The newly completed—and eerily deserted—conference pavilion at Wynn Las Vegas seems more Twilight Zone set than resort wing. Covid-19 has emptied the pavilion of weddings; the annual World of Concrete plenary session belongs to a maskless era. Vacant hallways stretch for literal miles, the 560,000 square feet of meeting-room space bereft of clientele. An uncanny emptiness overwhelms brightly lit plush décor, the Scotchgard in the seating sections barely tested. There’s no one here but me.
As I make my way through the conference pavilion from level to level, corridor to corridor, painting to painting, I have an uneasy feeling that I’m being watched. In another part of the Wynn Las Vegas—across the casino, past the restaurants and hotel towers and pools, through the shopping esplanades and in the executive-office annex—guards peer at me through security cams, clocking my every move. When I lean close to a painting to decipher the artist’s signature, I’m careful to keep my eyes a foot away from the canvas. Security probably thinks I’m staff. Who else looks at artworks in the empty Wynn conference pavilion during Covid?
A critic with a free slot. After covering art and design in Europe and New York, I landed in Las Vegas where I regularly wrote about the lively local scene for eight years. Then Covid took away a paycheck, but not my mission to promote the city’s visual culture. Las Vegas has a trove of artwork by artists major, minor, and emerging, in every style and in every medium—paintings, installations, sculptures, videos—from miniature to monumental, from vulgar to sublime. Here’s my chance, I thought, to assess casino art collections without having to elbow my way through techies from Düsseldorf. Here’s my chance, finally, to understand what we’ve really got.
There’s no better place to start a Las Vegas art safari than the Wynn Las Vegas, which has been synonymous with art since the resort opened in 2005. By then, casino mogul Steve Wynn had long since flipped his dad’s Maryland bingo parlor into a $2.1 billion fortune (currently estimated at $3 billion). Wynn’s genius partly lay in joining forces with his old pal, Las Vegas native Roger Thomas. Wynn provided visionary casino know-how and a bottomless budget; Thomas supplied innovative interiors noted for their sumptuous use of noble materials and ultra-high-end taste. Together, they gilded the Strip, replacing dark, closed-in resort blueprints with sky-high ceilings, lush atriums, placid lake views, and mountains of marble. Live butterfly orchids, not synthetic ones.
The Mirage Hotel and Casino, opened in 1989, was the first Wynn-Thomas property to break free of the mobster décor mold with waterfalls, mini rainforests, and windows tinted with actual gold dust. Next, the Wynn-Thomas duo authored the lavish Bellagio Las Vegas, the first of their hotels to feature fine art. By then, Wynn and his wife Elaine’s collection boasted the best: Cézanne, Renoir, Rembrandt, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh. Works by these artists and other luminaries were displayed at the Bellagio in a gallery built expressly for that purpose. Guests could once contemplate Picasso’s 1932 Le Rêve (The Dream) at registration. The colorful painting, depicting the 51-year-old artist’s 23-year-old mistress in supine reverie, is also famous for the six-inch tear created when Wynn’s right elbow abruptly met the mistress’s left forearm. The painting was originally slated to bequeath its name to Wynn Las Vegas, but Picasso’s friend and rival Matisse became the resort’s chief trope generator.
In the luxurious Wynn casino resort, I can see how Matisse’s The Persian Robe (1940), with its fashionable woman languidly leaning towards an anemone bouquet, has been crunched by Thomas’s mind and processed into palette and floral motifs throughout the property. From the grand atrium entrance with its anemone mosaics to the curtains patterned on the model’s robe in the Baccarat Salon, Matisse’s portrait fuels the engines of Thomas’s decorative combine. In contrast to previous Wynn-Thomas themed resorts (South Pacific for the Mirage, Italy for the Bellagio), Wynn Las Vegas has art in its DNA. The floral carousel with balled blossoms winks at Matisse’s still lifes; the koi pond pings the artist’s iconic fish paintings. Thomas’s decorative register—built solidly on a foundation of Italian Renaissance and French Neoclassicism—is masterfully coherent, its whimsy carefully deployed. The Matisse theme is subtle but systemic.
Even away from the main casino floor, in the vacuous wonderland of the conference pavilion, Thomas has morphed Matisse’s painting into carpeting and color choice stretching as far as the eye can see. At precise intervals, Thomas—who famously shouted at a construction worker, “That’s Mister Faggot to you!”—has placed vignettes: tables/credenzas framed by lamps/chairs, often Mid Mod knockoffs cozying up to Hollywood Regency. And this is where the fun comes in: What is the story on the artworks above the tables and consoles? Scores of paintings/drawings struggle in the liminal space between wannabe and is. You can feel the sweat. It’s yours. Even though AC blasts through the empty convention facility, a half-million square feet of meeting space results in serious corridor walking and a lot of wall space hung with hundreds of original canvases, tapestries, and works-on-paper.
It is these artworks I want to know more about.
Information on fine art in Las Vegas casino resorts is difficult to come by. Casinos are not museums. Nor are they galleries. They have a public relations office, which doesn’t specialize in fine art. Motivating a press attaché to, say, obtain the exact dimensions of a monumental artwork temporarily on display in Hotel Registration can be a forbidding task. Even before Covid, resorts may not have had staff available to find someone who knows someone who may know where a particular artwork advertised on the company website is currently located, if it’s still on the property at all. Records of art works presumably exist, but not the bandwidth to assist scholars with substantive research. Even at MGM Resorts International with its dedicated art-and-culture staff, obtaining basic information unavailable on the web—date, dimension, materials, provenance—can be an uphill battle.
The Wynn Public Relations office is as helpful and cheerful as they come, but they have no idea who the artists are in the conference pavilion. Nobody, they say, has asked that question before. They can’t help me identify unsigned works from photos, nor tell me where the art was sourced. They refer me to the Wynn Design and Development Office, which is unable to answer art queries, what with virus downsizing and record-keeping squirreled away in Thomas’s head. I’m told that Thomas just picked things up while he “travelled the world.” Wouldn’t I rather watch the Jeff Koons video?
I know a lot about Jeff Koons; I know next to nothing about the artists in the conference pavilion: Dulaureus, Jean Marc Louis, Kazumi, Banieli, C. de Streel… These obscure, mostly French, artists have negligible digital footprints. Each time I use my journalistic chops to slip past security to stalk art in the conference pavilion, I find doors open to another corridor or another staircase, and more paintings and drawings by minor artists. These abstract or expressionist works often backdrop decorative ceramics, antique lanterns, or floral arrangements kept fresh for my visits. I sympathize with the paintings—I want to move the clutter away, but I’m on security cams, and Thomas has made sure that every essential worker clutching a dust cloth knows exactly where the table-toppers go.
Overall, the quality is solid B-string, but on my second visit I spot what looks, from a distance, like a colorful Juan Gris vibing at a high-traffic point if/when the convention-goers return. The textured, layered surface includes cuttings from between-wars Parisian newsprint and a signature—Tauba Sarnaka—succinctly identified on the internet as “a French contemporary artist inspired by his grandmother’s paintings.” I’d like to hang this Sarnaka on my wall because I’m a sucker for synthetic cubism, even ersatz synthetic cubism. I also spot interesting paintings by Jacques Marley (1878-1965), recognized as a minor cubist per an iffy source. And four more Sarnakas that look like Marleys, and Marleys that look like Sarnakas.
As luck would have it, the maître himself, Roger Thomas, kindly rings while I’m deep in the pavilion, hunting for works that the Wynn doesn’t seem to know it has. Can he tell me anything about the paintings?
Thomas offers that he’s placed Sarnaka and Marley artworks in several Wynn properties; that Sarnaka is heavily influenced by Marley; and that Sarnaka’s friend and Marley’s widow have adjacent Marché aux puces booths, where it’s so cold in January, because Thomas always goes to Paris in January. The hall of representational mirrors—Sarnaka doing Marley doing cubism—is not unlike the actual promenade corridor in which I’m standing. It doesn’t feel quite real, but it looks fantastic. Oh, and Sarnaka is actually a 30-something “she,” Thomas adds. Well, maybe. He’s never met the artist.
“I design a couple million square feet every couple of years—I can’t keep everything in my head,” Thomas says. “Are we done?”
I ask about the framed embroideries invigorating non-vignette wall space throughout the conference promenades, the ones with circles, spirals, and other geometric patterns.
“Those are suzanis.”
Thomas fills the silence by explaining that suzanis are a traditional Uzbek art form, stitchery handmade in women’s laps for yurts, clothing, and bedding. His long-standing affinity with embroidery links to his ancestors, who did needlework. Thomas was also inspired by Rudolf Nureyev’s Paris apartment, which was a “riot of suzanis.”
I tell him I counted 187 suzanis in the conference area alone before I gave up.
“They’re getting rarer and rarer,” per Thomas’s San Tropez dealer. “Young women don’t want to sit in sewing circles.”
Thomas has another call. Now we really are done.
I trek from the conference pavilion back to the resort to consider, once again, the Wynn Las Vegas fine-art A-list—works occupying entrances, corridors, and gathering places throughout the property. I prefer the Sarnakas to a mediocre Miriam Schapiro painting of stylized bull heads that her ground-breaking feminist platform, valued for its patterned imagery, can’t fully redeem. Near the intersection of the Registration I Promenade and the Fairway Esplanade, there’s another Schapiro painting portraying a black female singer (interesting and robust), and nearby, the giant Raoul Dufy silk tapestry once adorning legendary fashion designer Paul Poiret’s Parisian barge (pretty but precious). As I make my way through the resort, I consider counting hundreds more “rare” suzanis—in elevator bays, in restaurants—but dutifully confine myself to the artworks with labels: blown-glass sculptor Timothy Horn’s scaled-up brooches (sincerely decorative), encaustic painter Frank Owen’s jewel-colored, anemone-ish works (absorbed by the interior), and a found-object sculpture cast in ceramic by Viola Frey (valiantly holding her own). The two Lari Pittman paintings in Registration are, alas, not among his best.
The issue with most of the artwork is that it’s been placed by five-time AD100 nominee Thomas, whose interiors are so alpha that the art can be nothing but beta. What can compete with a hanging parasol garden, life-size crystal peacocks, anemone-lantern trees, dramatic drapery edged with passementerie, and swirling golden mosaics, as well as carpets, ceiling moldings, and chandeliers fit for royalty? The opulence at the Wynn—which gave the Strip its first Forbes five-star rooms—is so thoroughly commanding that it hijacks the unconscious. The embodied mind doesn’t know that it just stepped beneath a massive chandelier designed by Gustave Eiffel—of Eiffel Tower fame—but the mind knows it’s somewhere. The fantastic bid to “resonate with human aspiration,” per the Wynn-Thomas motto, steadily returns customers to the resort’s luscious environment and encourages them to spend. The Wynn-Thomas formula not only broke with mobster décor, it also broke records for profits. I listen as a trio of chic Zs squeal with delight at a craps table—it’s 10:12 AM, and they’ve won.
Two artworks nonetheless catch my eye and hold it. The first, Gallops 2 (2001), a diptych by Nellie King Solomon, is painted and poured on Mylar sheets, and awkwardly squeezed in between wall lamps, which, ironically, helps wrench Solomon’s amebic pond from Thomas’s decorative control. The second is by Dave Hickey’s protégé Tim Bavington whose gorgeous 2005 painting Joe Joe (Double Diamond) combats casino hypnosis with geometric rigor and a palette Matisse himself would admire.
After the next couple of miles—I circle through the Wynn Encore, a contiguous property with Thomas interiors that functions like a wing—I finally find Jeff Koons’s Tulips (1995-2004) banished to a Plexiglass eddy in a shopping esplanade. The monumental bouquet, which at one time magnificently adorned the Wynn-Encore rotunda in a buoyant swirl of multi-colored mirrored steel, now succumbs to its three tons in the reduced enclosure. It’s on sale, along with the nearby Murakami and Virgil Abloh monumental sculpture, Arrows and Flower Neon Sign (2018), of which the less is said, the better. In 2018, when a slate of #MeToo lawsuits forced Wynn to divest, the collection took a hit. He denies the charges and blames his ex-wife Elaine, now the largest shareholder at Wynn Resorts, for setting him up with a nymphomaniac pedicurist. Gone are the days when Wynn called bingo numbers at the parlor and Elaine handled cash. Wynn’s eyesight—he was declared legally blind in 2010—continues to fail, too, the art he owns slipping into darkness. Vermeer. The newly acquired Picassos.
But Wynn and Thomas’s vision of luxury remains ever vivid. And convincing. They changed the Strip. They changed me: I feel richer just by being inside the resort, surrounded by beauty, immersed in quality that I can’t access any other way. I’m resonating “with human aspiration,” just as they intended. If I had a spare $200, I might just pull up a chair to a Plexiglass slot at the poker table and test my ability to read tells through masks while an attractively outfitted waitress-model serves me a perfect espresso. But I’m more interested in the art that Thomas hung in the executive offices. And in the suites! I can’t stop wondering what’s in the High Roller suites.
Dicey is a series by Dawn-Michelle Baude that makes meaning from Las Vegas casino art.