On Friday night, at MoMA PS1’s sprawling, immersive and altogether wild Back To School benefit organized by Ryan McNamara, the painter and gregarious Twitter personality Sam McKinniss was enjoying himself, or so he claimed.
He was on the steps by the museum's courtyard, discussing his first solo show at Team Gallery in SoHo next month. “Basically, what I’m recommending is that everyone come and see figurative paintings that are very emotionally rewarding,” he said, a curl of Marlboro Light smoke collecting under the brim of his Metropolitan Museum of Art baseball cap.
Inside, hundreds of guests wandered gleefully around the cavernous former school turned artist haven, which for one night only was lit up like Halloween on acid with performance artists in over 50 rooms doing everything from making out with walls to lecturing on lesbian literature. Nelly Furtado was around here somewhere, too, and her performance involved one-on-one songwriting lessons with guests.
"What were your dreams?" she asked the room, strumming a guitar.
“I’m glued to this bench. The headmaster is glued to the bench,” PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach announced to a friend, somewhat disingenuously. Every every five seconds, he would get up and dole out hugs and cheerful greetings to guests. As a child with a photographic memory, he adored school.
“‘It was funny, because the librarian said ‘We have to get new books, you’ve nearly read everything.’ I had three favorite books, the atlas and the encyclopedia of animals,” he said. What was the third book? “The encyclopedia of animals had two volumes.” Out of questions, Biesenbach advised me to get lost somewhere in the myriad galleries. I obliged. The point of this whole enterprise was for guests to interact with the artists.
Upstairs, I took an acting class from India Salvor Menuez, who most recently starred in the Elizabeth Wood film White Girl. For the occasion, she painted on slick black eyebrows and wore a toffee-colored man’s suit that, strangely enough, worked on her, mainly because she's beautiful.
Meanwhile, across the museum, McNamara, the pied piper of this setup, was having the time of his life. The man of the hour was almost literally bouncing off the walls, careening from friend to friend like a manic puppy whose owners just got back from vacation.
And for good reason: The Back to School benefit is wholly his creation. Biesenbach introduced McNamara to the art world in 2010, by showing one of his video pieces at this very venue, and McNamara remains infinitely grateful. He introduced me to Monica Mirabile, a choreographer who staged a dance set to Prince remixes and birthing instructions for the benefit.
"Not to do your job for you but Flux [Mirabile's art collective] actually has a space. In New York, no one without a fucking trust fund or something creates a space," McNamara said.
"Everybody spells it wrong," Mirabile said when I asked about her name. "It means beautiful misery."