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At the Gagosian Gallery in New York, Sean Penn puffed away on his e-cigarette. He was at a screening Tuesday night of a 17-minute short film by Madonna, his ex-wife, and photographer Steven Klein. He looked like a guy dragged to his ex-wife’s new arty hobby.

Not that this was an average exhibit. Like July’s concert-performance art piece by Jay Z at Pace Gallery, this was another case of a world-famous pop star parachuting into the art world seeking credibility for one of their more esoteric projects. Like that performance, the art world lapped it up.

This story first appeared in the September 27, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“From my point of view as an artist, the art world is kind of boring,” said Cindy Sherman, who, like her friend Chuck Close, was an early arrival around 10 p.m. “This is still pretty exciting. And fun.”

Not at all like the Jay Z joint, which she skipped.

“It was a two-hour commitment during the day and I was just busy,” she said.

Besides Sherman and Penn, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, filmmaker Lee Daniels and Lindsay Lohan all came to check out the commotion, even if no one quite knew what the pop star was about to reveal. Art film? Music video? An expensive Vine?

“I’m dying of curiosity,” Sherman said. “I was like, ‘What the heck is this? Is it going to be an art performance? Is it more of a music thing?’ I still don’t know what it’s going to be.”

In a press release days earlier Madonna said “secretprojectrevolution,” as the film is formally called, would be a “call to action and give people a place to voice their own creative expression to help fight oppression, intolerance and complacency.” If that wasn’t enough of an explanation, Madonna offered a nearly 10-minute introduction to the 17-minute short, which was itself heavy with expository voice-over. To distribute the film, she partnered with BitTorrent, the file-sharing system, and Vice, which created a social media platform for aspiring artists to upload their work, and threw the soiree at Gagosian.

For a party, there were an awful lot of instructions from the pop star. Before the projection began, Madonna requested that everyone sit down, and so the black-and-white short film played out with everyone cross-legged on the floor, like in art class. The bar staff was instructed to stop serving or refilling wine until after the performance was over. And no one was allowed to leave until the end, which, for Penn, seemed to be getting further and further away. He was standing on the edge of the seated crowd, listlessly taking the scene in. Nearby, Anderson Cooper, his boyfriend, Ben Maisani, and actor Mark Consuelos, in matching black suits, were riveted. The film was followed by an interpretative dance piece, and then another interpretative dance piece and, later still, the star turn: Madonna performed a cover of the Elliott Smith ballad “Between the Bars.”

Before she took the stage, when it was nearing midnight, Penn headed for the door accompanied by illusionist David Blaine. One of the gallerinas watching out for early exits stopped him briefly. She let him through once she realized who he was.

Sherman followed Penn. She had a harder time explaining to a bouncer who she was.

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