A few days after he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Hilton Als walked to a busted black metal door in deep Chinatown, was buzzed up, and took the stairs to a party in his honor, in a Bowery loft dotted with ashtrays getting filled with ash, where he was greeted by a large group of artists, writers, critics, and friends such as the actor and art collector Steve Martin, who had a car and driver waiting outside.
The party was put on by the staff of the magazine Triple Canopy, who were announcing that Als, an essayist and theater critic of The New Yorker (making him the first theater critic to nab the criticism Pulitzer in decades), would be the guest of honor at the Triple Canopy benefit in the fall. The Chinatown apartment was offered up by Lucas Zwirner, its regular denizen and the director of the publishing arm of the gallery run by his father, David Zwirner. And thus it all came together—Triple Canopy was honoring Hilton Als, and Hilton had collaborated with Zwirner on the book for the exhibition he had curated for the gallery, “Alice Neel, Uptown.”
“To say something briefly about Hilton’s resonance with our work at Triple Canopy,” said Matthew Shen Goodman, a senior editor at the magazine, by way of introducing the current, and future, honoree, “Hilton has worked with us twice, being so kind as to contribute to a special program commemorating Lynne Tillman for our 2014 benefit, and participating in a session of Ecstatic Prose, a day of conversations last year on the state of literary genre and contemporary prose.”
“One always knows a Hilton paragraph, a Hilton sentence, a Hilton phrase,” Shen Goodman said to finish.
At this point, guests were sitting on furniture by Franz West. Zwirner handlers had shipped over a few large pictures by Wolfgang Tillmans—just for the occasion, not to stay at Lucas’s pad permanently. (Lucas’s father couldn’t make the celebration himself, but he did send over a gigantic bone-in ibérico ham imported from Salamanca by Despaña, the redoubtable Spanish foodstuffs purveyor in SoHo.) The ceiling was the original ancient tin, and the doors were two Bowery Boys-era metal planks that had been found hanging on the building and reclaimed. At one point, Raymond Pettibon inspected a work by Christian Rosa.
“Peter asked me to say something about the unfamiliar and how it can be challenging and maybe even extend that to a work of art that I had an unfamiliar response to,” Als said to a crowd, referring to Peter Russo, the Triple Canopy director.
“Last winter it was my great good fortune to spend a night in a studio in Vermont that the painter Alice Neel had built near her son Harley’s house in Stowe,” Als went on, reading from a printout. “Alice was in her seventies when she built this very beautiful work and living space, and when I was invited to spend a night there, I leapt at the chance, because I wanted to be with Alice, to get some of her atmosphere in my bones. I was meant to sleep in her bedroom, and making my way to it late in the evening—I was not drunk—I spotted on the way, underneath a bit of loft space, maybe four or five dresses on hangers. They were hanging on a nail, Alice’s dresses—and they were not good. They were mostly neon and patterned. But it was nice to imagine her little body in them.”
He went on to talk about the temptation to put her dresses on, how he wanted to be in them despite hating how they looked. He didn’t put them on, and decided to Instagram them instead.
Zwirner then stepped in front of the crowd and mentioned that, just that morning, he had given a tour of “Uptown” (which closed last week) to a group of ninth graders from a school in Harlem where he used to teach.
“Someone asked me, what was the thing I liked best about Hilton’s process?” Lucas Zwirner said. “What was so moving about that process was to watch Hilton’s imagination, and the way he’s giving voice to people who would otherwise be silent. He saw that in Alice, he saw the way she did that with the people that she painted.”
He also noted at one point that, if he had to choose, he actually thought the volume David Zwirner Books produced for the show was better than the show itself, and when he said that, there was a semi-awkward silence that hung by the tin ceiling. After a few seconds, Als pointed at Lucas, let out a laugh, and said “Get out of my apartment!”