By Ted Kruckel Posted July 28, 2009, 12:49 PM EDT
The gardens and grounds surrounding the Watermill Center were positively crawling with photographers, camera crews, and commentators during the cocktails preceding the annual summer benefit held on Saturday. But unlike most other Hamptons gangbangs, they weren't all packed together, clamoring for Kelly Ripa’s attention. In fact, while I asked Rufus Wainwright about his second annual concert here (“Last Song of Summer” with Norah Jones on August 29), I sensed photogs whizzing behind me, unawares.
That’s because there were tons of crazy and (mostly) interesting art performances and installations to shoot. This year’s theme, “Inferno,” was especially fruitful, yielding:
An entry tableau styled like a shooting gallery, utilizing the stepped dune grass grading to recreate the carnival standard, super-sized. First, a ducky floated by, then a dragon/snake (the artist operator wasn’t sure which) snapped its fangs. Too bad the overgrown dune grass prevented guests from really enjoying the show.
A flame-spitting-and-swallowing Satan. His bloody red horns were truly creepy, his show standard fire-eater fare.
A silent and creepy gravedigger, deep in a hole, sweaty and blistered.
A tower of fluorescent light bulbs, the significance of which escaped me.
A yellow hut, where you waited on line to see a perspiring woman through a small notch do things like hum and spin with a magnolia candle and colorful potatoes near her head.
Snappy red-paper devil-doll cutouts, ranging in size from boutonnieres for waiters to wall coverings.
A pick-axe wielding marauder who walked around menacingly.
A video of a zombie who periodically thrust his hips at us in a way that would have made Elvis blush.
Two traditional (i.e. framed) artists showcased in a Little House on the Prairie frame, one showing everyday four-color nudes, the other with black and white illustrations of Asian children with guns and flowers.
The human spider, performed by eight children (each on one leg) and a mandible man.
A boring yet disturbing performance art piece with milk bottles (was it curdled?), four women, funnels, soft singing, and spitting.
Meanwhile, under the large gazebo, where dinner was held last year, a giant fine art auction display (mostly silent, plus a smart 12 live items) was dizzying in its depth and quality: Ross Bleckner, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, you get the idea. Watermill founder/guru Robert M. Wilson greeted guests out front and provided two pieces for the live bidding, including a chic and haunting video installation of a black panther that netted $85,000, won by Willem de Kooning’s daughter Lisa. (His estate donated a lithograph.)
The dinner tent this year was one of these giant white plastic things that are now everywhere, this one at least dark and cool inside. Entertainment was provided by ballerinas/contortionists on hanging fabric, which seemed novel before the ubiquity of Cirque du Soleil. The table centerpieces, designed by Watermill participants, were made of red yarn and loose letters. I wondered if later they would look more interesting, but I didn’t stay for dinner.
An “Inferno” letter display caused guests to zigzag in to dinner, while a giant arrangement of red devil cutouts and paper airplanes gave kids a chance to participate in the evening displays.
As if all this weren’t enough, this event again drew all sorts of party exhibitionists—the kind of people Bill Cunningham of The New York Times likes to shoot and re-shoot, no matter how hackneyed. There was the guy who always wears a “newsie” cap in a yellow nylon blazer, and the red-haired lady with ample and available pale breasts, and some new with colored hair, spandex pants, and giant necklaces. The socialites, fighting for their photo real estate did not shy from the battle. Their giant colored and patterned gowns, looked hot and out of place in this setting, which requires hiking through a forest. Wainwright, who last year wore a green blazer, no shirt, and a green-jeweled neck plate, copped to being “relieved to take a step back.”
The passed food by Olivier Cheng Catering and Events was fine, with the exception of stale spiced almonds on the bars. (When will people learn that nuts in humid weather are a mess?) The staffing (parking, wait staff, security) was professional and courteous, but I don’t like checking in to dinner while standing on the road, which is what you basically have to do. In fact the whole entry area, though carefully planned with greeters, drinks, and a spider web display, seemed cramped in the beginning. There was much more room at the base of the dune grass garden, where a pause might have encouraged guests to take in the first art performance. Most whizzed by; in fact, at one point I found the dragon/snake attendant sitting on the grass, ignored.
I’m a philistine, but I applaud art, particularly the kind Watermill supports, which combines avant garde with community. But these things are objective. Last year, I regretted having to leave this event early, and this year, well, why did I feel like everyone, artists and attendees alike, was trying too hard to shock and not hard enough to inspire?
Budget (words, dollars, time, space—everything has a budget) requires too short shrift be paid to this year’s Chefs & Champagne, the annual James Beard Foundation benefit. Normally, this is the kind of Hamptons event I hate—a hot, crowded tent, cramped restaurant tables proffering hard-to-discard mini plates, acres of parking and walking. I’ve been to this event many times before and rarely had much to say.
But sometimes the stars align. By honoring Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder’s Four Seasons on its 50th anniversary just six weeks after the death of the restaurant’s longtime executive chef, Christian Albin, there was a sense of urgency. Combine that with the local sentiment for Christian Wolffer, whose estate has hosted this event for as long as I can remember and who was killed (some say murdered) last winter in a boating accident off the Brazilian coast. (A vineyard staffer told me “the subject is just verboten.”) Well, goodwill goes a long way, even in a hot, crowded tent.
Goodwill and good food. All the big names were here, and all the offerings, and I mean all (I never think this) were superb.
Jeff Rogers, chef/owner of Quail Lodge in Carmel, California, (and former mayor Clint Eastwood’s next door neighbor) served up torchons of foie gras two different ways, one with fig and one with peach chutney. Determined to pick a winner, I sampled both repeatedly. I’ll go with fig.
The Beacon’s famous Waldy Malouf was on hand, flipping “Hitsch’s crabcakes,” from Chef Albin’s book. I claim some expertise on Four Seasons crab cakes; they are big, soft, and shaped like madeleines. These were much crisper and round, but Malouf wins on sentimentality!
I forget what Seamus Mullen of Boqueria served, but I left a message on my voice mail to remind myself to make a reservation.
The lovely Georgette Farkas instantly emailed Daniel chef Eddy Leroux’s recipe which is here: “Rabbit Porchetta stuffed with violet mustard cream … The rabbit is boned and rolled with a stuffing of foie gras, chorizo, asparagus, favas, and carrot. The roulade is then roasted and pressed into a terrine and chilled.” Whether or not you can do this at home is up to you, but the result was rich and satisfying, yet pale, summery, and light at the same time. Violet mustard is pretty, too.
Finally, I must give a shout out to Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne, one of my favorite French blends, and not only for the value. It is refined, small-bubbled and complex. And they have the cutest summer splits, in pink and blue with a matching wrist strap. Worth planning a whole party around.