Stalking Distinction

Los Angeles

Left: Pablo Helguera, director of adult and academic programs at the Museum of Modern Art, with artist Suzanne Lacy and Liverpool Biennial artistic director Sally Tallant. Right: Artist Sheryl Oring. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

AT THE LOS ANGELES CONVENTION CENTER, amid an ocean of gray walls and gray suits, Sheryl Oring sat in an understated beehive and little black dress working on a crimson 1950s typewriter. Behind her, a Mondrianesque banner asked one of my favorite questions: What is the role of the artist? Oring’s research was part of a performance done at the invitation of the College Art Association (CAA), whose one hundredth annual conference needed some color. Last Wednesday and Thursday (the first two days of the four-day event), a hundred people dictated their diverse answers. “An artist is to existence what a farmer is to soil,” said one of her informants. “The role of the artist is to check email, Facebook, blog, tweet, Facebook (again), and text,” explained another.

A CAA conference is a perfect place to explore such problems, particularly when it is held in the City of Angels, aka the holy land of adjunct artists, the Mecca of MFA programs, the Medina of cheap studio space. “What should an artist do?” was just one of a blitz of questions that underpinned another CAA sideshow, titled “Re/Locating Learning.” The “teach in” brought students from Otis College of Art and Design’s MFA in public practice into contact with knowledgeable passersby. Suzanne Lacy, a tremendously generous artist-mentor and winner of a 2012 lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, described the event, which she had helped organize while on sabbatical, as “half performance, half pedagogy.” Her co-organizers had adopted other slogans. Pablo Helguera, from the education department of MoMA, called it a “transparent classroom,” while Sally Tallant, artistic director of the Liverpool Biennial, punched the air and proclaimed, “Occupy art history!”

Once an alliance of art historians, CAA has integrated more artists, designers, and other practitioners over the past few decades. This year, the distinguished lifetime achievement award for writing went to Allan Sekula, better known as an artist, who, at the award ceremony, thanked his art-historian wife for making him a better man and a better writer. Afterward he admitted, “I like to think that I am working somewhere around the edges of the officially sanctioned definition of an artist. In the context of modernism, being an artist has always had a creative and destructive relationship to boundaries and categories.”

Left: Critic David Antin and artist Eleanor Antin. Right: Art historian Sally Stein and artist Allan Sekula.

Boundary blurring was the order of the day. David Antin won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for his book Radical Coherency. I had the pleasure of sitting next to his inimitable artist wife, Eleanor, who whispered as he mounted the podium, “David is the greatest speaker since Socrates.” Indeed, Antin’s five-minute improvised “talk poem” was startling and beautiful. He suggested that critics, like artists, should cultivate “not knowing” even to the point of being unable to distinguish the living from the dead, and confessed that he found the “speed at which people understand things” to be “astounding and disturbing.” After Antin, LA-based artist John Outterbridge took the stage to receive a Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement on behalf of David Hammons. He echoed Antin in declaring, “I won’t say much [about Hammons] because I want to keep his mystery intact.”

There was more “distinguishing” to be done when Mary Kelly (UCLA) and Martin Kersels (CalArts) were honored by Annual Distinguished Artists’ Interviews. “At least we’re distinguished, rather than extinguished,” Kelly said before discussing Post-Partum Document, a work I have always loved for the way it asserts the artist as a crazy mother who frames her son’s dirty diapers and creates Rosetta stones from his first forays into penmanship.

Kersels, by contrast, entertained and enlightened as the archetypal artist as humongous kid. He played snippets of Cheech and Chong, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Talking Heads. Kersels acknowledged that he is keen to make work that “fails miserably or succeeds magnificently” but despairs when he fails in a “half-assed way.” Not fearing failure is an important part of Kersels’s pedagogy, and teaching is an integral part of his artistic practice. Sometimes he even slips performances into his lectures.

Left: Artist Martin Kersels with curator Ian Berry. Right: Deborah Marrow and James Cuno from the J. Paul Getty Trust.

At least one art-historical panel—the Distinguished Scholar Session honoring Rosalind Krauss—was attended by hundreds of artists. The panel was titled “The Theoretical Turn”; to be sure, the discursive effects of this turn have added a je ne sais quoi to artists’ statements all over America. Yve-Alain Bois, who chaired the starry lineup, kicked off with an endearing introduction to Krauss’s “domineering presence” as the “eminent formalist in our field.” Hal Foster offered ballast to Bois’s selfless précis with a substantive but self-confessed “immodest” homage. Harry Cooper gave a charming paper that balanced praise with criticism. My favorite thought from him was a simple one—that Krauss “picked worthy opponents and made them smarter,” arguing not with “straw men but men of steel.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s paper, titled “More on the Difference Between Comrade Krauss and Ourselves,” was a witty roast. He questioned Krauss’s “benevolent acceptance of Greenberg’s fatal omission” of Dadaism, Duchamp, and the Russian/Soviet avant-garde from the modernist canon, then argued that her “breathtaking precision” and “watertight thinking” were “provocative and unpalatable,” indeed “challenging in [their] silence and suffocation.”

The homages of the two other panelists, Briony Fer and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, barely mentioned Krauss. Lajer-Burcharth gave a long but terrific paper about the similarities between artists and soap-bubble blowers in the painting of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Her talk would have been a wonderful addition to a panel called “What is the role of the artist?”—which, needless to say, never took place. At the very least, I hope that Lajer-Burcharth stopped by Oring’s red typewriter to share her thoughts.

Sarah Thornton

Picture This

New York

Left: Artist Cindy Sherman. Right: The crowd at Cindy Sherman's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

NO MATTER how many personalities she has turned loose on the world over the past thirty-five years, there is only one Cindy Sherman—and the Museum of Modern Art had her last Tuesday night, for the opening of her friendliest retrospective yet.

Standing outside the show’s entrance, before giant photomurals of hapless alter egos, a glammed-up Sherman was engulfed by hugs, kisses, and beaming smiles from a jostling multitude of friends, family, colleagues, collectors, lenders, dealers, and a supporting cast of cultural icons such as Martha Stewart, Lou Reed, Kim Cattrall, John Waters, Michael Stipe, and Debbie Harry.

“Private view?” said Gagosian Gallery curator Louise Neri. “This is a private zoo!”

Something of the same could be said of the 180 works in the tightly edited exhibition, where Sherman’s wannabe starlets, twisted clowns, demented fashion victims, status-obsessed society matrons, and fairy-tale fetishists were installed with more grandeur—and yet less pomposity—than any survey that MoMA has mounted in recent memory. “There’s only one thing here that’s better than this show—and that’s you!” Andy Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs told Sherman, who costumed herself for the opening in a Marni mash-up-print dress and swept-back golden coif. What could the agreeable Sherman say but, “Aw . . . thanks!”

Left: Director John Waters. Right: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár and Michael Stipe.

“Amazing” was the word I heard most from people in a crowd that, to Sherman’s and curators Eva Respini and Lucy Gallun’s credit, looked at the show as closely as they did one another. Though Laurie Anderson and Reed managed to move through it relatively unmolested, more than a few heads turned at the appearance of Stewart and her unlikely squire, DJ Spooky (aka Paul Miller), near the wicked “Sex Pictures” on view. “It’s an amazing show,” she said, though she also called it “powerful.”

It has all seventy “Untitled Film Stills,” which MoMA bought for a reported $1 million in 1995; the complete “Centerfolds”; and a resplendent array of “History” pictures, hung salon style on all four of their gallery’s mauve walls. “It’s wonderful,” said Maurizio Cattelan as he sped by. “Everything’s in the right place: the Pope at the start, facing the Madonna at the finish—it’s perfect.”

The final gallery, where Sherman’s magisterial “Hollywood/Hamptons” ladies hung on walls painted a billiard-table green, became a kind of hangout room for those who didn’t want to leave. “There are women here who could have been the models for these pictures,” said dealer David Nolan. “I wonder if they think so too.”

No one was feeling the isolation of Sherman’s characters, hopelessly trapped in their delusions, but many at MoMA were putting on the same brave face for the camera. “I want my picture taken with Robert Longo!” curator Jens Hoffmann pleaded when he spotted Sherman’s onetime boyfriend and mentor at the show’s exit.

Left: Artist Robert Longo and curator Jens Hoffmann. Right: Martha Stewart with DJ Spooky.

“It would be tough to be jealous,” the avuncular Longo said of Sherman’s enormous success. “What’s remarkable about this show is that you can see the whole career in the very first picture.” He was referring to a collected group of twenty-three hand-tinted mug shots from 1975 that show the young Sherman transformed by makeup from a pudgy nerd to a cigarette-waving, full-lipped glamour-puss. “It was all right there from the start,” he said. “Every series began with one of those pictures.”

Of course, not every series is in the show, nor is Sherman’s one feature film, Office Killer, a scripted 1997 artwork that mirrored the visual pathologies of the most grotesque portraits, seas of entrails and vomit, castrating battlegrounds, and mutilated dolls not on view. The retrospective does have Doll Clothes, Sherman’s handmade 1975 stop-motion animation of paper cutouts of herself that seemed to seduce many who watched it.

“The freakiest thing about this show is that everyone likes it!” said the observant Judy Hudson, as we escaped the deafening music and chatter in the lobby. This is a retrospective that aims to please. But in some ways, the best was yet to come.

That was at the dinner that Sherman’s longtime dealers, Metro Pictures’ Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring, threw for her at Per Se, one of the most expensive restaurants in New York. The same establishment, a swanky enclave hidden within the tasteless Time Warner Center mall, was the scene of what felt like the Last Supper after Sherman’s Society Ladies debuted in 2008, when the recession started pinching pockets everywhere else.

The dining room, sans tables as before, was filled with friends who included a contingent of Pictures generation figures such as Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons, Nancy Dwyer, and Sarah Charlesworth. Lenders Philippe Ségalot, Jennifer Stockman, and other collectors swirled around the artist, who had made a pit stop at her temporary digs in the St. Regis Hotel to change clothes. Now she was wearing a black frock with a silver hem, flat silver slippers, and a glittering bracelet from Balenciaga. Actress Molly Ringwald, a leading player in Office Killer, took a seat by the fireplace with designer Todd Thomas and Harry. “I was the only one still alive at the end!” Ringwald said of her role in the film. John Waters departed early, to pack for his off-camera appearance as “the voice of God” at the Independent Spirit Awards in Hollywood.

Sarah Sze didn’t breathe a word about the imminent announcement of her appointment as the artist chosen for the American pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, but Eric Bogosian, Eric Fischl, and April Gornik (also lenders to the show), along with collector Frank Moore, Lisa Yuskavage, Gregory Crewdson, and designer Narciso Rodriguez eagerly helped themselves to canapés of petit four–like pates, truffle-scented fresh popcorn, and a copious supply of champagne.

Left: Chef Thomas Keller. Right: Collectors Neda Young and Frances Young with artist Louise Lawler.

Most of the dinner, however, was served by Chef Thomas Keller (a Neil Young look-alike) from counters laden with seafood and bite-size delicacies in the kitchen. “You have to go out there and dance,” Winer said, urging everyone into a lounge opposite the dessert table in the rear. “Cindy wants to dance!”

Did she ever. Forget that the DJs played far too much white-bread music through one of the worst sound systems available. Having weathered the same conversations with hundreds of people all day long, Sherman cut loose, arms in the air and hair flying. She didn’t stop for well over an hour, nor did MoMA trustee Ann Tenenbaum or the collector couples Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg and Eileen and Michael Cohen. Soon MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár, former MoMA photography curator Peter Galassi, artist Ryan McNamara, Stipe, and even Chuck Close were on the floor, while Paulina Olowska performed a number of choreographed but inebriated pratfalls that had a few people wondering if she wouldn’t be safer at home.

“They kicked me out,” she said in disbelief, once on the street. “No one understands me. No one talks about feminism in art anymore.” She was leaving for the Polish countryside the next day and would be returning in May for another performance—at MoMA. “That will be scary,” she said. All the same, it’s nice to see the museum following Sherman’s lead and putting on a challenging female face.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Cindy Sherman. Right: Artist Paulina Olowska.

Brooklyn Bridge


Visitors at the opening of Charles Atlas's “The Illusion of Democracy” at Luhring Augustine Bushwick. (All photos: Michael Wilson)

IN THE BROOKLYN NEIGHBORHOOD arguably best known to outsiders for much-profiled hipster-gourmet pizza joint Roberta’s, a post-Williamsburg art scene has latterly been on the rise. Bushwick has been an area of choice for artists for at least half a decade, with a cluster of galleries following immediately in the pioneers’ wake. Until now, these venues have been of the low-budget, artist-run stripe, but with the arrival of Luhring Augustine in a new location at the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Ingraham Street, a sea change might be in the offing. The Chelsea A-lister’s annex, a forbidding bunker outfitted in battleship gray, was once a supply center for 99-cent stores, but its transformation could hardly be more complete: The 12,000-square-foot warehouse is now dedicated to the exhibition and storage of creative projects too unwieldy for the dealership’s existing premises.

Slumping off the packed subway at Morgan Avenue last Friday evening after a typical round of “L Hell,” there was no need to look up directions—everyone was headed the same way. A clutch of smokers loitered outside the gallery’s entrance, spotlit by overhead lamps, while visitors streamed in and out. An anxious-looking Roland Augustine hovered in the lobby, greeting everyone from singer-songwriter Antony Hegarty to MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach as the crowds began to fill a darkened room currently housing an exhibition by veteran filmmaker Charles Atlas. Titled “The Illusion of Democracy,” the show consists of three large video projections, all with a distinctly Matrix-like look and feel. 143652, the newest and largest of the trio, covers the entire back wall with a slowly shifting row of vast white numerals.

Atlas’s other works on view, Painting by Numbers and Plato’s Alley, also deal in a retro-futuristic aesthetic familiar not only from the Wachowski Brothers’ blockbusters but also from the work of artists like Ryoji Ikeda, whose video installation The Transfinite took over the Park Avenue Armory in similar style last spring. It must all have seemed rather a switch for those more attuned to Atlas’s collaborations with the likes of Merce Cunningham, Michael Clark, and Yvonne Rainer. But the videos are consistent with their maker’s apparent recent interest in revisiting his childhood experience of tornado alerts. If the work’s adult viewers responded by huddling together, their children were happy to plunge into the eye of Atlas’s storm, hurtling through the forest of legs and slapping the walls with gleeful disregard for its fresh paint job.

Left: Visitors at Luhring Augustine Bushwick. Right: Artist Emily Harris with Risa Puno's installation Good Faith & Fair Dealing at NURTUREart.

So had the new kids on the block struck the right note? A quick straw poll found most attendees in agreement that the place felt weirdly as though it had been airlifted straight from West Twenty-Fourth Street. One guest described it as a “time capsule”—presumably from the future. Jerry Saltz, Roberta Smith, and Walter Robinson were all on hand to add their particular brands of critical props or condemnation, but there didn’t seem to be a great deal at stake in the project beyond its style (incongruously sleek for the area) and timing (likely prescient). As the space filled to capacity and the temperature began to rise—with nary a beer, wine, or water in the offing—I roped artist Emily Harris into the compare-and-contrast exercise of sampling a couple of other local openings.

First up was NURTUREart (“our name is our mission”), which relocated from Williamsburg to its current home on Bogart Street a few months ago. Second was English Kills, which has occupied a Forrest Street basement since 2007. Friday, both were launching scrappily entertaining group shows and attracting a more characteristically local clientele. “Systemic Risk” at NURTUREart was the busier of the two, with Risa Puno’s maze-game installation Good Faith & Fair Dealing providing a playful, playable focus. The unveiling of “The Permanent Collection Volume 2: My Own Private Serpico” at English Kills was a quieter affair, but refreshingly so, with a friendly, familial vibe. Where the night’s main event was driven by hype and spectacle, these folk kept things cool. I wonder which crowd the mob I later saw being busted—presumably for outdoor boozing—back at the L train stop identified with.

Michael Wilson

Doom Generational

New York

Left: New Museum director Lisa Phillips. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/ Right: Artist Jonathas de Andrade with Eungie Joo, curator of “The Ungovernables.” (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto)

THOSE ARTS WORKERS who find themselves cc’d in the Google Group discussion threads of the OWS–initiated Arts & Labor group are no doubt aware of a plan to shut down the Whitney Biennial in 2014 (a protest against its apparent exclusionary curatorial habits). No such clamor was raised against the imminent arrival—or presumed future, this being the year of Quetzalcoatl after all—of the New Museum’s now-signature triennial, the Generational. The second edition’s Palgrave Macmillan–worthy subtitle, “The Ungovernables,” set a high bar for how social behavior might manifest during Tuesday’s “VIP” Valentine’s Day preview. But of course no mic checks were announced or occupations incepted. Indeed, when pressed to gauge the ungovernability of those gathered, “soft” and “lighthearted” were the adjectives passed on by the few local artistic laborers in attendance.

No cards, candies, or flowers to be seen: Most everyone seemed to have rain-checked the seasonal veneration of courtly love. The preview festivities proceeded with the same proprieties that mark any other in this token Lower East Side tower. The one noticeable difference—its “soft ungovernability,” if you will—was the opening’s assembly of far-flung international artists (and “collectives,” to stick to the exhibition’s prescribed language). If not particularly raucous, this cosmopolitanism at least offered an atmosphere of the socially unfamiliar—well, unfamiliar to this stubborn New Yorker. Beyond speculations of the show’s carbon footprint (only four of the exhibition’s fifty-some artists are US-born), one local dealer compared the task of its curation to that of an air-traffic controller.

Left: Artist Wu Tsang. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/ Right: Dealer Sylvia Kouvali with collector Maja Hoffmann. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto)

All these global bodies were clustered about, before, or even atop the exhibited work—be it Wu Tsang’s artful rehearsal footage screened in the basement, Slavs and Tatars’ FX-enhanced magic carpet–conversation bench, or Adrián Villar Rojas’s Forbidden Planet–esque megalith, which held down the kunsthalle’s spacious fourth floor alongside Danh Vo’s regal objectification of Lady Liberty. In the face of the masses squishing in and around the NuMu’s elevators, the formation of affinity groups (that social tactic common to both direct-action protests and employee seminars) became a practical necessity when navigating the evening’s considerable conversational prospects. A lazy anthropologist observing the patterns of these corpuscular groups might have notated them thus: bar, socialize, art, wall text, socialize, art, wall text, repeat.

Above it all, on the museum’s scenic balcony floor, projections furnished by two of the triennial’s corporate sponsors, Canadian clothier Joe Fresh and Milagro tequila, framed the panoramic vantage of Lower Manhattan; it was like an establishing shot swiped from Blade Runner (or perhaps, given its similar vintage, a Krzysztof Wodiczko). This one-night-only positioning of advertising images—company logos, Mexican farmhands harvesting agave—on top of the discursively responsible works exhibited below evinced not only the triennial’s thoroughly postnational concerns but also the sine qua non coupling of artist’s studio and the boardroom.

Migrating from one top floor to another, the evening’s “soft” and “lighthearted” motif continued unabated at the event’s official afterparty at the Standard hotel’s eponymous (and cutely paradoxical) Top of the Standard bar. Guests swayed to the lite mainstream funk of Shakira and Jamiroquai offered by the evening’s DJ, D’Marquesin. Nourished by truffle-oiled grilled cheese and hazelnut quiche and, of course, the requisite open bar, the party’s vibes slowly peaked into the red around 11 PM—an ass-slap here, an affinity group amorously consolidating its ranks over there—until all of sudden a five-foot-tall, jewel-encrusted martini glass appeared on a stage installed by the Garden State–facing windows and the music segued to flapper-era jazz. Apparently, and wholly incidental to the New Museum’s evening programming, the bar’s carousers were now in for a rare Valentine’s-themed burlesque from former Mrs. Marilyn Manson, Dita von Teese. Like it or not, the dipping of her tabloid-friendly rear into this tacky prop occupied, as it were, the unofficial end to the latest Generational’s official opening. Did this crowning event mark a sour confrontation between marketable culture’s hard, spectacular bodies and those “politicized” bodies trying to “soften” power’s discursive stockades? Or did it express a firmly entrenched commonality among these distinctive bodies? Whether soft, hard, or somewhere in between, the inauspicious charm of a neighboring diner was this author’s valentine in the end.

Sam Pulitzer

Left: Artist Lisa Ruyter and Payam Sharifi on Slav and Tatars’ PrayWay, 2012. (Photo: Andy Guzzonatto) Right: Dita von Teese. (Photo: Billy Farrell Agency)

High Art


Left: Collector Lekha Poddar, founder of the Devi Art Foundation (left). (Except where noted, all photos: Aqdas Tatli) Right: Neha Kirpal, founding director of the India Art Fair (seated), and artists Navin Thomas and Tallur L.N. (Photo courtesy Škoda)

I BEGAN my preparatory fieldwork for Delhi’s India Art Fair early this year, sipping watermelon margaritas at Maker Maxity, the massive new I-banker hub in Mumbai. The fair was due to open a few days later, on January 25, but the sprawling “collateral events” had already begun: In this case, it was the launch of Maxity’s “public art project,” sponsored by property magnate Manish Maker. The swanky private preview gathered the great and good of the Mumbai art world: Artists Amar Kanwar (whose melancholic, meditative films were on view) and Reena Saini Kallat were there, as well as the elaborately attired Tasneem Mehta, honorary director of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. But the centerpiece was artist Sudarshan Shetty’s sculpture of a red double-decker bus, kitted out with a pair of gargantuan silver wings. Were we going to be whisked off to more exalted realms?

Like Shetty’s fantastical vehicle, the fourth edition of the fair held out the promise of new heights—its name change notwithstanding. (Until recently it went by the loftier title of India Art Summit.) This time, fair director Neha Kirpal’s brainchild occupied forty-seven acres of the NSIC exhibition grounds in Delhi’s Okhla neighborhood, a marked upgrade from the smaller Pragati Maidan it colonized last year. India Art Fair Four also flaunted new stakeholders: Sunil Gautam, founder of the PR Agency Hanmer & Partners, sold his share to Will Ramsay and Sandy Angus (cofounders of Art HK). As if to celebrate the shift, specially constructed tents emerged from the Delhi dust like proud pyramids.

Left: Vivan Sundaram's “Gagawaka models” with curator Shanay Jhaveri. Right: Curators Suman Gopinath and Grant Watson with artist Vivan Sundaram.

Plunging into the crush of the opening night VIP party, I found the company as animated as the structure’s facade. I fortified myself with champagne and quickly clocked Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon and Jessica Morgan, and Greg Hilty from London’s Lisson Gallery. Fetchingly clad, Divia Patel from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum looked about in unfeigned amazement. (It was, she confessed, her first time at the fair.) Performa’s black-clad and svelte RoseLee Goldberg glided by, while not-so-Young British Artist Marc Quinn atoned for his drab apparel with a decorative contribution to White Cube’s booth: an acid-hued painting depicting giant flowers. Local talent milled about: The Delhi-based veteran artist Vivan Sundaram was accompanied by a bevy of beauties dressed in his very own “Gagawaka creations.” Following hot on Sundaram’s heels was the fairy godmother of Indian art history, Geeta Kapur herself. Pushed around in a wheelchair, she regally waved her walking sticks at worthy subjects.

Over the next few days, collectors—like the mother-son duo Lekha and Anupam Poddar as well as the much-solicited Kiran Nadar (founder of Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)—mingled with international “personalities.” There was Suzanne Cotter, curator of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project; Kwok Kian Chow, director of Singapore’s National Art Gallery; and Grant Watson from London’s offbeat Iniva. Teams from the Guggenheim, the New Museum, and Art Basel were on the prowl too. The airline industry must have done well during IAF week anyway—no matter Vijay Mallya’s grumbles.

Admittedly, the India Art Fair’s newfound internationalism—50 percent of the galleries were non-Indian this time—looked more impressive on paper than in practice. There were all the usual heavyweights: Subodh Gupta’s giant silver thali half-full of bits of marble molded to resemble grains of rice and Bharti Kher’s resin-coated saris vied for attention with the inevitable Anish Kapoor (a disc of dark green metal) and El Anatsui’s large offering (bottle caps strung together to mimic soft swaths of gold brocade). Still, nestling in the crowds were unexpected delights: Sophie Calle’s “Exquisite Pain” series of photographs and text, brought by the Berlin gallery Arndt, spoke of love and loss at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. Distressing in another way was a Marina Abramović video at Lisson in which she bit into an onion, skin and all, while listing the reasons for her world-weariness. Perhaps she’d have felt better knowing that two of her works sold double-quick.

Left: Dealers Ursula Krinzinger (left) and Thomas Krinzinger (right). Right: Dealer Tushar Jiwarajka of Volte Gallery.

Tushar Jiwarajka, of Mumbai’s Volte Gallery, wasted no time with whining: “We sold works to major public and private collections from India and abroad,” he beamed. Of course, not everyone had such luck. Many Western galleries moaned that Indian buyers were reluctant to purchase from them; reciprocally, Indian galleries bemoaned the lack of new collectors. “Just because there are all these international institutions around does not mean they are buying,” lamented one Indian dealer. “The market is terrible, and anyone who says otherwise is lying,” corroborated another. New York dealer Thomas Erben was more measured: “The mood was definitely subdued,” he said, suggesting that the lack of buyers might be due to the dates, which included a holiday weekend and coincided with the World Economic Forum in Davos. Anupa Mehta of the Loft, with her minimal white-centered booth of floaty paperworks, offered another explanation: “There were too many satellite events; too many distractions!”

The most exciting “distraction” was the Škoda Prize Show. The award, modeled on Britain’s Turner Prize, boasts the critic Girish Shahane as its adviser and is now in its second year. Its short list included superstar Jitish Kallat, the well-regarded Tallur L.N., and young Navin Thomas. To general glee, Thomas was hailed as the winner, with Marc Quinn giving away the trophy to the (temporarily) speechless victor. “The dark horse wins!” artist Sharmila Samant yelled jubilantly. No doubt, the Animal Welfare Board—who’d been complaining to the Hindustan Times about Thomas’s “cruel” installation that morning—would have been less chuffed. To their dismay, Thomas’s sculpture contained “hand-raised” pigeons that were confined to a room with a metal tree and transistor radios emitting white noise. Thomas’s apparent point was to showcase how animals adapt to urban spaces.

Left: Curator Susan Hapgood and dealer Peter Nagy of Nature Morte Gallery. Right: Sapna and Subhrajit Kar, cofounders of the online art fair India Art Collective.

Yet if his well-fed birds seemed content with their faux foliage, there were those who weren’t satisfied with their surroundings: “Art fairs are the worst way to see art; we need to support alternative ventures too,” Geeta Kapur insisted at the press conference for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The biennial is being codirected by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. They vow to launch it on 12/12/12. Amen to that. But until the directors deliver on their pledge, the India Art Fair is the most glittering thing on the Indian art world’s horizon. “This year was a turning point in many ways for the fair, with collectors coming from all over the country and the world,” Kirpal attested.

Listening to Kirpal, I felt a wave of nostalgia for the cozy Summits of old (just last year!), where everyone knew everyone else. And it was tempting to be cynical about how “international” interest in Indian art is invariably preoccupied with commerce. Yet perhaps there’s something to be said for globalization too. At the Devi Art Foundation—the Poddars’s private museum that always hosts the fair’s closing night party—the fuss and bother of the week gave way to a sense of wonder. The exhibition of contemporary Iranian art there, curated by Amirali Ghasemi, was the best show in the city. “The Elephant In the Dark”—a term gleaned from a line by the Sufi poet Rumi—was a sanctioned peek into a sinister reality, and the last section, filled with the haunting sounds of an Iranian lullaby, adroitly handled the political violence that besets Iran. If India’s entry into the global art world means we’ll have more such culturally insightful shows, we stand to gain more than we’ve lost.

Zehra Jumabhoy

Left: Dealer Greg Hilty of Lisson Gallery (right). Right: Artists Bose Krinamachari and Riyas Komu, codirectors of the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Small World

Bologna, Italy

Left: Collector Cecilia Matteucci Lavarini and artist Stefano Cagol. Right: View of the panel Small Budgets, High Hopes. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

ALTHOUGH THE BIG WINTER STORM had not hit Italy in time for the thirty-sixth Bologna Arte Fiera, it was clear that the European crisis had already put a freeze on the art economy. But the striking dearth of visitors at the preview on January 26 was more likely the result of the slew of national transport strikes. (Artist Michelle Rogers told me that even the fishermen were boycotting, so no one would be eating fish on Friday.) Indeed it seemed that only the most dedicated—a rarefied group of collectors, artists, and curators—had made it to Italy’s biggest fair, in the venerable old university town.

But small can be beautiful in terms of fairs these days, and with some fifty fewer exhibitors, the Bologna halls were easier to navigate and infused with sunlight and breathing space. No need to exhaust oneself just trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B. Aside from the pavilion dedicated to modern art, there were just two parallel pavilions (instead of the usual three) hosting contemporary galleries and the “Young Gallery” section, which had previously been relegated to a room at the far end of the mazelike halls. I arrived at Galleria ZAK’s booth just in time for the denouement of artist Paolo Angelosanto’s performance Vernissage, in which he stripped and plastered himself with show invitations collected over the years.

Farther down, painter Stella Rognoni, known for her political murals on Bologna streets, had made an “unofficial” exhibition: a life-size painting of curator Vittorio Sgarbi polishing the shoes of esteemed critic Philippe Daverio. “He was kicked out of his job by Letizia,” an Italian man next to me whispered, referring to the infamous Sgarbi’s firing by the mayor of Milan. (The following day the faces were obscured by plaster, and nobody was saying who did it.)

Left: Dealer Fabrizio Del Signore. Right: Dealers Giordano and Davide Raffaelli.

The beauty of the Bologna fair’s “haircut” was that it was easier to discover young Italian artists, a challenge even if you live in the country. “The fair is much better this year because it is more homogeneous and concentrated,” said Blindarte’s Memmo Grilli. “Those who have crap don’t sell and those with quality art do.” Only 10 percent of exhibitors were foreign. If you don’t count the nomadic gallery the Pool, run by three young Italians out of New York, the lone American dealer was Miami’s Diana Lowenstein, who said Bologna would be her only foreign fair for the year. Kalfayan Gallery jumped ship for the India Art Fair; Galleria Continua decided to cover both bases. “If there are few people here, they are the people who are buying,” said Mario Cristiani, who sported a spiffy white shirt with Damien Hirst spots. “It is not a golden moment, but when things are bad the art is often better.” The gallery did well with the work of Egyptian revolutionary Moataz Nasr, for example.

With so many behemoth fairs dominating the international market, why not offer Italian art at an Italian fair? The situation also seemed to be an improvement for less-established galleries. “We have done well,” dealer Giordano Raffaelli noted. “Having fewer galleries is better for us.” Milanese dealer Riccardo Crespi had an enviably expansive booth right near the entrance. Fabrizio Del Signore, of Rome’s Gallery Apart, noted: “Both blue-chip and young artists are selling; it’s the midrange that will suffer.” And that is basically what happened, with very little video on offer but lots of photography by big-name artists such as Thomas Ruff, Andres Serrano, and Vanessa Beecroft flying off the walls.

After a drive-by at a party for artist duo Blue and Joy, where we found all the young Italian fashionistas rubbing elbows and labels, I headed downtown to Spazio Carbonesi for the opening of the exhibition “Twin Mind,” curated by Daria Khan. Once inside the cavernous Palazzo Zambeccari, we found only the cream of the crop in attendance: designer Alberta Ferretti, Vogue’s Franca Sozzani, artist Luigi Ontani—whose sold-out performance reprising his oeuvre the next night would be the big event of the art week—and curator Ludovico Pratesi. In the ballroom, artist Emiliano Maggi performed against a gothic backdrop of Rorschach-style projections and dripping wax sculptures. Dressed in blond furs and a wig, he created eerie ambient noise from a keyboard and screeched before acting out a Native American creation myth, spitting out bloodlike liquid and turquoise beads into a tree stump. Russian artist Julia Zastava’s surreal video Cherries Talk, in which giant versions of the fruit with human mouths bark hypnotically, was projected on another wall. I asked collector Lorenzo Mancini, “Have you seen . . . ?” He cut me off—“A horror film?” he inserted indignantly. “Yes, I have!”

Left: Emiliano Maggi performance. Right: Artist Julia Zastava and curator Daria Khan.

If that was The Haunted Forest, the party at the aesthetically chaotic house of collectors Marino and Paola Golinelli was Eyes Wide Shut, with everyone wearing carnival masks and feeding from a fountain spurting pure chocolate. By the time we arrived around midnight a happy few were grooving to retro dance classics. I ran into fabulous fashion collector Cecilia Matteucci Lavarini and artist Stefano Cagol in a room encompassed by Bolognese artist Sissi’s giant woven nest: “They cannot possibly live here—it’s an art disco!” Cagol exclaimed. Afterward, the streets were creepily empty, and speeding through them with our Roman driver was like playing a car-chase video game with a medieval backdrop.

The next night was an exclusive dinner honoring artist Andrea Büttner on the occasion of her MaxMara Art Prize exhibition, “The Poverty of Riches,” at the Collezione Maramotti space, in the retrofitted former MaxMara factory in Reggio Emilia, one hour away from the fair. I chatted with the Armory Show’s Deborah Harris, who confirmed the trend of shrinking fairs: “We will have less exhibitors this year, and it will be more like a festival, with a curated section of young galleries and performances.” On the way out curator Chus Martínez made our host Luigi Maramotti, head of fashion house MaxMara, promise he would come to Documenta. “If you promise me there will be no fashion in the art!” he replied.

Left: Collector Luigi Maramotti and curator Chus Martínez . Right: Artist Andrea Büttner and curator Marina Dacci.

The city was buzzing on Saturday, when museums and galleries were free to the public and open late for the White Night. After an obligatory lunch at a homey Bolognese trattoria, we made a tour around the installations of Art First, the annual site-specific initiative curated by Julia Draganovic. This required entering some of the most obscure and distinguished edifices in the city—including the extraordinarily beautiful Palazzo Sanguinetti, housing the Museo della Musica. Part of the show was the well-heeled Bolognese strutting their stuff between shows and shops at the Galleria Cavour mall, and that day in particular it struck me that the problem with the aesthetically saturated country is that the rich architecture upstages any art.

We found a compromise to the conundrum at Palazzo Bevilacqua Ariosti that evening: the stunning Renaissance cloister was overlaid by green geometric projections, by artists Nicola Evangelisti with the ELASTIC Group duo Alexandro Ladaga and Silvia Manteiga. Up in the ballroom, which resembled a decadent nineteenth-century period film set, a party hosted by Ippolito and Carlo Bevilacqua was just getting started. By the time the Bonomo sisters, Valentina and Alessandra, and gossip columnist Roberto D’Agostino arrived, neon-colored hors d’oeurvres were being passed around and the place was heaving with air-kissing guests. As he sipped a glass of pink champagne, a Roman curator commented crisply, adding his take on the effect of a too-rich history, “The problem with Italy is arrogance.”

The bitter cold that came in the next day was a prelude to the biggest winter storm to hit Italy in over a quarter century, stopping trains to and from Bologna and basically shutting down the country—a reminder that there are bigger things at work in the universe than our economic foibles. At Bologna Centrale station I met collector and Ferrari head Luca Cordero di Montezemolo getting on my train to Rome, with bystanders greeting him like a friend. “Crises shake up and clarify things,” artist Arthur Duff noted.

Cathryn Drake

Left: Artists Arthur Duff and Francesco Candeloro. Right: Artists Fabio La Fauci and Daniele Sigalot of Blue and Joy.

Exclusive Content

A virtual fair-goer in front of Kader Attia’s Po(l)etical / Demo(n)cracy / Unable, 2009–11, at Galerie Krinzinger's booth at the VIP Art Fair.

THERE IS A SPECIAL MIX of bewilderment, exhaustion, and despair that I feel only when visiting an art fair. The intensity of this feeling was the one metric in which the “exclusively online” VIP 2.0 Art Fair outdid its convention-center antecedents. Within the limits of its domain at, the fair made a maze of 135 exhibitors showing over a thousand artists, all of whose work had a sameness imposed by the format—a monotony more emphatically pronounced when caused by file compressions rather than uniform booths. At least I got to stay home by myself while taking it in Friday and Saturday. If the “real-life” art fair combines the museum’s hauteur with the supermarket’s aisled blandness while eliminating, respectively, their edifying mission and practicality, then VIP 2.0 might be thought of as a similarly impoverished hybrid of ARTstor and FreshDirect.

Buying groceries online is safe because the products are packaged, preserved, standardized. Do you really need to rub your fingers on the glaze of a Damien Hirst spot print to know you want one? All the weirder, then, that the VIP 2.0 interface tries to model the physical encounter with art by letting visitors choose silhouette avatars—there are six options, two each under the monikers Mr., Mrs., and Ms. VIP—who float in front of the works, shifting in size to help you gauge dimensions. I picked Ms. VIP II, slim-waisted with generous hips. She nearly fell off the screen as she backed up to view a series of tiny Anri Sala prints at Marian Goodman, then shrank to a smudge below Kader Attia’s monumental neon installation at Galerie Krinzinger. “Galerie Krinzinger’s booth @vipartfair is a knockout that never could have worked in a physical stand. Pieces are too big and strong,” one visitor tweeted. I can just imagine the gallery’s archivist opening these images on her computer at work and giving a low whistle of awe.

Left: An e-mail announcing Terence Koh’s performance at the VIP Art Fair. Right: A detail view of Damien Hirst’s Lanatoside B, 2011, at Gagosian Gallery.

The fair is labeled “2.0” to reflect upgrades to the program as well as to the technology since its inaugural 2011 edition. There was a slate of special projects, the kind that fairs organize to make themselves into cultural events. On Friday, Thaddaeus Ropac presented a twenty-four-hour video “performance” by Terence Koh, who divided the day into one-hour chunks and farmed them out to collaborators who streamed whatever they liked. I let it run all afternoon as I went about my work. It was, like analogous projects anchored by art fairs, background noise. An array of “insider tours” invited visitors to explore the fair by lists of works selected by curators and collectors. “Hard, Fibrous Tissue Found in Trees,” by Jens Hoffmann of CCA’s Wattis Institute, highlighted sculptures made of wood. “In a living tree [wood] performs a support function,” Hoffmann elaborated in his curatorial statement, “enabling woody plants to grow large or to stand up for themselves.”

Once on a tour you can continue it by clicking a button in the screen’s upper right, or you can drop out to scroll to the left or right of a work and see what else is for sale at the same gallery. The blue-chip galleries pay up to $20,000 for the privilege of being listed under the “premier large” tab at the top left of the VIP 2.0 page and getting a big tile on the fair’s “map.” The lateral, hiccupping patterns of Web browsing drawn by the crisscross of lists and tours become galleries’ paths to reaching new audiences. Besides the publicity, what participating galleries are paying for is the opportunity to harvest the personal data that the fair’s visitors must supply to register a user account. A day after I clicked on one booth, the gallery sent me an e-mail. “Dear Brian Droitcour,” it said. “Thank you for your interest in our booth at VIP art fair. I would be glad to send to your attention our private rooms, should you be interested in receiving them.”

VIP 2.0 borrows from the Internet’s toolbox for marketing, but not for sales. I read an article in the December issue of Wired about, a startup that has built a “genome” of traits found in artworks in order to provide inexpert potential buyers with suggestions. If a user wants a blue artwork for under $10,000 and likes Roy Lichtenstein, the Wired reporter writes, “[a]fter accounting for color, price, and location constraints, the recommendation engine will display artworks that are available for sale for under $10,000” and that share a quantifiable je ne sais quoi with Lichtenstein’s oeuvre. I know what art I would buy if I had money. But I can appreciate the inventive effort to harness the Internet’s so-called “democratizing” capacity and truly change the way artists find their patrons. VIP 2.0, on the other hand, tries vainly to make you forget that it’s just another tab in your browser with a barrage of words like “exclusive,” “private,” “insider,” and, of course, “VIP.” As it constructs digital models of art-market institutions, it clings to the tried-and-true sales tactics of opacity and mystique. The shadow of Ms. VIP II stretches and shrinks beneath the sun of very important art.

Brian Droitcour

Ball of Confusion

Los Angeles

Left: Performance of Kathryn Andrews's Fork Hunt. (Photo: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer) Right: Artist David Lamelas, LAXART director Lauri Firstenberg, and Getty Research Institute curator Glenn Phillips. (Photo: Wire Images)

SEETHING WITH A SORDID HISTORY both on and off the silver screen to rival the wildest passages of Hollywood Babylon, Beverly Hills’s Greystone Mansion oozes noir from every moribund pore of its cold slate walls. With its turrets, peaked roofs, grand vistas, and fifty-plus rooms covering 46,000 square feet, it is the stuff of Hollywood-style fairy tales (albeit one of those particularly nightmarish ones tainted from its start with the spilt blood of the mansion’s owner, who was found murdered alongside his male secretary eighty-three years ago). Since then, the estate’s scandals have multiplied on the big screen in tons of movies that have been set at Greystone: Jack Nicholson played the devil here, Daniel Day-Lewis psychotically ranted about milkshakes, Batman scolded the Boy Wonder, and the Dude procured a new rug.

And yet for all of the storied sundowns that have ushered nightfall over Greystone, we’d wager that none has embodied the make-believe magic and haunted-house drama of the place as extravagantly and exuberantly as the Ball of Artists last Saturday night, produced by Richard Massey and organized by LAXART as the epic, high-budget culmination to the Performance and Public Art Festival component of the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time.” Despite its hokey title, the ball was a night to remember. If Caligula’s ghost had materialized doing pirouettes on a brontosaurus, he would not have seemed out of place.

Left: Holy Shit band member and collector Jim Abrams. (Photo: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer) Right: Artists Ming Wong and Piero Golia with REDCAT assistant curator Aram Moshayedi. (Photo: Wire Images)

We arrived by shuttle bus at 6 PM, just before the hoity-toity crowds but after the ultra-exclusive VIP previewers. A pair of dolled-up, Alice in Wonderland–type girls (appearing as silly and beautiful as a teenage dream) greeted wide-eyed guests who seemed confused and lost as soon as they stepped onto the driveway’s cobblestones. Greystone’s atmospheric, dimly lit halls quickly filled with countless black ties, gorgeous gowns, fancy pants, and, above all, deep pockets. It was a pleasure and relief to find the familiar friendly faces of so many hometown artists among the tuxes and plunging necklines: from Laura Owens and Edgar Bryan to Brendan Fowler, Piero Golia, Allen Ruppersberg, Stanya Kahn, Dawn Kasper, Ry Rocklen, Andrea Fraser, Liz Glynn, Ann Magnuson, and many more than were possible to keep track of. Was everyone here? Lets just say the entire event was totally disorienting—in the best possible way, like chugging cough syrup in a hot air balloon.

Everyone was there to experience the incredible surplus of art (some installed, some performed, and much of it responding specifically to Greystone’s history) crammed into every niche and boudoir throughout the mansion and its surrounding grounds. An intergenerational range of twenty-two LA artists participated, from revered old hands like Morgan Fisher, Charles Gaines, and David Lamelas to established talents like Kerry Tribe and Jedediah Caesar to more recent art-school grads like Eamonn Fox and Alex Israel. Foldout maps indicated the location of each artist’s contribution without revealing what to expect or, in some cases, even what to look for. Glenn Kaino’s The Nothing Happening, for example, eluded us and everyone else we talked to; its supersecret location made it totally inaccessible, but then again, the two seconds of hushed intrigue and speculative rumors it stoked were undoubtedly more interesting than the poker game that purportedly took place behind its closed doors.

Left: Los Master Plus performing cumbia as part of Eduardo Sarabia's installation. (Photo: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer) Right: My Barbarian with artist Ann Magnuson. (Photo: Wire Images)

Eamon Ore-Giron’s Purple Haze set a theatrical ambience by tinting clouds of fog violet around the mansion’s entry. Kathryn Andrews had two misbehaving, begoggled clowns nonchalantly spinning, dropping, breaking, and sweeping stacks and stacks of white plates in a jazz freak-out kind of rhythm. My Barbarian “activated” their video installation by performing a pointed song about “upward mobility.” Shana Lutker’s rapidly spinning light sculpture in the Solarium was like a hypnotic lighthouse beacon. Down the hall, Mungo Thomson staged an exquisite orchestral rendition of cricket field recordings. Scott Benzel accompanied operatic singers fronting a savagely loud rock band playing covers of Iggy and the Stooges. Patrick Ballard serviced a long line waiting to experience his extra charming, private, one-on-one puppet show complete with smoke bombs and a glove with tiny feet for fingers.

The performances bled into one another as hundreds of guests swirled around, buzzing about what had just blown their mind, what to avoid, what to check out next—all the while looking over each other’s shoulders for the all-too-rare tray of hors d’oeuvres. Eduardo Sarabia’s installation in the mansion’s underground bowling alley was a highlight and crowd favorite: Guests sloshed on his potent trademark tequila could get their portraits taken in an old-timey photo studio or shake and grind to the irresistible cumbia pumped out by the amazing Los Master Plus, who had come from Guadalajara to light everyone’s fire.

Left: Dealer Honor Fraser with collector Stavros Niarchos. (Photo: Wire Image) Right: Artists Julian Hoeber and Mungo Thomson. (Photo: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer)

Out on the majestically oversize balcony, the whole ball came into focus as Julian Hoeber’s enormous red klieg searchlight communicated in Morse code with a distant green pulse signaling back, Batman style, from the roof of Soho House a couple miles away. As we looked upon the glittering city below while partaking in the excessive quantities of every kind of top-shelf alcohol, the sight of a single green light blinking from afar recast the entire scene as a Great Gatsby affair, its collective energy swelling with an unusually joyful if noirish glow.

A bit after ten the festivities started winding down and happily soused revelers stumbled back to the bus. As the blaring cacophony of frenetic, overlapping music decrescendoed to eventual stillness, Wolfgang Puck was seen heading home and Justin Beal’s sculptures of cucumbers frozen in ice began melting away into the puddle of yesterday’s party. The night came to a fittingly absurd conclusion when a park ranger with a 1970s porn mustache and ill-fitting clothes walked past us announcing, in all seriousness, that the “party was over” and could “everyone please keep their clothes on.” Something about that announcement ringing through the marbled halls of Greystone Mansion made it seem, for just an instant, like everything in the universe might make sense after all.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer and Jeff Hassay

Left: Artist Alex Israel with Lauri Firstenberg. (Photo: Wire Image) Right: Artists Hans-Peter Thomas (aka Bara), Kathryn Andrews, and Mark A. Rodriguez. (Photo: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer)

Saint Antony

New York

Left: The Radio City Music Hall marquee. (Photo: Matthew Carasella) Right: Antony and the Johnsons onstage. (Photo: Todd Eberle)

IT’S OFFICIAL! The Museum of Modern Art is now in the entertainment business. Mark Thursday, January 26, as the night MoMA departed its acoustically challenged home for the sacred ground of Radio City Music Hall. The reason: a one-night-only performance of Swanlights, a visually and vocally elevating concert by Antony and his Johnsons, a sextet that expanded into a sixty-piece orchestra for their appearance on one of the biggest and most storied stages on earth.

Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Liberace, Liza with a z, the Grammys, the Tonys, and, of course, the Rockettes have all trodden its boards (along with the camels and goats in its Christmas and Easter pageants). Personally, I regard David Bowie’s spectacular, drop-from-the-flies entrance as Ziggy Stardust there in 1973 as one of the great thrills of my life—an event also recalled on Thursday by Tilda Swinton, for whom it is less memory than legend.

The striking We Need to Talk About Kevin star, clad in a silky, red plaid, Haider Ackermann jacket and white blouse, was among a select group of fifty or so guests invited to a preshow reception in a breathtaking, triple-height, Deco lounge upstairs. In town to help promote a show of celebrity portrait paintings that her paramour Sandro Kopp had opened at Lehmann Maupin Gallery’s Chrystie Street outpost the night before, she spoke of her upcoming vampire movie with Jim Jarmusch and her delectable sense of style. “I’ve been wearing all white lately,” she told Terence Koh, who dressed for the occasion in a fluffy white angora coverlet of his own design. “Yeah, me too,” he said.

Left: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach with artist Sandro Kopp, Antony, and Tilda Swinton. Right: Artist Terence Koh. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

“Have you seen the kitchen here?” asked Michael Stipe, sidling up to MoMA’s associate director Kathy Halbreich, who produced the show with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “It’s fabulous.”

So was everything else about this high-wattage, Downtown Goes to Heaven evening, the social event of the year (so far). With it, Biesenbach may now claim to be the Sol Hurok of performance art. (Rumor has it that he snagged Kraftwerk for an appearance at MoMA later this year.) Rubbing shoulders with collectors Dasha Zhukova and Beth Swofford, choreographer Michael Clark, actor Alan Cumming, hotelier André Balazs, and MoMA director Glenn Lowry, the white-haired museo-showman worked the room as if born to schmooze.

According to Halbreich, Radio City had been Antony’s choice of venue for the show, advertised as “a meditation on light, nature, and femininity.” The decision followed two years of discontent centering on the singer’s wish to perform as a body floating among large crystals in a pool set in the museum’s atrium. “I think he is divine and heartbreaking,” Halbreich said. She also displayed an e-mail Hegarty had sent earlier in the day. “This could be my Hindenburg,” it said of the show.

Not a chance. At curtain time, ushers were still wrangling a capacity crowd of six thousand rain-soaked ticket holders into the amber glow of the theater, accompanied by William Basinski’s celestial electronica. Biesenbach and Halbreich slipped into the row in front of me, beside Wendi Murdoch and Zhukova. Matthew Barney and Björk were a few seats away, in front of Swinton and Kopp, Thomas Dozol and Stipe, with Jennifer McSweeney, Roberta Smith, and Jerry Saltz behind them and Biesenbach’s mentor Alanna Heiss a few rows forward.

Left: MoMA director Glenn Lowry, MoMA deputy director Kathy Halbreich, and Björk. Right: Adi from threeASFOUR.

The house lights went down and a heavily made-up Dr. Julia Yasuda, Ph.D., came onstage to read a missive from the star that dedicated the show to Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender figure active in the Stonewall days who inspired the name of Antony’s band. Johanna Constantine, a dancer, stepped before the immense gold curtain, flapping the white, wing-like appendages affixed to her arms with increasing velocity, as if she were a bird revving for takeoff. She raised her arms triumphantly, the curtain went up, and rotating skeins of green light expanded and contracted in the air above the stage like constellations of undulating green nets. “Reminds me of Pipilotti Rist,” someone sitting nearby whispered.

A giant mobile that suggested a loose aggregate of white and metallic box kites—crystalline forms from drawings by Antony, who has a show of them at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles now—descended from the flies behind the projections, as the unseen orchestra sounded the first notes of “The Rapture.” Antony’s ethereal voice wafted through the hall, but it was a few minutes before his statuesque figure, clad in a flowing white robe by Ohne Titel, and dwarfed by the mammoth mobile, emerged from a shadowy murk beneath it.

Though hardly self-conscious as a vocalist, Antony may be the shyest performer in show business, so determined is he to avoid the glare of a spotlight. There wasn’t one. (“No one wants to see the face of an old drag queen,” Antony, forty-one, has said to friends.) Standing alone onstage, he sang in shadow for most of the two-hour concert, frustrating those longing for a better look at the source of his emotive vocals, and pleasing others happy to find themselves in the realm of pure spirit.

Clearly, it was Antony’s intent to make his inimitable, sweet voice the star of the show, while the laser blasts (by Chris Levine) and the lighting design (by Paul Normandale) provided the visual dazzle. Running through torch songs, ballads, and laments at a leisurely pace, Antony sang of love, ghosts, darkness, and grace, reaching transcendent moments during favorites like “Cripple and the Starfish,” or “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy,” when Antony became a stark silhouette against a backlit scrim.

Antony performs Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” at Radio City Music Hall in New York, January 26, 2012.

His surprise cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” delivered a dreamy meditation instead of a thumping rouser. It drew cheers from an audience so rapt and reverent, it might as well have been in church. For the final two numbers, the scrims that had so far shortened the stage lifted, as did the pendulous mobile, revealing the orchestra and bathing Antony in bright light at last. “It worked!” exclaimed Biesenbach. “The curtain went up! It actually worked!” (At rehearsal, he said, nothing had gone according to plan.) The show ended with “The Crying Light,” an aching love song that fades out on the lines “I was born to adore you / As a baby in the blind /
 I was born to represent you /
 To carry your head into the sun /
 To carve your face into the back of the sun.”

The audience rose from its trance and the hall erupted in bravos. “Thank you,” Antony said. “That’s the show—and I’m so fucking glad it’s done!” That got a very big laugh—relief all around. “It was so ambitious, this production,” he added. More cheers. The curtain fell but everyone remained on their feet, applauding and waiting for an encore. None came.

“It’s $8,000 a minute for overtime here,” Halbreich said, as the aisles filled with lingerers. Union stagehands started striking the set.

Left: Rufus Wainwright. Right: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmar with Clarissa Dalrymple.

In the downstairs lounge, Lady Bunny, Joey Arias, Agosto Machado, Taboo!, and several drag queens made the afterparty feel like a reunion of Antony’s Blacklips pals at the Pyramid Club of the early 1990s. Rufus Wainwright scooted through the room, recalling his own past show at Radio City. Filmmaker Charles Atlas, who recently completed a feature-length performance documentary with Antony, was all smiles. Steven Hegarty, Antony’s brother, introduced himself to Björk, who will soon bring her whiz-bang, iPad-driven show, Biophilia, to Roseland. “Wasn’t Antony great?” Hegarty asked. “I think this is a big step up for him,” the Icelandic diva replied.

Finally, Antony descended the stairs and was immediately showered with flowers and hugs. “Isn’t it amazing? My whole family is here!” said Antony, looking dazed. Asked if I could photograph them together, he retreated behind a column. “Oh, but that’s so private,” he said.

Yet this very public evening reminded me of New York in the old days, when such glam gatherings—the American premiere of Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, or the 1981 opening of Diego Cortez’s “New York/New Wave” show at PS1—marked seismic shifts in our culture. Swanlights didn’t quite do that. But it did make magic—no small feat in a world so badly in need of it.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Lady Bunny with artist Charles Atlas. Right: Artist Laurel Nakadate.