A fortnight in New York

Back from two weeks in NYC – not only the city that never sleeps, but the city where I never sleep! However, 5 hours a night plus adrenaline and visual/aural stimulation seem perfectly adequate there!

Princeton University and Art

Twice a year I visit the Princeton University Art Museum where I’m on the Advisory Council. Best part of that is getting the inside track on what the curators there are up to, in terms of acquisitions and exhibition planning. Karl Kusserow, Curator of American Art, had just purchased a quietly handsome Marsden Hartley from a series he made of Mt Katahdin in Maine. I arrived at the Museum in time to hear Jed Perl, Art Critic for The New Republic, speak on “lateness” in Calder’s work. After a slightly ponderous start, Perl warmed to his subject and brought to life Calder’s late work, particularly his large sheet metal “stabiles.” Perl is the only writer to have been commissioned by the Calder Foundation to write the definitive biography, and Calder’s grandson, Sandy Rower, President of the Foundation, was in the audience to add some harmless heckling at the end of the lecture.

On a morning run around campus, I made a small tour of the incredible sculpture and architecture Princeton has amassed. Ai Wei Wei’s zodiac animals grace the front of the Woodrow Wilson School, and Serra’s torqued ellipses stand in stark sober contrast with Frank Gehry’s flamboyant Science Library that sparkles in the sun.

Roof Garden at the Met

Dan Graham’s Pavilion at the Roof Garden of the Met was worth a visit on the sunny Sunday morning I saw it with MP. The view from that roof garden, though, is the scene-stealer. What’s not to love about a 360 degree view of the most exciting city in the world, seen across the green of Central Park? I believe I’ve seen contexts that better suit Graham’s pavilions, though, such as the wooded park in Kassel at Documenta in 2007, or the enclosed garden space at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, where Graham played with reflections, perforations and transparency. His pavilions work better in situations where one happens upon them, like a surprise interruption. The play with space, delineation and boundaries is more provocative when it’s experienced spontaneously rather than as a destination.

Calder Foundation

This jewel in Chelsea is not to be missed. Fortunately for our Contemporary Art Society patrons’ group, Dida Tait had organized a visit. It never hurts to be James Johnson Sweeney’s grand niece! We were met by Sandy Rower, Alexander Calder’s grandson, who established the Foundation in the 1980s. He has a reputation for being quite the provocateur, and it was easy to mistake his playful verbal jousting for a little bullying. I felt totally busted when I ventured to ask him about Calder’s relationship with Duchamp, and their common use of wit and play with words and images, and he swung around at me, locked his eyes on mine and said, “Hey! You’re not English! I thought this was a group from England!” Of course I went totally red and said something about being one of many imposters in the group, who hail from Australia, France, Canada, South Africa, e.g. But then he complimented me on such a brilliant question, so I felt totally chuffed – clearly he is accustomed to putting people on the spot but then reversing it with flattery, and it works! I later learned that Mr Rower has two children, the names of whom are Pond and Endless Spiral…

Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Sales

Spent a very fun, negroni-fueled evening with my wonderful KTK, starting at Sothebys where the contemporary and modern sales were in preview. Dreamily beautiful and colourful Richter, Rothko, Diebenkorn and a nice Rauschenberg sculpture that had belonged to Paul Taylor were standouts. Less appealing was how Koons’ stainless steel Popeye was positioned in front of six Warhol self portraits like a decorative, blingy installation of Art as Commodity through the decades. But it’s a good thing I don’t have any say in Sotheby’s marketing and displays! The Koons sold to Steve Wynn for $28.2 million and now it will take pride of place in Las Vegas! “Well blow me down!”

Previewing the new Whitney Museum

Had a fun, quick drink with Adam Weinberg, whom I hadn’t seen since his Addison Gallery days at Phillips Academy. With less than a year to go before the unveiling of the new Whitney Museum home on the High Line, he was buzzing with enthusiasm for this massive and impressive project with Renzo Piano. He and Donna de Salvo have worked tirelessly with Piano to create what I have no doubt will be an iconic building in the Meatpacking District. Adam invited me to tag along with the heavy hitters who have raised millions (namely Trustees Scott Resnick and Brooke Neidich) on Thursday for a hard hat tour of the building, which I gratefully accepted! It’s got wonderful proportions, with ceilings in the main galleries of 18.5 feet, a height that Donna explained was the single most difficult decision to make in the design process. The lobby ceiling slopes from the west where the Hudson River Park is visible, towards an enormous window on the city to the east of the building. The effect is that the city is welcomed in visually, and there’s a great sense of connection with the site. Adam pointed out how fitting it is that the Whitney should move to this bastion of American art production where everyone from Edward Hopper to Ad Reinhardt has had a studio within spitting distance of the place. This lobby area will be open to the public free of charge and there will be displays on view that anyone can see just by walking through. One of the most exciting features is a bank of four elevators designed by Richard Artschwager. Each one will have a different scene inside, so that when a visitor rides up, they become enveloped in a work of art – brilliant!

Contemporary Art Society Patrons in New York

I met up with my fellow Contemporary Art Society Patrons on Wednesday. Brilliantly led by Director Caroline Douglas, and planned and executed by Dida Tait and Miriam Metliss, the itinerary was flawless!

Whitney Biennial and its Top Floor Success

Our guided tour was led by the Whitney curator who had worked with all three of the Biennial curators and therefore had an excellent knowledge of the work, themes, and threads that connect each of the three floors. The top floor, selected by Michelle Grabner, artist, curator and educator based in Chicago at SAIC, was the unanimously favourite show. The themes here were strong and accessible, with a convincing display of work that included abstract painting by women (e.g Jacqueline Humphries, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman), pieces that are striking for their materiality (e.g Ricky Swallow’s bronze casts of cardboard, Sterling Ruby’s magnificent glazed ceramics, Shio Kusaka’s elegant and spare clay pots, elder stateswoman Sheila Hicks’ heavy sinuous textiles that spilled from the concrete perforations in the gallery ceiling), and work that explores art as strategy or concept (e.g the late Gretchen Bender’s crumpled field of vinyl backlit with neon-illuminated movie titles, Joshua Mosley’s stop-motion animation of a man playing Jeu de Paume, a precursor of tennis played at Fontainebleau, and David Robbins “Open-Air Writing Desk,” an invitation to viewers to sit down and begin exploring the “allegorical wilderness” of their own minds).

Later in the week HZ and MEA invited me for breakfast with Michelle Grabner and Omar Lopez-Chahoud, the artistic director of Untitled, the art fair in Miami, who is a major talent spotter. I got to talk to Michelle about her selection at the Biennial. What I most admired about it was the unapologetic mixing of older and younger artists, craft and painting, and the way there was a fluidity between it all that didn’t seem to scream out for any undue attention. She said when Glenn Adamson came by, his eyes practically filled with tears because it’s exactly the position that crafts should take among the arts – just another dimension of making. I liked the way the selection seemed to take note of the way younger artists borrow, riff on and develop the ideas of an older generation, and that it’s often the younger artists who are their greatest fans, long before any collectors catch on.

One other standout work at the Biennial was Zoe Leonard’s all-encompassing camera obscura that reflected Madison Avenue upside down on every surface of the gallery space through a small Breuer-designed window. So beautiful and magical to experience the bustle and sparkle of Madison Avenue, with its stately storefronts, whizzing taxis and Sabretts hotdog stands in a ghostly version that is silent and serene in a dark room.

Private Collection Visits

We visited three very different private collections, each one unique – as one would expect, being assembled by individuals whose taste, experience and motivations are varied. Beth Rudin DeWoody’s Gracie Square apartment on the East River is a wunderkammer of art assembled over a lifetime of collecting. At first it was almost overwhelming, the sheer volume of works, arranged on walls, on the floors, stacked on tables, on the piano, arranged in glass-fronted cabinets, along the shelves of the bedroom, and among books in the library. There was even an arrangement of work in a glass-fronted closet, a mise en scene of the figures of Charles Manson talking to a young Michael Jackson. Sol Lewitt, Judy Chicago, Jenny Holzer, Jasper Johns and Christian Marclay are a fraction of the 10,000+ works that comprise Beth’s collection. Maynard, the tall, very camp, self-proclaimed “Dandy in Residence,” was there with Beth, to take us through the apartment, and he explained that it is his full time job to arrange and re-arrange the works, depending on what is out on loan or sent to one of her other homes. He clearly has a lot of fun coming up with incredibly imaginative combinations of work. Beth seems to have been friends with nearly every artist in the collection, and a framed photo of her from around 1980 showed her as a gorgeous, stylish, slightly Bohemian It Girl of the art world.

The collection of Oliver Frankel and Carole Server was a total contrast to the exuberance and free-wheeling fun of Beth’s. This is a Serious Collection, assembled over the past five years and consisting almost solely of “new abstraction” recent painting. Of course, everyone likes to be guided by a few parameters in choosing their art, but this feels a bit hemmed in by the strict criterion, and very crowded with one framed work after another. Carole is recently retired from Wall Street, and has shifted her business acumen to the art world, with a sharp eye on the curve and a practical attitude to acquiring as much data on each artist as possible. She and Oliver had just returned from a buying/looking trip in Berlin, and were a little tired, so it’s easy to imagine they were less than thrilled to be hosting our motley crew from London. Nonetheless, they were generous with their time and knowledge.

Our group was completely besotted with Stacey Goergen and her husband Rob’s beautiful home and collection in the heart of SoHo. Stacey’s also on the Princeton Art Museum Advisory Council, and I had a hunch that she has a fantastic collection, so put her in touch with the CAS. Stacey was warm, inviting, super knowledgeable from her years working at the Whitney, and so generous with her time and the delicious food and drink she’d organized for us. She’s also working on a book on artists and their collections, so she had plenty of first-hand knowledge and insider views on what’s going on. There’s a sense of humor at play, from Mel Bochner’s ironic text painting, “Oh Well,” to E.V. Day’s “Mummified Barbie Series.” There’s depth in the collection – often more than one work by a single artist – and a broad but meaningful choice to Buy American, hence names like Johns, Rauschenberg, Mary Heilman, and Richard Serra, as well as less well known younger artists. It’s fresh, compelling, and smart, and reflects Stacey’s own background steeped in looking at contemporary American art and her eye for quality.

Art Geek Paradise: The Judd Foundation

One way for a bonafide art geek to die and go to heaven is to visit the Judd Foundation. This perfectly preserved, 5-story cast iron building at the corner of Mercer and Spring Streets was Donald Judd’s home since he bought it in 1968. http://www.juddfoundation.org/new_york If Thomas Jefferson had been a minimalist, this is the house he (another genius) would have built. It has all the inventiveness and efficiency that Monticello has. A dining table that houses all the crockery and glassware, an imaginative loft space designed for his kids that also contained a hatch and ladder for puppet shows, and the piece de resistance on the top floor: a vast bedroom lined on one side with Dan Flavin, and on the other with an early Frank Stella, and in the middle nothing but a large, low-lying bed. I get the feeling Donald was very charismatic. In one of my reincarnations I’d like to come back as his girlfriend…though I imagine I would run the risk of ending up as a waitress in Marfa, Texas…

Brooklyn Studio Visits

Our CAS group made some amazing studio visits too. Jules Balincourt has a large airy studio that he shares with two territorial cats. His paintings are beautiful. Josh Blackwell’s studio is populated with piles of plastic bags that get recycled into wonderful embroidered, marked-upon “drawings” – one of which I bought a few months ago from Kate MacGarry. He modelled one of the works as a hat, and seemed to quite enjoy keeping it on as he spoke. Mikalene Thomas has a huge studio and several assistants. She was incredibly welcoming and great to talk to.


Biggest surprise was Kara Walker’s “Sugar Baby” at the Domino Sugar Factory. Somehow, I’d avoided hearing anything about it before walking into the vast, caramelised building. When I say caramelised, I mean it. Molten, molasses-like brown sugar dripped onto my favourite cardigan. The fragrance of sugar greeted us as we entered and looked up at the gigantic, refined sugar-white, kerchiefed-mammy-as-sphinx figure that dominates one end of the factory. We all walked around awe-struck, taking in the figure made from Styrofoam and 35 tons of sugar, and the smaller dripping molasses-covered, life-sized novelty figures of little black boys carrying baskets – presumably for sugar cane on the plantations they worked.

It’s up to you, New York…New York

Even though I haven’t been a New Yorker for many years now, I take pride and ownership of certain experiences that seem to define the city. One of those memorable moments happened on Friday night, and it sealed my conviction that New York will always be the city where serendipity and magic thrive. Five of us – MEA, HZ, PB, MB and I were seated at a table crammed near the door of a noisy crowded restaurant in the West Village, and we were squashed within inches of the neighboring table of three attractive 20-somethings who were either celebrating or making up for a shitty week. Pretty soon, the gorgeous tall girl nearest us was chatting away with Philippa, who is basically a babe magnet with her charismatic style and warm welcoming Jewish mother confidence. After a bit of banter, the three of them sidled up to join our table and within minutes we’d established that two of them were in love, had gone to Princeton, one was a lawyer, another in TV, and the third, a painter. “A painter, did you say?” exclaimed Philippa. “Why, WE’RE COLLECTORS!” And with that, the girl actually swooned. Lia invited us all over to her studio to look at her work. The five of us exchanged sceptical glances, and quickly concluded, what the hell? Thirty minutes later, we found ourselves tripping across the street, down some fire escape-type stairs and into a tiny studio filled with paintings. The Princeton couple had picked up a bottle of Perrier Jouet on the way over, and we stood around admiring certain bits and critiquing others, sipping champagne from rinsed-out coffee cups while lovely Lia hung on our every word. Philippa had somehow conveyed to her that our opinions mattered, and I’d like to think we may have given her some good advice. We all hugged and kissed each other goodbye, and drifted back into the chaotic streets of the Village after midnight.