Palm Reading

West Palm Beach, Florida
01.01.11

Left: View from the Breakers hotel. Right: Norton Museum of Art curator of photography Charles Stainback and artist Taryn Simon. (All photos: Michael Wilson)


THE SHORT DRIVE from the Norton Museum of Art to the opulent Breakers hotel takes the visitor past some notable landmarks, including the picturesque Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. Built in 1925 in Spanish Gothic style, the building was also the venue for Donald Trump’s characteristically extravagant January 2005 wedding to Melania Knauss. As we made our way down South County Road, Graham Russell, the Norton’s associate director of development, recalled flocks of souvenir hunters descending the moment the ceremony was over, stripping the place of flowers in a matter of minutes. And as a sleek black ride piloted by a silver-haired gent pulled out in front of us, she identified this season’s must-have car, the Bentley convertible. Welcome to Palm Beach.

I was in town, along with a trio of other New York critics (all of us instantly conspicuous among the pastels in head-to-toe black), to take in two recently opened exhibitions at the museum, attend a discussion with one of the featured artists, and visit the home of a local collector. First up was a tour of “Now WHAT?” (continually misidentified as a similarly irritable-sounding “WHAT Now?”), an assortment of work culled from the recent round of fairs in Miami by Norton curators Cheryl Brutvan and Charles Stainback. Having held down the fort at home during the fairs this year, I was looking forward to a summing-up of what I’d missed. But the show, assembled at speed (Stainback cheerfully admitted to having arrived at the theme—of information and its conveyance—in “about an hour”) and presented as an up-to-the-minute snapshot, was finally too modest and too scattershot to satisfy that admittedly unrealistic desire.

Aiming less for absolute contemporaneity and the better for it was “Stare,” a good-looking show of photography installed in galleries newly dedicated to the genre. Juxtaposing familiar but still resonant prints by Diane Arbus, John Coplans, Walker Evans, and Ed Ruscha with others by the less canonical J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, and more recent projects by Vik Muniz and Taryn Simon, “Stare” reaps the benefits of a more open-ended conceit, exploring “that singular moment when we cannot look away.” Simon, represented by entries from her series “Contraband,” joined Stainback for a Friday evening “public” conversation in front of a small group of trustees and donors, including chairman of the board Kemp Stickney and Works of Art committee member Joey Pearson. (Oddly, for all the institution’s customary trumpeting of accessibility, the talk wasn’t recorded for a broader audience—membership, it seems, still has its privileges).

Simon recalled getting her start via a process of “weaseling in.” (Art school wasn’t part of her parents’ plans for her, so she found a way into classes at RISD while a student at Brown). Stainback thought the approach might still color her work, the making of which often requires access to seemingly impenetrable places, and Simon’s comments on her series “American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” seemed to confirm his suggestion. But while she may have become accustomed to involving herself in some strange situations, Simon made no claim to fearlessness. Of visiting hibernating bears’ caves in Virginia, she admitted: “I was terrified that my strobes were going to wake them up, and in the first den, they did. There was a lot of outdoor peeing on that shoot too.”

Simon described “Contraband,” a taxonomic visual record of seizures made by US customs over the course of a single week, as “a depressing portrait of the flattening of the world—everyone chasing the same few things.” Were there any guns among the confiscations? wondered a suddenly bloodthirsty Stainback. “There were pistols from Afghanistan,” she answered, “but they were mostly ornamental. There were some BB guns, and a few dead birds that they told me were used in witchcraft. But even fruit can become a threat in that context. A banana can become a weapon.” What about “terrorist-type items,” Stainback pressed. “There are fewer risks being taken by travelers now,” the artist said. Apparently, the relative anonymity of the mail makes it a safer option for modern agents of chaos.

Left: Dealer Sarah Gavlak. Right: Artist Phillip Estlund.


Following an evening at the Breakers Seafood Bar (which, a guide informed us during a breathless half-hour walkthrough, is one of five watering holes in the 140-acre beachfront resort, which opened in its current form in 1926 and also houses nine restaurants, two golf courses, ten tennis courts, a 7,800-bottle wine cellar, and teams of perpetually bubbly wedding planners and personal trainers, sommeliers and masseurs, babysitters and hairdressers), Saturday got off to a slow and unseasonably damp start. Still, one doesn’t turn down lunch at Beth Rudin DeWoody’s place (or rather places—she owns several large properties side by side, with facilities comparable to the hotel’s). So by 1 PM, we were sipping iced tea and munching salad in one of her conservatories, looking out on a rain-soaked lawn.

My notes from that hour or two consist mainly of a column of names. A few of the artists represented in her vast collection: Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Anton Henning, Takashi Murakami, Tom Sachs, Erwin Wurm, Lisa Yuskavage, Evan Penny, Will Cotton, Liza Lou, Roe Ethridge, Jack Pierson, Rudolf Stingel, Larry Bell . . . the list goes on and on. That this was an extraordinary, and extraordinarily valuable, array was beyond question. Ironic, then, that the overall effect was extremely cluttered. DeWoody seemed, as one of my colleagues observed, less an art collector than an art hoarder, piling acquisition on acquisition, lending works out, perhaps, in part simply to clear a route to the fridge(s).

Lunch done, we returned to the Norton for a tear around its permanent collection and jolly Nick Cave show, then dropped in on Gavlak Gallery, by common consent Palm Beach’s single noteworthy dealership. Recently relocated from West Palm Beach, Gavlak is now tucked away behind the luxe fashion outlets of Worth Avenue, in a second-floor space not coincidentally owned by collector Jane Holzer. Proprietor Sarah Gavlak, who also runs a project space in her Manhattan apartment, shows a variety of boldface contemporary names alongside a few lesser-knowns, and keeps an eye on the international market. She was also, after a quick reapplication of lipstick, happier than most to pose for a picture (and I thought this town was all about appearances).

Back at the Breakers, we dined with affable new Norton director Hope Alswang (last seen after Friday’s event chasing down a Rolls-driving guest while shouting “I wanna lick your car!”), peeked into another wedding in progress in the grand ballroom, and took a final swing around the five heated pools, with their lolling retirees and signs reading PLEASE RESPECT GUESTS’ SERENITY. As the hotel’s press pack (easily three times the heft of the Norton’s) has it, “everything you want, anytime you wish, can be yours.” Simon, seeker after the seemingly impossible, might well approve.