IN AUGUST 1991, during the last days of the Soviet Union, a three-day coup placed then president Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest in the Crimea. Citizens turning on their TVs looking for news were met with a broadcast of Swan Lake, played on loop for hours on end. Since that moment, Tchaikovsky’s ballet, a cautionary tale of love and mistaken identity steeped in a Europe-facing Imperial Romanticism, has been coupled with political turmoil in the Russian cultural imagination.
When the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet descended on New York’s Lincoln Center last week, kicking off its program with Swan Lake, it should have been—and in many ways, was—a triumph, a meeting of East and West harking back to the days before the current Crimean crisis and Russia’s recent restrictions on media and LGBT rights. After all, playing prince to prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova’s Odette-Odile was none other than David Hallberg, the South Dakota–born, Arizona-raised dancer who joined the venerable company in 2011 as the first American-born principal in its 238-year history.
On Thursday morning, hours before a special evening celebrating Hallberg and the Bolshoi Ballet, the potential for cultural diplomacy was put to the test by news that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had been shot down over eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, crashing into a field of sunflowers and killing 298 people. “I wasn’t even sure if I should come tonight,” a curator confessed as droves of New York’s proverbial great and good arrived.
With women in chiffon and silk gowns and men in bespoke suits and bow ties flowing into the David H. Koch Theater, the night felt more like Edith Wharton’s New York than our post-Bloomberg metropolis. The guest list for the aprčs-performance dinner was a far cry from the ballet’s usual scene today, typically casually dressed aficionados and tourists sporting their New York best. The crowd was cherry-picked to bring together those who work in the creative industries with those who endow them, compliments to the spirited and perspicacious Maria Baibakova, who moves effortlessly between worlds. She, along with patrons Yana Peel, Anna Nikolayevsky, Inga Rubenstein, Nasiba Adilova, and Miroslava Duma, were to host the dinner honoring Hallberg and the Bolshoi, which Baibakova conceived last fall while sharing a plate of blini with Hallberg in Moscow.
David Hallberg dances in Swan Lake for the Bolshoi Ballet at Lincoln Center. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Out of Order founder Dorian Grinspan and I arrived at a quarter to eight and shared a cigarette with Valentino’s Carlos Souza on the balcony. Below, we spotted Fivestory founder Claire Distenfeld and designer Rosie Assoulin being photographed in front of the fountain. Curator Neville Wakefield skirted by and China Chow posed for a picture while in sauntered Victoria’s Secret model Maryna Linchuk. There were five editors from Vogue. Also, artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Jeffrey Deitch, Gagosian’s Cooke Maroney, patrons Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons, and designers Prabal Gurung and Derek Lam. Scott Rothkopf, curator and associate director of programs at the Whitney, walked arm in arm with Whitney cochair Brooke Garber Neidich, greeting New York Magazine editor-at-large Carl Swanson with a quick hello as conversation turned to summer houses and how underappreciated the ballet was. “I mean really,” said one. “We must attend more often. It’s just as important as art.”
This iteration of Swan Lake, a revival of Yuri Grigorovich’s 1969 version for the Bolshoi, was a fun if stilted rendition, offering awkward evidence of the Bolshoi’s many virtues. “It’s sad to see the deadening effect of this production, with its many repetitions of steps, on good dancers,” complained Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times’ chief dance critic, in his review. If the gilded set and heavy-handed choreography seemed retrograde, the remarkable dancers did their best to enliven the material. The death of Odette, though—with its anti-Petipa “Was it all a dream?” conclusion—was eerily apathetic, as she fell to the stage behind a gauzy green veil, killed by what, lethal injection?
“Is she dead yet?” whispered Grinspan.
The curtain began to fall, answering for us. “Yup, she’s dead.”
After a standing ovation and last curtain calls—“Americans don’t have patience for clapping,” a friend noted, surveying the half-empty halls as the dancers continued their bows—Russians, Americans, and Ukrainians came together to celebrate Hallberg at the Michelin-starred Lincoln Ristorante. It was nearly midnight when appetizers were finally served and, unlike most art dinners, where politics that might divide a table go politely unmentioned, whispers were rampant. Adding to the drama was news that Obama was also in town for a fund-raiser on the Upper East Side (explaining the dreadful traffic many experienced en route to Lincoln Center).
Baibakova, pretty in a cream-colored Valentino cape dress, was particularly distraught, having heard about the crash only moments before the performance. Her toast to Hallberg began with soft tears and a request for a moment of silence.
“We must remember that people around the world don’t have the pleasure of seeing the performing arts, as we did today,” she said, going on to speak of art’s “healing power” and praising Lincoln Center for its dedication to cultural diplomacy.
The institution’s president, Jed Bernstein, took the microphone, noting that art was indeed restorative before listing “a few fun facts about Lincoln Center” and introducing Hallberg, the man who “puts the bow in Ballet, the swan in Swan Lake.” For his part, Hallberg gave a moving toast, thanking his mother as well as the Bolshoi’s beleaguered artistic director Sergei Filin, who was responsible for bringing him to the company and who was nearly blinded last year by an acid attack plotted by another Bolshoi dancer. (Black Swan’s depiction of ballet’s internecine politics might not have been hyperbolic after all.)
Len Blavatnik, the Ukrainian-born philanthropist who paid for the dinner, had abandoned his assigned seat, apparently to sit at a less conspicuous table with his family, though no one seemed able to spot him.
“Do you know which side Blavatnik’s on?” I heard at the press table.
“Do you know what side anybody is on?” asked another.
We pushed our meticulously prepared branzino around our plates.
“I just love the ballet, don’t you?”
IN GALWAY CITY ON SUNDAY, the film crowd was leaving as the twenty-sixth Film Fleadh segued into the Galway International Arts Festival. You could spot them easily: baseball caps at breakfast in the hotels, an urgency in the matter of deal-making. The artists had been there awhile too, installing their work, and some had already succumbed to the temptation, pitching imaginary movies at industry shindigs.
Down on the docks, there was another imaginary artwork. Patrick O’Reilly’s Prelude was installed inside and outside one of the festival’s temporary venues, the Shed, and his large sculpture Thorn should have been a scene-stealing event on the waterfront. But behind rose a massive pile of scrap metal, looking like every piece John Chamberlain ever rejected, or indeed dreamed of, glinting in the afternoon sunshine.
“Yes, that’s me too,” said O’Reilly. “Or rather I wish it was.” The metal is collected here every week. It grows to mammoth proportions and then, overnight, disappears, picked up by ships to sail off goodness knows where. Inside the Shed, music from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde played across a crowded installation dominated by Prelude 1 and 2, opposing sculptures made of massive, jagged shards of wood. “It’s mahogany,” according to O’Reilly. “I got it from Customs and Excise, from the wooden boxes used to smuggle cigarettes. I love the way it burns.”
Uptown, in the Absolut Festival Gallery, the huge new arts space reclaimed from the former print works of the Connacht Tribune newspaper, art lined the walls like boys and girls at a country dance. I almost wished for something to take the floor and get it all going, though it was soon thick with people drinking Absolut cocktails and pondering artworks by John Kindness, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Leonie King.
In his first solo show in Ireland since 2006, Kindness had explored the story of Odysseus, with his trademark eclecticism that included works painted on a car hood, an apron, and a toilet seat. Paul Fahy, Galway’s charismatic and brilliant director, posed for a photograph beside a pair of old-fashioned underpants, painted in acrylics with images of Circe the enchantress. “She was the one who turned men into swine,” said Kindness, who manages to mix a sense of the ridiculous with a keen seriousness. He also reckoned they’d survive in the wash.
Artists Alice Maher and Dermot Seymour were there, talking with radio presenter Marion Richardson. We teamed up to see what Enda Walsh’s Room 303, installed in a corner of the gallery, was all about. Walsh’s play Ballyturk, featuring Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea, and Mikel Murfi, had already sold out long before the festival opened.
We walked into a space set up like a dismal 1950s hotel room. Maher, Richardson, and I sprawled on the bed, while Seymour took the chair. The lights went down and a voice intoned, “My country is this room, my house is my head….It was never my intention to end my days being stared at by a fat fly in a shitty hotel room.” I thought back to the days when the Catholic Church still held sway in Ireland. Long before he married Maher, Seymour had painted a nude of Richardson, his then girlfriend and a children’s TV presenter. It hung in a show that Kindness was part of, in the Douglas Hyde Gallery. There had been calls for censorship, an orchestrated moral outcry. Thank God (indeed) that times have changed.
Left: Artist John Kindness with his work. Right: Artists Maggie Madden and Liam O'Callaghan.
“…and breaking hearts and pulverizing livers, and sex in every breath,” the voice continued. I must have lost concentration for a moment and dropped the thread. We left Room 303 to pulverize our livers some more, with Galway girl Nicola Barret from Absolut, over a raspberry-and-lime vodka concoction, supplied by her employers.
Liam O’Callaghan arrived, a little late, from installing his If and then… (again) at the Galway Arts Centre. It’s a super show, seeking out the moments of beauty to be found in the dullness and ugliness of living. I thought about O’Reilly’s preoccupation with pain and boredom, Walsh’s tedium of dying, and Kindness’s lengthy journey fraught with danger. It all seemed at odds with the heady Galway atmosphere.
Though, later, as we all met again for the party at Galway institution Ard Bia, the brilliant restaurant and sometimes gallery, you could see who had been at Ballyturk: They all had something hunted behind the eyes. I had it too. It’s a stunning play, dark and provocative, and it stayed with me, even to the small hours at the Rowing Club, late-night drinking den for the Film Fleadh and the festival. It was the Fleadh’s final night, and the film people were still trying to close deals, tired, and maybe jaded, but never giving up, as the art crew rolled in, still fresh, with two weeks of glorious adventures ahead.
THE TWENTY-ACRE PARC DES ATELIERS, a defunct SNCF railway yard on the outer edge of Arles, might only be a fifteen-minute walk from the train station. But as I stood in midday heat last Sunday, with no taxis in sight, Maja Hoffmann’s proposal to build a station closer to the Ateliers made perfect sense to me.
Not so to my French travel companions, who saw it as a sign of how out of touch with (local) reality the Swiss-born arts patron is. A new railway station is, after all, “an affair of national concern.” Though Hoffmann, who recently purchased the Ateliers to transform them into a Frank Gehry–designed research and exhibition center for her LUMA Foundation, might be more in touch than many, given that she spent her childhood in the French Provençal city.
Spurred on by the prospect of refreshments hosted by LUMA, editor Phoebe Greenwood and I briskly made our way to the Ateliers, past the amphitheater and other Roman vestiges, pausing to gape at the women who drifted past us as in a dream in full arlésienne garb, looking starched and crisp despite the heat. We arrived in time to sip Bloody Marys and juice in the shade of the Atelier des Forges, overlooking the fenced-off vacant plot where the foundation stone of Gehry’s shiny stainless steel-clad tower—the centerpiece of the arts complex due to be completed in 2018—was laid in April.
Lunch was served on a table that spanned the full length of the Atelier des Forges, the first of the former SNCF sheds to be renovated by New York–based architect Annabelle Selldorf. In a speech prefaced with a caveat about her German penchant for sentimentality, Selldorf explained how the Parc des Ateliers was “more or less a ruin” before the LUMA Foundation set about “sensitively” refurbishing it with her help.
John Baldessari's Laughing Man / Architecture / Angry Man, 1984.
Designed to house photographic exhibits, the building with its pristine white walls was ready for the opening of the forty-fifth edition of the acclaimed photography festival, the Rencontres d’Arles, and put at its disposal. But gifts are sometimes spurned, and the Rencontres d’Arles, somewhat perversely, would have none of it. Its director François Hebel resigned earlier this year in protest against what he views as Hoffmann’s ruthless takeover of the Parc des Ateliers, whose dilapidated halls have served the festival well over the years.
All the political wrangling may be little more than a bataille de quequettes (“battle of peckers”), as the fireworks maker Christophe Berthonneau next to whom I was seated curiously put it, but it’s hard not to think that LUMA Arles is, if not quite ousting, then upstaging the festival with Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Philippe Parreno’s spectacular, changing “Solaris Chronicles,” a collaborative endeavor conceived as a Gesamtkuntswerk, whose second stage was precisely timed to coincide with the start of the Rencontres. Placed on the outside of the Atelier de la Mécanique, by the entrance to “Solaris Chronicles,” John Baldessari’s 1984 billboard Laughing Man / Architecture / Angry Man seemed apt.
By the time I reached the Atelier de la Mécanique, where the “Solaris Chronicles” event was about to begin, the cavernous hall—lit up by a single moving spotlight standing for the titular light-bearing planet—was filled with people, many of them from Arles. The most beguiling element of the show—the sharply outlined shadows of the building’s columns and of Gehry’s architectural models gliding over a white screen at the back of the room—was achieved by the simplest of means, reminiscent of early cinema and its experiments. Parreno’s strident, flickering marquees suspended above the models felt brash in comparison.
Deliberately low-key, the delicate indoor fireworks, orchestrated by Cai Guo-Qiang with the aid of Berthonneau and his Camargue-based Groupe F, who have been creating fireworks displays for some of the most high-profile events in the past two decades, were never going to be crowd-pleasers. Yet, judging by some of the bemused reactions (“Wait, we’ll get crushed by a maquette”), Tino Sehgal and Asad Raza’s choreography for Gehry’s signature architectural models (including one of the sprawling Facebook West Campus building in Menlo Park), which were shifted around on trolleys and threatening in their sheer bulk, had an awe-inspiring effect, compounded by Pierre Boulez’s atonal musical score.
The sun was no longer au rendez-vous when we emerged into broad daylight. Soon after the start of the afterparty at the Villa des Alyscamps, a former convent adjoining the Roman necropolis of the same name, it began to rain, forcing everyone to huddle together beneath an old tree, large enough to shelter us all. “People should always hold conversations under trees,” Obrist said, invoking Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan. Behind the villa, beneath another tree, the LUMA “core group” and its extended family of artists, art-world luminaries, and Ping-Pong aficionados were discussing the foundation’s weighty matters as the party got going.
The rain and inevitable grumbling about the DJs didn’t stop us from dancing on the sodden platform in the shadow of the ruined Saint Honorat Church facing the villa, its lit-up tower rising above us like a premonition. Hoffmann herself joined in at some point. “Who could stop her?” someone comments. “Did you see her dance? She’s a force.” I have to concur.
“WHAT DO YOU GET someone for their 250th birthday?” bellowed Manifesta’s curator Kasper König, employing a tone that suggested he had a few choice ideas. He was addressing a crowd gathered in the ballroom of Saint Petersburg’s Hotel Astoria to celebrate the opening of the itinerant biennial’s contentious tenth edition, sited in one of the world’s most illustrious museums, the State Hermitage, which was marking an impressive two-and-a-half-century anniversary.
Cutting a dapper figure in his tux, König certainly didn’t look as battle-weary as he sounded. It was no secret that the exhibition had encountered its obstacles, weathering not one but two international boycotts—the first in the fall of 2013, a response to the notorious legislation against “homosexual propaganda”; the second in February 2014, an expression of outrage against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Further misunderstandings abounded when the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky—who fancies himself as manning the last bastion for contemporary art after a criminally uninspired 2013 exhibition of the Chapman Brothers came under fire for offending religious sentiment (the cardinal no-no in today’s Russia)—somehow found it flattering that a biennial known for homing in on Europe’s trouble spots would show such interest. Manifesta, meanwhile, quietly maintained its stance on freedom of expression in areas of “political non-alignment,” tiptoeing over one of several leviathans in the room.
International headlines had no such hesitations, double-dipping on Russia-bashing, with a special focus on homophobia. Never mind that the propaganda law has had but one official casualty, or that comparatively little ink was spilled over potentially more alarming laws (such as one that subjects personal blogs or social media platforms to the same restrictions, regulations and liabilities as media outlets). As far as Manifesta’s public was concerned, if the exhibition were to continue, it had an imperative to speak out. The scene in Saint Petersburg, however, was embarrassingly tranquil. Visitors who thought they were flocking to the front lines were met with little to do but soak in the city’s elegant drowsiness. Clutching their orange tote bags, they smiled wryly at König’s toast, though one got the sense most were still deciding whether they were relieved not to have been beaten up en route to the party.
“This edition of Manifesta has been born from a Shakespearean dilemma and questions about whether to engage or disengage,” Manifesta Foundation president Hedwig Fijen admitted afterward in a toast of her own. “Kasper was the right man at the right time.” While none would dispute that the esteemed König has more than earned his stripes, it was also true that some of the curator’s recent struggles were directly linked to his refusal to cater to today’s 140-character reactionaries. His invitation to artists included a statement cautioning that the biennial could likely be “misused by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation” and urging participants not to “resort to cheap provocations”: “The environment and the possibilities for this exhibition are very rich and it would be a mistake to reduce our possibilities down to the level of just making a particular political statement.”
Not surprisingly, this equation of politically engaged art to self-righteous back-patting proved provocative in itself, prompting more than one artist to reconsider participation. Always quick to the bullhorn, the collective Chto Delat? was the first to withdraw, and Paweł Althamer and Artur Żmijewski would disappear from the roster shortly after. (Other names—including Cyprien Gaillard and Cindy Sherman—would also drop, but these were presumably casualties of budget considerations, not geopolitics.) When asked about Chto Delat? at the press conference, König didn’t mince words: “If you ask me, their understanding of politics is a bit simplistic, like on that American television series Desperate Housewives. They feel the political situation is so severe that art doesn’t mean anything anymore. I told them, if that’s how you feel, OK, then do what you have to do. If you leave, it’s sad, but don’t tell me what I have to say or do.”
“If anyone is guilty of cheap provocations, it’s Kasper,” one curator grumbled as we made our way through the General Staff Building, the Hermitage’s newly renovated neighbor to the Winter Palace. Destined to house the museum’s blockbuster collection of twentieth-century paintings, the monstrous complex (several smaller buildings forged into one, Frankenstein style) was given over entirely to Manifesta. In what was surely König’s most radical and revelatory gestures, the curator moved the Hermitage’s storied Matisses into their new home ahead of the gun, so that showstoppers like The Arab Coffeehouse and two versions of The Dance mingled with works by Wolfgang Tillmans and Olivier Mosset. König then filled the freshly vacated galleries in the Winter Palace with paintings by Maria Lassnig, Marlene Dumas, and Nicole Eisenman, interrupting the stream of Picassos, Gauguins, and Van Goghs to the chagrin of many of a tour guide. Dumas won early applause for her cloying series of watercolors, now titled “Great Men” (the original middle modifier “Gay” was theatrically axed in concession to the propaganda law), though it was clear Eisenman’s charming, awkwardly angled portrait of two women having sex (we just see the tops of two heads, clenched hands, and knees askew) was also there to cause some trouble.
Left: Garage Museum director Kate Fowle with artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz. (Photo: Trevor Paglen) Right: Curator Ekaterina Andreeva with Gennady Pliskin at the Hermitage General Staff Building.
For a so-called “Manifesta without a manifest,” König sure spent a lot of time trying to poke the eye of the sleeping giant. Witness the many gasps over the tribute to the ever-ebullient Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe, who took on the image (and surname) of his favorite heroine, Marilyn. The presentation of his works was one of two miniretrospectives of the Northern Capital’s brightest lights (the other being of Timur Novikov) guest-curated by State Russian Museum’s Katya Andreeva. Andreeva had covered the same territory with a far more compelling show last month at the London nonprofit Calvert 22, but to Manifesta’s international audience—overwhelmingly ignorant of the city’s recent cultural history and of its homoerotic New Academy—the inclusion of two openly gay Russian artists was lauded as a triumph for freedom of expression. Never mind that both artists are now deceased and unable to speak for themselves. “Dead artists don’t bite,” shrugged artist Andrey Khlobystin, another veteran of the scene.
A lack of context seemed to plague the biennial, especially when it came to those works that intervened directly into the imperial collection of the sprawling Winter Palace. The tourists streaming by Joseph Beuys’s 1980 work Wirtschaftswerte—a series of commercial shelves plopped amid the Dutch landscapes with solely its title for explanation—registered only bewilderment. “Don’t pay attention to these!” one guide barked at a set of Louise Bourgeois drawings. “It’s all just temporary.”
“They told me they expect two million people to see the exhibition, but I suspect that has nothing to do with how many people actually make it to this room,” artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz lamented, during a requisite break for the World Cup. In the labyrinthine layout of the Winter Palace, even the most dedicated Manifesta-goers struggled to locate which rooms the aggravating, abstract exhibition map indicated. There was little to no signage within the museum itself, and it was no use asking a passing Piotrovsky: He was busy escorting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas around the grounds. Maybe they were able to find the Karla Black?
“The Hermitage has not been so accommodating,” one Manifesta team member confessed in a definite understatement. König was less tactful. His acid-laced toast at the opening cocktail would have raised more eyebrows, had his translator not been so quick to camouflage the curator’s less discreet observations, transforming a phrase like “this curious, truly byzantine museum, carrying on as if in a fairy tale” into “this marvelous, fairy-tale-like museum.” But there was no disguising König’s comparison of Manifesta as a “wonderful, do-gooding organization” to the Hermitage as the institution of “Nyet Nyet Nyet!” As for Saint Petersburg, it’s a city “so stuck on its own tragic history that it doesn’t seem able to properly devour it, to chew it up, and spit it out.” Taking a thoughtful look at his champagne, the curator concluded: “But this happened, so let’s drink.”
König wasn’t the only one with mixed feelings. “I’m not here!” one international artist said, waving me away as he crossed the Palace Square in the company of Moscow curator Daria Parkhomenko. Others owned the opportunity to visit Russia, regardless of politics. Francis Al˙s’s proposal saw the artist and his brother reviving a thirty-year-old dream of taking a Russian-made auto, the Lada Kopeika, from Brussels to Leningrad. The epic road trip ended symbolically with a mild crash into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace, where the car remains. From what Al˙s had observed, today’s Russia is afflicted with “collective apathy.” “There’s a passive resistance to culture here. It’s not like people are going out of their way to oppose things, but there are just a hundred tiny obstacles to clear before anyone can do anything.”
This attitude did not deter Manifesta 10’s curator of public programs, Joanna Warsza, who considered the boycotts a call to mobilization. “We should take them into account as part of the public’s response.” She noted the particular complexity of her position as someone responsible for not just a project, but a whole program. “Withdrawal was a possibility, but it would have had to be a collective decision.”
Warsza developed her program using the destinations board at the city’s Vitebsk Train Station. “You don’t have London or Paris,” Warsza noted. “You have Vilnius, Chișinău, Tallinn, Kyiv, and Warsaw.” Recruiting artists like Slavs and Tatars, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Kristina Norman, the public program did not shy away from political gestures: Deimantas Narkevičius organized a concert of war songs by a choir of Cossacks (the much-romanticized minority, now perhaps best known for whipping Pussy Riot); Pavel Braila filled a minifridge with snow brought in from Sochi, the subtropical climate that miraculously hosted the Winter Olympics; and Alexandra Pirici set the monuments of Saint Petersburg to human scale, by planting performers in and around such postcard staples as the Bronze Horseman and the Finland Railway Station Lenin.
Local artists Ilya Orlov and Natasha Kraevskaya used their commission to explore some of the near-abandoned revolutionary museums, such as the Sarai Museum in the outlying town of Razliv, where Lenin was purported to have hidden for a few days in the summer of 1917. Once receiving 500,000 visitors a year, in the post-Soviet present, the museum would be lucky to get 50,000. Orlov and Kraevskaya enlisted Moscow-based curator Ilya Budraitskis—who was dismissed from his post at the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia last fall after staging an exhibition drawing parallels to the events of 1990–91—to deliver a lecture on the fate of outdated ideological monuments.
The lecture took on a special resonance within the context of Manifesta. After all, if the boycotts accomplished anything, it was to call into question whether there’s still a place for “do-gooding” in today’s art world. With political pendulums swinging across the continent, Manifesta may very well find its work cut out for it in 2016, when it retreats to “civilized” Switzerland.
Left: Manifesta 10 artist Thomas Hirschhorn with Manifesta's Sepake Angiama at the Hermitage General Staff Building. Right: Artists Henrik Olesen, Anders Klausen, Klara Liden, and Wolfgang Tillmans at the Hotel Astoria.
Left: Stuart Comer, MoMA chief curator of media and performance, with dealer Sarah Gavlak. Right: LACMA chief curator of contemporary art Franklin Sirmans with LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne. (Photos: Stefanie Keenan)
“HOLLYWOOD” IS NOT JUST SYNECDOCHE FOR AN INDUSTRY; it’s also a very real, and seriously weird, place. Trawling the flickering neon of its mostly low-rent territory last Thursday and Friday, I found myself at a quartet of gallery openings, the most notable being the inauguration of Gavlak Gallery’s new H’wood outpost, with a dinner at old standby Musso & Frank.
I began in West Hollywood, the wealthy municipal enclave and boys’ town, where I caught “Soft Target,” a group show at M+B curated by artists Phil Chang and Matthew Porter. The only remaining contemporary gallery on Almont, a strip that’s hosted everyone from Gagosian to Regen Projects, M+B has emerged as a gathering spot for a fractured community of photographers. Beautifully captured by Alex Klein’s show “Words Without Pictures” a few years back, a lot of the dialogue on photography in the city revolves around group shows like this one. A gaggle of important shutterbugs were circling the gallery with plastic wineglasses: Jim Welling, Amanda Ross-Ho, Whitney Hubbs, Zoe Crosher, and Owen Kydd, to name a few. I lingered for less than a snapshot before scurrying out of the West and into Hollywood proper.
There is, of course, a Hollywood in Florida too. Besides this and a penchant for sun-kissed weirdos, the two states now also share a Gavlak Gallery. A few years after finishing her MA in critical writing at the Art Center in Pasadena, proprietress Sarah Gavlak went southeast in 2005 to found her first space in the snowbird town of West Palm Beach. Her savviness, coupled with the offbeat location, allowed her to exhibit a starry array of New York and LA artists. At the packed opening, I spotted many of Gavlak’s former Art Center professors and colleagues—writers Benjamin Weissman and Amy Gerstler, artist Stephen Prina—and the gallery itself shows a healthy smattering of Art Center alums: Lecia Dole-Recio, Alexis Marguerite Teplin, and Lisa Anne Auerbach. The last’s newest tapestry features advice she’s received from psychics (“If you let go, the energies can come to you”; “You’re weaving compassion”). Had she ever received any useful recommendations from fortune-tellers, I wondered? Auerbach rolled her eyes with restrained pity and answered a polite No.
En route to dinner, I stopped by a one-night “durational installation” by Joe Zorrilla at Hannah Hoffman Gallery. The ephemerality of the show reflected that of the works—propped wooden doors hinged only with dripping ice. A half-hour later, as the bartender shook my first martini at Musso & Frank, I found myself having moved from the short to the longue durée. Founded in 1919, Musso & Frank has hosted alcoholic writers like Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald alongside matinee idols like Chaplin, existing in some ethereal past under a gossamer nostalgia for a Hollywood that never quite was. Where else in Los Angeles can you find Lobster Thermidor and Welsh Rarebit?
A platinum-blonde Gavlak presided over the affair in a pink pencil skirt and top, perfectly matching the peonies clustered on every table. Gliding from table to table, she welcomed her “tri-coastal” patrons and artists, from Beth Rudin DeWoody and Alan Finkelstein to Pentti Monkonenn and Joel Kyack. Finkelstein had spent a spell in Warhol’s Factory and was a back room regular at Max’s Kansas City. “I guess I was just standing in the right place at the right time,” he said, conceding that there’s always a right place and time, depending on where you’re standing.
The following night I made my way downtown to REDCAT for Allora & Calzadilla’s first Los Angeles show. The exhibition takes as its subject an attempt in Paris, just after the French Revolution, to communicate with elephants using music. For the opening, an orchestra played the entire original 1798 concert including works like Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) and the Revolutionary anthem Ça ira. One strains to imagine whether the kidnapped elephants in the Jardin de Plantes were inspired or mortified by this mix, and I wondered if that spectacle resembled the shuffling crowd (dealer Shaun Caley Regen, curator Anne Ellegood, artists Nick Herman and Kelly Nipper) shifting docilely around REDCAT. Everyone appeared pacified by the melodious ensemble, but my heart wasn’t in it.
From there I grabbed Fundación Alumnos47 director Adriana Maurer Walls and colleague Eva Posas Rasgado and set off for a dinner thrown by ForYourArt, Ooga Booga, and Alumnos47 after a Friday Flights event at the Getty. Artists MPA, Eve Fowler, Piero Golia, Nicole Miller, and Flora Wiegmann clustered in a small side room of La Escuela Taqueria on Beverly Boulevard. The oversubscribed dinner kept me on my toes, and eventually I lost my chair and stood outside watching the diners trickle off to a party in Laurel Canyon or home to rest up for the next night’s round of openings, including Jane and Louise Wilson at c.nichols project and Jesse Willenbring at Thomas Duncan. Maurer Walls sat in the dark, cigarette in her hand. “I love Los Angeles,” she said. “The city never seems to end.”
Left: Artist Brian Roettinger, ForYourArt's Bettina Korek, and Hammer Museum curator Aram Moshayedi. Right: Asma Maroof from Nguzunguzu and artist MPA.
TIME AND AGAIN, Jeff Koons has said that his art is all about “transcendence,” that he wants it to help people feel good about themselves. Last Tuesday night, during an exclusive patrons’ preview of “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum, he achieved that goal a few hundred times over, while giving the Whitney the perfect kiss-off to its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. Whatever could the museum do to top it, except start over somewhere else?
“Have you been upstairs?” asked the Argentine real estate developer Eduardo Costantini—one of two collectors present who each paid a fortune, no doubt, for new Koonses that they were thrilled to see for the first time here. “It’s the yellow one on the fourth floor,” the kvelling Costantini said of Pluto and Proserpina, a stainless steel sculpture from Koons’s “Antiquity” phase. “It’s ten feet tall! And it’s beautiful!”
There didn’t seem to be a soul in the house who wasn’t spouting superlatives. Granted, the viewing audience mingling with Koons family members was restricted to other moneybag Koons collectors (Jerry Speyer, Steven Cohen, Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou), Koons dealers (Larry Gagosian, Almine Rech, David Zwirner), corporate sponsors (mainly H&M), artists whom the Whitney gave midcareer retrospectives long before Koons (John Currin, Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, Terry Winters), other artists (Darren Bader, Urs Fischer, T. J. Wilcox, Louise Lawler), curators from hither and yon (Ann Temkin, Joachim Pissaro), the occasional media celebrity (Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown), and the directors of other museums, like MoMA’s Glenn Lowry and Lisa Phillips from the New Museum. In 1980, it gave Koons his first exposure to the public.
Left: Whitney Museum chief curator Donna DeSalvo and collector Dakis Joannou. Right: China Chow and dealer-collector Jeffrey Deitch.
“It’s great,” said Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman of the retrospective, curated within an inch of its life by the Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf. “Drop-dead amazing,” concluded Norman Rosenthal. Artist Josephine Meckseper, standing in the morbid light of Koons’s vacuum cleaners, was even more emphatic. “This is one of the most important shows we’re going to see in our lifetime,” she predicted. But the most frequent comment heard was, “Jeff Koons is the artist our society deserves.” That was a compliment.
Like or lump the 150 works on view—the perverse readymades, gleaming appliances, fecund flowers, pumped-up porcelains, over-shared paintings, exuberant porn pictures— it’s an entertaining and yes, intelligent, account of Koons’s Ahab-like obsession with perfection in a world that is anything but. It also puts the pathology driving all of the artist’s hoses, balls, sacs, shafts, tanks, crevices, orbs, and humps on naked display. Has Koons ever made a sculpture that didn’t suggest hetero coitus? “It’s great, but so totally psycho,” observed one guest, rolling her eyes at the wide-eyed cat hanging from huge clothespins in its scrotum-like, turquoise sock.
The work was pinioned to a wall facing the show’s deus ex machina, Play-Doh, the mountainous miracle cast in painted aluminum that took Koons twenty years to make and looks as if a truck full of paintings, perhaps his own, had taken a giant poop. “I’m happy,” said Koons, shaking hands or hugging all who came near.
“This is like visiting you at home,” Richard Pandiscio told Joannou, who loaned the show more works than any other collector, including the big tulips painting in the museum’s street window, though the Whitney borrowed B. Z. and Michael Schwartz’s number two edition of the single basketball suspended in a fish tank. “Seeing it here,” Joannou said, “gave me the same feeling I had the first time I saw it, when Scott was probably eight years old. Extraordinary.”
Dinner for the artist, lenders, sponsors, and trustees took place under a tent in the most appropriate location for a balloon-animal specialist, the Central Park Zoo. Waiters standing along the black carpet at the entrance proffered flutes of Dom Pérignon, making sure we knew the vintage. (Dom Pérignon underwrote the dinner with Christie’s, which has profited handsomely from Koons over the past several years.)
“This is the most groundbreaking, comprehensive show ever dedicated to Jeff Koons,” Whitney board cochair Brooke Garber Neidich told the two hundred guests in her welcome speech. There were several speeches, the most self-promotional from an almost giddy Donald Schneider, H&M’s creative director. He had to keep reminding himself that the evening was about Koons, not his company, which collaborated with the artist on a limited-edition balloon-dog handbag to celebrate the July 17 opening of its Fifth Avenue flagship. “One of Jeff’s balloon dogs cost a collector $58 million,” Schneider crowed. “Our handbag will sell for $49.95.”
When it was Whitney director Adam Weinberg’s turn, he acknowledged the “challenges” of mounting the retrospective with a nod to Rothkopf. “We wanted to say goodbye to the Breuer building with a flourish, and thanks to Scott we can,” he said, adding that Larry Gagosian “really came to the floor to make this happen.” Singling out lenders—“Dakis, this show could not have happened without you”—as well as Jeffrey Deitch—“You came to us early on with this idea”—Weinberg also took the presence of other artists in the room as “a tribute to Jeff.”
One of the artists watching Rothkopf walk to the podium was Cecily Brown. “Look at him,” she said. “He’s officially a rock star.” So it seemed, only he quickly outed Koons’s longtime studio manager, Gary McCraw, as “the great expert on Jeff’s work.” Calling the show “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and noting that he and Koons were “still friends,” he also thanked the collectors, extolling the patience of William Bell, the person who waited twenty years for Play-Doh—and has waited nearly that long for the new house in Malibu where it will live to be completed as well. (“It’s complicated,” he said later.)
Finally, Koons stepped to the mic. “The show is wonderful,” he said, “but what has real meaning is that all of us are here together.” He then introduced his family, beginning with his wife and muse, Justine Wheeler. “Celebration, Popeye, Hulk/Elvis, and Antiquity were inspired by our love and I am so grateful to her,” and here, unexpectedly, he choked up. “Art has brought so much transcendence in my life,” he said, as the motivational speaker in him came out. “It can lead people to be excited about their possibilities and be the best people that they can. And I want to be the best person I can.”
Mera Rubell must have been feeling the possibilities when her dinner partner, Christie’s president Douglas Woodham, confessed his fondness for collecting seventeenth-century painting. “That is unacceptable,” she told him. “You have to see the light.”
Left: Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden. Right: Metropolitan Museum curators Sheena Wagstaff and Nicholas Cullinan.
The next day, the sun was definitely shining on Koons when Gagosian hosted a lunch for the artist at the Sea Grill, under the nose of Split-Rocker, the monumental topiary now looming over the Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, it is just as fabulous as, if slightly less endearing than, his flowering Puppy, which stood in the same spot fourteen years ago. “It’s a painting with flowers,” Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume said. “And the architecture inside it is really interesting.”
For a little while, with Weinberg, Donna De Salvo, Agnes Gund, Eli and Edythe Broad, and Bill and Maria Bell in the room, it seemed as if the Whitney party had never ended. But fresh faces belonging to architect Annabelle Selldorf, Richard Prince, Dan Colen, Public Art Fund president Susan Freedman, collectors Jill and Peter Kraus, and Gagosian curator John Elderfield, also arrived to drink special “Split-Rocker” cocktails and sweeten their teeth with “Split-Rocker” desserts.
“Jeff lives in a frictionless universe,” Rothkopf observed. But he also has to share it with other artists, who were chock-a-block on Thursday, the big kickoff for summer shows in Manhattan. There were openings at Marian Goodman, at several galleries on the Lower East Side, at Sean Kelly in Clinton, and all over Chelsea, where there was something for every taste.
Mickalene Thomas powered up at Lehmann Maupin in the lone solo show of the evening, while dealer Alexander Gray exhumed the watercolors of Vera Neumann, whose scarves adorned the heads and throats of countless women from the 1950s to the 1980s. The pungent odor of a stable—the kind for horses, not just artists—wafted through Paul Kasmin Gallery, where Brooklyn Rail editor Phong Bui took a turn as curator of the baffling, “Bloodflames Revisited,” and Todd Levin totally kicked out the jams at both the Marianne Boesky and Marlborough galleries with the archaeological sweep he gave to the last 150 years of art from Detroit, not just the most beleaguered but possibly the most soulful city in the country.
Instead of bringing in a guest curator, Barbara Gladstone turned to Berlin dealers Thilo Wermke and Alexander Schröder for “Galerie Neu at Gladstone Gallery,” hands-down the coolest show of the night. “They have a very clear aesthetic, and I like it,” Gladstone said of her colleagues. “I can learn a lot from them.”
The atmosphere contrasted sharply with the wild scene at Salon 94, which fashion designer Duro Olowu, in his yearly outing as curator, filled to the ceiling with paintings, ceramics, costume jewelry, photographs, and handmade clothing all focused on the female form—material culture at its most colorful, for sure.
Designer Cynthia Rowley, kitted out in an Olowu dress, was fascinated. “This may be the only time I wear someone else’s clothes,” she said. The enormous crowd at the opening included the collector Emily Pulitzer, fashion activist Bethann Hardison, Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell—a decorative arts specialist, after all—and a man who told Olowu that he liked the clothes more than the art. “They’re not as expensive, right?” the man asked. Olowu gave him a helpless look. “They are,” he said. “I made them, and I know.”
Friday night brought platoons of art troops to Bard College, where Amy Sillman and Anne Collier had retrospective shows opening at the Hessel Museum, one stop on a tour for each. “I have to say it looks better here than it did at the ICA in Boston,” said Sillman, who has been teaching at Bard for years and was wearing a medal to prove it. Collier’s show of photographs, curated by Bard CCS director Tom Eccles, was given a super-elegant installation on blue-gray walls. “Is this the most beautiful show ever?” collector Marty Eisenberg asked. “And did you see the guest list? The best people are here.”
During a buffet dinner on the lawn of Eccles’s house in Red Hook, Sillman was ebullient while Collier, though glowing, seemed overwhelmed by the attention. “Excuse me,” she said. “I have to get a Diet Coke.”
The rest of us got an evening in the country, under a full blanket of stars—a fitting end to a celestial week shimmering with possibilities.
Left: Collector Dorothy Lichtenstein and Ballroom Marfa cofounder Fairfax Dorn. Right: Novelist A. M. Homes and art consultant Amy Cappellazzo.