Art Class

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ROBERT HUGHESThere it is, on a billboard outside Steve Wynn's Mirage Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip--the triumph of culture as American spectacle. High in the air--where the names of Frank Sinatra, Henny Youngman and Engelbert Humperdinck once flaunted their charisma above the throngs of tourists, where the mysterioso and much-lifted faces of Siegfried and Roy stared down from between the white tigers whose diminutive, fluffy clonelets fill a whole shop on the ground floor of the Mirage--high art has descended on the desert with a palpable clang. It had to come. It has come. Art abhors a vacuum, and if Las Vegas hasn't earned a name for being culturally underoxygenated, what place in America has? If the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City can hang banners advertising Tiepolo or Goya from its Fifth Avenue facade without having fingers wagged in its face, why shouldn't Steve Wynn, the modern-day Mike Todd or P.T. Barnum of Vegas, the man with more clout in the gambling-and-hotel business than anyone alive (with the possible exception of Donald Trump), run Van Gogh and Picasso on the billboard for his new flagship hotel, the Bellagio, which cost $1.6 capital-B billion to build and decorate and which opened to the public Oct. 15?Economic meltdown in Asia, collapsing hedge funds in Connecticut, mass layoffs at the brokerage houses, a falling market for expensive cigars and Ferraris--yet there goes the Bellagio, sailing into the teeth of the gathering global gale, with 3,000 of the highest-priced rooms in Vegas and something like $300 million worth of artworks nailed to its mast. All bought, over a little more than two years, by Stephen A. Wynn, 56, who had never collected anything except casino real estate and golf courses--and who is, moreover, gradually losing his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, an irreversible, degenerative eye disease.Wynn is a showman in the classic, big-ticket American tradition. He fantasizes about turning Las Vegas around, taking the capital of American kitsch and transforming it into a full-scale class act, with high-cultural overtones. Whether he will succeed in this is anyone's guess, but no one can accuse him of not putting his (and his shareholders') money where his mouth is, in a town where Art is normally the name of someone's limo driver.He began, like most neophyte collectors who have a bundle to spend, with the easy, lovable stuff: Impressionism, and specifically Renoir. But rather than dive in at the deep end of the art market on his own--a certain prelude to drowning--Wynn found himself a guide in William Acquavella, 60, a closemouthed and formidably well-connected New York private dealer whose stockroom is one of the best in the U.S. Acquavella impressed on Wynn that in the art market, there are no bargains: he would have to pay top dollar for top works. The big test of this came with buying the first of two Van Goghs, Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat, painted a few weeks before the artist's suicide at Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890. This exceptional portrait had been hanging on loan in the Metropolitan Museum, and it cost Wynn a nonnegotiable $47.5 million of his own money, not the Bellagio's. (So far, Wynn's Mirage Resorts Inc. has picked up $160 million of the tab for the collection, and Wynn himself the rest.)Some things came by luck and were grabbed on the wing. Wynn relishes describing how he and Acquavella were in London to conclude the deal on a Tahitian Gauguin, Bathers. With time to kill, they dropped in on the small upstairs gallery of Thomas Gibson, a private dealer in Old Bond Street. And there, on an easel, was a painting that had just come in on consignment a few hours before: Degas' pastel Dancer Taking a Bow, 1887, one of the finest of his ballet scenes, which had been in one of the collections of the Rothschild family for the past 80 years and had not been exhibited publicly in a half-century. It just shone, Wynn recalls. It knocked me flat. I knew I had to have it. And if Bill and I had delayed, it would probably have been gone the next day. So there was no choice.Buy in haste, repent at leisure, is one of the usual mottoes of collecting. But despite the breakneck speed at which Wynn has put his collection together, there are some works in it that any museum would envy. They include a late Cezanne, a portrait of his housekeeper painted around 1900, her brown dress as massively articulated as the side of a mountain; and one of the best Joan Miros in existence, Dialogue of the Insects, 1924-25, its precise forms buzzing and chirruping with strange lepidopteral life in a bare dream landscape that evokes the fields of Miro's Catalan childhood.The painting that turned Wynn away from the 19th century into the 20th--and, as he puts it, got me off my training wheels--was a portrait by Picasso of his long-suffering mistress Dora Maar, done in 1942. This riveting image is one of a woman in disequilibrium, not as fiercely torn apart as she is in the Weeping Women of those years, but out of kilter all the same, with staring eyes, figure-eight nostrils flared as though in suppressed fright, and strange asymmetries around the nose and brow. Compared with it, Impressionism began to look somewhat easy and even insipid to the fast-learning Wynn, and he started to buy more modern work--Picassos especially. He also began to cast a covetous eye on American art, scooping up (among other things) a great and gritty De Kooning, Police Gazette, 1955, along with several later De Koonings, a fine and rare early Flag painting by Jasper Johns, a Pollock and a beautiful Rauschenberg combine from 1954, Small Red Painting.Gradually, Wynn's collection is moving toward the mass it needs to define its own shape and establish its own gravitational field. It isn't there yet, and all talk of a private museum is beside the point, but you have the sense of a collector with real moxie. This isn't the Getty of Las Vegas, and it isn't meant to be, but Wynn has already nailed a few things that the Getty, with its comparably huge buying budget, ought not to have missed. He has also taken on some sound advisers, led by Edmund Pillsbury, for many years the director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. And anyone who looks down his nose at the whole enterprise as a piece of splashy Vegas promotion ought to remember the origins of American museums in the late 19th century, built up from nothing by self-taught meat packers and railroad kings who got good advice, took deep breaths and opened their checkbooks.But of course, it is promotion--in part. Why should the idea of starting an art collection in Vegas seem so odd? Basically because Las Vegas--the Disney World of terminal public greed--is a city in which every cultural citation is fake, so that the real thing feels out of place. The city is built on simulation, quotation, weird unconvincing displacements, in which cultural icons are endlessly but never convincingly quoted. Here is the Luxor Hotel, that huge silly pyramid with its plaster Anubises and fiber glass Amon-Ras, its cavernous interior housing a facsimile of the Manhattan skyline. Here, under construction, is a casino in the form (well, sort of the form) of the Doges Palace in Venice, complete with a small-scale version of the Campanile bearing a replica of the original's gilded angel on its vertex. Here too is Caesars Palace, looking like the architectural dream of an illiterate Mussolini; and alongside it are the Forum Shops at Caesars, a sort of baroque moon colony completely sealed off from the outside world, with computer-controlled sky effects that cycle from rosy-fingered dawn to purple dusk on the roof vaults above, and pastiche Roman statuary, and outlets for every brand name you ever heard of: Gap, DKNY, Gucci, Sharper Image, Banana Republic, Calvin Klein ...PAGE 1  |  
 
In a city of such overripe simulacra, whose most characteristic museum is dedicated to the memory of Liberace, what room is there for the clean, piercing, complex presence of real works of art? Not much, you'd think. Any public work of art is apt to pale to invisibility beside those neon signs and huge, crass, mock-Hellenistic sculptures. Nothing a mere environmental sculptor could make would have much luck in drawing the eye away from, say, the outside of the Mirage, with its foaming waterfalls and its artificial volcano that erupts on a regular schedule after dusk, except when (a sign informs you) the weather is inclement, a condition that will be signaled by a red warning light in case you didn't feel the rain on your head.Absent a real museum, or the civic will to build and endow one, perhaps the only way to habituate fine art to Las Vegas--and vice versa--is to do what Wynn has done in the Bellagio: build a sort of treasure-filled box in the core of the hotel, to which limited numbers of the public will be admitted at $10 a head, hotel guests and high rollers preferred, so that the art itself becomes a spectacle with overtones of privilege and thus matches up with the imagery of the rest of the city. It recalls Marianne Moore's famous description of the poet's task: creating imaginary gardens with real toads in them.You don't fully realize how much water matters in Vegas until you see the works of Kublai Wynn, the Bellagio especially. Never was a city built and embellished in such opposition to its own environment. The Mormons tried settling this parched valley, nothing but dust, rocks and Gila monsters, in the 1850s; they failed. In 1905 it was set up by the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad as a dry-gulch whistle-stop town handling transshipments of fruits and vegetables from California to the Midwest. Labor strikes all but destroyed the railroad, and with it Las Vegas, in the 1920s. And then, in the '30s, three things made the place possible. Nevada legalized gambling and quickie divorce, and the New Deal created the Hoover Dam. Now people not only had reasons to go to this unpromising valley, but they could do it without dying of thirst.So the growth of Vegas began, totally unregulated, all but unzoned, producing a monotonous checkerboard of shopping centers, low-rise apartment buildings, trailer parks and (of late) fenced and gated pseudo communities--with, in the middle, the glitz palaces devoted to gambling, or, as Nevada officialdom prefers to call it, gaming, which sounds a little tonier.The key to all this is water, whose conspicuous display and consumption is as important a sign of luxury, of control over Nature, to Vegas entrepreneurs as it was to the Umayyad caliphs who began building the fountains of the Alhambra on a dry hillside near Granada 12 centuries ago. Nobody grasps this better than Wynn. To install performing dolphins in huge saltwater tanks in a hotel in the Nevada desert seems, on the face of it, about as rational as filling a cruise ship with sand and camels, but it has its own value as spectacle. And nowhere in Vegas is water as spectacular as at the Bellagio, which rises 36 stories, clean and shiny as a new toy freshly unpacked, from the shore of a three-hectare artificial lake symbolizing Italy's Lake Como, complete with hundreds of fountains shooting their jets 60 m into the air to the accompaniment of operatic arias.Along the building's side, nestled amid real and artificial rocks and perfectly genuine umbrella pines, are a series of pavilions containing restaurants franchised from celebrated ones in New York, Boston and San Francisco, including two clones of Sirio Maccioni's operations, Le Cirque 2000 and Osteria del Circo. You drive up the side of the Lago di Comovegas and arrive at a gigantic porte cochere, patinated copper and glass, inspired by the vaults of Milan's Galleria. Beyond that stretches the foyer, hectares of marble and mosaic floor. And the ceiling chandelier, the largest glass sculpture ever made, 9 m by 20 m of writhing, billowing trumpets and petals by the glass artist Dale Chihuly. And more hectares of slot machines. And the conservatory, whose plants come from an 8,400-sq-m nursery somewhere out of sight. And a prodigious wicker cornucopia, three stories high.We are off on a preopening tour of the restaurants. At this late stage, Wynn is still seeing things that bother him. You get the impression that not a tile or a tessera has been laid, not a square cm of valance put in place, without the boss's scrutinizing it. We are in the branch of Le Cirque 2000, with its circus murals and its billowing masses of peachy silk coming off the ceiling. In the middle of it is a singularly incongruous Art Deco-revival light fixture, all sharp angles and etched glass. Wynn recoils. What's this thing? he demands, fixing the chandelier with a cold eye. This looks like hell. It's totally out of place. I wouldn't want to see it in a toilet. I need it the way I need asthma. I don't want it to be here when I come back. Send it back to [designer Adam] Tihany, COD.The decorators make notes and exchange harried glances, but Wynn is already off, heading for his pride and joy, the Picasso restaurant. Today the Picassos--nine paintings, plus several dozen of the thousands of plates that the old demon gouged and scribbled into existence--are to be hung. The room is an expansive stage designer's version of a renovated Provencal farmhouse, only brand-new, and with touches not found on the Cote d'Azur, such as a carpet by Claude Picasso and a ceiling in the entrance hall thickly lined with broken amphorae brought in from Mexico. The paintings--still lifes from the '40s, and a lush little jewel of a head of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter--actually look terrific in here, with the bright desert light streaming through the high windows.It's almost enough to make you want to spend a weekend in Vegas, just to see how the new machine works. But what is the view across the lake going to look like, once Hilton has finished its own contribution to the urban mix, the Paris Las Vegas, with a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower right across from the shores of Bellagio? Don't ask. Never mind. For sure, it won't have any Picassos in it.  |  2