I never thought I’d hear the words, and they were even more ridiculous than imagined. Entering ArtLA’s “gala” opening on Thursday, I happened to fall in behind the comedian/actor/director Albert Brooks and his lovely wife just as they were being stopped by a young lady whose job it was to make sure everyone had a wristband. They didn’t. When the girl attempted to tell him he needed the wristband, Brooks snapped, “I’m a celebrity. We just did the red carpet!” He gestured impatiently at the photo-staging area behind us, then strode into the fair, leaving his flustered wife to deal with the embarrassment — and me to comfort the panicky girl. “Don’t worry,” I said, “he’s probably just playing a jerk in his next film.”

Speaking of ridiculous words, memo to ArtLA: An open bar, cut veggies with dip, and dealers and attendees wearing sneakers do not a “gala” make. (Even with a mini-red carpet and rude celebrities.) Either upgrade the ingredients and inform the guests, or drop the word from promotional materials and just call it what it is: a reception. Otherwise, you end up with me in a suit, the girlfriend in Burberry, and this comment: “You guys look like you’re going to a funeral.” No, it wasn’t Albert Brooks, just another comedian.

Aside from that and the cheap wine, ArtLA looked good this year. Highlights: Patrick Painter, Karen Lovegrove, Sister, Marc Selwyn, ACE (showing only Tim Hawkinson), Thomas Solomon, Susanne Vielmetter, Michael Kohn, Steve Turner, and the Jon Brion show at Largo (which too few people saw). Eight thousand attended the show in its new home at Barker Hangar, up 1,000 from last year, and sales were said to be strong. Illness kept me from the L.A. Art Show at the convention center, but I’m told the show had about 35,000 visitors, up from last year’s 30,000; and some galleries sold in excess of $500,000. So: a good weekend for the art fairs; but is it just me, or has the value of having both shows on the same weekend worn off?

Meanwhile, LACMA’s Überaustellung, “The Art of Two Germanys,” opened Saturday night. A great exhibition co-curated by the museum’s Stephanie Barron, it occupies the entire second floor of BCAM. Those Germans can really paint — what’s up with that? On a weekend showcasing galleries, this museum show showed who’s boss.

* * *

There is a singular combining of the purely somatic and the archly conceptualized and verbal in his esthetic cognitions. —from major New York museum catalog

Milton Esterow will speak at LACMA on February 5 about that sentence and others like it, and why they suck. Mainly because he has no idea what they mean. And as publisher and editor of Art News he figures he ought to. Such artspeak, Esterow says, suggests a “botanical speech impediment” or “existential gas.” The title of his talk: “How to Look at Art Without Feeling Inferior.”

Esterow is a former New York Times reporter who, in 1972, bought Art News from Newsweek. Under his stewardship, it has become the world’s best-selling art magazine, with a circulation of some 85,000. (Art in America is somewhere around 75,000, Art Forum 40,000.)

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about art, a lot of nonsense written about it,” Esterow says. “I’m allergic to this kind of writing. If I don’t understand it, it’s not going to be in the magazine.”

This is not to say that Esterow’s writers have to agree with his opinions. “We have reviews in every issue, and I can’t believe the critics and I have seen the same shows. But if I didn’t respect their opinion, they wouldn’t be writing for us.”

In his talk, Esterow will also discuss the international art scene and market. “The art bubble has burst, no question about it,” he says. But it’s also a great time to buy, he notes, quoting collectors like Don and Mera Rubell, who picked up some of their best pieces (and bargains) in the ’90s, when there was trouble in the art market. And there’s a more important upside: “Obviously, all that speculation we saw is over. Some, including me, see it as a good thing. Instead of treating art as a commodity, maybe we’ll go back to treating art as art.”

Esterow adds that he once interviewed Henry Moore, who provided this simple, and entirely understandable statement: “Art is the way of making people get a fuller enjoyment out of life than they would otherwise.”

On this we can all agree.

Milton Esterow speaks at LACMA on Thursday, February 5, in the Bing Theater at 7:30 p.m. For information, call (323) 857-6512 or go to www.lacma.org.

LA Weekly