Left: The Museum of Islamic Art. Right: Architect I. M. Pei. (Except where noted, all photos: Carol Kino)
ON THE SURFACE, the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, seemed to be all about intellectual content. “It’s not about flash and glitz, it’s about seriousness and engagement,” commented Roger Mandle, the executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority, when the museum first opened to the press last Saturday morning. “The goal of the QMA is to invest in our country’s most valuable resource, its people,” propounded Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa Bint Hamad Al-Thani, chairperson of the QMA board, looking quite photogenic in her abaya. (As well as being one of the emir’s childrenhe has twenty-seven, the Christian Science Monitor saysshe is also a graduate of Duke University.)
Judging from the museum itself, which has obviously been carefully thought out—from its glorious I. M. Pei–designed building to its jewel-like collection of Islamic art—it is easy to buy the idea that Qatar is on its way to establishing itself as the Middle East’s center of gravitas.
But there was also a decidedly zany aspect to the weekend’s proceedings. It seems that when you do anything involving the royal family of Qatar, the event is likely to be ultralavish, laden with security precautions, incredibly well meaning, and—last but not least—horribly disorganized. Although the speeches and fireworks went off like clockwork, every other aspect of the proceedings seemed to be in a perpetual state of flux, with plans being made, scrapped, and reconceived up to the last possible moment. “All the events that have the royals keep changing,” a local journalist complained. “There are a lot of capable people in Doha. Maybe they’re just not working for the royal family at the museum.”
One of the most curious aspects of the opening was that the fourth estate was consistently afforded first-class treatment. Journalists were ferried to the opening ceremonies by dhow (a traditional wooden Arab sailing vessel) “because they thought people would enjoy it,” said Miranda Carroll, the former communications chief of the Hammer Museum, who now works for the MIA. As our boats sailed to the man-made island the museum calls home, we lounged languidly on cushions, attended by scores of security forces and two turbaned attendants, who plied us with sweet tea and bitter Arabian coffee. When we docked, the emir let us use his own personal open-air elevator, a miraculous contraption that begins looking out across the water to the royal palace and then rotates 180 degrees on the way up, so that the passenger ends up facing the museum.
Meanwhile, common dignitaries—like Sir Norman Rosenthal, former director of the Royal Academy, and Philippe de Montebello, who is reportedly being wooed by the QMA for some undisclosed position—arrived via bus and had to walk in on their own two feet.
A fraction of the guests had been invited to celebrate the evening inside the museum with the emir’s own entourage. Rosenthal and His Eminence of the Met were not among them. Like the rest of us, they had to make do with an open-air party room outside, furnished with Persian rugs, tented areas, and red velvet banquettes laid out on the sand, from where we watched the proceedings by closed-circuit television. Waitresses sporting bobbed, Louise Brooks–style wigs passed around Coca-Colas and fresh mango and orange juice. There were sumptuous foods, and in the middle was a huge dessert table with chocolate fountains, which had to be turned off when a breeze picked up and they began spattering the guests.
Rumor had it that Nicole Kidman was checked into the local Sheraton and a Hollywood couple with six children was shacked up at the Sharq Village and Spa—clearly Brad and Angelina. But when push came to shove, the “celebs” could be counted on one hand: Jay Jopling, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Ronnie Wood, and a young blonde, presumably Wood’s twenty-something girlfriend, Ekaterina Ivanova. They spent much of the evening huddled together in the corner of a stuffy tent. (Maybe they were hiding from the renegade chocolate fountains.) But the best action was to be had in spotting the many major museum powers in attendance: Serfiraz Ergun of the Sabanci, Henri Loyrette of the Louvre, Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate, Mark Jones of the V&A, and not just one Metropolitan director, but two—Thomas Campbell, whom de Montebello jovially referred to as “the usurper.”
“Have you ever seen all of them in one place before?” a friend marveled. It was sort of like being in a room with the heads of the Five Families, except there were more like twenty.
Then, on the video screen, someone singled out Robert De Niro at the emir’s celebration. Why on earth was he there, when the heads of the world’s major museums were outside?
The next day, at another press conference, the mystery was revealed: Qatar had just formed a partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival, which thenceforth would also operate a “world-class” program in Doha. The sheikha explained that she got the idea for the project during her postcollege internship for the festival in New York; something to keep in mind, perhaps, for companies interviewing royal interns.
Left: Dealer Jay Jopling and musician Ronnie Wood. Right: Artist Damien Hirst.
IN RECENT MONTHS, beginning with the ShContemporary fair and the Shanghai Biennial in September, a veritable swarm of international art cognoscenti has passed through the city. In October, the eArts Festival brought Christian Marclay and musician Elliott Sharp to Shanghai, while the opening of ShanghArt gallery’s “Involved” drew the likes of Luc Tuymans and Knut Åsdam. Just last week, James Cohan’s Shanghai outpost presented its third exhibition, giving the space over to Folkert de Jong’s jolly, Styrofoam-sculpted simians. But perhaps no one was more anticipated than Yoko Ono, whose first solo exhibition in China, a retrospective of her instructional works titled simply “FLY,” opened last Saturday at the Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts.
“We’ve been discussing this exhibition almost since we opened the space, nearly two years ago,” Biljana Ciric, the curator of the privately run nonprofit, noted at the opening. The exhibition was co-organized by Gunnar Kvaran, director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, where “FLY” originated, but it was Ono who conceived and curated the show. Describing her arrival in the city’s hypermodern Pudong airport, Ono exclaimed, “I felt like Marco Polo must have felt when he first came to China.” Not only was this Ono’s first solo exhibition in the country, it was also her first time visiting Mainland China. Ono, like many Japanese, was educated in the Chinese classics, and she admitted that she learned her life strategies from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. She closed the press conference by painting her Chinese name not on the paper prepared for it but on a nearby window curtain.
The following day, a twenty-person viewing limit left hundreds of would-be admirers stranded outside the museum, stampeding the artist’s Ex It, a series of wooden caskets, which had been installed in front of the entrance. Overhead, a promotional video blasted John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” A drizzle steadily grew. At the rear of the crowd, ShanghArt director Lorenz Helbling and artist Zhou Tiehai shook their heads at the hopeless, rain-soaked queue and opted to head off early for the dinner. As the shower gave way to a downpour, the museum’s doors swung open and the wet masses funneled into the already overcrowded exhibition. “A typical Shanghai scene,” needled one local standing above the hordes on a platform built into the gallery.
While hundreds participated in the artist’s famous Conceptual-art tutorials, which included works such as the 1966 Blue Room Event and the more recent Wish Tree, Ono herself was performing upstairs in the museum’s lounge area, “bringing new meaning to the term ‘disco dancing,’” as artist Rutherford Chang observed. Around 9 PM, her dance for the masses gave way to a more exclusive dinner at the recently opened Kee Club, a Hong Kong nightlife classic recently transplanted to Shanghai’s Dunhill mansions complex, a spectacular courtyard in the center of the city.
The comparatively sober dinner was attended by Helbling and Zhou, the photography duo known as Birdhead, artist Zhang Huan, Shanghai Gallery of Art director David Chan, dealer Meg Maggio, and Ono’s attentive staff. After dessert, Ono descended to the postdinner cocktail party for a final photo op before heading back to her hotel to sleep off the jet lag, leaving the dwindling crowd to soak up her blessings of universal love, and the pouring rain.
NEW YORK is the city of the future.
You heard it here first. Unless, that is, you happened to be one of the fabulously dolled-up folks who braved the heavy rain (and a little economic free fall) last Saturday to attend the Metal Ball, the Performa fund-raising gala held at Cedar Lake in Chelsea. The “city of the future” declaration was made by RoseLee Goldberg, the art historian and Performa’s founding director. The live art biennial will have its third iteration next November, and the theme is “Futurism.” This fact half accounts for Goldberg’s claim; the other half is a sort of defiance in the face of reality.
“I’m not moving to Dubai. And I’m not moving to Shanghai or Berlin,” she announced at the ball. “New Yorkers are survivors. I came to New York in the ’70s, when New York was bankrupt and there were fifteen-foot piles of garbage on the sidewalk. We’re going to be fine.”
These are strange times for artists in New York. On the one hand, there is fierce joy over Barack Obama’s impending presidency, in terms of what it could mean both for the country and for themselves. (An arts plank, including health care for artists!) On the other, of course, there is the worsening economic crisis, which puts a bit of a damper on the shiny/happy shtick.
I’m not sure what to say about the happy, but the Metal Ball, which was “inspired by” the Bauhaus’s 1929 Metallic Festival, took care of the shiny, in DIY fashion. The dress code was metallic attire, variously interpreted by the star-studded art crowd, which included everyone from David Byrne, Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, and Francesco Vezzoli to MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach and New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and Studio Museum director Thelma Golden went topical, sporting bejeweled Obama shirts; designer Zac Posen donned a mask of chain mail; and artist Cory Arcangel chose the metaphoric route, dressing down in a concert hoodie for the metal band Trivium.
Less creative attendees were invited to visit Issey Miyake’s flagship store, the temporary home for Performa’s Metal Shop. (Art and fashion—how did they ever get along without each other?) Others made use of fanciful accessories handcrafted by the on-site “Emergency Sewing Project.” These included artist Isaac Julien, the night’s honoree along with philanthropist Toby Devan Lewis. Each received a unique present from Adam Pendleton (whose Revival was one of Performa 07’s commissions), and the usual bubbly tributes that abound at such gala-cum-lovefests.
Amid the talk of “creative people shining in tough times” came more sober analysis of what lies ahead. “It’s going to be very tough for everyone,” said Salon 94 owner Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. “Artists are going to go back to having second jobs—the way it used to be.”
Try third and fourth jobs: This was the response of several choreographers at the ball. As Performa evolves, it is attempting to draw in artists from dance as well as the visual arts, leading to some fascinating cultural clashes. Though the resulting art occasionally bears similarities, the two worlds don’t often see eye to eye.
“You hear about the economy impacting those parts of the art world,” said Sonya Robbins, of the performance duo robbinschilds, after someone mentioned the somberness at the recent auctions. “It’s hard to see a direct comparison in the dance world.” Her partner, Layla Childs, put it a bit more pointedly: “We’re already living a subsistence existence.”
Robbinschilds gave one of the several brief performances sprinkled throughout the evening, along with the Stumblebum Brass Band’s welcoming music and a collaboration between Jesper Just and the enchanting theremin expert Dorit Chrysler. Dressed in shiny green-blue tights and skimpy duct-tape tops, their faces covered in metallic paint, robbinschilds attempted to lead the crowd in a “two steps backward” Prop 8 dance. The performance was fabulous—streamlined and funny and strange. The participation, not so much; robbinschilds, apparently feeling generous, gave the crowd a B for effort. More effective in getting people involved was Zach Rockhill’s low-tech “ride” in which participants, flanked by fantastical Oskar Schlemmer creation look-alikes, were pushed through a small paper-enclosed chute. Unlike our present economic woes, there was light at the end of the gauzy tunnel: showers of silver paper, honking, and the flash of cameras, of course.
Left: robbinschilds performs. Right: Curator Nick Hallett.
ART IS NEVER MORE FUN than when money doesn’t matter to it. Artists live to work, not model. Dealers stop fawning over investors who can’t tell a Basquiat from a Baechler. Auction houses see red. Collectors who buy art because they can’t live without it gloat as if their turn has come. And every opening seems like the last.
The high-rollers who showed up to receive Larry Gagosian’s blessing just the weekend before, during his Gramercy Hotel dinner for Richard Prince, only to hear rock impresario–turned-roastmaster Ron Delsener slag them, had disappeared by last Thursday’s postauction openings in Chelsea. Perhaps it was the pouring rain, but ever since Election Night—when New York became a town where everyone knows everyone (and likes them!)—streets that had been clogged with art tourists have been populated mainly by those who care to own them.
A smattering of interested parties shook off their umbrellas at Casey Kaplan’s reception for Julia Schmidt, a sweet-faced young woman from Leipzig whose lovely photo-based paintings manage to recall Luc Tuymans, Gerhard Richter, and Giorgio Morandi all at once. My companion liked the vagina paintings best. Schmidt looked puzzled. “Oh,” she said then. “You mean the caverns!” Just what I said.
At 303 Gallery, Serbian-turned-British painter Djordje Ozbolt was learning to endure his first solo show in New York the hard way, gripping a beer and attempting to speak cheerfully to all comers. “Is that a Paul Smith?” I asked of the colorfully striped pig in one of Ozbolt’s storybook landscapes. “Someone else mentioned that,” the sincere Ozbolt said. “Maybe it was subliminal.” I examined the Russian-icon-style portraits in the back. Family members? “Background characters from old-master paintings,” came the reply.
At Marianne Boesky, Barnaby Furnas was blinking back the horde lining up to see what he had been up to since his late Jesus phase. Abraham Lincoln, for one thing. “That’s my painting,” said tennis hero–turned-collector John McEnroe, examining a small portrait of the Obama idol. Meanwhile, John Currin orated his story of heroism from the day before, when he saved a woman from a mugging by three thugs on a dark SoHo street.
An even larger crowd rushed the back office at Bortolami Gallery for Aaron Young’s first show there, possibly because the walls were empty. I’m not counting the clever bronzes cast from broken police barriers inside the door. Or the blacklight room where guests had to put a quarter in a machine to see Young’s irradiated paintings of mushroom clouds.
Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami. Right: Bortolami's Meredith Darrow and artist Aaron Young.
Young was in the back office, too, where artists Hanna Liden, Dan Colen, Hope Atherton, Nate Lowman, and Todd Eberle were huddled around the desks. “Please be nice?” Young said. I have no idea why. But let no one say that Stefania Bortolami is not a risk-taker. She rented the whole of Il Bordello, the unfortunately named and completely untried new diner on Twenty-third Street and Tenth, to toast Young’s atom-bomb peep show. “Even if the food is bad, we’ll still have a good time,” Bortolami said. “The bar is open.”
Friday night, Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures showed everyone how it's done—to turn yet another art party into a unique event. Sherman’s life-size portraits of middle-aged women desperate to keep time from wreaking havoc with their faces capture the disparity between self-image and public image with chilling accuracy, and fearlessly enough to let herself show through. “Cindy’s social commentary is merciless,” observed the writer Lynne Tillman. “And beautiful.”
We watched the paparazzi lunge for Salman Rushdie, as novelist A. M. Homes looked on and Sherman artist buddies Laurie Simmons, Louise Lawler, and Sarah Charlesworth added some seasoned glamour of their own, as did Mera Rubell and her recently frosted bob. In a tailored black tuxedo and low-cut white blouse, Sherman seemed oddly monochromatic. “I didn’t want anyone to confuse me with the pictures,” she said, pointing to her furbelowed, patent-leather high-heeled sandals. “Right now, it’s all about the shoes.”
As for the show, it will either make plastic surgery extremely outré or cause a run on it. “It’s great to see Cindy’s pictures in the same room with some of her best subjects,” said director John Waters. “Especially since they seem to be the last to know it.”
Dinner was uptown at Per Se, in the Time Warner Building. This establishment, where Wall Street’s deer and antelope play, is known as the most expensive restaurant in New York. (Chef Thomas Keller, who created the French Laundry, the best restaurant in California, charged fifteen hundred dollars per person one recent evening for a special twenty-course menu.) And this was the week the art market tanked, along with the rest of the global economy.
Up on the fourth floor, overlooking Columbus Circle on a crystal-clear, sparkling night, Sherman’s guests were treated to champagne and hors d’oeuvres that included tiny grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches and popcorn drizzled with truffle butter, served in paper cups.
After some time in the bar, we began to wonder where the dinner would be. At such places, where the private-club/living-room atmosphere dictates tables spaced well apart, one expects stiff, formal settings. But all we found were a couple of café tables and a cheese buffet. Then came the whispers: You have to see the kitchen. Go straight to the kitchen. It’s amazing.
After wending our way through the plush, carpeted dining room and down a narrow, bare hall, we found the bright, subway-tiled kitchen—and lo! There was the party. The cooks were all at their stations serving that scrumptious Keller food, a mouthful at a time: chowing down on smoked-salmon cones, short ribs and mash served on porcelain spoons, skewered chicken, plenty of caviar, and a magnificent raw bar laden with oysters, shrimp, lobster claws, king crab, and fresh crabmeat. One by one, the crowd trickled in: critics (Peter Schjeldahl, Calvin Tomkins, Dodie Kazanjian, Jerry Saltz), curators (the Public Art Fund’s Rochelle Steiner, the Whitney’s Donna De Salvo, the Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden, the Goss-Michael Foundation’s Aphrodite Gonou, the Ellipse Foundation’s Manuel Gonzalez), collectors (Jane Holzer, Peter Brant and Stephanie Seymour, Michael and Eileen Cohen, Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy, all of the Rubells), art advisers Curt Marcus and Kim Heirston, Aspen dealer Richard Edwards and New York dealer Tony Shafrazi, Metro artists Robert Longo and Isaac Julien, producers Vincent and Shelly Dunn Fremont, actor/writer Eric Bogosian . . . all old friends and colleagues—Friends of Cindy. Just folks.
What a great idea for a party. “We’re glad you all came,” said Metro co-owner Helen Winer. “Try everything!” said Janelle Reiring, her business partner. There were no toasts, no bothering with small talk at big tables where intimacy is never possible. This was closer to dropping in for dinner at Cindy’s house. “You have redefined fabulous!” enthused Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. Sherman couldn’t stop smiling. “I was here for a party once,” she said. “It was so much fun it seemed like the right thing to do.”
I’ll say. What this party cost was anyone’s guess, and everyone tried to—a hundred thousand dollars was the average estimate. Whatever it was, it was too casual to be decadent—after all, we ate standing up in the kitchen—and it was also worth every penny, especially to celebrate a great artist in peak form.
“This is the end,” Saltz predicted over the dessert table, in the rear, where an array of homemade cookies, petits fours, donut holes, and bowls of Eskimo bars awaited eager hands. “It’s going to be a long while before we’ll see anything like this again,” he said. But I don’t know. Christmas is coming—and with money’s escape from the scene, the art world seems giddy with possibility.
LAST TUESDAY EVENING in Milan, the Neoclassical Villa Reale became the sumptuous backdrop for a retrospective of Tino Sehgal’s living sculptures, set in motion among gesturing Canova marbles and an impressive assortment of nineteenth-century masterworks. Organized by the nomadic Trussardi Foundation and curated by Massimiliano Gioni, the selection of eight “situations” is billed as the “most ambitious and complete” assemblage of Sehgal’s “deproduced” objects, all but one of which were first presented in other contexts. Once home to Napoleon and the king of Naples, the palace’s cavernous salons were inhabited by seventy anachronistic specters, most of them posing, in typical Sehgalian fashion, as guards.
Arriving on the late side, I rushed around to see all the works, which would disappear Cinderella-like at an appointed hour. If it weren’t for the crowd blocking the door to one room, I would have tripped over the woman writhing on the floor in Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, a piece that apparently comprises an anthology of gestures borrowed from videos by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham. In this context, she resembled more than anything the paintings of female nudes and the white marble Venus by Pompeo Marchesi, reclining on a divan.
Just outside of the room where Selling Out was in progress, I encountered Graham himself, who was in Milan for the opening of his new pavilion, Sagitarian Girls, at Galleria Francesca Minini. Pushed into a corner by an attentive crowd, nubile young female and male guards took turns sinuously stripping out of their uniforms and then putting them back on against a cold backdrop of richly colored marble and brilliantly buffed parquet floors. In a long glass case along the adjacent corridor, a lineup of Medardo Rosso’s waxy sculptures seemed to be shifting shapes in solidarity. But it was the stylish Italian spectators—strictly prohibited by the artist, as usual, from photographing the fleeting vignettes—that made for the most fascinating subjects.
For This is so contemporary—which famously debuted at the German pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale—the original players were recruited to perform again, flitting around a room whose very uncontemporary artworks had been removed so as not to confuse the crowd. The work’s rehashing here only emphasized how well suited the scenario was to its original white-cube space, where the long line to get in provided much of the drama. (In addition to cramped legs, bitter grumbling, etc.) As I entered the room knowing full well what the silly guards would do, I found myself flinching as they hopped and lunged around me lilting the insipid phrase “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” It’s difficult to convey the full sense of the tableaux vivants. At best, a picture would just show a middle-aged guard with hands raised in imitation of a bird in flight—which, well, may be a decent summary of the experience. An image of the spectators’ perplexed expressions might be equally evocative.
Kiss, the only other piece that I had witnessed previously, was lovely here—resonating as it did with a sensuous statue of an embracing Amor and Psyche in a nearby corridor. The work’s repetitive quality was suited to the opulent ballroom in which it was staged, which was missing only chairs along the periphery for vying dance partners.
A motley group of guards milling around in the final rooms clearly signaled that they were the “interpreters” of the show’s single premiere, This is critique, in which interlocutors are encouraged to engage in discussion about the exhibition (recalling Sehgal’s interactive piece on the art market in the 2005 Venice pavilion). For better or worse, Sehgal promises that this is the last time his collaborators will be disguised as museum guards; one presumes that docents are still fair game. A local schoolteacher approached me and implored, “If you are a critic, then you must say critical things about the artist’s work!” Performance anxiety ensued. Luckily, at that moment Gioni came by to announce that the museum was closed, cutting me off before I could open my mouth.
Left: Dealer Francesca Minini and artist Lorenzo Scotto di Luzio. Right: Artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss.
An intimate dinner party followed at the chic Trussardi alla Scala, just opposite the city’s famous opera house. An onslaught of artful and delicious dishes, each one better than the last, was delivered on little plates: crème fraîche cannoli tipped with caviar, foie gras sautéed in beer, mozzarella with tomato gelatin, polenta with cheese and white truffle sauce, apple cream with tonka beans, and pumpkin risotto to match the sleek space’s warm color. Gioni’s partner, Cecilia Alemani, in Italy this fall to work on Artissima and the “Italics” show at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, showed up looking stunning in black with gold-trimmed pumps, while the understated and charming collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo attended with her son Emilio, who sported a cheerful plaid blazer, accenting his spiky red hair.
The “interpreters” of the exhibition seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, amiably chatting about the side effects of the undertaking. Philosopher and musician Andrea Labanca said they were given four-point improvisational guidelines during the intensive discussions with Sehgal leading up to the show, but the man from This Occupation noted coyly that he had been ordered not to give details. In addition to reuniting the performers from Venice, the exhibition also happily brought together former local acquaintances. Trussardi production manager Barbara Roncari said she was pleasantly surprised to run into her favorite high school teacher, who was one of the guards in the new piece. Meanwhile, the thirty-two-year-old artist himself, dressed casually in cool Berliner fashion, was served a specially prepared individual menu by his own personal waiter. For all his attention to the immaterial, Sehgal obviously does not leave the finer things in life up to chance.
Left: Amor and Psyche. Right: Interpreter Andrea Labanca, Trussardi's Barbara Roncari, and Massimo De Carlo's Elena Tavecchia.
THAT EVERYONE WOULD SOON TIRE of those baggy exhibitions and themes, those endless fairs and “satellite projects,” was predictable. That their attitude would shift right around when the market did was predictable too. What was hard to foresee was that the market shift would produce a tidal wave bringing an electoral landslide for Barack Obama and then a dopamine flood overcoming the art world, significantly softening the economic blow. Some new words one heard at the second Torino Triennale (known as T2, like Judgment Day) and the fifteenth Artissima fair were manageable, sustainable, and realistic, and the relief with which even dealers exhaled them seemed surprisingly genuine, if inextricable from a heady moment.
I got the election news obliquely, in brief dispatches. I had voted Tuesday morning; flown out late that afternoon on Air France, and learned of the winner, around 7 AM Paris time, from an onboard announcement; caught glimpses of confetti on TV monitors at Charles de Gaulle; scanned front pages of day-old newspapers, expecting, with the confusion of temporal displacement, that they would register news that was actually still breaking; and found that, on landing in Turin, I could only drop my bags at the hotel before heading to the Promotrice delle Belle Arti, one of three triennial venues, for the press conference.
White House details quickly percolated into that Neoclassical palazzo. The people there, few American, at least by birth, compared numbers, fact-checked on iPhones, tilted screens displaying mostly blue maps toward one another. Dopamine levels remained high despite the tone of the surrounding show, called “50 Moons of Saturn,” which pulls works into orbit around that mythically melancholic rock. Perhaps sensing the dissonance, Daniel Birnbaum, the show’s curator, reminded the audience that first morning: “Melancholy is not depression; it’s about transformation, and the world is right now transforming rather radically . . . it’s very much about creativity and producing new things.” (The show itself is a transmutation of Birnbaum’s first book, written with Anders Olsson and recently translated into English: As a Weasel Sucks Eggs: An Essay on Melancholy and Cannibalism.)
Left: Dealer Chantal Crousel with collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Right: Dealer Alexander Gray.
The Promotrice held the most focused of the three presentations. There were flaming Wade Guytons; weird Gert and Uwe Tobiases; Jordan Wolfson’s film Untitled False Document, a conceptual feedback loop. The next venue on the tour was the Fondazione Sandretto, owned by compact Turin collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and featuring for the triennial a Paul Chan minisurvey, not particularly fresh for many visitors but probably more so for local audiences (it was apparently the artist’s first such show in Italy). Sandretto Re Rebaudengo happily talked with guests despite a voice hoarse, she strained out, “from shouting ‘Obama!’”
By the third venue, the grand Castello di Rivoli (which held, in addition to a group show, the triennial’s other big solo project, a light installation by Olafur Eliasson), the wall texts were beginning to jumble: “subjective experience,” “cultural identity,” “religion,” “personal history and historical memory.” “Constructed” and “reworked.” “Wittgenstein” and “Lacan.” On reading that “the attempt to restore meaning to a fluctuating existence is concretized in the objectivized presence of the works exhibited,” I decided to pack up.
It was Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo who had the party that night. There were official opening receptions at the triennial venues, but many people skipped those for quick cosmetic reparations in hotel rooms, showing up at the collector’s palazzo and spilling through a foyer decorated with Maurizio Cattelans, into a side room with Matthew Barneys and a Fiona Tan, and into a sala da pranzo with Allan McCollums. The Vanity Fair photographers were as pushy as ever. “Check out the pool downstairs,” Paul Chan side-mouthed to me. I did; it was triangular. Dinner for three hundred followed under the tent in the garden. It was molto Italiano: many courses, perhaps cooked, in part, by the hostess’s mother (who has apparently helped out at such events before). But the gathering was for extended relations too; a government figure, for example, brought two women, one blonde and one brunette, neither his wife, their tanned skin richly made up, and their style running more to spike heels than to mink stoles.
Left: Artist Piero Golia; Charlotte Laubard, director of the CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux; and Artissima director Andrea Bellini. Right: Domus director Flavio Albanese.
The next morning, the triennial gave way to Artissima, which is not to say melancholy gave way to cannibalism (an activity often associated with art fairs). The fair, in fact, was so well selected and relaxed that it hardly resembled the blind consumptive beast we have come to expect in recent years. Often noted was the “curation,” not “direction,” of Andrea Bellini, then in his second year of organizing the event, and perhaps, he mentioned, his second to last. (Domus director Flavio Albanese speculated that Bellini might move on to a post at the Castello di Rivoli.) In addition to gallery booths (128 of them, a downsize from last year’s 131, which itself had been a significant downsize from the prior year’s 172), the fair had some small, curated projects, including a section devoted to young Italian artists without gallery representation; a retrospective of photographs by Paolo Mussat Sartor, documentarian of artists (most significantly those of Turin’s homegrown movement, arte povera); and an exhibition of work by young artists, such as Carter Mull, Stephen G. Rhodes, and Sara Barker, whose dealers were all invited to participate at a discount.
Bellini strolled the aisles in his blue suit and a tie by Jack Emerson, local kingpin of menswear. He mentioned that the fair, when it had around two hundred galleries, “was shit” and that the city representatives had come to him saying, “We don’t care about money; make it good, make it a cultural event.” The curatorial and more outwardly commercial forces work together in the fair, Bellini argued, as they have throughout art for centuries. “Giotto was a superstar,” he said. “Like the Jeff Koons of his time. He was a motherfucker—all those girls!”
Left: Dealer James Fuentes. Right: Artists Carter Mull and Mateo Tannatt.
But what about the dealers. “Usually,” claimed Francesco Stocchi, “they won’t talk to you if it’s sell, sell, sell. They’re, like, curators? Not today. But now?” Those in booths did seem happy to talk at length about their artists, when not twirling their pens or spacing out. Alexander Gray, in from New York, said that he welcomed the more relaxed pace and that people were in fact still buying. “This is the future,” he said. “The niche fair. No more developing, no more speculation.” The fair was in rich dialogue with Turin’s established art collectors, who, one visitor noted, were known for supporting “difficult work” (and for returning on the last day to haggle). Nascent New York dealer James Fuentes had come, he said, to establish roots in the fertile area rather than to sell out his booth. “Meet just one collector and it’s worth the trip.”
One gallery worker, pointing to the white walls, which were a good deal higher this year, noted: “Andrea wanted to build an art city,” and it seemed he had. I imagine the walls are actually high enough to dam the flood.
Left: April Richon Jacobs, cohead of the evening sale; Robert Manley, head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's; Brett Gorvy, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art; and Amy Cappellazzo, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art. Right: Dealer Emmanuel Perrotin and collector Adam Lindemann. (All photos: David Velasco)
WHAT DOES A COLLECTOR SAY when he has no money to spend? “This art is terrible.” But Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Wednesday was one of the auction house’s best in terms of artistic content. After Sotheby’s had averted an art-market free fall the night before, dealers and collectors entered Rockefeller Center with a shot glass of hope. As art adviser Sandy Heller found his aisle seat, he said, “All asset classes are being repriced. Art is no different, but I think the great things will sell.”
Salma Hayek stood statuesquely in François Pinault’s skybox, while John McEnroe peered out from the window of dealer Bill Acquavella’s. After Christopher Burge’s gracious “Ladies and gentleman . . .” the first eight lots stumbled along. With the exception of a 1961 Tom Wesselman pastel (which made a record for a work on paper by the artist) and a 2007 Subodh Gupta painting (which failed to sell), the works all sold for less than their low estimates. Lot 9, Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (710), however, defied expectations when it commanded $14.9 million. Richters haven’t performed well at auction of late, but this “wealth of oils,” as it was described in the catalogue, caught more than one bidder’s attention.
Lots 15 through 17 were Louise Bourgeois sculptures—Spider V in cast bronze, Untitled (with Foot No. 2) in pink marble, and High Heels in fabric and metal—from a “Distinguished Private European Collection.” While the awkward marble sold below its estimate, the iconic domestic-scale spider and the sexy steel-heeled form sold within estimate to London-based Swiss dealer Iwan Wirth.
Lot 18 was a shallow Joseph Cornell cabinet with a mirrored back containing shells, powders, a butterfly wing, and other curios. Titled Pharmacy, the 1943 work anticipated Damien Hirst. Once owned by Pierre Matisse and “Teeny” Duchamp, the thoughtfully assembled object attracted hands all over the room and sold for $3.8 million, a world auction record for the artist.
Left: Art adviser Allan Schwartzman. Center: Collectors Jason Rubell, Michelle Rubell, and Don Rubell. Right: Collector Eli Broad (left).
Next up was the cover lot, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Boxer)—a strong image of black victory from 1982 given added luster by Obama’s election win. Consigned by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, the canvas sold to a collector on the phone with Brett Gorvy for a muscular $13.5 million. The Basquiat was one of four works bought by paddle number 1757, including Adolph Gottlieb’s Parallels, Yves Klein’s IKB 234, and Franz Kline’s Mars Black and White for a grand total of $22.8 million. The lineup of works suggested a new big spender who was keen to have one of each. When I nabbed Gorvy after the sale for clues about the nationality of the buyer, he said amusedly, “It’s no one you know!”
Lot 20, Yayoi Kusama’s 1959 “infinity net” painting, offered nostalgic drama when it prompted an old-fashioned, bull-market bidding war between dealers Bob Mnuchin and Philippe Ségalot. Burge had fun eliciting higher bids, at one point saying, “Surprise me, sir!” to Mnuchin. When Ségalot’s bidder stalled with momentary indecision, Mnuchin chided Burge, “I might lose it if you take too long.” When Ségalot took the bidding to $4.9 million, Burge cajoled, “Brave move, that.” In the end, Ségalot won the work for $5.7 million (with premium), resulting in an auction record for Kusama and making the work one of the most expensive by a living woman artist. The seventy-nine-year-old Kusama lives in an asylum near her studio in Tokyo. “The painting had it all,” said Ségalot, who, along with his business partner Franck Giraud, was active in the sale; together, they bought a total of five lots. “It was beautiful, early, large, and rare,” he added. “It once belonged to Donald Judd. It was the dream masterpiece.”
For a dizzy moment, one might have imagined it was May 2007—but then the minibubble burst. Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale (Festa sul Canal Grande) and Francis Bacon’s Study for Self-Portrait—both so expensive that their estimates were only available “on request”—failed to sell. According to the catalogue, neither was guaranteed by the house, but a virulent rumor suggests that the consignor of the Bacon is livid over the fact that he may have been deprived of a guarantee (an undisclosed sum promised to the seller regardless of the outcome of the sale), which didn’t go through because of a technicality in the paperwork.
Left: Auctioneer Christopher Burge during the sale. Right: Dealers Lucy Mitchell-Innes and David Nash.
The Bacon was followed by nine near-consecutive flops, and the auction turned ugly. By the time Burge announced the sixteen “master drawings” well known to be the property of Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, and his wife, Kathy, a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, the reality of the greater economic world had entered the room like a herd of elephants. Back in July, the Fulds received a guarantee of $20 million. Tonight, the group of works, which included a stunning 1951 de Kooning Woman with remarkable “wall power,” as well as drawings by Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, and Agnes Martin, sold for $13.5 million. Perhaps more than any other, this consignment signaled the decline, if not the death, of auction-house guarantees.
Later, in a packed press conference, Christie’s press agent Milena Sales announced that the total result was $113.6 million—half of the sale’s presale low estimate—and drew our attention to the four gravity-defying artist record prices: Cornell, Kusama, Robert Irwin (for Untitled, 1963–64), and Paul McCarthy (for his fantastic bronze Michael Jackson Fucked Up [Big Head], which fetched $2.2 million).
Deputy chairman Amy Cappellazzo went with the upbeat message: “Considering people are hoarding cash right now, it was an amazing show of spending.” At the back of the room, Burge told me, “Since the 1950s, the art market has seen steady growth, with cyclical downturns in 1968–69, 1974, 1981, 1991, a minislump in 2001, and now late 2008. It tends to take the same path as the luxury real estate market.” Christie’s CEO Ed Dolman described the current economic environment as “mind-boggling” and likened the art business to “playing football on a very muddy field,” adding, “You need to interpret results in light of the environment in which you’re operating.”
In general, the Christie’s people looked relieved that the auction was over. As a press-pack colleague quipped, “Better to have the bloodshed behind you.” However, with heads rolling all over Manhattan, including Chelsea, the year ahead will no doubt require a refined sense of gallows humor.
Left: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art. Right: Designer Valentino. (Photos: David Velasco)
WHEN TOBIAS MEYER asked the crowd to take their seats at Sotheby’s on Tuesday night, the room quickly fell into uncommon silence. A thousand people in the room and you could hear a diamond cuff link drop. The art-market elite that attends the ticketed contemporary evening sales had been waiting, worrying, and imagining the worst. As one collector told me before the auction, “This is the downturn of the upper class. The second-home market is completely paralyzed. Even if people have money, will they want to be seen spending it on art?”
One didn’t have to hang around for long to discover that demand for a sexy picture that pushed the right buttons was “strong” and probably “hard.” Lot 4, John Currin’s delectable painting of two nude women touching each other uncertainly (as if they needed a man to tell them what to do), was consigned by Los Angeles collector Dean Valentine. Given that a Currin work had never surpassed the million-dollar mark at auction, many were skeptical that the canvas, titled Nice ’N Easy, would reach its estimated $3.5 to $4.5 million. However, three bidders went into battle, and a young woman from client services, Felicitas Rutt, won the lot for nearly $5.5 million, a record for the artist. For whom might she have been bidding? Perhaps her father-in-law—collector and Art in America owner Peter Brant.
Lot 5 was more typical of the “corrective” order of the evening. Jeff Koons’s Wishing Well, a quintessential example of late-'80s “boom art,” was part of a package of works consigned by London dealer Anthony d’Offay. Rumored to be guaranteed for over $4.5 million but eventually given the rather lower estimate of $2.5 to $3.5 million, the gold mirror fetched only $1,850,000 hammer ($2.2 million with the buyer’s premium), despite the underbidding of Larry Gagosian.
Left: Dealer Philippe Ségalot. Center: Collector Leigh Potts with art advisor Mark Fletcher. Right: Dealer David Zwirner. (Photos: David Velasco)
Eli Broad, a major player who had, last year, been vociferously warning others about the overheated market, picked up the bling “bargain.” With prices plunging, the billionaire property developer was on a collecting spree. By the end of the evening, he’d acquired a large orange Judd stack, a teeny 1955 Rauschenberg, and a Ruscha canvas emblazoned with DESIRE—a favorite art-world word—for a total purchase of $8.4 million.
“Is greed winning out over fear?” muttered Marion Maneker, the publisher of artmarketmonitor.com, from the press pack. “It sure looks like the old pros have backed up the truck and are making a quick getaway.”
The most expensive work of the evening, Yves Klein’s Archisponge (RE11), 1960, rolled out at Lot 12. Estimated in the region of $25 million, it went for a very respectable $21 million to a highflier on the telephone with Sotheby’s “Imp & Mod” man, Charlie Moffett. Whoever purchased the blue bas-relief also bought Cy Twombly’s Untitled (A Painting in Two Parts) (Bassano in Teverina) for $4.8 million, a figure that hit home within the vague ballpark estimate of $4 million to $6 million. One dealer thought this was just lucky. “With many of these wide-range estimates,” he said, “the auction house might as well have said, ‘Fuck me, we haven’t got a clue what it’s worth in this economy.’”
Left: Sotheby's Oliver Barker, Anthony Grant, and Grégoire Billaut. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Dealer Alberto Mugrabi. (Photo: David Velasco)
Lot 30, Philip Guston’s Beggar’s Joys, a pink and red AbEx canvas from 1954–55, represented the paradoxes of the current art market more succinctly than any other work in the sale. Best known for his figurative late work, Guston has his early piece pitched by Sotheby’s specialists as a “connoisseur’s piece”—auction-house parlance for an uncommercial work, which can sometimes be interpreted as code for “We’re gonna take a bath on it.” Rumor had it that MoMA trustee Donald Bryant had received a guarantee of $18 million—a careless sum given that the previous auction record for a Guston was only $7.3 million and Beggar’s Joys was rare but not a full-fledged signature work. In the end, the painting sold for $9 million hammer (or just over $10 million with premium) to San Francisco–based art adviser Mary Zlot.
Despite two lots that exceeded their high estimates (Currin’s “lesbians” and Alexander Calder’s elegant black monochrome Deux Dates mobile) and three record highs for individual artists (Currin again, Guston, and Richard Serra), the sale bore witness to the fact that Sotheby’s estimates had been set “when the world was a different place.” Moreover, the sixty-three-lot auction totaled $125 million, well below last May’s $362 million result. Twenty works failed to find a buyer—resulting in the lowest percentage of sales by lot in a multiple-owner contemporary evening auction at Sotheby’s since November 1994.
Still, the mood was remarkably upbeat. Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s debonair London auctioneer, explained: “Nonsensational markets, like Calder, are stable. We’re back to 2006 prices, and a situation where price is no longer dictating the reception of the work.”
On the way out of the salesroom, I saw Brant in a jubilant huddle with dealers Irving Blum and Tony Shafrazi. Brant made a remark about triple-A bonds, while Blum stated with relief, “It was not a disaster.” Shafrazi exclaimed, “When you consider the state of General Motors, it was an excellent sale . . . really excellent!”
ON HALLOWEEN WEEKEND, three years after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the streets of New Orleans embraced a new kind of flood, one of tourists from New York and Los Angeles besotted with art.
Joined by a number of local enthusiasts, they formed the legion of VIPs who arrived for the opening of Prospect.1, the first New Orleans biennial. This exhibition, the inspiration of former New Museum curator Dan Cameron, features eighty-one different projects in art venues and public spaces all over town. That makes it the largest such exhibition ever in the United States. Supplemented by homegrown shows in galleries, derelict cottages, and abandoned lots, it took the weekend’s spectators into neighborhoods far beyond the forced hoopla of Bourbon Street and into the Big Easy’s wounded soul.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am right now,” Cameron told the several hundred faithful who showed up at the W Hotel on Thursday night, October 30, to greet visiting artists like Tony Oursler, Josephine Meckseper, Fred Tomaselli, Isaac Julien, and Wangechi Mutu. New Orleans collectors Charlie and Kent Davis, philanthropist Alexa Georges, Global Green CEO and architect Matt Petersen, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, private adviser Sandy Heller, and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu were also among those toasting the cultural—and economic—resurgence that Cameron was hoping to spark.
“Outsiders who come here to help don’t understand that we play by different rules,” said a friend who has spent her life in New Orleans, where unique intersections between politics, race, class, and corruption make for a particularly heady brew. Cameron, now also the resident visual-arts director of the local Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), was determined to prove the exception. “Can New Orleans gain economic salvation through cultural tourism?” he asked.
That was the $3.2 million question—that being the amount of cash it took to get Prospect.1 on its feet. No one expected the answer to be quick in coming, not in a city that often clings to the nineteenth century (including the old Napoleonic Code), its tragic flaw as well as the source of its charm.
Thursday, the first of two Prospect.1 vernissage days, was also the opening of KK Projects’s parallel show of site-specific installations in the blighted Eighth Ward neighborhood known as Saint Roch. Cocktails were served in the Bakery, a gallery where New Yorker Peter Nadin had sunk a number of terra-cotta sculptures—many of them enlargements of Michelangelo’s nose—in a large pool of black honey. Drawn to the garden by the Elysian sound of the James Singleton String Quartet, I pressed my nose to the glass of a completely derelict cottage, where New Orleanian artist Dawn DeDeux was placing a Mathmos-like cloud, fluorescent-green glass tiles inscribed with hurricane-shaped spirals, over the dirt floor.
The Bakery is one of six decrepit spaces that KK Projects proprietor Kirsha Kaechele, a sunny transplant from Los Angeles by way of Guam, has acquired on Villere Street, fortuitously bounded by streets with the names Arts and Music. Bending to peepholes drilled through the plank walls of one wreck, a barnlike former package store, I watched two Oursler videos projected large on what remained of the far walls. Each featured some of the spunky neighbors who still live around there, rapping or singing and making their post-Katrina presence in this eerie place known.
Later, during dinner at Herbsaint on Saint Charles Avenue with Creative Time director Anne Pasternak and curator Nato Thompson, I learned from artist and Printed Matter director AA Bronson, in town to conduct a midnight Saturday séance with actor Peter Hobbs in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, that historically a disproportionate number of psychics have been gay.
Everyone in New Orleans seemed queer on Halloween night, even the seven hundred bewigged and costumed art types who showed up for Prospect.1’s French Quarter benefit at Antoine’s, established in 1840. Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison made her spunky horns visible in a red-devil gown that made even more sense when she donned a MISS ALASKA sash and smiled for the paparazzi. New Orleans Museum of Art curator Bill Fagaly dragged out his old dalmatian suit, and collector Dianne Ackerman seemed to rise from the floor in the Wonder Woman outfit she had found that day in a Mardi Gras shop on Decatur Street. (“I got a wardrobe for the weekend in just a couple of hours,” she touted.)
During a considerable service lull in the ten-course tasting menu, bandleader Glen David Andrews and the Lazy Six moved over two floors and fourteen dining rooms, raising a napkin-waving, chair-dancing ruckus in one upstairs room, while across the hall, Cameron and Toby Devan Lewis, Sanford Biggers and Jack Shainman, Fred Tomaselli and James Cohan, Julie Mehretu and Christian Haye, John Pilson and Tony Fitzpatrick, Amy Sillman and Brent Sikkema, Marcel Odenbach and Kathy Goncharov, were only a few of the odd couples scattered throughout. Elsewhere, two skinhead dancers in formal white performed balletic turns in the aisles between long tables seating Beth Rudin DeWoody and Randy Polumbo, New Orleans City councilmember at large Jacqueline Clarkson (introducing herself as the mother of actress Patricia Clarkson), and hometowners such as dealer Howard Read and artists Jacqueline Humphries, Lynda Benglis, and Robert Tannen.
Conversations veered between the art in Prospect.1 and the approaching presidential election. (Obama signs peppered lawns all over town.) Most people picked the Lower Ninth installations (by Mutu, Mark Bradford, and Nari Ward, among others) as the knockout location on the art tour. Bradford’s enormous ark, made of plywood boards papered with peeling advertisements from Los Angeles walls loomed over an empty plain where homes once stood, surrounded by lots still marked by concrete foundation blocks that eerily resembled crumbling tombstones. Near Leandro Erlich’s lone window perched high on a ladder like a triumphant fist, the hideous wreckage of a Katrina-battered house gave mute testimony to the once-broken levee behind it.
Some of us wondered whether this high-risk floodplain wouldn’t be put to better use as rice paddies or farms or parks for music festivals, especially with housing available in uptown neighborhoods above sea level. Perhaps the artworks, scattered hither and yon amid streets with bittersweet names like Forstall and (egad) Flood, made the contrast between leveling nature and “civilizing” art and architecture starker. Robin Rhode’s Duchampian turn put a geyser of a fountain inside a former public toilet, in a single gesture underscoring the power of water to both give life and take it.
Left: William Fagaly, curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Right: Artist Robin Rhode.
Just as profound, but in a more upbeat kind of way, were the works on view at the Studio at the Charles J. Colton School, a P.S. 1–style free studio and art-education program set up by Tannen and his wife, Jeanne Nathan, who also founded the Warehouse District’s CAC after relocating from New York in the late ’70s. Cai Guo-Qiang had hung a light display from the auditorium ceiling and Jose Damasceno outlined an impressive calculator on the floor of one room with pieces of chalk. But it was more enlightening to talk to resident artists like Eliza Zeitlin, whose assemblage of salvage and puppets exploding from an old hearse had previously served as a barge sailing Lake Pontchartrain in her brother Benh’s recent film, Glory at Sea. Michelle Levine related how she depicted Katrina’s toll on Louisiana by making portraits of all the McDonald’s signs around the state damaged by the storm, and Tatsuo Miyajima explained how the LED numbers blinking on the hivelike stones of his Pile Up Life Project are counting the fourteen hundred people said to have died in the disaster.
With these and many more artworks on my mind, I left Antoine’s and (literally) piled into a limo with dealer David Maupin, T magazine editor Stefano Tonchi, artist Anton Ginzburg, Kaechele, and other friends and drove through streets alive with Halloween revelers. We stopped briefly by the party of ghouls drinking champagne at developer Sean Cummings’s historic Esplanade Avenue mansion—formerly the studios where music legend Allen Toussaint recorded Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, U2, and various New Orleanian musicians like Ernie K. Doe, the Neville Brothers, and Lee Dorsey.
Left: Artist Eliza Zeitlin and filmmaker Benh Zeitlin. Right: Artist Sanford Biggers.
After a personal tour of Cummings’s sleek bachelor quarters upstairs, it was on to KK Projects’s outdoor performances and installations in a Bywater brickyard. Walking it was as close as I’ve come to an Owsley-strength acid trip in years. Fabulous. As I peered around in the darkness, people or artworks would suddenly appear, each a new cause for wonder, including a mirror-sided shack by Elliot Coon, seemingly set ablaze by a snaking pit of gas-fueled fire passing by it, AdrinaAdrina’s astonishing four-poster bed made from a block of ice that was lit from within, and the pièce de résistance, a submersive environment by Homemade Parachutes, a New Orleans collective, in an old molasses factory that bore more than a passing resemblance to the horror-film classic House of Wax. We stayed late.
The next day, artist Mel Chin opened his SafeHouse on Villere Street with a press conference announcing Operation Paydirt, a far-reaching art and science project to rid American cities of lead-polluted soil, of which New Orleans has a great concentration. The cleanup will cost at least three hundred million dollars, and to pressure Congress into allocating the money, Chin plans to collect three million hundred-dollar bills drawn by school children across the country and take them to the Capitol in an armored car bought for that purpose.
After that, I hit as many Prospect.1 and other local venues as possible. I started with Linzy’s film at NOMA, then took in installations at the CAC by Candice Breitz, Mehretu, Meckseper, and Cao Fei, before setting off for Skylar Fein’s re-creation of a NOLA gay bar (the site of a fatal fire), the Sally Mann show at the Ogden Museum, the Jim Richard painting show at Arthur Roger Gallery, and the Pilson and Fitzpatrick works at the Jazz and Heritage Center. Finally, it was time for KK Projects’s Ritual Feast, where I found Uma Thurman and her half sister, Taya (daughter of art patron and designer Christophe de Menil), among the three hundred guests awaiting the dinner gong at the three-hundred foot-long, pierlike table designed by DeDeaux, which took up the length of the block.
The food, prepared by Michelin three-star chef Rocky Barnette, was served on thick, communal platters sliced from a long-leafed pine-tree trunk, one for every four people. I sat down with Howard Read and his wife, Katja, Art + Commerce co-owner Anne Kennedy, Brant Publications editorial director Glenn O’Brien, and Company Agenda’s Gina Nanni. Forced to eat with our fingers from one plate, the meal, interminably slow in coming from the mobile kitchen parked at the corner, proved the downside of glamour, at once demonstrating the necessity of sharing in the face of disaster and the self-serving generosity of carpetbagging. The paltry dinner was not enough to keep us on our benches, and between courses we had time to drive over to Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club a few blocks away to catch Linzy’s rousing performance with a New Orleans pickup band, organized for Prospect.1 attendees by the Art Production Fund.
Backed by the band, whose members (I heard) were not expecting a strapping male singer in a glittering silver unitard, Linzy had everyone in the club on their feet during a finale that began with the artist’s own “Asshole” and ended with James Brown’s “Please Please Please” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” “Tonight, we put our hands together for Kalup Linzy!” shouted the MC. “Tuesday night, for Barack Obama!” That brought down the house.
Left: Dealers Friedrich Petzel and Gisela Capitain. Right: Artist Candice Breitz, Kunsthalle Berlin director Thomas Eller, and Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit. (Photo: Ralf Kranert)
IF MOVIES ARE TO BE BELIEVED, each of life’s junctures deserves a sound track. So it seems worth noting that last week, during the various openings and affairs coinciding with Art Forum Berlin, I often found myself humming Blur’s “Out of Time.” (“To watch the world spinning gently out of time . . .”) Most of the events were oddly out of sync. Last Tuesday night, at the preview of the temporary kunsthalle, a “cube” on the Schlossplatz designed by Austrian architect Adolf Krischanitz, everyone kept asking whether they had been invited to the wrong event. Local hero Wolfgang Tillmans was there, normally a surefire sign that this was the place to be, but otherwise the building was oddly empty. The other burning question was why Candice Breitz had chosen to break her exhibition up into two parts, with the second half debuting at the end of November. (Perhaps she hadn’t finished the work in time?)
That same night, Vik Muniz opened his first German solo show at Arndt & Partner, exhibiting photographs of iconic artworks (such as Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #7 and John Baldessari’s What Is Painting?) re-created in unusual materials. Most compelling were his re-creations, from pure pigment, of works from seminal series like Lucio Fontana’s “Spatial Concepts” and Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings.” Muniz took a moment to note his most recent guilty pleasure: Looking at photos of dealers at art fairs to see if any were wearing the “McCain smile” (aka grinning while they’re losing).
The big opening on Wednesday night was Jeff Koons at Max Hetzler. The echt-American artist, who was also preparing an exhibition to open the following night at the Neue Nationalgalerie, appears to be storming the continent, and here he presented new works from his series of pastiche pixelation paintings. The mood was eerie and ominous—as though everyone was bracing for the crash that had not yet hit. It was a stark contrast with the exhilaration one felt everywhere just last spring during Berlin Gallery Weekend. No McCain grins here, though—just Obama pins.
Afterward, I set off for the BMW dealership across town on Kurfürstendamm, where the “Friends of the Nationalgalerie” were presenting the short list for their young artist prize. (To be sure, no cars were exhibited—not even an “art car.”) The most emotional moment of the night came not when Joachim Jäger, interim head of the Neue Nationalgalerie, read the names of the four artists (Annette Kelm, Keren Cytter, Omer Fast, and Danh Vo), but when he thanked the crowd for leaving the Mitte art center and coming out to “old” West Berlin. At this point, the crowd, which was actually largely made up of the sort of West Berlin lawyers and dentists who compose the “Friends,” fluttered with local patriotism.
On Thursday, the week hit its stride with the opening of the Art Forum fair and the Koons and Paul Klee shows at Neue Nationalgalerie. At Art Forum, it was business as usual. Eigen + Art’s Judy Lybke explained his ideal fair schedule: Sell out on the first day (he was just short of it, still offering a few smaller paintings when I passed), tell everybody about it on the second day, redecorate on the third, and then sell out again. At Contemporary Fine Arts’s booth, I spotted artist Markus Lüpertz, and everyone was atwitter over Georg Herold’s caviar paintings, which one passerby labeled “über-Deutsch.” CFA’s Philipp Haverkampf was in good spirits. He reported a decrease in phone calls for a few days after the Dow’s first major drop in September, but now, “Things are back to busy.” My favorite instance of color coordination had to be Oliver Koerner von Gustorf of September, who sported a purple jumper to contrast with his booth’s fluorescent yellow walls. No surprise he went on to win one of the fair’s two awards for “best stand.”
Left: Neue Nationalgalerie interim director Joachim Jäger with artist Annette Kelm. Right: Artist Christian Philipp Mueller and dealer Christian Nagel.
From there I headed to the Neue Nationalgalerie for the opening of “Der Kult des Künstlers: Koons and Klee”—a veritable exercise in alliteration. Peter-Klaus Schuster, retiring director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Nationalgalerie, has been staging a slate of exhibitions around the theme of the cult of the artist. The series—which has featured Beuys, Giacometti, Schinkel, Warhol, and now Klee and Koons—constituted something of a farewell gesture before he stepped down on October 31. (Perhaps “Cult of the Curator” would have been a more fitting title.) Sadly, the Koons show lacks the nerve of his exhibition at Versailles—and what is Koons sans controversy?
At the opening, Thaddaeus Ropac’s Arne Ehmann argued that, contra current wisdom, it was wise for collectors to buy art on credit. Ehmann advocated stocking up on Marc Brandenburg, but writer (and Koons expert) Rainald Goetz opted for a purple Koons egg instead. Time was running late, though (and the guards were getting nasty), so I set off for a dinner on behalf of the friendly arts organization Galerie im Regierungsviertel hosted by artist Tjorg Douglas Beer and Art Basel’s Maike Cruse. The pair had invited a lively mixture to their home. Beer cooked the meat himself, while I discussed the merits of anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner with Kunst-Werke’s Gabriele Horn and artist Ylva Ogland. Artist Andreas Golder kept jumping up to get more wine, and the night kept up a warm and happy pace until someone finally broke out the Williams Christ brandy.
Left: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans. Right: Architect Adolf Krischanitz, Eigen + Art's Judy Lybke, and Holger Nawrocki. (Photo: Ralf Kranert)
Friday night commenced with yet another string of must-see openings. At Julius Werner, Sigmar Polke presented his “Lens” paintings, delirious glops of paint over patchwork and “corrugated” surfaces; sadly, the eminent artist had canceled his attendance at the last minute. Across the street at Aurel Scheibler, Malcolm McLaren, who would never miss one of his own openings, could be found outside smoking a cigarette with artist Jim Lambie, while people crowded inside to see his “musical paintings”—slow-motion images sampled from ’60s amateur porn.
Farther east, on Karl-Marx-Allee, Gisela Capitain and Friedrich Petzel opened their joint venture, called, unsurprisingly, Capitain Petzel—a striking gallery located in a modernist complex built during the socialist era. For the inaugural exhibition, gallery artists were asked to react to both the era and the gallery’s premises. The place was packed, and it was almost impossible to see the art. Petzel kept murmuring that he didn’t know anyone and jokily threatened to lock himself in his office, but Capitain wouldn’t let him. The grandiose location seems almost from a different era, as it was so obviously designed before the crisis. The dinner filled the colonnaded French restaurant Borchardt. At my table, critic Noemi Smolik chatted with collector Udo Brandhorst, not about his forthcoming museum in Munich, but about soccer. Meanwhile, others compared the launches of über-galleries Sprüth Magers and Capitain Petzel. (Sprüth Magers, which debuted their Berlin branch a little over a week prior, features only one artist, Thomas Scheibitz, and is more in line with the classic architecture of the Museum Island.)
Afterward, I skipped Peres Projects’s Halloween bash and set off for the illegal club Ritter Butzke, where a throng of drunken artists, critics, and dealers had gathered for the launch of the latest issue of Monopol. For a moment, anyway, thoughts of the economy dissipated; no crisis here, neither at the bar, nor at the decks.
Left: Isabella Bortolozzi's Marta Lusena with artist Danh Vo. Right: Berlin Nationalgalerie director Udo Kittelmann, Katharina von Chlebowski, and art historian Lutz Driever.
WHILE THE ART WORLD likes to boast of a nuanced relationship to politics—albeit one that often bears a suspicious resemblance to apathy when it comes time to take a stand—it’s also loath to pass up the opportunity for a good party. And for all the studied ambivalence and ambiguity in which artists and their associates indulge, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. So it was that on Tuesday’s night of decision, a clutch of Manhattan galleries transformed themselves into oversize TV lounges for the benefit of those without plasma screens and cheap wine at home.
Invitations abounded, including one for a “sleepover” at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, another to a DJ party at the New Museum, and one for a Creative Time gathering at the Norwood. At Exit Art, the midtown nonprofit had already customized their storefront neon sign, altering it to a stridently optimistic CHANGE, and followed up inside with an offer of “change purses” at ten bucks apiece. Doors opened at seven, and by the time I arrived half an hour later, the long, winding line for the open bar was already mimicking those at the polls. Early birds were comfortably installed on sofas ranged in front of two projection screens, while the rest of the crowd roamed the space slurping at cups of broth from a temporary soup kitchen (a comment on the economy, perhaps) and, when there were no results to whoop at, gazed distractedly at the LIVE SCREEN PRINTING!! in progress throughout.
At Gavin Brown’s West Village space, distractions were fewer, but those assembled were just as enthused. In the packed gallery, Jonathan Horowitz’s unequivocally titled show “Obama ’08” made a perfect backdrop for an evening of sanctioned couch-potato behavior, offering an auditorium divided into red and blue halves, with screens relaying Fox News to one side (guess which?) and CNN to the other. Also helping to set the scene were a series, lining the walls, of portraits depicting every president (Obama’s was present, but not yet hung) and a net on the ceiling filled with festive balloons. Camera crews—from the Huffington Post, among others—jostled for position as new arrivals forwent the hard seats ranged around the room’s perimeter in favor of the carpeted floor.
Left: Artist Jonathan Horowitz. Right: The election results on Fox News.
Upstairs, the smaller crowd was dense with art-world celebs, all chomping on chili, swilling beer, and clustering around a solitary, smaller video projection in hope of catching news as it broke. Among those craning for a view alongside Brown and Horowitz were artists Elizabeth Peyton, Rob Pruitt, Fia Backström, Jeremy Deller, and Leigh Ledare, curators Alison Gingeras, Bob Nickas, and Laura Hoptman, dealers Carol Greene and Lisa Cooley, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley with writer Bill Powers, and musician Mira Billotte of White Magic. Mary-Kate Olsen was there, too—on the arm of artist Nate Lowman—as was the redoubtable Clarissa Dalrymple, complaining vociferously about TV ad breaks.
As the news of, well, you know what, broke, the place erupted in cheers and applause and all seemed right with the world. In the gallery, balloons were popped en masse, and Horowitz’s image of the new president elect was ceremoniously installed. A drift toward the exit began shortly thereafter, but for many the party would go on, wending its way into the streets and squares. And in Peyton’s case, the celebration would extend into a more lasting artistic statement; the painter’s oil study Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention August 2008, which on Tuesday night hung on the upstairs wall, just south of the chili table, was appended to her current show at the New Museum the following day. Yes, she can.
THOUGH THE REST OF THE WORLD is in turmoil, Los Angeles still features the shimmering, if smog-tainted, veneer of implacability. Hollywood is depression proof; the sun never stops shining, entertainment endures. Or so I thought last Thursday as I walked into Wolfgang Tillmans’s opening at Regen Projects. There was genuine cheer, but also genuine pressure.
Tillmans’s latest series looks like much of his more recent materialist investigations into photography: Grainy snaps of intimate moments with friends are juxtaposed with Plexiglas and plywood tables displaying artifacts—like sketches of the artist’s imagination. Three quiet videos are also on display, one featuring a monumental Mercedes Benz sign revolving along to sentimental music, another depicting the gently quivering hair in a man’s armpit, like a soft-core version of a Fassbinder film. A boyish-looking Bret Easton Ellis passed by wearing a self-confident smile. I couldn’t help but feel the ghost of Ellis’s creation Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, the patron saint of the last Wall Street decade of decadence.
Aside from Los Angeles characters like Ellis and a grim John Taylor of Duran Duran (who broke into an easy smile at a crack about one local critic’s mustache), the crowd and the subsequent dinner eventually separated into several identifiable cliques: jet-set artists (Richard Hawkins, James Welling, Walead Beshty, and Tillmans), a curator’s cabal (jolly Russell Ferguson, dean of UCLA’s fine-arts program, and LACMA’s dashing Charlotte Cotton), and, of course, collectors, still looking bold and carefree.
The chilled white wine and baked Alaskan salmon were delicious at Il Piccolino, and stealing glances at the handsome boys with bold, straight, white smiles and the glitter of diamonds on a dowager’s neck and listening to the guffaws of publishing magnate Benedikt Taschen at the center table, one could be convinced that everything might turn out all right after all. As I was leaving, I asked the unflappable Tillmans how he liked Los Angeles. “Such a Western city. It’s a thrill to be here.” He smiled down at me. “The throbbing traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard—it’s like people wanting to be alive.”
Would that traffic evoked such romantic feelings in all of us. I felt anything but sentimental the next afternoon, torpidly slugging down the freeway into Orange County, the heart of the housing bust, a grid of cinder-block walls obscuring an ocean of tract houses filled with armies of ardent Republicans. The local foreclosure rate is up 46 percent from last year, it’s ninety degrees, and the hills are on fire. But the show—in this case the 2008 California Biennial—must go on.
I arrived an hour late; thankfully, so did everyone else. At least I was in time for the opening speeches delivered by perpetually laid-back OCMA director Dennis Szakacs, very pregnant curator Lauri Firstenberg, and OCMA board member (and Deutsche Bank rep) Craig Wells. Wells’s was the usual boilerplate, though he did elicit a snicker or two when he characterized the biennial as a good place for the bank to add to its collection. The dinner was formally introduced by unshaven but otherwise dapper San Francisco–based artist Julio César Morales. He announced that the meal was not just a meal but a performance, which I instantly took to mean the food would be terrible. It was, though at least the concept was compelling, based as it was on Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s final meal before he lost California to the United States.
Left: Artists Edgar Arceneaux and Shannon Ebner. Right: Artist Richard Hawkins.
The biennial is (quite literally) all over the place. A large swath of the fifty-three exhibiting artists and groups, including Margaret Honda, Aaron Sandnes, and Brenna Youngblood, don’t actually have work at or near the museum. Instead, their projects are spread across the state (and even beyond, dipping a toe into Tijuana). The show was organized according to a complex structure—students exhibit alongside their former teachers; the exhibition begins as a general portrait of California but then refocuses to feature younger artists who spread out across the state. It all left me a little flummoxed.
As soon as the clock struck 10 PM, the museum guards forcefully ushered us out, at which point a gaggle of artists headed over to a pool party at their hotel in Irvine. When I arrived, Los Angeles–based artist Jedediah Caesar handed me a lukewarm Modelo. Caesar’s work in the biennial unites the disparate elements of California in a single gesture. For the piece, he drove his truck throughout the state, collecting detritus along the highway to create a layer cake of garbage—stratum upon stratum of California pinecones, cigarette butts, and busted paper cups—inside the truck’s bed and cab. I asked Caesar whether he had come to any grand conclusions about California during his thirty-five-hundred-mile adventure. “Many,” he said, after a long pause. “California’s a much bigger place than you think.”
Left: Artist Dario Robleto, artist Shana Lutker, dealer Lucien Terras, and art historian Kris Paulsen. Right: Artists Andy and Ed Moses.
“LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE” is the way Pierre Huyghe described the effect he was after when he blacked out the Guggenheim’s cavernous interior for the Opening event he staged the Friday evening before last; the artist’s contribution to the museum’s current all-over exhibition, “theanyspacewhatever,” required viewers to sport tiny headlights to navigate the building’s spiral ramp. In recalling the familiar holiday emblem, Huyghe referred to the way the decorative lights disappear the tree’s branches and boughs, leaving behind only the fragrance of pine and a disembodying pinpoint constellation. An evocative rendering commissioned by the artist, one of a dozen or so contained in a deceptively modest book of transfer images that serves as Huyghe’s secondary contribution to the exhibition, illustrates this mental image. As if to offer a guide, on the night of the event, Nancy Spector, the exhibition’s curator, could be found, sans headgear, taping the image to one of the lower ramp ledges. A little farther up the ramp, holding light and a notebook in one hand, New York Times critic Roberta Smith stood squinting down at the darkened mezzanine, where Rirkrit Tiravanija’s multichannel, videotaped interviews with his relational peers had been quieted for the evening’s event.
The event, as it happened, was impressive, and shot through with magic; but it was also flawed. Or to use the artist’s disclaimer: compromised. (That compromise, which the artist anticipated in an earlier conversation, stemmed from the impossibility—for security reasons—of making the museum truly pitch-black.) In situ, the problem seemed more that the required equipment—the clumsy headband lights viewers were required to wear—was an encumbrance and made it difficult for viewers to, well, view. The overall effect was not quite as transporting as the Christmas-tree source Huyghe suggested, nor as elegantly theatrical as his transfer-book image. (It also evoked the premise of David Hammons’s 2002 “Concerto in Black and Blue,” in which visitors to Ace Gallery were given blue fiber-optic flashlights with which to navigate the darkened space, though it’s worth noting that the disorienting impact of Hammons’s installation had more to do with its complete unexpectedness, and the artist’s elusive, “just do it” surreptitiousness—an inverse of Huyghe’s modus operandi, in which everything is advertised, and spectacle is assumed.) But experiencing the museum as a sort of spectral mine, at some predawn hour—feeling out the space rather than tracing the spiral optically—worked to enhance the social hivelike possibility the Guggenheim’s open interior invites. The movement of those concentrated, head-held glares of light was wonderfully fluid, leaving barely perceptible trails, like slow-motion traffic in time-lapse film.
Up top, people got into playing shadow games on Jorge Pardo’s maze of Swiss-cheese dividers, and the darkness amplified sound, as darkness will do, making any unexpected noise scary. So when a photographer dropped a lens, the crowd audibly shivered and roared. For an all-too-brief moment, the evening’s tenor of uncertain, self-conscious curiosity broke open, allowing the advertised “disruption” and “disorientation” of the museum space to kick in. But that one real moment only intensified the sense of anxious and, ultimately, disappointed anticipation, which became the evening’s de facto subject.
At his unabashedly spectacular 2005 Public Art Fund event, brilliantly sited at the old Wollman Rink, with the “naturally” cinematic, glittery skyline of Central Park South looming as backdrop, viewers served as both players and witnesses to the filming of Huyghe’s Antarctic adventure, A Journey That Wasn’t. Though the preparations for Huyghe’s Guggenheim event were quite fastidious—both lights and electronic displays were shut off, every street-level window blacked out, and off-ramp installations locked—somehow, the Guggenheim’s protected interior, coupled with Huyghe’s reticence, made his generically titled Opening and its abstract “anyspacewhatever” context more of an anti-event.
The sense of uncertain but upbeat anticipation resurfaced at 8 PM, as the lights came up and much of the audience turned round to descend into the museum’s subterranean theater for Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Ari Benjamin Meyers’s world premiere of the theatrical performance NY. 2022. Billed as an original work, the performance was actually built backward: The powerfully affecting final act was conceived for the 2007 festival “Il Tempo del Postino,” held in Manchester, and the opening set piece, featuring a stationary cyclist set beneath a modest, inverted cross, mimicked an earlier performance by Maurizio Cattelan.
The forty-five minutes that followed, featuring alternately endearing and awkwardly symbolic set pieces, cast members showering naked, and an almost too-poignant orchestral version of Beethoven’s Sixth, were suffused with a mix of nostalgia and déjà vu, evincing as they did the sort of earlier-generation self-consciousness almost inextricably associated with avant-garde performance. Most of the cast for NY. 2022 mingled inconspicuously with the audience until they performed. At one point, a number of these scattered players opened bags of candy, noisily passing them from seat to seat, in another familiar, much-ado gesture of convention flouting.
For all the strained efforts at symbolism and allusion—a water bottle serving as “last water” for the sexy shower scene; the noisy cooking of “last food,” inspired by the insidious cannibalism of the movie Soylent Green; and fair-maiden models in Balenciaga gowns making battery-operated music on children’s toy instruments also inspired by that film—the chorus of elderly actors singing achingly corny songs ever-so-carefully off-key, and the Staten Island Orchestra musicians dutifully departing on silent cue, were truly, deeply affecting. Perhaps more to the point, as you caught on to the plaintive logic of the emptying stage and diminishing performance, you began to calculate exactly how many musicians it takes to make an ensemble.
Though Huyghe’s aesthetics are acutely imagistic, and Gonzalez-Foerster’s are primarily auricular, the two are tied together by a shared sense of self-conscious conflictedness. Indeed, the same could be said for the majority of “theanyspacewhatever’s” artists. Only Cattelan appears exempt: Even when a given work fails, his gesture is invariably confident. His fallen Disney-style Pinocchio sculpture, floating facedown in the museum’s elegant wishing pond, offers the exhibition’s most singular image.
Spector’s show, then, is brave, but not brave enough. Or perhaps it mistakes wishful thinking for the erratic and eccentric utopianism that animates the best of these artists’ works. The fact that the conceit ostensibly linking these artists, the much-maligned, rarely elaborated concept of “relational aesthetics,” is never mentioned by name only reinforces this deep-seated ambivalence. This is not just because the artists assembled here, like most designated art-world groups, are, in spite of their protests, in fact a group. It’s that the group, like any celebrated group, comprises a gaggle of outsize, if unusually generous, egos, which Spector seems at pains to contain. Pressed to elaborate on their “groupiness,” Huyghe, and several others, questioned the exhibition’s timing—in recent years, individual ambitions and reputations have created a dynamic that is no longer one of collaboration. As Huyghe himself noted, citing cohort Liam Gillick, “The only problem with ‘relational aesthetics’ is the word relational.”