Falling for Art in Venice

As soon as I got to the dock, I had a feeling I’d made the

wrong choice. All those dealers. All those curators. Some collectors, and a

stray artist or two. I see these people at parties all the time. For this I

came to Venice?

Well, yes, sort of. If you want to really look at the acres

of art at the Venice Biennale, there’s no reason to go to the opening. But if

you’re in the business, these three June days every two years are mandatory.

What with the national pavilions, theme shows with titles like Plateau of Humankind and concurrent

receptions packed with the brilliant and the beautiful, the Biennale is kind of

like the World’s Fair meets Cannes.

Don’t be mistaken: This is work. I’m the executive editor of

ARTnews , the largest monthly art

magazine, and for me the Biennale is a major schlep-and schmoozathon. You try

seeing work from 40 countries, then not only remember it but have an informed

opinion on it-while stopping constantly to kiss people on both cheeks and

maintain your summer whites (or more likely, summer blacks) in reasonably

presentable shape as you find your way to far-flung installations, dinners and

parties.

And while this city is stunning, it’s notoriously difficult

to traverse. The Vaporettos are slow and they’re mobbed (with Biennale-goers

easy to distinguish from the tourists). Even if you have a fortune to spend on

water taxis-which I didn’t-when you’re inland you just have to walk.

Party-hopping in Venice is as practical and easy as trying to hit New Jersey,

Brooklyn and Harlem on the same night.

Which is partly why I passed up promising-yet-distant

Spanish and Cuban dinners and chose instead to head to a conveniently located

meeting point near Saint Marks. There, a boat would ferry us to the shuttle bus

for the hotel on the Lido that was hosting the cocktail party for Robert Gober

(best known for his affectless sculptures of body parts). His installation in

the American pavilion was supposed to be one of the Biennale’s best, but

because of all the buzz, the Thomas Jefferson–designed building had long lines

outside, so I hadn’t seen it yet.

No matter; I had plenty of time, for I had cleverly planned

to stay a few days after the opening to view the art thoughtfully and write the

review for my magazine’s summer issue. Little did I know I would fall down on

the job.

In the pathways by the hotel’s pool, in the diminishing

daylight, the scene was kind of like Last

Year at Marienbad , but without the film’s mystery or the glamour-or the

Europeans. It felt like an opening in the garden of MoMA. There were my

journalistic counterparts, Jack Bankowsky of Artforum and Betsy Baker of Art

in America. There was the MoMA contingent-including curator Gary Garrels

and my former ARTnews boss, Steven

Henry Madoff-and the Whitney contingent, and the Guggenheim contingent, and the

Chelsea contingent, and the 57th Street folks, plus some stragglers from Soho

and Williamsburg. There were also a few people from other places like

Washington, D.C., owing to the fact that the Hirshhorn Museum and the Art

Institute of Chicago had put the thing together and the Fund for U.S. Artists

was the official sponsor.

I left with the Whitney’s Chrissie Iles, the Studio Museum’s

Thelma Golden, artist Glenn Ligon and some other assorted art-worlders and

headed to the British party, which was supposed to be the evening’s hot ticket.

Billed as an exclusive event on a secret island, the party was funded by

Michael Bloomberg and organized by New York party planner Melissa Feldman, who

was imported for this task. The coveted invitations included special bracelets

that guests had to wear to get in-pink for girls, blue for boys.

Luckily, we found a local to transport us from the mainland

to the island on his private boat. As we sped across the lagoon, I felt as

though I were in a James Bond movie.

This party was definitely more happening than the American

one. With hundreds of candles billowing in the wind, fabulous fish kebabs on

the grill and a mass of people dancing wildly on the grass, it looked like

business was finally yielding to pleasure. I had a great time-for a few hours,

anyway. Until somehow I tripped, and there I was, face-down on the gravel

floor. On which the porcelain cap on my right front tooth had shattered on

impact.

No, I don’t know how it happened. When I was laying there on

the ground, I wasn’t thinking about how I got down there. I was mostly

marveling that I was living out one of my nightmares.

I have never actually dreamt that I shattered a tooth in the

immediate vicinity of the director of the Guggenheim, a curator from the

Whitney, top Chelsea dealers, the head of the Public Art Fund, famous artists

and their international counterparts. But, having fallen and broken my teeth

twice as a child, I do have frequent dreams about it happening in public. If I

have so far never dreamt this particular art-world scenario, it is only because

my subconscious hasn’t gotten around to airing it yet.

But, having gotten rid of the nerves in that tooth during

those long-ago root canals, I was also realizing that I wasn’t seriously hurt.

I covered my mouth with my hand. The paramedics arrived. They talked in

Italian, I talked in Spanish; it wasn’t too hard to understand each other:

Hospital? they asked. Hotel, I insisted. I wasn’t in pain-physically, that

is-and there was no way I was going to start looking for a dentist in this city

of tourists on a Saturday. Besides, even if breaking an arm would have been

more serious, breaking a tooth is a lot more traumatic. I was too flustered to

stay in Venice. I was cutting my losses and getting out of there.

Melissa Feldman, the party planner, was summoned by

walkie-talkie. She gave instructions. Soon enough, a nice Bloomberg employee

was escorting me across the Canal to St. Marks, and soon I was in my room and

on the phone to my parents on Long Island, who activated networks of Cembalests

in Brooklyn Heights and Pennsylvania.

Thanks to their efforts, I was on the next plane, then

delivered to my apartment with grocery bags full of soft food and at 7:30

Monday morning, sitting in a dentist’s chair. When I walked into my office with

a temporary tooth a few hours later, no one could tell that anything had happened

to me.

I was lucky, I know. I could have broken my nose, my jaw. I

had no bumps, bruises, black-and-blue marks. It’s just that I lived out a

nightmare. And then it turned out I had to relive it ad nauseam. Because, with

everyone I run into at summertime openings asking “How was Venice?”, how else

to explain why I hadn’t seen so many of the major pieces? Why I have no opinion

on the Gober, why I never entered the prize-winning Canadian pavilion, why I

missed the German thing? Besides, the story about my bad trip was getting

around-and it was getting more macabre as time went on.

It became increasingly clear that there’s no way to suppress

this thing. I have no choice but to dine out on it for months.

So ask me: How was the Biennale? I can’t tell you what I

think of the art. But let me tell you how I got out of writing the review.