"My work has always been about my own personal sexuality," Jeff Koons said last month in his interview with Peter Jennings at Cooper Union (see Weekend Update, 10/22/02). Take him at his word with the new paintings on view at Sonnabend on West 22nd Street -- they're all babes, burgers and balloon toys, in fragmented, densely overlaid compositions that channel Francis Picabia and James Rosenquist through Photo Realism. Here's a bagel with lox and cream cheese constrained by a tight sweater bodice, there's a bikini bottom encircling an inflatable pool toy in the shape of a puppy, all meticulously, deliciously painted.
They're really quite good, as far as high-priced new art goes -- the quote for a painting is somewhere in the $350,000-$475,000 range -- and actually give viewers something interesting to look at. This kind of clashing imagery seems to be rising in popularity, as witness shows of new work by John Newsom at Stux and Lisa Ruyter at Leo Koenig. All these artists are emphasizing confusing surface dynamism over formal articulation of the picture space -- is "deconstruction" still in vogue?
Koons also has a sculpture in the back gallery, titled Dolphin -- an inflatable dolphin (another swimming pool float) hanging from the ceiling with a cast-iron pot rack hanging below it, with stainless steel cookware hanging from it. The word is that Koons laughingly refers to the piece as his "domestic goddess" -- a fishy Venus hauling some pots and pans. This piece is to be cast in aluminum in an edition of three with one artist's proof.
Elsewhere in the gallery is another striking sculpture by Haim Steinbach, which combines three tree-like reptile posts and a design-y green fruit holder -- a vision of completely plastic nature. This relatively new work by one of the top "object sculptors" of the '80s is $40,000.
You can hardly get more elemental than the voyeuristic urge, at least in the art biz. New paintings by David Salle at Lehmann Maupin on West 26th Street are all girls and flowers. I remember meeting Salle way back in the 1970s, when the then-unknown artist submitted something on "artists' books" to a magazine I edited. He had illustrated it with photographs of nude women with their legs spread open, holding similarly spread open books up in front of their faces. To my abiding embarrassment -- a sign of my poor taste, I suppose -- I didn't care for this witty conceit (one that would take him far). I made up for it a bit when I later reviewed his first show at Annina Nosei Gallery, then on West Broadway, for Art in America, more or less missing the point again, though I did mention his debt to Picabia. One of the nice big new paintings is $120,000.
In any case, the notion that Salle has somehow returned to the "tried and true" with his portrayals of sexy women, while accurate enough, is kind of silly. What are his appetites supposed to graduate to? Fine food? Art historical importance? World domination?
The pin-up as a literary conceit was the subject of the suite of 50 color photos by Bettina Rheims at Cheim & Read, a show that ended last week. Dating from 1991, each picture shows an attractive young woman posing seductively in modest hotel rooms. The models were clearly chosen for their youth and allure, are highly made up and perform what is an inventory of the motifs of the erotic pose -- naked, undressed, draped, prone, smoking, examining their breasts or vulvas, making moués at the camera, even twisting themselves into absurdly awkward positions (a la the Kama Sutra?).
The literary conceit in question, it seems, is also a standard, this time of 19th-century erotica, in which a staid banker-type has a secret obsession to photograph young girls in anonymous hotel rooms. The relationship is purely "visual" -- the soul of photography. And as it happens, Rheims' pictures -- nicely priced at $10,000-$15,000 -- have an undeniably visceral appeal.
A photographer who has worked commercially for French Vogue and L'Oeil and who is known for portraits of Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve and other French women, Rheims is now on a Vivendi commission to do an extended portrait of Chinese women. If she brings back a bunch of nudes, now that would be something to see.
The painter Duncan Hannah, who one beknighted art critic once called the Barry Manilow of the paintbrush, is a little more straightforward -- his installation at JG Contemporary on West 29th Street makes the gallery look something like a whorehouse. Obviously designed to arouse, small framed drawings and paintings of nude and half-dressed women fill the walls of the small space, salon-style. These charming works are priced between $700 and $3,500. It's tempting to say that Hannah's work is really about color, rather than subject, but the rascally Hannah professed to have "worn a pink tie to the opening in reference to pink of women's sex." Uptown, at Graham and Sons, the artist has some larger paintings of large ships -- could that be symbolic of something?
Of course, nudity is sometimes played for laughs. The octogenarian Vienna-based artist Maria Lassnig, who represented Austria in the 1980 Venice Biennale, paints herself as a soccer-playing nun naked from the waist down in one of 11 paintings on view at Friedrich Petzel Gallery. This rough-and-tumble is an allegory for the trials of life, apparently. In any case, Lassnig's cartoony, expressionist painting style is high-spirited and fun, and also held in high regard -- most of the big works are sold, with the two that remain carrying $68,000 price tags.
If a bare-ass nun isn't enough, we have as well a bare-ass knight by Robert Feintuch at CRG Gallery. The lifesize painting of a man wearing only the top half of a nice suit of parade armor exposes "an ever-deepening vulnerability" that "put his manhood in question," according to Kirby Gookin in the catalogue essay. The knight is sold -- as are most of Feintuch's cloud paintings at $16,000-$18,000. One small sunset is left at $4,500.
Finally, the gamboling nymphs have departed the sylvan glades painted by Delia Brown for her "Pastorale" exhibition at D'Amelio Terras on West 22nd Street. Brown's imaginary candy-colored landscapes were inspired in part by Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette's rustic peasant playground at Versailles. These high-keyed views of some schmaltzy Eden are quite unlike the gemlike watercolors that Brown showed here two years ago, scenes of a Palm Beach-style topless pool party made from photos the artist took at an event she staged. This time around, inspired by the torch music of Gaopele -- Brown directed a music video for the West Coast singer -- the artist pursued an anti-avant-garde heartfelt sentimentality via a painterly style that is reminiscent of Nicola Simbari or Thomas Kinkaid. Good going.