Degas in Vegas
From various of the Italianate terraces of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, looking over an artificial lake, girdled by balustrades no less Italianate and meant to be emblematic of Como, one may see a half-scale simulacrum of the Eiffel Tower rapidly rising across the Strip. The tower is to be one element in a complex of simulative monuments and buildings, to be called "Paris" when it opens later this year. The Arc de Triomphe is already in place, as well as a fragment of a sixteenth-century chateau; another structure--still screened by its scaffolding--may turn out to be the Madeleine or even the Gare Saint-Lazare. Farther north along the Strip, a similar complex, this time of Venetian landmarks, is under construction, with the Ca' d'Oro nearly completed and the tower of San Marco not far behind. To the south, "New York-New York" has been open to the public since 1997: The Chrysler Building is nearly adjacent to a stunted Empire State Building; Lady Liberty, with two New York Harbor tugboats at her feet, looms over the Brooklyn Bridge; steam plumes up from manhole covers--but one encounters vast ranks of gambling devices upon entering a cavernous Grand Central Station. The sense is irrepressible that before long, Las Vegas will be an architectural theme park, in which every edifice known to popular visual culture--Chartres, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), the Stone Garden of Kyoto (Ryoanji), the Taj Mahal, the White House, the Houses of Parliament, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Colosseum--will have its simulacrum. That leaves the question of whether any of Las Vegas's own buildings would find a place in that landscape of monumentary knockoffs. Caesars Palace, perhaps, since it itself replicates no known structure of Imperial Rome but stands as a fantasy, inspired partly by the Vittorio Emanuele monument and partly by Ben-Hur. Or perhaps one of the rapidly disappearing "decorated shacks" that so stimulated the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown when they wrote the classic of postmodernism, Learning From Las Vegas.
It would be reasonable to suppose that were some entrepreneur to undertake an art museum in the Las Vegas spirit, it might be called The Museum of Museums, and feature simulacra of all the world's masterpieces--Mona Lisa, Portrait of the Artist's Mother (Whistler's Mother), The Night Watch, The Creation of Adam, Gold Marilyn, Piero's Resurrection, Raphael's The Transfiguration, the Bayeux Tapestry, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Why chase across continents, from museum to museum, when everything one would have gone to see is here in one place, brush stroke by brush stroke, indistinguishable from the prototypes? What difference does it make, visually speaking? One only expects "Reality-Las Vegas" in Las Vegas--like the artificial volcano that rumbles and erupts every fifteen minutes each evening in front of the Mirage, the concrete Trojan Horse at FAO Schwarz or the golden Sphinx, with laser lights for eyes, beaming toward the fabricated pyramid in front of the Luxor Casino and Hotel--and everything is advertised as Magical, Enchanted, Fantastic, Fabulous or Incredible. One does not expect to encounter Reality as such, where things are what they are and not something else they merely look like.
In consequence, visitors are not entirely secure in viewing what it is not hype to describe as the world-class paintings hung in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Steve Wynn, whose conception the gallery is, asks, "Why, of all things to feature in a new resort hotel in Las Vegas (of all places!) would one select an enormously costly and potentially limited-appeal attraction such as a serious fine-art presentation of paintings and sculptures?" Why indeed, when the possibility of simulacra indiscernible from the originals exists in principle, and visitors only expect "Reality-Las Vegas" to begin with. When it first opened some months ago, an interviewer from a Las Vegas newspaper questioned me on whether I thought it entirely suitable that there should be an art gallery in a site given over mainly to gambling. Well, casinos vie with one another to attract patrons: Approaching the Bellagio, one passes a looming sign: "Now Appearing: van Gogh. Monet. Cézanne. Picasso," just the way other "now appearing" signs announce Cirque du Soleil or Andrew "Dice" Clay. So Wynn has gambled that a significant population would be as attracted by van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne and Picasso as by the magicians, stand-up comics, feminine extravaganzas and impersonators that form the city's standard repertoire of distractions and entertainments. For that population, of course, the art included must be as familiar a part of visual culture as the Eiffel Tower or the Chrysler Building. Those who have taken Art History 101 and traveled a bit are able to tell a Monet from a Cézanne, a Modigliani from a Matisse, a Picasso from a Pissarro, a Degas from anyone else--even if the paintings themselves have not attained the canonical status required by my imagined Museum of Museums. My interviewer asked if I thought the paintings were real. That, she said, was what "folks out here really want to know."
I thought it strange that people worry about the reality of the art when reality is required of little else in Las Vegas. "The popular question that seems to have overshadowed the lively speculation about the Bellagio Gallery itself," Wynn writes, "seems to be 'Why?'" I don't think the overwhelming question is "Why paintings?" so much as "Why real paintings?" when "Reality-Las Vegas" suffices for Paris and Venice. What business does real art have in Las Vegas when we can imagine the Museum of Museums on an ontological footing with "New York-New York"? It struck me that the anxiety the question of reality implies could almost only have been provoked by Las Vegas: In a lifetime of visiting museums and galleries, I have never once wondered if what I was about to see was real. So what is at stake in the Bellagio? And what does it tell us about viewing art? At the very least, real paintings constitute a critique of Las Vegas through the fact that they are real. To have installed a collection of real masters is already to have taken a step toward the transformation of Las Vegas from a theme park to something that addresses the "higher sensibilities" of people "who would not easily be fooled by advertising or hype." One outcome of such a transformation would be that the question of whether what one was looking at was real would be as taken for granted as it is everywhere else.
Wynn is impressed by the fact that "attendance at museums in the past few years has exceeded attendance at professional sporting events throughout the U.S.A." So presumably there are enough aesthetic pilgrims in the country (and elsewhere in the world--one hears dozens of different languages in Bellagio's lobby) to put Las Vegas on their map if there were a superlative collection of art to draw them there. But would enough of them come to Las Vegas ("of all places!") to justify assembling a collection that cost $300 million, let alone the expense of presenting and maintaining the art, and turning a profit besides? The question is not without substance. Las Vegas not long ago decided that "family values" pointed the way to profit. Thus the theme-park atmosphere, where factitious monuments can be thought of at once as fun and educational, and the inexpensive buffets--Las Vegas's contribution to dining--that make it possible to bring the kids along. It is fun, a kind of toyland full of crazy surprises, a Disneyland with slots. But the family-values crowd is not made up of big spenders or high rollers, and the profits have apparently not materialized. Besides, as Wynn observes, "All the old ideas of resort attractions have become, well, just old." Hence the bold idea of a gallery of fine art as an attraction, and hence the possibility of changing the whole concept of Las Vegas. Suppose that "under the circumstances of today's very competitive world leisure market" other Las Vegas resorts add galleries of their own? Already, the Rio has become a venue for "The Treasures of Russia"--real enough but objects of a kind compatible with the fantasized atmosphere of "Reality-Las Vegas," and hardly the classy drawing card the Bellagio Gallery aspires to be. The more such galleries the better, one might think. But can we imagine Las Vegas as a true art center, even if every casino were to follow suit and build a collection?
In a small way, the city already is an art center, consisting of at least a number of exhibiting artists, initially drawn to the graduate fine-arts program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to work with the legendary art critic and theoretician Dave Hickey. There are no real art galleries to speak of in Las Vegas, other than the somewhat awful emporia one encounters when strolling along the various streets of shops attached to the casinos, which display in their windows objects it would be punishing to have to live with if one thirsted to be in the presence of what Wynn calls "singular creative energy." For various reasons, the artists have remained in Las Vegas, traveling to the coasts or to Europe, where their work is exhibited and sold. In a "Top Ten" guest column in the January Artforum, Las Vegas artist Jeffrey Vallance begins by praising "the fabulous Bellagio casino": "Right on the Strip you can see Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg, and Warhol." (It is striking that Vallance mentions painters and not paintings--nothing in the gallery would be in candidacy for simulation in the Museum of Museums, for the same reason that few of us are likely to have waxen effigies of ourselves in Madame Tussaud's museum of world personalities, however exemplary we are as people. The important thing is that the art is by artists who have also produced masterpieces by Museum of Museums criteria.) I decided to devote an afternoon to local studio visits, guided by the Rev. Ethan Acres, an artist whose work is shown in Los Angeles and New York. The Reverend--a real Southern Baptist minister--aims, as an artist, to "put the fun back in fundamentalism," and once a week he walks the Strip to preach the gospel in the good old Southern way he learned in Alabama, which he regards as no less religious for being performance art. I was impressed with the quality and interest of everything he took me to see, but it is safe to say that none of it would claim a place in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, not least of all because, as with contemporary art in general, it affords very little by way of a glimpse of beauty.
But there is an important connection between the Las Vegas art scene and the Bellagio Gallery. The latter's collection is made up of works, many of which it would be worthwhile to travel some distance to see --the Miró Dialogue of Insects, for example, or Modigliani's marvelous portrait of his dealer, Paul Guillaume. There is Willem de Kooning's great Police Gazette and a luminous painting of a peasant woman by van Gogh. A Degas of a dancer accepting a bouquet has not been on public view for decades. And everything is deeply authenticated, to settle the question of reality certain to arise in the context. But surely the gallery is not primarily in place to attract specialists and connoisseurs, and one cannot help wondering, whatever the quality, whether by itself it could draw the numbers and kinds of visitors it is intended to do. Those with money enough to stay at the Bellagio have their choice of the world's centers of fine art to visit. So why visit Las Vegas? The answer is obvious. No one, except those professionally involved in the art world, visits distant places for the art alone. They may come for the art primarily, but they are interested in fine restaurants, in shopping, in entertainment. So in an important sense, plain old unreconstructed Las Vegas is in a synergetic relationship with the Gallery of Fine Art, giving tourists the extra incentive to undertake the trip. What I had not figured in until I got there was a phenomenon of contemporary museum culture: the art tour. The mere existence of the Bellagio collection makes Las Vegas a destination for museum tours from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and elsewhere--and the mere existence of Las Vegas itself gives the added incentive to subscribe to them. Everybody benefits, and there is even a fallout for the Las Vegas artists. Tour groups really are interested in art, and the curators who lead them will typically be interested in the kinds of contemporary expression produced there. So impromptu exhibitions are arranged and, as often as not, tourists return home with examples of Las Vegas art, as well as with whatever they may have found irresistible in such boutiques as Prada, Chanel, Armani, Gucci, Tiffany & Co. and the other marchands de luxe on "Via Bellagio."
In 1963 the world's youngest island erupted into being from the ocean floor in Iceland. It is used as a natural laboratory, enabling scientists to study and observe the stages by which life arrives on a stony tabula rasa of mere rocks. I felt that I was observing something like that in Las Vegas--the formation of an art world. Hickey accepted a job at the university, perhaps to liberate himself from the precariousness of running a gallery of contemporary art and writing freelance criticism. Artists who knew his writing came to work in the graduate program and stayed on, as much perhaps for what Las Vegas offered as for the support they gave one another, and for the kinds of day jobs available to them while making their name: Las Vegas employs as many sculptors as papal Rome. I met one who earns his living executing styrofoam and fiberglass statuary for "The Venetian" hotel. Reverend Acres told me that when he first arrived, at 4 in the morning, he encountered two Elvis impersonators walking along the Strip holding hands, and he knew immediately that Las Vegas was his kind of city. The January/February Art issues shows him on the cover, preaching in a white suit in front of the Bellagio, uniting the art scene and the gallery of notable paintings in a single vision that defines Art-Las Vegas. I imagine Wynn would be indifferent to the local art, though its unforeseen existence may ultimately contribute to his gallery's success. So one had better go slow in transforming Las Vegas--man does not live by higher sensibilities alone. I am still uncertain that art alone, even when part of a hotel that exemplifies "the world as it might be if everything were just right," would bring the required numbers of art lovers. The gallery needs Las Vegas-Las Vegas to make a go of it as a high-cultural attraction. The question is whether the gallery's presence will transform the resort into something higher. Las Vegas is a convention city. Perhaps it should think of hosting an annual art fair!
Wynn himself is about as improbable a compound as Las Vegas with a serious art collection--a showman and a businessman, but also an aesthete, passionately responsive to art. (Warhol did a triple portrait of him in 1983, so he has not just jumped onto the bandwagon of art.) I was able to spend about two hours with him and his curator, Libby Lumpkin, talking about the paintings he has acquired and examining transparencies of works Wynn has his eye on. The gallery has lately added two old masters--a stunning painting by Rubens of Salome in a silken gown receiving the gory head of John the Baptist and a Rembrandt portrait of a mustachioed man in a frogged scarlet tunic. Wynn aims to have exemplary works from each century since the Renaissance. Only someone of the greatest energy and means would have been able to put together, in just three years, an art collection of such quality, given the way the market for Impressionism is. But he is a businessman to his toes, and I cannot for a moment imagine him doing that if he could not justify it on the bottom line. He might not have done it except for the money--but it was not for the money alone that he did it. The gallery is intended at once to be a benefit and to make money, oddly parallel to the way Reverend Acres's sermons are meant to be art and to save souls. The art world is hopeful but cynical, and nothing better testifies to Wynn's status as an outsider than the degree of his optimism and the absence of cynicism. Only someone combining a fierce business drive with an extreme passion for and belief in art would have supposed he could do well by doing good, bringing great art to what Vallance calls "the people."
This combination explains many of the incongruities and anomalies of the Bellagio hotel. A pair of marvelous de Koonings hang on either side of the registration desk, for example. An impressive collection of (real) Picassos--paintings and ceramics--enlivens the walls of Bellagio's flagship restaurant, Picasso. Contrary to the rumor, none of the gallery's works are displayed in gambling precincts, though I was told that before its spaces were ready to receive them, paintings were hung where the high rollers--who are known locally as "whales"--gamble in privacy at the Mirage. But the paintings were there because security is understandably tight, not as a way of enhancing the experience of playing poker or shooting dice. Where better to store paintings worth $20 million each? As if to make the distinction vivid between Bellagio's two functions, one can visit the gallery without even having to pass through the gaming area, whereas in every other casino I visited, the urgent electronic chirping of the slots and the exhilarating crash of silver coins greet you the minute you walk through the door. Instead, you approach the gallery at the far end of the opulently planted conservatory, which varies its floral displays to mark the seasons' changes (there are, of course, no such changes in the surrounding desert). During my stay, the Christmas display gave way to a planting that celebrated the Chinese New Year. The paths to the gallery and to the gaming area are at right angles, as if one must decide which path to follow. The complex connection between money and art, meanwhile, is embodied in the curious fact that everything in the gallery is for sale--though, that this policy can endure for very long, given the inherent scarcity of, well, blue-chip art, is hard to imagine.
Before leaving Las Vegas, I wanted a photograph of the "Now Appearing" sign with van Gogh's name on it. A man rushed out of the shadows, heading toward the Strip, shouting over his shoulder, "He only sold one painting in his whole life!" I wondered if he were a painter himself, when it struck me that this triste truth of van Gogh's life is a moral legend for us all. However outwardly like frogs we are, there is within us a prince or princess whose golden merit will one day be visible to all. That, I thought, was why it was so important that the art be real. It would not be a redemption for van Gogh that a reproduction of one of his paintings, however exact, should hang in Las Vegas, where the only thing real other than art is money. In the game of life, any of us can become big winners. I conclude, brethren, with words by the Reverend Ethan Acres, describing an encounter between Steve Wynn and the Devil. The Devil says,
"Hey Steve, hey buddy old pal, c'mon, who's gonna come to this town, my town, to look at a bunch of girlie paintings? Listen, my man, what you need in Bellagio is a roller coaster, or better yet, just ditch the whole Italian crap and go with the Titanic as a theme."... Yes, the Devil offered him the easy road, but moved by God, Steven A. Wynn made his highway the hard way.... Flesh over paper, substance over style. Hallelluiah!