Rocky Mountain High Art

As the afternoon rains soaked Aspen, no blowouts were destroyed. It seems people here don’t have hairdressers — they have plastic surgeons. I was sitting at Peaches, the town’s best corner to see and be seen, ogling eye-tucks and Maybachs and bodies that routinely best the surrounding mountains. And I was thinking that this town, framed by some of the world’s greatest natural beauty, is place that really understands artifice. Now what we need are some art folks to fly in from the coasts to electrify this hamlet, cattle-prod style. And in a sense it came to pass. Except it was the town that electrified us.

A three-day series of events, Aspen ArtCrush benefits the forward-thinking, frequently inspiring Aspen Art Museum. The charity generates some 35 percent of the museum’s annual budget — which explains the considerable energy put into it — and this year, as we were soon to learn, the money raised was all the more important because the museum is poised to move locations.

Things kicked off Wednesday with WineCrush, a wine-tasting dinner and dance party at the capacious home of collectors John and Amy Phelan. Guests were greeted with flutes of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Rosé Champagne (1997 vintage) and a display of diamond jewelry designed by James de Givenchy of Sotheby’s, which provided the glittering trove. It was an evening as rarefied as the air. The Phelan’s house, which was designed by Chris Stone and David Fox, of Stonefox, is as elegant as it is extensive. Said one awed Dallas collector: "It’s incredible to have these views [of the surrounding mountains] with this much wall space." But it was the Phelan’s art collection that proved the strongest intoxicant of that wine-sodden evening: room after room of outstanding contemporary pieces. Under a Damien Hirst sat artist Mickalene Thomas chatting with her girlfriend Carmen McLeod, while Will Cotton admired a painting by Thomas in another room. Marilyn Minter could be found steps away from a large Minter painting, showing off the matching tattoos — an M and W in the shape of M&Ms — that she and her husband, Bill Miller, had just gotten inscribed on their arms.

After drinking in the art, the guests — an art world who’s-who that included museum director Adam Weinberg, dealers Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Perry Rubenstein, collectors Glenn Fuhrman, Gayle Stoffel, and Nancy and Bob Magoon, artists Josephine Meckseper and Richard Phillips, as well as curator Peter Eleey, Creative Time director Anne Pasternak, and Lisa Dennison of Sotheby’s — traipsed past the indoor pool, past the outdoor pool, and into an enormous tent. There, over chilled lobster and potato salad, Aspen Art Museum director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson made a major announcement: The Aspen City Council had just voted 4 to 1 to allow the museum to build a new structure downtown, where the Weinerstube restaurant now stands.

Founded in 1979, the museum is currently housed in a 19th-century hydroelectric plant, the first erected west of the Mississippi. But don’t think the existing structure is some sort of Tate Modern of the mountains — it’s tiny, essentially a converted water mill with less exhibition space than many Chelsea galleries. "We’re a mid-sized museum [in terms of annual budget] crammed into a very small space," Zuckerman Jacobson later told me in her modest office. Under the current plan, the new building, designed by architect Shigeru Ban, will provide 12,500 square feet of exhibition space, as well as other amenities the museum currently lacks, such as an elevator, a cafe, and a boardroom. Still, though the building is small, the current exhibition of work by Sergej Jensen makes a big impression.

As did the selection of wines attendees had paid to sample at WineCrush. While draining a Bordeaux, Chateau Cos Estournel from 2006, I asked collector June Schorr (who hosted a benefit for the museum before the advent of ArtCrush) what made the current series of benefit events so successful. Ever generous, Mrs. Schorr opined that it was "the energy and dedication of Amy Phalen," who, in partnership with Zuckerman Jacobson, had transformed ArtCrush from a posh small-town fundraiser into a not-to-be missed affair on the art circuit. This year’s must be counted among the most remarkable. Perhaps it was the announcement of the new building project or the lure of the mountains during a brutally hot summer, but according to the museum’s director, this year saw more collectors, more museum directors, and more art donated than ever. Even before the benefit auction began on Friday night, the museum had raised some $5 million for it’s capital campaign.

Thursday, the day before the benefit auction, found New York curators in blazers and hiking boots trekking through the wilds of collectors’ homes. Certainly the wildest and most challenging, in the best sense of the word, was Bob and Nancy Magoons collection, where a headless stuffed cat by David Shrigley seemed to gaze out the window (as if it could) at two bridges in the sculpture garden newly papered over by Richard Woods, and where others could be found crowding into a stairwell to gawk at the infamous drawings by Adolf Hitler that had been marked up by the Chapman brothers. Upstairs, one distracted guest almost smashed her toe on a bronze Mark Quinn sleeping bag on the floor. From the Magoons, many people headed over to the home of Dennis and Debra Scholl, which is on the market, perhaps because Dennis’s new job as vice president for arts at the Knight Foundation will keep the couple on the East Coast. The standout work in their modern house was a vast painting by Julie Mehretu.

The evening event was billed as a "barbeque" at the Robert J. Hurst estate and sponsored by Sotheby’s — more wine, but this time there was an abundance of tequila drunk too — but there were no grills in sight. It was more a bar mitzvah to which anyone might kill to be invited. The following morning, those who hadn’t slept in stopped by the home of Susan and Larry Marx to tour — quietly, as the Hammers Ann Philbin was resting in one of the bedrooms — an exquisite collection of works on paper ranging from Jackson Pollock and Agnes Martin to Mark Bradford. "We’re paper people!" Larry exclaimed as he indicated a suite of drawings by Blinky Palermo, which are soon to be sent to the major Palermo retrospective opening this fall at Dia:Beacon. As a small group toured the house, one of the guests stepped gingerly around a dog bed. Our smiling host called out, "Don’t worry, you won’t smash a toe on that — this isn’t the Magoons."

Finally the night of the ArtCrush auction arrived, with some 350 guests strolling over a pink-carpeted bridge to find tents set up outside the museum replete with cocktails, artworks donated by nearly 50 artists (quite a few of whom showed up to witness the silent and live auctions) and an absolutely extraordinary array of wines. My table included the lovely Dana Farouki, who is moving from New York to Dubai; collector Beth Rudin DeWoody, MoMA P.S.1 curator Peter Eleey, Tom Sachs and Sarah Hoover, and MoMA P.S.1 director Klaus Biesenbach. Alas, I had sampled too much wine to match wits with Klaus in the game "Who are the four most important artists under 40 today?" But his list was . . . no, you’ll have to ask him yourself.

It was in many ways a perfect, and fitting evening. More collectors! Domenico and Eleanor De Sole; Mera Rubell, in a Warholian fright wig, with husband Don Rubell, octogenarian Stefan Edlis, who only weeks earlier had survived a major Vespa accident; and David and Jennifer Stockman. More artists! Ken Solomon, Delia Brown, Nir Hod, and Matthew Weinstein. More wine, more tequila! Marilyn Minter was the honoree, and during her remarks she reminded everyone that she’d never before received a prize or honor in her life. Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, took over as the evening’s auctioneer, lunging and twirling to spot bids with tremendous alacrity. The combined events and auctions brought in $1.5 million. A great achievement! And so everyone headed to a club called Syzygy — to celebrate.