‘New Yorker’ Samizdat

The Secret Art Gallery of Condé Nast

Like so many on the edit staff at The New Yorker, C.S. Ledbetter is not content to simply do his job, which ranges from reading unsolicited manuscripts to working the phones. Fiction writing and pastels are two genres Ledbetter has turned his hand to in the past. But in his latest bid for immortality, The New Yorker's underground cult leader has turned the reception area, on the 20th floor of 4 Times Square, into an art gallery, decorating it as if it were his own home.

On June 7, the curator presided over the fourth opening at his gallery, to which guests were admitted by invitation only. From 4 to 6 p.m., staffers and friends filled the long white space, sipping wine and taking in the newly hung pieces, which range from wrought-iron and lead sculptures to pen-and-ink drawings and video art, all in an abstract vein. "The only requirement," says Ledbetter, "is that the work ring true to the artist's vision, and that it leave open the possibility of communicating that vision to those who encounter it."

"The work is getting too good," marveled editor in chief David Remnick, who perused the show before disappearing into one of the building's high-speed elevators. Staff writer Tad Friend praised Ledbetter's catalog essays as "brilliant satires of woolly, pontificating artspeak," while deputy editor Pamela McCarthy dubbed the new show "the most ambitious and most successful" of Ledbetter's four exhibits so far.

Like everything else at The New Yorker, the C.S. Ledbetter Gallery is rather incestuous—much of the work is produced by staffers and contributors, and most of it is bought by other staffers and friends. For example, Talk of the Town editor Susan Morrison purchased what she calls "doodles" by critic Nancy Franklin. The fortysomething Ledbetter says he's sold work to the head of the Michigan Nature Conservancy and a Hollywood screenwriter. He doesn't take commissions, but encourages artists to contribute a nominal amount to cover gallery expenses.

Insidery? You bet. But the gallery itself is high-concept, a tongue-in-cheek artistic gesture. While designed to showcase the work of staffers, the space remains closed to the public, thanks to what one editor calls the "fascists" who run the building. In another Ledbetterian paradox, the unifying theme of every show is the curator himself.

Writer Rich Cohen, a longtime friend of Ledbetter's, praises the man's prose and his devotion to literature and art, but insists that the curator's personality "is his own greatest work of art."

Brainard Carey, an artist who attended the latest opening, says, "The show is a portrait of the curator and his relationship to the people who work here." While the collection represents a hodgepodge of media, it shows "someone very sensitive to what people are doing," said Carey, who praised Ledbetter for "extracting" so much good work from his colleagues.

Ledbetter launched the gallery as an act of rebellion in August 2000, a year after The New Yorker moved in with the other Condé Nast magazines. "When I came here I saw this vast expanse of blank walls," he remembers. "It was totally devoid of personality and out of keeping with the great tradition of The New Yorker, which is a kind of down-at-the-mouth intellectual seediness." After hanging a single art-school painting on the wall, Ledbetter realized that "if we could move quickly enough, we'd have the thing done before anyone who had veto power could exercise that power."

Deputy editor McCarthy confirms that plans were in motion to hang published New Yorker art in the reception area. But then Ledbetter "had this brilliant notion spring from his head," she says, and getting permission was a nonissue. The Condé Nast archivist "thought it was fabulous" and other corporate people "liked it."

To this day, Ledbetter's past and his personal life remain a mystery to his friends on the staff. Perhaps for that reason, people at the opening were buzzing about a new portrait of Ledbetter by New Yorker contributor Michael Crawford. The subject of intense bidding, the painting blends a darkened visage with electric-turquoise highlights in his beard. "It does capture the inner pain that I've felt in my life," said Ledbetter, in a rare moment of unvarnished candor.


'Nerve' Ticklers

At Nerve.com's Tribeca blowout last week, male strippers boogied in their boxers, and a redheaded cherub pranced around with a sock on his cock. But Susan Dominus, editor in chief of Nerve's print magazine, has more subtle tricks up her sleeve. Her mag is a work in progress, and unique in its ability to publish stuff you'd never see in a typical lifestyle mag (nudes of fat people, a rhapsody about unsafe sex with strangers). Nerve can be uneven, but its quirky wit is ever more on display in a front-of-the-book section called Overtures.

Dominus says the mag's willingness to tweak celebrities "doesn't make our jobs easier." For example, Nerve regularly asks celebs to answer "one embarrassing question" and to lounge in their bedrooms, discussing their sex lives. For Tops and Bottoms, a new feature, the editors don't even bother getting access. Instead, the clever chart uses previously published quotes to classify celebs. Thus, Dave Eggers comes out on top ("Why are we infinitely more cruel and demanding and venal to people who we know and like or love?" asks Eggers), while it's a good bet that Axl Rose is submissive ("I discovered I scream the same way whether I'm about to be devoured by a Great White or if a piece of seaweed touches my foot," says Rose).

Overtures is also perfecting its pranks, i.e., interviews with people who don't know that their quotes will be published in Nerve. Dominus says the pranks are "SPY-inspired, without the mean edge," and they require contributors to "make a human experiment" of their lives. For example, managing editor Emily Nussbaum recently stopped people on the street to ask, "Am I hot or not?" (Sample answer: "You're all right.") Nussbaum also called mattress salespeople, looking for a bed built to handle an orgy.

Another regular Nerve feature is A Life's Work, a Q&A with a sex-industry "paraprofessional." In one such interview, the "director of quality control" for a Jersey bra manufacturer bragged that he sees "three or four pairs" of breasts a week and that he prefers a "38-C, 28 to 32 years old, with a nice tan." Dominus says the Q&As tap into the "absurdity and unintentional humor in our everyday existence," with a brashness that produces "good humor—if not good taste."

For a fearless magazine, why so few penises? Dominus says showcasing erections would be a "real test of advertisers' tolerance." Then again, Nerve wants to maintain hetero appeal. "If there are too many penises in there," she says, "straight men start to think it's a magazine for gay men—who, of course, they're desperately afraid of being mistaken for." But isn't that a double standard, a fig leaf to protect men from scrutiny?

In the future, Dominus says, the mag hopes to show more dick. "For now, we're still in the seduction process."

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