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Jeff Koons, the Man With the Big Glass Balls

Is Jeff Koons the art world’s ur-Buddhist?

As a strategy for understanding his work, the artist suggests deposing both judge and jury — dismissing the entire inner judicial branch, really — in exchange for nonadjudicated communion with shiny objects, be they bunnies or vacuum cleaners. Koons envisions the “removal of anxiety and the removal of all judgments,” because “removing judgments lets you feel…freer,” as he told New York magazine in 2013.

The notion strikes many a critic as self-serving and has infuriated more than one. But as every Buddhist knows, judgment equals suffering, and suffering, well, suffering sucks. Our indictments of others likely obscure nasty feelings inside us — feelings of grief or helplessness, say — that we’d sooner not face. (A revealing notion when applied to art critics, but that’s another column.) Why suffer so, when we can stay in the Now of a Koons?

So rather than simply reacting, let’s unpack the Koonsian proposition to find the fullness of its Meaning. And what better opportunity than in the Presence of his latest series, the “Gazing Ball Paintings,” on view at Gagosian?

And what a challenge Koons lays before the Mindful Gallery Goer! To say that his new works, in which copies of Old Master paintings sprout aluminum shelves upon which rest bowling-ball-size glass orbs, present the Scylla and Charybdis of Judgment is to inadequately acknowledge their power. These works, with their sky-blue lawn ornaments meant to reflect the viewer’s Presence, offer Koons’s highest challenge to Judgment yet.

As we enter Gagosian, we encounter room upon room of like-made models that differ, only barely, in color and size, as at a car dealership. The Mindful Gallery Goer may be tempted to frown. Instead, we stay in the Moment, accepting what’s right here: 35 works, each a seemingly inkjet-printed rendition (they were painted by hand, says Koons) of a work selected from an Intro to Art History text. (And by “text” we mean Janson’s History of Art, first edition, the one before they sprinkled in the lady artists. Mindful Gallery Goers accept that Reality.)

Here is a van Gogh wheat field, there a Titian and a Manet. Here, blown up to several times its original size, is the Mona Lisa (titled, per Koons, Gazing Ball (da Vinci Mona Lisa), a reference to the artist any art historian would find laughable — if they weren’t being Present, that is).

[pullquote]Someone held in the prison of their own Reactivity might deem these Outright Insults to Art.[/pullquote]

Indeed, someone held in the prison of their own Reactivity might deem these Outright Insults to Art (to the gallery-going public, to humanity in general). They might also say that a blue ball plopped on a shelf on top of a Courbet is a slander on the original, a fat cerulean middle finger. Or at the very least, an annoyance that obscures what is effectively a dorm poster.

But if we stay in the Now, we see our reflection in the ball, and with it we join into a Oneness with the work and with Humanity.

A lesser-evolved person might suggest these works were teases. We are not in the National Gallery admiring the impastoed brushwork of Rembrandt’s Lucretia. Nor are we at the Louvre, taking in the full breadth of Géricault’s much-larger-in-real-life Raft of the Medusa. We are in a room with Koons’s Gazing Ball Paintings. And shortly we will be leaving.

A wise teacher reminds her students that, though judgment may be discouraged, discernment is OK. This is a fudge, really; a matter of semantics. With Koons, do you shut it down with a hasty verdict or take your time to come to the same conclusion?


Jeff Koons: ‘Gazing Ball Paintings’
Gagosian
522 West 21st Street
212-741-1717, gagosian.com
Through December 23

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Psyche Killer: Takashi Murakami’s New Show at Gagosian Is a Trip

Takashi Murakami’s latest exhibition, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” so generously feeds psychedelic spectacle to the pilgrims who flock to Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea flagship that measuring the show by standards other than volume of Instagram posts seems inadequate. The show renders a critic’s job (almost) obsolete.

The task we’re left with? Take it all in: a mural longer than a tennis court bursting with figures and details; a pair of towering, cartoonish demons with baroque musculature and Popeye biceps; a full-size ancient Japanese temple gate that might have come straight off a Cinecittà soundstage — and that’s just half the works in one of the exhibition’s four rooms.

And though there are a few shiny, Koonsian objects — one a nearly 14-foot-tall gold-leafed tower (destined, one assumes, for the monied precincts of Saadiyat Island) — there are otherwise few traces of the infuriatingly bald commerce of the 52-year-old art star’s Louis Vuitton boutique-within-an-exhibition of six years ago, when his Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles–organized retrospective — it was called © MURAKAMI, remember? — landed at the Brooklyn Museum. But in-exhibition merchandising is so 2008, and so much has changed since. Just think of the oligarchs’ wives who once swiped platinum cards in exchange for brown and gold satchels and are now subject to government sanctions.

In “Land of the Dead,” Murakami seems intent on speaking to these more straitened times, though any language spoken inside Gagosian is necessarily the patois of privilege. The artist says in his statement that he’s addressing the earthquake and nuclear disaster that terrified his homeland in 2011 (and, we assume, along with it the current global anxiety and economic uncertainty). Yet surely no expense was spared to create that temple gate — more than 21 feet tall and as wide as a pair of 18-wheelers, it’s an ashen wood hulk complete with curved roof and massive eaves. Modeled on the gate type originated in China but later imported to Japan, it’s the only slice of monochrome in an otherwise blindingly bright show.

For Murakami, that gate embodies the shifting meaning of a single image. In China such a formidable structure would have been used for fortification. In the isolated island nation of Japan, the imported form becomes a totem of power and pomp. Elsewhere in the show, in works based on Edo-period (1603–1868) paintings in turn based on Chinese precedents, Murakami shows us his ability to repurpose the old and make it utterly of-the-moment. The roiling seas in his massive mural unfold in riots of juxtaposed pattern and color that Vogue readers will recognize as this fall’s top fashion strategy. Backgrounds are gilded or covered in more iridescence than a cosmetics counter, while even the demons and shriveled old men populating so many of these works have the multicolored pedicures you’d expect from Vanity Projects.

Those familiar with Murakami’s output will see familiar motifs — piles of cartoonish skulls, snaggletoothed smiley faces. There’s a great piece here called Isle of the Dead that stars lesser-known cast members: an army of wizened dudes with more eyeballs per head than regulation would allow, staring out at us. They’re far less kawaii than Murakami’s earlier, seedier offerings, and that’s a very good thing. The see-no-evil yodas bear
astonished witness to the passing masses.

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RAINBOW CONNECTION

Takashi Murakami’s latest exhibition, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” so generously feeds psychedelic spectacle to the pilgrims who flock to Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea flagship that measuring the show by standards other than volume of Instagram posts seems inadequate. The task we’re left with? Take it all in: a mural longer than a tennis court bursting with figures and details; a pair of towering, cartoonish demons with baroque musculature and Popeye biceps; a full-size ancient Japanese temple gate that might have come straight off a Cinecittà soundstage — and that’s just half the works in one of the exhibition’s four rooms. Elsewhere in the show, in works based on Edo-period (1603–1868) paintings in turn based on Chinese precedents, Murakami shows us his ability to repurpose the old and make it utterly of-the-moment.

Nov. 10-Jan. 17, 10 a.m., 2014

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War Animals: Nancy Rubins Goes Once More Into the Playground

You can hardly pass a toy store these days without thinking of Jeff Koons. Mr. Porcelain Smile has so deeply incorporated children’s playthings into his massive Whitney survey — those riffs on inflatable bunnies and dolphins; that storied balloon dog — that, for an art-aware New Yorker, a trip to FAO Schwarz now brings Koons to mind. (Let’s not even mention Split-Rocker, which presides over Rockefeller Center like a gargantuan testament to toddlerhood.)

All of which means that when you enter Nancy Rubins’s Gagosian exhibition, where each monumental work is made from found playground animals, you’ll hear echoes of Koons — “King Toys R Us,” himself.

Lucky for Rubins, the resulting compare-and-contrast tilts resoundingly in her favor. A quick peek into Rubins’s show and you might assume Koons had her beat — his balloon dogs outshine her scrap animals, some a bit worse for the wear, culled from postwar American playgrounds. But time spent looking at Rubins’s eccentric assemblages and their remarkable engineering will reward in ways that a Koons cannot.

Koons and Rubins are around the same age, and both passed through undergrad at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. Koons, class of ’76, became a bauble-maker for the wealthy. Rubins, class of ’74, is less well-known (well, compared to Koons) and her large-scale works are not as well manicured. Born in Texas and now based in California, she’s been in the Venice and Whitney biennials and is collected by many museums. Past works, many massive, brought together airplane parts or boats that Rubins tethered with metal wire, as she does here, to make bulky, unwieldy objects.

The Gagosian show is called “Our Friend Fluid Metal,” but the four works on view are brutish and imposing. To make them, Rubins collected hundreds of postwar-era, aluminum playground animals, the kinds with springy bases that always seem to be rusting. There are ducks, skunks, hippos and eagles; horses (of course); and at least one turtle. (A motorcycle and spaceship are thrown in, too.) Rubins drilled holes in eyes, snouts, and knees and laced stainless-steel cables through and around them; tethering hooves and necks to other hooves and necks — some upside down, others sideways, and still others right side up. Most are contained within the confines of the wire as if caught in an enormous spiderweb.

The resulting sculptures are massive, the size (seemingly) of space debris. The largest stretches out 42 feet long and 24 feet wide. From a certain angle, its form echoes the images of that barbell-shaped comet the Rosetta space probe is studying. That the work appears to defy gravity makes the outer space metaphor all the more fitting. The piece is orbited by a trio of smaller satellite sculptures anchored to steel bases. In and of themselves,that threesome — with goofy names like Chunkus Majoris and Spiral Ragusso — is most interesting when considered as studies for their massive cousin. They also lend it a much-deserved audience.

For the major work, Rubins installed the animals around a system of compound steel trusses that cantilever out from the wall. The thing weighs 20 tons, and you can walk under it if you like. But the prospect is daunting, in the way a Richard Serra torqued ellipse pricks up your neck hairs. At the artwork’s lowest point, a pink horse head seemingly skirts the floor. The sensation is controlled catastrophe.

Rubins chose these decommissioned playthings for their unusual provenance. After World War II, retired airplanes were sometimes melted and cast into animals like these. In one way, their path traces American aspiration: Fight the battle so the kids can grow up safe. But to see instruments of war find new life in public parks also speaks to an abrupt about-face; the transition from wartime to peacetime is never so clear-cut. But the intersection of war and innocence, like that of restraint and chaos, is a place Rubins likes to travel.

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The Return of Cost: The Tag Machine is Back

Adam Cost is at a Basquiat exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery, a rare trip for him into a world he’s never been welcome in or belonged to. But for the legendary graffiti artist, that may have to change. “I’m trying to be more legit, so I want my stuff in galleries,” he admits. “I’ve just never made art trying to get in a gallery.”

As if to prove just how out of touch he is with art-world protocol, Cost—his real name is out there but we promised not to use it—asks one of the gallery staff if he can take a photo of the work on display. Rebuffed instantly, he saunters off with a slick smirk, reveling a bit in his outsider status, that he doesn’t fit in. Not now, not then, and possibly not ever.

New York City changes so fast it will be almost unrecognizable soon, which makes Cost’s comeback all the more important. After years of nearly complete silence, “Gadfly COST” is active once again. Extremely active. Even though he’s not divulging much about his past, present, or future conquests (we still don’t really know if “COST fucked Madonna,” as one legendary tag had it), this much is true: Cost—one half of the graffiti writing, wheatpasting antiheroes COST & REVS, the duo who forever transformed graffiti, street art, and even advertising—is finding his New York groove again.

Still in its beginning stages, his comeback already has people taking notice, prompting bloggers to ask if the new posters, stickers, and tags around the city are from the real COST or some guerrilla marketing campaign for a new Starbucks flavor. Well, it really is him. But while he’s not quite the recluse REVS is, Cost mostly avoids the limelight, preferring to let his work stand in for him. “You’re not doing your craft for money; graffiti is about fame, really,” he explains. “Which is a bad precedent if you plan on eventually earning a living as an adult. A [graffiti] writer invests so much time into racking paint, scoping spots, and scaling buildings, there’s no time left for developing other skills. Beyond that, too much fame could be [counterproductive] in that you’ll have entire squads of cops dedicated to getting you.” He knows: A Queens judge once sentenced him to 200 days of cleaning up graffiti.

This is Cost’s paradox: He and REVS were shunned by the art world for being too uncompromising, and by graffiti circles for not being “real writers” (they got their names all over the city with a lot of help from a Xerox machine, pasting posters instead of tagging from scratch each time). Still, there’s no arguing with the colossal impact the two made in the 1990s, and COST’s work is coveted in the art world (he says he sold one piece for more than $30,000). So much so that his new posters are being pilfered right off the street.

“It’s not cool,” he says about the vandalism of his vandalism. “I understand people are fans, but it’s detracting from my life’s work. It’s like locking up a wild animal in the zoo if you take my art that belongs in the street and put it in a frame on your wall.” Shaking his head and pulling down on the brim of his hat, he seems by nature a bit skittish and unsure—an occupational hazard, no doubt. “I mean, I understand the demand for my stuff,” he goes on, eyes darting from piece to piece in the gallery. “But eventually it’s going to drive me into the gallery world full time . . . which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily.”

Once, the thought of having his outlaw art jailed in a posh Soho gallery made Cost bristle. Nowadays a little compromise might be in order. And no wonder: Nearly every anecdote Cost tells about his life in graffiti is booby-trapped with fallen comrades, off-the-record tales of his many friends who’ve wound up behind bars. “All of those stories were my inspiration for coming back,” he says.

Daylight fading in Chelsea, COST is about to punch in. He has a new female “bombing partner” now, ENX, who came on the scene right around the time his life “had sort of blown up” and a long-term relationship he’d been in was ending. “Graffiti never leaves you,” Cost says. “You never really stop doing it. I just felt like the timing was right.”

COST and ENX will have artwork at Doyle New York’s StreetArt Auction on April 8.

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URBAN LEGEND

Jean-Michel Basquiat was only 27 when he died of a drug overdose in 1988, and the art world has never seen anything like him since. See what made him so unforgettable and his work so valuable (last year, one of his paintings sold at auction for $16.3 million, according to The New York Times) at Gagosian Gallery, which is presenting nearly 60 of his wild, energetic, colorful works done in a mixture of collage, oil and acrylic paint, oil stick, spray enamel, and Magic Marker. The first New York exhibition on Basquiat since the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective in 2005, the show includes his tributes to black boxing champs, such as Cassius Clay (1982) and Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) (1982), as well as one of his final paintings, eerily titled Riding With Death (1988).

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: Feb. 7. Continues through April 16, 2013

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LARGER THAN LIFE

Richard Avedon famously changed fashion photography in the 1950s by taking models out of the studio and placing them in unconventional settings—nightclubs, casinos, even the circus. But as America radically changed in the ’60s, Avedon’s portraits also shifted to record the cultural and political revolution. Richard Avedon: Murals and Portraits at Gagosian Gallery includes his legendary large-scale murals (between 20 to 35 feet wide) of Allen Ginsberg with his extended family; Andy Warhol and members of the Factory; Abbie Hoffman and the radicals of the Chicago Seven; and the Mission Council, the war administrators behind the Vietnam War. All of his portraits are done against his signature white background because, as he once remarked, “White backgrounds make it difficult not to let the subject take over.”

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: July 5. Continues through July 27, 2012

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Pablo Picasso & Francois Gilot: Paris-Vallauris 1943-1953

Pablo Picasso’s life and art took a dramatic turn at the age of 61 when he fell in love with a beautiful 21-year-old artist named Françoise Gilot, sparking a 10-year love affair. Now, for the first time, the Gagosian Gallery’s exhibit “Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris–Vallauris, 1943–1953” brings together the work of these two artists, a collaboration between Gilot (who is now 90) and Picasso’s biographer John Richardson. Creating a dual discussion of their visual and conceptual ideas, the exhibit is an in-depth look at their decade together. Picasso’s new inspiration from his lovely muse led to passionate portrait paintings, such as Femme au collier jaune (1946) and Femme dessinant (Françoise) (1951), as well as works depicting their two young children (Claude and Paloma) at play. He also experimented with new mediums, including lithography, ceramics, and sculpture. Some of Gilot’s paintings on display show the dichotomy between her work and Picasso’s. Though inspired by Picasso, her admiration of the Cubist painter Braque left a visible imprint on her works as well. “One of the things we want to establish is how she bounces off him, but how he bounces a little bit off her, too,” Richardson recently told Vogue. “She drew very well, and she was a serious and extremely professional painter.”

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: May 2. Continues through June 30, 2012

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Damien Hirst (1965–2012): In Memoriam

Damien Steven Hirst, the world’s richest artist ($332 million according to Britain’s Sunday Times), full-time businessman, part time art-collector, sometime restaurateur, P.T. Barnum imitator, and most famous member of the Young British Artists (or YBAs), a creative covey who came to prominence in the 1990s, died last Thursday, January 12, in New York following complications from acute diverticulitis brought on by a swinishly speculative, grossly cynical, intellectually constipated effort to pinch out 11 concurrent exhibitions of rehashed expensive crap. He was 46.

Coming merely a day after the press preview for his recent multi-venue extravaganza titled “The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986–2011” at Larry Gagosian’s glut of global galleries (three in New York, two in London, and one each in Beverly Hills, Rome, Athens, Paris, Geneva, Hong Kong, and Moscow), and only months before his two-decade retrospective at London’s Tate Modern (scheduled for April 4), Hirst’s sudden death surprised fans and critics alike. One grumbler (who preferred obscurity to legend) quipped: “It was bound to happen. Call it the physical impossibility of living in the mind of someone brain-dead. There’s absolutely nothing formaldehyde can do about that.” The artist, who once famously noted that a banana stuck in dog doo could easily pass for his own art, might have himself concurred.

For a figure as conspicuously obsessed with mortality as Hirst, his newest grab for fortune and artistic notoriety proved a suicidal strain. Consisting of more than 300 paintings of colored dots on white backgrounds that his dealer strong-armed back from more than 100 international collectors, Hirst’s most recent exhibition-as-an-oompapa-stunt became only the latest in a series of grasping gambles he designed—as he put it after his 2008, $198 million, one-man Sotheby’s auction—to “go out with a bang.” Unlike Oscar Wilde, who in death literally erupted all over his hotel room like an Icelandic volcano, Hirst’s final wheeze (if we consider this last act of windiness forensically) passed with a squeak more resembling a gassy whimper.

Rather than slake his storied avarice, Hirst’s mounting millions merely spurred on more dangerously covetous behavior, masquerading largely as a bond trader’s strategy for producing investment-grade meta-art. There was the 2007 platinum-and-diamond-studded skull, For the Love of God, which—if you believe Andy Warhol was a natural blond—sold to a global “consortium” (that included Hirst himself!) for $100 million. There was the artist’s aforementioned big auction-house adventure; and, finally, there was Hirst’s worldwide spectacular of spots on the wall—an artistic concept the Briton contested in life with Chinese expressionist painter Hu Flung Du. The courtroom fights were genius!

Despite Hirst’s past promise to not make any more spot paintings—at Gagosian’s salons and elsewhere, they feature monotonous rows of colored enamel dots on white canvases, nothing more—he persisted till the end on presenting a uniform line of product-like-objects he personally “couldn’t be fucking arsed” to make himself. Brushed on by some 100-plus studio assistants for the amusement of the Tod’s loafers set—i.e., the Michael Hedgefunders and Boris Plutocrats of the world—these color-by-numbers paintings represent the artist’s sweetbreads heaved fresh and warm at the upper reaches of an art market that likes its transgressions, predictably, on the rich side. Prior to Hirst’s death, the temptation flourished to consider this far-flung exhibition (not the art) an ironic beard for his market manipulations (his real art). After his untimely passing, groupies (of both the Rip Van With It and Art-Is-a-Foolproof-Asset varieties) remain convinced of the artfulness of this vision.

Hirst, the waiting biopic tells us, was born in Bristol to working-class parents who later separated. Brought up in scrappy Leeds by his no-nonsense mother, Mary, he had his rebellious streak mercilessly gelded when she cut up his bondage trousers and melted his favorite Sex Pistols’ album. (“She put it on the gas, and it just went whoosh!—because it said ‘bollocks.'”) On turning 18, the artist moved to London, where he attended Goldsmiths’s art school (until recently, Britmouth for Yale or Columbia). He studied there, worked construction, and, in time, organized an exhibition of young artists called “Freeze.” Art, at once, stood still and was never the same again.

A first loud salvo in a career full of symphonic hype, “Freeze” featured Hirst reprising the artist-as-impresario role made famous by such historical figures as Giorgio Vasari and Malcolm McLaren. After dispatching limos to collect Charles Saatchi and the Royal Academy’s Norman Rosenthal for curated exhibitions, the artist turned to fabricating his own sugar-free pop shock—consumer objects that kept one eye peeled on art’s significant liberties while maintaining predatory focus on the art market’s exploding gamesmanship. Butterfly paintings, a shark in a tank, cut-up animals, steel cabinets with pills, humongous cutaway sculptures, his repetitive Twister paintings—these were all deployed like powerful tokens on a Risk board. It was around this time that Hirst announced: “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment, if I did certain things, people would look at it, consider it, and then say ‘fuck off.’ But after a while, you can get away with things.” You certainly could, old boy, you most certainly could.

Yet not everything about this almost mythical me-first artist translated directly into personal enrichment. There are those, like this memorialist, who earnestly contend that Hirst is singularly responsible for the raising of the Tate Modern, the sphinx-like rebirth of the Turner Prize, and—together with the bands Pulp, Blur, Oasis, and the lads at Manchester F.C.—for having tractor-pulled Britain out of centuries of insipid brown-sauce nostalgia. They and, no doubt, others will miss the passing of this colossal figure: the Alpha Tout who best represented the pluck and promotion of Cool Britannia. Although loutishly British, Hirst was the art world’s huckster laureate. But expiring at the dawn of an era when money is no longer regarded as the exclusive, all-consuming subject of art, Hirst passed on before the wind fully changed direction and blew the froth back in his face. Had he hung on much longer, he would have found that he and his art had finally—in the time it takes an actual living human to give a shit about something, anything, other than money—gone from cool to tool.