March 09 2013

Out of the Past: Anthony Haden-Guest on the Armory Show

New York-Art

Untitled (The Beauty of Mary Boone), 2013, by Sverre Bjertnes & Bjarne Melgaard

Immersing yourself in an art fair can be—at least when you’ve been around the track a few times—like whooshing down a time tunnel. The most efficient time machines are, as they should be, the artworks. Passing from the Contemporary to the Modern at the Armory, I was almost immediately confronted with canvases by Pierre Alechinsky and Karel Appel at a Cobra show and swept back to a time when paintings were deeply considered, perhaps even agonized over. These days, all too often you feel you’re in a product mart.

Then there are the people. Walking the fairs and the various satellite affairs is like trolling Facebook in the round. Faces you last saw a day ago, a month ago, decades ago, swim towards you. Waiting for a performance at The Cutting Room I ran into Eddy Galore, a designer I had worked with on a project yonks back. And then, again at the Armory, I encountered the elvish Mary Boone. We chatted and moved on. Shortly after, I encountered the Mary Boone Installation...

The Mary Boone Installation, which was at an Oslo gallery, Rod Bianco, was the work of two Norwegian artists, Bjarne Melgaard and Sverre Bjertnes. Melgaard, whose previous work—a sequence of installations centered around a self-published novel—had crammed every room at the Luxembourg and Dayan gallery in an Upper East Side townhouse, is a terrific artist. As an expressive draftsman, he’s up there with Claes Oldenburg.

Melgaard and Bjertne’s Boone installation is described as a “homage.” Um. Well. Yes. In a sense. One painting is lettered, “MARY BOONE CRYING AFTER JULIAN SCHNABEL LEFT HER GALLERY.” Another reads, “MARY BOONE AS A CRACK ADDICT IN A CHANEL SUIT IN THE EIGHTIES.” And so on. The gallery space is dominated by a lifesize doll likeness of Mary Boone wearing a cobalt dress.

And I fell into the past like a sinkhole.

Boone had already popped into the space for a look, and had apparently exclaimed, “That’s the suit I wore on the cover of New York magazine!” It’s true. I know because I wrote the accompanying article, back in 1982. The coverline, “The New Queen of the Art Scene,” and the piece within has been blamed for playing a part in the market madness that would soon consume the 80s. The madness would have happened anyway, of course, but that’s the way it was.

Mary Boone on the cover of New York, April 19, 1982.

I asked Melgaard if he had spoken with Mary.

“Of course,” he said, tranquilly. “I know her.”

Outside the booth, I ran into Joel Fisher, another terrific artist, who I had not seen in decades. I told him I had spent the day bumping into my past. “Sometimes it’s you,” he said with a radiant smile. “And sometimes, it isn’t!”

I wasn’t out of the sinkhole yet, though. That afternoon, I went to the extraordinary Basquiat show at Gagosian with Stephen Torton, who had been Basquuat’s assistant at a crucial period, and soon ran into somebody who asked the inevitable question: Uh, Anthony. Did you kill Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Let me explain. This began when Tamra Davis’s 2010 movie, The Radiant Child, came out, in the course of which, Glenn O’Brien, who was close to Basquiat, observes that the artist was extremely worried about a piece I was writing for a magazine.

True, and not badly intended. But not the whole truth. I had been commissioned by Vanity Fair to write a profile of the artist, who I knew and liked, one of the premises of the piece being that he had kicked drugs. I spent time with him at his Great Jones Street studio, in restaurants, wherever, and things seemed to be going swimmingly.

Then Ethel Scull, the late, remarkable collector, called.

“Anthony,” she said, “You’re putting Jean-Michel under a lot of pressure.”

I learned that he hadn’t kicked his habit.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

I called Jean-Michel and told him I was dropping the project for the time being. “We’ll get back to it when you’re ready” I said.

The last time I spoke to him was quite a while later downstairs at MK. His skin was a blotchy mess. He looked terrible. Soon after, he was dead.

My article duly appeared in Vanity Fair.

Lech Majewski, a Polish director, appeared shortly after and I assigned him the rights, the financial stuff to be sorted out when he got the project off the ground. Which he never did. But Julian Schnabel did. And a good film, too.

Can I leave the sinkhole now, please?