MoMA Enemy No. 1: STELLA! … Joan Allen’s Midnight Rendezvous

MoMA Enemy No. 1: STELLA!

As far as gratuitous millennium museum shows go, the Museum of Modern Art’s self-involved MoMA2000 got its fair share of panning in the press when it opened in the fall of 1999. The show was a way to air out the collection for the public–and, some say, to cure curator boredom. The first segment, called Modern Starts and installed by MoMA chief-curator-at-large John Elderfield, dealt with the years 1880 to 1920 and consisted mostly of European art. It was separated into the categories “People, Places and Things.” Traditional, chronological presentation was abandoned in favor of thematic groupings, an effort that was greeted with, at best, a polite, glazed-smile kind of approval by the critics. The New York Times ‘ Roberta Smith said the show lurched “between extremes of homogeneity, monotony and discord.”

Nothing, however, could have prepared Mr. Elderfield or the museum’s director, Glenn Lowry, for the violence of the attack unleashed on Modern Starts by none other than MoMA pet artist Frank Stella. On the evening of Feb. 7, at a speaking engagement at that paragon of Old World museums, the Frick Collection, Mr. Stella gave a talk entitled “Dead Endings” that would be enough to discourage any kind of curatorial experimenting on MoMA’s part for at least the next couple of millennia.

When word of Mr. Stella’s rant spread, the artist agreed to e-mail his speech to The Transom. In a copy marked “Revision November 15, 2000,” Mr. Stella gets a lot off his chest. “The exhibition is bad, perhaps disgraceful, and disagreeable in more ways than I imagined possible,” the 64-year-old Mr. Stella starts. “A more apt subtitle than ‘People, Places and Things’ would have been ‘Pointless, Clueless and Soulless.’”

He continues, “The Museum is blowing its brains out. The show is clueless because it has a self-centered and misguided view of what the role of the Museum of Modern Art should be.” Later, he adds, “‘Modern Starts’ rivals the weekly promotions at Macy’s.”

Throughout, he uses words like “philistine,” “anti-art,” “a new low” and “downward spiral” in describing the show. One target of Mr. Stella’s attack is the daring thematic arrangement of the works, which he described as “mindless play and thoughtless speculation.” The organization, he writes, only succeeded in debasing “the world’s most beautiful and most important collection of 20th century art.” So random, so thoughtless were the placements, he charged, that he could hardly recognize the works he had fallen in love with during his first visit to MoMA in 1953. “Trapped in a wall-mounted plexiglass cover, [Picasso's Guitar of 1912-13] can’t escape being the ugliest display of a masterpiece in the 20th century museum history.” According to Mr. Stella, the reason for this unhappy arrangement is that MoMA, in its “frantic pursuit of a broader, larger audience,” has adopted a misguided view of its role.

Mr. Stella’s primary target is Glenn Lowry. “Since [Lowry] fears that masterpieces of 20th century painting and sculpture won’t be popular enough with a gimmick-oriented public, he sees no value in displaying the collection as it should be shown: simply and with loving care,” he writes.

In another passage, he continues: “In Lowry’s own words ‘art is entertainment.’ If art is entertainment the trustees should replace Mr. Lowry with Michael Eisner. He likes art and knows how to make entertainment pay …. The Museum would simply become know as The Museum of Mickey’s Art.”

Mr. Stella’s basic fear is that MoMA2000 would reflect badly on modernism. “All the great art of the past looms over us,” he writes. “But we don’t solve that problem by diminishing the great art of the past. If the art of our time misses its target, tough shit.”

Mr. Stella, the father of minimalism, whose revolutionary Black Paintings were first exhibited at MoMA when he was 23, said the speech “spoke for itself” and would not comment further.

Bitterness or resentment would not seem to explain Mr. Stella’s attitude, since he has always been treated as one of the museum’s favorite sons. He had his first of two retrospectives there in 1970, at age 34, and is well represented in the permanent collection. Mr. Elderfield–whom Mr. Stella dismisses with a disdainful “this boy is underage”–once compared Mr. Stella to Henri Matisse.

The Transom faxed a copy of Mr. Stella’s diatribe to Mr. Lowry and Mr. Elderfield via the MoMA press office, but neither would comment. However, Mr. Stella’s charges should not have surprised Mr. Lowry too much. In the speech, Mr. Stella refers to a tour of the Modern Starts show that he took with Mr. Lowry, where he pretty much gave it to the MoMA director in person. Mr. Stella said he could not help blurting out to Mr. Lowry, as they both stood in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon , that a more apt title for the show would have been “Masturbatory Insights.”

According to Mr. Stella, Mr. Lowry’s response was mild: “Oh, come on,” the director said.

Another explanation for MoMA’s silence comes from Mr. Stella’s own text: “As long as the attendance figures are good what does it matter that an old abstract artist is so upset? Besides, if he’s unhappy let him speak up.”

–Elisabeth Franck

Joan Allen’s Midnight Rendezvous

When The New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran their perennial where-were-they-when-they-got-the-news Oscar nomination stories on Feb. 14, Best Actress nominee Joan Allen’s tale was deserving of its own award: Best Straight-Faced Explanation for a Situation Involving Nudity and a Tropical Bird.

While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee told the press he was checking into a hotel, and Before Night Falls star Javier Bardem said he was drinking a beer at home in Madrid, Ms. Allen’s scenario was decidedly less mundane. “My daughter gets on the bus at 8 o’clock to go to school,” Ms. Allen, who was nominated for her role as a scandal-tainted Vice Presidential nominee in The Contender , confided to the Los Angeles Times . “This morning, my husband took her to the bus while I showered with our pet parrot Midnight.” Then the actress told The New York Times that when the broadcast of the nominations began, she was blow-drying the bird. “You’re not supposed to let them get a chill,” she informed the paper.

The explanation seemed perfectly ordinary–except, of course, for the portion of the story that involved parrots, showering and blow-drying.

Contacted by The Transom, Ms. Allen agreed that showering with a parrot–which involves allowing the bird to perch on a finger, keeping it from being blasted by the shower spray and avoiding excessively hot water–was indeed out of the ordinary. Usually her husband does the honors.

In fact, Ms. Allen’s actor husband, Peter Friedman–who showers with the bird about once a week–was the reason that the couple decided last August to buy their 7-year-old daughter Sadie a green Jardin parrot instead of, say, a nice furry kitty cat. “My husband is very allergic to animals, so the concept of a cat or a dog is just never going to happen because it really makes him ill,” Ms. Allen explained from her Upper West Side apartment. “And so this was our compromise pet.”

The couple found the animal at the Bird House, a pet store on 122nd Street and Amsterdam. Although Ms. Allen refers to Midnight as “she,” the couple has yet to take the required steps to determine the animal’s sex. Despite some initial misgivings, they did have the bird’s wings clipped so that it couldn’t fly around the apartment. “Say you’re cooking pasta or something like that, and you have boiling water on the stove and the bird flies over and misses,” Ms. Allen explained.

Were such a mishap to occur, Mr. Friedman would probably take the loss harder than his wife. “She’s amazing with my husband,” Ms. Allen said. “She literally nuzzles with him. She lays down on his neck and falls asleep. She’ll nibble his ear and … at his neck.”

Neither Ms. Allen nor Sadie have developed a relationship of quite the same intensity with Midnight. Ms. Allen said she thought this had something to do with a month during the bird’s infancy when she and her daughter were out of town visiting relatives. Mr. Friedman, meanwhile, stayed home and fed the bird by hand with a water dropper. “When she sits on my shoulder, she’ll tend to face backwards,” Ms. Allen said. “She won’t face me.”

Meanwhile, Sadie, who was supposed to be the beneficiary of Midnight’s boundless love, has been on the receiving end of some big-time bird wrath. In fact, about two months after Midnight’s arrival, the family had to call in a professional. “There was someone who came over to talk to us about the bird, because we were trying to get [Midnight] to behave a little better toward our daughter,” Ms. Allen said.

Apparently, it wasn’t pretty. “She was pecking and biting at Sadie because she’s jealous, and Sadie’s hesitation with the bird makes [Midnight] feel insecure.” And, Ms. Allen added: “Sadie’s feelings were getting hurt. A few times she was saying, ‘The bird doesn’t love me as much as I love it,’ which was really sad.” So Ms. Allen and her husband called in a bird behaviorist, who came over to the apartment and did therapeutic bird-passing exercises with the family.

Things are better these days, as Ms. Allen’s nomination-day shower with Midnight seems to attest. “I have to say, Sadie’s done amazing with this bird,” Ms. Allen said. “And the bird is getting more and more used to her.” But, she added: “You can never trust the bird completely around her.”

–Andrew Goldman

Cooking for Models

It was lunch time on Valentine’s Day, and the backstage at the Studio at Bryant Park was humming with activity in the final moments before Cynthia Steffe presented her fall luxury line. Behind the black-curtain walls, the models, dressed in jeans and sweaters, were being prepared for takeoff. A pink-haired stylist frantically teased the locks of one mannequin; powder brushes flew like feather dusters; cell phones chimed and photographers snapped a few pre-game shots.

A pillar of calm in the frenzy, Rocco DiSpirito, the 34-year-old boy-wonder chef-proprietor of the Gramercy Park restaurant Union Pacific, weaved in and out of the crowd.

“We have Rocco actually feeding the girls,” a jovial Ms. Steffe told The Transom. “He’s actually holding the tray and passing the hors d’oeuvres around himself. And yes, I have seen some of them take a few bites,” Ms. Steffe laughed, sounding a little incredulous.

“I’m catering,” Mr. DiSpirito, tray in hand, confirmed perkily for The Transom. “I’m back here to feed the models and keep them happy.” Dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a long-sleeve orange T-shirt, the man who somewhere along the way acquired the handle “Sexiest Chef Alive” was offering scooped-out cherry tomatoes filled with his signature dish, Taylor Bay scallops with sea urchin and mustard oil, and inviting morsels of salmon topped with pineapple gelée, daikon, celery sprouts and osetra caviar. “[They're] two fun hors d’oeuvres, very frivolous,” Mr. DiSpirito noted. “The models like the caviar,” he observed. “I’m not sure why … it’s pretty, I guess–it looks good,” he concluded.

In any other setting, Mr. DiSpirito’s tray–which, when The Transom saw it, contained three carefully arranged hors d’oeuvres–would have been emptied in a matter of seconds. But there would be no feeding frenzy backstage at Ms. Steffe’s show.

Still, Mr. DiSpirito remained optimistic. “So far, they’re just getting over breakfast. I imagine it’ll heat up in a few minutes when they come off the runway,” he said, gesturing over to where a number of the models seemed to be participating in a dry run of the show.

“We figure people would think Union Pacific’s a good restaurant if we could get the models to eat something,” Mr. DiSpirito said. “That’s going to be the benchmark for us today: One hors d’oeuvre is a hit, two hors d’oeuvres is a home run.”

At the coaxing of a publicist, a dark-haired model meandered over. “These are our signature Taylor Bay scallops,” Mr. DiSpirito explained helpfully. “Would you like to try one?” She hesitated. “It’s very good, very light,” he coaxed. “Try one. It’s a bay scallop with oeursins, et des tomates. Oui ?” he continued, realizing that the young woman had limited English abilities. “I guess French helps backstage here,” Mr. DiSpirito muttered, as the waif grabbed a morsel.

Had Mr. DiSpirito used any special ingredients in observance of Valentine’s Day? The Transom asked.

“No, nothing like that,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You know, just the normal passion that I put into my cooking, nothing more than that.” He went on: “You know, it doesn’t matter what the ingredients are, it doesn’t matter how expensive they are or how rare they are–if you’re putting a little bit of love into it, the food will come out better than average. People will feel it. It comes through.”

But Mr. DiSpirito’s bundles of love weren’t seducing this bag-of-bones crowd.

Raica and Danushka, two of the models, were standing by a rack of clothes looking bored. Mr. DiSpirito approached with a tray holding three of the salmon hors d’oeuvres, each one jabbed onto its own little silver fork. “Do you want to try one?” he asked the girls, smiling warmly. “A little salmon for the Canadian?” he goaded Danushka, the Canuck.

Then Mr. DiSpirito pointed at Raica. “She ate an hors d’oeuvre!” he said triumphantly. This momentous act apparently had occurred earlier, when The Transom wasn’t watching. “We spent a lot of time creating tiny little tastes so that it’s really convenient to eat in one shot. She took my hors d’oeuvre and ate it in six bites … six bites!” the chef exclaimed, laughing. “Did you even finish it?” he asked her, and then, without waiting for the answer, exclaimed: “I don’t think you did!” He sounded only mildly wounded.

“Middle,” the Brazilian model attested, enigmatically.

“Middle. Yeah. She ate half of it in six bites,” Mr. DiSpirito translated, sounding unimpressed. “I’ve never seen that before.”

And then he extended his tray to Danushka, who shook her head sullenly.

“No? None for you, huh? You’re not going to ….” Mr. DiSpirito attempted.

“I don’t eat fish,” the blonde said unapologetically, arms crossed.

“You sure?” Mr. DiSpirito asked once more, before being defeated by Danushka’s gloomy ennui.

“Okay. Alright. Gotcha,” Mr. DiSpirito said good-naturedly and, tray in hand, wandered off, still hoping to hit that elusive home run.

–Beth Broome

Q-Tip’s Classified Act

Bands with names like Assjack and Lordz of Confusion pretty much have the franchise on the Village Voice music classifieds these days. So some eagle-eyed readers of the section were surprised to find the following ad, nestled between notices for a “Power pop, rock drummer” and “Singing Chicks” in the Feb. 13 issue of the free weekly:

“Q-Tip formerly of A Tribe Called Quest is forming a new band & needs a female with a lot of soul. Seeking an amazing singer/guitar player betw the ages of 17-29.”

A phone number and e-mail address in the ad put readers in touch with Qiana Wallace, who said she was running Q-Tip’s talent search. “We actually have two ads in the Voice ,” she told The Transom. “We’re looking for male singers and piano players and female singers and guitarists,” Ms. Wallace explained. “We’re looking for raw talent.”

Certainly, the raw talent will be interested in working with Q-Tip, whose work with A Tribe Called Quest produced two platinum albums. But the rapper’s publicist, Liz Morentin, would not confirm that the rapper was actually involved in the Voice search. She did say it was “plausible,” however. (Requests to interview Q-Tip, sent through Ms. Morentin, went unanswered.)

Ms. Wallace also wasn’t exactly a fount of information, either. She said that Q-Tip wasn’t holding auditions, but “we are accepting demo tapes. You can send a demo tape and a picture, and if he likes it, we’ll hold a conference call.”

Then Ms. Wallace decided that she’d given us enough information. “We don’t want everybody in the industry to know what’s going on,” she said curtly. “And I don’t want this in the paper. I’m not supposed to be talking to you. I have to hang up now.”

–Ian Blecher

The Transom Also Hears…

In the wake of Survivor , Dr. Sean Kenniff seems to have been welcomed by another tribe: the one to which all marginal and dissipated celebrities belong. At the Feb. 13 partay at Studio 54 for Prince’s New Power Generation Music Club (a Web site charging members $100 a year for access to his latest releases), Mr. Kenniff was hanging with actor Stephen ( The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas ) Baldwin, in a crowd that included The View ‘s Star Jones and Moby. Mr. Kenniff could even point to a connection with Prince, who used to be a real celebrity until he changed his name to a symbol. (He has since changed it back, but it was too late.) “I’m actually one degree of separation from Prince, because my ex-girlfriend says she slept with him when she was 18,” Mr. Kenniff told The Transom.

–Petra Bartosiewicz