“Skin Fruit,” the New Museum’s show curated by Jeff Koons, highlights the cracks in the institution.
By Jerry Saltz Published Mar 26, 2010
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.