The fall art season has begun -- well after the purportedly cleansing end of the bubble -- with the Spirit of Stupidity, stalking us in the form of the well-meaning but misguided Dan Colen. A few weeks ago, the New York Times featured the artist, reporting that he caused an uproar in Berlin in 2006 by posting exhibition flyers that showed him nude with a tallis hanging from his erection. The would-be rabbi breathing life into this golem is superstar mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, who has given us stellar shows of Picasso and Manzoni, but here seems intent on burning up his credibility on a display of dominion.
If this show were at almost any other gallery, it’d be ignored, or at least written off as an event straight out of 2007 -- an array of ersatz art calculated to cash in on the mindlessness of overeager, oblivious collectors. Indeed, Colen is not untalented, and he has a way with trompe l’oeil realism. He has made good work in the past, including a series of large paintings of candles inspired by Disney by way of Dalí. His current show, however, is all strategy and insipidity -- so clinical and scripted that its boom-time theatricality and market-driven slickness are laminated on arrival. Large pretty paintings made of chewing gum replicate the abstraction of Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein. There’s a huge skateboard half-pipe displayed upside-down that is presumably meant to bring minimalism to mind but just makes you think of the skateboarding bowl Jeffrey Deitch placed in his gallery in 2002. “Poetry," as the show is called, isn’t even fun in the way that, say, a Damien Hirst show can be, as a train wreck of attention-getting desperation. Colen shows not a lick of spontaneity.
Emptiness at Gagosian -- with prices rumored to be around $300,000 and all the work supposedly sold -- can’t be ignored, and won’t go away of its own accord. We all have to discuss it. The question becomes what to do, how to talk about it. Is resistance futile?
The problem is not so much with Colen himself, who is just a willing pawn in a dead-end game. It’s his kind of faulty thinking, and the brassy, vacuous spectacles staged at Gagosian and elsewhere, that are poisonous. Once upon a time in the 1990s, art that wanted to be complicit with the system, that tried to lure collectors as it criticized the artist-dealer-buyer complex, had an edgy Trojan-horse coerciveness. A lot of people got rich creating a gigantic industry of artists, dealers, and curators who’d do almost anything for the limelight. By now, Colen’s high/low art -- paintings made of cheesy materials; kicked-over tricked-out motorcycles; those skateboard ramps -- is not only lazy thinking. It is old-fashioned art about old-fashioned ideas about commodity-art-about-art that no one cares about anymore. At this point, continuing to follow in the footsteps of Warhol, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons appears derivative, completely mechanical, and possibly corrupt. Colen fetishizes a moment that no longer exists, and behaves like nothing’s changed. People seem scared to say a lot of this art is bad; it’s as if they fear being uninvited, cast out from the circle of social light.
Highly produced show-stopping extravaganzas make it hard for more personal shows to gain traction. It’s frustrating that just when these sorts of gaudy gestures were going away, a show like this sucks all the air out of the room. But the Colen show is also a reason to hope. Now that money is not dominating art-talk as thoroughly as it did a few years ago, attempts to play this aspect of the system come off as hollow, high-octane celebrations of nothing. I think that this will take care of itself. Except for the real dupes, most people instinctively know that big is no longer automatically better, doing something just because you can is no longer an end in itself, hunger for power and snowing rubes is old hat, vision is again more important than money. Andy Warhol famously talked about a future of “business art." Here we have that, but without the art. Now we’re just getting the business.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.