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Disowning Ivanka: The Art World Stares Down the First Daughter

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: KATHERINE MCMAHON

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: KATHERINE MCMAHON

The death threats began early in the day on December 22. Warnings came by way of Instagram, Twitter, email, and phone. Suspicious cyber activity led to hacked passwords to accounts, and personal information was posted on Twitter to encourage retaliation.

It had been six weeks since the 2016 presidential election, after which a coalition of New York art world figures—prominent players including artists, curators, editors, critics, and dealers—started holding meetings to discuss the results. What began as a frantic listserv transmitting furious, horrified correspondence in the immediate hours following the election of Donald Trump became an assembly, and then a movement: the Halt Action Group. Their first task, conceived as a discrete act, was to start an Instagram account called Dear Ivanka. The formula was simple: a snapshot of Trump’s older daughter’s well-heeled life—chronicled in fashion editorials and photo spreads in magazines and staged scenarios on social media—juxtaposed with a plea for help from a Halt Action Group member in the text.

The first post was an image of Ivanka in a low-cut red dress, looking seductively at the camera, with text reading “Dear Ivanka, I’m afraid of the swastikas spray-painted on my park”—likely a reference to Nazi insignias and the words “Go Trump” scrawled in mid-November on playground equipment in Brooklyn’s Adam Yauch Park, named for the deceased member of the hip-hop group Beastie Boys. A few posts later, there was an image of Ivanka taking a selfie in a bathroom, in flowery attire, with the words: “Dear Ivanka, I’ve been raped and I need to have an abortion.” A few more still: Ivanka in a photoshoot for Harper’s Bazaar with her feet up on a desk, just above “Dear Ivanka, I’m an American Muslim and I was attacked on the subway.”

The formula for posts began to vary. In one installment, Dear Ivanka ran an image that Ivanka herself had posted on Instagram long before the election with a caption about a night on the town: “Headed to tonight’s #tonyawards and looking forward to an amazing evening! Jewels, Clutch & Shoes: #IvankaTrump @nordstrom Gown: @prabalgurung.” In the background was a sorbet-hued abstract work by the artist Alex Da Corte, who happened to see the Dear Ivanka post when scrolling through his own feed. Da Corte commented, via his Instagram handle: “Dear @ivankatrump please get my art off your walls I am embarrassed to be seen with you.”

Halt Action Group created Dear Ivanka for exactly this kind of gesture—an artist reclaiming agency in a public arena, in a clear context of protest. Artists cannot control what is done with work once it finds a buyer, but they can still have a voice. As Halt Action Group cofounder (and independent curator) Alison Gingeras explained to me, the powerlessness of an artist seeing his or her work in a carefully constructed Instagram picture posted by Ivanka—subsumed into her digital world—proved jarring for more than a few artists in her sphere.

“They were like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to be represented like this,’ ” Gingeras said. She compared the experience to peering into the uncanny valley—artwork looks real, made by hand, but it no longer exists in quite the same register. It seems a mere prop to be photographed and tapped twice for approval on social media.

It was late December, and I was sitting with Gingeras and fellow Halt Action Group member Alissa Bennett in the offices at New York’s Team Gallery, where Bennett works as an artist liaison. “The single option artists have is to distance themselves from the prospective policies of this administration and the weltanschauung of this family,” Bennett said. “That’s the agency an artist has.”

Later that evening, the Daily Mail online—often cited as the most-viewed English-language newspaper on Earth—picked up a story from Bloomberg that named Gingeras as a founder of Halt Action Group and quoted Da Corte demanding that Ivanka take his art down. The headline, in typical British tabloid fashion, read: “ ‘Get my work off your walls!’: Ivanka Trump hit by protest from artists demanding their work be removed from her famous home because they’re ‘embarrassed’ to be associated with her family.”

The Daily Mail story was swiftly picked up by right-wing, pro-Trump outlets such as Breitbart News and Fox News. Da Corte started seeing harassment on his Instagram, and the comments section of the Dear Ivanka post that showed his artwork began accruing hate messages. (That post, like many others of its ilk, has since been deleted.)

In response, on December 22, Dear Ivanka posted to Instagram a lengthy rebuke accompanied, as ever, by a picture of Ivanka, this time standing in her art-filled apartment in another fancy dress. “Dear Ivanka,” it opened: “Fans of the Trump brand are threatening the lives and safety of artists who’ve expressed concern regarding the inclusion of their work in your collection. It must be difficult to collect the living. We’re so unwieldy, aren’t we? But that’s the game, right? The collecting game?”

Beneath that post, which continued for several paragraphs, commenters weighed in and escalated the vitriol with variations on the sentiment “you all deserve death. And a slow one at that.” (This comment, again like others, was later deleted.)

Bennett said she received similar comments privately. Later that day, she wrote me an email: “We are all getting death threats, some of our emails and phone numbers have been hacked, someone phoned in an anonymous tip. It is really, really too far.” A few hours later, she wrote again: “Someone just accused me of being an incest-promoting child molester.”

The following morning, I heard from Gingeras. “There are some seriously dangerous people,” she wrote, “who have been enabled by the implicit permission to enact violence on behalf of Trump.”

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner with Dan Colen at the opening of “Dan Colen: Miracle Paintings” at Gagosian Gallery in 2014. ©PATRICK MCMULLAN

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner with Dan Colen at the opening of “Dan Colen: Miracle Paintings” at Gagosian Gallery in 2014.

©PATRICK MCMULLAN

This is the art world’s Ivanka Trump problem. For years, the daughter of our new president remained on the outskirts of the art circuit, occasionally buying art and attending events. But after she married real estate developer—and now senior White House advisor—Jared Kushner in 2009, she began moving away from the art world’s periphery and closer to its center.

She also began regularly acquiring work by familiar, market-friendly contemporary artists, both established and emerging: Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Alex Israel, Christopher Wool, Will Boone, Da Corte, Joe Bradley, and others. Many of the works were purchased on her behalf by her art advisor, Alex Marshall. A ubiquitous, salt-and-pepper-maned figure at auctions, fairs, parties, and openings, Marshall—whose mother, Patricia Marshall, has served as art market soothsayer to mega-collector clients such as Bernard Arnault and Eugenio Lopez—began advising Ivanka and Kushner about five years ago. By early 2014, the couple ranked among Marshall’s top clients—a source indicated that Marshall had a small number of buyers who had tasked him with building their entire collection, and Trump and Kushner were among them.

At Art Basel Miami Beach in December, Marshall was buttonholed by Linda Yablonsky, reporting on the fair for Artforum magazine’s website. “And there was the advisor Alex Marshall,” Yablonsky wrote, “though without his star client, the First Daughter–elect. Many artists wish @dear_ivanka would be a more proactive guard against Trump’s extremism. ‘She’s doing what she can,’ Marshall assured me, and quickly walked on.”

Marshall did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But friends of his said he had been perturbed by the art world’s reaction to his involvement with Ivanka, as he never seemed to share her father’s politics. In 2012 Marshall cofounded a fundraising organization, New Political Generation, that hosted a benefit for Christine Quinn, then an expected Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, at Andrew Kreps Gallery. At another event, New Political Generation raised $44,000 for Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2012 reelection campaign to the U.S. Senate. In terms of business and social niceties, however, the advisor and his clients seemed to have a bond: In late December, when Marshall announced on Instagram that he and his girlfriend had gotten engaged, Ivanka offered her congratulations in the comments.

Which is not to say that Ivanka was uninvolved in acquiring her art. She would go on studio visits, sources told me, and would try to make it to the openings of artists she collects. Photographs show her and Kushner at the opening of Dan Colen’s 2014 “Miracle Paintings” show at Gagosian Gallery, with the artist and his father.

Ivanka and Kushner also became players in the auction world, hosting dinners for Sotheby’s at event spaces operated by Kushner Properties—the Kushner family empire—and attending sales at Christie’s and other houses. “The first Sunday a Phillips preview would go up, they would always be the first people in there,” said an advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And never with Alex—just her and Jared and the kids. That does show some commitment.”

In late 2015, Ivanka featured collecting advice on her website IvankaTrump.com—the online portal for her clothing and accessories brand—under the heading “How to Start Collecting Art: Your year-end bonus isn’t going to spend itself.” Among the tips, written by Elena Soboleva, a specialist for the art-market website Artsy: “Once you reach a higher price point—say, $10,000—they can give you access to waitlisted pieces and artists. A few of my favorite New York galleries to start with are 247365, the Journal Gallery, and Invisible-Exports.”

I reached out to all three galleries to ask how they felt about being given a shout-out on IvankaTrump.com. “We’ve never dealt with or sold to Ivanka, either directly or indirectly,” said Invisible-Exports owner Risa Needleman. “Elena put that in the article without our consent or knowledge,” said Jesse Greenberg of 247365. “I’ve never met Ivanka, and I’m pretty sure even though it’s in that article, she has never heard of us.” Michael Nevin, the director of Journal Gallery, did not respond.

It is perhaps not surprising that a specialist from Artsy should provide readers of IvankaTrump.com entrée into the art world, given that investors in the start-up include Jared Kushner’s brother, venture capitalist Joshua Kushner; Ivanka’s close friend Wendi Murdoch, who acted as matchmaker to her and her husband; Ivanka pal and Garage Museum of Contemporary Art founder Dasha Zhukova; and Peter Thiel, a member of the Trump 2017 presidential transition team.

Two years before IvankaTrump.com’s “How to Start Collecting” post, Artsy ran a Q&A with Ivanka about her passion for collecting. “My husband and I started collecting a couple of years ago,” she told Artsy in the interview. “We really enjoy visiting various artists’ studios both in NYC and during our travels. It has been a fun exploration of our personal and collective tastes. We have only two rules: We don’t buy art that we don’t love, and we only buy something if we both love it and want to live with it.”

Kushner, too, got personally involved in building their collection, even if he was more focused on running his family’s portfolio of real estate holdings (and, to a lesser extent, his ownership of the weekly newspaper the New York Observer). Though Kushner has been an infrequent user of Instagram—despite the fact that his brother Joshua’s investment in the enterprise, just three days before it was bought by Facebook for $1 billion, doubled the value of his venture-capital fund—one of his few postings was an ode to an artist favored by his wife. “Amazing NYC sky. @alexisrael did you paint this?” Kushner wrote in June 2015, just one week after his father-in-law announced his candidacy for president. Israel responded with a high-five emoji, a pink heart emoji, and a smiling face with sunglasses emoji. Though Kushner followed very few people on Instagram at the time, many were from the art world, including gallerist Gavin Brown, Gagosian Gallery director Sam Orlofsky, and others—as well as, of course, Alex Marshall.

Some of the artists Ivanka has collected would not seem to fit with her father’s aesthetics, or with the ethos of the Republican party. Her Instagram shows her in front of one of Dan Colen’s recent bubble gum paintings—abstract works made from wads of gum instead of paint. But Colen’s past includes some rather transgressive aspects. As a young artist, he made his name alongside friends and close collaborators Ryan McGinley and Dash Snow in a milieu marked by abundant drink and drugs.

Other artists in her collection have similarly seedy sides. Films by Harmony Korine have featured teen sex, men finding self-arousal in garbage, and the repeated drowning of cats. Richard Prince stirred up criticism for one work in particular, Spiritual America (1983), that appropriated an infamous photograph of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields, nude and in a sexually provocative pose.

In the Bloomberg article that introduced the Dear Ivanka campaign to much of the wider world, journalist James Tarmy tracked what Ivanka’s collection of contemporary art might be worth, finding comparable pieces by the same artists selling at auction for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. President Donald Trump, by contrast, is not known for collecting fine art. The best-known works associated with him are commissioned portraits of himself painted in formidable poses. “Friends of mine,” he said in an interview in 2013, when speaking about his plans to build a hotel in Washington, D.C., in the Old Post Office building, just steps away from the White House, “they spend these ridiculous amounts of money on paintings. I’d rather do jobs like this.”

For art dealers, Ivanka and her husband have been devoted clients. They were regarded as polite and they paid on time. They had good relationships socially, which counts for a lot, and a respected advisor. After the election, Orlofsky, the Gagosian director, confirmed that he had sold work to Marshall for Ivanka and would continue to sell to Marshall regardless of any ties to the First Daughter. “Alex is a long-standing client of the gallery who has a track record of placing ambitious works by a wide range of artists in many great collections,” Orlofsky said.

But last summer, at least one of Ivanka’s art world acquaintances, an artist who knew her socially, was waiting impatiently for her father’s campaign to end—with a win for Hillary Clinton.

“We’re just waiting for it all to be over,” the artist said.

Protesters in front of the Puck Building for a Dear Ivanka protest on November 28, 2016. PIOTR UKLANSKI

Protesters in front of the Puck Building for a Dear Ivanka protest on November 28, 2016.

PIOTR UKLANSKI

Hours after Clinton conceded on the night of November 8, the gathering that would come to form the core of Halt Action Group—Gingeras and Bennett as well as artist Jonathan Horowitz, psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster, and curator Ariella Wolens—met for a hush-hush meeting at an art space in lower Manhattan to discuss how the art world should fight back during the age of Trump. They fixated quickly on Ivanka.

“The most urgent thing was to get organized and not allow for a normalization of the Trump administration,” Gingeras said later, with the group’s formative Instagram action already implemented. “And that was before he named any administration picks. It didn’t make sense to continue angry marches. We had a few more meetings. The Dear Ivanka conceit came out of these conversations.”

The tenor of the Instagram project’s presentation—sweet image, salty text—emerged fully formed. It helped that Ivanka’s years of projecting a life of wealth and taste on the internet and in magazines provided a treasure trove of images at odds with the seeming aims and desires of the imagined Trump voter.

“As we did a forensic reading on her internet footprint,” Gingeras said, “she really created this Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s this performance of herself, her business, motherhood, and dutiful wifehood, but in the most completely artificial zeitgeist-y way.”

Bennett added, “And her using these symbols of high capital while speaking to the people . . .”

In late November, Dear Ivanka began posting about an event that was to be held at the corner of Houston and Lafayette Streets in SoHo. The location was outside the Puck Building, a Kushner Properties building named for Puck, a satirical political magazine that operated in the old Romanesque Revival structure for nearly five decades, starting in the 1880s. In the 1980s, the Puck Building played home to the offices of Spy magazine, which marked Donald Trump with the eternal sobriquet, the “short-fingered vulgarian.” The legacy might have continued when, decades later, Gawker Media applied for space in the Puck Building in 2014. Instead, Joshua Kushner blocked the application, and, in 2016, Peter Thiel bankrolled a lawsuit that killed off the flagship Gawker website for good.

The event convened by the Halt Action Group was to be a protest. “The elitist left has been really demonized,” Bennett said later. “People think we’re involved in a culture that’s exclusionary, privileged, or doesn’t speak to the rest of the country, and yet the president’s daughter is also immersed in this culture. The Puck Building is a signifier of this.”

“They have this loft,” Gingeras said of a penthouse that acted as a showroom, with some of Ivanka’s art hanging on the walls. “It’s merchandised as a bohemian loft that costs however many millions of dollars. Even if they don’t physically live there, it is on the [downtown] turf of the art world.”

On the night of November 28, the protest at the Puck Building drew more than 200 art workers of different persuasions, including artists such as Marilyn Minter, Deborah Kass, Ryan Foerster, Brian Belott, Ryan McNamara, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Nate Lowman, Cecily Brown, and Rob Pruitt. A reporter from New York magazine was there, and a camera crew from NY1. The protest was a story, and suddenly Dear Ivanka was an identity, a movement.

This was hardly the first time that members of the New York art community had banded together for a political cause. Halt Action Group followed in a continuum. The Art Workers’ Coalition, forged in 1969, came together to protest economic inequality and the Vietnam War. Artists, dealers, and collectors were crucial in the ’80s in calling attention to AIDS before any other industry. More recently, Occupy Museums evolved out of the Occupy Wall Street movement and has staged protests and interventions—and secured a spot in the highly political 2017 Whitney Biennial. A year ago, Minter, an artist active within the Halt Action Group, partnered with pop star Miley Cyrus to make work in support of Planned Parenthood.

Gingeras said she considered Halt Action Group to be descended from the tradition of such movements and acts. As the Trump presidency began, she wanted to hold accountable those who were trying to quietly distance themselves from business dealings with Ivanka and Kushner instead of owning up and using that as ammunition for the cause.

“We know dealers who did participate in selling her work and now they’re trying to say, ‘It wasn’t me,’ ” Gingeras said. “That, I think, is crazy. That’s dangerous behavior.”

An Instagram post from Ivanka Trump on January 14, 2015 with a Richard Prince artwork in the background. VIA INSTAGRAM

An Instagram post from Ivanka Trump on January 14, 2015 with a Richard Prince artwork in the background.

VIA INSTAGRAM

In the first weeks after the election, Richard Prince, a premier artist in Ivanka’s collection, was tolerant—or maybe just resigned. In November, he wrote on Twitter in response to dealer Bill Powers, who had admitted to selling a work by Louis Eisner to Ivanka, “Hey Bill. Don’t sweat it. We all sold to Ivanka in 2013.” Citing Bob Dylan, a bit inscrutably, he added: “Sad eyed lady of the low lands.” (Powers recently told me in an email, “No artist I know would ever collaborate or sell their artwork to the Trumps again—period. All artists and those in the culture industry must boycott the White House as they did in South Africa during Apartheid.”)

By January 11, however, Prince’s attitude had changed. On that day, he tweeted a screenshot of a post on Ivanka’s Instagram account of an artwork—one of his “New Portraits”—for which Prince turned an appropriated Instagram post, this one of Ivanka herself, into a large canvas for the wall. He wrote atop the image: “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This [is] fake art.” Some assumed that Prince was joking, but he quickly made it clear that he was not with a claim that he had returned the $36,000 paid for the work in an effort to wash his hands.

By disowning the work and returning the money, Prince said he was taking a stand against Donald Trump—a stand that is, in the eyes of some, a more potent protest than Dear Ivanka. On Twitter, Prince wrote, “Redacting Ivanka’s portrait was an honest choice between right and wrong. Right is art. Wrong is no art. The Trumps are no art.”

The legality of the disavowal is complex. Terms in the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) allow an artist to disclaim a work if it is damaged or modified in a manner that makes it “prejudicial to his or her reputation,” but Prince seemed to suggest that the artist’s own whims should be license enough, regardless of the state of the work. Thomas C. Danziger, a lawyer at Danziger, Danziger & Muro who has represented artists, galleries, and museums, said that irrespective of VARA, in his opinion the status of the work had changed. While certain collectors might covet it as an artifact, given its newfound notoriety, in Danziger’s mind the piece would class as a “decorative object” rather than as an artwork by Richard Prince. “When you look at Sotheby’s and Christie’s,” he said, “I would doubt there’s an auction market for this picture.”

Whether the distinction would encroach on the marketability or not—some have also suggested the value on the secondary market might rise instead of fall as a result of the work’s sudden topicality—the resonance of the ploy as an attention-getting protest was clear. “This is not a gesture,” Prince wrote on Twitter. “This is an action.”

Another prominent artist, Christo, used artwork as leverage in the line of protest when, in late January, he said he would cease more than 20 years of work—and $15 million spent—on a large project proposed for a stretch of river in Colorado. Because the site was on federally owned land, now controlled by Donald Trump, Christo pulled the plug on an immense work—conceived to span 42 miles with a flowing fabric canopy—that would have been his largest ever in America. “I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord,” he told the New York Times. “The decision speaks for itself.”

Attempts to talk to Ivanka herself proved unsuccessful. I dutifully reached out to the PR firm she has on retainer, Hiltzik Strategies, a firm founded by former Democratic operative Matthew Hiltzik. As a publicist, Hiltzik started repping Glenn Beck in the mid-2000s, and has for the last few years flacked for Ivanka’s lifestyle brand. He also groomed budding right-wing mouthpiece Hope Hicks, whom Trump appointed the White House director of strategic communications.

After a few days, there was an email. “Will this piece solely focus on art and Ivanka’s collection,” a rep asked, “or will there be any political questions or references?” After being informed that there would be no way to separate art and politics in the context of the First Daughter of the United States, a few further back-and-forth correspondences came to nothing more. (Attempts to reach Kushner through his PR representatives were similarly unsuccessful.)

Meanwhile, on January 20, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. The next day, the Women’s March protest took hold of Washington, D.C.—and the world beyond. In the nation’s capital, the Dear Ivanka crew was just one of many art world caravans that made the commute. Artist Laurie Simmons organized a trip for more than 50 people. David Zwirner gallery chartered a bus, and others were supported by Matthew Marks, Paula Cooper, and more.

Nearby, in the midst of the protest grounds and the White House itself, the new Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office building played home to a momentous installation work refurbished by the First Family’s resident art expert—even if few artists in town knew about it.

The work is Robert Irwin’s 48 Shadow Planes, which had been commissioned in 1979 by the U.S. General Services Administration to hang in the Old Post Office in perpetuity. A gigantic series of translucent flags that floated in the middle of a glass-topped atrium, 48 Shadow Planes was for more than three decades a work of public art.

Archival photograph of Robert Irwin's 48 Shadow Planes (1982), installed in Old Post Office building, Washington, D.C. GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION

Archival photograph of Robert Irwin’s 48 Shadow Planes (1982), installed in Old Post Office building, Washington, D.C.

GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION

In recent years, the building had languished as a home to office space and purveyors of fast food and patriotic tchotchkes. After security concerns caused the closing of several entrances in the wake of 9/11, the vibe was more ghost town than Richardsonian Romanesque.

While in Washington in October 2013, during the early planning stages of his 2016 survey at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Irwin wanted to visit 48 Shadow Planes. He had not seen it in decades but remembered it fondly. The sentiment changed when he and others with him found it in utter disarray. “There was a pizza [place] in the food court just under it, blowing hot cheese fumes into the scrim, which clearly hadn’t been replaced in some time,” said Harmony Murphy, a Los Angeles gallerist who works closely with Irwin.

When Donald Trump won the contract to lease the Old Post Office in 2012 for his Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., the terms stipulated that rehabilitation of the Irwin work would be paid for as long as the Trump Organization agreed to hang it in the same place, with no plans to remove it. So Irwin made arrangements to meet with the person spearheading efforts to renovate the building for its new use: Ivanka Trump.

“I tried to tell them I would help fix it, but they didn’t want me to,” Irwin told me in late January, one day before the inauguration. “They were insistent on doing it themselves. In the process, I had a meeting with Ivanka Trump. It was short, half an hour, and she did all the talking.”

There were meticulous specs and plans to consult, as would be expected for the installation of an Irwin work. “There wasn’t much to talk about,” he added. “There are a lot of rules that you have to follow, and they agreed to do it.”

Murphy said it was Ivanka who was interested in working with Irwin and Pace Gallery, which represents the artist, in making sure the refurbished version of 48 Shadow Planes made an impression when the hotel opened. “It was her personally who did this whole ‘Trump pitch,’ so it did seem she was in charge—or at least heavily involved in all aspects of the project, including the art,” Murphy said. “Granted, this was before the primaries, when the idea of a Trump presidency seemed totally impossible.”

The piece now hangs in the hotel’s elaborate foyer. At the lobby bar, guests can look up from a $100 rye cocktail and see a historic artwork that is at once monumental and ephemeral.

“I didn’t vote for him—the man seems to be quite mad, and he scares the hell out of me,” Irwin said.

I asked if he would ever see his work again, and he demurred—at 88 years old, he didn’t know if he would be around long enough to travel back to Washington. But time would tell.

“It’s a hell of a good piece, and it will live on,” Irwin said. “It will outlive Trump’s reign. I don’t know if I’m going make it back, but it’ll be there after I’m done—and after he’s done.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 98 under the title “Disowning Ivanka.”

Copyright 2017, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

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