Idle Adults

John Haber
in New York City

Summer Sculpture 2008: Jeff Koons and Chris Burden

Perhaps only my inner child really looks forward to those hot, sticky summers, as if I still got off from school. Perhaps only a critic's inner child would look forward each year to a true New York special—its wealth of outdoor sculpture. But do the artists involved all have to carry on like children? One sure might think so, on this summer's sculpture tour.

On the roof of the Met, Jeff Koons plays his audience once again for children in need of the latest shiny toy. In midtown, Tom Sachs and Chris Burden play instead with wind-up toys and Erector sets, but Burden shows that his can compete with one of New York's best-known towers. Further down in in Madison Square, where last year metal trees by Roxy Paine stubbornly refused to change with the seasons, Richard Deacon's polka-dot Minimalism comically refuses to refer to its surroundings. Prefer to put away childish things, lie down in the park, and forget art entirely? In the near wasteland of Socrates Sculpture Park, artists "Waste Not, Want Not," while in Dumbo they chart a "Relative Environment" that Brooklyn sunbathers may overlook. Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Yellow) (Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994–2000)

All these have something in common: they would not exist without nonprofit institutions willing to promote public art. Sure, that comes with a price, surrendering control of public spaces to private tastes. The Met, for example, plays it dreadfully safe year after year. With Koons, it has chosen an artist known for playing the crowds and rewarded for it in the marketplace. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council has not gone beyond studio tours and performances since a display several summers ago on Governors Island, and the island's fate is still uncertain (but for an update see a review of "PLOT/09" in summer 2009). Aby Rosen continues to make Lever House a venue for a rich man's display of bad taste—and the city has rewarded him for it, with the adjacent median strip of Park Avenue as a site for more.

The displays in Socrates Sculpture Park have never worked out their relationship to the more well-known sculptors in residence there, and even the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition has grown complacent. Where its unjuried shows of painting in Red Hook look like garage sales, its curated shows in Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park (now a part of Brooklyn Bridge Park) fall back on too many of the same artists each summer. One would hardly know that the borough teems with studios. Still, for all their highs and lows, I love these shows, especially the last. The Public Art Fund, the Madison Square Conservancy, Socrates Sculpture Park, the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, and New York City itself—they all demonstrate a concern for art, the parks, and pedestrians as essential to the fabric of the city. They make good choices and bad, from established players and emerging artists alike, but they do not just replicate an auction brochure.

Art's inner child

Jeff Koons has drawn record crowds to the Met's roof. There they get to ooh and aah over a gigantic balloon dog, ten year's old now but still ever so neatly tied. (How do proper parents pull that effect off at birthdays for their model children?) Its coppery finish gives the further illusion of a mere transient toy cast grandly in bronze. Nearby, tourists can photograph one another in front of a shiny, red candy wrapper titled (nudge, nudge) Sacred Heart. Rounding out the fun and games, eighteen-foot-tall smears of Crayola colors derive from the artist's excited discovery of a Winnie the Pooh coloring book.

Perhaps the kids were just waiting to let loose. I know I was if someone dared drag me to the Met when I was growing up. This summer, fans of long New York walks may feel the same way. The city has declined to set sculpture in City Hall Park, although landscaping, restoration of the fountain, and fewer security restrictions invite one to circulate and to linger. In Madison Square, one must settle for Richard Deacon's tightly knit angled beams. Their bright patterns, simulating spray paint, set low to the ground could work as fiendish parodies of Mark di Suvero and Joel Shapiro long after Shapiro's early years, were they not ever so arty and ever so serious.

Most visitors will have trouble identifying the tallest work as a coloring book, and it may or may not pun on past rooftop sculpture, Roy Lichtenstein Brushstrokes. One could also mistake its mirrored surface for a thick, transparent glass sheet. In fact, Koons constructs all three works from translucent patinas over more humble stainless steel. I suppose I should admire the high gloss. Faced with Koons, however, for once I have to join prissy defenders of fine art. Is nothing sacred, even chocolate?

I shall convince neither fans nor doubters that Koons makes childish, annoying art—neither a relativist who hardly cares whether his art is any good nor an artist drowning in French theory (Jeff Koons? theory?), but still very childish, very annoying, and very much art. I can, though, try to explain what is going on. Like the Young British Artists, Koons obviously admires Andy Warhol, and he looks back through Pop Art to Dada. However, unlike those models, he never plays critical mind games with the nature of art, culture, capitalism, or the transience and ubiquity of worldly pleasures. He has Warhol's childlike joy in plain things, but not Warhol's hand-smeared look or the unrelenting darkness of many of his images. Like Andy Warhol, too, Koons has a "factory," but not with Warhol's influence or as a hub for cultural change.

It is an art of what Johanna Drucker calls "sweet dreams," of "complicity" only partly masked by the appearance of satire. On the one hand, Koons has a democratic impulse that Warhol or Duchamp would not have understood—art accessible to a wider public. On the other hand, Koons maintains his brand as celebrity, producer, and innovator, just as a CEO can stand in front of the cameras to unveil a new product line with youth or counterculture appeal. The accidental banality of a true readymade would make no sense to him. To his fans, his employing ninety-five assistants does not discredit his originality, discredit the very idea of originality, or broaden its definition. Instead, it legitimizes him as worthy of attention, and the Met boasts of it in a handout.

Koons's images, scale, production, and reception identify his art with much the same high-end consumer pleasures, with the same loaded definition of democracy as in free-market economics. The same profile defines pretty much all the current wave of celebrity artists and mass entertainments, including Cai Guo-Qiang, Matthew Barney, or Takashi Murakami (and to a lesser extent Olafur Eliasson, who actually has something to say). Each thrives on an eager but jaded viewer, one that has seen Koons in public before—perhaps his previous New York outdoor sculpture, a topiary puppy at Rockefeller Center. Each has the air of self-reflection and politics, and in each case that air vanishes once one tries to define it. With due respect to left and right in art's culture wars, the problem is not that Koons does not think or feel like a Marxist or an esthete. The problem is that he does not make viewers think or feel at all.

More child's play

Koons on the Met's roof makes a popular start for a summer sculpture tour. He also articulates a real dilemma in art, amid pluralism and a growing market. By no coincidence whatsoever, one summer group show in the galleries takes as its theme "I Won't Grow Up" and another, quoting Rimbaud, "Idle Youth." The main lesson in each comes in just how many artists fit the theme without a struggle. One does not have to head too far south either to encounter more child's play. First, however, one might have to leave a real child behind.

At Fifth Avenue and 60th Street, James Yamada's five-leaf clover offers a gateway to Central Park. Walking through it triggers a few hundred LEDs, but visible only from the outside. Anyone hoping for proof of the laws of electricity and magnetism, however, had better bring an adult friend. Only those grownup enough to have coins or keys in their pockets will set if off, and passersby politely walk around it or ignore it altogether. The thick black slab, its curves at odds with the plain rectangular doorframe, must look to them more like an obstacle than an invitation. A gussied-up airport security gate would attract a lot more curiosity—and more challenging associations.

Kid stuff resumes in earnest a few blocks further south, at the Lever Building, where Tom Sachs blows up half-dollar windup toys into statuary, on circular pedestals that mimic the surrounding benches—just down the avenue from where he once displayed Space Program: Mars. The largest displaces at long last an anatomy lesson from Damien Hirst, while others spew jets of water from their eyes. Anna Craycroft recently made the same pun on childhood tears and public fountains, although she had more complex tales to tell about the weepers. White paint barely disguises the seams between metal sheets, a rebuke to Koons's luxury goods. In the lobby, slim black pillars mimic stacks of car batteries, while two bronze curves presumably elevate skateboard ramps to fine art and seven white loops pretend to shield the building's north side from truck bombers. Unlike Koons but like Jun Kaneko's blandly decorative ceramic heads on the Park Avenue median strip, Sachs never lets one forget that he is making art worth keeping.

Like Paul McCarthy and his Bang Bang Room, Sachs loves to play the bad boy, although not half as naughtily. In his latest gallery show downtown, foam-core collage puts dogs in the starring roles of pre-Victorian porn, but the whale atop a white piano owes more to Liberace than to de Sade. Mostly, the twin exhibitions suggest unrelated props without a drama and a restless artist driven only by his own cleverness. Some ideas work better than others, but never as satire or celebration. Koons, Craycroft, and McCarthy share a fixation on adult myths of a child's innocence. Sachs has merely a child's attention span.

Chris Burden's What My Dad Gave Me (Public Art Fund, 2008)Chris Burden has more patience—enough to have built an Erector set on the scale of Rockefeller Center. At sixty-five feet high and with a thousand parts, it nestles neatly between the flanking six-story buildings. Its classic setback design further echoes the Empire State Building, begun only three years before them in 1929. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the architect, Raymond Hood, in fact imagined Rockefeller Center as a coordinated collection of buildings and a focus of civic attention. Hood himself had proposed the pattern for a "city of towers," with staggered masses around a central shaft. What My Dad Gave Me merely finishes the job.

One associates Burden with big gestures, going back to his performance days, like yet another artist with a boy's attitude and hormones. Marina Abramovic put herself as performer at risk, in a way that still makes me tremble. Burden endured injury from a shotgun, broken glass, and the nails of a crucifixion, in a way that makes me want instead to say yuck. Remarkably, however, he really has harnessed a child's wonder with a connection at once to personal biography and urban history—recreating a real New York with the parts for a toy invented in 1909 and increasingly rare. By choosing to site his work along Fifth Avenue, he also avoids competing with the sunken plaza and more famous tower behind. At once far larger and more obsessive than a plaything, smaller and more modest than a skyscraper, it makes art of a piece with the humane scale, civic engagement, and creative fantasies to either side.

Wasting away

Still determined to head outdoors for a long summer weekend? Prefer ditching the walking tour and lying down? Socrates Sculpture Park easily lives up to its name. The small patch of Astoria waterfront provides a place to sunbathe, free movies, an active working space for sculptors, and a sculpture show each year.

A cynic might instead remember stubby grass and little shade, a sad view up the East River, a spot between Broadway's industrial terminus and a Costco, and a poor cousin to summer sculpture beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. This year's model makes a virtue of necessity. "Waste Not, Want Not" frankly embraces its unkempt surroundings, with the environmentally correct theme of recycling. Look, if you want fancy sculpture and a fancy garden, the Noguchi Museum nests only a block away.

Another kind of physical and cultural recycling, appropriation, has dominated art for a long time. The place of the garden in the city and the city in the garden unites voices as contrary as Louis Mumford and Le Corbusier. That does not make the show's job any easier, however. When Jonathan Allen assembles scraps into a billboard, the strategy of appropriation could belong in pretty much any setting. A serious engagement with urban ideals and architecture, too, would take a much better show. Still, the prospect of additional garbage or greenery to a sculpture park has a certain comedy, and so does much of the art.

Lars Fisk really does carry out the trash, with garbage bags in polished black marble. Since recyclables belong in blue bags, has he failed to sort properly? Carole Frances Lung invites others to recycle as well, with a bin for old clothing. Over the course of the installation, she is weaving the donations into a freestanding loom. A woman's work is never done. The male perspective, with Tony Feher's lipstick of PVC piping, seems strained by comparison.

In spots the junk just looks junky, such as Macrae Simmons's weighty concrete and metal, like a funeral ceremony for Minimalism (although it looked fiendishly appropriate in a summer group show at Taxter & Spengleman). Randy Wray recreates the formless yard sale once lined the Bowery and Houston Street, but with a crusty patina that buries a sense of history. A collective, the Canary Project, could draw a smile by binding up trees in torn shirts, did they not wish so much more. The reflective white has something or other to do with global warming, and perhaps the title, Pilgrim's Landing, refers to the function of old markings on trees and piers as semaphores. Paul Villinski calls his trailer a solar-powered artist's studio. Memo to self: do not make too big a point about a trailer park or gasoline-powered vehicle as eco-friendly.

Others take seriously—or at least earnestly—the idea of the garden. Austin Shull's Migratory Greenhouse in the back of a truck comes with a poster laying out the habitats of each species. Letha Wilson strands a community garden within the open lawn, in a tiered geometry that she dedicates to Jasper Johns. Shinique Smith, whose castoffs appeared among emerging artists at the Studio Museum and in the opening of the New Museum, creates a garden path or gallery floor of ceramic scraps. Courtney Smith disguises her tiles amid the grass, and it takes still longer to recognize the parquet as fragments of doors. For more redoubled landscaping, Randy Lehrman layers sod into a curving bed fit for skateboarders.

Still others act out a double displacement, moving outdoors what Robert Smithson defined as nonsite, industrial landscapes imported into the gallery. Julian Montague fits the themes of junk, garden, and park into a single work—constructing three miniature ecosystems, from grassy to dry, around smashed shopping carts. Miwa Koizumi's ecosystem has a deeper sense of time and poetry, his oil drums filled with plastic bottles shaped into starlike "plankton." Thanks to Jade Townsend and Michael Petersen, a sofa in the sky rises above wrecked homes, as the flood waters had brought on both. These works give the comedy a time and place. A show like this embraces many ideas but only rarely hits one out of the park.

Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Sculpture in Dumbo faces some serious competition this summer. Where the Brooklyn Bridge already soars above, Eliasson has built a waterfall. Where the East River already leads to the lower Manhattan skyline, ferries and kayaks regularly fill the waters. Where declining industry, artist studios, and empty cobblestone streets ended not long ago in a quiet but lovely park, picnickers and sunbathers now sprawl across lusher greenery. What is an artist to do? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Since at least 9/11, the Brooklyn summer sculpture in Fulton-Ferry State Park and the playground to the north has changed with the times. "Between the Bridges" responded to a perceived absence and, in years since, to emotional recovery. This year's model, "Relative Environment," copes instead with excessive presence. As if taking a cue from Eliasson and the recyclers up in Queens, the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition chooses work that navigates between natural and created habitats. It lacks his sense of drama, his engineering skills, and for the most part his site specificity, and it could stand some new life. Just hunting it all down, however, makes a neighborhood of luxury rentals and condos appear a little more natural and a little wilder.

As curators, Ursula Clark and Tyrome Tripoli bring several returning contributors—and some predictable strategies, starting with whimsical habitats. Springhetti/Teppich's metal flowers sport a new paint job, and Tammy Bickel's Steel Rose has some pointedly aggressive edges instead of thorns. Michael Mutt and Doug Makemson create life forms that might have just crept on shore from the Disney version of a prehistoric sea. Clark herself has a penchant for makeshift wooden shelters, as in her homespun twin towers a few years before. This year her twigs form a large nest on the ground, filled with artificial pine cones and, for reasons that escape me, something like plastic lanterns. Judging by the title, Verdun Basket, they may allude to the spikes on German helmets from World War I or memorials for the dead.

Some of the puns on nature and civilization allude instead to machinery. Joe Chirchirillo's branches swing while gears remain at rest, Matt Johnson has a cross between a rusted tractor and a tricycle, and Tripoli's Crankshaft City refuses to power anything. Lucy Hodgson's Oh Swell evokes both waves and a roller coaster, with a long track of thatching on metal and a treacherous gap halfway to the end. Scattered pieces on the grass link it to relics of Brooklyn's history. Only one artist delivers a lecture on environmentalism or environmental art, but just as well. Rod Northcutt's Fish and Flotsam resembles the text panels on the railings of a natural history museum, a reminder that PVCs and plastic food containers from McDonald's or a salad bar do indeed foul the shore.

Others stick to the forms of Modernism and past biomorphic abstraction. Bill Wood has a kind of black Alexander Calder stabile low to the ground, Henry Royer's large metal clasp forms a plain oval, and Bernard Klevickas's stacked lily pads resemble Swedish furniture. Bill Wood's purple pigeon comes closer to Lego. A bit more assertively, Fritz Horstman's Reclining Crystal could pass as the hockey mask in a horror flick, while Jonas Lindberg's Puffballs might outline a makeshift Buckminster Fuller dome. For the most part, though, work stays too restrained for idealism or fantasy. When Richard Brachman makes his solar home on an earth floor the size of a dollhouse, it could imply a future unable to sustain itself much past the show's September close.

At their best, the artists explore a space that sunbathers blissfully ignore. To the north, sculpture pushes under the Manhattan Bridge. To the south, Julia Whitney Barnes's silvery Gilded Phytophilic Bats (literally, "plant loving") hang disguised in a tree, where flight and vegetation converge. Mohr/Hoecher's planter or pigeon feeder in the shape of the Brooklyn Bridge would be too cute for words in a backyard. Here, though, it attracts enough birds to give it an assist. Barbara Campisi clusters white spores across dozens of feet of coastal rocks, in imitation of seaweed, but also like shells or eggs, as if poised between stages of life.

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Jeff Koons occupied the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 26, 2008. "I Won't Grow Up" ran at Cheim & Read through August 29, and "Idle Youth" at Barbara Gladstone through August 15. James Yamada's "Our Starry Night" stood in Doris Freedman Plaza through October 28, Tom Sachs at Lever House through September 6 and at Sperone Westwater through June 21, Chris Burden at Rockefeller Center through July 19, "Waste Not, Want Not" at Socrates Sculpture Park through August 3, and "Relative Environment" in Empire Fulton-Ferry State Park in Dumbo through September 7. Reviews continue into the present, with summer 2017.


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