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NEW YORK — The cavernous and stately Cipriani Wall Street, a former bank converted years ago into a luxury ballroom, is a far cry from the funky, sometimes-collapsing buildings that housed The Kitchen in its early years as the nexus of uncategorizable performance and art in Downtown New York. First a Greenwich Village hotel, then a perch in early-’70s SoHo housed the venue before it made the leap (long before the blue-chip galleries and luxury condos did) to its present home in Chelsea. But the sense of this institution’s history was strong at its fundraising gala Thursday night, with the crowd of artists and patrons gathered to celebrate a former Kitchen employee who current executive director Tim Griffin referred to as “the glue that made our version of the art world hang together.”
“The first black-and-white drawings I did were from backdrop paper I took home from The Kitchen,” said artist Robert Longo, the night’s honoree, who recalled that even when he arrived in 1977, the performance space was already legendary. (He immediately fell in with fellow Kitchen worker Eric Bogosian, who evoked that fertile period earlier in the evening.) Arguing for its continued importance to the city’s art scene, he compared the Kitchen’s attitude toward creative folk to that of a farm raising free-range chickens. It’s “a place where experimentation happens, where you can fail in public” and figure things out. Here, in recent months, the bizarro double-bill of Arto Lindsay‘s No Wave guitar and the Cory Henry‘s gospel-tinged B3 organ struck no one as odd; multidisciplinary artist Lucy Raven, having returned from interviewing Chinese CGI workers, could hash out a project about globalization and animation history for an audience with plenty of their own ideas to contribute.
But hands-off doesn’t mean unsupportive. Interviewed in the crowd before the presentations, filmmaker Sam Green (The Weather Underground) was effusive about the hybrid music/film/spoken word events he has staged there. “I come out of the film world, you know, and at film festivals, if you want two microphones, they’re like ‘what? no way! That’s goin’ too far, buddy.’ The Kitchen was the first place we did a show where they said, ‘Do you want three, or four days to set up?'”
“I was like, oh my God, I love this place.”
Starting the tributes off jointly, artist Cindy Sherman and actor John Turturro treated the art venue’s importance as a given and focused on their fondness for their longtime friend. “When I met Robert [Longo] I didn’t know a thing about contemporary art,” Sherman said, remembering days he would spend showing her around Buffalo, NY’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Keanu Reeves (star of Longo’s Hollywood outing Johnny Mnemonic) joined the encomium remotely, sending a short but charmingly enthusiastic video.
In between adulatory speeches, attendees were treated to the sight of choreographer Bill T. Jones dancing solo while Vernon Reid and Daniel Roumain accompanied him on guitar and violin. Laurie Anderson introduced Higgings Waterproof Black Magic Band, a group led by TV on the Radio’s frontman Tunde Adebimpe. But most relevant to the gala’s man of the night was a performance by Longo’s wife, the actress and singer Barbara Sukowa, who with the X-Patsys performed a far-ranging version of “Black is the Color (of my True Love’s Hair).” The song fit not just given the still-jet coif the 61 year-old Longo wears, but because of the prominent role the color plays in his art; Griffin compared the distinctiveness of Longo’s blacks to those of Caravaggio, Goya, Rothko and Picasso. That served as a reminder that one day remained to see Longo’s show at Metro Pictures, where works by color-mad Abstract Expressionists were rendered dourly monochromatic in his meticulous charcoal.
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