If I were the New Museum, I’d have whiplash by now. Since opening its spiffy new Bowery building in 2007, the place has gone from being champion of the underdog and advocate of the experimental to star-struck promoter of A-list artists and international cool hunter. With "Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection," curated by the artist Jeff Koons, this much beloved yet deeply frustrating institution has crossed some invisible line, its already thin credibility stretched to the breaking point.
"Skin Fruit" is a shapeless amalgam of big names, big dicks and big price tags, crowded into too little space. Koons’s intention in taking these 83 works from the star collector Joannou’s huge trove was, he said, to choose art that deals with "a vocabulary that people can respond to." Based on the art he’s chosen, I interpret that language to be big, brash and bold. Though the title is explained only obliquely, the erotic content suggests it might be Koons’ way of taking "skin flute," the slang term for phallus, and feminizing it, making it more suggestive, juicier. But trying to think like Koons is almost an oxymoron. And the overwhelming impression I came away with was, Wow, these two guys are really sick puppies. They’ve got sex, shit, birth and death on the brain. Maybe we all do. But the work displayed here is especially aggressive, and short on nuance, subtlety and seduction. Perhaps to the New Museum’s credit, much of it would never be shown in any other major New York museum. It’s hard to imagine Kiki Smith’s life-size sculpture of a man performing autofellatio displayed in MoMA’s atrium, for example. Or Pawel Althamer’s live crucifixion reenactment at the Whitney. The sheer amount of transgressiveness, at least, brings a bracing real-life quality of grit and truthfulness to the show. It’s also in keeping with the museum’s stated aim, "to support new art. . . not yet familiar to mainstream audiences." There’s plenty of work here that people outside the community of specialists and aficionados don’t often get to see.
The art world has not embraced the show (to put it mildly), and here’s why. In playing to its largest audience to date, the New Museum is not only pandering, but trying to trump the competition with the undeclared game of "collect the collector." At the show’s core is a distorted and depressing reality: Joannou’s collection is drawn from a tiny slice of the art world -- the superrich, the super-hyped and the supermale. (Barely a quarter of the work is by women.) It includes far too many famous artists who sell to major collectors for vast sums. It’s a history of the winners of one particular game -- a narrative that’s simultaneously blinkered, elitist and annoying.
What especially irks me is that the curating tells us more about Koons than it does about contemporary art, and he says it better in his own work. On his own, he takes sex into strangely decorative, materially obsessive, convoluted and psychotic directions: A bouquet of flowers is all about vulvas and desire and much more. A lot of the art he selected here is less nuanced, simply body-obsessed and often heavy-handed. Koons has said that he "tried to choose iconic pieces. . . works that seemed to have a really strong voice." He succeeds occasionally, like when he plays with monumentalism (size apparently does matter). The standoff between Charles Ray’s bizarre eight-foot businesswoman and Liza Lou’s beaded sculpture of a gun-toting Pam Grier enacts Koons’ idea of a psycho-sculptural race war. (Another terrific Ray piece nearby, Revolution Counter-Revolution, is a carousel rigged so it appears to be going backwards and forwards at once.) Roberto Cuoghi’s 19-foot-tall Assyrian-Babylonian god and David Altmejd’s mixed-media The Giant -- an overscaled naked man with squirrels nesting in his limbs --reign, alternately threatening and chimerical, over their respective rooms.
There’s another theme of terror, foreboding and paranoia. Cady Noland’s 1989 figure of Lee Harvey Oswald, tucked away in a staircase nook, should be installed on the Mall in Washington, a haunting monument to what William Burroughs called "the evil. . . there waiting" in America. Maurizio Cattelan’s shrouded marble bodies lined up on one floor constitute a chilling allegory to both fear and history, and are made all the more eerie by a nearby Tino Sehgal performance in which a singer intones, "This is propaganda, you know you know, this is propaganda." The room becomes a morgue with a manic mourner. And Robert Gober’s uncanny, surreal paired installation, Highway and Two Spread Legs, in which mannequin legs stick out of a wall papered with cartoon roads, implies how alive museums can be.
But, overall, there’s too much junk: Matt Greene’s amateurish paintings, and sculptures by Takashi Murakami, Paul McCarthy and Tim Noble and Sue Webster. And what is lacking throughout is a coherent vision.
I hope "Skin Fruit" is the final scene of the New Museum’s uneven first act in its new building. For two years, the institution has emphasized cheek, playing to the obsolete mind-set of "Love it. Hate it. See it!" It’s time to change the formula. Shock value, savvy and being adversarial are fine if they are backed up by credibility and vision. Too many shows here have lacked both.
HOW THE NEW MUSEUM MIGHT
STOP ANNOYING PEOPLE
by Jerry Saltz
Since reopening in 2007, the New Museum has raised a lot of hackles. At every level of the art world, people express chagrin and frustration with the place. Complaints always start with the terrible exhibition spaces in the new building and usually proceed from there to the idea that the museum is playing a zero-sum game of Art World Survivor: trying to outthink, outplay and outdo other local museums. The common conception is that the institution is more about strategy than vision. I love the place, but there are problems. Here, then, is a list of things the New Museum might do to get people off their case, and back on their side.
1. Architecture is destiny. The exhibition spaces in the new Bowery building are claustrophobic, eye-numbing, and simply not good for art. Essentially, they're three Chelsea galleries stacked on top of one another. Why anyone would want to build spaces like these outside Chelsea is beyond me. The good news is that the New Museum had the foresight to buy the six-story, 47,000-square-foot loft building next door. Things could improve if this building were opened for shows as soon as possible.
2. Let the curators go. I don't mean fire them. Laura Hoptman and Massimiliano Gioni, both at New Museum, are two of the best around. But there is a big problem: Most institutions allow curators to oversee their own group shows, but director Lisa Phillips has sometimes wrong-headedly asked her otherwise excellent staff to curate group shows together. As a result, "Unmonumental" and "Younger than Jesus," while containing good work, ended up as confused, watered-down hodgepodges that reflected compromise and consensus rather than vision. Phillips should scrap this terrible idea and give each of her capable curators a floor of their own and let them rip.
3. Enough with the hipness. The New Museum, to its credit, has shown deserving but underknown artists over the last two years. Jeremy Deller's one-floor Iraq War project from last year was remarkable. However, coming on the heels of the building-filling Urs Fischer exhibition, the current A-list show "Skin Fruit" throws fuels onto the public conception that the New Museum is too interested in success as an end in itself. Many cite the constellation of shows by the art stars Tomma Abts, Elizabeth Peyton and Fischer as proof that the New Museum is too enamored of money and success. It doesn't help that last two artists (as well as Deller) show with one first-tier New York gallery, and the other with a mega-gallery as well.
There are extenuating circumstances that people never factor in when attacking the New Museum. Abts was not represented by any New York gallery when her New Museum show was announced. Moreover, the New Museum is not alone in the terrible habit of fixating on certain galleries. MoMA has had two shows in a row of Marian Goodman artists, and no one said a word. The Whitney museum has had a spell of three Marian Goodman artists! Again, no one complained. The Guggenheim's last show was of a Marian Goodman artist! Before that they showed three artists from the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. Dia showed over a half-dozen Goodman artists before shutting down its West 22nd Street space. I love the Marian Goodman Gallery and the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. But what is it with these curators?
4. Don’t hate the Internet. To my old friend of more than 30 years, whom I met when I was a long-distance truck driver and he was curating a show at P.S. 1, and who served as the longtime director of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery and now works the chief curator of the New Museum: Richard Flood, in a lecture in Portland Oregon, you reportedly said, "I just found out about blogs three months ago." You then lumped all blogs together, saying, "They have no idea. History means nothing to them. Truth means nothing to them." You then went on to tear my Facebook page a new one, calling it "terrifying" and asking, "How did we get to Benito Mussolini's website?" Richard, two things: You need to learn about the Internet. Also, Facebook is not a blog. The people who post on Facebook do so under their own name; they put themselves at risk when they say anything negative about the New Museum or about me.
"Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection," Mar. 3-June 6, 2010, at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10002
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.