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Brooklyn Artists Ball 2012

by Emily Nathan
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What could be better than an evening spent rubbing elbows with the world’s fiercest females at the Brooklyn Museum’s annual Brooklyn Artists Ball, which took place last night, Apr. 18, 2012? Well, a guided tour of Judy Chicago’s seminal 1970s installation The Dinner Party given by Judy Chicago herself, to name one thing -- and that’s exactly what was in store for any lucky guest who wandered unwittingly upstairs during the ceremony’s cocktail hour.

The tour was unscheduled, but while honorees Mickalene Thomas, Martha Rosler and Amy Sillman sipped champagne downstairs with critic Lucy Lippard, Gloria Steinem and Toni Morrison, Chicago, ablaze in a rainbow-hued sequin shift dress, led an oohing Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American Art, around her famous table, a fixture of the Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Cole admitted that she had never seen the work before but did not hesitate to add her own historical anecdotes to Chicago’s colorful account, and the rest of us -- including the evening’s honorary chair, Academy-Award winner Marisa Tomei, who huddled in the darkness with her entourage -- eagerly followed along and tried to remain invisible.

Chicago spoke with gravitas about the cultural contributions of history’s leading ladies, but didn’t refrain from hamming it up occasionally. “There are jokes!” she exclaimed, pointing at a plate in whose center is a kind of black porcelain abyss. “Look. Elizabeth Blackwell -- black . . . well?” This bit from the feminist Borscht Belt humor met with appreciative -- dare I say generous -- coos from Cole. Chicago gestured to a plate painted a vibrant crimson red and redolent of lush female anatomy. “We all know how I feel about the reproductive system,” she quipped.

Noticing that the clock had struck 8 pm and dinner was beginning, Chicago wrapped things up. “Ok, let’s go downstairs,” she said, folding her arm around Cole’s shoulder. Then, “I just love your hair!”

As we entered the museum’s grand Beaux Arts Court dining room, the guests were abuzz with breaking news. Elizabeth Sackler had just declared her family’s decision to “indefinitely endow” the position of Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, kicking things off with a hefty seven-sum donation by four generations of Sacklers -- not a bad way to start a meal.

Slowly, everyone took their seats at one of the room's many long tables, each of which was named after a contemporary female artist and decorated as per her instructions. Swoon’s table, therefore, had colored ribbons of cut paper, like the stencils used for her wheat paste posters, scattered along the runner. Kate Gilmore’s was littered with vintage black-and-white photographs of women doing women things. Liz Magic Laser’s well-dressed young guests -- performers Cori Kresge and Michael Wiener -- offered esthetic interest enough. And German artist Janaina Tschäpe had rather unceremoniously plopped three enormous wax squids with interminable tentacles -- their plump, peachy flesh eerily reminiscent of a flayed human belly -- in the center of the table. So much for the appetite.

I was assigned to the table of Brazilian artist Valeska Soares, who had contributed hundreds of gorgeous vintage glass chalices of every shape, color and size from her own collection. Candles scattered among them cast a warm, yellow glow, and they shimmered in the light. I found myself sitting next to Bed-Stuy-based, Seattle-born artist Heather Hart, whose “independent rooftop” titled The Eastern Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof off the Mother, opened upstairs on Apr. 12, 2012, the fourth installment in the museum’s “Raw/Cooked” solo exhibition series.

“Oh my god, it’s Bill Cunningham,” Hart whispered, as our appetizers of blanched vegetables in a truffle vinaigrette were cleared. Indeed, there he was -- the legendary pioneer of fashion paparazzi -- dressed in his signature cobalt-blue French workingman jacket, camera around neck. He buzzed about for the next hour, snapping photos of leggy models in miniskirts and art-world patrons in splashy silks, right through the entrees of pan-seared chicken drenched in a rich butter sauce, artichoke puree and sweet corn, and even through dessert. “That man is tireless,” Hart noted. “He hasn’t been seated for even one minute.”

As things quieted down and the well-liquored diners faded into food-induced comas, a wobbly Soares stood up and gestured towards the vintage collection of glass. “Each of these,” she announced, her words lazy and honeyed by wine, “is filled with some kind of liquor, and you must drink them all!” Lifting a small shot glass to her lips in demonstration, she quaffed deeply, and screamed, “Ay! Tequila!”

A curator to my right beamed. “We’re at the best table here!”

Brooklyn Artists Ball 2012 and Elizabeth A. Sackler First Awards Ceremony, April 18, 2012, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email