Tropical Punch

New York
10.06.06

Left: Philadelphia Museum of Art curator of contemporary art Carlos Basualdo. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Maya and Simone Klabin. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)


Tuesday’s unveiling of the latest installation of “Tropicália,” a traveling exhibition of Brazilian art inaugurating the new Arquitectonica-designed wing of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, was greeted with much pomp and circumstance, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Mayor Bloomberg. But I missed all that. Instead, I ducked in just before the preview’s official closing time, finding myself alone with international art intelligentsia Okwui Enwezor, Louise Neri, and “Tropicália” guest curator Carlos Basualdo. “Not everything is working just yet,” Basualdo apologized, but he needn’t have worried, as the show looked exceptional nonetheless. Artforum contributor Linda Yablonsky swept in just before cutoff, too. I waved and watched her carefully slip off her shoes and disappear into Hélio Oiticica’s massive installation, like Bas Jan Ader in a pantsuit.

The advantage to arriving late, I learned, was getting a personal tour from Sergio Bessa, the museum’s soft-spoken director of education. He pointed to Lygia Pape’s bowls filled with aniline-dyed fluids. “You can sample them if you like.” I passed. Though I'm a scrounger by nature (I always take a candy from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s piles, even if I don’t really want one), the clear droppers and Kool-Aid-colored liquids incongruously brought to mind both relational aesthetics and Jim Jones. The show’s 250 objects seamlessly blend activism and formal innovation, offering an excellent launching point for the newly refurbished museum.

All the best pomp was at that evening’s celebratory dinner, cohosted by Brazilian ambassador José Alfredo Graça Lima, New York’s consul general of Brazil, at the Upper East Side home of collectors Simone and Paulo Klabin. (“They own Rio,” I had been discreetly informed.) In the small, competitive, ludicrously wealthy society of collectors, there are good eggs and there are bad eggs. The Klabins, by all appearances, are the former—a glamorous, vivacious family who lead relatively normal lives, albeit lives decorated with a Holzer, a Flavin, a Judd, and a gorgeous Soto. What’s it like raising two children with contemporary art? “Like a language, they must learn about it. These days, before we go to look at work, they ask: ‘Is it going to be “Dia art” or “Met art”?'” Simone responded.

Left: Curators Okwui Enwezor and Louise Neri. Right: “Tropicália” artist Eli Sudbrack (of assume vivid astro focus) with Tim Goossens. (Photos: David Velasco)


When dinnertime arrived, the guests made their way to the luxurious multiroom dining area downstairs, where all the best gossip seemed to be conducted in Portuguese. Apparently, the ambassador is Buddhist, so the buffet featured plenty of vegetarian options. Making my way over to Graça Lima, I asked if he’d ever taken advantage of his diplomatic immunity. “Oh no,” he laughed. “Consulates don’t really get that. Only the embassy in Washington, DC.”

The party began to buzz with the arrival of Eli Sudbrack (the brains behind assume vivid astro focus), sporting a psychedelic one-piece by Brazilian designer Neon and firmly holding onto boyfriend Tim Goossens—the night to Sudbrack’s day—who was dressed in “a mix of Hedi Slimane and myself.” Having recently designed a small line of bags and accessories for LeSportsac, Sudbrack is no stranger to fashion. Another “Tropicália” artist, Matthew Antezzo, had clothes on the brain, too. “These pants are from a thrift store in Westport. They’re size 6 women’s,” proving that even these days, ambitious consumers can track down good design for a bargain.

The evening wore on, with uniformed waiters serving cups of “Romeo and Juliet”—delicious, thick strawberry jam and cream. I sat with Paulo Klabin, onetime owner of a renowned Brazilian gallery, who spoke about the numerous books on physics and of science fiction lining his shelves. “Physics is better than art,” he proclaimed. In this market, it’s also a lot cheaper. As the artists bid their adieus, I decided to make my exit as well. You should always leave the party before they turn off the Villareal in the foyer.

County Fair

Newport Beach, CA
10.04.06

Left: Sonic Youth at the opening of the 2006 California Biennial. Right: Susan and Leonard Nimoy with OCMA director Dennis Szakacs. (Photos: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)


The drive down to the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) for the 2006 California Biennial revealed a landscape peculiar to this corner of the world: palm-tree-lined freeways choked with SUVs, a vast plateau devoid of landmarks except the spires and lights of giant malls, and the palpable feeling that everything not made of stucco was made of plastic. The OCMA seemed almost consumed by this vast sea of tract homes and office parks, and though few of the artists showing inside are from “the OC,” the culture inside the museum finds a way to deal with the California culture outside, a mélange of the sunstroked superficial and the ingeniously irreverent. Walking in from the parking lot, I ran into one of the biennial’s curators, Rita Gonzalez, standing near the velvet couches of Kianga Ford’s sound installation (which, with the noise of the crowds, I never managed to hear). Gonzalez, who works at LACMA, was invited to join the exhibition team after Irene Hoffman left midresearch. “Everyone’s coming in with road rage,” she observed, sipping from a martini glass filled with sickly sweet fruit liqueur.

The weekend-long celebration began with an invite-only dinner, where wealthy local donors rubbed elbows with the future art stars this exhibition hopes to launch. When I finally found my place card after a confused hunt, my tablemate, Steve Hansen of China Art Objects, grimly joked, “Even the seats are curated.” Each table was a delicate ecology of patrons, young artists, their dealers, and a smattering of invitees from other museums and events such as inSite, San Diego; and the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore (a frequent OCMA collaborator). Above the bar, a video by Mario Ybarra Jr. played a frantic montage of the many hand-painted (and often multilingual) signs that populate Southern California roadsides. Philanthropist, actor, and painter Leonard Nimoy, sitting at the head table, was particularly taken with the Chicano artist’s work and seemed quite receptive to Ybarra’s pitch over dinner to lead bus tours of the local barrios.

Left: Biennial artist Kate Pocrass. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Biennial artist Kianga Ford with biennial curator Rita Gonzalez. (Photo: Carla Rhea, courtesy OCMA)


As if guided tours were requisite for any venture south of LA, the following day I found myself on a bus with San Francisco artist Kate Pocrass, whose “Mundane Journey” through Orange County attempted to find incidental beauty in the streets. Outside of Pocrass’s tour, the bus briefly stopped to see yet another hunk of Richard Serra steel at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, Orange County’s two-hundred-million-dollar attempt to prove that its corporate oligarchs can be philanthropists, too. I sat next to an elderly collector who wore the black pants suit and oversize Italian sunglasses representative of her breed. After bragging about her recent purchases of works by artists whose names I’d never heard before, she offered this insight when asked her thoughts on the biennial: “Let me put it this way, I haven’t seen anything I’d buy.”

Later that night, hundreds of local OC kids eagerly lined up outside the museum to see Sonic Youth perform at the official public opening. Before the doors opened, a private cocktail party thrown by Deutsche Bank was my excuse to spend some time alone in the galleries. To make sense of this large group show, the curators invented themes that dealt directly with some aspect of California art’s unique personality, such as “Fantasy Verité” and “Adaptive Identities.” Though sometimes derivative of their famous LA-art-school teachers, especially Mike Kelley and Charles Ray, the work of the thirty-one artists and collectives in the show displayed a multitude of imaginative solutions to the “problem” of California. For example, artists Marie Jager and Leslie Shows followed the strategies of science fiction and fantasy to their inevitably dire conclusions, capturing a California continually threatened by apocalypse. Jager’s work, a ten-minute video telling the story of a toxic purple cloud that kills everything in its path, complemented Shows’s collage paintings, which depict bleak landscapes whose textured ruins capture the sweeping beauty of spaces devoid of humans but not their influence.

As the opening chords of Sonic Youth’s set rang out, I headed back into the packed lobby. Bleached hair and nautical tattoos were the norm for the crowd, most of whom seemed to skip the art and shoot straight to the stage. Qualms among the artists about having a New York band at the California Biennial evaporated as the music gained steam. Near the end of the set, I caught up with the museum’s chief curator, Elizabeth Armstrong. “Orange County is brand-new, a suburban frontier,” she said. “And who knows, in a few years California may become so much a part of the international art world that this type of exhibition will become irrelevant. But right now, this place is really hopping.”

Friends with Benefits

London
10.02.06

Left: Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick with artist Gillian Wearing. Right: Artists Sophie Calle and Damien Hirst. (All photos: Richard Strange)


“It was like a bomb site three weeks ago,” said Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick. “If it hadn’t been for the generosity and punctuality of the artists, we’d have been nowhere. Even Lucian Freud promptly turned in his wonderful work, The Painter’s Garden, and he's notoriously hard to pin down. Back in 1987, Nick Serota held a seminal charity auction when he had my job. The chairman at the time told Nick that he wouldn’t be able to pay his wages, so an auction was the only way to go. This year’s auction will raise funds for an endowment to secure the gallery’s future.”

Last week, I attended the preview of the Whitechapel auction, titled “Defining the Contemporary,” where Blazwick, along with curators Bettina von Hase, Bina von Stauffenberg, Andrea Tarsia, Jack Kirkland, and Candy Stobbs, had installed the sixty-one spectacular pieces that will go on the block at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street on October 13. They hope to raise £2.5 million to supplement the £7.5 million already harvested for the gallery’s expansion and thus replenish the public space’s dwindling endowment. The disused Passmore Edwards Library, located right next door and the site for of the Dia Foundation–inspired development, played host to the exhibition and dinner. The library has a fine East End history: It was used in the early twentieth century as a meeting space for the Jewish artists and intellectuals—sculptor Jacob Epstein, painter David Bomberg, and poet Isaac Rosenberg—who laid the foundations of British modernism.

Downstairs were parquet floors, crumbling cornices, and much art-star spectacle. Tracey Emin arrived in tracksuit bottoms and talked a great deal, but had to “get off to the Holbein,” which was opening at Tate Britain. Damien Hirst, who was given one of his first serious exhibitions by Blazwick at the ICA, paid back the favor by donating Raffinose Undecaacetate, 2006—an enormous dot painting likely to fetch upward of £500,000. He dropped by in his current trademark, a black leather jacket studded with a diamante skull. He seems to be maintaining a more, shall we say, sober image by leaving most parties before they’ve begun. Richard Wilson looked in, too, but was opening his own exhibition at the Barbican the next night and so had to return there to tweak the installation of “my black cab, my burger stand, and my rotating caravan.” He explained, “They wouldn’t let me cut any holes through the Barbican walls, so I’m cutting holes through my own black cab.” Artist Gillian Wearing, dealer Nicholas Logsdail, and Sotheby’s dynamic contemporary team—Cheyenne Westphal, Oliver Barker, and Francis Outred—also showed up to keep an eye on the proceedings.

Left: Artist Gary Webb with dealer Jake Miller. Right: “Defining the Contemporary” curators Bettina von Hase and Bina von Stauffenberg.


Von Hase, of the Nine AM organization, was astounded by the munificence of the donations. “Gary Hume surprised us all by calling very early to say his painting was ready. Peter Doig offered his painting early on—it’s a thing of such exquisite beauty. Albert Oehlen made an early promise, as did Rachel Whiteread and Damien Hirst. They were all locomotives for us.”

Indeed, Doig’s first snow painting, Charley’s Space, 1991, is an exceptional donation. He kept it for himself but has now given it back. Not only does it “have great significance for us,” said the museum director, but it “marks the beginning of one of the most innovative and important projects in contemporary painting.” Doig clearly regards the work as one of his most important pieces; he borrowed its title for a 2003 exhibition of his paintings at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.

Upstairs at around 9 PM, a roast-chicken dinner was served on three long tables for two hundred chattering donors, curators, dealers and other supporters in the low-lit old reading room, still lined with dusty, dog-eared books. No place names meant the dinner was informal and slightly chaotic, a refreshing change from the hierarchical nature of many London social affairs. Wolfgang Tillmans (“Wait, don’t take a picture of me in front of the Hirst”), Paul Noble, Gary Webb, and Oehlen stayed on for the three Perrier Jouët–inflected courses that culminated in Blazwick’s appreciative speech. Most agreed that she had gathered an extraordinary range of stand-alone pieces with the kind of integrity rarely found in charity auctions. The Heritage Lottery Fund gave the initial £3.67 million to get the ball rolling so, without a single reference to the hotly speculative booming art market, we merrily thanked God for gambling.

Out of Season

Toulouse
09.30.06

Left: “Printemps de Septembre” artistic director Jean-Marc Bustamante. Right: “Printemps de Septembre” president Marie-Thérèse Perrin. (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)


It’s autumn, but that didn’t stop “Printemps de Septembre” from opening in Toulouse last week, and I ventured from Paris for the festivities. Started fifteen years ago in Cahors, this three-week festival/exhibition is quite popular in France. Traditionally oriented toward photography, it emancipated itself from medium specificity when it moved to Toulouse five years ago. Nevertheless, I was accompanied by a photographer, Mario Palmieri, when I boarded the shuttle plane that took me from Orly to rainy Toulouse, where I stepped into a shuttle minibus chartered by Claudine Colin Communication, one of Paris’s biggest PR agencies. The bus was necessary, as the event is spread across ten locations throughout the city. At the behest of artist Jean-Marc Bustamante—the festival’s artistic director for the past three years—together with Pascal Pique, director of contemporary art at Les Abattoirs, the local contemporary art center, and Mirjam Varadinis from the Kunsthaus Zürich, this year’s edition is clearly more international.

As is the tradition, before the marathon began we ate lunch by the banks of the Garonne River, on a boat moored beside a bridge decorated for the event by artist Peter Kogler. Festival president Marie-Thérèse Perrin (Mathé to her friends) greeted the artists who had completed the installation of their work, among them Lawrence Weiner, Joe Scanlan, Erik van Lieshout, and designers M/M (Paris)—inventors of the “Alphaline” alphabet used in the catalogue and in promotional material throughout the city. But it was soon time to reboard our minibuses and tour the festival’s sites, some historical and magnificent, like the Hôtel Dieu and the convent, some more recent and problematic, like the buildings owned by two sponsors, La Caisse d’Epargne and Electricité de France. Regarding the latter, even John Bock, who’s usually more than happy to fill up gigantic spaces with odds and ends, couldn’t make his mark on this uninspiring provincial “cultural” space. We roved about, sitting beside charming stars like Sarah Lucas, who was exhibiting a huge photograph that reads “Complete Arsehole.”

Under the thematic banner “Broken Lines,” the shows, which are “a project articulated around the notions of order and disorder,” present some monumental installations. Several of those are well known and not necessarily very recent; almost all have never before been seen in France: Anish Kapoor’s My Red Homeland, 2003, originally shown at the Kunsthaus Bregenz; Alex Hanimann’s gigantic cage filled with birds, produced by the MAMCO in Geneva; Andro Wekua’s revamping of a piece he first exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur and now owned by Greek collector Dakis Joannou; and Julian Rosefeldt’s Asylum, 2001, an outsize multiscreen projection initially presented at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. Solo exhibitions also dotted the city map, including Olivier Blanckart’s, in a water tower, and Cathy de Monchaux’s—her first exhibition in quite a while—in an abandoned house.

Left: Artist Lawrence Weiner. Right: Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves's João Fernandes.


Some more discreet works are well worth the detour, like Lonnie van Brummelen’s wonderful films, screened in 35 mm, which use a documentary approach to report on the complex political situations surrounding some border crossings. Bustamante told me he had discovered van Brummelen last year in Amsterdam, when he was a jury member for the Prix de Rome, which she won. Elsewhere, with the help of the city’s symphony orchestra, French artist Laurent Montaron created a captivating site-specific piece about the wavering “La” that serves as a tone for mobile phones. Last but not least, Nedko Solakov laid siege to Les Abbatoirs' restrooms with witty graffiti as he did at P.S. 1 in 2001.

We were done with the tour just in time for the official opening, complete with mayoral speech, but I decided to skip the fanfare, including the performances organized by Isabelle Gaudefroy of the Fondation Cartier. (Cartier is one of the luxury-goods-company sponsors of the festival, as is Pommery champagne.) I later regretted the decision, as everyone was impressed by Forced Entertainment, one of the performers.

At 9 PM, we were treated to a cassoulet dinner under a tent. This year, the heads of many foreign institutions had been invited, and I ran into Simon Rees from the CAC in Vilnius, João Fernandes from the Serralves in Porto, Philippe Pirotte from the Kunsthalle Bern, and Nicolaus Schafhausen from the Witte de With in Rotterdam. Schafhausen is in charge of the German Pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale, and he told me he was looking forward to having three women representing three important countries down the alley: Sophie Calle (France), Tracey Emin (Britain), and Isa Genzken (Germany).

Left: Witte de With director Nicolaus Schafhausen. Right: Artist Tatiana Trouvé.


At midnight, the artists stepped out into the graduation-party atmosphere of the crowd, comprising mostly students, enjoying a sound-and-light show. As for me, I was on my way to bed when I passed by the Saint-Sernin Basilica, the biggest Romanesque church in the Western world. I’d never heard of it, to the great dismay of Véronique Bacchetta from the Centre d’Édition Contemporaine in Geneva. “Ah, those Frenchmen, no culture at all!”

Burden of History

Milan
09.27.06

Left: Artist Vanessa Beecroft. Right: Flavio Del Monte, artist Paola Pivi, and curator Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)


“We have no museum of contemporary art!” was the refrain of my recent trip to Milan, which began with espresso at the Trussardi Alla Scala Café, a well-air-conditioned bar that acts as a second office for curator Massimiliano Gioni and artists who are working on exhibitions commissioned by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, such as Paola Pivi. When I asked them how Milan’s art world is different from other art worlds, Pivi responded laterally: “That’s like asking: How is my mother different from other
women?” But Gioni had a theory. A complete lack of public support had resulted in fashion companies opening foundations. “In Italy, we suffer from gerontocrazia—‘government of the old’—so many people are out of date. The word curatore is not recognized by Italian spell-checkers. As an act of modesty, we curators should recognize that our job is new and probably just a fad.”

As I left the cafe, I ran into four impossibly tall, wafer-thin girls and enjoyed a Fellini-esque moment; the models, here to audition for the fashion-week catwalks, looked like circus freaks. Galleria Francesca Kaufmann was a short walk away. In Milan, the rivalry between art and fashion is a delicate subject and most dealers are cagey, but Kaufmann spoke her mind: “Fashion is a secondary art, even though I respect it. Shoes are not going to change your vision of the world.” As if on cue, in teetered Mariuccia Casadio, the art consultant of Vogue Italia, who chose to highlight continuities: “The maximum level of luxury is art. . . . Both are wonderful glossy ghettos.”

Later, I met couturier-friendly dealer Giò Marconi at his gallery in a three-story building that he shares with the fondazione of his father, Giorgio. We talked about the difficulties of exporting work by local artists. The Castello di Rivoli in Turin is a prestigious “bridge to abroad,” but without organizations like the Goethe Institut and the British Council, Italian artists are disadvantaged. Importing foreign art is a different matter because Italians “are travelers, like Christopher Columbus. They’re curious; they buy early.”

Left: Dealers Giorgio and Giò Marconi. Right: Critic Mariuccia Casadio and dealer Francesca Kaufmann.


Milan’s galleries are inconveniently spread out but wonderfully diverse. Set in the back of an eighteenth-century barracks (where Maurizio Cattelan still keeps an apartment), Galleria Emi Fontana was difficult to find. An African guy in a crimson fedora, loitering like an extra in a blaxploitation flick, gave me accurate directions, and I eventually encountered S&M artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone installing their show. I admired the couple’s sculptural performance props (which included their carefully crafted pecs) and was treated to a short lecture on their genealogical relationship to Antonin Artaud, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

The following day, Friday, was bound to be frenetico because some thirty galleries were opening shows as part of a cooperative effort called “Start.” Claudio Guenzani was showing Stefano Arienti, a well-respected Italian artist who teaches at academies in Bergamo and Venice. I sat down with Guenzani, and we settled into the topic of Los Angeles. Just as Hollywood dominates LA culture, so even Milanese slobs are highly fashion literate. Unlike LA, however, the art schools here are not validating gatekeepers, and Guenzani looked aghast when I asked him whether dealers in Milan attend degree shows.

I was running late, so the good dealer offered to drop me off at the kitschy Diana Majestic hotel, where I was scheduled to meet artist Francesco Vezzoli. Guenzani handed me a helmet, and, moments later, I was on the back of his motorino, living out a Roman Holiday fantasy.

Left: Artist Chris Burden. Right: Artist Francesco Vezzoli.


Vezzoli looked unexpectedly wholesome, particularly given that he’d just flown in from New York. He let slip that he was about to start work on a documentary funded by Miuccia Prada. “Just imagine me as a slimmer, more glamorous Michael Moore. I want to do a visually over-alluring Kinsey Report—a scientific survey of contemporary sexuality, a film with nail-me-to-the-wall politics and nail-me-to-the-couch images.” After that, we talked about the relevance of the art press, and the famously flattering Vezzoli delivered this gem: “In terms of the way the art world functions today, ‘Scene & Herd’ is the new October.”

My next stop was Vanessa Beecroft’s “South Sudan” show of photographs in which the figures assume classic Christian poses at Galleria Lia Rumma. When I introduced myself, Beecroft immediately took me aside. “My dealer in the US refuses to show this work!” she said stridently. I confirmed that she was referring to Larry Gagosian, then she continued: “Images of black people are too loaded in the US, but this work is based on a true story. I went to the Sudan and nursed three newborn babies in the orphanage. They were malnourished, and I fed them. They thought I was their mother. But my husband said there was no way we could adopt them . . . so I am thinking of leaving him!”

I welcomed the long taxi ride out to the industrial suburbs of Lambrate. Once back on foot, I hooked up with Flavio Del Monte (press officer for the Trussardi Foundation and all-around promoter of art in Milan), then whizzed through a makeshift complex of artists’ projects called Lambretto and a series of good-looking galleries before taking a deep breath in Paolo Zani’s Galleria Zero, a small but special space with wraparound windows and a roof terrace, which featured Jeppe Hein’s uplifting fountain works.

Left: Artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone. Right: Artist Jeppe Hein.


Next door, Massimo De Carlo’s bright and airy converted coffee-machine factory offered three solo shows, one of which was the reason I’d flown to Milan: Chris Burden’s first performance-related work in thirty years. Neck-high in water and wearing swimming goggles, there was Burden in a tight close-up, his face six feet wide, reciting a paranoid rant in schoolboy French about the threat of “des chiens sauvages.” Funny and scary, the two-minute video loop was part of a four-room show, which included six of Burden’s famous “LAPD uniforms” from 1993. While standing among the blue suits, Burden explained that the works here didn’t bear the original guns because Italian customs refused to believe, despite much written evidence on museum letterhead, that they were art.

It was time to make our way to an unassuming restaurant called Piero e Pia, where De Carlo was hosting his three-artist dinner for Burden, London-based Ryan Gander, and local star Roberto Cuoghi. De Carlo is a well-known gourmand, and the Italians at my table were excited that it was porcini season. As the night unraveled, Gander talked about “faux conceptual art,” curator Andrea Viliani entertained us with his theory of “the Peter Pan syndrome of the post-Cattelan generation of Italian artists,” and thirty-three-year-old Cuoghi protested, “I'm more like the sick grandfather of Peter Pan!” By the time we stumbled out of the restaurant, I’d concluded that the Milan art world may be small but is actually less provincial than New York or London, not only because everyone is always traveling but because no one is under the illusion that they occupy the center.

A Night at the Opera

New York
09.26.06

Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian, artist Rachel Feinstein, curator Dodie Kazanjian, the New Yorker's Anne Stringfield, and Steve Martin, with artist John Currin in front. Right: Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden with artist Richard Prince. (All photos: Julie Skarratt)


On Thursday, I attended a cocktail party and dinner inaugurating a new contemporary-art gallery within the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The gallery is the felicitous brainchild of Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Met. Gelb asked Dodie Kazanjian, editor at large for Vogue, to act as the Met’s curator at large for the gallery. She invited ten artists—Cecily Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Verne Dawson, Barnaby Furnas, Makiko Kudo, Wangechi Mutu, Richard Prince, David Salle, and Sophie von Hellermann—to submit artworks inspired by heroines from the six new productions that the Met is mounting this season. Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was the choice of Dawson, Furnas, and Mutu. I spent some time contemplating Dawson’s picture: Euridice beckons—more accurately, she points at—Orfeo from her netherworld domain on the sad side of an oddly sunlit River Styx, garbed in what looks like a customized version of the Scream costume. As she seems here rather like a flesh-eating zombie, I took her gesture to mean, “No! Go back. It’s just not going to work out,” which, in fact, it doesn’t, in both Gluck’s opera and the Greek myth on which it is based.

I quite liked Prince’s “Joke” painting apropos Madama Butterfly. The joke reads: “I went to the opera. It was Madame Butterfly. I fell asleep. When I woke up the music was by Klaus Nomi and Cio Cio San had turned into a lesbian and refused to commit suicide. It was a German ending.” Above and below the painted text, Prince has collaged hundreds of pornographic pictures of girl-on-girl hanky-panky. If only there were a contemporary composer as passionately vulgar as Puccini who could carry off the artist’s inspired revision of the all-too-well-known story. Richard Strauss, no stranger to operatic perviness, could have done so with élan. Die Äegyptische Helena, a lesser-known work by one of my favorite composers, was the choice of Currin and Salle. Currin represents a somewhat chunky Helena, her head thrown back in (orgasmic?) ecstasy. Salle’s large-scale painting, a good example of his recent “vortical” style, is also porn-oriented, featuring at its center, as far as I could ascertain, a ménage à trois between a man and two women. Queer theorists–cum–opera buffs beware: Salle and Prince's representations of sapphism are unmistakably heterosexist!

Left: Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb. Right: Artist David Salle with Dodie Kazanjian.


The event was exceedingly well attended: All of the artists save for Mutu, Kudo, and Hellerman were there, as well as numerous dealers, curators, and artists. The list is long, but I spotted Maurizio Cattelan—a close friend of Kazanjian’s who apparently acted as an unofficial advisor to the project—Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeff and Justine Koons, Chuck Close, Clarissa Dalrymple, Barbara Gladstone, Carol Greene, Neville Wakefield, Yvonne Force Villareal, Thelma Golden, Roland Augustine, and Larry Gagosian. I chatted with Rachel Feinstein, who was wearing an extremely pretty dress that she described as “vaginal japonisme,” I suppose referring to the large “pubic” pleat that ran down its center. An homage to Madama Butterfly, which opened the Met season the following Monday, I wondered? Many of these eminences were also at the dinner, held in the Met’s Opera Club. I was fortunate in my placement: Steve Martin was at my table. Surprise, surprise—Martin said many exceedingly witty things, but a rudimentary, one might say medullary sense of etiquette prevented me from pulling out a pad and writing them all down. Speeches by Kazanjian and Gelb were easier to listen to than speeches at events such as this usually are; for one, both erred on the side of relative brevity. Gelb gave Deitch an especially enthusiastic shout-out—“I would like to thank Jeffery Deitch and all the other dealers,” etc. Perhaps this comment did not sit too well with “all the others”; I did notice at least one prominent dealer shift uncomfortably in her seat, but possibly she was adjusting her hemline. Deitch later explained to me that Kazanjian is an old friend, and that she had asked him to be on the advisory committee for the gallery. He also recommended the fashionable South African architect Lindy Roy, who designed the modest but attractive and attractively understated (rather than annoyingly architectish) gallery, the entry to which is conveniently located on Lincoln Center Plaza.

It is perhaps churlish to find fault in any aspect of this otherwise charming and well-intentioned endeavor. Nonetheless, one wonders how much actual progress is to be made in bringing together contemporary art and fustian opera. Is opera somehow to ride the coattails of “wild” art and glamorous, or at least fashionable, artists? Simply hanging opera-inspired paintings in the gallery doesn’t go very far in bridging any sort of gap. Apparently, it is being considered that artworks exhibited in the gallery might be reproduced in the Opera's playbills, but beyond this modest proposal is the notion that in the future artists might design curtains and even stage sets. I’m certainly not an expert in operatic scenic design, but offhand I can’t think of many notable modern/contemporary art–opera synergisms. David Hockney’s sets for Ravel’s Les Enfants et les Sortilèges (a Met production, 1981) is the only one I can recall—very pretty. At best, perhaps the new gallery at the opera heralds future collaborations of similar brilliance.

David Rimanelli

Left: Artist George Condo. Right: Dodie Kazanjian with artist Chuck Close.