THERE ARE MUSEUMS with a mission to tell the story of modern art. There are museums that endeavor to be encyclopedic. There are museums forever grasping for what’s now, new, and around the next curatorial turn. In New York City in the summer of 2013, there are more than seventy art museums, at a conservative count, opening their doors to the public on a daily or near-daily basis. Few of them have the real and still retrograde intention of belonging to a neighborhood, a community, or the densely layered history of a specific cultural milieu. Fewer still have the energy, depth, and on-the-ground outreach to back that up and pull it off. On a balmy but not unbearably hot Wednesday evening, the Studio Museum in Harlem proved itself exceptional in these and many other regards, hosting its annual summer preview and packing a hearty crowd into the institution’s glass, brick, and Adam Pendleton–adorned courtyard to celebrate the opening of no less than six new solid and notably strategic exhibitions.
David Hammons’s red, black, and green Untitled (African-American Flag), from 2004, has been hanging over the entrance for years now. But on this particular occasion, it seemed like a beacon, breaking up the bustle of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. Music and air conditioning were blasting from nearby sportswear stores while what seemed like the widest patch of pavement in all of New York was heaving with tables of tourist trinkets, African knickknacks, incense and perfume oils, shea butter, hawked cartons of Newports, copies of the Final Call (“unbought and uncompromised”), advertisements promising no-fault divorces for women seeking a swift and painless end to their marriages, and smart-alecky street vendors who, year after year, summer after summer, invariably cross my path and say, “Hey baby, are you Italian or Jewish?” before clucking their cheeks and shaking their heads and muttering, if I’m lucky, “Just another pretty white girl in Harlem,” as if it were some kind of stalled-gentrification mantra.
Left: Artist Glenn Ligon. Right: Artist Robert Pruitt with Studio Museum assistant curator Naima J Keith.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of the memoir Harlem Is Nowhere, has described the neighborhood as “the most important place for black people in America, if not the world,” and also as a universe unto itself. “Standing at the center of Harlem,” she writes, in an acutely beautiful essay for Transition called “Lenox Terminal,” “it is not impossible to think that this is the entire world, that there is nothing else beyond these streets.” Rhodes-Pitts took the title of her book from an essay by the novelist Ralph Ellison, written in 1948 but not published until 1964. For Ellison, Harlem was a place of agony and transcendence, of surreal fantasies and masquerades. But it was also “a world in which the major energy of the imagination goes not into creating works of art, but to overcome the frustrations of social discrimination.”
Where to locate the center of Harlem is no small subject of debate. And one might find ample reason to argue with Ellison’s take on the limits of artmaking there. But ever since it opened in 1968—first in a loft rented on upper Fifth Avenue, at the behest of junior patrons of the Museum of Modern Art, and then in its current multimezzanined building on 125th—the Studio Museum has not only anchored a freighted nexus of historical landmarks, from the Apollo and Sylvia’s to the so-called New Harlem hotspots of the Red Rooster and Chez Lucienne. It has also established an impressive accumulation of artistic production and curatorial thought, using both to animate the permanent collection, which, to judge by Abbe Schriber’s exhibition “Body Language,” is broad enough and deep enough to make for an endlessly unfolding lineage of emotionally intense and intellectually astute shows.
Tucked into a gallery on the museum’s lower floor, “Body Language” features a concise selection of works by Glenn Ligon, Mickalene Thomas, William Pope.L, Wangechi Mutu, Henry Taylor, Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas, and Leslie Hewitt, among others. It complicates its own most obvious readings of racial and sexual identity by cutting across love, sex, lust, and longing to illustrate and embody the excruciating surfeit of words—spoken and written, etched on porcelain in notational shorthand (in Valerie Piraino’s wonderfully ruminative series “Simone,” from 2010), and silk-screened ever so faintly on canvas (in Pendleton’s Concrete, from 2004, which ticks off evocative phrases such as “the smell of your neck in August” and “somewhere between forgiving too easily and not giving in at all”)—that prop up and then ruin relationships, pure verbiage as a cruel mirage. Seemingly for the sake of solace, Schriber also included three small gelatin silver prints on cardboard, gorgeous old nudes by Malik Sidibé.
On July 17, “Body Language” was just one among many revelations. First, people dress, and I mean really dress, for the summer preview. When I arrived, the artist Elan Ferguson, who works on the Studio Museum’s family programs, was dancing on her own, in front of a DJ booth manned by the affable Bill Coleman, a riot of floral patterns, oversize bows, polka dots, staggeringly high heels, and a splendid, shockingly pink, wide-brimmed woven hat. A dealer who has lived in the neighborhood for decades—who is a member of the museum and considers it her local institution in the same way others express loyalty for a local bar—told me she always brought a change of clothes to the summer preview, just in case she walked in and felt underdressed. Everywhere there was big jewelry, bold colors, immaculate vintage, and impeccable tailoring. Michael Henry Adams, author of the history Harlem Lost and Found, buzzed by me with a flower in his lapel. The architect David Adjaye, locked in conversation with the museum’s dynamo director Thelma Golden, appeared to have been dipped in the most incredible blue cotton suit.
Second among the revelations: Everyone is implicated. Ducking and weaving through the ever-thickening crowd, I met friends, members, sponsors, supporters, and alumni of the Studio Museum’s four-decade-strong residency program, including, among the most recent residents, Steffani Jemison, whose intriguing abstractions in acetate are currently on view alongside paintings by Jennifer Packer and collages by Cullen Washington Jr. in “Things in Themselves,” curated by Lauren Haynes. I met Jack Flam and Katy Rogers, art historians on the board of the Dedalus Foundation, which partners with the Studio Museum on its education programs. I met Alison Mandelker-Burnett, who channels corporate philanthropy from Bloomingdale’s to the museum. I met current and former staffers, established collectors who told me they were in it for the long haul and emerging artists who said without saying how much they hoped to show their work there one day.
Third, “it’s my museum,” shrugged Moji Alawode-El, as she leaned against a wall with Mikel Washington, her partner in the concierge service Harlem Amenities, and Erica Robinson, director of Harlem’s Asali Yoga. “It’s always nice to see the artsy side of Harlem, and at the end of the night it’s a quick walk from home.” Kelli Lane, an artist and lawyer from Alabama who has lived half her life in New York, told me she had thought of the museum as her own for a decade, even though she commuted there from Brooklyn. “It has become part of the fabric of the city, and of the world,” she said. “A lot of that is down to Thelma Golden. She has really put the museum on the map.”
Fourth, “the preview is a rite of summer,” said Rujeko Hockley, “and a rite of passage.” An assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, Hockley was holding court with the artist Jessica Vaughn and a heavily bearded, guayaberaed David Strauss, director of external affairs at the Queens Museum, which is gearing up to unveil a major architectural overhaul in October. Clearly, there was some peripheral-Manhattan-to-outer-borough solidarity happening here. “Of course,” Hockley laughed. “We have to support each other.”
Fifth, Robert A. Pruitt, a great artist from Houston, one of the founding members of the artists’ collective Otabenga Jones & Associates, and a man not to be confused with the other Rob Pruitt, purveyor of art-world faux pas and speculative redemptions. “Robert Pruitt: Women,” curated by Naima J. Keith, features twenty of his framed and unframed drawings on brown kraft paper and constitutes the centerpiece of the Studio Museum’s summer season. “This is his first solo museum show in New York,” Keith told me. “And it’s also the first time we’ve seen all of these works together. They’ve been here and there in group exhibitions but never all in the same room like this.”
Left: Artists Jacolby Satterwhite and Ricky Day. Right: Education intern Dyeemah Simmons with school programs coordinator Erin Hylton and grants coordinator Maxwell Heller, all of the Studio Museum.
Filtering back through galleries, I made a mental note to return another day to spend more time with the work of Simone Bailey and Janaye Brown, whose five videos constitute a thirty-minute video program called “Long Takes,” curated by Thomas J. Lax. Just then, I spied Lax, dressed in all white, on the mezzanine with the art historian Christina Knight and the artist André Singleton, self-professed jack-of-all-trades, in a leopard-print vest and gold-glitter boots. Originally from Kansas City, Singleton had just moved back to New York from Brazil. “I feel like I needed it,” he said. “I feel like I missed it.” In the heart of Harlem, he said, “It feels good to be home.” And for a moment, the heart of Harlem felt like it contained the whole world.
Later, after a boisterous Red Rooster dinner with a friend and fellow writer, I hopped on an express train hurtling toward Brooklyn, and read the Studio Museum’s magazine along the way. In an interview with the artists-in-residence, Jemison posed a thoughtful rejoinder to Ellison’s once-damning critique of the neighborhood. “I learned about the diverse ways of being a black person in New York,” Jemison said of her time in Harlem. “So much of being in New York is filtered through this mask of irony. There’s a different sort of experience here. There’s a lot of hope,” she said. “People come here to be their best selves.”
“I HAVE MY BIRKENSTOCKS in the car,” said Josephine Meckseper as she compared her high heels with Terrie Sultan’s. “The designer of my dress made me wear these,” replied the Parrish Museum director, looking down at her feet. Sultan’s dress was dark blue and had a print featuring celestial constellations. “I really wanted it to be a clear night so we could see the stars,” she said. It was 6:30 PM and already a thick fog was descending on the Parrish’s new Herzog & de Meuron building, set on fourteen acres off the Montauk Highway. But while the weather that Saturday threatened to shift the museum’s annual “Midsummer” party toward April showers, the event promised (as always) to bring out the most illustrious of the art world’s summer Hamptonites, including Cindy Sherman, Ross Bleckner, Agnes Gund, Dorothy Lichtenstein, and Beth Rudin DeWoody—with a few Hiltons, Laurens, Bronfmans, and Wambolds also on the list. Sultan would surely get her stars, one way or another.
“The last building didn’t have much space,” Sultan explained. “It didn’t have enough room to show our permanent collection and our special exhibitions at the same time. We always had to choose one.” The new Parrish can now show three times as much of its collection while still having residual space for two special exhibitions, such as the new Platform program, which was being inaugurated that evening by Meckseper. I ran into the artist, with fiancé Richard Phillips and Andrea Rosen in tow, as she posed for photos in front of her Corvette, one of the exhibition’s three wall-mounted panels, which refract the museum’s proximity to the automotive thoroughfare. “Did you see Meckseper’s piece in the back that’s plugged into the Flavin?” Bill Powers later asked me at the dinner. “Meckseper is being powered by Flavin. Isn’t that great?”
Though her work employs the veneer of Minimalism with a splash of Oldenburg, the artist doesn’t take comparison lightly. “I’m not influenced by other artists,” she said. For her “Platform,” the artist also installed vertical vitrines—about the size of a magician’s water tank—on the museum’s plaza-like patios, visible through the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “Together, they create a museum without walls,” she said, though they reminded me more of the Seagram building back home.
The other special exhibition opening that night was a stolid retrospective of Alice Aycock’s isometric drawings, “Some Stories Are Worth Repeating,” which showcases the origins of her large-scale installations and outdoor sculptures. Relegated to the museum’s interior exhibition spaces, the works reverberated in their room’s insulation like Escher roller coasters. “That one’s still my favorite,” said DeWoody, pointing to one of the few sculptural models included in the show. “I love when you can see which of your favorites from an artist’s career becomes history in one room.”
Meckseper’s site-specific engagement, however, seemed a better match with the guests’ energy. “These rooms were made for parties!” Britta LeVa squealed as she circumambulated the precarious metal edges of the lobby’s freestanding John Chamberlain. “That’s why these spaces were made the widest and have the best views in the building. In my opinion, the galleries have suffered because of it. It’s hard to appreciate Aycock’s retrospective in there because those rooms are too narrow.” Distance, it seemed, was the Parrish’s true vantage.
“Let me see that serving dish,” Deborah Kass said to a waiter holding one cleared of glasses, a sign of the cocktail hour’s denouement. Kass raised it up, held it to her face, and fixed her curly hair in the hazy silver. “Is there a Housewives of Southampton yet?” someone asked.
Left: Writer Paul Laster and artist Deborah Kass. Right: Scott Rothkopf, curator and associate director of programs at the Whitney Museum, and designer Joseph Logan.
The rest of the art world came for dinner. Under the patio’s overhang and red lanterns, the air was noticeably thicker. Sultan gave a brief speech, thanking Fred Seegal for his patronage. A ballet of three courses ensued. “They have to have performances out here,” said Jonah Bokaer. “It’s like a football field of opportunity.”
When the plates of chocolate and rhubarb emerged, the night’s guests rose to enjoy the dimly lit vista. “It feels like the traffic is going into the museum,” Meckseper said as she took one last look at the speeding highway in the distance. The artist was right; a new group was indeed entering the museum—the “After Ten” crowd—for the party hosted in the museum’s Lichtenstein Theater and organized by Kyle DeWoody and Tripoli Patterson.
“Isn’t it horrible about the deer out here?” I heard Aycock say to Dorothy Lichtenstein as I came back inside. “You know, they’ve started to put deer on birth control because they’re overpopulated in New England. I have a soft spot for them when they’re young; they look like Bambi. But when they’re older—well, you never see Bambi caught in headlights.” The scene unfolded like those nostalgic boy-girl dances from sleepaway camp; the kids stared blankly at a screen projecting overhead, while the chaperoning adults took their turns studding.
“I don’t know why we’re still here,” my friend said as he was eyeing the door. “The house we’re staying at is having an awesome party.”
Left: Dealer Friedrich Petzel (center). Right: Collector Beth Rudin DeWoody.
LIKE SUN RA, George Clinton, and Lee “Scratch” Perry, hip-hop originator and DJ Afrika Bambaataa is a “brother from another planet” whose retrofuturist aesthetics conflate Garveyite motherland-yearning and outer-space science fiction. Despite his background as a prominent member of the Warriors-era Bronx gang the Black Spades, his 1980s stage outfits were “ancient alien” avant la lettre—Ming the Merciless robes and custom Viking helmets accessorized with wraparound New Wave shades and Egyptian ankhs. He was the most musically polyglot of the holy trinity of Bronx block-party DJs (Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Bambaataa), mixing in unlikely breaks and snippets from the Monkees, the Archies, Aerosmith, and Kraftwerk (Run-DMC’s “Mary, Mary” and “Walk This Way” directly honored Bam’s eclecticism). The pioneering German electronic quartet—“bad-ass, funky white boys,” according to Bam—were a pivotal influence.
Combing elements of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” with drum machines, DJ effects, a vocoder, and replayed “samples” from other artists’ material, Bam collaborated with producer Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie to create “Planet Rock,” released in 1982. “Seminal” is the most abused adjective in music criticism, but if anything truly deserves the term, it is “Planet Rock,” which planted seeds for electro, Latin freestyle, Miami bass, house, techno—electronic dance music generally. The track was a breakdancing favorite and still invokes the sound of early-’80s New York whenever it’s played. Despite the relentless, martial funk of its rhythm bed, “Planet Rock” has a distant, ethereal quality, as if it’s being beamed in from another dimension—which, in some ways, it is.
With his sartorial otherworldliness and omnivorous ear, Bam was the artiest of the early hip-hop DJs, so it didn’t feel (too) forced to have his massive vinyl collection on display in an art gallery on the occasion of its donation to the Hip-Hop Collection at Cornell University. Facilitated by gallerist and obscure music aficionado Johan Kugelberg, the thousands of LPs that once earned Bam the title “Master of Records” were arrayed in white boxes on top of long banquet tables in the back room of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise the Thursday before last, where the archive will be viewable to the public for one month while it’s alphabetically sorted by volunteers and played by guest DJs.
Left: Artist and White Columns director Matthew Higgs. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: Kraftwerk's Computer World.
Two other shows (group exhibition “Made in Space” and Henry Codax’s “Shoot the Lobster”) were opening in the gallery on that scorching summer evening, so the space was crowded, but many of the young punters wandering through the Bam exhibit “didn’t know the time,” as they used to say on old rap records. Seeing me rifling through the boxes, pulling out eye-catching albums with notebook in hand, a surprising number of people asked me what was going on, whether the records were for sale, who Bambaataa was, etc. A bespectacled DJ spinning Disco Not Disco fare like Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” (source of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines”) and the endlessly sampled “UFO” by ESG did make the space seem like a chill-out lounge, separate from the serious business of viewing visual art, but it was still a bit dispiriting to realize that many of these kids would have given their eyeteeth and hipster eyewear to witness Jay-Z’s inane cooption of the Chelsea scene for his “Picasso Baby” video shoot at Pace Gallery and yet were completely ignorant of one of the architects of the art form.
I tuned out the gawkers and refocused my attention on the real story of the evening: the records, which were a crate-digger’s delight. Hinting at an organizing principle that had succumbed to entropy over the years, Bam had written on many of the older LP covers, “This album belongs to Bambaataa Khayan Aasim,” followed by a number (e.g., #1526). On the back cover, he gave handwritten star ratings (one to three stars) to individual tracks. Certain extremely weathered records referenced the prehistory of rap—a Sha Na Na album, for instance, from which early party MC Busy Bee probably copped his “Ba-diddy-ba-ba-dang-da-dang-diddy-diddy” routine, and forbiddingly monolithic white-label 12-inches with nothing but “ELECTRO FUNK” typed in all caps.
There were many test pressings and promo copies of Bam’s early singles (“Jazzy Sensation,” “Planet Rock,” “Looking for the Perfect Beat”) peppering the boxes, as well as promo 12-inches from other DJs and disco and rap artists of the time, some housed in a fetching generic hot pink cover dripping with period detail: cartoonish red female lips part as if to blow and issue forth the words “Disco Single.” Fresh. Bam’s musical tastes knew no boundaries, and this was more than confirmed as I tore through box after box.
Some samples: a Gary Glitter LP, Amazing Spider-man: A Rock-comic, a “Special Disco Version” of Cat Stevens’s “Was Dog a Doughnut,” an album called Kitsch by one Randy Pie, a dollar-bin Bohannon LP (“Also available on Ampex 8-track and cassette!”), Frampton Comes Alive!, Kiss Alive!, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, Iggy Pop’s Kill City, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, the proverbial Archies, a copy of Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle that appears to have been gnawed on by large lizards or feral cats, maybe both. I looked for the oldest, most beat-up records in the boxes, the ones most likely to have been played by Bam and his crew in the parks, jams, and clubs in the Bronx and elsewhere, and I stumbled upon a copy of Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the source of “Numbers” for “Planet Rock,” with his special handwriting and two copies of the LP inside, clearly for backspinning and extending the favored break during a set. I almost expected the record to start glowing in my hands. I sensed how it must feel to discover a storied ancient artifact at an archaeological dig.
Finally, I opened a box that looked like the others, but instead of records, there was a random cross-section of Bam’s “papers and effects,” you might call them: printed-out e-mails to and from Bam; “Statements” to be delivered God knows where; application forms for membership in the Universal Zulu Nation, a music, culture, and community activism organization Bam created back in the late ’70s as a way to give former gangbangers like himself a more positive outlet for their energies; and, somehow bringing it all down to earth, a Chinese take-out menu from Brooklyn. Kind of humanizing to discover that when the former Black Spades warlord and Grand Imperial Wizard of Intergalactic Funk takes a break from looking for the perfect beat, he’s looking for the perfect egg roll.
Left: Maximum Fun founder and podcaster Jesse Thorn. Right: A superhero battle. (Except where noted, all photos: Kenneth Lecky)
FOR YEARS NOW I’ve heard about MaxFunCon, a mythical mountain retreat for comedy creators and lovers in Lake Arrowhead, California. Instead of a “fan con” where people migrate to some loathsome locale to froth and idolize with like-minded genuflectors, MFC, organized by the Maximum Fun network of podcasts founded by NPR host Jesse Thorn, encourages attendees to actually do what they love, offering classes and workshops in subjects ranging from animation to improvisation. For those of us who in fact enjoy a bit of adulating, there are also lectures and performances by some of the greatest talents in the worlds of comedy and public radio. Through it all, Thorn strives to foster a tight-knit community of people who “create things and support each other creating things.” It might sound overly idealistic, but it actually works.
To get to the “Con,” I embarked on a three hour, eighty-mile adventure from East LA, the final stretch of which had me palpitating on a winding, unpaved highway along the northwest face of the San Bernardino Mountains. There, plopped elegantly amid the overwhelming conglomeration of trees and birds and other things signifying nature, is the UCLA convention center that hosts MaxFunCon, although to call it a convention center will probably give you the wrong impression. It was a very nice convention center. A convention center that Patagonia might use as a backdrop when shooting an ad for a line of state-of-the-art expedition apparel, if you can imagine such a place.
I arrived around 5 PM on a Friday to find some two hundred twenty- to fifty-somethings well into their cocktails and beers on a large limestone patio. After checking in and receiving my VIP pack of essentials, including comedy albums, a merit badge, and a bottle of MaxFun branded lubricant, I made my way to a cozy, wood-paneled lodge, where the group was officially welcomed to the Con by Thorn. “If it’s your first time here you’ll learn about some strange, secret rituals. But in the meantime just know that you are among friends.” We also met Thorn’s “great friend and personal hero,” the beloved author and Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, who sang MFC-themed songs while dressed as Ayn Rand and brought home the cultish innuendos by encouraging us to “all get vulnerable together.” (Very un–Ayn Rand, of course.)
Thorn suggested that we sit with strangers at meals, which I took to heart. (Not that I had much choice.) It wasn’t hard to engage with my picnic tablemates at dinner the first night, particularly Nate DiMeo, the Parks and Recreation writer, Thurber Award for American Humor nominee, and host of MF’s The Memory Palace, a heartfelt, short-form storytelling show. “There’s something very early-’90s about what takes place here,” he told me, in reference to the “overriding sincerity” and “underlying ra-ra-ness” of the “semi-socialist workers’ collective.” MaxFun’s “cuddle-party vibe,” he admitted, can be a bit much for him, though he felt deeply connected to the network’s overall ethos of “having more fun.”
The network did an impressive job animating this ethos with stellar performances by Irish stand-up comedian Maeve Higgins (“All the cool people are atheists…But you’re not going to heaven!”) and the Los Angeles–based improv group Convoy. Later that evening we trekked up a steep forest pathway to a bonfire-and-s’mores party in Frontier Village, the convention center’s re-creation of a nineteenth-century campsite surrounded by covered wagons. The stars were out, and people mingled eagerly over drinks and sweets. I chatted with tough yet affable comedian Kyle Kinane, who at first seemed uneasy about the crowd’s unbridled enthusiasm. “As a comic, you need to be criticized. I don’t think you progress unless some people don’t like what you do.” Though later he assented: “It’s still pretty nice to be loved sometimes.”
Throughout Saturday we heard erudite and amusing talks by DiMeo, British journalist Jon Ronson, and film critic and public radio’s The Treatment host Elvis Mitchell, who riffed on the homogeneous nature of the MFC demographic (“Welcome to the MaxFunCon diversity conference,” he joked) before giving a sharp, scholarly lecture on heroism in the movie Pootie Tang. That day, I also took beginner improv with comedy writer and performer Jordan Morris, and dropped by a rousing “Pub Quiz” (aka Drunk Trivia) presided over by Hodgman and “Stuff You Should Know” podcast cohost Chuck Bryant. I later peeked into more sober, intimate offerings such as “Begin your novel right NOW” with author Antoine Wilson and a “Superhero Battle” with animator Pendleton Ward.
Left: Critic and public radio host Elvis Mitchell. Right: Improv Team Convoy.
Saturday, just before dinner we once again gathered as a group for the event that many of us had been waiting for—a live recording of Jordan, Jesse, Go!, MF’s premier comedy podcast, cohosted by Morris and Thorn and featuring special guests Higgins and novelist–Moth podcast host Dan Kennedy. The hosts exhibited their characteristically witty, freewheeling banter and took advantage of their listeners’ presence by indulging in interactivity (one audience member was coerced onstage to call her mother, whose seventy-third birthday she revealed she was missing for the Con). Lots of laughing, cheering, and clapping ensued, and it was extraordinary to find ourselves surrounded by enthusiasts as we listened to a program that we nearly always enjoy alone.
As if this weren’t enough, that evening we were treated to a talent-packed, plein air stand-up showcase in an amphitheater including Ali Wong, Laurie Kilmartin, Morgan Murphy, Matt Braunger, and Maria Bamford. Kinane went on second-to-last, performing an epic account of the trail of stains covering his linens (“Don’t look at your pillows—ever—if you wanna think there’s beauty and innocence in this world.”) I’ve seen them all before but never quite like this, as the comedians, spurred by the warm, devoted crowd, let their idiosyncrasies really hang loose. (“It’s pretty nice to be loved sometimes” indeed.)
Bamford’s set in particular felt stretched to its artistic edges, and it was riveting to watch her whisper punch lines, contort her body, slur her words, and shift unexpectedly from one character to next—performative techniques that she tends to play down when headlining in more traditional settings. She cheer-led us through darker times we may face—“Sometimes your brain breaks…you’re not alone”—and torqued the double standard in attitudes toward mental versus other illnesses (“Apparently Steve has cancer. It’s like, ‘Fuck you, we all have cancer!’ ”). The comedian closed, aptly, on a bit about ignoring haters and owning your creativity: “Carve a skull out of a Granny Smith apple, pop that on a Bratz doll torso, upload it to Etsy, price it hi-i-i-gh.”
When I spoke with Bamford at the Country Estate dress-up dance party after the show, I came to understand just how much her artistic credo matches the Con’s. She lauded the attendees who “take risks and support each other’s risks” and “make stuff just to make stuff, whether they get paid for it or not.” She herself took one of her first improv classes, and practiced crowd work—which terrifies her—at her own stand-up workshop here at MaxFunCon. “What brings me happiness is the creative act. It hasn’t been any prestige or money. Just doing it makes for a much better life.”
“I NEED SOMEONE who understands art to come down here and tell me how this is art,” Phil Beder says as I step into his radio studio on the damp opening day of Thomas Hirschhorn’s majestic Gramsci Monument. “I understand books, sculptures, and paintings,” Beder adds. “Less so the ephemeral stuff.” His bashfulness only just covers up his mischief. A former schoolteacher, Beder is a veteran of the storied New York radio station WBAI. I am sure he knows very well how Hirschhorn’s work is art and, moreover, why the arguments employed to elucidate and defend it are interesting, urgent, and even critical to the times and circumstances we are living. However faux his naïveté, Beder is casting around for opinions with an openness that sets an admirable tone for the project. This matters in no small part because, like so much of Hirschhorn’s work, the monument not only flirts with false notes but also runs the very real and deliberate risk of blowing up in everyone’s face.
The fourth and final installment in his continental philosophy quartet, Hirschhorn’s makeshift monument is a temporary structure set against the grassy hills of an incongruously green South Bronx housing project, Forest Houses. In keeping with the artist’s unmistakable style, the piece looks like it was cobbled together from an explosion of plywood, Plexiglas, and packing tape. In addition to the radio station, Gramsci Monument includes a bar, a lounge, an Internet café, a library, a workshop for kids’ art classes, and an editorial office producing a daily microcommunity newspaper. A maze of stairs and elevated walkways link all of the different spaces together. If you ever made fortresses as a kid from imagination and whatever materials you had at hand, then you will love spending time here. And for seventy-seven days this summer, you will have ample reason to do so, as Hirschhorn and his band of makers and doers have sketched out an exhaustively ambitious schedule of talks, plays, poetry readings, and related programs to animate the ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and then some.
Beder is in charge of the radio station, which, from now through September 15, is broadcasting to a one-mile range on 91.9 FM, and to the world online. On opening day, July 1, he seemed genuinely daunted by the prospect of filling up seven hours of airtime, every day, for the next two and a half months. “We’re trying to get as much royalty-free, public domain music as we can manage,” Beder says. Two DJs from the neighborhood, Gucci and Baby Dee, were already on board with a deep reserve of songs and talent, including rappers, beat-boxers, and poets, and the “what makes it art” question seemed guaranteed to generate countless hours of debate, drawing everyone into a meaningful conversation and, at the same time, creating a readymade audio archive.
I duck out of the radio studio and wander over to the newspaper, where I find the first of many potential answers to Beder’s question. The front page of the first issue of the Gramsci Monument Newspaper, edited by Lakesha Bryant and Saquan Scott, features an interview with Erik Farmer, charismatic president of the Forest Houses tenants’ association and, according to Hirschhorn, the man who made the monument happen here rather than elsewhere. “We have seventy-seven days to teach the basic and fundamental of art to Forest Houses,” says Farmer, “because art is so much bigger than a painting, drawing, or portrait. It’s our everyday life.”
A cacophony of voices erupts from the Antonio Lounge, where a dozen actors are running through Gramsci Theater, a play written by the philosopher Marcus Steinweg, who has been collaborating with Hirschhorn for fifteen years. The cast is mostly women. They stand in front of cardboard placards adorned with the names of their characters, among them Gramsci, Heidegger, Derrida, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Badiou, and Brecht. I see someone named “Second Marxist” but can’t find the first. Someone hands me a photocopy of the script. There are lines of dialogue for “Anyone.” The characters begin shouting all at once and on top of one another, as if bombarding the audience with intellectual dissonance and an edge of Bronx attitude. At regular intervals, a young man saunters on stage with a basketball and takes an easy layup into one of two hoops, labeled LOVE and POLITICS on their respective backboards. Plucked at random, the lines are hilarious. I swoon for Marguerite Duras, who says: “Pull yourself together, not even your grave is for free.”
Gramsci Theater is being performed every Monday afternoon. “I love not recognizing what I wrote,” says Steinweg. “You hear two different registers. Strong voices and chaos. There’s too much meaning, too much sense. That’s why I like this swarm of meaning, the overproduction of sense is a new kind of normality.” For his part, Steinweg is giving a lecture every day. The topics are set on the schedule—from “What Is Art,” “What Is a Problem,” and “What Is Sex” to “Romantic Shit” and “Beautiful Souls”—but Steinweg is improvising all of them. “I don’t like to be too prepared,” he says, as I wonder if his T-shirt is soaked through with rain, sweat, or a spilled drink. “It must take a lot of energy to give seventy-seven lectures in a row,” I offer. “Most people work eight hours a day,” he replies. “I just work forty minutes. In fact I am lazy.” Note to self.
Left: Dia Art Foundation curator and Gramsci Monument ambassador Yasmil Raymond. Right: Dia Art Foundation director Philippe Vergne.
During Steinweg’s first lecture, “What Is Philosophy,” the opening crowd begins to appear, a combination of cops, security guards, the curious and palpably skeptical residents of Forest Houses, forty-five people who are officially on staff (and paid a decent hourly wage), beloved editors, a handful of critics, a documentary film crew, Hal Foster and Barbara Gladstone (each resplendent in red Gramsci Monument ball caps), and a small but serious contingent of the city’s luminous museum curators, including Sheena Wagstaff and Nicholas Cullinan from the Met, Peter Eleey from MoMA PS1, and Thomas Lax from the Studio Museum in Harlem. Philippe Vergne, director of the Dia Art Foundation, hangs out at the back, looking amused in a bright yellow raincoat.
Somewhat maligned in recent years, Dia is the institution now hurling itself back into the art world’s limelight. Gramsci Monument is the only Hirschhorn monument realized in the United States, and the first public art project funded by Dia since 1996, when Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks was restaged in Chelsea. Vergne calls it a defining moment. Yasmil Raymond, meanwhile, tells me: “I am no longer the curator of Dia. For the next seventy-seven days I am the ambassador of Gramsci Monument.” Indeed, if you want more than easy platitudes and pat quotes, if you want to dig into the substance of Gramsci’s thought, and if you want to start peeling back the layers of how the monument was made and why it is art, then tag along with Raymond for a little while.
Left: Dealer Barbara Gladstone. Right: Gramsci Monument librarians Freddy Velez and Marcella Paridise.
She’ll tell you about the five hundred books that Anthony Tamburri, dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College, loaned to Forest Houses, from a five thousand–strong collection donated by John Cammett, who was the first person to write a book about Gramsci in English, in 1967. She’ll walk you through “the incredible cultural objects” borrowed from the Casa Museo di Antonio Gramsci in Sardinia and the Fondazione Istituto Gramsci in Rome. And she’ll make lucid connections between a wallet housed in a glass vitrine and an extended passage on money in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. She posts a note of her own, every day, on the monument’s website. (Questions from the community she’s fielded of late: “What is fascism?” and “Why are all contemporary artists Marxists?”) Ambassador of what and to whom, I have no idea. Why intimations of statecraft and diplomacy over the care of curatorship, same. (“The home country is art,” Raymond says. “The foreign country is Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument.”) But of anyone, Raymond is most likely to make you fulfill one of the monument’s key missions, which is to read and think Gramsci in the present, and out of love.
A year ago, Hirschhorn told the New York Times’ Randy Kennedy that in Forest Houses, “some people think I am a priest or an eccentric rich man.” One of the tensions running through his work—through his commitment to “doing art politically,” his insistence on touching the hardcore of the (Lacanian) real, and his self-representation as an artist-worker-soldier—is the quasi-missionary, pseudoreligious element that seems to lurk in the corners of his oeuvre. Another is the fact that all but three of the subjects of Hirschhorn’s four altars, eight kiosks, and four monuments are men, with few women to be found in his constellation of influential writers and thinkers. Paradoxically, another still is the sense that Hirschhorn’s choice of subjects is somehow arbitrary—the work “attends to Antonio Gramsci by paying no attention to him,” says Steinweg—while his choice of location is anything but. (In Hirschhorn’s Establishing a Critical Corpus, the philosopher Sebastian Egenhofer makes a compelling argument about the sites of social tension that the artist seeks to “explore, but also exploit”).
Forest Houses, in Morrisania, is no more than fifteen blocks east of the traffic triangle at 169th Street and Jerome Avenue where, as part of a public art project in 1991, the artist John Ahearn installed three bronze sculptures made from casts he had taken of three people he knew from the neighborhood. An excruciating controversy ensued, with accusations of racism slung everywhere. Dejected and disheartened, Ahearn took the sculptures down. They moved to PS1, and then to the Socrates Sculpture Park. As Glenn O’Brien wrote in a forceful, moving piece for Artforum at the time, Ahearn wasn’t being critical or judgmental. He considered his artworks a loving tribute to his subjects. In that sense, he wasn’t far from where Hirschhorn stands now, using art as a tool to know the world and confront reality. Ahearn told the writer Jane Kramer, in the New Yorker, that he wasn’t trying to change the South Bronx. He was trying to change the art world, “giving rich white people a bridge to the life there, and to a different kind of vitality.” To compare the two projects now is an interesting measure of how much the politics of race and class have changed in New York in the past twenty years.
To be fair, Hirschhorn has weathered similar strife. In 2010, his Théâtre Precaire, in the French city of Rennes, was vandalized twice and destroyed by fire, prompting an impassioned letter from the artist to area residents. The strength of his rhetoric is enough to win over anyone. On opening day, he gestured to the fifteen buildings of Forest Houses and said: “This is only the beginning. Will the people on the fifth floor there, on the eighth floor there, will they come down and enjoy this and be implicated in it? This is the challenge. In Erik Farmer, I found a key figure,” he explains. “This is why Gramsci Monument is here. Not because of the urban situation or the architecture but because Erik Farmer said, ‘Do it here.’ This is how it works. This is how an artist’s fieldwork makes the conditions for an encounter possible. The first phase was meeting. The second phase was construction.” The third phase is to constitute the monument as art, and as memory. “This is very important,” he says. “What I want is to create a common memory of this summer. To create a new kind of monument, we have to build it every day. The third phase starts tomorrow,” he adds. From then on, the monument will lodge itself “into the heart of the people here, and the heart of me.”
Left: Anthony Tamburri of the John D Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College. Right: DJ Baby Dee.
IN 1998 it was a “Hard Knock Life” and I was thirteen, living in small-time suburban Canada, and that song was the first I’d heard of Jay-Z. I loved that music video and most of the rap and R&B videos I saw in high school, graduating with “Bonnie and Clyde,” and I wanted (without trying at all) to look like the girls in them. Mariah was my favorite, in “Heartbreaker,” when Jay drove a Benz and made millions. Now he drives a Maybach halfway to a billion. That part even my dad could have predicted, you know? But if you’d told me at thirteen that all a skinny suburban-Ontario white girl had to do to get inside a rap video was grow up to be, in 2013, a less-skinny New York white critic wearing a Reformation dress and Acne sandals, standing outside Pace Gallery in Chelsea, name on a list on an iPad, six feet from the Maybach, I would not have understood.
I’m not sure I understand now, either. The instructions were: to attend at noon a Jay-Z performance piece Picasso Baby, inspired by Marina Abramović’s MoMA show The Artist Is Present, and filmed for a music video by Mark Romanek. To not take photos or tweet or Instagram. To avoid wearing visible logos, the brand at stake being Jay-Z’s own—and Jay-Z’s only.
For half the crowd the last instruction’s easy. This is the no-logo class, or at least that’s the aspiration. Wealth hides money. Pace is cleared of artwork. Dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn—whose e-mail to Jay-Z with the subject line “Picasso Baby” inspired the song—and her friend, producer Yvonne Force Villareal, have invited hundreds of their most contemporary contemporaries, all dressed for another day out of the office. Artists present include Mickalene Thomas, Marilyn Minter, and Laurie Simmons. Judd Apatow is carrying a galley of the new Andre Dubus III. RoseLee Goldberg is adorable. Bill Powers has a powder-blue Vespa, and Jon Caramanica, the New York Times music critic, is late for a podcast.
The other half are Jay-Z fans, randomly selected. Mostly, the fans—more girls than guys, more black than white—are dressed to be in a rap video, not a contemporary art gallery. There is a difference. We line the room in no particular order. But some of the guests and fans will be handpicked to go face-to-face in white space with Jay, and most will not. Seeing the competition, a San Francisco woman changes from her street clothes—there is a difference—into an elegant batik-print top and sixteen bangles. Her name is Phoenix. She angles so hard to be chosen that I begin to imagine her pulling a Val Solanas. (They didn’t check my tote bag, and whose did they check? There are remarkably few police cars outside for a semipublic event starring the rapper who texts with Obama, but welcome to Chelsea.)
The first to go up is a fan in a pink bandanna. Jay-Z strolls out, takes a sip of applause, and asks how she’s doing. She says, “Congratulations.” He asks, “For what?” When he raps at her she raps back. Soon we’ll all know the lyrics too, and not because the song is so good (“I feel like I don’t get it,” I tell Caramanica, “or like maybe I’m not hearing the whole thing.” He says, “No, you are.”) but because Jay-Z is having so much fun. The difference between a performer and a performance artist: The former makes you at ease, and the latter doesn’t. Jay-Z is a performer to the max. For six hours, everyone can pretend there are no differences.
Which is, I think, the generous explanation for the worst part of an otherwise chill event: white men getting a little too down. I wish someone had told Jerry Saltz, for example, to gently lower the roof. (Also, to not go home and write a starstruck blog post about how “tribal” the whole thing got. I mean. Take one second, Mr. Saltz.)
Lawrence Weiner, at least, knows to not be a joke, mostly by doing nothing but letting it happen. In the line behind him, two black girls wait. A casting director lets VIPs cut ahead, one by one, then asks the girls if they’d like to go up together. “They’ve been waiting a long time,” says her assistant. “They’re fans.”
In the audience, three white women check their wristwatches. “This is cool, right?” says the mom whose watch is Hermès. Her brunette friend nods, not too eagerly. “We’ll stay for another half an hour,” says the blonde.
Someone is looking for Adam Driver. “Adam Driver? Where’s Adam Driver?” yells a production guy in a gray T-shirt. “I need an Adam Driver!” After five minutes, Adam Driver is found to be standing in the audience, making largely recalcitrant hand gestures. Adam Driver does not want to do this. The production guy insists. Adam Driver resists. Finally, Adam Driver is moved to the front of line. His face looks very sorry. In front of Jay-Z, Adam Driver does his best appropriation of Lawrence Weiner. I like Adam Driver.
The minutes I like most, though, are when something happens to make “Picasso Baby” stop, maybe the crew takes a break. Jay-Z takes a seat and invites others to take the stage. A ballerina does high kicks in high-tops. A girl with Mariah skin sings En Vogue. I know this won’t be in the music video, but it is the thing that makes me feel like music is happening. As someone whispers of Marina’s arrival, I leave.
“It’s the evolution of a man. You go from like shoes and jewelry to cars and homes to traveling and now it’s art,” the rapper Wale told a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily. Behind him was some wall text, inked by some rap genius/intern, riffing on the “Picasso Baby” lyrics:
Yellow Basquiat on my kitchen counter
Go ahead lean on that shit Blue
“…Which,” writes the intern, “is about passing these objects of beauty, culture and value down through the generations—something many African Americans haven’t had the good fortune to experience.”
Well. I guess there wasn’t room for “promised liberation from the large-scale systemic oppression of the state,” so sure, “good fortune” it is. Good fortune is why we’re here, dressed as ourselves, volunteering our affective labor in exchange for a new piece of history, except it’s also the same old, the players changing while the game stays the same. The prize is still the white cube, the White House, the white page that absorbs all the difference. Or tries.
Last year Jay-Z and Kanye West put up for auction the 2004 “Otis” Maybach they crashed in Spike Jonze’s music video for “HAM.” This totaled car—or, as it would be called were it made by a guy with an MFA, “sculpture”—sold for exactly $60,000 at Phillips de Pury, one of the most prestigious money houses in the art world. And yet. In the car world you call that a loss.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼The Saint Louis Art Museum with the Cass Gilbert–designed Main Building and the new David Chipperfield–designed East Building in the foreground. (Photo: Jacob Sharp)
AH, THE REGIONAL JUNKET. The prospect—free room and board for a couple of nights in a novel location, a spot of local sightseeing (art-world and otherwise), an exhibition or opening or event devoid of the usual suspects—is always so appealing. And yet… This time, the canceled flight should have tipped me off that, well, you just can’t win. A tidy plan to leave New York just before Friday teatime and arrive in Saint Louis for early evening cocktails at Laumeier Sculpture Park was scuppered by wild weather that necessitated a later departure and a frantic transfer in Dallas. Landing closer to midnight, I found my driver, headed for the hotel, checked in, and checked out.
I awoke in Utopia—the third-floor “Thomas More’s Utopia Room,” to be exact. The kitschy-cosy Cheshire’s thematic shtick was that quarters were named for famous British scribes. “Each room has a book from one of his or her works,” trumpeted the brochure, “and a complete collection of all the books are available in Captain Burnaby’s Traveler’s Den, located on the first floor next to the living room.” Dodgy grammar and ill-advised nomenclature notwithstanding, the mock-Tudor facility had apparently been designated officially historic, a reward for having survived unnumbered stag parties and family getaways since as far back as the mid-1950s.
Having met up with the long-suffering PR crew responsible for holding the hands of those assembled—mostly architecture critics, it turned out, since the ostensible focus of the trip was the unveiling of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s new David Chipperfield–designed East Building, and mostly also armed with tales of travel woes—I boarded a bus to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in the hopefully named Grand Center. The tranquil Tadao Ando building was currently home to a pristine exhibition of multicolored wall works from the ’80s by Donald Judd, to which we were introduced in detail by its severe German curator, former Chinati Foundation director—and Judd’s partner for the last five years of his life—Marianne Stockebrand. A trustee who had shown up unannounced with family in tow got more of an education in the differences between the metric and imperial systems than he could have anticipated.
Traversing a sun-bleached courtyard dominated by a Richard Serra swirl, we met our second welcoming committee of the morning, at the abutting Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. The vibe here was more approachable, the art less set-in-aspic. Amiable curator Kelly Shindler, who immediately outed me as having been reluctant to contribute to a former project of hers, the Art21 blog (two words: no money), walked us through shows by Lari Pittman (practically a retrospective), Kerry James Marshall, and, most intriguingly, Finnish filmmaker Mika Taanila. Postvisit, there was a feeling among my colleagues that the place lacked a convincing raison d’être—perhaps because many of them had already toured “SLAM” (so emphatic!) and failed to see the need for another, smaller, museum—but I enjoyed the shows and the chat.
From here on out, the expedition veered off the contemporary-art-and-architecture track in some frankly oddball directions. An outdoor lunch in blistering heat in the Islamic Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden (because why not, I suppose), hosted by no-nonsense communications guru Peggy Lents, was followed by a tour of the premises and their admittedly imposing Climatron (there’s a Sleeper joke in there somewhere). The first geodesic dome to be used as a conservatory, the timelessly futuristic structure also provided the model for the domes on the spaceship Valley Forge in ’70s sci-fi flick Silent Running.
After a pit stop at the hotel, the slow and mystifying buildup to the museum party continued with a tour of the World Chess Hall of Fame. No irony here—this is exactly what it sounds like: a museum dedicated to that game with the little horses and castles that most people either obsess about from the age of five or ignore outright forever. To be fair, there is an artistic component to the place; alongside rows of plaques commemorating the chess world’s great and good were an exhibition of (surprisingly lovely) antique sets and a show of new work by fiddly technosculptor Bill Smith (not my taste, but not terrible). Supposedly, the art had something to do with the game, though what exactly was unclear.
The confusion deepened into outright hostility when we were treated to a curious flash-card presentation that degenerated into a stand-up row about the rationale for the division of competitive chess into men’s and women’s leagues (a less-than-lucid attempt at justification revolved, predictably but unsatisfactorily, around algorithms). As a later powwow confirmed, my colleagues and I were all, by this point, wondering why we were here. The institution, for all its reported popularity, had a subtle air of desperation that made me pity and slightly fear its staff; perhaps they too were wondering how they’d ended up doing what they were doing.
A pleasant dinner at a restaurant down the block was rushed through in order to make the museum (remember that?) before the lights went out at ten. We made it by nineish, only to find the place close to empty, the stars having mostly, it seemed, moved on. Pounding our drinks in the Grand Central–esque lobby, we went our separate ways—I got a great personal tour of the understated new galleries from curator Tricia Paik but saw no one else; others of our party at least clocked High Museum of Art director Michael Shapiro, Museum of Modern Art curator Ann Temkin, Brooklyn Museum curator Elizabeth “Buffy” Easton, and New York dealer Craig F. Starr. Chipperfield, reportedly a grumpy sort given to moaning about American construction workers’ lack of craftsmanship, was nowhere to be seen. But hey, we saw Isaac Mizrahi at the airport the next morning. He was wearing sparkly blue nail polish.
THE FACT THAT THE ART WORLD does not have the same criteria for assessment as the rest of the world was brought home to me recently while in a taxi with Sturtevant—indisputably one of the most influential artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, maybe ever. When we left the Serpentine Gallery Summer Party in London, there were hundreds of fans gathered in Kensington Gardens and paparazzi cameras flashing madly. They were not cheering “my star,” though, but top models (Naomi, Kate, Karen, and Eva) and actors from Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, stars from another galaxy who were visiting the kingdom of contemporary art that evening.
The Serpentine Summer Party is one of the top London charity events. It is often cohosted by figures from the fashion world, and this time L’Wren Scott (along with Tim Jeffries) took on the task. The event occurs in the gallery’s garden and pavilion (designed this year by architect Sou Fujimoto), and it attracts many celebrities who come not only to be seen but also to help fund the gallery (ticket prices start at around $580). The event is as important as Wimbledon, which happens the same week, and it attracted more people than the Masterpiece Fair private view at the Royal Hospital of Chelsea, which took place the same evening.
Sipping watermelon cocktails, clad in designer labels, and fighting to make it into the photos, the guests included Daphne Guinness and James Franco, as well as Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Ewan McGregor, Sir Paul Smith, and the entire Jagger family (Bianca, Mick, Georgia, Amba, Jade, etc.). Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones was dressed in L’Wren Scott, and her codirector, Hans Ulrich Obrist, in Brioni, while his partner, artist Koo Jeong A, wore a Lanvin outfit that she had to return after the event. Sturtevant wore Sturtevant. In the garden were our celebrities, artists like Gustav Metzger, Ryan Gander, and Marc Camille Chaimowicz, rubbing shoulders with the immortal Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and the Chapman Brothers. Inside the gallery, Bobbi Brown offered partygoers hair and makeup in a miniboutique. Music was provided by Jake Bugg and 2ManyDJs, and the afterparty took place, as tradition dictates, at the Groucho club. This was not the only Sturtevantesque déjà vu moment of the evening, though: Someone discovered that a young model was wearing the same outfit as Naomi Campbell, whose agent then begged the girl to go and change. A real parable for the issues of authenticity, authorship, originality, and representation that lie at the heart of Sturtevant’s work. I couldn’t help but think of the piece she showed during the 2008 Manifesto Marathon at this very venue, which claimed: “Stupidity is our new chic.”
The private view of the show, titled “Leaps, Jumps and Bumps”—our artist’s first exhibition in a British institution—took place two days later at the same venue. That event was unfortunately much calmer, even though the artist and the curators consider it one of the best projects of her career and one of the greatest experiences of their lives. In any case, no prominent figures from the art-buying world went to that viewing, and the latest sales in contemporary art took place just a few stones’ throw away at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. In fact, one of Sturtevant’s most famous works, a repetition of the legendary Warhol Flowers, had been sold at Christie’s London.
The exhibition deploys the artist’s famous technique of repetition in full force. One of the works, Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (America), echoes an installation of lightbulbs by Felix Gonzalez-Torres installed at the Serpentine in his solo show there in 2000. The walls are covered in wallpaper that contains an image of an owl whose eyes return the viewers’ stares. The endlessly repeated motif is borrowed from Sturtevant’s renowned video installation Elastic Tango—shown at the 2011 Venice Biennale—which recycles images found on the Internet. Elastic Tango is also deconstructed via autonomous video projections that sample extracts of the video’s content. Hans Ulrich Obrist remarked that the exhibition is a “work in progress,” and that the artist adds new semantic layers to it every day. “She conceives shows like a Gesamtkunstwerk, a holistic installation,” he said. “And she energizes the space, creating different tonalities and tensions.”
In the middle of the gallery, Dillinger Running Series, a much-discussed video referencing Joseph Beuys, plays in a loop, as does the video Finite Infinite, which shows a Labrador running in a circle in a park. This work, which was on view at the Punta della Dogana in Venice two years ago, has an in situ effect in this English garden. In the gallery’s other wing, a group of sex dolls (which belong to the Moderna Museet) are installed in the windows, where they appear to be enjoying the view. Kathryn Rattee, the exhibition’s cocurator, wondered how long it will be before the rookie visitors walking in the park complain that the work is too “shocking.” “Leaps, Jumps and Bumps” does not include any “historical” works, only works from the twenty-first century, proof that Sturtevant is really and truly at the top of her game. “When I met Sturtevant twenty-five years ago, she told me about cybernetics,” Obrist said. “So I went to visit the pioneer, Heiz von Foerster, who explained the complex dynamic systems with feedback loops and nonlinear circuits. Sturtevant’s show is like that!”
Dinner was simpler. It took place in the Pompadour room of the new Café Royal hotel, Regents Street, which has been renovated by David Chipperfield. The Sienna marble tearoom is splendid, and the Gugelhupfe are exhibited in the window as if they were works of art. Several of Sturtevant’s collectors made the journey: Julia Stoschek, who only collects video; Nicoletta Fiorucci; Eric and Suzanne Syz from Geneva; and Richard Chang. A number of art-institution heavyweights attended as well, among them Chris Dercon, Udo Kittelmann, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi of the Sharjah Biennial, Musée d’Art Moderne director Fabrice Hergott, Stuart Comer of Tate Modern and now MoMA, and new Museo Madre di Napoli director Andrea Viliani, who is organizing a Sturtevant exhibition next year to be curated by Stéphanie Moisdon. Also present were her dealers: Thaddaeus Ropac, Gavin Brown, and Anthony Reynolds, as well as several international artists like Adrián Villar Rojas, Mark Leckey, and Mariko Mori.
One toast followed another, and Sturtevant, in her characteristically generous style, warmly thanked all those who have supported her for so long, especially her daughter and collaborator Loren Muzzey. In top form, Loren took the night owls to the Gore Hotel for a last glass of champagne. I, alas, was not among them. Now, of course, we’re all ready for Sturtevant’s Next Big Step: return to New York, and a survey at MoMA.
THE SUMMER HELEN MARTEN MET HAIM STEINBACH was the summer the cicadas returned to New York, emerging from a seventeen-year slumber deep inside the earth. The insects, spawning in the millions, sing loudly and die quickly. At CCS Bard on a recent Friday, the beguiling young Marten debuted her first museum exhibition in the United States while Steinbach rang in his fourteenth. Thousands of cicadas blanketed trees and bushes, their beady eyes alive with movement.
“Helen!” Jordan Wolfson picked Marten up and twirled her around.
“Oh my God—you’re here!” she cried, throwing her arms around him.
The pair moved beyond the orbit of the crowd and into Marten’s show—“Alice through the looking glass,” one artist put it. “Such a strange world.” CCS director Tom Eccles and Kunsthalle Zurich chief Beatrix Ruf, who curated Marten’s exhibition, preferred the word “wonky.” In the quirky/poetic catalogue accompanying the show, the adjective appears in every essay, often several times.
“Is it hard to get your work?” a collector type asked Marten as he examined a white desk with a plastic tree branch poking out of it; a fabricated orange sat near one leg. Marten says she hopes to “fuck with the edges of touch...split open the erotic seams of objects,” though tactility is often sublimated into her own glossy fabrication.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “Ask Johann?”
“Yes, yes—very hard,” replied König matter-of-factly.
“Don’t tell people this! It’s very embarrassing!”
“I don’t make very much work,” she confessed. “I am very slow.”
In the opposite gallery, standing amid Steinbach’s deadpan presentations of objects, was the artist Gwen Smith, Steinbach’s partner of several decades. “Helen’s work reminds me of so many things and Haim’s work also culls memory, but in such a different way. But Helen, I’ve never met someone so cool—and I hear she’s really young?”
“She’s, like, what, seventeen!” laughed a writer. “And very underexposed.”
“Really?” said another.
“She’s had, like, forty shows!” (Twenty-six to be exact, nine of them solo.)
Left: Artist Paul Sietsema and dealer Lisa Overduin. Right: Artist Marina Rosenfeld and Metropolitan Museum curator Nicholas Cullinan.
Eccles and Johanna Burton, curators of the Steinbach show, were aiming to reframe the elder statesman’s work, moving the discourse from one of commodities to one of objecthood and modes of display. “Helen brings his work into focus—and he hers,” said Eccles, arguing that the vitality of Steinbach’s work has been long buried under a stratum of critical analysis set down decades ago. “It was a reaction to 1980s consumerist America,” he states. “You did not see this talk of commodities in Europe.”
To toast Helen and Haim, a tent was erected on a green hill next to an ivory mansion. As twilight descended over the Hudson Valley, Eccles picked up a microphone. “It is fitting that we are here at Bard, set apart from the hothouse of New York City. We produce exhibitions here—and we say this pretentiously but honestly too—exhibitions that could not be made anywhere else.” He smiled, nodding to Ruf. “Except in Switzerland.” Laughter. “We pride ourselves on saying that Bard is a place to think. And Bard is a place to thank.”
Beyond the tent, Frisbees were tossed across the lush lawn. “Our professors encourage delirious debauchery,” said one student as she laid on the grass. “They say it helps release inhibitions. Sometimes they push it too far, like mandating naked painting parties where they spray us with beer.”
“Bard has always been an unusual place,” added another student, flicking away a dead cicada.
As the gloaming gave way to night, people decamped to one of two parties. On the campus fringes was Eccles’s annual porch party, while inside the campus gates, on a large patch of pavement, was a dance party—“the sort that can only happen at Bard,” someone whispered with a smile—with Amy Sillman and Cheyney Thompson slated to DJ.
“There are no taxis here. You have to choose,” someone said impatiently as Trisha Baga raced past the mansion. “Trisha! Which are you going to?”
“The dance party-yo!” she replied without stopping.
“Just pretend we’re on an adventure,” someone tried to coax Ruf.
“No, no,” she corrected, shaking her head. “We are on a campus!”
At Eccles’s, a tight-knit community took over the porch—Ruf and Liam Gillick, who, along with Eccles, are on the board of Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA foundation, a major supporter of CCS Bard and also the primary backer of Kunsthalle Zürich. The bohemian heiress (“the Mugrabi of Conceptual cool,” someone put it) was the subject of many toasts that evening. There was also Wolfson, who had his museum debut at the Kunsthalle, and Rachel Harrison, who, along with Gillick, had shown a few years ago at Bard. “We do swaps in many ways,” a jovial Ruf noted during her speech.
Left: MoMA associate curator Doryun Chong, Artists Space director Stefan Kalmar, and Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf. Right: At Bard College.
Nearby, Marten sat quietly next to her girlfriend. “I want to get to a place of violence, where the work needs to be on the nervier side of collapse,” she once said in a conversation with Ruf. Several of her most arresting works share a single title: Geologic Amounts of Sober Time (Mozart drunks). Marten has hung bottles of alcohol from the bottom of these perfectly fabricated paintings, each of which boasts an expressionless face. While undoubtedly a playful riff on a composer who purportedly worked drunk, each seems pregnant with a desire for a life force that, as every alcoholic knows, is most easily reached through a substance that is fatal. Desire is dormant, the promise of a more human touch buried under a glossy facade.
“Have you seen the cicadas? They’re everywhere.” A woman in a gauzy dress leaned over a railing into the balmy night. “But I don’t mind them. I think they’re beautiful. Can you imagine being buried for that long?”
“I wonder where they sleep at night,” said another. “They’ve started to die. Their carcasses are everywhere.”
Restless for a more wanton nighttime endeavor, someone offered to charter a group of us back to campus. Thompson was at the DJ booth, beating his hands in the air, music slamming a crowd that moved effortlessly with its rhythms. People leapt up and down on top of cars. A crowd overtook the bed of a pickup truck and the entire vehicle surged with bodies. Marten, for her part, had retired early.