Beatnik Turns the Tables
By Anthony Haden-Guest (from Financial Times)
Published: February 25 2006
The light bulb moment came at a dinner party given by the gallerist Sean
Kelly. The dinner was to celebrate the opening in Kelly's New York gallery
of a show of photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, curated by the
artist photographer Cindy Sherman "It was a really posh little banquet,"
says Paul H-O, Sherman's beau. Paul checked the place cards at her table and
couldn't find his seat. He noted that Michael Stout, the powerful art world
lawyer, was on one side of her and that other seats were occupied by
performance artist Laurie Anderson, Germano Celant of the Guggenheim and
Marisa Cardinale of the Mapplethorpe foundation. Art world toffs all. H-O
had been seated at a different table.
"My place card said GUEST OF CINDY SHERMAN," he says.
He had a tantrum and stormed out. Then he had an epiphany.
He had been looking for a subject for a documentary. This was it. A
phenomenon all too familiar to H-O (this, incidentally, is not an "artist"
monicker, like Kenny G, it is short for Hasegawa-Overacker, which is half
Japanese and half Euro-American, and which he finds too much of a mouthful).
The film would deal with the caste system of the art world. H-O felt
qualified. He is a (self-described) failed artist who found his voice in
1993 when he had created the cable television access show Gallery Beat.
H-O, Walter Robinson, himself
a former art star (now running the ArtNet
website) and Cathy Lebowitz (now with Art in America) became familiar
figures as they filmed openings and cornered people for interviews.
H-O's questions were sometimes daffy, like asking actor Dennis Hopper what
his star sign was, sometimes trenchant and occasionally impudent. Cagier
dealers and artists - it is a grave error to believe the art world is
uniformly bohemian - reacted to Gallery Beat as film people do to tabloid
TV. "There were galleries that wouldn't let us in," H-O says, not without
relish. "Like Marian Goodman. And Dia. Never Dia! When we had nothing else
to do we would go to Dia. Just to shoot the hassle. And Ace! Doug Christmas
threw us out personally. I actually have a list of rejections."
It was through Gallery
Beat that H-O met Cindy Sherman.
Actually, he met her again and again. Gallery Beat tapes record a deepening
flirtation. In early footage, H-O exults: "She's bringing us into the
secrets of the studio. Nobody's ever done this before, have they?
"Never! Never!" Sheridan says. Her manner is girly.
H-O and Sherman are both
in their early 50s but could hardly be less alike.
Sherman is an art star, H-O an art worker, and H-O is a street-smart,
in-your-face Mr Outside whereas Sherman - from her defining early work
"Untitled Film Stills" on - has been all about taking on other identities
while she herself has become ever more elvish and elusive. But in 2000 they
became a duo. Gallery Beat went off the air soon after. "It just dribbled
away. At a certain point I just had to stop doing it," H-O says. "I wasn't
an outsider any more." But his preoccupation with art and status was hardly
diminished by life with Sherman. "Her fame blocked me out. I was a nobody.
When the paparazzi spot her, they're there," he adds.
He looked around for a
new project and began putting together a documentary
that would be both about the show and his relationship with Sherman. "It
wasn't working. Cindy didn't like it," he says. "Cindy is shy. That's what
it comes down to. She is a shy person."
Then came the Mapplethorpe
Sean Kelly, an urbane Irish gallerist, insists Paul got it all wrong. "The
dinner was fluid during the evening. People were confirming and the list was
changing," he says. "The cards were hand-written in the car going down. It
was so-and-so. And guest of so-and-so. It wasn't anything to do with Paul at
No matter. H-O had his subject.
Notes pinned to the production
office wall list celebrity art couples -
Meryl Streep and Don Gummer, for instance, and, more bitingly, celebrity art
whores. Paul played snatches of tape. Some interviewees go for the general,
the epigrammatic, like director John Waters, who observes: "I like the
elitism of the art world. I think art for the people is a terrible idea."
H-O showed a taped interview with the painter Charles Clough. "Charles
starts in the middle of the movie and he goes all the way to the end. We
follow Charles' vector," he says. Clough is one of the group of artists that
met in Buffalo and arrived in New York at more or less the same time as
Sherman. Clough had an early taste of the euphoria of success, of red
sticker shows. "It is difficult to survive," he says of the New York art
world. "It has to do with ambition on the one hand and hubris on the other."
His Manhattan gallery closed in the late 1980s. "It was like my hand had
been played. It went up, it went down. And in the mean time new kids are
banging on the gates, everybody wants a shot, and what the art world wants
is someone who's gonna turn into a Cindy Sherman."
Then a tape of ArtNet.com's
acerbic critic, Charlie Finch. "Cindy will dump
him and burn all the evidence in an auto-da-fe," he predicted of H-O for the
benefit of his unseen audience. "She's not doing anything in this film?" he
asked H-O directly. "It's all been done," H-O said. Finch gave him a fish
"A little public display of affection would be good," he urged.
H-O now has a partner, Andrew Hurwitz of Film Sales, the company that
handled Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 overseas.
A few days ago they signed a contract with the Sundance Channel for
broadcast rights. The rough art will be ready for June. "Then we do some
more taping," says H-O breezily.
It was utterly in character that Sherman should comment on the project,
Guest of Cindy Sherman, by e-mail. I had two questions. Was she ambivalent
about the project? What did she think of the idea of taking a critical look
at the hierarchy of the art world?
Here is her response: "Well, yes. I was and still am extremely ambivalent
about the film, not that I don't think Paul will do a great job, but that
I'm in it. I wish he could tell the story without mentioning me. I thought
it could be fictionalized or something. But I told him I didn't want to
participate actively; any past footage he had of me was OK to use.
"This is exactly the kind of thing I turn down all the time. But if anyone
should do it, it should be Paul. And I liked the idea that it would be
unexpected of me to have something like this made 'about' me. And, what the
hell, I've just turned 50, why not accept the attention and let it take its
course. As long as I can dye my hair afterwards or get that facelift people
already think I've had. When he showed me the footage of his monologue and
the clip reel I was completely won over. I think it will be funny.
"I think it will also be an interesting look at the underbelly of the art
world, as you said, the hierarchy, from a perspective rarely seen. I'm all
for it even though I'll always cringe when I hear the title (why can't they
take my name out of the title?)."