Sixteen Members of The Art Community Share Their Most Shocking Memories

Published January 8, 2020

Legend has it that this Polaroid of Teddy was taken by Ryan McGinley on the night of Dan Colen’s Rolling Stones encounter.

Sixteen members of the art community from writer Gary Indiana to art critic Jerry Saltz and artist Anicka Yi tell us about a time they were left truly speechless.

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BARBARA ROSE

Art Critic

“I was in a small prop plane in France alone with [the American-French architect] François de Menil, who was flying us from Paris to Chalon-sur-Saône to meet [the artist] Mark di Suvero. Suddenly it began to snow heavily. We had no radar. I was sure we were going down and that François’s name would be first in the obit.”

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FRANCESCO VEZZOLI

Artist

“I remember being a spectator at one of Leigh Bowery’s last performances. He sang an entire song dressed like an overweight housewife and, toward the end, he literally started giving birth to his own wife, Nicola. She had been hiding under his dress. For me, though, that was so much more than shock. I was speechless. All I could say to Leigh when I went backstage was, ‘You look amazing! And your necklace reminds me of Silvana Mangano!’”

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ANICKA YI

Artist

“I was lured to a foreign country under the pretense of winning a $150,000 art prize. It was a busy time for me, but I jumped on a plane and spent 36 hours presenting my work and meeting with the hosts and the press to receive the award. A month later, I was told that the prize was actually only $15,000—there had been a typo error in the 50-plus e-mails—and that I had to use the $15,000 to put on an exhibition. I contested the false claim of an e-mail-typo error, which they denied, and in the end, I never saw a dime of that prize money. I have never felt so grifted in my life.”

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SAM MCKINNISS

Artist

“Gallery dinners never cease to amaze me. You give a prominent curator or gallerist a few glasses of white wine and suddenly they feel compelled to say the filthiest, most lecherous things about me, or my plus-one, or perhaps another young artist in the room about whom they have intimate knowledge or would like to know better. I shouldn’t be shocked by this kind of thing anymore, but I’m a nice person.”

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MATT KEEGAN

Artist

“Seeing Sylvester Stallone in a booth with his own paintings at Art Basel in Miami.”

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PETER MCGOUGH

Artist

“When we were showing in the ‘80s, our gallerist said to [David] McDermott about one of our paintings, ‘This looks like shit!’ McD kicked a hole in the canvas and said, ‘No, now it looks like shit!’”

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AGATHE SNOW

Artist

“Michael Portnoy’s impromptu backup dancing for Bob Dylan at the Grammy Awards in 1998.”

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GARY INDIANA

Writer

“I don’t shock, frankly, but one of the most surpassingly ugly things that ever happened in the art world was that [the dealer] Andrew Crispo got off with no charges for the murder of Eigel Dag Vesti. Like Al Capone, this creep was charged with tax evasion instead, and served only three years in prison. When his house in the Hamptons blew up, which many saw as a puny sort of retribution, he collected over $8 million from Long Island Lighting. As far as I’m concerned, most of the art world should be in jail for money laundering, but that’s a quotidian sort of art crime. Crispo’s thing was actual murder.”

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LIZZIE BOUGATSOS

Artist

“I never witnessed it in the flesh, but there was a tale of the late [gallerist] Pat Hearn’s exhibitionism. Apparently, she liked flashing her breasts at the Armory Art Fairs’ trustee dinners. It’s hard to reconcile with her poised, glamorous art-dealer image. She did have a free-jazz band with John Lurie’s brother, though.”

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MARILYN MINTER

Artist

“I once saw Phoebe Legere urinate on a heckler while playing the accordion. And then there’s Andrew Masullo, who made earrings out of coke vials filled with sperm, and Christmas ornaments that were also filled with sperm. He’s a wonderful painter, and it was so shocking and disgusting that I thought, ‘I’m going to pay attention to this guy.’”

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DAN COLEN

Artist

“One night when The Rolling Stones were in New York for the Forty Licks tour, we were invited up by a friend to the Palace Hotel, where the band was staying. I went with a friend of mine, Teddy, who had just been to Plaid [nightclub] to scoop up four eight balls. I picked him up on the corner of 14th and 3rd Ave. He was already totally unintelligible, having also taken a couple Xanny bars. Upon arrival at the hotel, we went to the front desk and were pointed to a special bank of elevators. We went up to a room unlike any we had ever seen. It looked like one giant living room that did not end. As we wandered from room to room, we crossed paths with an aging rocker dude who asked who we were. Due to Teddy’s inability to comprehend life at that point, he shot back, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ and the gentleman replied, ‘Ronnie Wood, nice to meet you.’ We shook hands and he proceeded to call Teddy ‘Teddy Bear.’ I guess they hit it off.  Still with no hosts in sight, we kept wandering around this crazy hotel room when we encountered a second geriatric rocker. His shirt was undone and his jaw was over in Hoboken. It was Keith Richards. He said, ‘Who don’t I know here?’ I had some fantasy of sitting down with him, doing some lines, cutting our palms and swearing to be blood brothers for life, so I kind of raised my hand and told him we’d never met. He immediately pulled a knife out of his boot—out of his boot!—and said, ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ I was stunned. He got so worked up, from zero to enraged in two seconds. With crazy eyes, he proceeded to ask us if he ‘Fucking bloody knows us.’ I started to stammer that we were there for such and such and the geriatric rocker, Keith Richards, started yelling at us to ‘Get the fuck out of the room before he cuts our bloody throats.’ He kept yelling that, over and over again, and that was when I saw Teddy starting to clench his fist and get in this guy’s face, not comprehending who he was. As I was stammering, trying to let this guy know we were just looking for our hosts, I saw incoherent Teddy balling his fist, getting ready to punch this ageless wonder. I grabbed Teddy by the neck and threw him off to the side while I diffused the situation, and then this staircase magically appeared so we descended down these steps only to be relieved to find the people we were looking for. We wound up partying all night into the next day with the gang.”

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DARREN BADER

Artist

“I partially abhor Alex Israel’s recent work, much as I can dislike work by artists such as Emily Sundblad, Puppies Puppies (Jade Kuriki Olivo), and Karl Holmqvist [no this is not meant to be a Reena Spaulings takedown, though the ‘Cologne(/Städel) school’ that lends heavily to the Reena ethos is one I often find callow in its (factitious?) facture of art [thought]]. What happens when the personal becomes the formal? What happens when formalism (something that AI and PP (JKO) are apparent naturals at) is (unabashedly/unwittingly) conflated with a person’s identity—(tenuously?) distinct from the canonical ego? What do I mean? I’m not sure, since I’m a contemporary ego-cum-identity, one that hasn’t wholly foresworn the autobiographical in their work. And I’m part of this insular social sphere that is the artworld (in which the above-mentioned artists are very comfortably ensconced). Let’s just say the rise of Instagram and Twitter fame are part and parcel with my apprehensions here. Alongside—and largely unrelated to—climate change, it’s the epochal question/conundrum: who can we be once/when we value the ‘me’ ‘too much’? Are we socially(/biologically(?)) equipped for the endless bounty/independence the humanistic-democratic-capitalismic world we embody/subscribe-to provides? I.e., what are the (natural(?)) limits of freedom/autonomy? What would Duchamp think of Alex Israel’s INFRATHIN? What might Jasper Johns (or Frank O’Hara) think of Holmqvist’s work? Has Warhol triumphed (against his will?)? Does a gadfly à la Sturtevant matter at all? Are Keff Joons’s horrendous ‘Gazing Ball’ works the ne plus ultra of ne plus ultra (i.e. reductio ad absurdum?)? Should I just buy a work by Eliza ‘JOSH SMITH’ Douglas, stick a reflective orb on it, and sell it as a Sherrie Levine via David Zwirner? That could be the acme of occult merchandising. Or does Alex Israel actually have me beat?”

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JERRY SALTZ

Art Critic

“Two endings that are also beginnings; both shocked me, freaked me out, woke me up, and turned me off. On May 1, 1993, I saw the art world collapse into hubris at a dinner given by Marian Goodman Gallery for the world-striding German mega-art star Anselm Kiefer. It was at Industria, the West Village supermodel-shooting studio and hangout. That night, after showing a The Raft of the Medusa–like funeral-pyre where 300 of Kiefer’s own works were set up as if to be burned and—in the south gallery—a series of giant artist-books covered in ‘artist semen,’ I walked into a huge, open room. The floor was completely covered in three inches of white sand (shipped in at god knows what expense). Two 100-foot-long tables, all covered in white, held the center of the space. The crème de la crème of the art world was there. The smell of power and money was in the air; you could almost hear the sound of Learjets warming up at the airport, ready to fly collectors home afterward. Around the edges, actors mimed Kabuki. Some were naked. The crowd feasted on thymus glands, blood soup, the testicles of what animal I do not know, and finally raw pig. I knew that one art world was collapsing and a new one was about to be born. I remember the artist David Salle looking at me and saying, ‘They’re going to kill us all.’ And then he left. The 1990s dawned. Some of the best work in my lifetime was soon being shown in new galleries all over the world; the 1993 Whitney Biennial ushered in a more multicultural art-world. And here’s another, from September 10, 2019. It was the opening of the new Pace Gallery on West 25th Street—the end of Chelsea and maybe galleries as we’ve known them for over 100 years. The puffy press release of the mega-gallery touted the grand opening of their ‘new global headquarters…developed by Weinberg Properties and designed…in close collaboration with Pace President and CEO Marc Glimcher.’ The space is 75,000 square feet over seven or eight or more floors, with a super-slow, frosted-glass elevator; cramped staircases; a huge film-set-ready, James Bond–like giant sky-deck for sculptural dreck. Its galleries are some of the most confusing, claustrophobic spaces ever designed for art. I got lost twice, couldn’t find my way out once, and even good work gets overshadowed. Glimcher is overseeing something called ‘Pace Live’ and says that the gallery wants ‘people to come and take their time. We want to bring them back to the earlier part of this century so they can see the future.’ I don’t know what ‘earlier part of this century’—or any century—Glimcher is thinking about in this yoga-talk, but it isn’t remotely like the personal spaces, funky, wooden-floored, and run by passionate people wanting nothing more than to show art to help change their time and maybe make some money for themselves and for artists. I left my first three visits to the new Pace death-star thinking the same two things: This will be offices and high-priced apartments someday. But more depressing: The old definition of a gallerist being someone who starts a space from nothing, takes chances, risks everything every month, identifies unknown artists, nurtures them through the early years, sticks by them, and makes their work stick in the discourse of the time—that definition may no longer exist. This gallery is a wrecking ball.”

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PUPPIES PUPPIES (JADE KURIKI OLIVO)

Artist

“David Hammons’s tent installation in Los Angeles at Hauser & Wirth last May. It was shocking because it was such a powerful and horrifyingly accurate depiction of the homeless population in Los Angeles.”

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DAVID SALLE

Artist

“By the mid ’80s, I had met Gilbert and George a number of times and was quite familiar with their work and persona. Despite, or perhaps because of this familiarity, I was unprepared for the time I saw them perform live, or, as they would put, make a living sculpture. This was at the Sonnabend Gallery, some time in the late ’80s. On this occasion, the boys had painted their hands and faces fluorescent orange. The piece consisted of them walking slowly and deliberately from opposite corners of the room, crossing each other midway, and bumping face first into the walls at the other side. This action was repeated—turning around and crossing to the opposite corner—over and over for a couple of hours. As the piece progressed, the walking started to speed up, and the velocity and the violence of the impact progressively increased. At a certain point, the boys were just crashing into the walls, breaking eyeglasses, bloodying themselves, without betraying the slightest hesitation. Throughout, a recording of a man’s voice repeated the phrase, ‘Bloody life, dusty corners.’ Gradually, the voice changed the word order until it became, ‘Dusty life, bloody corners.’ The slamming into walls continued until it stopped.”

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K8 HARDY

Artist

“I was invited to be a visiting critic to an MFA performance art class at a university upstate. The students were giving short, little performances and staying immediately after to get their critique. Now, one of my most hated things is some kind of Q&A immediately following a performance. It completely undoes anything the artist is trying to do, taking the wind out of the performance’s sails, unless it’s a didactic one. But this was school and I was fascinated because I’d never taken a class in performance art. Anyway, this young student got naked in her performance, right there in class. I was really shocked but also blown away and respected it. I expected the kids to take out their phones and take pictures—lord knows I wanted to document this crazy moment. I love how the younger generation is way more comfortable with and shameless about nudity. For some reason, that always felt out of bounds for me—but that’s another story! After her performance, she proceeded to stand there, still fully nude, and take her crit. I remember trying to catch the eye of the professor, but everyone was acting normal so I rolled with it. I wanted to interject, ‘Let’s just pause while she wraps up in a towel or something.’ But I didn’t. And because I admired her chutzpah for being so unabashed, I was a bit enraptured. But it still irked me for some reason and I was arguing with myself. The thing is, I was young and dumb* once, too. And I had the power to do shit like that in a performance, to expose myself raw, whether it was physically or mentally. And ultimately, I hurt myself when I did that. A psychic pain. And there I was, a teacher, and I never told her she’s hurting herself.”

*The student was not dumb, perhaps inexperienced—it’s just an expression. The student was bold and powerful.