Art in the Gilded Age: Lincoln Center Czars Hang Up Jasper Johns

The Dec. 23 letter from Lincoln Center chairman Beverly Sills and president

Nathan Leventhal to the artist Jasper Johns is difficult to read with a

straight face. “Dear Jasper,” it begins, “We hope this

letter finds you well and enjoying a happy holiday season.”

Imagine Ms. Sills trilling that opening line to her secretary. Then

imagine her and Mr. Leventhal’s voices taking on a considerably more

weasel-like tone. With the season’s greetings out of the way, Lincoln

Center’s two principals basically got down to the business of telling

Mr. Johns that, after taking a vote from the center’s board of

directors, they had gotten the go-ahead to consider a sale of Numbers,

1964 , a 9-foot-by-7-foot gray work made of Sculpmetal that Mr. Johns

had created specifically for the New York State Theater.

Ms. Sills and Mr. Leventhal were essentially informing Mr. Johns that

his artwork was in play, and they concluded with this bit of half-baked

consolation: “Although we cannot guarantee it,” Ms. Sills and Mr.

Leventhal wrote, “if it turns out that a sale is to be made, we will

give consideration to any proposal that would allow the painting to be

returned to public view.”

Three weeks later, Lincoln Center’s decision had escalated into a

full-blown Cultural Incident. After Numbers hung in relative

obscurity for decades, Lincoln Center has posted a sentry to guard the work

that, at one point, apparently fetched an offer of as much as $19 million.

Meanwhile, the art-world grapevine is dividing its time between wondering

who actually wants to buy the Johns piece (art dealer Robert Mnuchin

apparently has a customer); whether the complex needs money so badly that

it would consider such a politically suicidal move; and, now that it has

taken that fateful step, whether Lincoln Center may have blown its timing

in the Johns market.

Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of

Modern Art, seemed to warn of both potential pitfalls in his draft of an

eloquent and impassioned three-page letter, dated Aug. 21, 1998, which he

wrote to Mr. Leventhal and Richard Schwartz, vice chairman of the New York

State Council on the Arts, protesting any considered sale of the artwork

and predicting a “public relations disaster” should such a thing

happen. (Christopher Ramsey, director of external relations for the New

York City Ballet, told The Transom, “No matter what the fine print

reads, this is a moral issue. Jasper did that painting for this

space.”)

“As a museum professional, I have had considerable experience with

the process of de-accessioning, and with the very volatile climate of

concern that surrounds such actions,” Mr. Varnedoe wrote. “At a

minimum, I want to warn you how very tricky and potentially dangerous this

territory is. But, more importantly, I want to counsel strongly against the

sale of the Johns to a private bidder, no matter how seemingly fabulous the

offer being tended at present.” A sale into private hands, Mr.

Varnedoe noted later in his letter, “would bring down tremendous

criticism on the Center, which would be perceived as operating with

opportunistic, mercantile ambitions, as opposed to steady, artistic (or

civic-esthetic) principles, to the fore.” (Mr. Varnedoe did not return

The Observer ‘s phone calls requesting comment.)

That Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn’s name has surfaced among

the gossip as a potential buyer is appropriate for the situation, even though a spokesman for Mr. Wynn said he wasn’t even aware of the

artwork’s existence. Las Vegas is the place where everything–even

a scale replica of New York–is available for the right price. Which is

exactly the message that Lincoln Center seems to be sending to the

world’s seen-it-all, bought-it-all art collectors looking for their

next one-of-a-kind trophy.

As Mr. Johns wrote back to Ms. Sills and Mr. Leventhal, “Your

recent letters to me have been rather baffling. The first states that you

have no intention to consider offers which were made to buy my work from

the wall of the New York State Theater, while the other, which ‘wants

to avoid any misunderstanding,’ suggests that, ‘declining to make

any recommendation,’ you are attempting to negotiate a sale of the

work.”

By making known his opposition to Lincoln Center’s considerations

(opposition that was reported on the front page of The New York

Times ), Mr. Johns may have made his artwork more difficult to acquire.

Many of the world’s most avid collectors like to deal in total

secrecy. By taking a stand, Mr. Johns has insured that the sale of

Numbers, 1964 will happen with a great deal of publicity. “When a

living artist makes his feelings so clear about something, it would put the

kibosh on the sale if I had been interested in it,” said David Ross,

former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and current director

of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “It is not like

transferring between owners. It is taking a site-specific public artwork

and changing the site. That’s a work that was meant for that

building.”

Numbers, 1964 came to fruition after Mr. Johns was commissioned

to create an artwork for the State Theater by one of the building’s

architects, Philip Johnson.

What went into the work’s origin was recounted by Mr. Varnedoe, who

is an expert on Mr. Johns, in his letter to Mr. Leventhal and Mr.

Schwartz.

“This work was not simply acquired off the market as a decoration.

It was a commission, and Johns executed the work specifically for the New

York State Theater,” Mr. Varnedoe wrote. Not only is the piece

exceptional because it is the largest of Mr. Johns’

“Numbers” series of paintings (each number depicted in the

work is a separate panel, bolted to an adjacent panel). “Moreover,

John’s [sic] notes for the work show that he sought here to use as a

‘ruler’ the foot of the dancer and choreographer Merce

Cunningham. He later said he felt this unusual standard of measure was

appropriate specifically because of the theater setting for which the metal

relief was destined.”

Mr. Varnedoe went on to write that if Lincoln Center were to sell

Numbers for a profit, it would be “betraying–and I choose

the word advisedly–the understanding under which Johns made the

work.” That violation of trust would be “10 times worse” if

sold to a private collector. “Imagine a great singer agreeing to a

charity concert and then discovering that, years later, when his or her

reputation had grown, the tape of this concert was being sold by the Center

to the music industry for a hefty price.”

The Aug. 28 date of Mr. Varnedoe’s letter indicates that the debate

over Mr. Johns’ work has been going on for some time now. But sources

both within Lincoln Center and the New York art market told The Transom

that as early as two years ago, Lincoln Center had the artwork appraised

with the consideration of offering it up for sale. At the time, according

to one of those sources, the center was attempting to make up a shortfall

created when the real estate market slump of the early 1990′s forced

the Kaskel real estate family to downsize a several-million-dollar pledge

it had made to Lincoln Center. (Kaskel scion Howard Kaskel estimated that

pledge at $3 million–although other sources familiar with the situation put it at around twice that–but added that he was under the

impression that the Milstein real estate family had come to the rescue.)

Asked to comment, Lincoln Center spokesman Janice Price said that she

had not worked for the complex long enough to know. She said she would get

back to The Observer with a response, but had not done so as of

press time.

Ms. Price did say, however, that while there was no official offer on

the table, “any income derived from the sale of the painting would

definitely not be used for the day-to-day operating of programs and

physical things of Lincoln Center.” Ms. Price said that any such

income “would be used in an endowment capacity” for

“one-time or extraordinary expenses related to the maintenance or

expansion or upkeep.”

Art-world sources found it odd that Lincoln Center’s well-heeled

board could not raise $15 million to $20 million without having to sell off

its art cache, especially since Julian Robertson Jr., chairman of one of

the world’s biggest hedge fund, Tiger Management, gave $25 million to

the center in September.

Still, one source within Lincoln Center said that money from any sale of

Numbers would likely be used for improvements to the

building–improvements for which it is extremely difficult to solicit

contributions. (“Yet certainly Lincoln Center cannot be selling this

Johns because it hopes to acquire some better work of art with the

money?” Mr. Varnedoe wrote in his letter.) “These buildings are

old and falling down,” said the source. “There are some serious

structural problems. They haven’t been upgraded in years and

years.” The source added: “Nobody wants to replace the

air-conditioning fans on this building, which are all breaking down. The

travertine [shells of some of the buildings] are falling off. It is a

million dollars of work just doing that goddamned stuff.”

The source also said that, if Numbers is sold, Lincoln Center

will make the “requirement” that “the purchaser leave it to

a public museum.”

Just who might be interested in purchasing Mr. Johns’ artwork

remains a matter of much speculation. The piece is certainly one-of-a-kind,

which gives it a certain appeal, but as Richard Polsky, author of the

Art Market Guide , said, “things built out of Sculpmetal

will bring a lot less money than paintings.” Mr. Polsky estimated that

Numbers is worth between $8 million and $10 million. “You can

buy a really great Johns painting for $15 million,” he said.

The billionaire Dreamworks SKG partner David Geffen has denied that

he’s interested, but speculation continues to swirl. California

collector Eli Broad’s name has also surfaced, and things have been

awfully quiet in Condé Nast owner S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr.’s

camp. (Neither Mr. Geffen’s spokesman nor Mr. Newhouse returned

calls.) Yet these men are considered the usual suspects of the high-stakes

art collecting game. Sources familiar with the situation said that Mr.

Mnuchin has approached Lincoln Center on behalf of a buyer. (Mr. Mnuchin

declined to comment.) Dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes confirmed to The Transom

that she had “been by to see” Numbers recently, but added,

“I won’t say whether I am trying to sell it.” Her interest

could be fueling speculation over Mr. Geffen, since the media mogul is a

main client of her and her husband David Nash. Ms. Innes-Mitchell denied,

however, that Mr. Geffen was interested.

Ms. Innes-Mitchell said that Lincoln Center’s apparent stipulation

that any purchaser of the painting must “either give it to an

institution, loan it to an institution or be an institution” will make

it more difficult to place the painting at this stage. The more

restrictions you put on a sale, the fewer people there are as buyers. But

she said “it really is part of the architecture as much as anything.. It really is a marvelous painting.”

Mr. Johns’ work may be too much a part of Lincoln Center’s

architecture. The Lincoln Center source had heard a story that at a recent

board meeting, the directors were asked if they’d been to the State

Theater in the last year. All but two people said that they had. Next, the

directors were asked if they knew where Numbers, 1964 was located.

According to the source, nobody knew.

It’s easier to find the work today. Just look for the guard

that’s been posted to guard Lincoln Center’s potential $19

million treasure. The center’s officials have argued that the

piece’s exposure to the public now makes it a target for vandals, but,

as Mr. Varnedoe argued in his letter, “If something in one of the

halls was making, say, the violin section difficult to hear, would the

answer be to eliminate the violins?”

Yet some say that the opportunity for the center to get $15 million or

higher for the work have since passed. (Indeed, Mr. Mnuchin is said to have

balked at the $19 million price tag as too high.) Another Johns painting,

White Number s, done in 1958, was put up for auction at

Sotheby’s last November with an estimated selling price of $7 million

to $9 million. The painting went unsold when the top bid reached only $6

million. The confirmed record for a Johns painting was set in the go-go art

market of 1988, when Mr. Newhouse bought False Start for $17.1

million.

“I should add that, even in the crassest, bottom-line financial

terms, the Center would be on shaky ground in accepting a private offer for

the Johns,” Mr. Varnedoe wrote. “The art market is extremely

volatile these days, and the remarkable prices of one day are often

surpassed the next.… I must say that even the thought of allowing

officials of the Center to speculate, in this inevitably amateur fashion,

with a great work of art made specifically for a civic space in our city,

profoundly troubles me.”

But, then, in the next-to-last paragraph of his plea, Mr. Varnedoe makes

an interesting proposal, even if it’s a hypothetical one.

“If the Center is absolutely convinced, after considerable thought,

that it can no longer properly bear the responsibility it initially assumed

of protecting the Johns work and presenting it to the Center’s public,

then it might [italics his] properly consider making the piece

available to another New York institution that could assume those

responsibilities–preserving the piece and keeping it accessible to the

citizens of the city.” A museum such as MoMA [italics ours],

perhaps? Mr. Varnedoe continued: “And then, if in the process a

coherent and appropriate rationale could also be expressed as to how the

sale [italics his] of the piece–rather than its

donation–might enhance the artistic mission of the Center, a New York

institution might be more than willing to enter a dialogue about the just

and fair price of such a sale.”

Mr. Varnedoe seemed to be leaving a door open in which–completely

hypothetically, of course–David Geffen, who is a member of MoMA’s

acquisitions committee, or Mr. Newhouse, who has had both Mr. Varnedoe and

Mr. Geffen over for dinner–could purchase Numbers, 1964 and

bequeath it to MoMA.

Which is why when we suggested to Philip Johnson that it sounded like

Numbers, 1964 would probably eventually be sold, Mr. Johnson laughed

and said: “That’s the way the world is.”

The Adams Family

“Any words of wisdom on your 88th birthday, Mr. Adams?”

Joey Adams, a Borscht Belt beacon in his red dress shirt and

red-and-black tie, looked at the microcassette recorder that had been

thrust in his face. Then he let out a coughing sound: “Huht, huht,

huht.” He reached for his glass of watered-down white wine, which

sat on a red napkin that read, “Joey & Cindy,” and fixed his gaze on the reporter’s barren forehead. “You didn’t

get dressed,” he said in a whispery voice. “You left your hair at

home.”

The punch line was dispersed by the raucous arrival of Mr. Adams’

wife, New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams. “Hello,

darling,” she said as she effortlessly perched herself on Mr.

Adams’ chair while real estate macher s Lewis Rudin and Donald

Trump looked on. She was barefoot and dressed in white silk Chinese

pajamas. A cameraman from the Post ‘s sister station,

WNYW, focused on the couple. “Joey, sweetheart, look straight at the

camera for a minute,” Mrs. Adams counseled, then looked into the lens

to do a promotional spot for weatherman Nick Gregory’s segment later

that night. “Hey, Nick, it’s Cindy and Joey, and it’s his

88th birthday,” said Ms. Adams. “We want to celebrate tomorrow.

Tell me, what’s the weather really like?”

Mrs. Adams jumped from the chair. “That’s my entire moment of

fabulousness,” she said. Hardly. Through years of bloody, hard and

sometimes dirty work, leavened with a stiff shot of shtick, Mrs. Adams has

done an almost unheard-of thing in today’s disposable media culture.

Hand in hand with her husband, this former Miss Subways has sustained her

moment of fabulousness over half a century and has dragged some unlikely

people with her. The party that Mrs. Adams threw for her husband on Jan. 6

in the newly remodeled Park Avenue penthouse (with clenched-fist doorknobs)

she’d acquired from the Doris Duke estate seemed as much a distilled

celebration of that success as it was a birthday party for her Joey.

Yet, hand in hand with the giddiness of the party was the undeniable

notion that, in this year when the millennial countdown has started in

earnest, a change in New York’s hierarchy is underway, and that those

assembled looked back, not ahead, to their moment atop the power pyramid.

Asked to define the crowd, which included public relations guru Howard

Rubenstein, actress Lainie Kazan, comedian Alan King and artist LeRoy

Neiman, former New York governor Mario Cuomo said, “I guess you would

call it a power group.” Then he added, “A lot of the people here

were more powerful 10 years ago than they are today.” He smiled.

“So it’s a mature power group.”

As Mrs. Adams led an impromptu tour of her new digs, she hurled herself,

pinball-like, through the crowd. “Move it! Move! Move! “

Mrs. Adams growled as she led a procession into her office, stopping only

to say to someone near her, “You know Mrs. Slotnick,” referring

to Donna, wife of regular column item, attorney Barry Slotnick, who was

somewhere else in the room.

“These are my front pages,” said Mrs. Adams as she entered her

office. Except for a wall-length, Sunshine Boys -strength makeup

mirror, the room was wallpapered, ceiling included, with Mrs. Adams’

laminated front-page scoops. “Joey, What the Hell Happened?” read

one cover line that promised: “Cindy on the crumbling life of Joey

Heatherton.”

Standing next to Mrs. Adams were the Joey and Cindy of The New York

Times, Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich and feature writer Alex Witchel.

“I love this,” said Ms. Witchel.

“Isn’t it a great idea?” Mrs. Adams agreed, adding to the

couple, “Why don’t you take your best stories and laminate

them.”

The Transom asked Mrs. Adams how many front pages were up there.

“Several hundred,” she said. “I mean, it should be in the

Guinness Book.”

“All of them are your stories,” we said.

“Every single goddamned one of them,” replied Mrs. Adams, who

noted that she had found a number of her guests, including Mr. Trump, his

ex-wife Ivana and Mr. Cuomo, “in here looking for their

headlines.”

As the group lingered, they noticed a bathtub with a swan’s neck for a spigot. The tub was filled

with magazines. “This is Doris Duke’s tub,” Mrs. Adams said.

“We wanted to put it on the terrace as a planter, but it was too heavy

and they wouldn’t give us permission. So your

contractor”–Mrs. Adams raised her voice and looked straight

at Ms. Witchel–”said, ‘Enough already with schlepping this

around, I’m leaving it here.’ So this is where I keep the

magazines.”

Mrs. Adams has also come up with an interesting idea for the display of

the memorabilia that the couple amassed during decades of celebrity. One

entire bathroom was devoted to awards and plaques garnered by Mr. Adams.

There was a 1959 humanitarian award given to him by the Brooklyn Dodgers

and a handwritten, no-frills proclamation from Columbia College’s

Class of 1952 that pronounced Mr. Adams “the most promising comedian

of radio and television for 1951.” Upon seeing this room, Ivana Trump

seemed to have an epiphany about what to do with all of her trophies.

Back in the living room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and fabric

walls, Mr. Adams was having fun at the expense of his nurse, Alice. He was

telling a group of well-wishers that he was really married to Alice. Alice

seemed to wilt at all the attention.

Mrs. Adams waded into the living room and called for order. “Thank

you for coming to Joey’s birthday party,” she said. “Some

people celebrate July 4th. We celebrate January 6th. The reason being,

Joey’s birthday predates the Declaration of Independence.”

Mrs. Adams explained that dinner was being served. A Good Humor ice

cream cart had been set up in the kitchen, along with a candy store, while,

out on the terrace, a hot dog and knish cart was being manned by two

shivering young men.

“Is that a frozen hot dog out there?” a woman’s voice in

the crowd asked.

“No, it’s a real hot dog, smartass,” said Mrs. Adams,

adding, to the smartass in question, “You were penciled in.”

As the crowd headed for the eats, socialite Anne Slater peered through

her trademark blue-tinted glasses and smiled her East Side rictus at a

painting of former Indonesian president Sukarno (autographed in oil by

him), which hung over the Doris Duke tub. This was Ms. Slater’s first

appearance at one of Mr. Adams’ birthdays, but she had been in this

apartment before, when it belonged to Doris Duke. “Cindy’s done

fabulous things with it,” she said.

Mrs. Adams blew through the hallway again. “Where’s the

fortuneteller?” she yelled.

“Isn’t that you?” we said, offering our own smartass

comment.

Mrs. Adams shot us a look that said, “I’ll do the shtick

around here.” Then CeCe Jones, the wife of basso-voiced actor James

Earl Jones, told Mrs. Adams she needed a clairvoyant “to find out if

Bell Atlantic is picking up James Earl’s contract next year.”

Mrs. Adams flitted to another section of her apartment to engage in

conversation with Mr. Cuomo, his wife Mathilda, Mr. Rudin and the former

Chief Justice of the New York State Court of Appeals, Sol Wachtler. As a

photographer sought to capture the moment, Mrs. Adams made sure that Mr.

Wachtler did not feel self-conscious about his past troubles with the law.

(He was convicted of harassment of fund-raiser Joy Silverman, with whom he

had been having an affair.) “Come on in, Sol,” she said.

“Come on in close.”

Actually, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Wachtler seemed to be having a helluva time

one-upping each other with one-liners. Mr. Cuomo told The Transom that he

never goes to parties, but he came to this one because he’d heard Mr.

Wachtler was going to be present. “I want to study what he eats, this

man,” said Mr. Cuomo reaching out to a dapper, tanned and beaming Mr.

Wachtler. “Because,” and here Mr. Cuomo stifled a laugh, “the only way to know his age is to cut him in half and count the

rings.”

Mr. Wachtler brayed with laughter, then said that the only reason he had

come was because Mr. Cuomo was “responsible for everything I ever

became. Everything !”

Wasn’t Mr. Wachtler once talked about as a potential opponent for

Mr. Cuomo’s gubernatorial seat, The Transom asked.

“That’s nothing,” replied Mr. Cuomo, “I was trying

to get to be Chief Judge!”

“As a matter of fact,” said Mr. Wachtler, “if I ran

against him, I had the perfect slogan. I was going to say that anyone who

would appoint me as Chief Judge isn’t fit to be governor.”

A few feet away from the joking statesmen, Mrs. Adams was holding court,

when there was a loud crash. “Don’t break anything, for

Chrissakes,” Mrs. Adams screamed. Nurse Alice, who was walking by with

some food for Mr. Adams, behaved as if someone had shouted

“Incoming!”

“You want a true story?” asked the comedian Pat Cooper, who

was standing near the buffet. “I met Joey Adams 55 years ago at the

Bedford Theater in Brooklyn. I was in an amateur contest and I won,”

Mr. Cooper said in his angry voice. “Joey came over to me and said to

me, ‘You will always be a great amateur.’ And me, like a schmuck,

I go, ‘Thank you, Mr. Adams, I gotta tell my mother and

father.’” Mr. Cooper said that, eventually, he began to wonder,

“What the fuck did he tell me?”

Mr. Cooper, who had been at the party since the beginning, said he was

beginning to get bored. “I’d like to commit suicide now, but I

don’t want to put blood all over the floor,” he said.

Mr. Adams, meanwhile, was just warming up. He had just greeted Mayor

Rudolph Giuliani (whom Mrs. Adams had led off by the hand, saying,

“Come here, sweetheart, what can I get you to eat?”), and now he

promised to give us one of his wife’s best punch lines if we promised

to print it. Mr. Adams even wrapped it into a topical setup.

Hillary Clinton, he explained, came to see his wife and expressed

concern about her husband’s philandering. “Forget about it, enjoy

it,” Mr. Adams said his wife told the First Lady. But then, he

continued, Mrs. Clinton asked Cindy Adams, “What if Joey fooled

around?”

Mrs. Adams’ supposed reply: “If you can find it, you can have

it.” Mr. Adams smiled and whispered, “It was the best, best

line.”

As Mr. Adams finished his joke, tough-guy actor Burt Young–Paulie

in the Rocky movies–watched, smiling. “To me, it’s

the greatest love story that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Young said,

referring to Joey and Cindy. There was unnerving steeliness in his eyes

that only people like Cindy and Joey, with their unwavering love for New

York’s breed of hard men and women, could have penetrated, understood

and even cultivated. “It truly is, two talented people,” said Mr.

Young. “One a little old, a little hurtin’, and his partner never

deserts him. It’s a pretty, pretty love story.”