Welcome to “Skin Fruit,” the much-anticipated, endlessly blogged-about, Jeff Koons–curated exhibition at the New Museum. The opening salvo in the museum’s campaign to host private collections inside the institution, “Skin Fruit”—it rhymes with skin flute, get it?—first set tempers boiling about clubby relationships at the museum in late 2009, long before trustee Dakis Joannou’s ritzy art collection arrived inside its designer walls.
A show turned confrontation between the haves and have-nots in the art world, the exhibition became for many a punching bag as well as a convenient goad for Glenn Beck–style ressentiment—a term Nietzsche charitably defined as the incapacity to come to grips with one’s own powerlessness. For others, it was possible to view “Skin Fruit-Gate” as an unfortunate cultural outbreak, like 9/11 conspiracies or “tea bagging,” rather than a group of artworks scheduled to touch down three months later at the museum’s Bowery address.
But now that the time is upon us—what about judging the show solely on its merits? Personally, I thought the day would never come.
Drawn from a world-class store of irony-laden art that Joannou has amassed since purchasing Koons’s iconic floating basketball in the early 1980s, “Skin Fruit” is totally the wrong show for our times in just about every possible way. An exhibition of million-dollar works curated by a celebrity artist inside a museum that was, until only recently, a haven for underdog art, the ensuing display can’t help but look as mean (and irrelevant) as a rack of opera minks hung out under the Darfur sun.
Koons’s rudderless exhibition is, simply put, not a curated show at all—for instance, it has no declared subject or thematic through-line. Instead, “Skin Fruit” offers a CliffsNotes of a zillionare’s holdings as interpreted by the one American artist who insists on the fatuous premise that high art prices are subversive. No single idea today, minus short selling securities, could be more out of time.
A figure emboldened—as someone once quipped about William Burroughs—by the strength of his perversions, Koons has long made a fetish of money by manufacturing a career’s worth of brazen consumer objects (think the life-size porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles, or his 40-foot Puppy covered in flowers). In his first-ever “curated” show, Koons’s calculated banality—”Emptiness is the state of existence that characterizes his art,” New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni panders in the show’s catalog—turns nearly every artwork in this exhibition into an object as vapid and craven as his own.
An exhibition that is all absurd Olympian peaks and no valleys, “Skin Fruit” can’t help but come off as a collection of alpha male art, even when the art is made by females. Take Liza Lou’s Super Sister, a seven-foot, blinged-up Afro-Amazon that barely meets the withering gaze of Charles Ray’s taller blonde mannequin, Fall ’91, and the ominous heft of Roberto Cuoghi’s faux–Native American totem. No curator in his right mind would face the first two works across the same exhibition floor: They nearly cancel each other out. That Koons ignores this mismatch indicates that he can’t see past either sculptures’ iconic value—which is a lot like talking into certain women’s chests.
Other, normally far more affecting work by women—Kara Walker’s gouache allegories of race relations, Gillian Wearing’s photo of a suit holding an “I’m Desperate” sign, and Janine Antoni’s rawhide sculpture of a woman on all fours—get drowned out by the dicks-and-chicks shenanigans of brawny marquee artists like Urs Fischer, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Matt Greene, Seth Price, Paul Chan, Terence Koh, Richard Prince, Pawel Althamer, and Tim Noble and Sue Webster, to name but a few (really!). Don’t get me wrong: Dicks and chicks have their place. “Skin Fruit,” though, is what you’d call a full-on sausage party.
Still more works suffocate inside Koons’s vapid, vacuum-like “world without oxygen” (thanks again, Mr. Gioni). There are some fine Chris Ofili pictures (both with and without pachyderm poo); a virtual parallel exhibition of eerie Robert Gober pieces; an impressive trompe l’oeil painting by Dave Muller; and an amazing universe-in-a-sculpture by David Altmejd (almost worth the price of the ticket). Yet one can confidently say: “Skin Fruit” is not an art exhibition. Instead, it’s a display of art as trophy hunting. Much less than the sum of its parts, Koons’s lousy show is a signal lesson in the art world’s screaming need to reframe success, one overripe, blue-chip artwork at a time.