Thursday, September 4, 2014

Jeff Koons and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

And then Koons entered the building.

Culture, it can land like a dark hard meteorite.
That must have been what it was like when in 1966 Marcel Breuer’s design for the Whitney hit the ground. That brutal geo-cluster imbedded itself into Madison Avenue obliterating the southeast corner of 75th Street. Its bulging ocular windows promptly stared down its architectural neighbors and a deep, waterless moat separated it from the street. The only access from the sidewalk was a footbridge that stopped just short of touching the building, further distancing itself from pedestrian matters. On its southern and eastern sides concrete walls, physically part of the building, abutted the diminutive townhouses that shared the block. Not common walls, but rather blinders or partitions, they additionally drew a line, declaring ‘this is culture, that is not’. It was more than a simple hi-low dichotomy, it was an unconditional pronouncement: ‘this is art, that is not’. Nothing could be more simple or direct.

And then Koons entered the building.
The Whitney has had a troubled past with exhibitions[1]. I remember a Jasper Johns exhibit that made him look like an artist who long ago managed to run out of ideas. A MOMA retrospective latter corrected that. But the Whitney often misrepresents even the best of artists. Part of the problem has been curatorial, part of it was the physical inability to spread things out and tell a story like the Modern can. The Breuer is a great building, but stubborn. Flexibility is not really a part of its program. It can intimidate and confuse curators. Perhaps even artists. It took Richard Tuttle two retrospectives to get it right.

In ‘Koons World’ the twain shall meet.
At a talk at Hunter College a couple of years ago Koons recounted a fond childhood memory. He was sitting on the floor, watching his father smoking cigarettes. There was an ashtray with a small naked female figurine sitting at its edge and when the heat from his father’s cigarette got near her, her legs would spread open. This fascinated the young Koons to no end. One could label such experiences lowbrow, kitsch, goofy, trivial, meaningless. But for Koons his experience could not, and he insisted should not, be diminished by any such labeling. For Koons the world is full of such wonders and should be embraced as such. They are what we live for. He also spoke of his fondness for Kierkegaard.

Unfortunately the Whitney is abandoning ship. Over the years it has tried to expand around and on top of the Breuer building, but failed to do so. The kitsch pastiche proposed by Michael Graves thankfully tanked and plans for expansion never seemed to recover from that misstep. So it’s constructing a new building at the end of the High Line.
Did someone say kitsch pastiche? Not Koons. Never. All the world is open to him (and his 129 assistants)[2]. Of course Andy Warhol is the guiding spirit of this ‘Koons factory’. But where Warhol was always elusive and clever, Koons can come off as self-satisfied and smarmy[3]. His talks are like a 12 Steps to Loving Jeff Koons Workshop[4]. Thus the hate mail[5], it’s not just a reaction to the work (cause it has its moments, doesn’t it?) it’s a reaction to the whole Koons phenomena (the outsized studio, the outrageous prices, and the fact that he’s just too happy).

His early work often had a psychological pull. The bronze life raft and aqualung (life saving equipment that would drown you if used), the equilibrium tanks (relationship dynamics). The New Series was also an attempt at that; virginal vacuum cleaners sealed in Plexiglas[6]. Strong work, but not breakaway. It was when his work truly embraced popular culture (including porn) in a way that his peers did not that he pulled away from the pack[7].
Everyone makes bad work[8], Koons has made his share, but there is no question he has produced some signature pieces that captured a moment, a zeitgeist perhaps. Specifically some of the shinny metal works, the artisanal polychrome carvings or ceramics and the flower dog.
And the paintings? Can they be seen as something more than an attempt to refresh the ideas of James Rosenquist? Maybe, but successfully?[9] It’s all technique. Shinny happy paintings. The work is too content with itself. There’s no other there, they’re just there[10].

Big and Shinny

Just Big

A fair amount of simplistic eye candy is sprinkled throughout the Whitney (lots of shinny stuff and big bold paintings everywhere)[11]. Funny thing is after seeing the giant pile of Freudian Play-Doh poop[12] and the over-sized poodle balloons, Koons’s signature Bunny sculpture looked diminutive, tiny even and its surface comparatively dull. It’s still a classic piece but wasn’t given the space it needed.
Is this the infamous Ashtray?

I went on a Friday, three hours before ‘the pay as you wish’ thinking the museum would be relatively empty. No such luck. As I arrived the line out the door forecast bumper-to-bumper traffic. Once inside it was obvious that the crowd was digging it. Selfies and group portraits were being taken everywhere (I’m probably in the background of a thousand Instagram posts). Obviously it was part of Koons’s plan to not prohibit people from photographing his work, or themselves with the work. The mantra here is: Have fun; you paid to get in, enjoy.

Happy Shinny People
I’ve probably never seen so many happy young adults enjoying themselves at a contemporary art exhibit[13], and it was child friendly as well. No attempt to shock, even in the porn section. It was soft porn really, no cum shots, no anal penetration (actually I don’t remember any penetration, or erections[14]), just Koons and his wife to be, naked and frolicking about. When this body of work was first exhibited I recall it having some shock value. But that was in the late 80s and early 90s. In today’s world of Internet porn and celebrity sex tapes Koons’s images of the artist rolling in the hay with a porn star have become something the whole family can enjoy.


On the ground floor is a small room of recent work. With these Gazing Ball sculptures Koons has discovered that plaster is indeed the material of the future. Anyone who has seen Rodin’s plaster version of the Gates of Hell at the Musee D’Orsay knows that it is superior to the bronze versions. Koons works this material to perfection (loved that mailbox/engine/compound bucket fusion).

Plaster makes perfect

But back to the paintings, the later ones have been executed in a paint by number manner that want to impress but they’re too technical to exploit the joyfully dumb ‘anyone can do it’ approach to painting and still be fun. And maybe that’s a problem. Koons’s work has become all about making large complicated perfections of simple things. He couldn’t make a small copy of a multicolored clump of Play-Doh that his son made and leave it at that. He had to turn it into a grander gesture.
Where’s Richard Tuttle when you need him?

It used to be the norm that creative people became artists because they found doing anything else intolerable, or simply impossible. Not so with Koons, his success on Wall Street has been well publicized. But perhaps the most remarkable Koons trait is the absolute absence of the ‘artist as alienated individual’. The modernist posture of alienation, difficulty and resistance is entirely absent in Koons World, replaced by art works beckoning to be embraced, wanting to be loved. Certainly there’s nothing unsettling or disorienting in an exhibit that has the atmosphere of a colorful and over-sized gift shop. Except for it to be in this building.
The populist stance of Koons World underscores the discriminating toughness of Breuer’s museum. It’s an incongruous fit. If this show had opened in the soon-to-be Whitney of Renzo Piano it would have been a different experience[15].

[1] I’m not simply talking about the biennial, which I somehow forgot to see this year.
[2] Not that that 129 assistants is a problem, just saying.
[3] Check out the one-hour interview with Charlie Rose. The only other visual artist Charlie devoted a full hour to has been Richard Serra. Next time Serra will demand two hours.
[4] At the talks I’ve been at, part of the audience is converted and adores him. And part of audience mumbles “What the fuck“? With Koons it’s not a love/hate thing. It’s a love or hate thing.
[5] Well it could also be the fact that financially his sales put him in the overpaid athlete category.
[6] However the plexi gave the work a period feel of the late sixties and early seventies (not new) a period when a lot of artists were using plexi. I saw them when they were first shown and I thought they were antiques, not new. And who can tell if a vacuum cleaner is actually new (virginal) anyway, or used (a ho)?
[7] Many of his peers were also foraging pop culture (shopping and appropriation as art making, ala Prince, Vaisman, Steinbach, etc) but Koons has clearly pulled away from that pack.
[8] I used to tell my students that 90% of all art is bad. And it made them happy. They felt like they had a chance if they only had to compete against 10% of all the work out there. But more recently they have rebelled, claiming that 99% of all art sucks and they resent the fact that they have to look at it!
[9] Refreshing is ok, if successful. Jessica Stockholder did a good job with the ideas of Robert Rauschenberg.
[10] At this point in the writing I haven’t seen the retrospective.
[11] Now I have.
[12] Talk about plop art!
[13] The Jonathan Borofsky retrospective at the Whitney was hard to beat for sheer fun. There, people there were engaged, active and took over the space in an unpredictable manner. Here in Koons World they were more passive and just plain happy.
[14] Maybe I didn’t look close enough.
[15] Sorry for all the footnotes.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

At the Hammerstein Ballroom Nicole Atkins opened and set the stage for the Sturm und Drang of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Her vocals plus the workings of her minimal band (just a drummer and guitarist) powerfully filled the theater. It was a performance that reminded me of those female led California rock bands from the 60s and 70s. Atkins possessed the bust it out tempo of Lydia Pense and Cold Blood, the lung power of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the songstress acumen of Barbara Mauritz and Lamb. She was great.

However if misfortune and extreme emotions are what you want, go no further than a Nick Cave concert. Banging darkness, driven orchestration and opera like tragedy were ever-present. His rendition of Stagger Lee alone was all that and beyond, way beyond. I’ve been to Nick Cave concerts before but here Nick nailed it, no doubt. Theatricality, song choice, lighting and the tight workings of the Bad Seeds were all consuming.[1]
Cave’s movements on stage were a fusion of Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. But largely Jim Morrison, especially in the way he held a hypnotic presence over the audience. Apparently when Morrison got arrested for exposing himself on stage the band claimed that he had performed in a manner that made his fans believe such things had happened, but didn’t. Morrison’s performance put the crowd in a suggestive state of mind they said. He made them think he showed them his dick. They were spellbound, mesmerized. In actuality the trouser snake stayed in his pants, never to emerge from its leather housing.
Cave moved about in a Lizard King fashion. Engaging the audience up front in an undulating open crotch stance, he touched them, they touched him. He clearly had them in his spell.
As I left the building I thought I overheard one fan say, “I saw it”, and her friend respond, “I touched it”.

[1] I later wondered if someone was able to document this supreme event (other than with those ubiquitous iPhones). But what filmmaker could possibly possess the requisite skills to record such melodrama? If Douglas Sirk were still around he would be a candidate. But in reality this evening was truly Abel Ferrara territory.

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