Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2006

By James Verini

Los Angeles long ago shed its reputation for cultural callowness, but in case anyone needs reminding, the Museum of Contemporary Art likes to occasionally gather together the city’s grandest grandees and honor the pursuit of high things. Hence Friday night at — or, rather, below — MOCA.

For its annual gala, the museum erected a $1,000-per-head bivouac under the Grand Street overpass downtown, beneath the museum, using the street above for a roof and the building’s concrete fundament for walls. Not only are Angelenos refined, MOCA seemed to want to prove, but that old story about us lacking a sense of irony is untrue too; the 600 or so well-heeled guests got to live for an evening just like the homeless folks making their own bivouacs in a similar if smaller way right nearby. Now that’s noblesse oblige!

The gritty urban setting of the party was doubly appropriate given the night’s guest of honor, Robert Rauschenberg. The artist, who soon will turn 81, has never lived in L.A., though his knack for turning the contents of city dumps into art may lead some to assume he has. (He lives in Florida.) But Rauschenberg is a favorite of L.A.’s most serious art collectors, and they were out in force to pay homage to the man who once wrapped a tire around a taxidermic Angora goat.

The party was a veritable who’s who of priceless-living-room-wall types: David and Jane Nathanson, Wallis Annenberg, Cliff Einstein, Bill and Maria Bell, Eugenio Lopez and of course Eli Broad, fresh off his fourth-place finish in the Los Angeles Business Journal’s annual list of L.A.’s 50 richest citizens. David Geffen (seventh on that list) was supposed to come but didn’t.

On the creative side, Frank Gehry was there, as were the artists John Baldessari and Robert Graham, with his wife, Anjelica Huston. There was producer Steve Roth and musician k.d. lang, Michael McCarty of Michael’s restaurant and Michael Chow of Mr. Chow’s, looking resplendent in neon green slacks. Even the government was in the house: former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and City Council President Eric Garcetti. Almost everyone — lang included — was in a good suit, a sign of a special party in a town where success and slovenliness have seemed to advance in lock step lately. Indeed, the only denim in the place seemed to be on the legs of Brandon Davis, who, we must remember, has a reputation for nervy indignation to maintain (they were probably very nice jeans — Davis’ family ranks third on the LABJ list).

In short, there were no worries about the corrupting influences of commerce on art being voiced on this night. This was the kind of party where you could just feel the astronomical net worth in the room.

For their outlay, the partygoers were treated to a rare do. It began at 6:30 p.m. After the red carpet, guests walked through a flying wedge of black-clad waiters holding trays of cocktails. Massed behind the waiters were two big piles of tires and wood cages with stuffed chickens inside. It was a touch that Rauschenberg seemed to appreciate, even if any PETA members at the party might not have. The artist came in around 7:15, looking jaunty as ever in a bright shirt and cream blazer — leave it to an artist to be late to his own party.

Behind the chickens was an enormous tent that housed a tennis-court-sized bar. The cocktail du soir was the Combine, a gin-and-juice concoction served in a martini glass and named for Rauschenberg’s midcentury series of painting-sculptures. “Combines” is the name of the MOCA show too. And yes, the tire-bound goat is there.

At 8 p.m., the lights over the bar dimmed and the curtains at the far end of the tent were drawn back, revealing the UCLA marching band, banging away. Everyone was then ushered into the party’s main space.

All joking aside, it was a truly awing sight, a fitting tribute to Rauschenberg’s own proleptic vision. The pavement of lower Grand Street had been covered with carpeting and 50 tables. Huge swaths of diaphanous black cloth seemed to hang in the air. Projectors beamed oversized images of Rauschenberg and his work onto the tunnel walls. “Matrix-esque” may be the only word to describe the scene.

Jane Nathanson, the gala’s chairwoman, mounted the dais first, her face magnified and multiplied on the walls — “It’s my sons’ worst nightmare!” she said, as her sons, sitting nearby, nodded in agreement — and, after paying respects to Rauschenberg, sent everybody back to their mesculin salads with the promise, “Now we’re going to feed your stomachs!”

She wasn’t kidding. The salad was followed by filet mignon and a dessert of so-called deconstructed ice cream sundaes. Meanwhile, a film chronicling Rauschenberg’s career, set to Dave Brubeck and Dennis Hopper’s recorded voice narrating in extemporaneous Beat fashion, was projected on the walls. “I wish I were sitting there with you, Bob,” disembodied Hopper intoned. “I love you.”

At one point Rauschenberg, who still wears a mischievous grin going into his ninth decade, lifted himself (with a little help) from his wheelchair and accepted an award from the city.

But the most effusive praise came from MOCA curator Paul Schimmel. “Is he our American Picasso?” Schimmel said. “Well of course he is. Is he a better than Pollock? I think so.”