This weekend, actor Neil Patrick Harris had some total strangers over to his house to look at his art. Harris, known even to nonacquaintances as simply, irrevocably “N.P.H.,” lives with his supercute boyfriend, David Burtka. They have been together for six years, and have been collecting art for four.
“It’s addictive,” says Burtka. “I’m glad it’s not heroin, though it can be just as expensive.”
As a favor to L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the guys allowed some of MOCA’s top donors to witness the extent of that addiction.
As shrimp appetizers are passed, thank-you rounds commence. To the beverage sponsors from the museum. To Harris and Burtka from the museum. To the museum from Harris. To the guests from Harris.
“Thank you for coming,” Harris says. “It’s an incredibly weird experience having people I’ve never met walking through every room in our house. We were afraid people would be going through drawers and stuff.”
They are not. They are being much more subtle. They are scrutinizing the kind of toilet paper (plush, unscented), the magazines in the basket by the bidet (GQ, Popular Mechanics), the bottles of foaming cleanser in the shower (Kiehl’s eucalyptus, arranged way too neatly), the pop-up books in the guest room (Castles, Sharks, Mega-Beasts). They ooh and aah at the grandness of the stove and refrigerator (Viking, stainless steel), and note the copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the nightstand: By god, does N.P.H. love Dumbledore, too?
Truly, the whole glorious shebang is a kind of performance art in itself. Title: Fundraising for the Museum of Contemporary Art During Its Current Financial Crisis. Harris and Burtka are part of it. So are the guests who paid $125 — on top of their $155 annual MOCA Contemporaries membership and their regular $165 annual MOCA “contributing level” membership — to be here. For just over 400 bucks, you can depart with the knowledge that Neil Patrick Harris keeps a pencil sketch of a guy with a cleaver embedded into his skull over the light switch in his bedroom. Worth it? Absolutely.
In case you are wondering what type of real estate Doogie Howser, M.D. money (and Starship Troopers and How I Met Your Mother and Harold & Kumar) buys, that would be: a stylish, modestly sized two-bedroom home in the Studio City hills with elegant dark-wood floors, great light, a stunning view, a pool, an herb garden and a brick patio with lemon trees. The house is, however, running out of wall space.
“They say you’re not an art collector until you start sticking stuff in closets,” says Burtka. This being Los Angeles, Harris gets his art-collecting advice from his caterer, who owns so much art, it is stacked up in a pile beneath the bed.
Much of the Harris-Burtka collection is, in Burtka’s words, “magical, creepy, ghostly, cerebral and quite funny.” Harris is an accomplished magician, and their previous home was awash in secret doors and concealed panels. Gaze long enough at almost any piece of art they own and something hidden bubbles to the surface.
A headless woman seems to materialize out of a brick wall in Andrew Sendor’s Future Minded Fruit. She places her hand on a Victorian gentleman’s shoulder. His expression is uneasy. Is that . a scythe she carries? Or merely a harmless shadow?
Or how about the mechanical automatons in Harris’ office. “This one is perverse,” he says of one, positioning a small dental mirror between the wooden lady’s legs. “See? You can look up her skirt. Her panties change color, then” — he pulls a lever — “they disappear. Awkward!”
“Careful,” he warns when several women move to check out his bookshelves. “One of those cabinets is full of porn.”
A few words on Neil Patrick Harris’ office: Best. Office. Ever. Dark and spooky but kinda silly. It contains an original 1968 plaque from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, and a Medusa-head lenticular “changing portrait” from the same. A bride doll with a beating red heart glows on the floor.
“That is Haunted,” the volunteer-lady-serving-as-docent offers, pointing at a painting beside the office door. “But there is nothing haunted about it.”
The painting’s actual title is Untitled. The artist, Tony Payne, hand-stamped the word “haunt-ed” onto the paper with pigment made from ashes of a burned-down home. If it was haunted, Harris says, he would run out of the room screaming like a girl.
“They’re asking when you’re doing a magic trick, Neil,” says one of his friends.
“Ha!” Harris answers in a chipper way. “Never!”
“If I had to take one home with me, that would be it,” says one woman, examining a Darina Karpov watercolor hanging in the bedroom, an experience not unlike reading tea leaves. You stare and stare and keep finding stuff: a rib cage, rope, cage, snakes, arteries.
“How do you even envision that?” says someone else.
Out by the pool, Ari Wiseman, MOCA’s deputy director, asks the guys to explain their decision-making process. A process that can be onerous for one person is exponentially so when two must come to agreement. Do you like the art? Does it fit in your collection? Is it the right price?
“We agree on every single piece in the house,” says Burtka. “Usually, if I like it and he doesn’t like it —”
“We still get it,” says Harris.