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 starstruck 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’s 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’s 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 nineteen-foot Assyrian-Babylonian god and David Altmejd’s mixed-media The Giant—an overscale 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.