Gallery openings are rites with their own special etiquette and language. Heres a primer on whatand what notto say.
Another art opening—yes, another batch of shows.
With midseason upon us, mailboxes are crammed full of postcards, oversize communiqués, and gummy thingamabobs, all breathlessly clamoring—pleading—for our attention. At this moment, there are arguably more artists in New York than there are actors, more dealers than Broadway producers. But even with celebrities such as Steve Martin and Kathleen Turner sleuthing the Zeitgeist as collectors, the gallery opening provides a kind of varnished tittle-tattle that you won’t find in showbiz. And it remains the best free show in town.
To gain acceptance, however, there is one sporting rule: it doesn’t matter if you can tell the abstract abandon of Joan Mitchell from the cerebral forms of Richard Tuttle, but you have to know “the language”—the opening lines—for the moment when you’re face-to-face with the evening’s dreaminess. Powerful, painterly, and a breakthrough are currently in favor and score high points. Nice? Never! Nice signals your instant exile to social Siberia. The weather outside may be nicebut never the art inside.
Knowing the modish words and phrases and rattling them off in a soaring sentence that sounds like a profound opinion will make you an awesome player at any opening, where style counts more than sincerity. Of course you may choose to say nothing at all. The collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel often just beam away happily. They like to think things over. No Johnny-on-the-spot judgments. At most Herbie may venture gravely, “It’s… inter-esting,” and then enigmatically drift off into the assemblage.
“The function of the art opening,” reflects independent curator-critic Dominique Nahas, “is not to see art. It’s a social event.” Openings are social to an extraordinary extent, so, please, don’t fall into a sort of coma. “You should say something appropriate to the artist, some expression of the occasion, but to look at the art, you must return later to the gallery,” continues Nahas. “The opening symbolizes the ‘art world.’ Hopefully, the work, or some of it, will pass into a historical context of what I call ‘the world of art.’ Taken together, the two represent a collective cultural experience.”
“The gallery itself sets the tone,” declares abstract painter Louise Fishman. “A dealer’s warmth makes the artist feel good and then everybody gets into the right spirit.” One dealer says, “I always feel more comfortable with a drink in my hand, but you can’t use my name or the mob out there will think I tipple.” Sophisticated galleries serve either a variety of spirits or champagne in crystal goblets, or nothing at all. The late Eleanor Ward, that doyenne of dealers who first showed Warhol in New York, believed that a golden liquid poured into a flute glass gave an opening a patina of vitality. During the 198 s, she was shocked at an opening on West 57th Street when handed something wet in a plastic cup. She glared at the artist, who cowered helplessly. “I do not drink cheap wine from plastic,” she announced icily. “It devaluates the evening.” She blew the artist a kiss and headed for the elevator, holding the plastic cup disdainfully.
At one gallery show, a guest who was not drinking accidentally toppled a fragile metal Jack Pierson sculpture.  ;Unlike Humpty-Dumpty, it could be put back together again.) Abstract painter Richmond Burton then told Pierson, “Your work has a psychic energy. It moves!” Ah, energy—another word of peppery flavor, with masculine zip. These days, acerbic energy is being heard in some of the cubbyhole galleries, pronounced by art students with multicolored hair.
So talk sense or nonsense at an opening, it doesn’t matter, but never be stigmatized as a bore.
The comic novelist Iris Owens  ;After Claude) once exclaimed, upon seeing a rubbery sculpture of a male torso, “I love it! I want one for my living room.” She appreciates that an opening is a comedy of manners, which she carries off with the excess of the Restoration. Generally, though, art-opening gamesmanship discourages using the verb “love.” With a meditative murmur, you can mutter, “I… like… that,” and emit no further utterance. Love is considered too trivial for the art world.
Abstract painter Joan Snyder admits that she may use the hyperbolic “Your work looks great!” because it’s such a “workable phrase, it’s almost an idiomatic expression.” She goes to few openings and only to those of artists she knows well. “You have to be diplomatic if you really dislike something,” she says. “Even compliments can be draining if there’s any tension in the room. Opening lines are sound bites. Try to make ’em hum.”
Louise Fishman’s first New York show was in the early 197 s, when, she says, openings weren’t so crowded and people engaged in easy critical discussions with the artist. Today, when she feels uncertain about the art, she refrains from making any qualitativecomment. Instead she’ll say, with a delighted look, “This indicates a change of direction,” or “There’s a freedom I didn’t see before.” Classy stuff. Amid the hullabaloo, her light touch floats the fantasy.
“Light and breezy,” suggests appropriation artist Mike Bidlo, who has created homages to Pollock, Matisse, and Duchamp. “I don’t get into wordplay because an opening isn’t the place to make esthetic calls,” he says. “Once a naïve person who was floundering for some interaction with me—at my opening for work that I’d been on for months and months—stared intently around and asked, ‘So, what are you doing next?’ Well, what happened next was that my eyes just glazed over and I smiled. Look, an opening is like a birth. My trade secret is, you hand out a cigar.”
For Ursula von Rydingsvard, the event is more akin to a wedding. “You’re on display, the focus of attention,” she says. “You’re both excited and numb. And you can’t turn back now!” Von Rydingsvard states bluntly the piffling intermezzi that try her patience: fabulous, hey, what a good job, and wonderful.
“The opening is artificial, it’s a stage-land wedding,” she continues. “I’m sure I’m guilty, too, of coming up with banalities. But it would be lovely to hear someone mention the ideas that you’re grappling with, and, when it’s their show, you do the same.” She pauses, then gives a gentle laugh. “In the end, even the word fabulousmeans something. It just depends on the manner in which it’s delivered and the person’s body language. Is it a throwaway dodge, or is there a real sparkle in their eyes?” She doesn’t expect esthetic judgments either. “That should be one-on-one during a studio visit,” she adds.
Rob Wynne agrees that the studio visit is the venue for serious artistic talk, while—along with Joan Snyder—he perceives the opening as an excuse for “entertaining sound bites.” He further notes that no one will be offended by the line “What a great show.” It simply depends on who’s saying it. “If it’s a friend, you want to believe it. If not, you just push along. There are so many people, some you’ve never seen before, and you wonder, ‘Who are they?’”
The people: some have no ID at all, but most are art-worldlings, soothsayers sniffing trends, unwanted relatives, jovial backstabbers, ex-lovers, scribes, gadabouts who see a party going on, the mutual-admiration clique, and scattered
members of the art demimonde. Some years ago, Adam Drewnowski, then a psychologist at Rockefeller University, decreed, “An opening really isn’t successful unless there are at least three stunning creatures. They don’t have to say a word. Let them create an aura.”
One such creature, a petite blonde one can easily picture poised in a madras-and-taffeta sarong, is Elizabeth Cannon, designer for art figures such as Laurie Simmons, painter Richmond Burton, Mary Heilmann, and the late Larry Rivers. With her studio in Chelsea, she’s a stitch away from the opening parade. Art clients are drawn to her aura. Cannon confides that when scanning disappointing work she exalts the artist with “You’re looking great.” Forget the art. Go for the direct hit. It warms the cockles of many hardened hearts. If a particular heart yearns for more, however, Cannon quotes Coco Chanel: gazing at the canvases, she animates the ceremony with “It’s very passionate.”
Obviously, not everyone has her grace. After teaching art for 3 years, Philip Pearlstein says, “I’m used to hearing everything,” but even he can be surprised. At one Pearlstein show, a fellow artist said to him, “I like this group of paintings better than your last.” He gives a world-weary sigh. “In effect, he was telling me he didn’t like my last show! I wish he’d just said hello and left me alone.” Painter Tony Bechara, chairman of El Museo del Barrio, observes, “I don’t approve of being flip or condescending. If I see work I find derivative, I may venture, ‘You must like van Gogh.’ I do not say, ‘You’re ripping off van Gogh.’”
“Never let an artist walk away at an opening feeling bad,” stresses Robert Colescott. “If you know something about the artist, find an artistic link between past and present, and be bold enough to talk about themes. The opening is an honor for the artist. I say, let’s have some wine, even in a plastic cup.”
John Baldessari, a founding father of Conceptual Art, concurs: “All artists, at opening time, have doubts about their work. So, if you like what you see, it’s important to tell the artist—sincerely—that you like it, and you can add, ‘I wish I’d done that.’” He keeps his attendance at openings limited. “I think I’ve had my quota of white wine and air kissing for the year,” he concludes bemusedly. Pearlstein understands this aspect of human nature too: “It’s very difficult for some artists to become involved in the emotion of an opening,” he says.
Burton, who’s heard cohorts say “pretty weird things”  ;including the flip and condescending) at openings where he’s a guest, accentuates the positive when in doubt. “I focus on technique. Aim for the how, and some artists can go forever.” Most people spend around three minutes tops with the artist, if that. So Burton asks, “How did you make it?” He says, “The reply can go way over three minutes.” There’s also “How did you find the brush to make such teeny markings?” and the jumbo special: “What were you thinking about while you were creating this?” It will then require the sudden appearance of a critic or a cutie for the artist to break off the discussion.
Installation artist Maura Sheehan revs up her chat with a deft combo of technique-cum-material. When at a loss, she’ll inquire, “Where did you have your framing done?” Artists are proud to share this information, since they believe their framers are the best in the world. If necessary, Sheehan can then proceed to an exploration of color, spiked with a historical allusion. “Your blue—why, that blue is like the blue in a Tintoretto.” Her avid listener gasps. Tintoretto, jeez!  ;“In fact, one look out the window and there was this mushy blue sky—,” the artist may start to reply.) Sheehan explains, “You find something to highlight, something you like, so you’re telling the truth.”
Hermine Chivian-Cobb, director of 2 th-century painting and sculpture at William Doyle Galleries, agrees. In sum, look for the “highlight,” because you can’t blather. “Find one piece to talk about,” she says, “and how it relates to the artist’s oeuvre.” An advisory: “Never say, ‘This piece is my favorite.’ The artist will probably ask why—and then you’re stuck.”
Louise Bourgeois has the last word. The indefatigable Bourgeois turns 92 this Christmas and still holds her regular Sunday “salon.” Nowadays she stays close to home, continuing to make startling art, but in her lifetime she has attended more openings in Paris and New York than you can count. She dismisses words like assertive, strong, powerful, great, passionate, breakthrough, painterly, fabulous, amazing, vigorous, and so on. There is only one thing to be said at an opening, she announces in a voice that would cause a tremble at Versailles.
Her clear eyes flash. “You say, ‘Congratulations.’”
Contributing editor Paul Gardner recently completed the art documentaries Simplicity and A Ruling Passion with director Chris Maybach.