The muddled, muffled sounds of an indiscernible song fuzzily blasted through a pair of wireless headphones at Vito Schnabel Gallery. Even though the listening experience was akin to holding a tin can full of static to my ear, I got a little choked up, straining to hear a then-new Velvet Underground demo played over the telephone by Lou Reed to Brigid Berlin in June 1971. Not only was I overcome due to my outsized love of Reed, but I got trapped in feelings of unexpected nostalgia for those days of extended, exhaustive phone calls with friends and family members, which inevitably led to loudly blaring some freshly discovered music back and forth across the wires. Sure, I never could hear what the fuck was being played but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the connection.
It’s no surprise, then, that my yearning for the bygone days of meandering phone conversations came courtesy of an audio recording of a call by the Phone Queen herself, Brigid Berlin. The B to Warhol’s A, Brigid Berlin exists in my conception permanently entangled in a phone cord as seen in a photograph from the Factory by Billy Name. She’s chatting for hours and hours at a time—sometimes to the dismay of those so unfortunate as to get caught paying her long-distance bills. Of course, Brigid, who died in 2020, was much more than a voice on the other end of the line: an artist, Hearst Media empire heiress, socialite rebel, pie binge-eater, pug enthusiast, tit printer, Chelsea Girl, amphetamine queen, Warhol superstar, Interview Magazine employee, and, as Reed lovingly says in his call, record producer, after capturing The Velvet Underground live at the storied Max’s Kansas City.
Vito Schnabel Gallery’s Brigid Berlin: The Heaviest, curated by Alison M. Gingeras, weaves together all of these different aspects of Berlin’s life and career. And does so near flawlessly within a one-room gallery, relatively small for the enormity of both the task and the sheer amount of artwork and other materials. In case you hadn’t noticed, summer 2023 is the season of overstuffed museum-worthy archival exhibitions, some better than others. For instance Luxe, Calme, Volupté, curated by Antonio Sergio Bessa and Allen Frame at Candice Madey, attempts to contextualize artist Darrel Ellis (and the Bronx Museum’s current show Darrel Ellis: Regeneration) within a notably dynamic, largely queer NYC art scene of the 1980s. Only the curators forgot the context part of this contextualizing. Without wall labels or object descriptions, this salon-style hang only speaks to those who were a part of this community itself (an insular misstep I find happens A LOT with this particular artistic circle). Even I—someone who is singularly obsessed with this period—had no idea who some of these artists were and left the gallery knowing just as little as I did when I entered.