Sardy Field is small, a single lane of tarmac surrounded by Colorado’s famous 14,000-foot mountains. The air is thin in Aspen, the wallets thick. Beyond the commercial terminal, a field full of private jets crowd in like thick grass. The planes zip in from Houston, Chicago, and New York, many of them dormant for the summer, some just stopping through for the week of the Aspen Art Museum’s ArtCrush.
The recent ArtCrush tourism led The New York Observer to compare the former silver mining boomtown favorably to the Hamptons. This gives Heidi Zuckerman, director of the AAM, palpitations. “The worry is that it will turn into Art Basel Miami Beach Part Two,” she tells me on the rooftop of the Shigeru Ban-architected museum while sipping on a matcha latte, a trio of Lynda Benglis’s wax water fountains spurting and melting in the midday sun, superimposed on the ski slope-striped mountains above us.
Shigeru Ban’s AAM wasn’t built in the brick-and-mortar vernacular architecture of the rest of downtown, which didn’t sit well with some townies. The building is striking, its latticework front like an apple pie, its intestines like a pristine laboratory. But it’s a handsome building, and honestly, the crusted tint of the lattice doesn’t look out of place when you consider the outskirts of Aspen, speckled with a similar rustic modernism.
AAM isn’t the only game in town. I head alone to a small reception at Howard and Caroline Draft’s home in Aspen after a Charles Ray talk at Anderson Ranch—an art center in nearby Snowmass. Here I hear of the contention between the art museum and the art center. Underneath the watchful eye of a JR photograph above the Draft’s living room, listening to an Anderson Ranch supporter go off the record about the beef, I realize if I write anything about it, I’ll certainly get it wrong, but it must be noted that it exists. Still, I can’t help but wonder how it all started; they share so many artists and donors that it almost doesn’t make sense. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
The morning after we arrive, a journalist with long black hair named Kat and I climb Hunter Creek with Zuckerman and artist Jack Pierson—in safari clothes—and his Chihuahua named Chico. Every year, Zuckerman beats up the mountain with the press and artists in tow. She regales us with the ski habits of Nate Lowman and Rodney McMillian, and is greeted by nearly everyone on the way down the mountain through the Smuggler Mountain Trail. She’s easily one of Aspen’s most recognizable figures, on par with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson. At the bottom of the hill, we have breakfast with Gabriel Orozco, who tells us about the work he’s just come from doing with the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
That evening is first event of ArtCrush week, WineCrush, at Amy and John Phelan’s house. I sit at a table with Jamie Tisch and Sotheby’s Tad Smith, who discuss the drama their late-teenaged kids put them through. I anesthetize myself with tons of the insanely good wine. Jay Fletcher, an award-winning wine connoisseur, busts out the big guns for WineCrush. Approximately 200 one percenters get wasted—I spot Lance Armstrong polishing off a few ports—and then move to the dance floor, where they cut loose to disco. At the end of the night, Amy Phelan, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, whispers something to the DJ, grabs a mic, and starts belting out Rihanna’s “Stay,” karaoke style, while gyrating exotically.
I wake up with a splitting headache, and by the time evening comes, I realize that it’s not a hangover, that the altitude is getting to me. Kat and I hazily convene at the museum, where Orozco talks about his show, a series of paintings that use his signature yin-yang-esque circular shapes, and a glass “maze” sculpture that looks like a conference room designed by Dan Graham. Afterwards, I spend an hour or so at the Sotheby’s private dinner where the Sotheby’s board is eating sizzling escargot at the chicest restaurant in town, Cache Cache. I sit next to an impressive woman, Danner Schefler, who splits time between Santa Barbara and Aspen with her husband, Arno. I also sit with Frank and Doreen Herzog, and between the five of us, we bash Donald Trump for awhile, but furtively as we’re not sure everyone in the room agrees with us.
Major figures from the auction world surround me: Domenico and Eleanore De Sole, Daniel Loeb, Michael Eisner, and Tad Smith, who I’ve been trying to chase down for an interview for years, but who rebuffs me at every approach. “You know I’m not going to answer that,” he says with a sly grin when I ask him how his evening is going.
The next day, Kat and I are summoned to the home of Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, connoisseurs of erotic art. In the foyer, we’re greeted by a Marlene Dumas from her mid-90s stripper series. In the sitting room, next to a Giacometti coffee table, is a Murakami superflat manga girl. “I put her on the mirror so you didn’t have to crick your neck,” Edlis says with a chortle. It’s true, you can glance down to peek up the short skirt, where you’ll see that Murakami’s attention to detail includes frilly panties. Edlis describes a painting by John Currin of two women in the company of some very unseemly men. “And of course, she’s got that great ass,” he says. “Can’t beat that.”
After that we grabbed lunch at Larry and Marilyn Fields’s house in Snowmass. Their collection is less sexed up, but full of great pieces by Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Theaster Gates. I ask him what he decides goes to his house in Aspen, and what stays in their collection in Chicago. “We fill up a truck every year,” he explains, shrugging in his White Castle basketball jersey, “and then fill it with things to go back. Sometimes it works here, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
That night is the big event, ArtCrush. This year’s theme is “carnivalesque,” which means that there’s a lighted sign over the entrance that says, “FUN” and a Ferris wheel in the parking lot you’re supposed to drink Dom Perignon on. A group of burlesque mermaids and sailors perform ribald acts on a stage, while in the tent, Mera and Don Rubell conference around the floating disembodied head of Ronald Reagan in a Coca-Cola mini-fridge (an artwork by Eugenio Merino). Last year’s surprise celebrity guest was Kris Jenner and her boyfriend Corey Gamble—this year, an upgrade: Seal and his girlfriend Erica Packer stride through the room. I run into Danner Schefler, who points me to the best piece in the tent, an X-ray photograph by the late Terry Adkins. I like the Brian Calvin painting, because I’ve been reading Natasha Stagg’s brilliant novel “Surveys,” and a painting of his is on the cover of that.
We sit for dinner, and Zuckerman presents Orozco with the Aspen Art Award. “It’s a family in the middle of the mountains – great collections – and the museum is fantastic,” said Orozco. After lobster tail and steak are served, a live auction begins. A Haas Brothers piece goes for way more than expected, at $170,000, the same as a Julian Schnabel painting. To liven things up, Amy Phelan pairs musical selections to the live auction artworks, a tradition I overhear someone describe as akin to a baseball player’s walk-up song. This year, she paired a Jacqueline Humphries glowing flaxen and charcoal gray painting with “Black and Yellow” by Wiz Khalifa.
The whole shebang ends up netting the museum $2.5 million.
That’s serious money, but there’s something silly and free in Aspen, I think as I head back out to Sardy Field on Saturday morning. People let loose in ways they don’t at in their Houston estates, their Manhattan galas, their Chicago residences. I imagine the real fun happening on Saturday night and Sunday, after the ArtCrush plebes thin ranks, at the Anderson Ranch 50th Anniversary Auction, and later up at the Phelan’s poolside BBQ. Out from under the eye of the art world journalists, who knows what might happen.