SHOWING UP TO A PARTY at all is in itself a gesture of deference in Los Angeles, where La Cienega Boulevard may as well be the International Date Line. The weekend before last saw a host of events, literally traversing one end of the city to the other, so many plot points on an itinerary of party-hopping endurance that gave us just enough to mull over for a few sleepy weeks in August before the art scene springs to life again amid back-to-school jitters.
Saturday 5:20 PM: Chinatown. Chung King Road
“It seems we have a question here in the front row. What is performance art?” Jamie McMurry, one of the main administrators of the fifth iteration of Perform Chinatown and ad hoc emcee on the main stage, repeats the question: “What. Is. Performance. Art.” He sidles up close to the microphone and clears his throat grandly, then clears it again, and a few times more. This goes on for about thirty seconds. He smiles at the uncomprehending woman. “There’s your answer.”
Among the early lingerers at this event, where nearly thirty artists stage various durational and ephemeral performances, is a sizable population of confused tourists for whom the title ostensibly evoked some sort of public-radio-sponsored, family-friendly event. But the artists seem less intent on bringing the uninitiated masses into the fold, and more intent on blowing minds. Some performances are taking place in open air, others on a stage, still others in black or white wooden boxes acting as frames, and all are happening at once. Smells from three different performances—involving onions, whiskey, and mayonnaise, respectively—mix in the fragrant summer air. People whisper into cell phones, hold their noses, and cover their children’s eyes as they pick their way through this gauntlet of avant-garde expression. We all step gingerly over a naked Kate Gilbert, whose Two Less Things to Worry About (Lucy Returns) obstructs one of the walkways. Still, many stand politely with chin in hands, dutifully evincing stony apprehension.
A stray paper airplane, printed with the image of a twenty-dollar bill, and very much on fire, flies further than expected from Vasan Sitthiket’s politically charged performance (visual elements in play include: a camouflage-print suit and tie, a globe, a helpmate in an Anonymous mask painted with the American flag, aforementioned fake currency) on the main stage, and nearly lands in my hair. “Sorry!” he calls out from the platform.
8:15 PM: West Hollywood. Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery
We ride the slipstream behind rush hour traffic to arrive just in time for David Lamelas and Daniel Knorr’s openings at Kayne Griffin Corcoran’s impressive new space on South La Brea Avenue. Even the grass is soigné, cut at sleek, measured angles. Semiotext(e) editor Hedi El Kholti is parked by a galvanized steel ice bucket, handing out beers. In contrast with the anarchic scene we’d left behind, the modulated volume of conversation, coupled with a few well-behaved children traipsing around Lamelas’s Signaling of Three Objects installation in the courtyard, signals something approximating an eighteenth-century French manor.
In the south gallery, Lamelas chats convivially with Paul Sietsema. They pose politely for a snap. “Isn’t it wonderful?” Lamelas asks. “The intimacy the camera creates? I don’t really know this man, you know, but we’re getting on pretty well, and this picture, it... I mean, this could be the most important meeting of our lives!” In the main gallery, Daniel Knorr is flanked by Liz Goldwyn and actress Jena Malone. His acid-hued resin casts of Los Angeles potholes literally pop out of the wall. I like the way they fuse the twin notions of city streets and art itself as agents of social movement that often circumscribe one another: distance, level of acquaintanceship with the artist, time, and parking prospects are all factors in deciding if an Angeleno is going to leave the house on any given day in order to go look at art. For their part, the potholes seem to be enjoying the change of view immensely.
In KGC’s permanent James Turrell skyspace, Warren Niesluchowski and Belgian philosopher Thierry de Duve are sipping Heinekens, leaning forward in the chairs Turrell designed specifically for leaning back. Niesluchowski, in the spirit of one who has spent many years perfecting the art of being a guest, is sanguine, and he shifts the conversation to suit every sly change in the room’s color. Of Turrell’s work in general he notes, “I haven’t taken acid in forty years, but that’s where it takes me back to.”
9:45 PM: West Hollywood. Chateau Marmont
After some hushed conferences comparing routes, most of the Corcoran crowd has migrated to a private room at the back of the Bar Marmont. Cocktail waitresses dart furtively in and out of the dim, amber-lit space, ushering in mixed-up drink orders, while guests assemble little plates of cured meats and cheeses from a platter of charcuterie in the corner. The varieties are impossible to differentiate in the dark. Lamelas is holding court on the patio, making sure everyone’s glass is full.
11:00 PM: Chinatown. Human Resources
Back in Chinatown, strong in spirit but weak in body, the Perform Chinatown Afterparty/Human Resources Benefit is going full blast. Lights are flashing, people are dancing, and the bar line is nearly out the door. A friend emerges from the crowd, double-fisting two red Solo cups, and hands me the one that happens to be full of pure gin.
Sunday 1:00 AM
In Human Resources’ upstairs room, the Big Conversation Space perform The Tarot of Chance, a series of unconventional card readings appropriate to the unconventional setting. The group’s principal members, Niki Korth and Clémence de Montgolfier, have been at it all evening without losing a trace of composure. Conversation is their medium, and they are wielding the hell out of it; it’s like a more intimate version of Tino Sehgal’s This Progress, but with a punk flourish and zero hired actors. Over the din of artist Dawn Kasper’s DJ set below, there are audible snippets from the reading of the woman in front of me. The phrase “soul mate” is repeated several times. When she finally gets up, pushes her chair back and walks away, there are tears in her eyes.
Once situated, Niki explains to me that this is not a traditional tarot, and my first task is to formulate a question to send out into The Great Beyond. She picks up the receiver on the Model 500 rotary phone on the table, tracing the number to the Great Beyond (area code 818?) with her finger. “Yes hello... we want to know what is success? Ah... yes... thank you.” The resulting cards form a curious sequence—the megaphone, the artist, the philosopher, the hacker—but there is a Narcissister/A. L. Steiner video piece being projected nearby, and it’s hard to focus with those bronzed curves freakishly bouncing around the screen…
Sunday 5:45 PM: Venice Beach. Home of Thaddeus Stauber and Tracy O’Brien
“I hate being called a Pop artist, it’s such a fucking burden!” British Pop artist Derek Boshier exclaims. “And I’ve just handed out all my cards. I hope no one from the Guggenheim walks in.” After a few hours’ rest and only one minor squabble about GPS settings, we arrive at the chic private residence acting as the site of Night Gallery’s pop-up show “Sunburn.” Christine Wang’s giant 2013 Dandelions painting banners the facade, making every other perfectly charming house on the block look like a hamlet of driftwood shanties. Friends and collectors mill around, taking care not to bump into any of the work in the decidedly lived-in space.
Upstairs, Boshier’s 2004 Hanky Panky converses with the fleshy rosas of Christine Wang’s lewd-crude Flashe paintings on found pet X-rays, which in turn echo the pink, painted-wood bunk beds in the adjacent room. I think of the children. “We didn’t want to neuter anything,” Night Gallery director Mieke Marple explains. “The idea is to bring a little bit of S&M to Venice Beach.” Before heading out into the sunset, Boshier offers a final word. “You know, Eduardo Paolozzi once told me, ‘This is how you get on in the art world: You pick an icon, and paint only that for the rest of your life. That’s how you do it,’ he said. ‘...But you better not fucking do it!’ ”
Repeating the same action for hours on end? Sounds like a performance.
SAN FRANCISCO HAS NEVER struck me as a hotbed of artistic conservatism, but this axiom surfaced over and over again at the fete celebrating Norman and Norah Stone’s biannual rotation of their collection at Stonescape, housed in a bright, white cave tucked into a voluptuous hill in Calistoga, California.
“Everything that comes to San Francisco dies,” whispered someone as we stood inside the cool cavern. “The city is ruled over by the same five families that all live within blocks of each other—old money, old art. We need the Stones.”
The Stones are a famously zany San Francisco couple with a collection seen as at once sexy and politically astute, which makes them a sort of paragon of artistic radicality in Northern California. Their collection rests on an empire based on positive thinking. Norman’s father, a textbook Horatio Alger, began hawking newspapers on the streets of Chicago in the 1920s before selling insurance door-to-door. Decades later, his company was worth billions and he had written three books about the power of optimism. He then became a primary financial backer of both Richard Nixon’s presidential campaigns. His son, however, whom I encountered flipping through vinyl records at a heavy wood table set up like a DJ booth (Theaster Gates’s Listening Station), took a slightly different route.
“Vietnam—it changed everything. I was working at a private equity firm with war-related investments—I couldn’t do it anymore,” said the septuagenarian, sporting a flowing paisley shirt and long beaded necklace. “I quit and went back to art school. But you see, I’m a people-pleaser, which is not a good thing for that line of work. So I decided to become a psychologist.”
As waiters in white urged guests—Josephine Pryde, James Turrell, Leigh Ledare, Aaron Betsky of the Cincinnati Art Museum, curator and former Jumex Collection director Abaseh Mirvali, and Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, among others—to please join for dinner, I came upon advisers Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner, who have worked with the Stones for the past twenty-five years.
“It all began with a work by John Baldessari,” said Westreich with élan. “We knew it was the right work because it was conceptually profound, but more so, because it was provocative on so many levels.”
Wagner smiled at his wife. “Doors get knocked down with those guys,” he remarked. “They are oblivious to what their neighbors think; they dress the way they want to dress, buy art nobody else here does. They’re very democratic, which is one thing in New York but another in Pacific Heights. The city might seem liberal, but the money is conservative.”
At dinner, two art students debated terms more generally associated with historic San Francisco with LA MoCA board chair Clifford Einstein and his wife Mandy. “A beatnik is a more serious individual. Poets. Lived in places with friends. A hippie is like a nouveau burner,” argued Clifford.
“So, a beatnik is basically like a hipster?” asked a student with a goatee. At which point Norah picked up a microphone and invited the two hundred attendees to gather under the Turrell pavilion for a performance by Theaster Gates and his band, the Black Monks of Mississippi.
“The relationship between collectors and artists is sometimes about objects but a lot of times about friendship,” said Gates before beginning his forty-minute set. “What we will sing tonight is a reflection on race, on humanness. This one is called ‘The Glorious People.’ ”
“To kill a man in a hood . . . the sun and the moon, they both were there,” Gates began. It was guttural music. The light became electric yellow, turning a woman’s neon orange platforms a pale white. A man with a cello leapt from his seat, hoisting his instrument over his body and plowing into its thickest strings as the light went blood red. Gates was roaring then, and the Turrell had turned a fierce shade of blue.
The music broke. For a moment everything was still, until a man in the audience began to howl and the crowd broke into shrieks. The musicians left. They did not bow. There was no encore. That same night hundreds of thousands across America had taken to the streets, protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman and honoring the death of Trayvon Martin.
“Now that is the way music is supposed to be—a lament to our time,” remarked a museum director matter-of-factly. His comment hit uncomfortably on the dicey relationship between artist and collector, the way visibility cages its maker behind a looking glass. It was fitting, I thought, that the Stones’ fourth exhibition is about portraiture. “Revealed,” they’ve called it.
In the distance, a sharp black-and-white mural by Rirkrit Tiravanija was visible from the glass doors of the art cave. The moon was almost full. You could see the faces of so many protesters, which Tiravanija had selected from newspapers and instructed students to draw across the walls. I wandered past a grove of ancient redwoods back up to the space. Inside, San Francisco collector Abigail Turin and her husband, SF MoMA board member Jonathan Gans, stood next to a circle of Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale chairs.
“They’ve completely changed the direction of our collection—they take risks no one else will,” said Gans.
Behind the couple was a remarkable Anne Collier photograph of a single blue eye, staring unflinchingly from its frame.
“I have never seen one like this,” said Turin. “The Stones find the best works.”
As they departed, I spotted Norah standing alone, most of her guests now splashing about in the Turrell-designed pool. A black fur was pulled around her shoulders—in the Napa Valley, temperatures can sink by forty degrees after sunset—and she was taking in a Ryan Gander photograph of a nude young woman with soft, full curves.
“Thea nearly fell to her knees when she saw it. And Norman, he didn’t even think about it, he just said yes,” she said. “Ryan was going to come tonight, but he had to be on the East Coast. And if you know his history, the wheelchair—it’s a very touching work.”
Slashed in red letters over the image is the phrase: I WANT TO THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT WHAT I CAN ACCOMPLISH WITH WHAT IS LEFT OF THE REST OF MY LIFE.
Left: Theaster Gates’s Black Monks of Mississippi perform. (Photo: Allese Thomson) Right: Kiara Lanier of the Black Monks of Mississippi in front of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Police the Police wall drawing. (Photo: Drew Alitzer)
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.”