Now that New York University is building a campus in Abu Dhabi, and the emir of that oil protectorate is assembling the choicest collection of abstract art in the world, it would behoove his highness to drop by NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and pick up a few selections from "New York Cool," curated by former New York Times art critic and current NYU professor Pepe Karmel.
Like all such university shows, the assortment here is wildly uneven, and, conveniently for the emir, the few masterpieces which resonate are all abstract. The one exception is a glorious female spreadshot by Willem de Kooning, which might grace the emir’s toilet. Two big paintings, Large Rectangles Large by Robert Goodnough and Large Architectural by Ilya Bolotowsky, are so representational of the glass towers now being built in and around the NYU campuses in both Manhattan and the desert emirates that they could be painted tomorrow.
Kenneth Noland’s Spread, a gift of the late Museum of Modern Art curator Bill Rubin, is a black hole in a green vortex, evocative of the oil well into which all of nature is being quickly sucked. A black oil slick, whipped up on Japanese paper by James Lee Byars, winks at an actual sculpture of a turd by Louise Bourgeois. Adolph Gottlieb’s Circular mimics the sunburst saluting the Grand Emir gazing desertwards above the arid towers of his soulless wealth.
Prejudice against women, another hallmark of the sheikdom, is inadvertently buttressed at Grey by much awful distaff painting: tepid crosses by Chryssa, an execrable bull done in Futurist style by Elaine de Kooning, a seascape stain by the perpetually underwhelming Helen Frankenthaler and horrible daubs by Miriam Schapiro. But the worst and most dated work in this show is a throwaway poem / paint collaboration from Frank O’Hara and Norman Bluhm.
How fortunate that the emir has accumulated so many of our depreciating dollars, enabling him to cherry pick the best abstract paintings from a New York School made up largely of Jewish exiles fleeing anti-Semitic extermination. Try being a Jew nowadays in Abu Dhabi, where the NYU administration, in a series of recent public forums, has assured us and the emir that its new campus will be locked down from its surrounding sheik culture. Somewhere, Mark Rothko slits his wrists once again.
"New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection," Apr. 22-July 19, 2008, at Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, New York, N.Y. 10003.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).