“Being old-fashioned, I remember when a museum cost nothing,” the artist Will Bennet said as guests filled the Museum of Modern Art’s cavernous new second-floor atrium on the evening of Nov. 16, early in the night of the opening preview party. Invited guests included Spike Lee, Jasper Johns, John Waters, Isabella Rosellini, Larry Gagosian and Richard Meyer. Black-suit-clad waiters circled the room, dominated by Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sculpture, carrying trays of half-dollar-sized salmon cakes with remoullade, spinach pie with yogurt sauce, and curried shrimp with Bibb lettuce.
Indeed, MoMA’s preview party and new $20 ticket fee would be foreign to Mr. Bennet, a painter whose works are in the museum’s collection and who remembered first seeing the great masterworks at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in the 1920’s. “When I was in Boston, I could see all the great works of art for free. It’s such an overwhelming change,” Mr. Bennet said as he sipped a ginger ale.
Mr. Bennet’s populist sentiments are being taken up by a new crop of disgruntled artists. Out on 53rd Street, two young men and a woman wore body-sized $20 bills taped to their backs and chests, walking in front of the museum to protest the new fee. Standing nearby was Dan Levenson, a 32-year-old painter from Park Slope, who launched the Web site FreeMoMA.org to publicize his anger at MoMA’s pending 67 percent price hike. His site immediately circulated among other arts blogs and spawned a vicious back-and-forth between supporters of the museum and artists protesting the institution’s upscaling. Filmmaker Greg Allen described Mr. Levenson’s laments as “smug upper-middlebrow snobbery and faux populism that fuel complaints about the new $20 admission price,” on the blog Greg.org.
Mr. Levenson responded to The Transom: “Raising your prices to $20 is fine if you’re marketing a big business as an upscale brand. But museums have a deep responsibility to the culture. The things that they own, like van Gogh’s Starry Night or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, belong to the world. They don’t belong to a private museum,” Mr. Levenson said. “Furthermore, MoMA is a nonprofit. Part of their mission is that they need to provide outreach to the public, not just wealthy New Yorkers.”
On Nov. 15, during the closed press previews, the machinations between MoMA and New York’s art-world pranksters spilled off the Internet and onto the street when Mr. Levenson arrived at the museum at 11 a.m. in the $20 bill costume. As journalists streamed into the building, Mr. Levenson handed out flyers. Soon, Mr. Levenson told The Transom, MoMA staffers appeared and verbally accosted him for his public stance against the museum. Around 2 p.m., three NYPD officers appeared and told Mr. Levenson he would have to disperse and that the museum was seeking a special-events permit to muzzle him during the high-visibility events planned for opening week. He immediately placed calls to Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s office, the New York ACLU and the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.
“MoMA tried to intimidate me. They hoped I would spend more time making phone calls than handing out flyers. They must have been bluffing, because I was never forced to leave.”
According to Mr. Levenson, MoMA director Glenn Lowry had to field questions from reporters attending the preview about his protest and the new $20 ticket price.
“It felt good to set the agenda for the day,” Mr. Levenson said.
With four days to go until MoMA’s public opening, the museum remains in the crosshairs of the city’s disgruntled artists. On Nov. 21, Filip Noterdaeme, the creative impresario behind the conceptual art project The Homeless Museum, is advising MoMA visitors to pay the entire $20 entry fee in pennies.
“We intend to remind the Modern that its $20.00 ticket price weighs heavily on the audience the museum promises to serve,” Mr.Noterdaeme said on the Web site Artsjournal.com.
MoMA will have their hands full: $20 of rolled pennies weighs 12.5 pounds.
Friends of The Paris Review gathered at Downtown Cipriani on Nov. 10 for the literary magazine’s “Fall Revel” honoring writer William Stryon. By most accounts the entertainment provided was riveting. There were remarks by John Guare, Thomas Guinzberg and Peter Matthiessen about the good old days and the late George Plimpton; there were readings of Styron by actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ed Harris and “Remarks on William Styron” by George Plimpton read by Mike Wallace; other subjects included “Sedentary Sea Organisms, Mostly Algae.”
And to perk everyone up even more, cancan dancers appeared on stage periodically.
But gradually, throughout the evening, a new scene developed, a party within the party next-door to the dining area. This was the bar and smoking area which had been tranformed into Paris in the 1950’s: A French-style newsstand. Old movies (An American in Paris, West Side Story) played on video screens. Quotes from Simenon and Hemingway on chalkboards here and there.
Whooping it up nearby were Born Rich director Jaime Johnson, 24-year-old playboy Bingo Gubelman, his girlfriend Ivanka Trump, The New York Times’ Alex Kuczynski, Lewis Lapham and Giulia Melucci of Harper’s magazine, writer Harry Hurt, and others.
A young literary lady appeared and reported that the proceedings inside were “very boring. It’s painful,” she said. “Our table is lackluster, there’s rich people who are really boring. It’s a death sentence.”
New York Post gossipeuse Paula Froelich, wearing a striped print Missoni dress and a feathery boa around her neck, swanned in. “The most pretentious thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” she said. “I would say not boring because I actually had a great time, especially when John Guare was ripped off the stage by cancan dancers after describing the habitat of the Hadada living on a telephone in Ghana, after having been extinct but it’s not his favorite bird. His favorite bird is the egret. After that I just dived into my drink.”
Ms. Froelich cackled.
“John Guare has obviously been on NPR about 5,000 times,” she said. “Because he’s got the NPR storytelling voice and he sounds as if he’s reading someone else’s excerpt but he’s not. I was there for Peter Matthiessen but the best thing about his speech was looking around at all the Carole King lookalikes who obviously had wet their pants and I expected about five of them to burst into ‘put up a parking lot!’ And their nipples, you could tell they were hard. Huge!”
“Same genre! They all had wet panties, all on their edges of their seats, all like, ‘Oh my God, Peter Matthiessen.'”
Ms. Trump said she was in the smokers room because she’d been on her way to the restroom, then saw a bunch of her friends and decided to stay for a little bit. “But I think the scene in there is a much better scene and I’ve been making my way back slowly,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed it, I mean it’s amazing. I had no idea that Matthiessen would be reading. I’m a huge Paris Review fan and I was really excited to be here tonight and the program for the evening was really, really incredible.”
Mr. Hurt (the author of The Lost Tycoon: the Rise and Demise of Donald Trump)was making some noise nearby. “I’ve been out here with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s magazine, who’s been smoking cigarettes in the one smoking area the entire time!” he roared. “And this is where the triumphant and insightful people have come! It’s the real party, and if George were still alive I think he’d be out here with us.”
“George would try to be thinking right now of a spectacular surprise,” Mr. Lapham added. “A prank, a joke, an explosion, a circus elephant, a trapeze artist, a drummer, a trumpter, a football player. If George were running it here, we could expect to see Joe Namath. And if not Joe Namath-“
“-Candy Bar!” said Mr. Hurt.
“The greatest stripper of all time!” he explained. “You didn’t know I had that arrow in my quiver did you?”
“No, I didn’t,” Mr. Lapham said.
“The greatest stripper of all time! Huh, Bingo? He’s 23, he’s ready to meet Candy Bar! That’s a contradistinction to Candy Bush, also known as Candace Bushnell-that’s different, they’re two different people. Candace Bushnell is not a stripper. Candy Bar was the greatest stripper of all time!” Mr. Lapham agreed, then called Plimpton’s death a great loss.
“I mean, it was like a light went off,” he said. “It’s one of the problems of our current circumstances that there are not a lot of guys like George Plimpton around. No matter what the subject, George always saw it on the brighter side. George was a guy who never chose to look at the downside. I’d call him up and say, ‘George, tell me where the good is coming from in this one?’ It depended on what it was. It could be political, aesthetic, it could be ‘Why did the Yankees lose?’, ‘Why did the Democrats blow themselves into the wall?’ And George would say ‘Give them time.'”
Tama Janowitz seemed slightly uneasy. The Peyton Amberg author, in bright stylish vintage rags, was sitting in a corner of the third floor of NYU’s Bobst Library on the night of Nov. 15 preparing herself for a spelling bee benefitting the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.
“It’s less about the spelling,” Ms. Janowitz said. “What are they going to hurt me if I get one wrong? I’m already humiliated by just existing. It’s all about speaking in public. Well, it’s not my biggest fear. That would be working as a waitress.”
Ms. Janowitz looked over at a clock by some first editions.
“This has got to be over soon,” she said. “I have to meet my husband for dinner. And there’s no prize! Otherwise I’d be more interested.”
Among the spellers taking part were writers Thomas Beller (The Sleep-Over Artist), Francine Prose (Blue Angel), James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), Patrick McGrath (Asylum), Heidi Julavits (The Effect of Living Backwards), Lucinda Rosenfeld (What She Saw … ), Kate Christensen (The Epicure’s Lament), Adam Haslett (You Are Not a Stranger Here), Lev Grossman (book critic, Time magazine), David Schickler (Kissing in Manhattan) and Alex Kuczynski (Sunday Styles writer, The New York Times).
The master of ceremonies was Bob Morris of The New York Times, the judge was Jesse Sheidlower, the editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, and there to hand out concession prizes was a man in a bee costume.
At 8 p.m. the spelling bee began. A crowd of about 75 applauded as Mr. Beller correctly spelled “commitment” and used it in a sentence. He also got “bloviate” right but missed “precedence.” Mr. Grossman spelled “palimpsest,” “unnecessary,” “immolate,” “mozzarella” and “chihuahua” all correctly. Mr. Frey misspelled “cowabungha.” Mr. Haslett got “sanguine” and “poppycock” but couldn’t handle “guillotine.” Ms. Kuczynski had no problem with “pantywaist,” “connoisseur,” “personnel,” “criticize” and guillotine. Ms. Janowitz got “guttersnipe” but blew “crepuscular.” Ms. Julavits spelled “gerrymander” right, but missed “sinecure.” Mr. McGrath missed “hasenfeffer,” as did four others until David Schickler got it right along with “counselor,” “carburetor” and “exagerrate”-but he couldn’t handle “poinsettia.” Ms. Kuczynski could. Vijay Seshadri (The Long Meadow) got “kahuna,” along with “potato,” “nauseous” and “demurred” but missed “hemorrhage.”
Ms. Kuczynski scored again. Soon it was down to her and Mr. Grossman.
“F-u-c-k,” he said, after being asked to spell autochthonous-but he nailed it! Ms. Kuczynski got “patronymics”-wrong! Mr. Grossman swiftly took care of it and went on to win decicively with “callipygian.” The two finalists shook hands and Ms. Kuzcynski beat a hasty exit.
“I’m really upset,” she said. “Because I know how to spell patronymics and some fuckhead in the last row said ‘I’. F-u-c-k-h-e-a-d. I was surprised he got autochthonous. I’m depressed.”
Mr. Grossman on the other hand was feeling “elation” and “pathological narcissism.”
“I’m a very, very bad loser and a very bad winner-I gloat,” he said. He seemed to be playing it cool. How about when he got home?
“Then you’re going to see the Snoopy dance of victory,” he said. “But no one’s gonna see that. That’s private.”
The Transom Also Hears ….
All is not lost for New York’s pizza lovers. Sure, there was plenty of hand-wringing in recent weeks when Joe’s Pizza and its overrated pies lost the lease on their fabled location at the corner of Bleecker and Carmine streets. But now, it looks like the best-rated pizza in the city is coming to Manhattan. The family behind DiFara’s legendary pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn, has partnered with Jeff Schwartz, a retired schoolteacher, to open a restaurant/bar at the corner of Houston and Macdougal in the Village. The deal was not without its drama. When Mr. Schwartz, a longtime fan of DiFara’s extra-thin crispy crust and hand-grated cheese, put up DiFara’s signs at the new location, the pizzeria’s founder, Domenico Demarco, was outraged, vowing that the name could only be used for his original spot. “I may have pulled the trigger a little early,” admits Mr. Schwartz, “After all, the name means a lot to Domenico.” After a few days of negotiation, Mr. Schwartz came to an agreement with the family on Nov. 16 to name the restaurant DeMarco’s Pizzeria, with the family running the restaurant (DiFara’s is a combination of the names DeMarco and that of his original co-founder) and looking to open in early December.
-Josh Lichtman and Marcus Baram