The Difference Between Jerry Saltz's America and Mine

In one of his deliciously perverse comic monologues, the late Bill Hicks imagined a situation where Jay Leno is blasted with a shotgun (or was it an Uzi?) during the opening moments of The Tonight Show. A company man to the end, Leno sprays a peacock of blood across the curtain behind him before crumpling to the floor. Hicks was pissed at Leno because he shilled for Doritos, righteously wondering: How much money does this guy need? He believed that there are some things that you just shouldn’t do, and one of them was to be a spokesperson for bad or unhealthy products. I was reminded of Hicks’s routine when I read Jerry Saltz’s paean to Jeff Koons’s Puppy, which “assumed the form of a West Highland white terrier constructed of stainless steel and 23 tons of soil, swathed in more than 70,000 flowers that were kept alive by an internal irrigation system.” (This and the following excerpts by Saltz can be found in New York Magazine, December 6, 2009, and at http://nymag.com/arts/all/aughts/62516/)

According to Saltz, “Koons is also the emblematic artist of the decade—its thumping, thumping heart. Koons’s work has always stood apart for its one-at-a-time perfection, epic theatricality, a corrupted, almost sick drive for purification, and an obsession with traditional artistic values. His work embodies our time and our America: Its big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted—while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy. He doesn’t go in for the savvy art-about-art gestures that occupy so many current artists. And his work retains the essential ingredient that, to my mind, is necessary to all great art: strangeness.”

I wasn’t bothered by Saltz’s overheated imitation of Frank O’Hara’s prose, its bad alliteration and doubly obvious onomatopoeia. His goo-goo eyed, love-struck declaration that Koons was “the emblematic artist of the decade” was predictable, but not depressingly so. It was his blithe characterization of “our America” that I had trouble with. When he ticked off “big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat seeking…” it seemed to me as if Saltz were talking about what personality traits he and Koons have in common, their ideal attributes, and that America was actually nowhere in sight. But maybe that is what you are supposed to do in America: declare what you have (or don’t have) in common with Jeff Koons (or anybody else, for that matter).

So here goes—this is what I don’t have in common with Jeff Koons or Jerry Saltz. In 1993, seven years before Puppy popped up (or was plopped down), I published the following observations2 about Koons’s need to gain attention, which remains emblematic of one part of American culture: “In 1979-80, he began encasing vacuum cleaners in Plexiglas boxes. In the catalog accompanying his San Francisco retrospective, he stated: ‘The thing I like about vacuum cleaners is that it’s a kind of androgynous appliance.’ Koons’s ‘androgynous appliance’ can be read as a projection of the artist’s self-image, which is that of a self-contained yet greedy machine-like entity, a metal penis with an avaricious mouth. In 1985, he suspended basketballs in hermetically sealed tanks of water. Around this time, he also cast bottles of liquor, life rafts, aqualungs, and skin diving tanks in stainless steel or bronze.

“Critics see all these works as acts of displacement, and thus resonant echoes of Warhol and Duchamp. This is their surface or formal meaning. It’s like a marching song we heard in camp. We know the tune but fail to listen to the words, to what they are telling us. The issue is not the surface meaning, but the latent one. What Koons is displacing is more than a thing; he is feverishly articulating his displaced or unengaged self. What is common to these works (vacuum cleaners, skin diving tanks, basketballs, cast liquor bottles in the shape of cars) is that they are containers of dirt, air, and liquid: shit, flatulence, and piss. With its highly polished surface (skin), which would be marked if a viewer touched it, Rabbit exemplifies this act of withholding. Thus a hands-off, highly sensitive, decoratively bright, industrially tough skin is used to encase air.

“Koons’s Rabbit proclaims its erotic sensitivity and passive resilience, rather than a gluttonous, machine-like sexuality. His choice of a rabbit is not only a coy hint about the power of his sexual drive, but also a nod to society’s eroticization of children, of individuals powerless to resist. The coyness is what makes it endearing to the audience. It is a monument to the helpless infant having a tantrum. It announces its extreme sensitivity by holding its breath. Rabbit casts into art that moment when the androgynous (or sexless) erotic infant chooses to hold its breath rather than cry out, because it knows the latter action will engender anger rather than feigned concern. It wants to be cuddled, not scolded. The meanwhile Rabbit embodies is the desire for endless attention, as well as constant recognition. Koons’s art arises out of the need to appeal to others. He wants to seduce the viewer into liking him. He craves their approval because they possess the power to justify his actions.

“The pleasure the art world must feel in the presence of Koons’s work is a secret one. They are happy that an artist would go to such an extreme to prove to them that he is hopelessly infantile. They feel entitled to the little frisson of shock and pleasure that Koons’s work gives them. Like doting parents, they rush to reward him, while pretending to wonder and worry about what he will do next. Secretly, of course, they want to see how far he will go to get the carrot. For them, it is a true luxury. Here is a pampered child they can finally and justifiably lock in the closet when they get sick of his antics. At the same time, the longer the art world defers real criticism, which is neither rejection nor praise, the more it can pride itself on being open-minded and understanding.”

(Saltz, in his best Dr. Ruth imitation, follows up his list of positives, including “expensive” and “extroverted,” with “while also being abrasive, creepily sexualized, fussy, twisted, and, let’s face it, ditzy.” Suddenly Koons is Lucille Ball.)

This is what I stated more than 15 years ago: “Koons (the overindulged but hardly innocent child) is received and rewarded by the art world (the worrying, doting but hardly loving parents) because both high culture and mass culture want to celebrate their “bad boys,” as well as continue the nostalgia for the ideal of the young man sowing his wild oats. An artist, preferably male, must do something that makes him both notorious and famous, must do it in a way that mimes the viewer’s desire to break taboos. Koons is the kind of male child both the art world and commercial culture prefer because even though he is spoiled, he is also ambitious and productive. In this regard, he is no different than the CEOs and real estate barons who buy his work, or the curators or critics who lavish him with praise. One of the reasons Koons’s work appeals to them is because they see in it a reflection of their own narcissism.”

Here is Saltz’s short form biography of Koons, which sounds suspiciously like he is pitching the storyline for a possible, long-running soap opera: “Koons, after all, has risen from the ashes. After his 1991 Made in Heaven exhibition, in which we saw graphic depictions of Koons and his ex-wife, the porn star La Cicciolina, having sex, Koons was shunned within the art world. He wasn’t invited to biennials; he had only one more New York solo gallery show in the 90s. To get a sense of how that felt to Koons, consider that he once mused about being ‘burned at the stake.’”

(“He wasn’t invited to biennials” and “mused about being ‘burned at the stake.’” Did this make you want to reach for your box of Kleenex?)

Saltz goes on: “So he spent most of the 90s working to return to New York with something utterly perfect, powerful, and beyond criticism. Puppy accomplished that. Not only was it an instant icon; it is the first piece of art exhibited in the 21st century that was clearly jockeying for pop-culture supremacy. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ho-hum Gates or Olafur Eliasson’s East River waterfalls would follow, without generating Puppy’s sparks of weird delight.”

(If something is “beyond criticism,” doesn’t that make you an apologist?)

“Koons’s fearsome urge toward order was demonstrated to me a few days before the sculpture’s June 6, 2000, unveiling. One warm evening I stopped by the GE Building to see Puppy’s progress. No one was around except Koons, wearing a green plastic hard hat. He amiably greeted me, and, after a bit, asked whether I’d like to set a flower in place. ‘Would I ever!’ I replied. He told me to pick a flower from a nearby tray and place it ‘anywhere you want.’ I picked up a petunia, eyed Puppy, and set it in a front paw. I was thrilled. ‘That’s great, Jerry,’ Koons said, before pausing, pulling my petunia out, and moving it a centimeter to the left. Now I was flabbergasted.”

“But that moment crystallized what Puppy and its artist were about. There were 70,000 separate decisions involved in Puppy. Every flower had to be placed exactly right. It was mad! (Puppy remains a demanding pet: its owner, the megacollector Peter Brant, spends upwards of $75,000 per year maintaining it.)”

(Imagine that—a work of art—or “demanding pet”—that costs “upwards of $75,000 per year” to maintain. In other words, Puppy exists somewhere on the spectrum between a Hummer and a private jet. )

Is Puppy really that strange? Is it surprising that Koons transferred what I called his “desire for endless attention, as well as constant recognition” to “a demanding pet” that is “constructed of stainless steel and 23 tons of soil, swathed in more than 70,000 flowers that were kept alive by an internal irrigation system?” Is anybody else astonished that he wanted to put the flower somewhere else? Are Koons and Puppy “emblematic of the decade” that began in 2000? Will we—10 years (or 15 minutes) from now—look back at the Bush years with fondness and yearning because we remember it as a wonderful, joy-filled time? Will we want to return to an era that witnessed the institutional sanctioning of those who need to be fawned over, their every move worshipped by those who dream of the day they too can commission others to make “something utterly perfect, powerful, and beyond criticism”? Is this “our America?” Or is this Jerry Saltz shilling for Jeff Koons?

Wouldn’t it have been funnier and more interesting if, in the pages of New York, Saltz promoted Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002) as the artwork emblematic of the decade and “Our America?” After all, Cloaca must be great—it has its own website (www.cloaca.be), which you can’t say of Puppy.

Walter Robinson put it best when he characterized Cloaca as a “giant machine that turns cuisine into caca.”3 According to Robinson, “The big machine, fed at one end by master chefs (from SoHo’s most popular art hangout, Jerry’s), turns out a single tiny cookie-sized poop per day, at about 2:30 p.m.—a feat that was greeted by a round of applause on one recent afternoon, along with a flood of poop jokes.”4 Like Puppy, Cloaca is “demanding,” though not as a “pet.” Doesn’t Cloaca share some of these qualities: “big, bright, shiny, colorful, crowd-pleasing, heat seeking?” Okay, maybe not “colorful.” But you can buy the poop, which is vacuum-sealed—it makes the owner money, which offsets the cost of the food it devours.

Hasn’t it occurred to Mr. Saltz that museums are multiplexes lumbering into the 21st century, hoping to provide something entertaining for everyone? In Saltz’s America, Puppy is great public art and Tom Cruise is the good, handsome German with an eye patch, trying to save the world from Hitler. (He nearly succeeds.) In multiplex America, we’ve had Tim Burton thinking at MoMA, Mathew Barney climbing the walls at SFMOMA, Marc Quinn’s self-portrait made from his frozen blood at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Disney-packaged animation show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In my America (call it the Brooklyn Rail5), lots of people know that there are works that will not likely ever be shown in a museum or multiplex, or gossiped about in a glossy magazine, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be kept alive above all else and passed on.6 Their goal is not to be “crowd-pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted.” (And I’m not talking about what Mr. Saltz calls “savvy art-about-art gestures,” which is a red herring that gets trotted out whenever the audience might be asked to think. The idea that people can think for themselves is frightening, as anyone who reads a museum wall label or gallery press release knows. Better they be spoonfed.)

I have a confession to make. I didn’t see Puppy. I didn’t feel like I had to. (Okay, I didn’t see Cloaca either, and for the same reason.) I think that there are some things you shouldn’t do, and promoting Jeff Koons is one of them. 

1 Frank O’Hara’s description of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles is the likely source of Saltz’s Koons equals America metaphor: “Blue Poles is our Raft of the Medusa and our Embarkation for Cythera in one. I say our, because it is the drama of the American conscience, lavish, bountiful, and rigid. It contains everything within itself, begging no quarter: a world of sentiment implied, but denied; a map of sensual freedom, fenced; a careening licentiousness, guarded by eight totems native to its origins (There were Seven in Eight). What is expressed here is not only basic to his work as a whole, but it is final.”

2 The excerpts on Koons can be found in In The Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol (1993), which set a world’s record for the least amount of reviews received by a book on Warhol: one.

3 http://www.artnet.com/magazine/reviews/robinson/robinson1-30-02.asp

4 Ibid.

5 The following presses are located in Brooklyn. Each has a publication program that offers a different view of our America, as well as contributes to its ongoing construction.

They are Archipelago Books ( http://www.archipelagobooks.org/); Autonomedia (http//autonomedia.org) Belladonna Books (http://www.belladonnaseries.org/) Ellipsis Press (http://www.ellipsispress.com/about/); Melville House Press (http://www.mhpbooks.com/); Ugly Duckling Presse (http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org/).

6 I am thinking of the exhibition “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975” organized by Katy Siegel in consultation with David Reed. In her New York Times review, Roberta Smith characterized it as “a brave if deficient exhibition” … that “a flush New York museum should have taken on about 10 years ago. Whatever its problems, this exhibition demonstrates a central truth: far from being dead during the period in question, painting was in an uproar.” (February 16, 2007 – see http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/16/arts/design/16high.html)

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John Yau

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