There shouldn’t have been anyone around when I arrived at Alone Gallery, surfer-dealer Tripoli Patterson’s summerlong experiment with private viewing. The space had just opened in an unmarked warehouse on Ardsley Road in Wainscott, East Hampton, across the street from Patterson’s home. As I arrived, a security services van had just pulled out of the driveway, having put the finishing touches on a camera system that would allow Patterson to remotely observe–but not overhear–visitors from his iPhone.
The inaugural exhibition, “Alex Katz: Three Portraits” was conceived as a solo show for both the artist and the viewer with no staff present. And after spending the weekend visiting empty galleries in East Hampton, having masked, socially-distanced conversations about a Chloe Wise portrait on hold at Harper’s Books, and the glut of musty tabletop Calders on display at Van De Weghe, I thought no gallerist on site might be an improvement. So did Patterson.
“I had a storefront on Jobs Lane for years, and there were mannequins on both sides. I don’t want this to feel like a store,” he told Observer, discussing his new venture before my visit to the space. It’s a wise move. On purpose, a private shopping experience can make everything look desirable, but when you’re unintentionally the only customer on the sales floor while associates lurk, all you notice is how no one’s buying.
However, Patterson’s presence in the parking lot when I arrived at Alone Gallery brought a chaotic energy that’s been missing from the gallery space these past few months. He nearly shook my hand as he leaned in close and uncovered to welcome me as the show’s first official viewer, reassuring me he’s remained these past few months in a bubble of home, work, and surf. He walked me through the process, as I disinfected my hands then put on a mask and gloves set atop a row of powder-coated school desks by the artist Yung Jake. He screamed, “Fuck!” as we watched his assistant back her BMW into Stray Dog, a 100-pound bronze sculpture by the artist Tony Matelli that suffered a scuffed ear as it took out her left tail light. It felt good to have a shared experience again. (And besides, those dogs have been through worse.)
“She must be so freaked out, she just started working for me,” Patterson said as she pulled away. The moment was a reminder of the anxiety people continue to feel as they return to non-essential jobs—like catering to East End art collectors—and that being distracted during a pandemic should be expected and tolerated. It also gave the slender shoulders of the Katz portraits more weight than they could be expected to bear: Are any paintings really worth this much trouble?
Stepping inside, I was immediately reminded of an experience at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, in 2015, when I stripped naked to experience Jennifer Rubell’s “Not Alone.” Viewers were encouraged to enter that exhibition one at a time, undress, and watch Posing, a film of Rubell sat naked atop a horse and staring back at them. Even if Rubell wasn’t present, her avatar gave the viewer permission to feel seen.
The Katzes aren’t so welcoming. These breezy, 90-inch high canvases, with their sun-kissed skin and their haircuts, ostracize the consciously covered viewer. The subjects aren’t socially distant—you can step in close—they’re socially removed from your gaze. A plywood corridor leading into the main exhibition space leads you into a private party. In every direction there’s another relaxed body and unshielded face. Vincent and Vivien, 1993, a double portrait of Katz’s son and his wife, stand close and turned toward one another, engrossed in conversation. Pink Kimono, Isaac Mizrahi Series, 1994, features Katz’s wife Ada casting a side-eye over the viewer’s shoulder toward her kin. Ada is coiffed, kempt, and curious while keeping a healthy distance. The juxtaposition reinforces that yearning for shared experience and reminds that generations of families remain distant for their own health right now, perhaps making you question what you are doing risking your life to see a painting that will never return your gaze.
At the far end of the gallery, Margit, 1993, turns her back on the viewer as she gazes downbeach behind sunglasses and a bucket hat, embracing a fit of old school, pre-pandemic anonymity, when we could still voluntarily hide in plain sight.
Of course an experiment is nothing without observation. There are QR codes on the gallery walls for those who want to learn more about specific works. If you don’t spot them, don’t worry. When Patterson catches you on camera hovering over a work long enough, he’ll text you the notes himself. You’ll never feel so seen.