Essays

Not So Funny Art-World Gossip

When I had to do one of the most difficult things in my Artillery career, I felt like I made a huge mistake: I fired my gossip columnist, Mitchell Mulholland.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “The Grand Odalisque” (1814) this was in the artist’s day considered a bold and scandalous image. But on closer examination it was demonstrated that the figure is horribly misproportioned in terms of the curvature of the spine, rotation of the pelvis and even extra vertebrae. Some mistakes you can excuse for beauty’s sake, but if this figure stood up you’d probably wonder what the artist was thinking making her look so elongated (image via and courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

In my 14 years of being the editor in chief of Artillery, the longest running commercial contemporary art magazine in Los Angeles, our motto has always been: The only art magazine that’s fun to read! (Yes, exclamation point included.) People really took to the phrase when it was first used. We plastered it on banners and anywhere else we could. It was highly popular at art fairs, especially to newcomers that hadn’t heard of Artillery. They eagerly took to the challenge as they snatched up an issue, promising to let us know if indeed it was true. They were thrilled with the prospect of an actual art magazine that could even be remotely amusing.

The response was so overwhelmingly positive that I felt we were on the right track. Comical content was easy to add by introducing columns that were sure to provide hilarity. We had our comics, “Dead or Alive,” from an Australian female duo who killed it consistently, featuring dead artists (funny already, right?). Our advice column, “Ask Babs,” supplied irreverent acerbic replies with annoyingly sage advice. “The Poseur,” whose first column began in Berlin at an Amie Dicke art opening, ending the night at an S&M club talking with the manager about the benefits of odiferous burnt popcorn.

I often recommended my feature writers to not be too serious, mix it up a little, throw in some anecdotes, insert some humor. You just couldn’t go wrong with that. So when I had to do one of the most difficult things in my Artillery career, I felt like I made a huge mistake. I fired my gossip columnist, Mitchell Mulholland.

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In 2006, when Artillery was still a work in progress, as editor, naturally I had a few things in mind. One thing I definitely wanted was a gossip column — I admit a very notorious LA art zine inspired me. So one day when I was talking about needing a gossip columnist to a friend (whose name shall remain anonymous) and asked whether they knew anyone who might be good, this person responded: “How about me?” I was thrilled, realizing my good fortune. This person was hilarious and very capable. One stipulation: They would be anonymous under the moniker Mitchell Mulholland. Sheer genius I thought. Thus, “On The Wag with Mitchell Mulholland” — one of the first official art gossip columns in the art publishing world — was born.

The reason I wanted a gossip column was to poke fun at the seriousness of the art world and how seriously everyone took themselves. It was really a joke that I thought surely the art world could take. It was all in good fun, right? Wrong.

Mitchell Mulholland (who henceforth I will refer to using the pronouns he and him) was a hit, and feared. His column was hysterical; everyone loved it — unless you were the subject. With his backstabbing comments and stinging zingers, people just couldn’t get enough. He was famous for alliterations — Lipstick Lesbians, Paul Mayo McCarthy — and referred to extraordinary, silicone-full lips as “dick pillows.” Even a good friend who lives in Houston who knows absolutely nothing about the LA contemporary art world said it was the first page he went to when he got his subscription. I asked him why, since none of the names could possibly mean anything to him. He replied simply, “He’s so bitchy.”

Mitchell Mulholland proved to be very in tune with the art world; he knew exactly who to target and what would get the most attention. He was a malicious muckraker, a scholarly scuttlebutt, a gossip guru. He put Liz Smith to shame. In Artillery’s debut issue, his opening line read: “Well it seems to me that it’s been a long, hot summer of love. And I don’t mean puppy love. I suggest that this is indeed the summer of pussy love.” I insisted he start every column with “Well it seems to me,” and he did, though begrudgingly sometimes.

He tirelessly worked the LA art scene, attending VIP openings, benefits, private dinners, pool parties, galas, art fairs, and art performances — his favorite to ridicule. The identity of Mitchell Mulholland was still a mystery though. No one knew who he was. Some even thought he was me! Somehow he was everywhere though (or at least sent an informant, I later found out). No matter, he was good at faking it too.

So on his merry way, with each column, he managed to press on and insult everyone who was anyone. Larry Gagosian was simply “Larry.” Blum & Poe — a fave with their roster of art stars — came in a close second and Shaun Regen was not spared. Stalwarts like Rosamund Felsen and Patrick Painter made regular appearances. He knew no boundaries; if you were gay, you were “fey,” if you were slightly overweight caught swimming in a kidney-shaped pool at the Hamptons, you “did a belly flop.” Mitchell Mulholland was a pure democrat, he smeared everyone equally.

Of course I always read his copy before it went to print, and anguished over every word. After much deliberation, I would just cut a lot of it. When I gave back the final draft, he would be pissed. He would swear that I cut his funniest line (yes, it was); I was copping out, selling out (yes, I was). We would endure a mini cold war, but soon get over it.

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Then came the letter. It was addressed to “Artillery Editor,” handwritten on a business-letter envelope with the return address of a very famous artist whom I only knew as an art-world acquaintance. I opened it wondering why on earth this LA artist would be writing me. It started as, “Dear Tulsa,” with a few nice things to say about the magazine and me as editor, indicating that those were the reasons he supported and subscribed to Artillery. He then went on noting though that this last issue deeply bothered him, and he felt the need to write me. He started out with mild criticism of certain articles, but then his words become vitriolic, crescendoing into a tirade. Then the hammer came down. Two words: Mitchell Mulholland.

The artist had appeared as fodder for “On The Wag” in that particular issue, so I knew we had finally gotten to the core of the matter. Mitchell Mulholland was a despicable person, he wrote. He then went on to expound on the evils and shallowness of gossipmongers, the shameful fact that such a column existed in my otherwise respectable magazine. The letter ended detailing how, if he would ever find himself soaking in a Hollywood hot tub next to Mitchell Mulholland, he would shove the Artillery copy up Mr. Mulholland’s ass. (That scenario still gives me pause.) The famous artist ended the letter in all caps: “PLEASE CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION.”

I was simply heartbroken. I had great respect for this artist and was crushed. I immediately called Mitchell Mulholland. He had no sympathy whatsoever; in fact, he howled and was flattered, thinking it was the best thing on earth that could happen in his career as a gossip columnist.

Somehow we got through that episode and I regarded it as something that was bound to happen and would soon be forgotten. Artillery carried on and Mitchell Mulholland did too. Then he got wind of some very good gossip. A big local dealer was getting a divorce. As a journalist I know these unfortunate incidents are indeed on public record, so I felt it was okay to go with it, as Mitchell Mulholland and I always went over what he was going to cover in the forthcoming column, and besides, they were never going to advertise!

Then the email arrived. Said gallery would no longer welcome our magazine in their venue. They were very disappointed in the publicizing of such personal matters in our gossip column and therefore wanted nothing to do with us.

This was the second blow. Mitchell Mulholland was becoming a trouble child. I scolded him and said he was on timeout for a while, to temper the column for a spell while things settled down.

Eventually the insulted gallery welcomed us back; I think my new publisher unwittingly dropped copies off. Of course I was delighted to hear the good news, but then my heart sank as I realized Mitchell Mulholland had an item about said gallery’s dealer in his column again! This time he made fun of the dealer’s Tom Ford-ish couture, with his partially unbuttoned starched white shirt complete with chest hairs peeking out. I thought it was funny and harmless and let it go to press. Wrong move again.

When the second email arrived, I sat on the information a while before I called Mitchell. I had confided in close friends, even took a survey with the staff. I held a vote: Yea for staying, nay for leaving.

Nay won by a slim margin. Reasons stated being: not worth it, not worth losing advertisers, gossip isn’t that interesting, blah, blah, blah. Although there were fewer yeas, they had the most heartwarming pleas.

I reluctantly picked up the phone to call Mitchell Mulholland and deliver the bad news. I rationalized in my mind that it had been over for some time anyway; his column had become stale, a list of bold Helveticas. He knew it was over too, but wasn’t going to admit it.

When the column disappeared, it felt like Artillery was no longer the most fun art magazine to read anymore. I guess we’re just the longest running commercial contemporary art magazine in Los Angeles now. No exclamation mark included.

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