Drinking with Tom Marioni, Ed Ruscha and friends at the Hammer Museum


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The San Francisco artist Tom Marioni has a motto that has served him well: The act of drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art.

It’s the subtitle of his 2003 memoir: “Beer, Art and Philosophy.” It’s the title of his longest-running and best-known artwork: beer-fueled salons that he began in 1970 at the Oakland Museum and that have migrated over the years from museums to neighborhood bars to his own studio and back again.


And it’s the reason he’s making several trips to L.A. this month, where he has filled a lobby gallery at the Hammer Museum with a few of his zen-inspired, body-based drawings and the rudiments of a bar scene. There’s a refrigerator packed with Pacifico bottles, a bar for serving them, shelves on the walls for the empties, and yellow light to warm the place. A pair of birch tables, with seats, complete the scene.

“I refer to it as social art,” says Marioni, a lanky, friendly-looking 73-year-old, on Wednesday evening, before dozens of guests arrived (pictured above, far right). “Mainly it’s socializing.”

So do people trip over the “art” part? “John Cage’s 4 ’33,’ the silent piece, is a problem for some people. They don’t think it’s music,” he says. ‘Maybe the same people don’t think this is art. I think it’s a disguised performance — disguised because people think it’s real life.”

But not all guests at the museum Wednesday night, attending the first of his five invitation-only salons, were entirely sold on the idea.

The guest bartender was artist Ed Ruscha, who has known Marioni for decades and done printmaking with the celebrated Crown Point Press in San Francisco, run by Marioni’s wife, Kathan Brown. Ruscha was calmly handing out bottles of Pacificos from the fridge, without breaking into a sweat or even much of a conversation, aside from the occasional “here ya go” or “want a beer?”

Does Ruscha, known for his graphic punch and visual wit, think that drinking beer is the highest form of art? “I don’t know about a form of art; a form of life maybe,” he says. “But you can call anything art, and that’s Tom’s thing. And I like the beer part of it.”

Actor Will Ferrell, who in a celebrity-crush reversal said he and his wife stopped by because they are such big fans of Ruscha, says he gets it. “I totally agree with Tom’s philosophy — drinking beer and socializing is a form of art,” he says, possibly in character. “And in that one sentence he validates everything I’ve ever done.”

Performance artist Barbara T. Smith, who is tending bar Sept. 15, says she’s not a particular fan of ale, pale or dark. “It’s a guy thing, guys like beer.” But she is excited for her bartending gig and had hit up Ruscha for tips. (“It’s pretty easy,” he says. “There’s only one tool — the bottle opener.’)

RoseLee Goldberg, the director of the New York arts festival Performa and one of the few out-of-towners, sat down for a bit with Marioni. Like many guests, she had never met Marioni, who is best known as a precursor of artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija and Carsten Höller who do things like cook Thai food in galleries and run nightclubs in the name of art, a loose movement that’s rather flavorlessly called “social sculpture” and even more blandly “relational aesthetics.”

They sat at a table covered with more than a dozen orphaned but not empty bottles. Marioni said it wasn’t his doing. “I’m not a big beer drinker, just a famous beer drinker,” he says, noting that he usually drinks only on Wednesdays. “And I can’t drink more than five a night. I can’t even drink a six-pack.”

Goldberg didn’t even have one. “I don’t drink beer. But I appreciate the gesture. I’m participating in every other way,” she said, glancing at the crowd, which she calls “one big art family.”

It’s a happy family, suggests Anne Ellegood, the Hammer curator who organized the project. “That’s what I like about his work. Something as simple as setting up this bar, providing free beer and also the yellow light, it does create a good vibe. It engenders a sense of community, and Tom has always cared more about that than making any object.”

After a couple of hours, empty bottles filled the shelves and just a handful of people lingered near the bar with Ruscha and Marioni. One was artist Lisa Anne Auerbach, who takes her turn as guest bartender on Sept. 29. (The other bartenders are artist Chris Burden and Hammer museum director Annie Philbin.)

But Auerbach, who was wearing a knitted sweater of her own design with a Sept. 11 knock-knock joke (“9-11 Who??” it says on the back, “I thought you said you’d NEVER FORGET”), was past the point in the night of philosophically debating whether social beer-drinking was art.

More pressing was the question of what she could wear on the job when she steps behind the bar. She expressed her desire to wear a tight spandex dress that she owns featuring a Budweiser label, “like the one they wore in the ads.”

Marioni quickly nixed the thought. “You can’t come to the Pacifico party wearing a Bud outfit.”

“You could knit a Pacifico one,” offered Corrina Peipon, an associate curator at the Hammer.

Auerbach changed the subject. “How did you choose Pacifico?” she said, turning to Marioni.

“I like the yellow label. We live on the Pacific Rim. And the bottle makes a good sound when you blow into it,” Marioni says, mentioning a Sept. 28 performance that is open to the public called “The Beer Drinking Sonata for 13 Players.’ (Players blow into the bottles after each sip, so that the registers get lower and lower.)

Auerbach said she was nervous she wouldn’t get a good turnout. “Half my friends are either straight-edge or have been in rehab,” she said. “Can I bring Pellegrino for them?”

Marioni shook his head. “There’s hardly any alcohol in the beer,” he said, sounding clear-minded and not at all buzzed. “Would you bring coffee to a tea ceremony?”

And then, without any fanfare, Ruscha closed the refrigerator door for the last time and stepped out from behind the bar, officially ending the night’s event.

— Jori Finkel