The writing was on the wall -- scrawled, repeatedly, in black ink and projected onto the sides of the tent: “I will not make any more boring art.”
The sentiment -- from a 1971 John Baldessari lithograph -- was a fitting homage to the 83-year-old artist, who was honored Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art gala in Los Angeles.
“This person, this someone, makes Los Angeles an art center, the center of the art world it is right now,” museum director Philippe Vergne said. “He’s someone who’s been an inspiration, a teacher, a friend, a leader for many of us. And for us at MOCA, he’s a marvelous board member, a board member who tells it like it is -- and God knows we need that.”
The annual fundraiser, which brought in more than $3 million for MOCA, also marked the beginning of Vergne’s second year at the museum. His inaugural year was one of rebuilding: bringing on new chief curator Helen Molesworth, returning artist trustees to the board and growing an endowment that MOCA says now exceeds $120 million.
That positivity was nearly palpable Saturday, from the bustling cocktail reception in the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo to the electric Janelle Monáe performance that rocked the dining tent after the Wolfgang Puck-catered meal of loup de mer and spring vegetables.
“We chose Janelle because we wanted energy. This is a celebration -- of MOCA, of John, of the recent auction,” said board co-chair Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, referring to a two-day Sotheby's sale this month that raised $22.5 million for the museum. “And Janelle, she’s just so high energy. You know, this is an amazing time for us.”
Monáe said she was looking forward to “William Pope.L: Trinket,” an exhibition by the artist that includes a 55-by-16-foot fraying American flag, in the next room at the Geffen, after her performance.
“Art inspires art, whether visual or music,” she said, before slipping away to prepare for her concert.
Actor Albert Brooks, whose brother Clifford J. Einstein is a museum board member, said, “I’m for any artistic win in L.A., and this -- MOCA right now -- is a win.”
Then Brooks, who attended the gala with his wife, artist Kimberly Brooks, joked: “But what’s the alternative -- turn it into a shopping center?”
The event, which was presented by Louis Vuitton, was thick with other celebrities and art world figures, including artists Mark Bradford, Ed Ruscha, Shepard Fairey, Mary Weatherford and Diana Thater; MOCA artist trustees Catherine Opie and Barbara Kruger; actresses Patricia Arquette and Marisa Tomei; architect Frank Gehry; Artillery Magazine’s new publisher, Seth Hawkins; art collector and MOCA board member Eugenio Lopez; and gallerist Michael Kohn.
“Who am I most looking forward to running into tonight? Philippe Vergne, of course!” Lopez said, throwing his arms around the museum director.
“Hiring Philippe was a brilliant decision on the museum’s part. I just wish we could understand more of what he says,” Kohn said, joking about Vergne’s French accent.
During his address to the crowd, Vergne was understood loud and clear. His thank yous to artists and museum staff drew hooting and hollering from tables. A nod to the late artist Chris Burden sparked uproarious applause.
“Last year one artist was in the room and is not in the room tonight,” Vergne said. “So I want to raise my glass to Chris Burden. He brought love to Los Angeles and to MOCA."
Of Baldessari, Vergne added: “He’s someone who’s had over 377 solo exhibitions, been part of more than 1,500 group exhibitions, who has produced over 4,000 works of art -- and I don’t even know how many galas he’s attended!”
Visionaire magazine founder Cecilia Dean co-produced the short film tribute to Baldessari that was shown during dinner.
“The more we researched about John, the more came up -- series after series after series," she said. "He’s just so prolific.”
Earlier in the evening, Baldessari seemed, in his words, “terrified” of all the attention. He sat in the back of the Geffen during cocktails, chatting with Brooks and Vergne or simply surveying the crowd, as if in awe.
“This is scary, really terrifying,” Baldessari said. “I kinda like to stay in the background, you know. But I’ll get through it.”
Over dinner, however, the artist was more relaxed, if visibly touched, as he sat at the head table during Vergne’s remarks. His own speech though, playfully pontificating on the correct pronunciation of "gala," was little more than 50 seconds long.
“When I moved to Los Angeles, I asked, ‘What’s a gala?’ And they said, ‘no, that’s gay-la,’” Baldessari said. “Well, I was hoping maybe we could have Louis Armstrong playing in the background, ‘You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to.’ But now I know what a gay-la is, what a gala is, we all have our favorites. Thank you very much.”
The highlight of the night was Monáe’s performance, which quickly got nearly everyone in the room on their feet. In a white tuxedo shirt, suspenders and her towering pompadour, Monáe belted out a mix of her own music, including "Tightrope," "PrimeTime" and "Dance Apocalyptic," and classic R&B hits.
The pocket of guests dancing in front of the stage, Vergne among them, expanded until nearly everyone in the room was moving -- by their tables, in the aisles, near the stage.
“I feel good,” Monáe crooned, in a rendition of the 1965 James Brown song.
“Oh, yeah -- I feel nice, like sugar and spice.”