museum’s baroque music hall for a somewhat less punctilious “strolling dinner,” featuring buffet tables laden with charred ahi and strawberries filled with minted cream cheese. Some patrons roamed the galleries, while others ventured outside into the warm spring air to scope out Doug Aitken’s new outdoor video projection migration, featuring indigenous American animals exploring hotel rooms across the US.
A little after 10 PM, school buses began shuttling guests from the museum to the Brillobox, a two-story lounge and dance club on Penn Avenue featuring red-velvet wallpaper and high tin ceilings. There, Bradford and Peter Fischli impressed us all with their dancing stamina, even, near the end of New Order’s “Perfect Kiss,” helping to coax a reluctant Fogle onto the floor. Soon enough, the entirety of the club’s second level was packed with sweating and ecstatic bodies; miles away from their home turf, suddenly no one seemed shy.
Left: Artist Eoghan McTigue with critic and curator Lars Bang Larsen. Right: Artist Haegue Yang.
Left: Film still from Guest of Cindy Sherman. (Photo: Spencer Tunick) Right: Gabriella Kessler, filmmaker Paul H-O, and Serena Merriman. (Photo: David Velasco)
The first thing to say about the “Red Carpet Arrivals” screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival is that there were no red carpets. Or star arrivals. Or maybe just not for art-world documentaries. Well, huffle-doody-doo. But there were long lines for “eligible badge holders,” “rush” ticketees, and regular paying punters. My press badge was apparently so eligible that I didn’t have to wait at all, which made up for the lack of processional glamour. I was prepared to get all Joan Rivers on these people, but maybe we should all be thankful I didn’t have the chance. What do I know about shoes anyway? What I do know something about is professional jealousy, which turned out to be the subject of Guest of Cindy Sherman, Paul H-O and Tom Donahue’s art-world-as-domestic-drama doc.
Paul H-O is an affable surfer dude–cum–art nut who for years, starting in 1993, shot with future Artnet.com editor in chief Walter Robinson a public-access video show called Gallery Beat, which could just as easily have been titled Paul and Walter’s Excellent Art-World Adventure. If October occupies one end of the art-critical spectrum, then Gallery Beat resided on the other. In their heyday, Paul, Robinson, and their pals would cruise SoHo openings, mug for the camera, get up in famous artists’ grills, and generally make a low-wattage nuisance of themselves. Some artists wouldn’t talk to them. Others they actively pissed off. One of the early highlights of Guest is a younger Julian Schnabel telling the Gallery Beaters, with a straight face, that their efforts are “masturbatory.” Oh, the ironic ’90s.
Sherman, already a sensation due to her “Untitled Film Stills,” happened to enjoy watching Gallery Beat, and while everyone in the haute art world clamored for interviews with her, she decided she’d prefer to talk to Paul H-O. This was like Nicole Kidman granting exclusive access to a pimply teenage blogger from some godforsaken dungeon in Secaucus. Over the course of several videotaped studio visits, a romance developed between the unlikely pair, and Paul, fleeing an eviction lawsuit in Brooklyn, moved in with Cindy.
Everything is hunky-dory for a few years, until Paul’s new Web venture Artlike fails as Cindy’s star continues to rise. He starts taking antidepressants, shooting surf videos on Long Island, and musing bitterly about how easy things come for Cindy. Attending galas and openings with his celebrity girlfriend, Paul finds himself cut out of paparazzi photos and shunted to remote tables with GUEST OF CINDY SHERMAN place cards. They go to couples therapy, and Cindy steals Paul’s shrink. He does an interview on cult radio station WFMU about the situation. Finally, the inevitable breakup. Paul is shown inflating a blow-up mattress in a one-room apartment. The above unfolds as a radically truncated story drawn from endless hours of video footage from Paul’s archive—starting with Gallery Beat, he made of his life a reality-TV show—with his own voice-over narration.
Throughout this entertaining, incestuous film, art-world personalities and assorted stars appear as talking heads. Eric Bogosian says, with conviction, “The art world is such bullshit.” John Waters sneers, “I’m glad the art world is elitist. I think art for the people is a terrible idea.” Elton John’s young husband sympathizes with Paul’s plight, recounting how he once threw a hissy fit at a gala that got Uma Thurman ejected from her spot next to Captain Fantastic. Molly Ringwald’s husband, Panio Gianopoulos, also acknowledges occasional discomfort with his Mr. Man role.
After the screening, Paul and codirector Donahue took questions. Artnet’s Charlie Finch loudly brayed that Cindy should be “hung from the rafters” for “censoring” parts of the film (the artist had final-cut approval but still ended up disowning the project). Paper’s Carlo McCormick, sitting nearby, told him to shut up. Finch: “Don’t ever tell me to shut up, Carlo!” This felt like a real-life coda to the film. I said it was incestuous.
Left: Film still from Universe of Keith Haring. Right: Filmmaker Christina Clausen. (Photo: David Velasco)
If Guest was a ’90s-to-’00s affair, with dated but recognizable fashions and the interview subjects in attendance only slightly aged, The Universe of Keith Haring was a galaxy far, far away. Even for someone who was in high school during the era, the early ’80s appeared impossibly, remotely exotic. Directed by German documentarian Christina Clausen, Universe traces the meteoric rise of the geeky kid from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, who entered the School of Visual Arts during the rapturous gutter-glitter years of late-’70s and early-’80s New York, inhaled disco, hip-hop, and the Mudd Club, then exhaled his Pop graphomania worldwide for a decade, until his untimely AIDS-related death. Whatever one thinks of Haring’s art, the film is undeniably moving. In Clausen’s sensitive portrait, laced with Haring’s student films and candid interviews with Kenny Scharf, Tony Shafrazi, Fab 5 Freddy, Bill T. Jones, Yoko Ono, and the artist’s family and friends, Haring emerges as an irrepressible creator and extraordinarily generous soul who simply loved life too much.
Encouraged as a child by his father, a gifted draftsman, to learn to draw with his eyes closed and to invent cartoon characters, Haring “probably was smoking pot,” as his mother endearingly says, when he decamped to Pittsburgh and then New York as a young man. At SVA, Devo, the B-52s, and semiotics were formative influences, as was the “gay paradise” of the St. Marks Baths. His early, more crowded work owed a slight debt to R. Crumb and featured oodles of penises. As hip-hop swept the city, Haring admired subway graffiti artists, falling in with Fab 5 Freddy, LA2, and Samo (the young Jean-Michel Basquiat). He painted his iconographs on blank ad spaces in subway stations, occasionally getting arrested, and gave out buttons to riders in order to “bring the museum to the people.” Before he had representation, he sold his own artwork. By the time he was picked up by Shafrazi, he began making work that, as his mother says, “people could actually put in their homes.”
The rest is pop history. He became world-famous very quickly, at the center of a scene that included the aging Warhol and the emerging Madonna, and eventually took Andy as his date to the Madonna–Sean Penn wedding. The Paradise Garage was his living room, Grace Jones’s body his canvas. He kept his homosexuality from his sweet but conservative family, bringing boyfriends home for Christmas as “bodyguards.” He painted murals in cities around the globe, including one on the Berlin Wall, and designed iconic anti-Apartheid imagery. Then came AIDS, or “gay cancer” as it was first known. One of its most famous early victims, Haring asked a friend to inform his parents but later came out in Rolling Stone to raise awareness. The party invitations stopped arriving. Already a manic personality, Haring’s last months found him visiting every museum he could find, advocating for ACT-UP, making more public art, setting up a foundation, and telling friends, “I have so much to do.” Scharf cries as he tells of his old friend’s last moments. Ono claims Haring spoke to her afterward, telling her to place a piece of one of his bones at the obelisk in the Place Vendôme in Paris.
When the lights came up, several of Haring’s friends and colleagues warmly complimented the filmmaker on her work. I went outside, and as I wandered through the financial district, I began see urban microgeometries in a new, playful way. Haring’s style became so commonplace during his life, but it still has the power to change your point of view, which is perhaps what he was after the whole time.
Institutional memory is rarely as sentimental as it was in the Bay Area last week, when several respected curators made high-profile homecomings. Things kicked off on Wednesday with Ralph Rugoff’s visit to the Wattis Institute for the opening of “Amateurs,” his group show surveying strategic uses of amateurism in contemporary art. Rugoff is currently the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, but he helmed the Wattis from 2000 to 2006 (heady days when Matthew Higgs was also part of his curatorial team). The irony of the exhibition’s premise was well suited to an art school—the gallery is on the campus of the California College of the Arts—where many young artists aim to buff their work to a professional state.
The show features several of Rugoff’s old favorites—Jeremy Deller, Andrea Bowers, Jeffrey Vallance, Michele O’Marah, Jim Shaw—as well as some relative newbies to the local scene, among them Jennifer Bornstein and Johanna Billing. Only a few, such as Harrell Fletcher, attended the reception, but the low-key opening crowd had its share of ardent fans—both for the artists and the curator. Thomas Demand, in town for a weeklong teaching stint at the San Francisco Art Institute, was excited to meet painter Robert Bechtle, who was himself checking out a work by the Long March Project.
Rugoff seemed happy, noting that it didn’t take him long to get back into the Wattis groove. He must have had a flashback watching the hors d’oeuvres disappear into the mouths of hungry students. No snacks remained when Lawrence Rinder, the Wattis’s first director and current dean of the college, introduced Jens Hoffmann, current Wattis director, for the official remarks.
At that point, I ducked into the show for a quick session with the Unlicensed Therapist, a project artist Josh Greene first realized in 2001, when, the catalogue notes, it sparked concern from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. In a compact office-style installation outfitted with couch, chair, and a well-placed tissue box, I unburdened myself of work-related anxieties (my words were confidential, Greene calmly assured me). Reentering the reception, I bumped into an art consultant who admitted she was depressed. “The Pennsylvania primary,” she said, rolling her eyes. Gossiping about unfilled administrative positions (and decampments) at various local art institutions, however, brought some levity to our conversation.
Memories went back a bit further at the thirtieth birthday bash for the Berkeley Art Museum’s Matrix program, which, when launched, was among the country’s first museum contemporary-art project spaces. Crossing the Bay Bridge during Friday rush hour tested my nerves, but I finally arrived and made it up to a terrace gallery in the Brutalist museum building, where a crowd of trustees, artists, and museum staff had gathered beneath a sign featuring the title of a James Lee Byars installation: THE PERFECT AUDIENCE. I just missed remarks from guest-of-honor artist David Ireland (who, being somewhat frail—and popular—was at that moment being escorted to another event by two assistants), and Constance Lewallen and Elizabeth Thomas, Matrix curators past and present, respectively. I couldn’t see who was speaking, but I did spot a nattily dressed Rinder, who also held that post before his stint as a curator at the Whitney, standing nearby.
The roster of curators past and present was represented via an exhibition, fittingly titled “Matrix Redux,” that featured works from former shows, which, along with a slide show of works by artists not included in the exhibition, brought to mind a retrospective of the various actors who have played James Bond—some having made more of an impression than others during their reigns. Hoffmann whispered something to me about the fleeting eight-month tenure of Chris Gilbert, who departed the museum in May 2006 amid controversy over one of his exhibitions. “Weren’t all his shows about Venezuela or something?” Hoffmann asked. Indeed, all two of them were.
A moment later, the crowd erupted with howls of approval when it was announced that Rinder had accepted the position of director at the Berkeley Art Museum. Scuttlebutt about this development had been circulating for weeks—we were all discussing it at Rugoff’s opening—but the excitement was charged with genuine surprise and good will at Rinder’s return to Berkeley. He regaled us with recollections of his first days at the museum in the late ’80s, sporting “cutoffs and hayseeds in my hair,” and with anecdotes about Raymond Pettibon accidentally dropping his cash honorarium on a Berkeley sidewalk and Kiki Smith getting all earth-mothery with trustees. It wasn’t clear how those memories will play into the hundred-million-dollar capital campaign he’ll have to facilitate (the museum is planning a new building designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito), but he didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat on Friday, proclaiming: “I’m so thrilled to be here!”
At that point, the party opened up to the cheaper-ticket crowd, who seemed happy to be there as well. We all wandered the tiered galleries, watched projected animations by Martha Colburn (an upcoming Matrix artist), and listened to Deerhoof play an eclectic live set in a gallery usually hung with Hans Hofmann paintings. On my way out, I snagged one of the commemorative cupcakes frosted with numbers that referred to the sequentially titled Matrix shows. “123 is the number for ‘V-Girls,’” an enthusiastic woman behind the buffet told me after consulting a sheaf of papers. I had to rack my brain when I got home before I recalled that this was the short-lived institutional-critique performance group that included Andrea Fraser. Here’s hoping that art history and dessert are linked more often.