April 18 2017

Standard Talk: Artist Ryan McGinness' "50 Parties"

New York-Art Inspection
In 2009, artist Ryan McGinness risked his finances, his creative practice, and his sanity in an attempt to throw more than a few good parties.

For his 50 Parties project from June 2009 to June 2010, McGinness orchestrated—you guessed it—50 parties in his Chinatown studio (only one, a scavenger hunt, occurred off-site). There were, of course, some hiccups along the way, such as the failure to secure a dead body (“Autopsy Party”), a botched batch of psychedelic mushrooms ("Drug Party"), and the persistent smell of dead fish ("Shoot the Freak").

Clearly, these weren’t your average fêtes. With a different theme each week, from “Luau” to “Cougar Hunt,” “Tupperware Party” to “Party Naked,” each celebration required extensive planning. In fact, the preparations became so strenuous that McGinness didn’t make any other art that year.

During 2016's Art Basel Miami Beach—itself a kind of giant party—Standard Press, our in-house publishing imprint, introduced 50 Parties, a book commemorating this wild, exhausting, financially disruptive year. Through photographs and ephemera, the book captures the action, party by party. In the “Spring Break” chapter (party 37, March 26), witness the aftermath of Jell-O wrestling. In “Fight Club” (party 41, April 23), watch ringside as men duke it out in Everlast gloves. With the book launch, McGinness organized his 51st party at The Standard, Miami Beach—a “sampler,” he says, of the series. We experienced Jell-O wrestling, boxing, and a whole lot more debauchery.

Now's your chance to experience it yourself. To celebrate the book, The Standard, High Line is bringing together McGinness and his fellow party organizers for a Standard Talk on May 22, 2017 at 7PM in the High Line Room (RSVP to 50Parties@StandardHotels.com). Not only will they break down how they put together all these insane parties, but also they're going to give you a real taste of them with another party. To get yourself mentally prepared, read our interview with McGinness as he prepared for Art Basel. A giant bag of powder for Jell-O wrestling (with a label advising against consumption) was at the ready toward the back of his studio. 

The Standard
The Standard
The Standard
The Standard
The Standard
The Standard
THE STANDARD: What inspired you to embark on the 50 Parties project?
RYAN McGINNESS: I'd been throwing parties since high school, and throughout college, and all of the parties were based on a theme or concept. I guess that’s the nature of art departments: a lot of young, creative people getting together to have better parties. I missed that after moving to New York. I’d always tried to make my openings and exhibitions a little more exciting, environmentally or socially. So there was precedence for creating these parties.

It must have been a challenge to put the experience of 50 parties into one volume.
It took me about three to five years to recover—this is now seven years ago. I made the decision that the book should be a celebration, as opposed to a document of the project. There’s not a lot of explanation. The layout and croppings of the photos are adventurous. Parties that were more exciting got more pages.

What were some of the duds?
“Leftovers” wasn’t very exciting. That was the day after Thanksgiving. We had a potluck. Debate tournament was also boring. We had high schoolers come in and give a debate. Some people who came into the party just assessed what was going on and turned around and left. That was the only dry party. We just ordered pizza and served soda.

I read that it took six months to plan.
I took six months to make sure that we had all of our systems in place and that we had a lot of materials for the first few parties. These were every week—so we only had six days to prepare for the next one. I wanted to make sure we were ahead of the game. We had to set up the website, get our email lists in order. The membership cards took a while to make. Also, it took part of that time for me to decide to do it in earnest. 
The Standard
The Standard
Given the themes, I imagine you learned a lot about cougar culture and Tupperware. 
To some extent. I had hosted a Tupperware party before, and I was certainly familiar with the product. Also, the themes and concepts were an outgrowth of either my background growing up in suburbia or an interest of mine, like summer camp or skateboarding. I grew up debating.
 
There’s a strangeness to the suburban party born of boredom, but in New York...
Parties are premised on sales or a commercial agenda. You’re celebrating the launch of some designer vodka or something like that. Attending so many of those for so many years was part of the frustration that drove me to do this project.
 
How did you cope with your inability to make new work during this time?
A lot of running. Jogging up and down the West Side.
 
The book also states that you didn’t love parties to begin with.
I’m not really a party person, but I love the challenge of organizing everything—orchestrating and coming up with the systems and ensuring that everybody is having a good time, hopefully.
 
Were there any moments you did enjoy?
The small moments where people were able to really connect. Like with “Birthday Party”—we solicited four strangers who coincidentally had their birthday on September 11th. The date fell on a Friday, and I had to figure out what to do about that. I thought, “let’s celebrate life instead.” “Speed Friending” was good. Guests seemed to appreciate the opportunity, after attending 30 parties, to actually sit down with people they had seen and have a more sincere exchange. It was like speed dating, but just getting to know each other a little bit more. 
The Standard
The Standard
Did friendships result? 
In our appendix, we have a list of marriages. People were dating during the 50 parties. We also have this awards section. There’s “most likely to get married.” [Note: Michelle Williams won “best party crasher.”]
 
Which of the 50 parties was the most dramatic?
I was out of town for the “Vogue Ball,” and I video conferenced in. I started seeing little kids walking around in costume as part of the runway show. Immediately, I asked Keppie and Gina [my assistants] to shut down the bar. Soon thereafter we shut down the party. That’s not really an example of “wilding out,” but it was an example of it getting beyond our control. For the most part, we were pretty responsible, even at the “Drug Party.” We took many precautions to make sure that it was a safe environment. It was about mind expansion and providing a safe place for doing something that you’re interested in, but hadn’t had the right context or opportunity for, or to share experiences. Even with the “Sex Party”—it wasn’t some wild orgy. We set it up in a very considered way, where we had three stages: education, titillation, and then participation. As a guest you had to graduate from each, and move on to the next stage with a checklist. The fight club wasn’t about people just coming in and beating the shit out of each other. I mean, we had real fighters who respected each other, and we roped off an area.
 
What precautions did you take?
For the drug party, we made sure that we had staff members who were not taking anything and who were well versed in emergency care. The worst thing that happened was somebody passed out and had to be rehydrated. We always had professional bartenders. They knew to look out for people who needed to be cut off. There were underlying systems and structures in place to make sure everything was not out of control. Probably my biggest surprise was that it never got out of control. There were no fights. I’m not a fighter by any means, but I was convinced I’d have to beat the shit out of somebody. The biggest injury occurred during “Goth Party.” Someone fell down the stairs from the roof, cracked their head open, and the ambulance had to come. He had to go with his wife and their friends, dressed as goths, to the hospital. He got stitches in his head. I felt awful, awful, awful about that.

Parties are about this tension between control and relinquishing control.
Exactly. At some point you just kind of throw up your hands, give in to the chaos, and come to terms with the fact that everything’s not gonna happen exactly as planned. There are happy accidents that occur along the way—let’s celebrate those. Let’s figure out the best parts of a party that weren’t even planned or intentional, you know?
 
Was one invitation the most difficult to make?
It was difficult for me to use a very personal picture for “Prom.” That was me and my then-girlfriend from high school, now wife. We went to prom together and that was the picture that we used. Certainly embarrassing. She gets the award in the back for “Most Understanding.” For the party itself, I took a senior—Hester Diamond, Mike Diamond from the Beastie Boys’ mom. She got the oldest guest award—80 years.
 
The Standard
The Standard
And the fact that these were in your studio was crucial.
When I committed to this, I noticed a couple of trends in people’s artistic practices pertaining to their studios. Some artist studios are pristine places for production. Factory-like, you know? Other people were abandoning studios, this idea of the post-studio practice. Having the parties in the studio was a reaction to those two trends.
 
How did all these parties impact you, immediately afterward and years on?
Immediately, we spent four months cleaning out and renovating the studio, almost gut-renovating it. Longer term, it was a huge loss that took a number of years to rebound from. When my wife and I tried to buy a place and applied for a mortgage, I had to write the bank a letter that explained this year anomaly and how 1.) it was supposedly culturally significant, but more importantly, 2.) how I was not going to do it again.
 
Which were the most expensive parties?
The super-pro makeup artist for “Autopsy” was expensive. For “Vogue Ball” we built a runway stage on the roof—“Drug Party,” too. We tried to grow mushrooms but they didn’t fruit in time. The crop was contaminated. We were scrambling. We paid twice for the ecstasy also. We had this big package of X coming from LA on FedEx. We were tracking it and noticed it had been sent back. It got confiscated and then we had to find a local supply.
 
Have you been considering elements of that year in your own work?
I’ve definitely cooled my jets on having parties. I just can’t help myself, though, so every now and then we’ll do something in the studio. Now that I have two little girls, parties seem to be a big part of our lives again. We’ve already done some significant kids’ birthday parties here in the studio. I’d like to turn this into a kids’ club, almost like a parody of a nightclub for adults.
 
Did you ever consider quitting?
After the third party, “Shoot the Freak.” I had no idea how powerful these paint guns were. People got hurt. Paintings got destroyed. The studio got destroyed. I didn’t realize that those little paintballs are filled with pigmented fish oil. The studio stank and we couldn’t clean that shit up off the walls and the floors, and for years we would find little paintballs. I just felt so defeated and almost threw in the towel. Coincidentally, the next party was about fishing, so it just happened to work out. The other turning point was about halfway through. That was just due to plain old exhaustion.
 
Any other big surprises?
Dungeons and Dragons. We didn’t expect that we would feel like outcasts at our own party. The guest host brought the Dungeons and Dragons club. They came to play. They were serious. There was no room for us.
 
Are you glad to be revisiting these for Basel?
It feels good for psychological reasons to quite literally close the book on this whole project. It’s been lingering for so long. It’s only when you have a deadline and a publishing date that something’s really going to get pushed through. It was a lot to organize, a lot to wrap my head around. And now it’s at the printer. It’s really being done. 

Writer
Alina Cohen