Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thinking Retrospectively About the Jeff Koons Retrospective

Jeff Koons has two things in common with the great Renaissance painters like Rembrandt and Titian. He maintained a studio filled with helpers and he produced self-portraits. Where Koons differs from a Renaissance painter is in his use of the assembly line approach to both painting and sculpture in which individual artists are only involved in a small part of the final product. Marx wrote about alienation resulting from this kind of division of labor and it is hard to figure out of if many of Koons readymade sculptures can be classified as commodities of the type that are produced en masse in a factory or artistic works that are reflective of a brooding sensibility characterized by a singular vision of the world. This is, in fact, what separates them from Duchampian readymades which never quite seem to attain the status of commodities. However, just when you're about to dismiss Koons, you begin to realize this very dichotomy between commerce and art poses itself as one of the aims or dialectics of the work and you're somewhat calmed into an acceptance verging on pleasure. It’s easy to say that neither the early vacuum cleaners nor the famous "Play-Doh" sculpture are art, but then you become fascinated by the production of a piece which looks like plastic, but is actually heavy metal. One of the guards manning the recent Whitney retrospective of Koons’s work fenced off with a spectator who insisted on her right to touch and test one of the sculptures to make sure that indeed what she was seeing was not what it seemed to be. Koons elicits this kind of theater. “Made in Heaven” is the pornographic series featuring his former wife the Italian actress and politican La Cicciolina (aka Ilona Staller) and comprising paintings like “Exaltation,” (1991) where Koons comes on her face and another “Ilona’s Asshole,” which is self-explanatory. Koons says about the series, “It’s not porn. Made in Heaven dealt with the shame of masturbation in our society. It was a metaphor for cultural guilt. I wanted to reproduce the Garden of Eden, and sexual penetration like a hummingbird encounters a flower.” The series is introduced by poster for the film that Koons was originally going to make with his former wife. She’s in his arms, but he’s staring out at his audience. Again you are caught up short. Could it be that the artist is saying that he cares more about himself than his lover and that the imminence of a potential product trumps emotion? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Narcissism is a much bandied about word, but can we say that for good or bad Koons is caught in the narcissistic delusion that the world is indeed real?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Paris Journal VII: Le Bon Saint Pourcain

photograph by Hallie Cohen
At the intersection of the Rue Servandoni and the Rue du Canivet in Paris's 6th Arrondissement lies a green painted storefront that once housed a restaurant called Le Bon Saint Pourcain. The white lace curtains still cover the lower half of the windows, as the cursive signage on the exterior continues to identify an establishment offering “cuisine bourgeoise" and operated by "Cyrille and Francois Associes," but a sign on the window says “Ferme Pour Travaillez.” Le Bon Saint Pourcain was the vestige of another era.  It served home cooked meals in the same atmosphere that might have greeted an allied soldier during the liberation of Paris. Francois is a short man with thick black eyebrows which frame his ruddy complexion and give his face a perpetually quizzical expression. On a normal day, he stood out on the street in his white apron and took reservations from regulars who he was more likely to have known more by face than by name. He'd never heard of “OpenTable”. The meals were served by his daughter Fabienne, a large boned woman, whose sullen face was no indication of her feelings toward the customers. She was a little like the Mona Lisa to the extent that you didn’t know what she thought about you, no matter how many times you came. But what the service lacked in warmth was made up by the interior of the place and by the spirit of the crusty and loveable Francois which permeated the atmosphere. Le Bon Saint Pourcain served hearty dishes--beef bourguinon, cassoulet, boudin, chicken chasseur, tarte tatin-- that had no pretentions to greatness, but which made you feel great. You never feared going home hungry or with that empty feeling that sometimes occurs when you wonder if the Paris of yesterday only exists in the photos of Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier-Bresson. When asked about that sign in the window Francois, who has a house in Brittany, confirmed that he’d sold the place and finally retired.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Paris Journal VI: Raiders of the Lost Generation

Paris was once populated by a Lost Generation of expatriate Americans known for their talent, wit and sometimes genius. Woody Allen humorously addressed this era of the 20’s in Midnight in Paris. Today that Lost Generation has multiplied and their great great great grandchildren—in other words, Americans, are everywhere. Having propagated almost biblically, the descendants of the Lost Generation have become like a plague of locusts. You can’t go anywhere in Paris without seeing Americans and just when you think you’ve located a bona fide Frenchman, who talks the talk and walks the walk, even he or she can turn out to be an American dressed up as Frenchmen. You learn not be fooled by Francophiles in berets, who can rattle off esoteric Metro stops like Michel-Ange- Molitor and have no trouble cherching for the rue du Cherche-Midi. Though the onslaught of Americans is welcomed for the economic bounty they represent, they’re looked at suspiciously and even disdainfully by many Parisians precisely because even those with affectations fundamentally lack the Gallic charm, the holy grail that many Americans come to Paris for in the first place. When a Frenchman comes to New York, he or she is generally treated like royally due to the way they embody what is deemed to be a superior culture. But the achievements of the Lost Generation of Hemingways and Fitzageralds have long been forgotten and it’s the image of the ugly American with his or her profound lack of savoir faire—the tourist loaded down with guide books, time sensitive tickets to the latest blockbuster art show at the Grand Palais and naturally their Zagat’s--that’s prevailed. In a sense it’s unfair. Why should enthusiastic Americans be penalized while the French are rewarded for being what they are?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Discussing "The Death of Klinghoffer" or Stepping in It

John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met
Getting involved in the current debate about the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer (“With New “Death of Klinghoffer,” Furor Only Grows,” NYT 10/14/14)  is like intentionally stepping in dog shit. However, particularly if you haven’t seen the opera, you may be tempted to step in it— even if you're wearing sneakers with crenellated soles. Or perhaps you didn’t see where you were going. But join the crowd. From journalistic accounts it's apparent the opera has elicited passions for and against by many of who have never seen it. “Many protestors, who want the Met to cancel ‘Klinghoffer,’ have never seen the opera,” the Times remarked about the naysayers. But who ever said seeing a work of art is a qualification for making a judgment about it? One thing that can be said is that the venom of many of the opponents who have unleashed torrents of threats is reminiscent of the reaction the cartoons of Mohammad in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten produced among those who felt that certain people and ideas are too sacrosanct to be represented with anything short of a beatific halo, if they’re allowed to be represented at all. This phenomenon might be called "dictatorship of the victimized" and it creates the kind of strange bedfellows you also find among militant feminist and fundamentalist Christians who both oppose the idea that pornography constitutes free expression. All of this is fairly familiar. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses produced a fatwa against the writer and the respected scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History has been banned in India. When Portnoy’s Complaint came out there was an outcry that the portrayal of a Jewish character who masturbated into a piece of liver created a negative view of Jews. How many of those original critics of Portnoy actually read the book? They probably would have said they didn’t need to read such filth to make a judgment. They already know what it’s about. They got the idea. Sound familiar?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Paris Journal IV: Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
The 18th Century Japanese artist Hokusai was discovered by a French artist named Felix Bracquemond during the same period of time when France and Japan signed the trade pact of 1858. His work derived from the ukiyo-e or “pictures of  the floating world” movement coeval with Japan’s Edo period. “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” is perhaps Hokosai’s most famous series, though as the current show at the Grand Palais illustrates he produced one of the most monumental oeuvres in the history of art— a particularly mind boggling achievement considering the meticulousness and complexity of his drawing and etching styles. The curators remark, “it is obvious that contrary to standard practice, his landscape prints were not based on clearly identifiable sites but explored the transformation of a chosen motif.” “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is the most famous work of the Mount Fuji series and when you see the dominance of the wave in the foreground of a picture which includes Mount Fuji, it’s obvious the impact that his artistic technique had in catalyzing the Japonisme or Japanophilia that so influenced l9th century French artists. It’s significant that Bracquemond, as an advocate of Hokusai, was part of a circle that included Millet, Corot, Degas and Rodin. If there were protomodernist elements to Hokusai style, his modernity was also characterized by self-invention. In the beginning of his career, when he painted actors, he adopted the name of Katsukawa Shunro, whose studio he worked in. From 1794-1805, he changed his name to Sosi. He then changed it from Hokusai which meant “man mad about drawing,” to Katsushika Hokusai. In 1834 he began to employ Gakyo Rojin Manji which means “The Old Man Mad About Art.” Apparently, he used a total of 30 different names by the end of his life. Here is Hokusai’s artist credo, “From the time I was 6, I was in the habit of sketching things I saw around me, and around the age of 50, I began to work in earnest, producing numerous designs. It was not until my 70th year, however, that I produced anything of significance. At the age of 73, I began to grasp the underlying structure of birds and animals, insects and fish, and the way trees and plants grow. Thus {if I keep up my efforts}, I will have even a better understanding when I was 80 and by 90 will have penetrated to the heart of things. At 100, I may reach a level of divine understanding, and if I live decades beyond that, everything I paint—dot and line—will be alive.” Hoskusai was 89 when he died in 1849.