It took calls to four different cab companies yesterday before someone was free to pick me up at the rural Castle Cary train station, two hours west of London. It had been a busy day, my driver told me, with cars regularly making the same trip as ours, shuttling out-of-towners to a luncheon at Hauser & Wirth’s sprawling Somerset branch, which opened this summer. It sits on a more than 200-year-old farm, the fifth gallery in its empire.
But referring to Hauser & Wirth Somerset as a gallery is not quite accurate, or it’s at least incomplete. There are galleries, yes—a handful of them: intimate, quirky, and some in old buildings—but there is also a restaurant designed by Björn and Oddur Roth, the son and grandson of Dieter, which serves meat from the Durslade Farm out back, a well-stocked bookshop, large-scale works by Louise Bourgeois, Paul McCarthy, and others, a 1.5-acre garden designed by Piet Oudolf (and featuring Anri Sala’s triply clock from Documenta 13), plus a six-bedroom guesthouse in a farmhouse subtly renovated by the project’s designer, Luis Laplace, and decorated with site-specific works by Guillermo Kuitca and Pipilotti Rist, which can be rented out. A farm shop is on the way next year.
It is a kind of no-expense-spared playland for contemporary culture, and arguably the most ambitious space ever developed by a commercial art gallery. (Hauser’s forthcoming sixth gallery, in a 100,000-square-foot building in Downtown Los Angeles, which is scheduled to open in January, will no doubt be a close rival.) It is so wildly ambitious that, in a sense, it seemed too good to be true, impossible to realize. But dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth, who settled nearby a few years ago, seem to have pulled it off, and yesterday things were really humming.
A gang of a few hundred dealers, collectors, and museum types swilled wine and plucked barely finished dishes from the Roth Bar & Grill’s open kitchen: juicy roasted chicken adorned with lemon mayonnaise; spicy beef chili made from the local cows, which was studded with guacamole and melted into white rice; piping hot squash soup with pearled spelt; burnt Cambridge cream; and chocolate pots flecked with shavings. The food was unbelievable. I envy the people of Somerset who can visit six days a week.
Happily, much of the art was just as great (though I could do without the typically huge, bombastic Subodh Gupta steel pail in one of the courtyards), particularly a modestly sized, very elegant show of early work by Franz West, which was curated by Paul Schimmel–who joined Hauser & Wirth from the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and will have his name on the door of their L.A. gallery. It runs only through November 9. The focus is on the late artist’s Passstück—his Adaptives—the playful, slightly goofy, and often vaguely libidinal abstract sculptures with long handles, swirls, and holes that West meant for people to pick up and manipulate. They are usually made of plaster or wood, and are painted white and off white, and they have a humble solemnity to them, but also a pleasant silliness that looks right at home out in the country. If only you could pick them up and toy with them a bit out in the garden! (Also nice: joyous, action-packed, site-specific pom-pom installations by Phyllida Barlow.)
The party concluded in the mid-afternoon, and buses took many of the revelers along England’s rural highways back to London, sipping Champagne from plastic flutes along the way. About an hour into the trip, traffic slowed, and off to the left side of the bus Stonehenge appeared, just barely visible in the distance. Many starred in disbelief. (I certainly did.) Could that really be it? Was it, perhaps, Jeremy Deller’s inflatable version? “No, that’s the actual one,” someone whispered. Traffic picked up, and we coasted by, headed toward the capital city, where the fair was set to open in less than 48 hours.