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
“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
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
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.
“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
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
“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
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
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
The Transom asked Mrs. Adams how many front pages were up there.
“Several hundred,” she said. “I mean, it should be in the
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
Mrs. Adams’ supposed reply: “If you can find it, you can have
it.” Mr. Adams smiled and whispered, “It was the best, best
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.”
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