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A Work in Progress

The unexpected can rattle a marriage, as conceptual artist Vanessa Beecroft learned when she fell in love with a pair of motherless Sudanese twins. Now she and her husband are navigating the aftermath.

May 04, 2008|CHARLES KOPPELMAN | Screenwriter and producer Charles Koppelman lives in Berkeley. Contact him at

Most of us have at least one story about laying eyes on someone and immediately falling in love. The ancient Greeks called it "theia mania," madness from the gods. Vanessa Beecroft's story of her life with Greg Durkin starts there, with a well-aimed arrow from Eros.

She met her husband one night on a street in Brooklyn. In the dim light she could barely see him. "I got a little bit scared," she recalls. "This very tall shadow asked me about an apartment. I gave Greg my number and ran inside. The phone rang as soon as I got upstairs." She was struck. Smitten.

Because Beecroft is a conceptual artist--she's known for installations using live female figures, sometimes identically dressed, sometimes wearing nothing but Tom Ford high heels--and because her marriage, at times, has had a certain theatricality, it's a fitting paradox. Love at first sight--revealed in the dark.

Beecroft sits at a long worktable in the minimally furnished living room of her rented home in the Hollywood Hills, wearing leggings and a loose blouse. She is friendly, even peppy, but her energy borders on nervousness. In her lyrical, Italian-inflected English, she apologizes for being indecisive about having this conversation. "It was this subject of love. I got a little bit afraid. My publicist said not to do it--that it's not my topic."

But love lies heavy on her mind these days and she may yet warm to talking about it. "This month hit hard," she says, leaning forward, eyes wide open. " 'So, love,' I said. 'Why not? This is happening!' "

Her willingness reflects the difficult state of her marriage and a need to share the stresses that have recently shaken her relationship. The simplest version of the story, told in a film that screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is that Beecroft traveled to Sudan, fell in love with a pair of motherless babies there and labored, in the presence of a documentarian's camera, to adopt them--without consulting her husband.

The more complicated story, about a couple reeling from the unexpected and struggling to stay upright, is still being written. And it starts with a picture of perfection.

Taped onto the table in front of her are doodles of French cartoon characters, Barbapapa and Barbamama, drawn by her youngest son, Virgil. "This could be me and Greg because they are such a happy family, with very ethical values," she says, examining one. "Hippies from the '70s."

She circles back to her first meeting with the man who became her husband--it was a few days after she had sent her older Greek artist boyfriend packing, ending their eight-year relationship. Durkin's presence had registered somehow.

"I hadn't really even seen him that night," she says. But when she finally did go out with him, she liked what she saw. "He looked like a Rodin or a Picasso. I thought this would be an interesting person."

The way to Beecroft's heart is indeed through her eyes, definitely not her stomach. After studying architecture and painting in the mid-1980s, she entered the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan, where she focused on set design. She began her exhibition career in art school by displaying "Book of Food" (also known as "Despair"), a journal that catalogs a bulimic's eating habits--her own--while local girls she hired walked through the space wearing clothes from her wardrobe. This became her medium of choice: live female figures, chosen, she's said, for their resemblance to her.

Beecroft cemented her reputation by staging dozens of performance-happenings, such as "Show" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1998. For one night, nearly nude models stood for hours in the rotunda while invited guests circulated, watching. The art critics couldn't decide if she was making a post-feminist statement about fashion or pandering to a corrupted way of seeing.

"My work with the girls has the function of showing issues in a way that is pleasant, but you don't know what I'm saying," she explains. "It is destabilizing."

At the time of her initial encounter with Durkin, he was working at an entertainment-oriented management consulting firm. He recalls that first meeting less mythically than she--"more a friendly neighbor thing." But it did resonate. "I liked her voice--light and exotic." Later, on their first date, Durkin says, "We went to dinner and . . . talked for a few hours about world views and our philosophies--where it all began for me. She was really intelligent and inspiring."

The visual attraction was also in play for him. "I remember she was running on ice in high heels, which was this kind of elegant punk-feminine thing. She was strong and weak at once. She was beautiful."

He proposed three months later, offering his grandmother's diamond ring. Beecroft said yes.

Now she giggles girlishly. "He brought me flowers every day. It was a very romantic courtship. Very old-fashioned . . . so I really liked it."

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