March 1, 2010 · Print This Article
“Just what the hell does ‘radical scopophilia’ mean anyway?”, you might have wondered, if you happened to have read the New York Times article on Jeff Koons’ private collection that ran in last Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section. I chuckled a bit when I read the phrase, which New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni used to describe Koons’ visual approach to art as well as, I gather, the intense visual pleasure Koons derives from his own personal collection. Here’s the key excerpt:
“I like this type work,” [Koons] said simply about the Courbet, then pointed to a brown patch on the bull’s fur vaguely shaped like the state of New Jersey and explained that he stares at the patch often and wonders whether it might represent “some form of, you know, soul or really a personal part” of Courbet’s own being. His main fascination with Knüpfer’s “Venus and Cupid” seems to be the spilled chamber pot at Venus’s side. Looking at a Manet nude, he talks about his appreciation for the “lack of violence” in Manet’s work and refers on separate occasions to a crease in the nude’s stomach, which he believes resembles a long-tailed sperm.
Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director, said in an interview that one reason she and the museum’s curators made the unusual decision to hand the Joannou show over to Mr. Koons was precisely because of his unconventional and compulsive way of looking at art, what the New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni calls his “radical scopophilia.”
In work sessions as the show came together, Ms. Phillips said, he would use examples of work, new and old, “pointing to things that often would be the peripheral things in them, things that you might not see that were actually the things that were the most interesting to him — a monkey under someone’s foot, something like that.”
It’s interesting, to say the least, that Gioni chose this particular phrase to describe Koons’ eye (as it were), given that Koons’ approach to art is idiosyncratically a-historical in its embrace of visual pleasure. Gioni uses the term ‘scopophilia’ to describe a gaze that is voracious in its viewing habits, that takes what it wants from each work of art it encounters. But what Gioni doesn’t seem to get (or at least wants to skirt, by way of his pointless and uber-pretentious insertion of the term ‘radical’ in front of it), is the fact that, although scopophilia is a psychoanalytic term employed by Freud to describe a ‘love of watching,’ the term was also taken up in the 1970s and thereafter by feminist film theorists to account for the predominance of a specifically ‘male gaze’ in classic Hollywood cinema. (Think Hitchcock’s Psycho, then go read Laura Mulvey’s classic essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ to see what I mean). Scopophilia implies an active male gaze and a passive female subject. It’s a type of gaze that has, of course, occasionally been reflected in the history of Koons’ own work, most notably Koons’ “Made in Heaven” collaboration with his ex-wife Ilona Staller.
I’m all for voracious looking, and I don’t mind a little a-historicity in the name of visual pleasure, either. But I don’t at all care for the way that Massimiliano Gioni’s stray quote, and its placement in this article, serves to whitewash the history of important work done by feminist film theorists in this area. Gioni’s blithe attachment of the term “radical” to his use of the term scopophilia only makes it worse. Please. There’s nothing ‘radical’ about the fetishistic power dynamic at play in the scopophilic gaze–or at least, in a straight man’s version of it. It’s the opposite, in fact.
The question is whether it is accurate or not to describe Koons’ curatorial eye as ‘scopophilic’ in nature. That I don’t know. One would have to actually see the show he curates, and the bulk of his collection in person, and, you know, brush up on your feminist theory a bit before you throw around terms that have a fair amount of history behind them, before hazarding a worthwhile opinion on that matter.
Ah, I’ve been wanting to bring back this little Rant of the Week column for awhile now, but have been stymied by either a) lack of good material or b) lack of time to scour the internet in search of good material. But today’s rant is a two-fer, or a three-fer, or something…anyway it’s good, it’s still sorta fresh, and although it’s easy enough to find on your own via the art twit- and blogosphere I present the following, for those of you who are not already aware of the Jerry Saltz vs. John Yau smackdown.
Here’s some quick background: Last December Jerry Saltz wrote a column in New York magazine praising Jeff Koons’ Puppy as the art work of the aughts–or the naughts–or the whatevers!– and Koons himself as “the emblematic artist of the decade—its thumping, thumping heart.” Saltz goes on to argue that
All of Koons’s best art—the encased vacuum cleaners, the stainless-steel Rabbit (the late-twentieth century’s signature work of Simulationist sculpture), the amazing gleaming Balloon Dog, and the cast-iron re-creation of a Civil War mortar exhibited last month at the Armory—has simultaneously flaunted extreme realism, idealism, and fantasy. Puppy adds to that: It is a virtual history of art, recalling the mottled surfaces of Delacroix (albeit on ’shrooms), the fantastical fairy-tale beings of Redon, a mutant Frankenstein canine from Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, and the eye-buzzing Ben-Day dots of Roy Lichtenstein. As it emits the swirling amorphousness of Tiepolo and the pathos of Watteau, it is also a magnified, misshapen abstraction of Duchamp’s urinal—a similarly deliberate gesture of antic outlandishness, and one that, of course, was signed “R. Mutt.”
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: It’s 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.”
And so on. A few weeks later, critic John Yau responds to Saltz’s piece with an essay of his own in The Brooklyn Rail (where Yau serves as art editor), titled “The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine.“ Yau starts out with a reference to a bit by the late comedian Bill Hicks, one in which Hicks rips on Jay Leno for shilling Doritos, despite the gazillions of dollars Leno already has; the implied question being how much more cash does this bloated gazillionaire need that he has to sell us junk food, too? Yau says, of Hicks,
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.’”
As part of a new initiative to bring contemporary art into hospitals and other health care facilities around the country, RxArt, a New York nonprofit group headed by Diane Brown, will install several pieces by Jeff Koons in the CAT Scan room of Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a feature in last Sunday’s New York Times Style magazine says. The works are slated to be installed on every wall of the room sometime this month, and include a large painting of four smiling monkeys on the pediatric CAT Scan machine itself.
Koons’ installation is RxArt’s most amibitious to date. Brown told the Global Giving network that the idea to install artwork in a CAT Scan room came from her own personal experiences receiving a CT Scan.
“Rather than a scary experience in a cold white space, we hope children undergoing this test will feel like they are entering into a fantastic visual adventure.
“The fact that the Hope Children’s Hospital project is centered on Koons’s transformation of the CT Scan machine is especially significant to the origins of RxArt. The initial idea for RxArt came to me when I was undergoing a CT scan and found that the only way to distract myself from the frightening procedure was to imagine an artwork (a Matthew Ritchie painting) going up the wall and across the ceiling. By entering into this artist’s complex imagery, I was mentally transported out of the sterile environment of the hospital. RxArt was founded based on the belief that art has the ability to not only transcend but to transform its settings and viewers.”
Other projects by artists such as Rob Pruitt, Assume Vivid Astro Focus, and Will Cotton that have already been installed in various hospitals can be viewed here.
Via AO Art Observed.
The Art Newspaper sat down with Jeff Koons, the antithesis of the Chicago Conceptual Art style to talk about the new work, his focus, the battalion of artists he has working for him to produce the work, the current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London and his general take on art.
Read the full interview here.