Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Jeff Koons

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

August 5, 2012

Swingeing London by Richard Hamilton, 1968-9, showing Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in the back of a police car. © Estate of Richard Hamilton.

Other than making my own, it’s nearly impossible for me to care about art in August. This is when nature is at it’s fullest, and very hard to compete with. Besides, it’s too hot. I mean, who the fuck cares? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these days, the best art comes out of cities like Berlin, New York, and London—as opposed to Paris and Rome—places where you need art to improve on things. Places where, if you didn’t have art, you might go crazy. In the recent documentary, Gerhard Richter calls Cologne, where he lives, an ugly city.  But maybe he needs that. Maybe Cologne is the perfect foil.

It’s never too hot for gossip and controversy, however, and right now L.A.’s MOCA is providing us with a steady stream of both. Today the L.A. Times published an articlein defense of Director Jeffrey Deitch, who recently fired—or allowed the Board of Trustees to fire—long-time curator Paul Schimmel resulting in great art world sturm und drang (see post below as well). Unfortunately, the “defenders” quoted in the article are hardly financially disinterested: Aaron Rose, who co-curated “Art in the Streets” at MOCA with Deitch, and Shepard Fairey, who has been hired by Deitch to create a graphic identity for the museum. Under those circumstances, what can they be expected to say? That Deitch is full of shit?

This article and, really, everything that’s been written about the situation, makes it sound as if the issues are (blah blah, I’m so tired of it) celebrity-driven “pop” culture, intended to introduce a “new” audience and bring in crowds, versus “serious” programming, which is, ipso facto, “old culture,” for aficionados only, and crushingly boring. Yet there is a middle ground, as exemplified by the Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou, which somehow manage to attract the world's largest audiences for contemporary art, without sacrificing rigor. And MoMA is packed.

On Deitch-as-curator, my feelings are mixed. By all accounts, “Art in the Streets” was great and I'm sorry it didn't travel to the Brooklyn Museum, as planned. Nor do I have an aversion to the idea of a disco-themed exhibition, done properly. I’m also a big fan of Shepard Fairey, and if I could hire him to create my graphic identity, I would. But to choose to mount not only a Dennis Hopper exhibition, but a James Dean theme show, curated by James Franco, while cancelling mid-stream those of Jack Goldstein and Richard Hamilton—two historic but under-recognized artists whose work would fit perfectly into the MOCA agenda—seems unconscionable. Oh, and did I mention the upcoming Jeff Koonsretrospective? Now there’s an artist who needs more attention….

However, none of this means anything. Deitch was hired to be a director, not curator, and the real reason he should go is that he’s proved to be a terrible manager. This whole debacle is a P.R. nightmare of his making. Basically, a director’s job is to create good will and faith in the museum, inside and out, in addition to raising the money to keep it going. It is important that donors feel confident that the museum is being run well, is going to last, and that they‘re not contributing to a vanity project of the principle donor, in this case, Eli Broad. It would seem now that the only direction the museum can take to regain credibility and confidence is to dump Deitch, tell Broad to step back, hire a strong director, and start fresh.

June 22, 2008
Installation view, "Who's Afraid of Jasper Johns," at Tony Shafrazi Gallery.

I’m catching up on my reading, plowing through the magazines that accumulate on my kitchen counter (I swear they reproduce overnight—I come down in the morning to find ten magazines where there was only one the night before). Not to be missed is Peter Schjeldahl’s summing up of Jeff Koons in The New Yorker (June 9 & 16) on the occasion of Koons’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which begins, “There’s something nightmarish about Jeff Koons” and ends with “We might wish for a better artist to manifest our time, but that would amount to wanting a better time” yet acknowledges the “material mastery, conceptual perfect pitch, and idealistic beauty of the objects on display in Chicago.” Yup, sometimes Koons fakes it and other times he makes it. Schjeldahl doesn’t make sense of the Koons phenomenon, as if anyone could, but for the first time I found myself reading about Koons while nodding my head in agreement.

Then there’s Jerry Saltz’s review in New York (June 25) of the Gavin Brown/Urs Fischer conceived “group show” entitled “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns” at Tony Shafrazi Gallery (through July 12th), a mishmash of authenticity, appropriation and reproduction that Roberta Smith called “demonically aerobic to brain and eye” and Saltz wrote is “like some mad replicating vision machine, or a walk-in Louise Lawler” that was intended to “set art free from the context of the white box.” I’m as weary of the “white box” as anyone, but I don’t find the tag sale aesthetic of “Who’s Afraid,” where every image seems to cancel out every other image, a viable replacement. Howard Halle, in Time Out, called it a “deeply cynical meditation on the deeply cynical nature of the contemporary art world.” To me it felt toxic, was toxic—given the out-gassing fumes from Ron Pruitt’s plastic bag “waterfall” and Rudolf Stingel’s new but visitor-smudged white wall-to-wall carpeting—an environment to be exited as soon as possible.

The back-story is much more interesting. I mean if you were to write a novel about a guy who sprays paint on Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA and then goes on to fame and fortune as purveyor of graffiti-based art, it would be just too cheesy. It’s a story that I've always felt revealed the rotten core of the art world. But to bring it up-to-date, here’s Shafrazi, 34 years later, at the after-party for ”Who’s Afraid,” being presented with a birthday cake that’s a giant replica of the Guernica.

Saltz writes: Brown climbed atop a table and, amid much yelling, toasted Shafrazi. He then thrust a cake decorator filled with red icing into Shafrazi’s hands. As the crowd screamed, Brown implored, “Write, Tony, Write!” Shafrazi started moving the device over the cake. Slowly he wrote the words I AM SORRY. Time stood still. It was like an angel of redemption had entered the room to take away Shafrazi’s guilt. The room went silent. I was shocked. The Shafrazi began writing again. He wrote one more word: NOT! It was like the Sopranos finale. Just as you thought everything was going to change, everything became more of what it already was.

And that sums up the exhibition: something that purports to be new and different but is really just more of the same old.