Thursday, October 16, 2014

Last Call: Koons and the Whitney on Madison Ave.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994-2000
Mirrored-polished steel, with transparent color coating, 121 x 143 inches
(307.3 x 363 x 114.3 cm). Private Collection.  © Jeff Koons

On Sunday, October 19, 2014 at 6 pm, the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, currently located at 945 Madison Avenue, will close to the public, along with the museum  itself, after 48 years in its iconic Marcel Breuer, Hamilton Smith and Michael Irving home. Koons, of course, will continue to produce his financially successful extravaganzas, bringing joy and k'ching-k'ching to the artist, his crew of about 180 employees, his dealers Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, the auction houses, his collectors, and the Whitney itself (which made a tidy sum for its swan-song on the swanky Upper Eastside).  

Andy Warhol said: "Being good business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." In this respect, Koons and the Whitney made a Warholian decision to join forces to fill their respective coffers and seduce the public into believing good business makes "fascinating" art. 

"Look, it's in a museum," you might say.  "Doesn't that validate its importance!"   Well  . . . . ur . . . not quite.  Museums have to make money. Koons' art is about reflecting our consumerist society (from the vacuum cleaners to inflatable beach toys) and making products that earn plenty of money (these "recontextualized" kitschy versions). Pure and simple: Koons' products sell well - to the uber-wealthy collectors and to the scores of Whitney visitors who often waited on long lines to get into the show.  

Jeff Koons, Ushering in Banality, 1988. Polychromed wood; 38 × 62 × 30 in. (96.5 × 157.5 × 76.2 cm). Private Collection. ©Jeff Koons

Which brings to mind the whole aura of the Koons phenomenon: its Ushering in Banality, the title of his Hummelesque sculpture from 1988 (the end of the Reagan Era). Here is Pop Art without the irony or politically-charged sting.  Instead, Koons' work seems to summarized our American appetite for veneer and little else (our obsession with image, superficial beauty and fantasized sexuality).

Koons Exhibition with the "New" series - Hoovers, etc.

But you know, America, we deserve him.  Jeff Koons is the Bouguereau of our time: cloyingly sweet, intellectually unchallenging, politically neutral and easy to digest.  Pure eye-candy.  He is the master of giving us what we want, because that's his job - to please us with what he thinks brings us "joy."    

William-Adolphe-Bouguereau, The Birth of Venus, 1879
Musée  d'Orsay, Paris

William-Adolphe-Bouguereau (1825-1905) was the darling of the Paris Salons, an Ingresque academic to the max, and Henri Matisse's instructor at the Académie Julian in Paris (opened in 1868 and still going strong as ESAG Penninghen).  At the end of the 19th century, he was among the best-selling artists in France and abroad (including the United States).    In 1891, Bouguereau admitted that he painted to please his customers: 'What do you expect, you have to follow public taste, and the public only buys what it likes." (Robert Jenson, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-siècle Europe, Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 20-22.)

Sounds like Koons, doesn't it?

Bouguereau's paintings were scarfed up by collectors and La Patrie itself (France) for the glory of their/its legacy. (Take note, dear Whitney, this is your legacy too: letting money trump taste and coming up empty.) Bouguereau died as the Fauves shocked the nation with their crass colors and bizarre body-types.  Who remembers WAB? Who remembers Matisse?  I rest my case.

Installation with "Equalibrium" series

As we see in Robert Hughes' interview with Koons, the guy can't help it.  He seems to be a "Gee, gully" kind of fellow, who believes in his power to spread happiness through making "beautiful" things.  His father was an interior decorator.  (Please watch the video on the Whitney's website.)  

Jeff Koons, Moon (Light Pink), 1995–2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 130 × 130 × 40 in. (330.2 × 330.2 × 101.6 cm). Collection of the artist. ©Jeff Koons

The weakness in Koons' whole enterprise is that he thinks it communicates to his audience through its reflection. He believes that our images bouncing off the shiny surfaces clearly indicate that the art includes us. I doubt Koons' audience takes the time to figure this out.  Koons' work needs about a nano-second of contemplation. No more - and no less.  Even the spare installation encourages a showroom mentality, wherein we mindlessly eye merchandise for the pure pleasure of looking at pretty things. 

Therefore, all said and done: it's a surprisingly dull show, essentially a retread of so many gallery and museum exhibitions on view in recent years. Thoroughly devoid of authentic charm, this retrospective of this American celebrity artist may very be a true reflection of the auteur himself.

Whitney Museum of American Art
 Architects: Marcel Breuer, Hamilton Smith with Michael Irving, opened in 1966

So why go to the Koons show?   To say good-bye to the Whitney on Madison Avenue and wish it well in the Meat Packing District below Chelsea.  (The selections from the museum's collection is a stunning show, but lacking in a solid representation of American art in all its gender and ethnic dimensions.  Something to work toward in the future.)

I look forward to the Met's takeover and better days to come at the Whitney. Less "Bouguereauté" (as Degas would call it) and more bite. 

Farewell to an era,
Beth New York

aka Beth S. Gersh-Nesic, Ph.D.
New York Arts Exchange

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Art, Looting, Clooneys, and the Elgin Marbles

Phidias?, The Goddess Iris?, The Parthenon, c. 450-40 BC, location; British Museum

The "Elgin Marbles" are back in the news this week, thanks to George Clooney's new bride Amal Alamuddin, who plans to advise Greece on the return of these legendary sculptures which fell from The Parthenon's pediment and frieze on September 26, 1687 during the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War.

Between 1801-1805, Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin), British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at that time, gathered up the neglected ruins and shipped them with the Ottomans' permission to England, where they were acquired by the British Museum in 1816.   (Such freedom to "relocate" national treasures was not isolated to the Brits during this aggressive imperialist era. Napoleon's troops carried off the famous Medici Venus  in 1800 for France's art collection - as well as plenty of other choice war booty before he too was "relocated" to a British territory, St. Helena, in October 1815.  The Venus de'Medici was returned to Italy in December 1815 .)

Lysippos, Victorious Youth or Athleta di Fano, c. 300-100 BC
Getty Museum

And in the US., we have our looting meshugas in the form of Getty Museum's  Victorious Youth  or Athlete from Fano.  It's legitimate ownership is still in dispute.  That long yarn of ego and intrigue was featured in Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino's book Chasing Aphrodite and in a review of the book on my other blog Beth New York.

Do you think the new Clooney Power Couple can right a wrong that is already two centuries old? If this activist Monuments Man and his spouse can't do it, then who can?

Amal Alamuddin Clooney will meet with the Greek Ministers this week.
Updated October 16th - Negotiations in progress.

Good night, and good luck, Amal,
Beth New York

aka Beth S. Gersh-Nesic, Ph.D.
New York Arts Exchange