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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 12 APRIL 2010 — Despite centuries of wishes to the contrary by artists and intellectuals, art and commerce are as paired and complementary as right and left hands. No living artist understands that better than Jeff Koons — making Skin Fruit, the exhibition he has curated for the New Museum, all the more intriguing.

As Don Thompson, a professor of economics and marketing, observed in his book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (reviewed in Culturekiosque on 14 May 2009), contemporary art accrues value through branding: the artist becomes a respected brand when his art is sold through a brand-name gallery or auction house to a brand-name collector and shown in brand-name museums. A skilled collector may show his character in the works that he collects, but a branded collector of living artists can do much more: he can help set tastes, help set the market and even help determine what art gets made.

The works in Skin Fruit are all the property of one collector: Dakis Joannou, a Greek industrialist. That Joannou is also a trustee of the New Musuem has led to cries of foul, not because of matters of taste (a trustee of a museum dedicated to contemporary art would be presumed to be a skilled collector) but because of matters of commerce: a showing in a major museum helps boost a work’s price at resale.

Liza Lou: Super Sister, 1999
Charles Ray: Revolution Counter-Revolution (1990 and later)
Photo courtesy of New Museum

The interactive experience between collector and artist is perhaps best seen in a work by Charles Ray: Revolution Counter-Revolution (1990 and later) is a carousel with malevolent-looking horses. The beasts appear to stand in place because the base of the carousel moves in the direction opposite to the movement of the horses (and a couple benches), at precisely the same speed. The work does that because, as the wall label explains, Joannou financed a re-execution of it by the artist that added the mechanical complication and other new elements. The patron has helped form the vision of the artist since before Pope Julius II made Michelangelo channel his love of the male nude into a depiction of scenes from the Book of Genesis. There is no reason that it should not continue in contemporary art, even if the result is not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but a visually interesting and intentionally unusable carousel.

The addition of Koons as curator serves further to hone the exhibition: artists made their works; they were edited, as it were, by Joannou when he selected among them for purchase; Koons then made the final cut as to what is seen in the museum. In that way, the works on display represent the tastes not only of the artists and of Joannou but of Koons; in theory, everyone profits financially by all those layers of editing, branding and self-advertisement. That includes Koons twice over because he selected for exhibition is his own One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985). That is his famous basketball hovering inside an aquarium. (A quarter century later, it still looks fresh and engaging.)

Jeff Koons: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985
Photo courtesy of New Museum

The final edit being that of Koons, what the viewer gets for his money is long on the kind of ironic, largely representational works that Koons makes, and long on sculpture as well, which is Koons’s primary medium of fame. Also true to Koons, who I first saw in person long ago at Sonnabend Gallery selling pornographic photographs of himself with his then-wife, many of the works have an erotic theme.

A problem with art that is heralded when new is that later audiences often conclude that much of it wasn’t really that good. There is a romance to new art that is like human romance: it generates great excitement and passion at first, but if it doesn’t offer something deeper and more transcendent, it dies. Think of our ancestors, who collected all those academic paintings with such high-minded reverence — the same works that now fill volumes devoted to kitsch. The problem with the kitsch of prior eras is much the same as with kitsch now: it pitches softballs to the wide-open gloves of easy emotion. The Old Kitsch played to the soothing self-satisfaction of sentiment; the New Kitsch aims for the smug self-satisfaction of cool. In both cases, the artist forgets, refuses to believe, or simply lacks the talent to convey that art needs both a mind and a soul to endure.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster: Masters of the Universe, 2000
137 x 68.7 x 79 in. Fiberglass, translucent resin
Photo courtesy of New Museum

Perhaps the most accessible New Kitsch work in Skin Fruit is Kiki Smith’s Mother/Child (1993), a sculpture in which a nude woman and a nude man ignore each other as each sexually self-stimulates. Entering the same room through the opposite door is Paul Chan’s Orgy before Man and Storm (2003), an ink-jet depiction of mostly happy, communal carnal love — and therefore perhaps the most visually engaging work in the show.

Richard Prince is represented by I’m in a Limousine (Following a Hearse) (2005-06), a work in which words appear over a background of the artist’s own cancelled checks; it stands as something of a rarity in Prince’s oeuvre because it does not openly "appropriate" — one is tempted to say "infringe upon" — the creative expression of others.

None of that should in any way suggest that Skin Fruit isn’t a good exhibition; it is enjoyable, surprising in places and fun throughout. Each artist, again in the contemporary mode, shouts for our attention, and Joannou and Koons have somehow managed to make a choral piece from the disassociated voices of the contributing artists. You really do feel, after walking through the exhibition, that you are seeing a complete body of work, one that is greater than the sum of its parts — which tells you that Joannou and Koons have both done their jobs well. True to the contemporary mode, however, and probably because of the prevalence of New Kitsch, there is plenty that is startling but little that is moving; in an era when art is often mistaken for something that calls attention to oneself, that is simply to be expected. We must, as when going to a summer action movie, enter such an exhibition knowing that we are trading resonance and, that long-lost word of art appreciation, beauty for a level of amusement that is one part visceral and one part cerebral.

Robert Cuoghi: Pazuzu, 2008 
enlargement to a height of 20 feet of an Assyrian demon in the Louvre
Epoxy, solvent varnish, fiberglass, polystyrene, and steel
Photo courtesy of New Museum

In all the arts, the people involved worry about a graying audience. There should be no such fears here. A young crowd assembled recently in front of Schedule of the Crucifix (2005) by the Polish artist Pawe³ Althamer. A man went behind a screen, changed into a loin cloth and crown of thorns, then ascended to a wooden crucifix the artist had conveniently placed upon the wall behind him and got himself into the proper position — there to remain, said the wall label, for as long as he could bear it. Just at that moment, my nine-month-old took to projecting his own baby-talk commentary while teething on the purple antlers of Mortimer, his stuffed Lamaze moose. Trained as I am to think of museums as libraries for the eye, at first I tried to hasten him out, but I realized that no one seemed to mind. Contemporary art is borne of the noise of contemporary life; it comes to us as a challenge more often than as a reflection. Adding a joyful noise this time was probably not a negative. When you consider that another of the sculptural works on display included a performance by a singer, some may well have thought at first that a shouting baby was part of this performance. When meaning in art can only be surmised, as is the case with so many contemporary pieces, knowing where art ends and where life begins can be difficult.

Pavel Althamer: Schedule of the Crucifix, 2005
oak cross with bicycle seat, straps, handles, oak folding ladder and screen
Photo courtesy of New Museum

Consider as well that the Metropolitan Museum is currently showing an exhibition of drawings by the mannerist artist Bronzino, skillfully chronicling his development from his days as a pupil of Pontormo through the creation of his masterworks. It is the kind of curating we have come to expect from the Met: scholarly but neither academic nor willing to talk down to its audience (which is the curse of too many museums elsewhere in the USA). No one involved in putting on the show is likely to profit more than would anyone doing a good job for his regular pay. 

While Jeff Koons has been making and promoting contemporary art, he has been buying up undervalued Old Masters, as noted earlier in the Culturekiosque  review of the Thompson book. Art is a cultural glory but it is also, in simple economic terms, a commodity, and Koons is a former commodities broker. A key to success in trading commodities is to watch for aberrations in the market: when something of known sustainable value starts to trade at a relative discount to the market, that’s what you buy. It will be for future generations to tell us if Koons is the great artist collectors pay him to be. We already understand that he knows his business.

Headline image: Andro Wekua, Sneakers 1, 2008
Photo courtesy of New Museum

Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection
Curated by Jeff Koons

Through 6 June 2010
New Museum
235 Bowery
New York, NY 10002
Tel: (1) 212 219 12 22 

Alan Behr practices intellectual-property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP.  A member of l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, Mr. Behr last wrote on The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism for Culturekiosque.

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