Friday at dusk, Cheech Marin–better known as the Mexican half of the 70s stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong–cut into his 66th birthday cake. It was of the chocolate variety, with six joints on top as candles. There was some speculation amongst the crowd as to whether those are actual joints, or whether this was a “special” chocolate cake. (Answers: no, the candles were actually twisted Marlboro cigarettes; and also no, it was just delicious.)
Yes, it was a crazy party up at ArtHamptons, an art fair in its fifth year, where Mr. Marin, in addition to celebrating his birthday–sponsored by Hamptons.com–was also being honored as Patron of the Year for his collection of Chicano art (one of the largest in the world), which was on partial display at the Bridgehampton fair. One would assume that Mr. Marin and the beau monde associated with the Hamptons set (and New York art fairs in general) would mix about as well as tobacco and chocolate cake, but the comedian/actor/collector was quite at home in the festival’s white tents, where he was selling several pieces of from his collection.
One of the first things Mr. Marin told The Observer: “To separate collectors from the art process is facetious.” We made a note to not underestimate the intelligence of Mr. Marin, who, after all, once beat Anderson Cooper on Jeopardy.
“I like art fairs, I like galleries,” the television and film veteran told us, smiling broadly at the interruption of a young man who stopped and asked Mr. Marin to pose for a photograph miming smoking a spliff. “It’s the museums that are the most glacial of all,” he continued, without a break in the flow of conversation. “We have to conquer the museums; they are the final alma mater.”
The “facetious” comment was made in response to our questions regarding the controversy surrounding his 2008 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A.: Selections From the Cheech Marin Collection.” Several critics had slammed Mr. Marin for not providing an all-encompassing history of the art form in the 50 or so collected works he had shown, arguing that single collector exhibits (especially when that collector has a famous name) undermine a “museum’s curatorial independence.”
“Promotional enthusiasm is not enough justification for an art museum to organize a show,” Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight had sniffed in his scathing take-down of the show, noting that Mr. Marin’s collection was mostly made up of artists he discovered himself. Describing the Chicano style of his collection as “Mexican art meets pop culture,” Mr. Marin’s telling of the LACMA dust-up was more about race than it was about how many people curated the exhibit.
“What could be more American than the melding of pop art with another culture’s heritage?” he asked rhetorically in front of two murals by L.A. graffiti artist “Werk.” Based on a series of Huffington Post essays on the same topic, Mr. Marin is in the middle of writing a book about the overwhelming Latino presence in the arts that has so far been given little attention. The book’s title is We Have You Surrounded, We Come in Peace.
“You can stand in front of a lava flow,” Mr. Marin mused, speaking again to the stodgy museum culture. “But why would you want to?” Mr. Marin plans to build a Chicano presence in these cultural landmarks the same way everyone does. “We’ll buy our way in,” he announced proudly. “We’ll be those donors whose names you see on the plaques.”
In the meantime, he’s more than happy to bask in the accolades of the somewhat-more-thawed Hamptons scene, which has welcomed him and his wife, Natasha Rubin, a classical pianist who will be playing Carnegie Hall later in the summer and was soon traveling to Australia to perform.
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