Finnish Fetish

Turku, Finland

Left: Artist Alfredo Jaar. Right: Curator Lotta Petronella and artistic director Taru Elfving. (All photos: Lauren O’Neill-Butler)

IT WAS AN EXTRAORDINARILY warm, bright, and calm afternoon in the Baltic Sea. Every once in a while, our boat would dock or slow down in the brackish water so we could observe. Sometimes there was wine or coffee. It both was and wasn’t art tourism. But this didn’t resemble High Desert Test Sites, Manifesta, or any other curated nomadism. It felt more intimate, more transitory.

I should tell you where we were, and why: Friday, August 26, the midway point in a symposium for the “Contemporary Art Archipelago,” an exhibition with no discernable beginning or end in Finland’s Turku Archipelago. By some definitions this is the largest archipelago in the world, although what exactly constitutes an island versus a rock is debatable. (Estimates of some fifty thousand “islands” and nearly sixty thousand residents were tossed around.) The medieval city Turku is one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, and CAA might be its most ambitious project. “It’s not exactly a show or an event,” participating artist Renée Green pointed out. “I’m still not exactly sure what to call it.” Earlier that day, artistic director Taru Elfving and curator Lotta Petronella had introduced their “dysfunctional” showcase in one of the city’s universities, the Åbo Akademi, and under the rubric of “archipelago logic” there were presentations by Elin Wilkström on her conservationist seagrass-weaving project and Platforma 9.81’s design proposals for the islands (camouflaged homes for camouflaged locals).

Left: Artist Renée Green and Howie Chen. Right: The bunker.

“Do you know Tove Jansson’s Summer Book?” Green asked during one of our stops. I had not yet seen one of her contributions to the show, Endless Dreams and Water Between, a film about islands and proximity, with texts borrowed from writers as varied as George Sand and Gilles Deleuze. Jansson is, of course, the legendary author and illustrator of the beloved Moomin tales, but her 1972 novel is also evidence of the importance of islands to Finnish culture, as places for respite, solitude, and contemplation. Places where myths are made. That evening on the boat, Ena, another native storyteller, regaled me with accounts about New York in the 1970s, where she lived and worked as a Fulbright scholar, mother, and cabdriver. As we traversed the most polluted body of water in the world, Ena also schooled me in archipelego facts: how the population has decreased dramatically in recent years, how there are only two public beaches in the area, and how variously colored, blinking signals serve to distinguish the particular islands we were passing in night. Navigating this part of the sea, she noted, is like driving a car in a forest.

“Just look out there.” She pointed out the window toward the sea. “It’s the kind of deep blue that you want to keep forever after you close your eyes.”

After five or six hours on the boat, we landed on Korpo, the misty island where Ena lives, and took shelter on the conference grounds, the Centre Korpoström.

On Saturday we were back on the sea, hunting for works by Alfredo Jaar and Raqs Media Collective. Hurricane Irene was threatening New York, but the weather around the islands had grown even clearer and more humid, and now we could see the depth of the water around us. In the morning, Jaar had given us a primer on his Dear Markus. “Why do we need art here?” he wondered, and moments later delineated his process in clear spoken prose: “During my research last year, I observed a boat leaving from one of the most remote islands, Utö, as early as 5:45 AM every morning. I learned it was a school bus for a teenager, Markus . . . I asked twenty-five Finnish intellectuals to write letters to Markus.” Eleven responded and Jaar published their notes on large white billboards on islands along Markus’s “bus” route. Many of these discuss a society undergoing political changes; some specifically cite the ultraconservative True Finns party, which won a stunning 19 percent of the vote in this year’s elections, becoming the third largest party in the Finnish parliament. Our heartstrings appropriately pulled, we observed the signs from the boat only from a distance, unable to get too close.

Left: Alfredo Jaar’s work. Right: Birgitta.

The next day, critic Jan Verwoert gave a lecture in the Centre Korpoström on “the sociotemporal horizon of affective labor,” arguing (correctly) that “women’s work” has always entailed some form of menial “personally public and publicly personal labor.” The demonstrative talk ended with a proposal for us to think about “emerging qualities.” But such contemplation was very tricky by then, as the trip’s packed itinerary had downgraded into mere glimpses. And so we wondered: What were the “emerging qualities” of the geometric mold patterns in the obscure cold-war bunker where Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas had hosted a performance the day prior? And of the sea buckthorn berry parfait we were served for dessert that night as part of Arja Lehtimäki’s Foodscape? Or the blazes that followed the dinner, on the night of the ancient bonfires, which signal “the real end of the summer, not June or July as the government would have it,” as islander Birgitta told me? And what is the emerging quality of a text message about 75 mph winds hitting your home?

And, finally, what is “affective labor” in a country that has always been more receptive to “women’s work,” where as early as 1906 women could run for election to public office? And is that why Newsweek recently named Finland the “best country” in the world? I wanted to ask Birgitta, Ena, and Tove.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Stein of the Times

San Francisco

Left: Stage director Brian Staufenbiel and artist Kalup Linzy. (Photo: Joseph Akel) Right: Kalup Linzy in A Heavenly Act, 2011, part of Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation. (Photo: Steve DiBartolom​eo, Westside Studio Images)

GIVEN THE NUMBER of current exhibitions in her honor, one might think that Gertrude Stein had become San Francisco’s patron saint. (Move over, Saint Francis!) At last count there was the retrospective of Stein at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, as well as a show of the Stein family’s personal art hoard down the road at SF MoMA. Added to that, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and SF MoMA recently presented a four-night run of Four Saints in Three Acts, the avant-garde modernist opera that Stein, in collaboration with composer Virgil Thomson, first staged in 1934 in New York. Three is a good number for all things holy.

I could say it was the lure of the opera that drew me to Yerba Buena. But it was really the premiere of performance artist Kalup Linzy and composer Luciano Chessa’s oratorio A Heavenly Act that piqued my attention––and, judging from the solitary image of Kalup on the playbill, the organizers were banking on that, too. Linzy’s star has been shining brightly for some time: How would he fare in his latest role as operatic impresario? So, braving a typically frigid August San Francisco night, I made my way to YBCA’s Novellus Theater last Friday.

A quick rundown: Four Saints loosely follows a bunch of sixteenth-century saints who, over a picnic, reminisce about their mortal lives and current beatific predicaments. In a teeming, combustible score, Thomson presented a musical realization of Stein’s libretto, a mordant if not inchoate exposition on language and prosody. The collaborators were regular pals by the time of the opera’s completion: The much younger Thomson had encountered Stein’s Paris during a Harvard Glee Club tour (I’ll leave that one alone), meeting Stein herself shortly after his graduation in 1926. Identifying what they saw as a commonality between saints and artists in the abandon of devotion to cause, these two artists found in each other a creative afflatus born from collaboration. Noted for, among other things, its all-black cast and Florine Stettheimer’s brightly colored cellophane set, the production became an overnight sensation and quickly moved locales from its museum-basement debut to more prestigious digs on Broadway. Phew.

Left: Brooke Muñoz (foreground), Nicole Takesono, J. Raymond Meyers, Eugene Brancoveanu, and Brendan Hartnett in Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, 2011. (Photo: Steve DiBartolom​eo, Westside Studio Images) Right: Composer Luciano Chessa. (Photo: Joseph Akel)

The current staging is based on Thomson’s revised libretto from the 1950s. Perhaps in hopes that the audience not get too lost in the fray, stage director Brian Staufenbiel’s production of Four Saints weaves a loose narrative to accompany the libretto––euthanasia, redemption, trial, and execution about sums it up. In a truly cutting twist, Linzy and Chessa’s oratorio incorporates lines that were excised from Thomson’s abridgement and uses them as grounds for inspiration. Presented before Four Saints, A Heavenly Act exists paradoxically as an anticipation of the opera and also a response, as well as a reinterpretation of it.

Four Saints is enjoyable, if for no other reason than its embrace of the absurd. But the only time I felt moved was during Linzy’s performance. Dark and brooding––“grim,” quipped one audience member––the piece was in every way a counterpoint to the work it drew upon. Hooded saints in black, whispering in a sort of menacing echolalia, wandered about a barren stage, while a video projection behind depicted a coterie of angels interspersed with cloudscapes and Linzy’s own head, eyeless and mute, like a tripped-out Tiresias. From out of this chaos, Chessa summoned a lively, if not brooding, gospel beat, while a sultry, winged Linzy invoked Stein’s words to accompany it. Backed up by a roused, clapping chorus of saints, Linzy’s nonsensical sermon evokes Southern gospel tradition––a true emancipation of spirit through the joining of music and word.

After the show, a fairly beige reception ensued—the standard crowd of benefactors and trustees milling about with the usual commentary, most often finished with a tone of expected affirmation (“Truly moving, wasn’t it?”). Things were somewhat less contained, though, at the wrap party that Sunday. In a dim annex room of the SF MoMA, a more intimate crowd gathered for a saintly feast of tacos and Tecates––ah, San Francisco! Perhaps eager to move beyond past projects and associations, Linzy seemed pleased with the outcome of the current collaboration. Saints, theological doctrine goes, are not made, but recognized. And, if, as Stein claimed, saints and artists share a common path, Linzy is on his way to even greater recognition.

Joseph Akel

Prince among Men

East Hampton, New York

Left: Artist Richard Prince. Right: Guild Hall executive director Ruth Appelhof with Alec Baldwin and Martha Stewart. (All photos: Patrick McMullan)

RICHARD PRINCE’S “CANAL ZONE” got a death sentence for not being “transformative.” Patrick Cariou, the photographer who sued the appropriation artist for copyright infringement, wants the works destroyed. While they continue to languish in a Long Island City warehouse, Prince is presenting a new series, “Covering Pollock,” at the island’s other end. The show opened last Friday in the lobby gallery of Guild Hall, on the occasion of the East Hampton cultural center’s annual benefit. Prince connected Jackson Pollock and friends with punks and marauders—Sid Vicious, Ian Curtis, a bare-breasted Kate Moss—as well as some midcentury porn that Pollock might have perused. (“He’s got a real sense of humor, that Richard!” a guest cackled.) In the cleverest piece, Gene Simmons’s painted face is tiled with shots of Pollock mixing paint, a foundation for streaks of white acrylic. Like most of Prince’s work, “Covering Pollock” is shot through with melancholy quiet; here, it’s the muting of a rebel’s voice after he goes pop. The series also scored points with locals for prominently featuring Pollock and Lee Krasner’s Hamptons home. “My friend works there,” I heard a woman say. “She teaches drip painting to the children.”

The opening was preceded by a parade of smooth-cheeked moms who exist for the society pages of Hamptons magazine. After the backdrop emblazoned with the Guild Hall logo collapsed on a Newsday photographer, guests were snapped amid trees and sky. (The banner was laid to the side. “Have people lie down on it,” the Newsday guy suggested when he finished cursing.) Shutters quickened at the arrival of Alec Baldwin, one of the benefit’s honorees. “He always comes to silent auctions and puts his name on everything,” a brassy stranger gossiped. “That’s what alcoholics do. They’re impulsive.” But Baldwin’s support of Guild Hall must be more measured than that. His name tops the donors’ plaque in the lobby. Martha Stewart, the evening’s other honoree, came a bit later. She wore a cardigan of bronze mail—a knight of Coldwater Creek. After exchanging warm greetings with Larry Gagosian, she gave the exhibition a long and attentive look. I asked her if she collected Prince. “No, but this is a very interesting body of work.”

“Have you been to the Pollock House?”

The curve of her smile as she nodded said it was a stupid question that she was thrilled to answer affirmatively. “And the movie was fantastic!”

Left: Guild Hall chairman Mickey Straus and artist Barbara Kruger. Right: Martha Stewart with dealer Larry Gagosian.

The gala proper was held down the road at the Gardiner Estate. As I approached the gates, a white BMW sedan cruised through, ignoring the security guards’ attempt to wave it down. “What chutzpah! What cheek!” a dowager with blue-veined temples exclaimed. “Irrepressible,” her escort agreed. The party in the backyard tent was DJ'd by Alexandra Richards, billed as “model and daughter of Keith Richards.” For all her downtown cred, her set never ventured beyond the genre of yacht club wedding reception. Jimmy Buffet would not have sounded out of place. On the tent’s back wall hung works donated for the benefit auction. Most of them were very nice: Clifford Ross’s photograph of big waves breaking on a Long Island beach, a figure study by Eric Fischl, another Barbara Kruger piece about shopping. Two works gave me pause. Both were commissioned portraits of children. One was a blonde girl whom Andres Serrano captured at her most distraught. The other, shot by William Wegman, was a husky boy in his Little League uniform, winding up for a pitch in front of a green screen, his face hidden behind his ball arm. I was curious to see how much the fat little stranger’s image would fetch at auction, but as the people who had actually paid to get in were seated for dinner, the rest of us were shooed away. And so I wandered back toward Newtown Lane: another lonely child of the Hamptons.

Brian Droitcour

Horn of Plenty

Aspen, Colorado

Left: Collector Amy Phelan with artist Roni Horn. Right: Lance Armstrong with Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. (All photos: Billy Farrell)

FOR A NON-COLLECTING INSTITUTION, the Aspen Art Museum has certainly accumulated a critical mass of donors, fans, and collectors. On August 3, these supporters began their pilgrimage from points across the globe (or from their second homes across town) to the kickoff of the high-altitude museum’s series of annual fundraising events, wineCRUSH, which is hosted each year by patrons Amy and John Phelan. The Phelans’ home is like Aspen itself—a treat for the eyes, an illusory paradigm of style, a dizzying and rousing diversion—but the posh digs belied the attitude of our down-to-earth hosts, who welcomed their guests with warm embraces and flutes of champagne. Visitors flooded the entryway, mingling with friends, associates, and artists, while a fleet of white-dressed models wore Sotheby’s diamonds, and a few carefully placed security guards kept a watchful eye.

A Rocky Mountain monsoon blew as I set off toward the garden tent, which stood impressively still amid the bluster. Near the table of master sommeliers, I found artist Lawrence Weiner (whose work was scrawled over the home’s entry: BEFORE AFTER A HOLE IN TIME). “In Switzerland, they drink their wine young. That’s also how I enjoy my scotch,” he said, sipping on his barely time-tested spirits. After musing on swills, Viennese Actionism, and the artist’s visits to Aspen in the 1950s, we each found our table. Over dinner, artist Rashid Johnson talked about his upcoming installation at MCA Chicago; Philippe Vergne gushed about the expansion of DIA (and a new baby); and Michelle and Jason Rubell hinted at their family’s collection show in December. “It’s called ‘American Exuberance,’ ” offered Jason. “But doesn’t that sound just a little cynical?”

Left: Dia director Philippe Vergne with Lehmann Maupin's Courtney Plummer. Right: Artists Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.

As the night wound down and guests began to trickle out, I stopped to say hello to AAM director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson and board member–at-large Lance Armstrong (who humbly downplayed his own collection). Having already raised forty-four million dollars toward the museum’s new Shigeru Ban building (which will soon break ground), Jacobson was aglow and urged me to visit the future site—a dirt lot near the base of Aspen Mountain outfitted for the summer with works by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pedro Reyes, Franz West, and a Ban-designed temporary shelter. (A selection of Ban’s shelters will be among the first exhibitions at the new space.)

The following night—after a very full day of local collection tours and the not-so-exuberant news of another market downturn—the Baldwin Gallery hosted a preview of the live auction works that would support Jacobson’s new vision. A handful of artists were on hand, including Delia Brown, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin (fresh from shooting videos for Lady Gaga in Nebraska), Jason Middlebrook, Richard Phillips, and Josephine Meckseper. After a postopening BBQ, Rose Dergan and artists E. V. Day and Will Cotton coaxed me back to room 222 of the historic Hotel Jerome for a midnight party to watch Day’s husband, chef and author Ted Lee, sell his cooking wares on the Home Shopping Network. After waiting on hold for nearly an hour, dealer James Solomon finally got through to HSN to sing the praises of the The Lee Bros. 11.5qt Steel Corn Pot with Porcelain Enamel Coating and give a live broadcast “shout-out to E. V. Day and all my friends in Aspen.”

Left: Artists Rashid Johnson and Lawrence Weiner. Right: Artists Will Cotton and Richard Phillips.

Things were really cooking by Friday’s artCRUSH gala. Apparently the excitement had been mounting, as RSVPs for the event had reached capacity by the time my invitation arrived a month prior. Dropping by the AAM that afternoon to see the museum’s striking Haegue Yang exhibition, I ran into Jacob Proctor, who will be joining the museum in September as “just ‘curator’—unmodified.” “I can’t think of many American institutions that operate more successfully on the kunsthalle model than Aspen,” he continued. “It feels very Swiss somehow.”

The silent auction garnered enormous attention that evening when the gala partygoers—among them curators Anne Ellegood and Michael Darling; collectors Bob and Linda Gersh, Eugenio López, Dana Farouki, Larry and Susan Marx, and Don and Mera Rubell; and Vanity Fair’s Mark Seal—arrived, a handful smartly dressed for the theme, “an evening at the ice hotel.” (Somehow, the icy chill of economic downturn was a distant and inconsequential thought.) As guests were seated for their surf-and-turf dinners, Roni Horn took the stage to accept the 2011 Aspen Award for Art and, in keeping with the theme, read intimate poetic texts she had written in Iceland: “It was the coldest, wettest summer on record. So you want to know who I am? That’s it—six months outside in the wet . . . ” The introduction proved useful, and when Horn’s thirty-two-print artwork Clowd and Cloun (Gray) appeared in the live auction, auctioneer Tobias Meyer frantically juggled a flurry of bids. Paparazzi flashbulbs lit the collectors who drove the value upward in a sporting bidding war. As the piece approached its sale price of $420,000 (the most the AAM has raised on a single work of art at the event), Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison continued to work the crowd, moving from bidder to bidder whispering, “Go on. You can do better than that.”

Catherine Taft

Left: Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer. Right: Collector Don Rubell.

Fair Weather


Left: Amanda Wright and Auckland Art Fair Director Jennifer Buckley. (Photo: Ren Kirk) Right: Auckland's Viaduct Event Centre, site of the Auckland Art Fair. (Photo: Anthony Byrt)

LAST THURSDAY MORNING, Auckland woke up to the sort of blisteringly blue, cloudless sky that, after eight consecutive European winters, made me question (briefly) why I’d ever left New Zealand. But it’s not just that great Kiwi obsession—the weather—making my hometown feel so cheery: The city has been spruced up to host several matches during next month’s Rugby World Cup. Even without the rugby, it seems like the local council has finally realized that if Auckland is to change from South Pacific outpost into global city, it needs major investment. This year’s venue for the Auckland Art Fair, the Viaduct Events Centre, was one small part of the revamp—a shiny new building that one dealer described as “a bit airport lounge–y” but that nonetheless seemed a perfectly appropriate place to try to shift some art.

And the fact is, New Zealanders like buying. But they tend to collect within a narrow range—mostly local artists, with a few Australians thrown in. The result is a humid little microclimate of a market where artists with little profile beyond Australasia command prices way out of step with what they could achieve internationally. (It’s also pretty common for overseas visitors to choke on their cocktails when they’re told a work’s price.) This is a dangerous game, particularly for young artists, because once their prices are set too high at home, it becomes very difficult for them to find success elsewhere.

Left: Auckland mayor Len Brown. (Photo: Ren Kirk) Right: Artist Rohan Wealleans with friends at Gary Langsford's stand. (Photo: Anthony Byrt)

But this was the sort of grim, Northern conversation my chirpy Southern countrymen didn’t much feel like having at Wednesday night’s vernissage, and rightly so. Instead, a transactional air of confidence and optimism permeated the space, which was filled with the usual opening-night mix of dealers, curators, collectors, artists, and “isn’t that the guy from . . . ” celebs. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the fair was the local appetite for it, a feel-good mood that dealer Gary Langsford hijacked with (what I hope was) ironic brilliance—his “promo girls,” dressed in a floral print that matched the giant Karl Maughan painting he was selling, handing out gallery goodie bags and working the fair like it was a Detroit motor show.

Actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand gave the opening address before handing the mic over to Auckland’s mayor Len Brown, who provided a characteristically enthusiastic defense of the arts. He even maintained his good humor when he realized less than a third of the room was actually listening: “We also value the fact,” he yelled above the noise, “that you are practitioners and lovers of art, and therefore that gives you license to completely ignore me while I make this speech that you are not hearing!” The speeches, thankfully, welcomed the participating Australian galleries rather than resorting to lame quips about Trans-Tasman rivalry. Sydney dealer Darren Knight, a longtime supporter of New Zealand artists, told me that it had taken years to create an Australian audience for their work, but that certain collectors there now see New Zealand as an exciting market. Knight and his Australian colleagues were no doubt looking for a bit of reciprocal love from Kiwi buyers. And if the quality of the work on his stand was anything to go by, he had reason to be hopeful.

Left: Artist Elspeth Shannon with collector Barry Pilcher. Right: Olivia McLeavey of Peter McLeavey Gallery (center). (Photos: Birgit Krippner)

One new gallery not at the fair was Auckland’s Hopkinson Cundy, which missed out on a technicality, having opened its doors a couple of weeks after applications closed. But its directors Sarah Hopkinson and Harry Cundy were gracious enough to cohost an afterparty with fellow dealer Michael Lett. Two hundred of us headed off to the nautically themed “tapas and lounge bar” Swashbucklers, and by midnight, the music, beer, and rum had obliterated most meaningful conversation. When I visited Hopkinson the next day and commented on the choice of venue, she grinned: “Classy, wasn’t it?” True to the smarts locals have attributed to her, she was presenting a nice group show at her space just off Karangahape Road, a quiet counterpoint to the official event down on the waterfront.

Back at the fair, the late greats Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters were still ruling as market heavyweights, with the very-much-present Billy Apple not far behind. Thirtysomething artists like Rohan Wealleans, Ricky Swallow, and Francis Upritchard were attracting plenty of attention too, and Yvonne Todd—whose work at Peter McLeavey was one of the fair’s highlights—is still superb. When it came to pleasing crowds, though, Brett Graham trumped everyone with his work Mihaia—a military tank carved from MDF. But really, art fairs are only ever about one thing. When I asked a dealer on Saturday night how much work he’d managed to sell, he gave me a typically deadpan New Zealand response that also seemed to be the consensus: “Fucking heaps.”

Anthony Byrt

Left: Actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand. (Photo: Ren Kirk) Right: Curator Robert Leonard with Auckland Art Gallery Director Chris Saines. (Photo: Anthony Byrt)

Panic at the Disco

Water Mill, New York

Left: Watermill founder Robert Wilson with Rufus Wainwright. Right: Performers in sodomise USa. (Photos: Billy Farrell)

LAST SATURDAY, Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center hosted its eighteenth annual Summer Benefit, a performance-art playground for the pretty things summering in the Hamptons. The dress code for this year’s theme, “Voluptuous Panic,” was simply “Fearless.” When I called a friend to consult on what constitutes “fearless,” he wasn’t much help: “I think I’m just going to dress for ‘Panic.’ ”

Plans for putting together a five-alarm ensemble eventually yielded to ice cream and a late afternoon swim in East Hampton, and I ended up having to sneak into the $1000-to-$1500-a-head benefit through the back door, changing my clothes in the staff bathroom. Turns out if you show up in a bathing suit and a state of actual panic, you may just get taken for one of the artists.

It would be an honest mistake. The evening’s scantily clad performers were decked out in everything from duct tape to lingerie to false pregnancy bellies. (In other words, Performance Art with capital letters.) In the courtyard, Peter Coffin’s contribution mounted a motley crew of musicians atop a steamroller that was rigged up like a music box, with pins plunking against the large cylinder wheel’s surface. It drove slow circles around a collaboration from Atopos CVC + Charlie Le Mindu that consisted of a bevy of bikinied models bathing in a baby pool of silver glitter and oil, a soft-core scene labeled in the program as sodomise USa. While no one seemed to be taking up the imperative of the title, I did watch as one of the glitter girls was pulled up onto the steamroller. (A shame they didn’t have a tambourine for her.)

Left: Artists Ricky Swallow and Lesley Vance with collectors Amanda Fuhrman and Glenn Furhman. (Photo: Billy Farrell) Right: Artists Sam Roeck and Ryan McNamara with Performa director RoseLee Goldberg.

I followed a citronella torch–lined path into the woods, where Ryan McNamara’s piece I I was causing a little disturbance of its own. Two human heads (McNamara and Sam Roeck) appeared as if discarded amid the twigs, their bodies fully concealed in holes dug beneath the earth. Eyes glazed and tongues lolling, the heads droned popular duets in a kind of listless, last-call karaoke—“Love Songs after Dark” on lithium. Fifteen minutes into the three-hour performance, an already intoxicated visitor—somehow oblivious to the crowd gathered to watch—accidentally kicked the first head, then, in his shock, stumbled back to step onto the second’s face, much to the horror of the audience. The heads continued undeterred, while the partygoer tried to play it off. “How many times has that happened today?” he tested a grin toward the photographer. “Only once,” the photographer shot back coolly.

The word on previous Watermill Benefits was that celebrities were typically thick as ticks. (And apparently there were many of the latter. “You know this is Lyme disease central, right?” someone warned.) On our arrival, a friend had reverently pointed out style photographer Bill Cunningham, and there were reports of casual run-ins with honorary chairs Alan Cumming and Rufus Wainwright, but for the most part, pickings were slim. “Is this as celeb as it gets? I would have stayed in the East Village,” a catty friend texted. “Somebody above Fourteenth Street please!”

But there were some fashion folk—Stefano Tonchi, Nicole Miller, Luigi Tadini, Cecilia Dean, Chloe Malle—and esteemed patrons galore, including a smattering of DeWoodys and de Menils. Art-world aficionados Tim Hunt, Todd Bishop, Richard Chang, Klaus Biesenbach, and RoseLee Goldberg stuck to the performance-art path and the silent auction tent, where works by Anri Sala, Andrew Kuo, and Neo Rauch could be snatched up at modest prices. Bids were hot for Tauba Auerbach, Anton Ginzburg, and Mary Heilmann, whose globular Beauty Mark sparked a bidding war kicked off by Wainwright and Simon de Pury.

Left: W editor Stefano Tonchi with artist Cindy Sherman. Right: Auctioneer Simon de Pury. (Photos: Billy Farrell)

De Pury was in top form conducting the live auction at the dinner, emphatically wheedling the people he knew—“Cindy Sherman, you have an eye for beauty. Wouldn’t you say this is an exquisite portrait of Marina Abramović?”—and coaxing cash out of others with compliments or coercions. “Dear, you can be a fan of Roger Waters and still bid against him.” (The fan declined.) Capping off festivities, Wainwright crooned his self-described “plebeian” ode to Wilson, who’s celebrating his seventieth birthday later this year: “Brecht, Beckett, Shakespeare, and Susan Sontag / Would all be a drag / Without Robert Wilson.” I found myself doing the math on that one.

No sooner had artists Richard Phillips and Josephine Meckseper stepped onto the dance floor than they were upstaged by someone dressed as a giant sparkly Fudgesicle. The party had officially begun. DJs Nancy Whang (of LCD Soundsystem fame) and Nicole Batchelor fed the crowd a dutiful selection of party pop, but the particularities of the Hamptons scene meant that even on a drunken 2 AM dance floor, one shouldn’t be surprised to encounter a handsomely sweatered twelve-year-old or two. (This made Estelle’s “American Boy” seem oddly literal.)

There were slurred promises of an afterparty “at the French house,” but this required finding someone named Dmitry—too arduous a task for that hour. Newfound couples began to creep into the woods summer-camp style, making out on the trappings of all of that Art. I followed Justin V. Bond over to a set of crash-course swings, which collided into one another if you swung high enough (and the remaining guests seemed intent on doing just that).

A friend had waved goodbye several songs earlier, so when I finally gathered my gift bag, I was surprised to see him still waiting for his car. It came out that the valet had given the vehicle to the wrong guest, a dealer who was in such a disoriented state post-festivities that she drove thirty minutes without realizing her mistake. We may not have begun with “voluptuous,” but we certainly ended with “panic.”

Kate Sutton

Left: Artists Richard Phillips and Josephine Meckseper. (Photo: Billy Farrell) Right: Artist Andrey Bartenev. (Photo: Kate Sutton)

Upstate, Downstate

Hudson, New York

Left: Artist Marilyn Minter, Bill Miller, and Gypsy. Right: Dealer Jack Hanley. (All photos: Jude Broughan)

THE TINY UPSTATE BURG of Hudson, New York, is a mere two hours from Manhattan via Amtrak, but still holds out the promise of escape from the stresses and strains of the city’s always-“on” gallery circuit. Hudson’s days as a center of vice—prior to a 1951 cleanup, its two square miles were apparently chockablock with gambling dens and brothels—are long gone, and the main drag now sprouts antique stores and stylish cafés where once there were seedy gin joints. Last weekend, however, wasn’t one for a low-key break; NADA was staging an event at the Basilica Hudson, and within five minutes of taking our seats on the Saturday lunchtime train from Penn Station, my companion and I were suffering art-biz posturing and point-scoring from busy-busy neighbors.

Our shared destination, NADA Hudson, was trailed not as an art fair but rather a site-specific endeavor conceived with its nineteenth-century waterfront venue in mind. Built as a foundry and forge for the manufacture of railway wheels, the Hudson Basilica is now an eight-thousand-square-foot space for hire, and on this occasion it housed fifty-one presentations by dealers from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Milan, and Istanbul, as well as from Hudson itself. Taking place over a summer weekend, the event had a relaxed appearance even if its lineup connoted serious business, bypassing booths in favor of an intermingled set of displays that—sensibly, given the airy, distressed interior—leaned toward sculpture. There was some outdoor fun too, including Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw’s fish fry truck and a bouncy castle perpetually on the verge of collapse, though a program of performances was too sparse and scattershot to generate much excitement.

Left: Artist Lisa Kirk. Right: Artist Kent Hendricksen and dealer Nicelle Beauchene.

“We’re dealing arms!” grinned dealer Irena Popiashvili, brandishing one of Artemio’s decoratively beaded machine guns. “People always assume I find his Kalashnikovs for him,” she laughed, a reference to her Romanian origins. Bureau Gallery, staked out nearby, was selling not arms but legs; a sculpture by Tom Holmes featured a human thigh bone, veiled only by a tricolor coating of ink. Things got even more intimately anatomical at the Invisible-Exports stand, where Philip von Zweck was offering to make photocopies of any or all of an array of small works that included Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s nth-generation image of h/er own tattooed crotch. “I said to Gen, ‘What about that photo of your ass?,’ ” the gallery’s Benjamin Tischer told me. “But he replied, ‘No, this is much better,’ and pulled out an envelope with “DOG PENIS” written on it . . . ”

For completism’s sake, my companion and I had preregistered for the event’s VIP area. Anticipating a corporate-sponsored hutch with shades of the Armory Show and its humdrum ilk, we were tickled to discover that the Dynasty VIP Lounge was located inside a white stretch limo parked close to the Basilica’s entrance. An oh-so-exclusive presentation by artists Justin Rancourt and Chuck Yatsuk, the mobile club boasted a full bar, “twenty-four-hour security,” and live music. We bundled in and were instantly cheek-by-jowl with dealers Jack Hanley, Joel Mesler, Dan Hug, and Shirley Morales. As the champagne flowed, lasers, video monitors, and a color-changing illuminated ceiling all contributed to the classy atmosphere. No dusty old factory for this privileged crew.

Left: Dealer Gabrielle Giattino and artist Timothy Hull. Right: Artist Dushko Petrovich.

As to evening entertainment, there were three options: the official, the alternative, and the entirely separate. The official was a NADA reception at local joint Club Helsinki. The alternative was a performance event curated by Brooklyn gallery Cleopatra’s that everyone I asked was planning on attending, though none could tell me what it would consist of or where it was supposed to be. The separate was the launch of a swimming-pool mural by Andy Ness and Matt Phillips in the garden at Denniston Hill, a residency founded by the formidable collective of Lawrence Chua, John Letourneau, Kara Lynch, Julie Mehretu, Paul Pfeiffer, Jessica Rankin, Beth Stryker, and Robin Vachal. Prompted by artist Dushko Petrovich, we abandoned the alternative and postponed the official, but on finding that the separate was two hours distant, we revised our plans. (Petrovich made the trip anyway, later reporting a “wild ride” through the “Orthodox summer camp region.”)

After Googling “Helsinki” and learning some fun facts about the Finnish capital, we found the club’s address and arrived in time to catch an atmospheric set by Brooklyn-Ecuadorian electro-folkies Helado Negro (the Spanish name translates as “Black Ice Cream”) that had the crowd throwing some distinctly awkward shapes. As we paused outside to pinpoint our accommodation—having been made a little nervous by stern warnings about Hudson’s dark side (the center may be fancy but the rest of the town is still somewhat down-at-heel)—Hanley popped up proffering a quarter. “I thought you guys were panhandling,” he grinned. In these “austere” times, know that charity is alive and well in Hudson.

Michael Wilson

Left: NADA Parking sign. Right: NADA director Heather Hubbs.

Left: Artist Tom Sanford and Malborough Gallery director Eric Gleason. Right: Actor Rick Dacey (middle). (Photos: Brian Droitcour)

I WAS REALLY EXCITED by the chance to publicly trash William Powhida until his assistant told me to go for it. “Great idea,” the mild young man said at the opening of “POWHIDA” at Marlborough Gallery last Wednesday night. “It will help create dialogue.” Buzzkill. In my head I’d been composing the kind of invective that shuts dialogue down. Powhida was, I thought, a mediocre draftsman singularly obsessed with his own career, offering nothing but rarefied op-ed cartoons about the markets and personalities that stand in its way. (He sold a drawing of Miami Beach as a shantytown at the Pulse Art Fair a couple years back.) Yet all around me at Marlborough the choir sang the praises of Saint William. “He’s one of the nicest guys I know,” said Barry Hoggard, co-owner of ArtCat and a longtime collector of Powhida’s work. “He’s from a working-class family in upstate New York. He teaches art at a high school in Bushwick!”

As it turns out, there are two William Powhidas: a genuinely swell guy and a vile public persona. Only one of them was at Marlborough. Around 6:30 PM, a vintage Mercedes convertible pulled into the gallery through the rolling service door. There was a heavyset chauffeur and another man who wore dark sunglasses, seated in the back with a pair of “bimbos.” The man in glasses got out, popped open a bottle of champagne, and posed for photographers in front of giant letters reading POWHIDA, as though he were the eponymous artist. But he was a stunt double. (The real Powhida, Hoggard told me, was drawing with senior citizens in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.)

The false Powhida and his entourage proceeded into the gallery and alighted in the “VIP area,” a couple of black leather couches isolated by ropes and security guards. Behind them loomed Portrait of a Genius, Tom Sanford’s oil caricature of Powhida releasing a dove as a buxom blonde embraced his left leg. It looked like it could have been painted on velvet. “I’m not proud of it,” Sanford said. “Well, no, I am proud.” The performers carried on, drinking and chatting and fiddling histrionically with their mobile devices. Powhida fans smirked knowingly. Marlborough regulars furrowed their brows. “Two worlds collide,” said Eric Gleason, a director at the gallery who organized the show. “We’ll teach them to appreciate this.” (I later read on Artinfo that Marlborough has launched an experimental program to update its image, and Powhida is one of the first artists to help them rebrand.) Could I be taught to appreciate this? Though I’d tried to recalibrate my estimation of Powhida’s work with the evening’s new insights, I couldn’t dissociate the means of expression from the man who chose them. This theatrical parody of the “Warholian” made Powhida, at best, a petty Santiago Sierra. Good intentions lurking in the shadows are not the stuff of an oeuvre. Some of my favorite artists are assholes.

The afterparty at the Mondrian hotel’s penthouse staged the cheesiest fantasies of Big Apple glamour. Just as he had at the Marlborough, the false Powhida lounged on a couch, drinking champagne and fondling girls, but now a dramatic view of Manhattan’s skyline was his photogenic backdrop. The venue brought out the worst in the opening’s two demographics: The Bushwick types enjoyed playing rock stars–and-groupies beyond irony, and the actual rich dudes felt entitled to shove their way to the front of the line for absinthe mojitos. On the rooftop deck, the false Powhida passed me, and I took a stab at playing along: “How does it feel to make it big?” “There’s no pool here,” he said. “You haven’t really made it unless there’s a pool.” It was hard to tell if the slur in his speech was feigned, but his breath certainly smelled tart. He stumbled back inside, and I retreated to the company of my telephone. “I sent my two body men to @Powhida afterparty,” tweeted Magda Sawon, whose Postmasters gallery actually represents Powhida. “Me, I’d rather kill myself thank you very much.” That’s real success.

Brian Droitcour