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GOVERNED BY BEAUTY

As autumn approaches, visitors of Governors Island edge away from the sufficiently partied-on lawns and gather inside its abandoned military barracks; on September weekends, at least. Artist-run nonprofit 4heads presents the
7th Annual Governors Island Art Fair, which opens today and features 100 different rooms of painting, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and sound art, chosen from a multitude of proposals received from artists around the globe. Last year, an exhibit titled “Jeff Koons Must Die” featured a 25-cent video game in which the player had to shoot down various artworks while being chased by museum
security. So: Expect the subversive. The lawns are hardly deserted — live music, large-scale sculptures, and food and drinks are ripe for the relishing, as are views of downtown Manhattan and Liberty Island that never, ever get boring. Don’t let summer’s end stop you from spending $2 on the city’s best commute.

Saturdays, Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Sept. 6. Continues through Sept. 28, 2014

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THRILLER NIGHT

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), Jeff Koons’s gilded monument to kitsch, sits on a pedastal in the Whitney while Vice reporters sneak into the abandoned Neverland Ranch to document what horrors remain. At this point, the King of Pop’s legacy is rooted more in macabre folklore than music, and the “Thriller” video has nothing to do with it. In fact, people—apparently a lot of people—are still having MJ encounters five years after his death. At Michael Jackson Betwixt/Between, a posthumous birthday party for the pop icon sponsored by Hendrick’s Gin, photographer Shannon Taggart presents an illustrated lecture on “the curious afterlife” of Jackson and his ambiguous dead/alive status as a “contemporary mythological figure,” based on her work with a number of spiritualist mediums who have reported encounters with him. Stick around for a lively affair with drinks, music videos, and karaoke.

Fri., Aug. 29, 8 p.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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Jeff Koons Clowns Around the Whitney

The two-year-long drumroll for the Whitney Museum’s Jeff Koons retrospective sounds like a nonstop whoopee cushion. The stuttering symphony has included clapper noises from various auction houses, the dueling bongos of twin exhibitions at New York’s biggest galleries (Gagosian and David Zwirner), the tom-tom beat of fawning profiles (the New York Times, W, Vanity Fair), and, last week, the bang-the-drum predictability of Split-Rocker, the second giant-planter-as-sculpture to be sited at Rockefeller Center in 14 years. A record-setting sculptor whose price for a single artwork reached $58.4 million this past November — making him the most expensive living artist — Koons has finally assembled most of his big-boy toys under a single roof. The question is: What do we make of his conspicuous four-ring circus? Is Koons the most important creator since Picasso or — as Stephen Colbert smartly skewered him — the world’s most expensive birthday clown?

On the strength — or, rather, lameness — of the Whitney’s long-awaited survey, “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,” it’s rainbow wig and red foam nose, hands down. An exhibition that brings together some 150 objects made over three decades, Koons’s current extravaganza features most of the artist’s factory-made greatest hits. The Whitney show includes, for instance, fluorescent-illuminated vacuum cleaners encased in Plexiglas; stainless steel- and bronze-cast versions of store-bought inflatable bunnies and Popeye dolls; pixelated photo-transfer “paintings” of the artist having sex with his ex-wife, the erstwhile porn star Cicciolina; serial versions of shiny reflective works that broke auction records; and, finally, a recently spit-polished 10,500-pound, 10-foot-high sculpture made to resemble (what else?) Play-Doh. Much as installing that last work required the museum to take the front doors off their hinges, enjoying this monumental pile of…kitsch requires a similar removal: of one’s critical thinking. It’s lobotomy by art.

United for the first time in the Whitney’s most expensive show ever — it is also the museum’s last hurrah at the Marcel Breuer building before it departs for the Meatpacking District downtown — the works in “A Retrospective” resemble less a curated exhibition of radical art than a grown-up’s fantasy night at FAO Schwarz. The museum has deployed Koons’s items over three floors chronologically but also according to their facile popularity, which makes for uniformly childish viewing. And for his very first outing in a New York institution, Koons and the museum have cranked up the artist’s infantile corniness to 11. The results are at once spectacularly banal, superficially celebratory, and cynically cheery. Put in musical terms, if Koons’s objects could sing, they’d belt out the “Macarena” and the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song. And then repeat them on a shopping-mall loop.

Koons’s entire career — like that of Dubya and Honey Boo Boo — is owed to what Bertrand Russell once unflinchingly called “the triumph of stupidity.” A set of battles the former commodities trader began waging in the late 1970s, Koons’s evolving output progressively stripped away all content from his art until he arrived at his present-day, precisely manufactured, nine-figure monuments to vapidity. While in his twenties, the artist committed to celebrating consumerism in the form of reframed advertisements and signature-series basketballs suspended in fish tanks. He graduated to cast examples of Hallmark statuary that embraced French Rococo ideals of luxury and dilettantism. In the ’90s, Koons met his critical Waterloo, and near-bankruptcy — he blames his costly custody battle with Cicciolina; others point to the fornicating series as a professional nadir. He claimed then that those works in blown glass, carved wood, and photography on canvas constitute his most important art — objects, he still insists, that were designed to promote freedom and relieve audiences of “guilt and shame.” Whichever the more-proximate cause, the nearly career-killing fiasco taught Koons a lesson, and he dropped all subsequent pretense to visual commentary and originality. As evidenced by what came after — the feel-good balloon animals, the multiple polychrome cartoon figures, the anti-intellectual Trojan horses that are Puppy and Split-Rocker — he never again let an idea, good, bad, or indifferent, get in the way of true north: his shiny, empty, pharaonic art ideal.

Of course, stupidity of the historically successful kind has always found opportunistic handmaidens to game the system. In Koons’s retrospective, the identities of those allies are spelled out on the wall beneath the works’ titles, clearly identified as lenders to the exhibition (these are not folks who are satisfied with being labeled “anonymous” patrons). A who’s who of “venture philanthropy” that includes boldface names like hedge fund magnate Steve Cohen, François Pinault, Eli Broad and Don and Mera Rubell, these global kingpins complete Koons’s reconstruction of sculpture as supersized containers for their aspirational bliss. Robert Hughes’s excellent line about Koons’s work being art that has no purpose beyond its own promotion never rang truer — with an important proviso: Eye candy with zero content is especially good cover for players on the make. Not only does it flatter the mega rich into thinking expensive art is subversive, but it also foments the lie that speculating is collecting and that any idiot can play the game.

Koons’s work is all about amputating judgment. His golden ceramic statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimp, for example, easily elides high production value with unthinking acceptance (just like Celine Dion’s Las Vegas stage shows). There is the artist’s repurposing of pool toys into heavy metal objects, a move that is by now as dopily familiar as it is asinine. And then there is Balloon Dog (Yellow), a literal casting of hot hair in stainless steel, which also proves to be our era’s golden calf. With this and other memorably vacuous pieces, the Whitney’s bombastic Koons survey nails the grand style of our gilded age. False idols in the guise of paint-by-numbers canvases, 3-D-imaged sculptures, and crowdsourced imagery, these and other works give (some) people what they (say) they want: a mirror image of a disengaged, mediocre, creatively impoverished era, when money and entertainment routinely stomp imagination.

Like high-fructose corn syrup, Koons’s influence is so ubiquitous that railing against it can feel futile. Perhaps it’s best to cue the artist himself and consider momentarily what he told Carl Swanson of New York magazine last year: “Removing judgment lets you feel, of course, freer, and you have acceptance of things, and everything’s in play, and it lets you go further.”

Those are the words of a quack doctor, a blow-dried evangelist, a Home Shopping Network pitchman. In clown speak, Koons’s art is all whoopee cushion. Maybe for his next trick he’ll blow that up and cast it in bronze.

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BLOW-UP

Jeff Koons is one of contemporary art’s nastier polymaths: What other artist has made such ranging use of his own penis? Active since the ’80s, Koons has always split the art crowd down the middle, a squabble over whether a commercially successful artist who sells giant metallic sculptures of balloon dogs could be anything more than a peddler of elaborately wrought kitsch. It’s a false choice, of course, because, #realtalk, he’s definitely both. Starting today, the Whitney exhibits work from across his career for a retrospective that maybe doesn’t need to leave the question so open, but is an excellent chance — the first, actually — to see Koons’s work spanning a half-century.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: June 27. Continues through Oct. 19, 2014

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NEO-TREASURES

A pioneer of the ’80s Neo-Geo movement (short for neo-geometric conceptualism), along with Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, and Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton suddenly dropped out of the East Village scene in 1993 and moved to Bali, where he remains two decades later. His latest show, and his fourth solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, is a new series of portraits of women that begins not with photos of live models, as he’s done in the past, but with pictures of his own clay sculptures of females decorated with seashells, cigarette necklaces, rotting food, flowers, and insects. He then mounts the digitally manipulated photographs, which are printed on canvas, onto wood or fiberglass, and works them over with oil and acrylic paints in vibrant tropical colors. The result? Deeply strange and moving portraits that look as though they’ve been unearthed from the bottom of the ocean.

Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m. Starts: Sept. 16. Continues through Oct. 26, 2013

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How Uptown Money Kills Downtown Art

“The art market focuses attention on what its priorities are, which is big buying and big selling—so we wind up talking about Koons, Hirst, Murakami, the usual suspects. The big problem is figuring out how to focus attention in other directions.”

Irving Sandler, an 87-year-old critic, has been on the scene ever since New York inherited the mantle of the New Florence from Paris. The author of the definitive book on 1950s American art, The Triumph of American Painting, Sandler witnessed the birth of the big bad New York art market, as well as the periodic waxing and waning of its influence. As I sit in his painting-filled apartment near NYU—”It’s all to be given away,” he says, gesturing at an Alex Katz portrait of him and his wife on their wedding day, “we decided we were never going to sell anything and we never have”—he pours a glass of wine and schools me on the noxious effects big money can have on young talent.

“Collectors have had an insidious effect on young artists. They move into graduate schools and offer these kids ridiculous amounts of money. The result is that even art students focus on what sells and continue to produce that kind of work, rather than experiment, which is what they ought to do.”

I’ve come to Sandler’s comfortable if modest digs to gather some insight from a figure who has seen the New York art market develop into an $8 billion–a-year industry and the preferred recession-time hedge for Wall Street billionaires. I’ve also come to learn what someone with his acumen makes of the influence of financial speculation on art today—how it affects the way art is made, understood, and, ultimately, experienced.

“Everything has changed, and the art market is a big part of that. Back in my day, people used to fight for their views. Now people look for the auction prices, and the prices are their argument.”

A slight, gracious, even-tempered man, Sandler has lived through the art market’s various booms and busts and is mostly inured to the wagering and bluffing that characterizes the trade. Yet even he is clearly scandalized by the prices flying around in what looks more and more like a commodities pit. But the scandal isn’t the ridiculous amounts of money, or the amount of collective time we spend ogling it. The horror is what happens to the art world when a second-rate drawing like The Scream (not one of Edvard Munch’s paintings, mind you, but a drawing) sells for $120 million, what takes place when that ballyhooed transaction, and the piece’s subsequent exhibition at MOMA, trickles down into the studios and minds of young, emerging, and even established artists.

“Tens of millions for a drawing? I don’t really know how those kinds of prices would affect an artist who is not, as it were, market friendly,” says Sandler. “Part of the challenge I see in trying to focus attention away from market-oriented art is figuring out how art that behaves like a commodity can be counteracted by artists. One way to do this is to create communities. Another way—and I think this is very, very important—is to create anti-market polemics.”

Oddly enough, that’s just what’s happened during the last few months in the normally self-satisfied, go-along-to-get-along art world.

“What can I tell you? It’s nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.” That’s Dave Hickey, the widely beloved, 71-year-old critic. He made it official as 2012 drew to a close. For Hickey, art has turned into a plaything for the 1 percent.

In a recent bridge-burning interview with the U.K.’s Observer, he portrayed the art industry as “calcified, self-reverential, and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.” Hickey’s whistle-blower account points to a fresh consensus within the art world, a growing belief among insiders that the market is destroying art itself by treating it like shares of Google or Amgen. The whole game has acquired a kind of tacky, Trump Tower uncool: As NYC fashion maven and erstwhile art lover Simon Doonan ranted not long ago in a Slate column about Art Basel Miami, today’s art world resembles “a vapid hell-hole of investment-crazed pretentiousness.”

Hickey’s interview, Doonan’s Slate screed, financial writer Sarah Thornton’s public spurning of the market in TAR magazine—these and other key art-club defections have one fascinating thing in common: They feature previously sedate experts kicking over the very trough that fed them, calling bullshit on former colleagues and on the rank cupidity, speculation, and insider trading that takes place at clubby lunches at Sant Ambroeus and Casa Lever. Not since the culture wars of the 1980s and the AIDS crisis have such aggrieved righteousness and critical solidarity swept the art world’s normally compliant culturati.

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That art is, increasingly, a synonym for capital is inarguable. The top of the art market looks like a subsidiary of the NYSE, and art’s biggest players today include a disproportionate number of finance’s boldface names, from Steve Cohen of SAC Capital and Leon Black of Apollo Global Management (he owns The Scream) to Adam Sender of Exis Capital Management, François Pinault (who owns both Gucci and Christie’s), and Larry Gagosian (the financier of art dealers). In recent years, the value of certain blue-chip art has risen faster than the S&P 500, led by a spike in wealth among the country’s top earners. Conceptual artist Andrea Fraser, in her essay for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, cites a Yale study showing that “a one-percentage-point increase in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1% triggers an increase in art prices of about 14 percent.” You can almost hear the money sluicing back and forth between Manhattan and the Caymans.

Of course, the charge that money is corrupting art has been thrown around since before taxi magnate Robert Scull flipped pictures by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol into a then-scandalous $2 million profit at Sotheby’s New York in 1973. (As Sandler told the story to me, Rauschenberg accosted Scull after the sale and shouted: “Kiss me—I like to be kissed when I’m being fucked!”) The Scull sale affirmed the role big money would have in shaping and dominating the art world and, since then, art’s principal players have largely adopted (embraced?) Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s platinum rule: “The best art is the most expensive because the art market is so smart.”

Rank-and-file artists, critics, and curators likewise went along with this free-market piety—although usually with an ironic fig leaf. As the decades passed and the money just got bigger, the overstuffed art beast consumed everything in its path, from Warhol’s productized paintings to Jeff Koons’s commodity kitsch. (In his book The Value of Art, writer and dealer Michael Findlay identifies this period as dominated by the world’s last art movement: Commercialism.) But it wasn’t really until serious business journalists took note and came running to document the next hot market for High Net Worth Individuals that the art world took stock of its new situation. And what became clear to the more experimental, contrarian critical community was that what passes for fusion among uptown’s financial giants is uranium poisoning for everybody else.

Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon, for one, has detailed the degree to which the market is kept afloat by vast, dark pools of wealth. In a post called “Occupy Art,” he explained the basic data that make possible the anomaly of a skyrocketing art investment economy amid a wider macroeconomic recession, and also pegs how this “flood of money” has begun to negatively affect “the public face of the art world.” Over the last few months, Salmon has pointed to nonstop auction records (last November, Christie’s and Sotheby’s jointly notched a record billion dollars worth of sales in two days), proliferating art fairs (there are 189 worldwide today, up from 68 in 2005), and the art world’s increased identification with the mega-rich as just some of the reasons why “the art market has stopped being a source of fascination and crazy numbers, and has started to be a source of sheer disgust.”

For an expanding circle of the art world’s laboring classes—critics, curators, academics, mom-and-pop gallerists, and, of course, artists—enough finally appears to be enough. Ex–Newsweek critic Blake Gopnik wrote in his very last column in December that “hubris has taken over from sense across the board.” But that’s too delicate by half. The bad juju emanating from the market is having a Chernobyl-like effect. As The Simpsons‘ Smithers said to Mr. Burns when asked whether his power plant had killed off a pond full of ducks: “There’s no maybe about it, sir.”

“Believe me, I don’t romanticize poverty at all, but Cindi Lauper was right: Money changes everything.” Those words belong to Robert Storr, ex-curator of MOMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, and, since 2007, Dean of Yale’s celebrated art school. Storr has gotten on the phone with me to talk about how “the once comparatively small art market has ballooned into hedgerows of commodities and alternate currencies.” A man New York magazine described in 2006 as a “vital link between the museum world and academia,” Storr has at times also proved to be a highly contentious figure. As his voice comes over the line, one thing is certain: He hasn’t much time for the gaudy big-money players.

“Galleries used to be like record companies. They had artists who sold big, others who sold some, and then still others who didn’t sell anything at all. Now that’s all changed. Today, every gallery show needs to pay for itself, which means that artists feel increasing pressure to make commercial work. That is not just happening in the art world—the whole world is going corporate.”

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Despite the growing disgruntlement among his colleagues, Storr is skeptical that any change will come to the system until “some part of the financial game falls apart.” When I ask about the possibility of some as-yet-undiscovered local bohemia providing an alternative, he scoffs: “Allan Kaprow announced the end of bohemia in his 1964 essay ‘The Artist as a Man of the World.’ Essentially, what Kaprow said is that what contemporary artists really want is to become is proper middle-class citizens. Of course, there are moments in every generation when a facsimile of bohemia arrives. There was the Lower East Side in the 1980s, Williamsburg in the ’90s, Bushwick now—but those aren’t examples of bohemia proper so much as periods of adolescence lived through by successive artistic cohorts.”

So much for the Bushwick avant-garde!

But if bohemia is a nostalgic tic, what remain important to Storr are those middle-class citizens. When I mention that middle-market folks are being put under incredible strain by the churn taking place above them, Storr agrees that the art market is an increasingly two-tiered economy. “Of course, absolutely the worst thing you could be in today’s art world is a middle-market artist,” he says. He then submits that it is in that very middle range—as in the American middle class—that real artistic innovation happens.

“Virtually every gallery I know at the middle says that they’re struggling much worse than the galleries at the top or the bottom, because those are the places where buyers speculate.” That’s Ed Winkleman, the well-known art blogger and owner of Chelsea’s Winkleman Gallery. He recently reopened his West 27th Street space after it took on five feet of water during Hurricane Sandy. Despite being in business for years and having a critically acclaimed program, Winkleman struggles with the challenges of running “a family-owned business” in a world that insists on seeing art as an investment. According to the fortysomething dealer, the financialization of art has affected everything—from artists’ expectations to what galleries actually show.

“Young artists get carried away by the crazy money out there. They believe the hype. They think success is about endless cash, about having lots of studio assistants, and getting picked up in a limo. As a mid-range gallery, you have to prioritize your spending. Do you spend money on a catalog, which actually helps develop an artist’s career, or do you spend it on a limo? Many galleries hire the limo, and I’ve seen what happens when they can’t afford that anymore. I’ve also watched experimental galleries migrate slowly to show only the artists that sell. Obviously, that strategy only increases the homogeneity of what’s on view.”

For Magda Sawon, owner of Chelsea’s Postmasters Gallery, the distinctions forced by today’s speculative market are far more stark: “It’s not collecting when someone buys his fifth Jeff Koons for $15 million.”

The founder of what many consider to be one of the leading experimental galleries in Manhattan, Sawon describes the current situation as “completely puppeteered from the top” and says it has “tremendous consequences for everyone else.” As for the effects of all the investment-grade cash permeating the art world, she is disarmingly direct about what many in the industry are too timid—or conflicted—to say: “It kills radicality for artists, dealers, and everyone else. I think the word collecting doesn’t even apply to that kind of activity. It’s about buying to sell, really, it’s gambling, and has nothing to do with any of the issues that are central to the creation and appreciation of art in our time.”

Given that the sort of highly critical work she exhibits—what used to be called avant-garde art—has lost favor among the collectors, Sawon’s harsh take could be written off as sour grapes. After all, shouldn’t the 21st-century collector have every right to spend money however he likes? Who really gets hurt if billionaires and multimillionaires piss their money away on luxury tchotchkes?

“When money is concentrated among only a few artists and an even smaller number of collectors, then the middle gets squeezed—and that’s where a lot of the most important art gets produced.” Sawon counters. “Innovation happens in an artist’s career where he or she can make advances on initial ideas and before these get locked into signature styles. This is becoming much harder to do, and the result is that art turns more uniform. I’ll tell you what I really think—in this climate, I’m pretty sure someone like Robert Rauschenberg could never have made it.”

Assuming Sawon is right, we are witnessing the emergence of what might be called Strategic Art—pieces designed to pierce the consciousness of a new investing class. This kind of art increasingly sees the marketplace as a kind of focus group. Naturally, it produces what buyers like best.

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“There is so much work out there today that is a literal mirror of the values of the super-rich,” says William Powhida, one of Sawon’s most emblematic artists and a celebrated gadfly who once satirized Jeff Koons on the cover of The Brooklyn Rail (he’s also the artist behind the lettering and portraits in this story). “There are the reflective surfaces of Koons and of younger artists like Jacob Kassay, and there’s the sudden vogue in abstraction in the auction houses and the galleries on the Lower East Side. There are suddenly tons of slick-surfaced, object-based works that seem expressly made to sell and never offend.”

Kassay, a 28-year-old painter of silver monochrome canvases who set a 2011 auction record of $290,500 for a painting that had sold only a year earlier for $8,000, essentially embodies the speculators’ thirst for fresh talent. And while he is duly blasé about their interest in him—”all collectors have is money,” he told a New Yorker reporter—it’s hard not to wonder how they have straitjacketed him as an artist. Just as important is how these same art-stock traders are transforming what the rest of us get to experience. Take the October auction of Gerhard Richter’s Abstract Painting (809–4). A work widely thought to be—like most of the German painter’s abstractions—inferior to his far more influential photo-based paintings, it fetched $34.2 million, suddenly making Richter the world’s most expensive living artist. Richter himself has called such prices “just as absurd as the banking crisis,” “impossible to understand,” and “daft.” But this process produces more than absurdity; it’s damaging to art’s own historical priorities. When the mediocre is elevated by speculative greed, the real genius of an artist like Richter is diluted.

“In the current system,” Powhida explains, “the rich are really the ones who establish financial and artistic value—instead of artists, curators, and critics. Take Dan Colen’s [2010] show at Gagosian, for example. It was universally reviled, but a couple of rich guys thought different, so that work is now not just expensive but has gained institutional traction. That’s troubling. Is the system totally rigged? Shouldn’t we consider what the price of a work does to art socially and culturally?”

An artist many orders of magnitude removed from the eight- and nine-figure sums that characterize top art prices, Powhida is “incredibly frustrated” by the creative dilemma the market presents to artists. Making critical-minded work while feeling his way through “the problems surrounding art and money,” he says, can be paralyzing.

But not everyone gives up. The Bruce High Quality Foundation is a group of Cooper Union grads with serious street cred. The Bruces, as they are known, have taken contemporary art and its larger economy to task on multiple occasions. Indeed, their decision to remain anonymous within the collective (they avoid photographic portraits) is a tactic to stiff-arm the market’s star-making machinery. The Bruces also operate an unaccredited art school (the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, or BHQFU) and run The Brucennial, a biennial show that both lampoons and competes with the Whitney’s own stolid career-maker. Created to “foster an alternative to everything,” this subversive crew, adored as they are, also struggle to find a way to roll back the market’s mutation.

“Art has always had a complicated relationship to money, but the fact that money is so prominent and auctions are so newsworthy today is really damning,” says one of the Bruces, via telephone. “So, part of the question has to be: How to wrest art back from that kind of banal backstory. For us, it always comes back to one thing: Artists have a quality that makes them different from everyone else in society—and that’s chiefly because it’s their job to turn their disgust with the status quo into an alternative vision.”

Part of the Bruces’ vision is to attack the market with a kind of jujitsu. Because they have done extremely well with primary sales, the Bruces are in the rare position of being able to play the game even as they undermine it. They will sometimes agree to exhibitions, for instance, with big-name money-saturated collector-dealers like Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabi—as a way to subsidize idea-generating, money-losing projects like their art school; there, they cultivate just the sort of artist who will keep the flame alive.

“What happened, basically, is that the art market did not respond to recessions the way the rest of the economy did. It went up consistently throughout. If you look carefully, the downs don’t match the ups at the top of the market, and the breadth of collecting widened rather than narrowed.”

[

Robert Storr and I have met in person this time, over beers and shots of tequila at La Nacional, a hole-in-the-wall on West 14th Street that also doubles as the canteen for the Spanish Benevolent Society. It’s the kind of place that was once common in New York before the city was colonized by tonier locales like the Standard Hotel and Soho House. Storr has seen his share of demographic and cultural gentrification. In fact, the curator seems to believe that it is an ineluctable force, like gravity—at least as it applies to art.

“Certain artists and certain dealers were hit very hard in the ’80s. The Japanese got pummeled and mostly didn’t come back, but they have been replaced many times over by people in Wall Street, the Middle East, Russia, etc. There are tremendous deals that can be had in the art market today that cannot be made elsewhere. These are, by and large, both less traceable and less taxable. Essentially, that part of the art economy has not contracted in the ways that were once predicted by people like myself. And, frankly, I don’t think it will.”

Storr’s vision describes a metastasizing and globalized class of dilettantish oligarch-investors who will do to art precisely what they have done to half of the apartments in Manhattan—cover it in mirrors, lacquer, and logos. There must, one hopes, be another way.

“Saying no is still an option,” Storr reminds his people. Just because the rot is pervasive “doesn’t mean that artists have no agency or can’t say no to the system. Even if the game is stacked against them more than it has ever been, they still have volition.”

But as I order another round, Storr lets on that the dilemma may be even bigger and deeper this time. “Art’s real problems have nothing to do with Larry Gagosian’s legal issues, or the fate of Jeff Koons’s or Damien Hirst’s prices, or even how some few important artists evade this monster financialization,” Storr insists. Rather, they are about “how much of the world’s economy is tied up in art investments, and how that opaque economy is actually run. That is the $8 billion question. Ignoring that today and sitting around and worrying about who did what to whom—or things like late capitalism according to Adorno—is just jacking off.”

Note: An original version of this story listed Jacob Kassay’s age as 29. This has been corrected.

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16 Acres

Watching 16 Acres brings back a decade of Daily News headlines glanced while waiting at the bodega for your regular coffee—it’s just that New York City. This is not to say it’s a gushing love letter—thankfully, for it’s dealing in a roundabout way with the events of September 11, 2001, events that don’t need to be draped in further sententiousness or sentiment. The title refers to the cleared ground zero real estate, “perhaps the most valuable 16 acres on the face of the earth,” per Esquire writer Scott Raab. Hankin has wrangled sit-downs with all of the movers and shakers who combined to retard that process: vilified twin towers leaseholder Larry Silverstein, given a sympathetic treatment here; ex-governor Pataki, who comes off as a putz; as well as the various architects and functionaries from the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and everyone who contributed to the Gordian knot of development that New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin famously called “a hole in the ground” in 2006. It’s all here, from the design contests to the farcical series of ribbon-cuttings, including a photo op cornerstone-laying, to the stupid Jeff Koons balloon that recurs as an incidental sight gag. Rather than voice outrage, however, Hankin’s film finally makes the indigenous variety of deadlock particular to New York politicos seem as quaintly comforting as a buttered bialy.

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Peter Saul’s Thrilling Tastelessness

A funny thing happened as I legged it around Peter Saul’s tidy, intensely powerful, history-charting retrospective at Haunch of Venison—I could swear I heard the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” drumming in my head.

A show of paintings as underappreciated as it is both excoriating and endlessly entertaining, this exhibition arrives at a time of dire cultural stagnation in New York. Full of colorful fantasies of old-time pogroms and futuristic lynchings, this selection of 50 years of Peter Saul’s Hieronymus Bosch–like canvases lifts the safety catch on the pleasures of symbolic violence. Few contemporary expressions in art feel more satisfying today. Should you visit this show, remember to swap out Saul’s painted victims for your own customized company of bobbleheads (mine includes, among others, smarmy Jeff Koons, cracked Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the cast of Glee, and unctuous French art profiteer Philippe Segalot). You, too, may drift off into ecstatic contemplation of imaginary murder and mayhem—perhaps also with Mick and Keef along as inner audio guides.

The 76-year-old Saul is exactly the sort of machete-wielding painter that contemporary art needs today. Blessed with a chronic case of artistic Tourette’s, he delights in japes at the most varied cultural targets—Republicans and Democrats, hedge funders and hipster artists, bandwagoners and vanguardists alike come in for his savage Sioux scalping. An artist committed to what George Orwell called “significant mental rebellions,” he has spent a lifetime avoiding easy critical definition, while being sometimes fecklessly lumped together with other artists—since the early 1960s, he has been transitorily associated with San Francisco’s “Funk” movement, Chicago’s “Hairy Who” group, and, more durably, Pop art. All along he has garnered the cult status of a figure like R. Crumb (whom he is said to have influenced). While churning out decades of astoundingly deft painting in his signature cartoon style, he has become that much-prized-but-rarely-encountered cultural commodity: a genuinely nonconformist, Mark Twain–­ornery, American original.

Saul has been sniping at the culture since leaving his St. Louis art school for Europe in 1956. Combining comic book aesthetics and tasteless subject matter before his contemporaries did (including the older Philip Guston), he quickly searched for and found an artistic grail he later called an “enemy to react to.” His first pegging of this frenemy was the blowhard heroics of Abstract Expressionism, which he was temperamentally born to razz. Then came pop’s serial deadpan irony, which he defaced by hand with sardonic offensiveness. His “mature” work—he challenges the idea that he has personally matured in interviews—expanded his art’s reach to include past and recent history as well as the trifling boundaries of good taste. Witness, for instance, this exhibition’s inclusion of the canvas Jesus in Electric Chair (2004), which features a cyclopic Almighty throwing the switch on his only begotten son. This luridly colored, fine-tuned grotesquerie makes one trait about this artist perfectly clear: If a sacred cow grazes among the corn fields of popular culture or on the clipped lawns of the art world, you can bet Peter Saul will haul ass there to tip it over.

As with legendary comedians Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, there’s no such thing as off-limits material or a taboo subject for Saul. This, of course, has invariably resulted in his alienation from what he terms “the official world of Art.” Paintings like Vietnam (1966) and Typical Saigon (1968)—each featuring neon-colored landscapes of sexualized, battle-addled cruelty in which, to borrow from the Stones, every soldier is a criminal, and all the killers saints—significantly cooled his reception among American curators, critics, and collectors (everyone, really, but a growing cadre of artists on whom he has been hugely influential). At a certain point in the early 1970s, he recounts, “I began to get so-called ‘good advice’ from intelligent viewers: Don’t paint war if you haven’t been there. Don’t paint blacks if you don’t have black skin yourself. Don’t use any psychology that isn’t ‘the truth’ (something you feel or believe in). Don’t distort women because it means you don’t like them.”

The admonitions proved as effective as waving a warning flag at a bull. “The reason I do it,” he has said about his recent flouting of art-world prohibitions against political paintings, “is because it was a banned subject and so I just couldn’t resist.”

Saul’s breakthrough brushy Icebox pictures—the earliest works in the exhibition—already carried the caustic germ of pitiless lampooning within them way back in 1960. Paintings of disgorging American refrigerators full of everything from La-Z-Boy recliners to the family dog, they channeled his partly nostalgic, European-eye view of American consumption through what he has termed his own “grim yet laughable psychology.” Clemunteena Gweenburg (1971), a more acerbic mid-career work portraying late Modernism’s most august authority, demonstrated exactly how far the artist was willing to push the corrosive envelope (all the way!). But it was a subsequent picture, Oedipus Junior (1983)—a self-portrait in which he blinds his left eye with a brush and castrates himself with a chainsaw—that proved the final launching point for what would become this painter’s final, high-octane visual style. As he took on controversial subjects, he would increasingly do so in the guise of his poster-flat, gonzo-inspired, history–as–Mad Magazine painting style.

Take The Execution of O.J. (1996). A work featuring Orenthal James Simpson being shot full of battery acid as commanded by his dead wife’s ghost (“This is why you have to die,” the picture’s winged Caucasian cherub says, pointing at a bloody glove), the image pushes a second L.A. riot’s worth of buttons while thankfully providing no “constructive” social commentary to resolve its evident moral morass. Much like Pieter Breugel’s demonological The Triumph of Death (1562), it’s Olympic-grade misanthropy as high art. In this painting and many others confected throughout a laudably cussed 50-year career, Peter Saul puts the Freud right into the schadenfreude and—by golly—keeps it there.

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HUMAN INTERRUPTED

“There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behavior,” sings Björk. But that hasn’t stopped Brooklyn-based artist Benjamin Bertocci from trying to make sense of it all. In his new show, Stutter, Bertocci, who also works as a studio painter at Jeff Koons Studios, explores human failings by creating layered (or “stuttered”) collages composed of digital prints on canvas, paper, or aluminum and oil painting, so that “the subjects are metaphorically hindered from progression by their own shortcomings, as represented by the inability for the subjects to be viewed in their totality.” In other words, what you see is not exactly what you get.

Wed., Dec. 8, 7 p.m., 2010