Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Koons and Shafrazi

June 22, 2008 - 6:55pm -- Carol Diehl
Installation view, "Who's Afraid of Jasper Johns," at Tony Shafrazi Gallery.

I’m catching up on my reading, plowing through the magazines that accumulate on my kitchen counter (I swear they reproduce overnight—I come down in the morning to find ten magazines where there was only one the night before). Not to be missed is Peter Schjeldahl’s summing up of Jeff Koons in The New Yorker (June 9 & 16) on the occasion of Koons’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which begins, “There’s something nightmarish about Jeff Koons” and ends with “We might wish for a better artist to manifest our time, but that would amount to wanting a better time” yet acknowledges the “material mastery, conceptual perfect pitch, and idealistic beauty of the objects on display in Chicago.” Yup, sometimes Koons fakes it and other times he makes it. Schjeldahl doesn’t make sense of the Koons phenomenon, as if anyone could, but for the first time I found myself reading about Koons while nodding my head in agreement.

Then there’s Jerry Saltz’s review in New York (June 25) of the Gavin Brown/Urs Fischer conceived “group show” entitled “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns” at Tony Shafrazi Gallery (through July 12th), a mishmash of authenticity, appropriation and reproduction that Roberta Smith called “demonically aerobic to brain and eye” and Saltz wrote is “like some mad replicating vision machine, or a walk-in Louise Lawler” that was intended to “set art free from the context of the white box.” I’m as weary of the “white box” as anyone, but I don’t find the tag sale aesthetic of “Who’s Afraid,” where every image seems to cancel out every other image, a viable replacement. Howard Halle, in Time Out, called it a “deeply cynical meditation on the deeply cynical nature of the contemporary art world.” To me it felt toxic, was toxic—given the out-gassing fumes from Ron Pruitt’s plastic bag “waterfall” and Rudolf Stingel’s new but visitor-smudged white wall-to-wall carpeting—an environment to be exited as soon as possible.

The back-story is much more interesting. I mean if you were to write a novel about a guy who sprays paint on Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA and then goes on to fame and fortune as purveyor of graffiti-based art, it would be just too cheesy. It’s a story that I've always felt revealed the rotten core of the art world. But to bring it up-to-date, here’s Shafrazi, 34 years later, at the after-party for ”Who’s Afraid,” being presented with a birthday cake that’s a giant replica of the Guernica.

Saltz writes: Brown climbed atop a table and, amid much yelling, toasted Shafrazi. He then thrust a cake decorator filled with red icing into Shafrazi’s hands. As the crowd screamed, Brown implored, “Write, Tony, Write!” Shafrazi started moving the device over the cake. Slowly he wrote the words I AM SORRY. Time stood still. It was like an angel of redemption had entered the room to take away Shafrazi’s guilt. The room went silent. I was shocked. The Shafrazi began writing again. He wrote one more word: NOT! It was like the Sopranos finale. Just as you thought everything was going to change, everything became more of what it already was.

And that sums up the exhibition: something that purports to be new and different but is really just more of the same old.


As in the original game Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there's always something deeply hostile and self-defeating to mocking acclaimed figures - defacing revered works.

They say love and hate are two sides of the same coin, only a heartbeat apart.

I don't buy the beat, see the heart.

Then again they also say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Someone like Shafrazi is really just consumed with envy and self-loathing. His whole take on art is as an index of his inadequacy.

I say if you can't measure up, measure somewhere else.

Essentially, that hostility comes from narcissism--'that Thing Out There didn't come from Me, and it's getting attention, so I had better piss all over it.' It's the sort of thing most of us get over in adolescence, if we go through it at all.

I grow deeply weary of an art world that continually seems to mistake acts of moronic, juvenile narcissism for 'daring acts of creative transgression' or whatever. My suspicion is that it denotes an equal insecurity and self-adulation in those who honor it.

I saw the Koons retrospective at SF MoMA in the early 90's, and it left me feeling physically ill, and as though I were covered in slime. I did like the puppy, and some of the shiny sculptures he's doing now are okay, I guess, but I still think the world would be better off without him in it.

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