"Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?" is an early contender for Gallery Group Show of the Year. It has 22 artists -- or 25, if you count those on view in reproduction. But really it has no artists at all. The show centers on a collaboration by the two impresario-organizers, gallerist Gavin Brown and artist Urs Fischer. It is all about memory, morals, redemption, tribal loyalty and railing against cozy cliché. One of its causes can be traced to February 28, 1974, the infamous day when Tony Shafrazi, a 30-year-old Iranian-born artist, entered the Museum of Modern Art, yelled, "Call the curator. I am an artist," and spray-painted KILL LIES ALL in red letters across Picasso’s Guernica. I’d always assumed Shafrazi meant to paint "All Lies Kill." However, he recently told me he wrote exactly what he wanted to write, and that it was meant to be read in "a Finnegans Wake way" so that it said something whichever way you read it. (It’s still gibberish to me. Whatever.) Asked about it later, Shafrazi stated he wanted to bring Guernica "absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life." Regardless, the painting had a protective coating, was cleaned soon after, and now hangs at the Reina Sofía in Madrid. Shafrazi was arrested, charged with "criminal mischief," and released on $1,000 bail.
The story gets weirder from there. Around 1980, Shafrazi opened a Soho gallery and began exhibiting artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat -- who also graffitied over things. Shafrazi’s gallery became a hot spot. Or so I heard: My inner Church Lady got the best of me, and, except for occasional shows, I smugly boycotted Shafrazi’s gallery for the next two decades.
By the time my moralism calmed down and I started going again, the gallery was only a shadow if its former self. These days, Shafrazi isn’t in the limelight so much. No one would have expected to see this new show in this gallery. He’s known mainly as a dealer of secondary art and blue-chip artists, but "Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?" changes that, at least temporarily. Shafrazi claims, "I put my life in their hands." Gavin Brown puts it this way: Shafrazi’s previous show had been up for months, and "there needed to be an intervention."
The intervention they came up with produces a discombobulating retinal wallop. Fischer, the living master of visual disorientation, had the previous four-person exhibition photographed, including the ceiling and the guards. These images were reproduced in perfect one-to-one scale and wallpapered into the gallery, even on the ceiling, in an exact replica of itself. Then a new show was hung atop the old. Initially, you don’t know what you’re seeing. Everything looks as if it’s on top of everything else, an optical overload.
It’s uncanny. There’s a Picabia on top of a Donald Baechler, Francis Bacon atop Kenny Scharf, a Lawrence Weiner overlapping a Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lily van der Stokker has painted over graffiti painters, a Cady Noland leans on a Haring, a real Haring hangs on top of a photographed one. Some juxtapositions are nasty. Sue Williams’ man slapping a woman while calling her "stupid cunt" is next to Richard Prince’s rephotographing of the naked preteen Brooke Shields; Cindy Sherman’s picture of vomit is placed in the mouth of a Scharf. Other juxtapositions read like homage: Rob Pruitt’s eternally burning lighter in front of a John Chamberlain sculpture. Knitting this whole phantasmagoria together is a fantastic smudged white carpet by Rudolf Stingel.
"Who’s Afraid" is like some mad replicating vision machine, or a walk-in Louise Lawler. The ghosts of shows past have their way with the present; the art of now elbows aside the art of "then." "Who’s Afraid" allows you to optically experience how every work of art is in dialogue with, building on, reacting to or fighting against every other work of art ever made. The gallery says that the show "demonstrates how each work of art has many selves hidden within, and how forces outside the frame constantly. . . limit a work’s interpretation." Brown and Fischer suggest that the purposeful white cube of the modern art gallery is also a curse, that it neutralizes art and our thinking about it.
Some visitors have called this show adolescent and self-serving. Time Out’s Howard Halle called it "deeply cynical." But cynicism can also be a creative force. "Who’s Afraid" isn’t insincere and misanthropic. True, the organizers are criticizing the insider art world from as deep inside the belly of the beast as possible. Everything here is A-list. Yet "Who’s Afraid" is a labor of love and a rebel yell. It communes with artistic ancestors and resurrects art no longer in fashion. Insularity notwithstanding, Brown and Fischer want to set art free from the context of the white box.
Successful or not, something freeing did happen the night of the opening. It was Shafrazi’s birthday. At the large after-party, Brown and Fischer presented him with a five-foot-long cake decorated with a perfect rendition of Guernica . Brown climbed atop a table and, amid much yelling, toasted Shafrazi. He then thrust a cake decorator filled with red icing into Shafrazi’s hands. As the crowd screamed, Brown implored, "Write, Tony! Write!" Shafrazi started moving the device over the cake. Slowly he wrote the words I AM SORRY. Time stood still. It was like an angel of redemption had entered the room to take away Shafrazi’s guilt. The room went silent. I was shocked. Then, Shafrazi began writing again. He wrote one more word: not! It was like the Sopranos finale. Just as you thought everything was going to change, everything only became more of what it already was.
"Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?," conceived by Urs Fischer & Gavin Brown, May 9-July 12, 2008, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 544 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org