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Photo-manipulation by Bob Callahan
A friend of mine always brings me the Life & Arts section of the London Financial Times, which I have to admit is even better than the NY Times. I got a big kick out of their art reviewer Jackie Wullschlager’s coverage of Jeff Koons’ new exhibit at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a version of the “blockbuster” at the Whitney last summer, (which I deliberately avoided.) I’ve seen quite a lot of Koons’s work over the years, and a little goes a long way. Wullschlager pulled no punches about hating it, calling it “crisp, clear, absurd, spectacular, dull, numbing and repulsive” (and this was just the first paragraph!) I happen to agree with all of the above, but would like to add, …”and just plain, bad art.” I have nothing against playing with scale, the way he does; it’s a legitimate way or making an artistic statement.
But Koons does know his customers and serves them well. His work has curb appeal, a version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for billionaires. It appeals to the businessman/investor who wouldn’t know a really good work of art if he fell over it, although he does know good investments and ways to raise his social status, I have to admit, that the work and the buyer are perfectly suited: to one another: puffed up, vulgar and phony, Critic Wulhschlager goes on to say that Koons’s work paints a powerful picture of the world we live in. “We could ask more from art,” she writes, “but I doubt that we will find it.” Meanwhile, Koons cries, as they say, all the way to the bank.
So what constitutes quality in art? And how do you know it and where DO you find it? Who am I to pass judgment on Jeff Koons, one of the most financially successful artists in the history of man? Wullschlager writes about going down the elevator at the Pompidou after the Koons show and stopping in to see the work of Marcel Duchamp Koons is a descendant of Duchamp and his “ready-mades,” but Duchamp’s are more than clever manipulations of popular culture. Duchamp shows the unintentional beauty in everyday items; his urinal, (titled “Fountain”,) for example, is first and foremost a sculpture, a carefully-chosen composition of abstract, related, circular shapes; the seemingly random object was carefully chosen for its aesthetic qualities, not just it’s shock value, Duchamp was demonstrating the beauty in the ordinary and the artists’ role in discerning it. Koons’s subjects, while also drawn from mass- produced objects, never transcend the kitsch from which they are derived. In essence, the work is perfectly suited to our times and the vulgar, pretentious people who now constitute what we so aptly term “the art market.”
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a huge retrospective at MOMA of the work of the German Dada-ist (an all-time favorite of mine), Kurt Schwitters. For some inexplicable reason, the museum chose to hang a large construction by one of the best-known (and most successful) artists of the eighties, the aptly named, Frank Stella. They did him no favor. His assemblage, while ten times larger than anything by Schwitters, was a striking example of the difference between real art and attention-getting schlock. You could easily imagine the Stella in a hedge fund manager’s dining room, whereas Schwitters would never fit in – nor would he care.