Left: Calvin Klein with artists Robert Wilson and Ross Bleckner. Right: Isabella Rosselini. (Photos: Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan)
IT TAKES GUTS to specify “flaming” as a dress code in the Hamptons, but the annual benefit for Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center, a “laboratory for performance” tucked away near Southampton, is a sufficiently established date on the local social calendar (this was the sixteenth installment) that a crowd is assured no matter what the sartorial stipulation. Even so, while many guests at Saturday evening’s “Inferno” shindig made at least a nod toward the too-hot-to-handle theme, a few went to the opposite extreme; The Whitney’s Shamim Momin, Participant Inc.’s Lia Gangitano, and performance-art poster girl Marina Abramovic, for example, had evidently abandoned the attempt to unearth anything but basic black in their summer wardrobes. Others, like MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, clad in powder-blue linen, went for lighter but similarly cool alternatives. (Among those who did try: writer Jay McInerney and Real Housewife countess LuAnn de Lesseps.)
Required first to negotiate Sue de Beer’s Ring of Trees—the installation was set on a floor of loose rocks that sent those clad in high heels (of which there were many) flailing for support—guests emerged onto the center’s expansive rear courtyard, where one marquee, housing auction lots, faced off against another, marked for dinner. While fuel in the form of cocktails was dispensed, an oddball lineup of carnivalesque happenings opened with a fire eater and continued with a group of children clustered into the form of a giant spider. Riverbed Theater’s quieter intervention, Flowers of E, occupied the roof of an ancillary building, as a torch-lit wooded area at the property’s far end was dotted with further diversions. Perhaps most absorbing of these, if only for its incongruous austerity, was a performance that combined drama, dance, and music in a stark, ritualistic style for an audience split between those earnestly scribbling notes and those just looking worried.
“Certain critics hated it, certain critics loved it.” Back by the auction tent, which was starting to look busy by seven or so, Stetson-wearing musician Rufus Wainwright was holding court about his own recent output and anticipating his upcoming set at the Watermill’s “Last Song of Summer” gig in August. Masked by shades, critic James Trainor kept a somewhat lower profile, while Team Gallery’s Alex Logsdail played us an alarming iPhone slide show that pictured his own eyes ringed with bruises, the now-faded results of a recent accident.
Wandering over to the dinner tent for a reccy, I was treated not to the sought-after meal, but to sundry exchanges perhaps more representative of those who had actually paid to be there. “A friend of ours just moved into an artists’ co-op on Sixty-seventh Street,” one senior gent was telling his party. “A neighbor came by and introduced himself as ‘Paul.’ Turned out it was Paul from Peter, Paul, and Mary!” “Oh yes,” one of his audience responded brightly, “we know him too!” “Supposedly David Bowie is here—have you seen him?” a twinkly white-haired man asked me as I took a seat beside him and his wife for a quick overview. I confessed that I hadn’t. “The de Menils are around, though,” he advised me. “Lovely people.” Admiring Yochai Matos’s fluorescent-tube installation Flame Gate, we both confessed to having mistaken it for a Dan Flavin at first look. “We used to go to his Halloween parties,” he recalled. “Bit of a grumpy guy.”
Left: Real Housewives of New York star Countess LuAnn de Lesseps. Right: Artist Terence Koh with collector Beth Rudin DeWoody. (Photos: Neil Rasmus/Patrick McMullan)
As the bell finally rang for chow, we trailed into the big-top-like enclosure. With no obvious logic to the seating, I found myself opposite genial Puerto Rican artist Enoc Perez and his wife, jewelry designer Carole Le Bris. By my side was an aloof benefit regular named Chad, accompanied by a female friend with the flamboyant moniker of Stormy, clearly the target of his interest that night. As artist C. Ryder Cooley performed aerial acrobatics against a projected backdrop, purportedly “invoking visions of human and animal interrelations in response to times of violence and war” but tending more immediately to elicit comparisons with Cirque du Soleil, host Jorn Weisbrodt introduced testimonials from some of Watermill’s other past and current (and future) artists-in-residence. Wildly varied in style and content but uniformly disarming, these veered in one bizarre case into an unexpected and deafening rendition of “That’s the Way I Like It.” Only Robert Wilson himself came close in terms of strangeness, his own speech ending on a non sequitur about Jessye Norman, followed by an out-of-nowhere but heartfelt “Yes, we can!”
A WARM, HIGH-SUMMER EVENING IN THE CITY found a good proportion of New York’s first-tier museum directors and curators present at the Guggenheim to hear a conversation with peripatetic Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, currently codirector of the Serpentine Gallery in London. Lisa Phillips, Glenn Lowry, and Thelma Golden were among those paying this compliment to their visiting colleague. (One important local director, who arrived without a ticket, was turned away from the sold-out event.) They and the quietly attentive crowd were rewarded with a rapid-fire but softly spoken seminar by Obrist, who was prodded by succinct questions from the museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, and chief curator, Nancy Spector, on the forgotten history of curating as both intellectual discipline and experimental art form, indeed as the primary object of a modern art history yet to be written.
The ostensible occasion for Monday’s event was the “relaunch” of Obrist’s 2008 book, A Brief History of Curating, composed from interviews he had accumulated since the 1990s with curators whose examples he saw as formative for his own practice. The names ranged from those with the renown of Pontus Hultén and Anne d’Harnoncourt to those of more esoteric reputation, like Jean Leering and Franz Meyer, who directed public collections in Eindhoven and Krefeld respectively, as well as collaborating on an influential Documenta exhibition each. Behind such figures, Obrist was at pains to emphasize, lay other, equally important innovators, whose contributions are in danger of slipping from historical consciousness altogether. An example he cited more than once was the late James Speyer of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose training in another field (architecture with Mies van der Rohe) Obrist finds to be a common thread among the true pioneers.
Fortunately for those who missed many of those names in the course of Obrist’s swift allusions, these genealogies can be reviewed at leisure in his book. He was more than clear, however, in insisting that the history of modern art, as construed by the museum and the academy alike, has been narrowly and uncritically limited to a history of objects, when it might be more fully understood as a history of exhibitions. He pointed out that exhibitions are not collected nor have they been documented with the consistency and depth that historical research requires, leaving in obscurity the work and imagination of curators who absorbed the lore of their elders and informally passed on their accumulated expertise to the succeeding generation: Only by comprehending those genealogies can we understand how some objects rather than others entered into conventional art history. In his recent experience, Obrist went on to say, the improvised discipline of curating has been straining against its confinement to the art world, offering a model of communication and the articulation of knowledge that is increasingly attractive to scientists, architects, and novelists.
Six of Obrist’s eleven interview subjects died before the book saw the light of day, and that fact lent the low-key passion of Obrist’s remarks both an urgent and an elegiac character. The Guggenheim has a special institutional interest in memorializing one of the departed, Walter Hopps, who organized its Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist retrospectives from his base as adviser to the Menil Collection in Houston. Obrist places his exchange with Hopps at the beginning of his sequence of interviews, which made for a nice alignment of priorities between author and institution that evening. In a charming touch, event co-organizers ForYourArt distributed to the audience reproductions of the badge reading WALTER HOPPS WILL BE HERE IN TWENTY MINUTES, which his staffs at the Pasadena Museum of Art, the Corcoran, and the Smithsonian once wore with a mixture of exasperation and pride.
The conversation had indeed been announced as an opportunity to hear all three participants reflect on Hopps’s legacy, though there were some listeners lingering at the reception afterward who felt that the designated man of the hour had never really arrived as a vivid presence in the discussion. Not that Obrist was stinting in his praise, particularly for Hopps’s ability to conceive an exhibition as a “self-organizing” entity, notably in the 1978 “Thirty-Six Hours” exhibition in Washington, where Hopps announced that he would hang any work brought to the venue (the Museum of Temporary Art) during the titular time frame of the show—an example Obrist said was kept securely in his own “toolbox” of ideas. It is also more than clear that Obrist shares with Hopps a fearless drive to take chances and confound categories, combined with a warmly inclusive generosity toward valid artmaking at all levels and in any medium.
For an audience that skewed toward the young, however, it might have been illuminating to spend a little more of the allotted time bringing out the essential style of Hopps as counterweight to the ever-present forces of institutional conformity. Some pictures might have helped: During the ’60s, when his peers embraced the counterculture, he always wore a suit and tie. Those who knew him best called him Chico, a link to his physician father’s expatriate years in Mexico. In his later years, as museum-executive style had veered toward aping the sartorial armor of Wall Street and corporate trustees, Hopps went casual with a broad-brimmed hat that brought out the charro evoked by his youthful nickname. The tall, angular presence; the even, never ruffled speech; the deep well of experience behind nearly every utterance: It would take Clint Eastwood in glasses to play him. Even a shadow of that Hopps would have been worth just about any wait.
Left: Artists Katya Usvitsky and Sean Noyce. Right: Artist Jo Owens Murray. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)
ON A SUNNY SATURDAY MORNING IN JULY, the art-world version of A Chorus Line (“I hope I get it!”) snaked around the streets surrounding White Columns in the West Village. Hundreds of artists—each “one singular sensation”—showed up to an open call for the “untitled art project” now casting by Bravo. Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company is teaming with Magical Elves (Top Chef, Project Runway) to do for contemporary art what those other shows have done for food and frocks. All morning (some arrived at 1 AM), the slow-moving line maintained its crazy length as latecomers arrived and replaced the early birds. (A total of twelve hundred had already been screened in Chicago, Miami, and LA.)
Instead of hoofing and singing, they schlepped portfolios, laptops, and samples of their work. One toted a life-size painting of himself as Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows. The “Walking Art Museum” lady was an adhesive gabber from “near Philly. For now. I’d love to be here. I need to divorce my husband and find a rich guy,” she chuckled with Phyllis Diller–like bravado. She’d hauled her objets on the subway: A pink plastic scooter bore a mirror and trinket-encrusted mannequin torso, plus other items festooned with mirrors, faces, beads, and doll parts. A live topless chick in a G-string was a painting in progress—and a cheesy attention-getting device—for the chap who intently daubed away at her in blue while she passed out his business cards.
Along with the oddballs, the outsider naifs, and the boring juried-art-show types (both representational and abstract), there were a handful (among those I randomly chatted with) who had something going on. A cute young couple from Brooklyn were there, hoping—like everyone else—to quit their day jobs: She was a Russian-born “subversive knitter” (and graphic artist by day); he was from Utah and made “satirical portraits of Mormon patriarchs” that were a bit Peter Saul–esque. From Boston, a wit who had answered “Scott” on the questionnaire when asked to describe himself in one word had an equally apt business card: I PAINT ASTRONAUTS AND SOMETIMES, DINOSAURS. Which he did, quite amusingly.
As I scanned the line, the sight of all that hopefulness, vulnerability, and probable rejection was poignant. Rejection happens all the time in the art world, but it’s rarely so visible. Like puppies in an art pound, everyone made eye contact, eager to pitch: It was a primal display of “putting yourself out there” denuded of any social foreplay. As someone who identifies too well with people about to have their bubble burst, I marveled how actors have to do this all the time.
“You should do it as a piece,” said photographer Ryan McNamara’s friend when they heard about the show. “Hmm, a piece about being a fame whore . . . Isn’t that already built into being an artist?” he riffed.
Were they looking for good artists or for people who’d make for good reality TV? A self-aware person’s not going to be a clown, and cluelessness and telegenic meltdowns are key to the genre. In a brief chat, casting director Nick Gilhool emphasized that they are indeed going for art-world cred here: They’re involving “art professionals and luminaries whose names you would recognize. It’s kind of a cloistered community, and we’re bringing that into kind of a pop-culture setting.” When I wondered how this would translate for TV, he observed: “If you have some legs (as an artist) you’re gonna be an interesting person—that sort of takes care of itself.”
Most details about the show are either top secret or not yet decided. We do know that auctioneer Simon de Pury will be one of the “art-world luminaries” involved, and taping will begin this fall. Each applicant filled out a probing questionnaire that was like a year’s worth of therapy in thirteen pages (“What would someone close to you describe as your best and worst traits?” “What makes you nervous?”); a draconian nondisclosure agreement would demand one million dollars–plus for any breach of confidentiality. Press was forbidden to approach anyone after they’d been screened or G-d knows what would happen. The psychic root canal of the questionnaire plus potential financial penalties mingled fond hopes of Cinderella-like art stardom with a Foucauldian whiff of disciplinary regimes and clinics. Nevertheless, the mood was upbeat, if slightly abashed, on the line, buoyed by the random camaraderie of mutual vulnerability and the subterranean buzz of ambition, however insane.
Most were philosophical: “Just another thing, another marketing thing,” said another “encruster,” an ex-model from Bridgeport. “Life is a spectacle to begin with, so why not?” mused a photographer who’d flown in from Dallas. One applicant, Lulu, was so certain she’d be picked she’d already quit her job working with seniors. A warm gal exuding a “school of hard knocks” vibe, she came in on the bus from Boston the night before. From a bulging black portfolio, she pulled several framed portraits of women. “This one’s for the Jews.” She eyed me intently as I wondered if I’d heard her right: “My Holocaust piece.” It depicted a gray hand on a plump, flesh-colored breast: “The hand of Germany. Black and white. Cold and dead. The breast represents life.” Oy. “One singular sensation,” indeed.
Left: Dealer Erica Redling, MoCA curator Ann Goldstein, and artist Christopher Williams. Right: MoCA associate curator Bennett Simpson.
“LIKE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC IN A GAY SEX CLUB,” observed MC Gallery’s Renaud Proch last Friday night as we watched Mark Verabioff and Flora Wiegmann’s performance at the Eighth Veil. Hollywood’s latest gallery takes its name from the Seventh Veil, an adjacent strip club on Sunset Boulevard. That club’s neon arabesque sign flickered over the crowd waiting outside, which included artists Jedidiah Caesar, Mary Weatherford, and Eli Langer, as well Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery director Enkhe Dashdavaa, and recent LA transplant Shamim Momin.
When the door finally swung open, a disembodied, but not unappealing high-heeled leg appeared, hanging down from the balcony office. “Go ahead and touch it,” suggested Eighth Veil co-owner Kane Austin. “I think it’s a part of the piece.”
Verabioff (much taller than Toulouse-Lautrec) squatted in the center of the gallery wearing nothing but black hot pants, a coat, and flip-flops; his face was tied up with white rope. The scene recalled something from a West Hollywood S&M dungeon. Wiegmann, clad only in black denim boyshorts and a black boa, looked right at home on the Strip, her thickly kohled eyes, lugubrious moves, and deadened stare redolent of a failed starlet. Through a thick fog pouring out from under Verabioff, a video projection flashed his trademark texts, a seemingly nonsensical mixture of pop and art-world celebrity. UC FATHER FIGURE CHARLES RAY DISPATCHED PREHAB WITH FALL ’91 MAYDAY OVERAWE. As Verabioff described it to me after the performance, the piece brings together uncut cocks, Matthew Marks, and James Bond with the venerable LA “father figure.”
But art-world “daddies,” (both Charles Ray and the leather-clad kind) were off the agenda the following night. I first stopped in Culver City at Honor Fraser, where critic-turned-consultant Emma Gray had curated an exhibition of emerging LA women artists titled “Bitch is the New Black.” Just moments before the 6 PM opening, Gray was flitting around the counter next to Fraser, pricing a final few works. A brisk tour commenced. As we stood in front of a photograph of the half-naked and profoundly pregnant Cathy Akers pissing in the woods, Gray pronounced the rear gallery “the Earth Bitch Room,” a declaration I wasn’t inclined to argue with.
At Cherry and Martin up the road, I ran into Mihai Nicodim, who was moving his Chinatown gallery to Culver City to join a new warren of blue-chip spaces spearheaded by David Kordansky. He was raving to artist Kori Newkirk about a few Romanian painters (Adrian Ghenie and Ciprian Muresan) that seemed to be recession-proof. “I ought to start painting again,” lamented Newkirk. “At least they can sleep at night.”
After swinging by Mark Roeder’s opening at Sister, a summer group show at Cottage Home (co-organized by China Art Objects, Sister, and Thomas Solomon), Solomon’s inaugural opening of his own new gallery, and Aaron G.M.’s frenetic performance at Parker Jones, I ended up, as per usual for a night in Chinatown, drinking in China Art Objects’s basement, where quite a few painters and other artists, including Roeder, Mimi Lauter, Stephen Rhodes, and Krysten Cunningham were packed in with the gallery’s proprietor Steve Hanson. In the crush of bodies and the haze of smoke, I thought of Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends…, Dave Muller’s Three Day Weekend, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s entire oeuvre, and concluded, along with Hanson, that this, itself, was art. Or at least that’s what we’ll say when the cops show up.
If drinking is art, then the hangover must be the critical reception. Unfortunately, the weekend wasn’t over yet. The following evening I made my way to a party on the front plaza of MoCA to inaugurate the opening of “Collecting History,” an acquisitions survey (like the group show, not an uncommon summer phenomenon). The donors group Happy House spearheaded the party with the help of the PR firm ForYourArt and hip outfitters Opening Ceremony. It was likely the best dressed and most youthful party I’ve ever been to at a museum, which even in the “youth-rules” world of contemporary art tends toward the geriatric. Happy House cofounders Karyn Kohl and Ezra Woods DJ’d The Smiths and The Vaselines, while MoCA associate curator Bennett Simpson slipped in some Sun Ra for his set on the turntables.
I ran into dealer Erica Redling, who was a bit sunburned from Aaron G.M.’s flag-raising earlier that day at collector Shirley Morales’s Hollywood Hills house, where Redling had politely declined to participate in a ping-pong tournament with artists Mark Grotjahn, Nathan Mabry, and Jonas Wood. While cutting through MoCA’s galleries, I came across associate curator Phillip Kaiser and deputy director Ari Wiseman. Kaiser and I commiserated on overlaps between MoCA’s stunning exhibition and Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds” at the Venice Biennale (a yellow screen by Tony Conrad and a wall-work by late Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström, for example), to which Wiseman boasted, “We had them here first.” A default point, perhaps, but the score still seemed clear: LA: 1. Venice: 0.
Left: Dealer David Kordansky and artist Mindy Shapero. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Artists Trulee Hall and Mike Kelley.
THE VEIL OF THE DOWNTURN covers everything these days, especially parties, typically good barometers of both mood and money. Moments after arriving last Saturday at Norah and Norman Stone’s summer soiree at their Napa Valley weekend home, someone told me that the number of RSVPs to the party had exceeded expectations. No doubt this was a reflection of a “staycation” summer (a casual assessment of the group’s demographics confirmed that suspicion), but it had the odd, and welcome, effect of adding a good shot of conviviality to what easily could have been a staid art-world affair. It’s funny how pleasant people can be when they’re not making money. How refreshing it was, too, that not once during this warm evening of eating, drinking, swimming, and art viewing did I hear mention of the Venice Biennale.
Nearly two hundred guests flocked to the town of Calistoga to catch the second installation of works in the Stones’ “Art Cave”—a full-fledged gallery bored into the side of a wooded hill; most of those who came from distant cities were probably taking advantage of cheap flights, though some had enjoyed a leisurely drive up the coast from Los Angeles. Angelenos made up a sizable portion of the party, with dealers such as Marc Foxx, Rodney Hill, Lisa Overduin, and Kristina Kite; curators like Shamim Momin and LA MoCA’s Paul Schimmel; and artist Sterling Ruby, who has work in the cave, in attendance. Walker Art Center director Olga Viso flew in from Minneapolis, apparently to check in with members of her board, many of whom have Valley homes. Chicago dealer Rowley Kennerk showed up for the weekend, and there were even a few San Francisco dealers, including Claudia Altman-Siegel, Chris Perez of Ratio 3, Margaret Tedesco of 2nd Floor Projects, and Matthew Marks West Coast director Sabrina Buell. SF MoMA was well represented, with nearly the entire curatorial staff present, as well as director Neal Benezra, who planned to spend the next day bicycling. It was more of a question of who wasn’t there.
If it was any strain to accommodate the larger crowd, the hosts didn’t let it show. They happily greeted everyone as they alighted, in small groups, on golf-cart shuttles from the parking area. Norah, dressed in a 1960s mod dress and shimmering silver leggings, was posing for pictures with a large group when we arrived. She paused to suggest we pick up one of the thirty-eight-page gallery guides. “Go see the art,” she urged.
The works inside the cave—a cross between a subway tunnel and a Chelsea superspace—were mostly by younger artists working in scrappy mode, with inexpensive materials and unmonumental swagger. A Buren-like Styrofoam and MDF sculpture by Canadian artist Scott Lyall was gilded with a few gold sequins and flattened muffin cups placed on the floor. One work by Sean Paul featured a balloon tethered to a shrink-wrapped stack of Paris Match magazine.
With a few exceptions (Jorge Pardo, Jamie Isenstein . . . not to mention the deceased), nearly all the artists were in attendance, and everyone had the opportunity to chat over mojitos, wine, and oysters, either on a lawn down the hill or by the pool, which itself consists of two James Turrell structures titled Stone Sky. The pathway to the cocktails was accented with an audio piece by Alex Waterman, a series of speakers sunk into the earth that broadcast the recorded sounds of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, bringing a little city to the bucolic wine country. (In a performance later in the evening, he added live cello accompaniment.)
It all made for a picturesque backdrop when we sat down to dinner—local, seasonal, natch—at a really long table adjacent to a field of lavender and in view of the vineyards. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there, chattering in the gloaming. Artist Frances Stark, who had happened to be at a family reunion in the area, was experiencing some pleasant culture shock. “A few hours ago I was hanging out with my relatives drinking Buds,” she told me, wide-eyed. While conversations occasionally meandered toward the art, most attendees dispensed with even the pretenses of loftier discourse and instead expanded on the easy icebreaker: “Are you going swimming?” The hosts’ changing rooms were well stocked with toiletries and paper swimsuits and monogrammed bathing caps, but it wasn’t always an easy sell. Having taken the plunge last year, I tried my best to persuade the timid; it was not only a wonderful visual experience (for viewing the night sky) but also a democratizing social scenario. Nothing beats seeing a major collector in a one-piece.
Perhaps the naysayers were softened by the wine (the Stones’ own impressive 2005 Cabernet) and the warm night, or maybe it was the desire to forget about the recession, but by 10 PM the pool was well populated with people who, over dinner, had said they wouldn’t dare. Inside the watery Turrell I ran into Altman-Siegel, Buell, and Perez, each of whom had given in and gone with the flow. They quizzed Norman Stone on the finer points of the installation. “You’ll never see a truer black,” Stone said, pointing to the perfect square of night sky. Outside, DJs (and artists) Jimmy Raskin and Cheyney Thompson drew both the bathing-suited and the fully clothed to the patio-cum–dance floor. By midnight, when I headed back to the shuttle, the crowd had thinned to a lively core of guests who clearly had better things to do than worry about tomorrow.
Left: Ethan Wagner and dealer Andrew Kreps. Right: Artists Ken Goldberg and Trevor Paglen. (Photo: Glen Helfand)
ON MY WAY TO LAST WEEKEND’S OPENING for the Manchester International Festival, fellow passengers on my Moscow-London direct could hardly stop grumbling about the recent heat wave. Discouraged by the reports, I was pleasantly surprised to find Manchester in its characteristically dismal shade, stuck in that half-rain state that suits a city of bummed cigarettes, franchise sandwich shops, and red-tag sales at Primark. As if to make up for the weather, I was greeted at the train station by an army of alarmingly cheery MIF volunteers literally elbowing one another out of the way to hand me a festival map. They then provided a brightly colored umbrella and offered up plastic cups of white wine and orange juice, determined to at least give the impression of sunshine.
Following the breakout hit “Il Tempo del Postino” in 2007 (resurrected last month for Art Basel), this year’s hopes for a “Manchester Miracle,” as Hans Ulrich Obrist insisted on calling it, centered on “Marina Abramovic Presents.” The ambitious live exhibition, which required Manchester University’s Whitworth Art Gallery to move its entire collection to storage, imagines what a museum of performance might look like. Fourteen artists, including Abramovic, perform four hours a day for the duration of the festival (a little more than two weeks). On arrival, visitors are asked to don lab coats, leave their bags—and, more pressingly, cell phones—at the entrance, and commit to staying the full four hours, after which they are awarded a summer-camp-esque commemorative certificate. The project is dedicated to Tehching Hsieh, whom Abramovic introduced at the opening as her personal hero, applauding his decision to “quit art” and “just do life,” an act Abramovic interpreted as exemplary of the “transformative power of art.” Hsieh looked less convinced as he smiled shyly, shrugging off the praise and slipping to the back of the room to avoid attention.
The program begins with Abramovic’s The Drill, a crash course in performance-art appreciation, during which the artist purrs instructions on how to breathe, walk, drink water, and stare deeply into another’s eyes. (Blissful in that yogic “less is more” way, though it might have been more fun to skip the rest of the show and just wander through the empty halls, feeling up the walls and gazing into air ducts in a Marina-induced trance.)
The erotic energy of Abramovic’s exercises suffused the rest of the exhibition experience. There were few, if any, rules for the other performances, though nudity seemed to be de rigueur. In a piece titled simply Nudity, Yingmei Duan “confronted” the taboos of her Chinese upbringing by spending the four hours naked, standing uncomfortably close to visitors, her eyes squinted in shame. (It would seem her fingers had a different upbringing, given the way they wandered freely along her body.) Meanwhile, Kira O’Reilly, also au naturel, spent the hours slowly tumbling down the stairs in a “reenactment” of Nude Descending the Staircase.
Though performed fully clothed, by far the most erotic work belonged to the phenomenal Eunhye Hwang, who did a kind of Dance of the Seven Veils using handheld radios tuned to static, followed by a coquettish duet with a green Jell-O mold. Afterward, visitors were given spoons and invited to partake. For his piece, Terence Koh curled up in a fetal position in the front hall. “I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not,” one visitor confessed. She paused, biting her lip. “Then again, is that supposed to matter?” Clearly, The Drill had put the fear of performance art into more than one attendee. (“I just took my contacts out,” Koh later clarified. “I’m shy. I didn’t want to see all these strangers staring at me.” Because this is an artist known for his timidity . . .)
The next morning, participants in the “VIP” program congregated at the Manchester Cathedral. The sculpture (a figure who looked to be contemplating a handheld device) presiding at the cathedral’s entrance reminded me of the previous day’s unofficial reception for Gustav Metzger, when I had snared a seat on the couch with MIF director Alex Poots, Obrist, RoseLee Goldberg, and Klaus Biesenbach, all of whom were furrowing their brows over their respective BlackBerries. Inside the cathedral, the art dignitaries pocketed their phones (briefly) and huddled in close—one curator literally cupping his ears—to hear the elfin Metzger speak about his Flailing Trees, a project consisting of twenty-one willow trees that were flayed and then placed upside down in cement outside.
Not up for another round at the Whitworth, I skipped out on the VIP version (thus missing the opportunity to stare deeply into the eyes of musician Antony Hegarty), rejoining the (noticeably diminished) crowd for dinner. After our meal, the bulk of the crew climbed onto buses headed for a Bach concert in the Zaha Hadid–designed chamber hall at the Manchester Art Gallery, while those lucky enough to have snagged tickets for Antony and the Johnsons hung back and discreetly hailed cabs to the Opera House. Most festival events sold out within a matter of days, but the Antony tickets were particularly coveted. (During the Whitworth reception, the participating artists had been called to the stage. Thinking they were being recognized, their smiles flickered when Marina announced that they had to draw for tickets to the concert. “I have fourteen artists and six tickets,” she exclaimed. “This is only fair!”)
Any pangs of guilt I had over my own scored tickets dissipated as soon as a beautifully attired Rufus Wainwright slipped past me in the Opera House’s narrow aisle, flashing a smile. Without missing a beat, Louisa Buck leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “Yes. It was . . .” By the opening strains of Antony’s cover of “Crazy in Love,” my bliss was complete. (Never mind the exhausted performance artist slumbering in the seat beside me.)
After the concert, Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, artist Matthew Stone, and I braved the walk to Room, the design club hosting the festival’s opening party. This, of course, meant making our way through a Mancunian sea of shiny skirts and the thugs who keep them drunk on gin cocktails. The club featured a gaping hall, enormous windows, regrettable accent lighting, and a perplexing take on finger food. “This used to be the Reform Club, you know?” volunteered a member of the Courtauld contingent, which had arrived en masse that day with curator Sarah Wilson. “This is where capitalism was invented.” (And apparently where it has come to die, judging from the 70 PERCENT OFF! sale signs plastering the storefronts outside.)
Sunday morning began with a conversation between Abramovic and Metzger, mediated by Obrist. During the two-hour Q&A, the audience reached the conclusion that performance art was essentially a selfish endeavor. Satisfied, they then moved on to the last and liveliest event on the weekend’s agenda: Jeremy Deller’s Procession, which mobilized the most marginal of the Mancunians into a citywide parade. Participants ranged from cruisers recruited from the Stockport Toys “R” Us parking lot to the Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Piping Band, an all-British Southeast Asian bagpipe group, and hearses bearing memorials to Manchester’s long-shuttered clubs. (I picked out Hacienda and Corn Exchange.)
The crowd, which included Hadid, Obrist, dealer Hilary Rose Crisp, and artist Lynn Hershman, among others, was particularly entertained by “The Adoration of the Chip,” a float featuring an extravagantly costumed gospel choir singing the praises of the potato, and more than a few festival participants could be seen joining in under the banner of “The Unrepentant Smokers.” Similarly memorable was the very first Rose Queen, a serene seven-year-old who mesmerized everyone with her ultra-slow-motion “Beauty Queen” wave. The Procession ended with Steel Harmony’s all-percussion rendition of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” All of which led me to wonder: Who’s sticking around for the MIF De La Soul concert?
Left: “The Adoration of the Chip” in Jeremy Deller's Procession. (Photo: Tim Sinclair)
Left: Artist Jonah Freeman with dealer Andrew Kreps. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch. (All photos: David Velasco)
THERE WAS NO ACID at last Thursday’s opening of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s fully immersive installation Black Acid Co-op at Deitch Projects. There was no black, either, unless you count the carbon on the singed and burned furniture and plyboard walls in some of the rooms (the traces of meth-lab meltdowns). I mention this because the title (and the press copy) seemed to promise some kind of early-1970s-aesthetic abattoir, the half-charred ruins of a Hell’s Angels headquarters–slash–Symbionese Liberation Army safe house. Inside the mazelike, three-story structure that completely obscures the original gallery space, there are rooms that suggest bombed-out Bakersfield bungalows and posthippie crash pads, but they are abutted by other anachronistic spaces—an Upper East Side living room, a Chinatown variety store.
Fortunately, the off-message rooms are among the most interesting and well wrought. The upper-class salon, for instance, is hung with photographs suggesting some Rosemary’s Baby–style ritual involving crystals and cacti. In the center of the room, several sculptures made of what looks to be severely distressed furniture sit in vitrines. On their sides, melted Walkmans contain cassettes, one of which is a Christian record called Life on the Planet Is Fun by one Charley Thweatt. A couple rooms over, inside a dank, burned meth-lab kitchen, a VHS tape of Richard Simmons’s Disco Sweat lies discarded on the counter, covered with plaster dust. It is these (unintentional?) echoes—along with the artists’ penchant for amassing inspired detritus—that hold Black Acid Co-op together. The level of detail is positively granular. On opening night, a summer thunderstorm drove the punters in quickly and kept them there, and some of the crowd (myself included) used the time to soak up the atmosphere. One could spend an hour in some of the rooms and still not take in every element. Still, I was hoping for more black nationalism.
Freeman and Lowe began this cycle of work at Ballroom Marfa in 2008 with a commissioned installation (with Alexandre Singh) called Hello Meth Lab in the Sun; the work was modified slightly later in the year for Hello Meth Lab with a View, which opened in a disused condo during Art Basel Miami Beach. Black Acid Co-op re-creates many of the rooms present in the earlier installations, and it is, in a sense, merely the retitled New York debut of the original work with some additional touches. This doesn’t make it any less impressive. As with much large-scale “super-realistic” installation art, particularly works that require such Herculean effort (consider Christoph Büchel or Mike Nelson), there’s a giant “Why?” hanging over the whole thing, but the artists’ flair for collaged environments and obsessive attention to detail provide their own justification.
It was amusing, if incongruous, to be moving through these tawdry, dilapidated spaces alongside a fashionable, good-looking crowd of New Yorkers. Overhearing well-scrubbed young people discussing their workweeks and travel plans while standing in a dark, dusty room filled with ratty paperbacks with penned-on titles like We Eat Fever, Satan, You Fraud, and Forget the Abjection offers a special kind of cognitive dissonance. The artist Kehinde Wiley told Lowe that he found the installation “cinematic,” a vibe that Lowe affirmed was “intentional.” John Currin and Jeffrey Deitch (just back from a Jeff Koons opening in London) looked just as lost in the dishabille environment as the rest of us. No sight of Goldie Hawn, who had apparently made an appearance at the last opening in the space (Francesco Clemente). Given the makeshift stairs and jagged, broken-wall portals between rooms, the word liability crossed my mind a few times. And, indeed, one woman did fall down the stairs to the basement Chinatown “store,” filled with odd Asian products, fossils in vitrines, garish, airbrushed pornographic T-shirts, and Chinese-language flyers that, apparently, translate into segments of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. She survived the fall, uninjured.
The overarching theme of the “Meth Lab” shows is alchemy—transmuting allergy medicine into meth, industrial and cultural detritus into art, gallery spaces into houses. To which one could add: transforming apparent randomness into a higher order. The varied rooms in Black Acid Co-op may not match, but I left the opening with a sense of having visited a special corner of hell, an infernal Habitrail where sinners of different classes conduct illicit activities and rituals on top of and beside one another. Sort of like certain New York neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs would be proud.
JEFF KOONS KNOWS HOW TO MAKE AN ENTRANCE. Filmmaker Mike Figgis, former Royal Academy supremo Norman Rosenthal, and designer Stella McCartney were among the hordes that descended on the dapper artist as he arrived at the Serpentine Gallery on Wednesday for the opening of his first major survey in an English public space. With four children, two nannies, his wife, and his mother in tow (what is this? The von Trapps?), the ever-amiable Koons stepped aside for a fleeting chat. The artist may be known for his über-kitsch oeuvre, but he has emerged as a major spender on old masters and nineteenth-century European painting—not that he hasn’t invested in some twentieth-century works as well. “Dalí is very important to me,” he noted. But basking in such adulation, what did he consider his biggest mistake to be? “I don’t believe in mistakes,” came the diplomatic reply in between gentle interruptions from his bowler-hatted son.
Children were especially prominent at the private view, sending the young army of black-shirted wardens into spasms whenever a tiny hand ventured to prod the cast inflatable-toy sculptures. Koons’s wife pointed out that their children “are used to not touching the pieces by now.” London dealer Pilar Corrias said that her sons just couldn’t resist patting the turtles and walruses, while adults all around were keen to rediscover their inner child. “It brings you out in a smile,” said an enthusiastic Vidal Sassoon, nodding at the various “Popeye” canvases. The celebrity stylist was joined by his soigné rock-chick wife, Ronnie, who revealed her taste for Arte Povera. “We collect Manzoni and Fontana,” she divulged, prompting a surly passerby to exclaim: “Stuff this flash art. What we need is a good dose of Minimalism.” Over Sassoon’s shoulder, I spotted Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, who gave a decidedly saucy take on the crayfish on view. “There’s a lot of sexy seafood. A giant red lobster doing a handstand is a great metaphor for the artist’s erect . . . interest in Dalí.”
Left: Musician Paul Simonon. Right: Designer Stella McCartney with Alasdhair Willis.
Before we could really get into Koons’s phallic crustacea, I was waylaid by the glamorous McCartney. She wasn’t the first visitor to draw comparisons between the Serpentine display and Koons’s last major European outing, at Versailles earlier this year. “That space was amazing,” she said, describing how she tore off her stilettos and walked through the Hall of Mirrors, barefoot and alone. “It was great. I felt like I owned the place.” Artist Dexter Dalwood, who has a show at Gagosian Beverly Hills in September, agreed. “Versailles was a triumph,” he said, before cheekily adding that “this selection would look good at Windsor Castle.” Other art-world heavyweights seen admiring the raucous images included major Koons collectors Bill and Maria Bell of Los Angeles; dealers Irving Blum, Nicholas Logsdail, and Gregor Muir; and artist Tracey Emin. Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum was on hand, too. “I’m back to reality now, marking exam papers,” he said, noting his return to his more mundane duties as rector of the Städelschule Art Academy.
By 8 PM, the relative calm inside the gallery was disrupted by the sight of the Serpentine’s “bouncers” (kindly door staff) attempting to hold back a sea of Koons devotees at the entrance. A strict and sensible policy restricting visitor numbers had resulted in a “queue almost down to the Albert Memorial,” according to the Art Newspaper’s Louisa Buck. (The Serpentine is, once again, a victim of its own success.) Jeffrey Deitch said he’d slipped in, however, by displaying “self-confidence.” (Being a big-name dealer probably didn’t hurt, either.)
The Koons clamor is all a far cry from the art star’s first showing at the Serpentine in 1991, said director Julia Peyton-Jones. “We organized a press conference for the exhibition ‘Objects for the Ideal Home: The Legacy of Pop Art,’ and let’s just say the editors of Frieze were considered a major presence,” she confessed. The Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist then joined the lively debate over the rise of Koons’s stock. “As a litmus test, the artist Tino Sehgal often asks young curators: ‘Do you like Jeff Koons?’” said Obrist. “The Serpentine has adopted this approach wholeheartedly,” quipped Peyton-Jones with a laugh.
THE FREE FERRY TRIP from Manhattan to Governors Island, a former strategic coastal fortification in New York Harbor that also played host to a 1988 summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, may only take a few minutes, but on Saturday it was easy to feel more thoroughly transported, such was the contrast between the grimy city and its verdant neighbor to the immediate south. Indeed, a uniformed tour guide loitering by an official map at the boat’s arrival point seemed to have been lulled into a near stupor: “Plot oh-nine?” he shrugged dreamily in response to a query about Creative Time’s inaugural public-art quadrennial, opening that afternoon. “What’s that?” The project I was asking after—fully titled “Plot 09: This World & Nearer Ones” and curated by Mark Beasley—comprises nineteen commissioned and site-responsive works scattered around the territory’s open spaces and in its historic buildings. And while hunting public art often seems—like playing golf—to be a good way to ruin a nice walk, Beasley’s selection sounded promising.
While a few of the works make good use of an outdoor setting—the sight of children playing around a giant black wind chime designed by Klaus Weber to emit the discordant and supposedly demonic diabolus in musica tritone was particularly affecting—the majority are installed in otherwise disused houses and other buildings, five of which are not usually accessible to the public. The diminutive Saint Cornelius Chapel, for example, makes a perfectly ethereal setting for Anthony McCall’s light installation Between You and I, while Isle of the Dead, an art-world horror flick by Brooklyn-based collective the Bruce High Quality Foundation, thrills audiences in a tumbledown movie theater signposted with dire warnings about the possible presence of harmful substances. Adam Chodzko’s more contemplative video Echo, meanwhile, plays in an old ballroom, though the interior’s inky darkness often had visitors blundering, zombielike, into one another.
Left: P.S. 1 board chair Agnes Gund with Kim Cattrall. (Photo courtesy P.S. 1) Right: Artist Susan Philipsz. (Photo: Sam Horine)
Having trekked out to the far-flung Lima Pier to hear Susan Philipsz’s sound work By My Side and spotted the artist cycling past on the walk back, my companion and I ended our island sojourn at Nolan Park, where Teresa Margolles’s Muro Baleado (Shot-Up Wall), an embattled cinder-block facade relocated from the artist’s Mexican hometown, was still being dutifully reassembled, and old-timey trio Tuba Skinny were serenading picnickers in the late afternoon light.
The following day saw the opening of several projects at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center: an exhibition by science-obsessed San Francisco–based artist Michael Joaquin Grey, a mural and publication by Colombian Carlos Motta, a retrospective celebrating ten years of the MoMA/P.S. 1 Young Architect’s Program, and this year’s winning entry in the competition, architectural firm MOS’s outdoor installation Afterparty. Conceived as an “urban shelter,” the self-cooling structure has the look of a Bedouin tent, its dark thatched spires protruding above the courtyard’s concrete perimeter wall. On Sunday afternoon, visitors lounged on benches, enjoying the shade as the temperature climbed. P.S. 1 exhibitions director Tony Guerrero, sporting a fetching seersucker suit and straw boater, worked the crowd, and the customary pop-up bar did a brisk trade.
In the first-floor gallery that houses the YAP review, an atypically hirsute Klaus Biesenbach played the tour guide for actress Kim Cattrall. “Join us!” he piped at me after an over-the-top introduction, before whisking his celebrated charge away. Taking the mercurial pair’s place, the show’s curators, Christopher Barley and Troy Conrad Therrien, accompanied me in admiring a photo of an unmistakable—and beaming—Philip Johnson taken at an early celebration. “Apparently, there’s also a shot somewhere of him manning the DJ booth,” they laughed, tickled at the idea of the late bespectacled modernist icon rinsing it out for New York’s club kids. The venue’s annual Warm-Up series of dance parties kicks off on July 4—star spotters of all specializations should stake their claims now.
Left: A view of Afterparty. (Photo: Michael Wilson) Right: P.S. 1 director of exhibitions and operations Antoine Guerrero with artist Katharina Sieverding. (Photo courtesy P.S. 1)