8 November 2014


Charles Ray, The New Beetle, 2006. © Charles Ray. Photo: Joshua White.

The question of the value of images is an accentuated one for artists.

This highly contemporary problem is what Roland Barthes called the search for a “just image” in opposition to just an image. By this, I think he meant an image worthy of intellectual trust, an image which would last through time rather than one which would be discredited easily or immediately manipulated to some ideological end, the way the mass media so casually do. He meant an image that was more than surface, an image in which a depth of thought could reside and an image to which a depth of thought could be attracted. He meant art, in fact.

– Bruce Ferguson, The Sculpture of Charles Ray

Charley was playing around in a lumberyard in Chicago’s North Shore area when a blitz of planks wacked him unconscious. An elderly couple found the boy meandering about in the marina, disoriented and lost, and sailed away with him. It was when the Coast Guard rescued them during a tempestuous cruise on Lake Michigan that Charley regained his memory.

The American sculptor (and sailor) Charles Ray says that he wants to enchant the world. He does. The warm thrill of confusion is a major thing in most of Ray’s works, and there is a wonderful, sound logic to his quality pieces where reality just gets slightly out of tune. Ray is on view together with Katharina Fritsch and Jeff Koons in Moderna Museet’s fanfare exhibition Sculpture After Sculpture this winter. It is a kind of survey by Jack Bankowsky who has handpicked and synthesised exactly thirteen figural sculptures in a big room with only four white walls.

Just what is it that makes this exhibition so luxurious, so vainglorious then? Sculpture After Sculpture is an experience much like watching the Lithuanian ex-model turned elite food blogger Aiste Miseviciute in the Swedish Foodies (2014) documentary – spending as much as a less fortunate person’s yearly living wage on an everyday flight to Tokyo just to devour Takashi Saito’s ten little pieces of the planet’s most sensational sushi in a parking garage.

In the fairly decent biopic The Theory of Everything (2014), Stephen Hawking tells his Cambridge sweetheart and wife-to-be, Jane, a beautiful thing about the universe: “When stars are born, and when they die, they emit UV radiation, so if we could see the night sky in the ultraviolet light, then all the stars would disappear and we’d simply see these spectacular birth and deaths.” The front page of the bookish exhibition catalogue is designed with the vapid title of the show as an epitaph. It radiates as little substance as the verbal output of the curator of the show.

As Bankowsky puts it in his introduction: “Sculpture After Sculpture comes as a surprise, especially for me. I had not imagined myself, and with flying colours, advocate a return to traditional media, particularly not representational figurative sculpture.” What a quaint notion. The exhibition gathers some of the most talked about works of art since the 1980s, all inspired by a myriad of Duchampian attitudes and Pop strategies that resurfaced throughout that decade.

And as Rachel Wells points out in her book Scale in Contemporary Art, one can also find traits of “Lewis Carroll’s Alice [where] enlargement and miniaturisation seem directly connected to consumption” and of “Swift’s use of exaggeration as a form of satire and parody through Gulliver’s discovery of new and differently scaled lands” in the richness and poverty of this art.

DH Lawrence remarked that “The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Sculpture After Sculpture is naturally about something more than its (undefined) “plot” – however, listening to Jack Bankowsky’s babble during the forty-minute press conference only reinforced the belief that art criticism is anything you can get away with.

Bankowsky’s Pop Life: Art in a Material World at Tate Modern (late 2009) was a materialisation of Andy Warhol’s dollar doctrine “Good business is the best art”. (Alison Gingeras who co-curated the show said that, “You have to get your hands dirty in order to engage in this material.”) The billionaires who buy this kind of art invest in the divinity of the pecuniary masterpiece, a Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons for fifty-eight million dollars.

Jeff Koons (b 1955) has always worked in distinguished series since his striking The New – the Perspex vitrines with the fluorescent-lit vacuum cleaners – initiated at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1980. And they have all been grossly successful, at least in terms of money – apart from the sterile works he did with himself and Cicciolina (Koons married Ilona Staller in 1991) in different formations of unadulterated porno-styled coitus and kitschy money shots. The Moderna show presents four of his works. Let us begin with the art world’s very own guilty pleasure: Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

The Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art this summer was a mega-big farewell to the museum’s Madison Avenue premises. Scott Rothkopf who curated the show makes a strange claim in the catalogue: “Since Marcel Duchamp first exhibited his urinal in 1917, few artists have been as associated with that gesture or have grappled with it as variously as Koons.” It is basic knowledge that the Fountain vanished from this world before it was ever exhibited and that the Society of Independent Artists refused to acknowledge it as a work of art in April 1917. (It became the most famous piece of porcelain through Stieglitz’s photograph, and from the replicas that grew out of this marvellous idea.)

Michael Jackson and Bubbles is a piece about the artist’s wish to become a superstar (the “King of Pop”) more than a work with primal references to Duchamp’s “urinal”. Still, what Koonsified Koons in the late 1970s was indeed Duchamp’s solution to art: “He seemed the total opposite of the subjective art I had been immersed in. It was the most objective statement possible, the readymade.” Koons, describes his sculptural composition – a reworked publicity photograph – with Jackson and his chimpanzee in matching circus uniforms and make-up characteristics as “Christ-like figures, as a triangular Pietà”.

“Over the time, the singer’s features grew even closer to those of the sculpture, and his premature death in 2009 took on a dimension of Christian sacrifice. The work is a marvel of prolepsis,” argues Scott Rothkopf. “What is remarkable about these sculptures almost thirty years later is that they remain nearly as problematic – dare I say vulgar? – as when they were first made. I mean this as a high praise.”

By the end of 1988, Jackson returned from his Bad World Tour. That year he had also moved to his Neverland funfair ranch and published his autobiography Moonwalk. MJ was on top of the world – until Bubbles actually did grow up, went sexually messy and had to be taken to a zoo.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles is the largest piece of porcelain ever manufactured, and the “best” work from Koons’s “bad” Banality series of twenty triplicated, polychromed sculptures based on his smart conceptualisations of gewgaw and sentimental junk that he uncovered in 1988 (most of them were made by ecclesiastical wood carvers in the Demetz Art Studio in northern Italy). The gilded porcelain piece is signed “CS Villari” after the master who made it, and that of course is an “R Mutt” kind of thing.

“His widely publicised works have made it more difficult than ever to evade speculation about the relationship of art to craft and mechanical reproduction, the artist’s role as a maker, conceiver or appropriator, and the distinctions commonly drawn between the high art enshrined in museums and commercial art, decoration, kitsch and pornography. Such issues had of course been raised before, by Duchamp and Picabia, by the creators of Pop Art, especially by Warhol, and in different terms by Beuys, but always in a climate of 20th-century agnosticism,” write Hugh Honour and John Fleming in their huge A World History of Art.

Koons’s Artist Talk at the Moderna Museet was a spectacle. Koons arose as a kind of extraordinary cult leader with his prepacked wizardry of “magic” hand movements and bullshit salesman lingo, a man who truly seems to believe that everyone will put on those Nike shoes and swallow his laced applesauce. He talked about his art teacher “Bo … Derek”, and how he “started to realise how effortlessly art brought all the human disciplines together, and that I could have a dialogue with philosophy, with sociology, and physics, aesthetics. And I have been on this journey with a sense of expansion and transcendence, to so effortlessly connect everything.”

He talked about Cicciolina’s private parts until people began to squirm in their seats. Then, in another twirl of his mock sincerity and mock profundity: “The only thing you can do in this life is to follow your interest, and if you focus on those interests it takes you to a very metaphysical place. It is a place where time bends and you connect with the universal, the essence of being a human being, and you get a foot into the future.”

When Koons makes art in this “metaphysical place” you get a form that accommodates the mess: the Metallic Venus (2010–12) is a two-and-a-half-metre-high farce – kind of reminiscent of classical statuary – with an “immodest” Venus in a curvy contrapposto and a silly flower pot on an amorphous strut, a “contemporary” take on Praxiteles’s Aphrodite of Cnidus (4th century BC) in all her naked beauty.

Koons wants his disciples to know that their history is perfect. However, the blue Venus is nothing else than a stupendous mirror of departed empires – just what Celeste Olalquiaga talks about in The Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience: “Despite appearances, kitsch is not an active commodity naively infused with the desire of a wish image, but rather a failed commodity that continually speaks of all it has ceased to be.”

“The rich and greedy buy it because it lauds them for their greediness, their wealthy power, terrible taste, and bad values,” wrote Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine (June 30, 2014) regarding the Koons retrospective and his art. “Duchamp’s readymades have an almost monastic austerity. Koons has bulked them up, transforming the ultimate insider’s art into the art that will not shut up,” argued Jeff Pearl in The New York Review of Books (September 25, 2014) while he asked: “When was it that the art of the dead became the only art that art people want to talk about?”

New Hoover Convertibles, Shelton Wet/Dry Five-Gallon Double Decker (1981–87) is another stately tomb from The New series, and a piece that still excites. Pop was about consumption, the ravishing package design of the time (which was worthy of worship and attention), and once in a while about the ambiguity with the waste of 1960s culture. When Koons mentioned this work during his Artist Talk he claimed that, “They display the integrity of birth. They are eternal virgins. So this is really the ultimate state of being.” These vacuum cleaners (not vacuum cleaners) are a bunch of Vestals from the industrial age.

The bowlegged Balloon Dog (1994–2000) from the Celebration series is Koons’s “Trojan Horse” and it is slicker than a weasel. This work is a mega-indulgent biggie blow-up of a doggy-shaped sausage balloon, minted in an edition of five differently coloured pieces in highly glossed steel. With all these crimps and puckers, it is a lush piece of engineering. Koons says that he would do anything “for the trust of the viewer”: “I was trying to capture all the details in the original one, but through the processes it comes out as somewhat simplified. But today I would take a CAT scan of the balloon so there is nothing left to subjective interpretation.”

The show as a whole feels like a twenty-minute banquet at Sushi Saito.

Charles Ray (b 1953) is something else – as an artist, as a human being – than a manifestation of the ugliness of our culture. Twenty years ago, when this writer had the privilege to work with Ray, he “parked” his Firetruck (1993) on Madison Avenue just outside the Whitney Biennial. The piece originated from a toy fire engine – strangely modified and exaggerated, as they are to look like the real thing – that was broached back to life-size by Ray. The super-realistic sculpture in painted aluminium made the world around the Whitney look like an illusion.

Fall ’91 (1992) is his earliest piece in the exhibition (and it is the version with the purplish business garb and the brooch). Ray’s true-to-life mannequins flicker between the stylised and the creepy real. They replaced the many works – that would inevitably ruin his physique – in which he used his own body in a harrowing range of expressions. The 244-centimetre-high Fall ’91 is not a sculpture of a woman suffering from gigantism, but a sculpture of a mannequin and the rules of attraction that have been assigned to her – the starry gaze, the restrained mouth and the blessing hand gesture (cues to buy the look) – and a piece about the scope of sculptural representation since the Egyptians and the Greeks.

I have seen the artist and an assistant grooming the big lady for days on end. Ray: “You need a window dresser or a display expert to deal with the piece every three or four days, to fix the hair, straighten everything up, get the wrinkles out of the clothes, and clean it all up. She gets all dishevelled. It has to be perfect. It’s because the work is hallucinatory. It’s like the burning bush.”

Boy with Frog (2009) is a piece that loops back to childhood. The sculpture was commissioned for Punta della Dogana’s well-known seaside point in Venice – a child-sized landmark of a boy who is holding up a frog like a used condom (the undertone is sinister, not sexual), to the chagrin of the city’s tourism industry which forced it out of its intended place of permanence after the 55th Biennale in 2013.

The unthreatening and slightly less phenomenal The New Beetle (2006) in the Moderna show took over five years to make. (The artist explains that the activity that takes place has its own beauty.) This work is about gravity, playfulness and the illusionary lightness of white-painted massive steel – as with its companion piece – and they both recall the look of “unpainted” classical statuary. The boys are pretty generic, but the frog and the VW Beetle (which of course in reality looks like a big toy car) are quite remarkably detailed. “There’s something about a toy to a child where the relationship is real, where the kid is playing and it’s just really amazing,” says Ray. “How do I make that experience real for the adult? It’s not so much the size, I think – it’s the weight. I can feel the gravity of it. It’s solid. Immovable.”

Charles Ray compares sculptures to people “in that you see them more fully over time”. Young Man (2012) is his finest gravity piece in a series of 110-per-cent-scale representations – just that slight twist – of real people. And they are not, as one would think, cast out of a mould but cut from three blocks of stainless steel by a computer-guided machine. The silver man meets the public at the entrance of Sculpture After Sculpture with his bulging waistline. He is like the Kritios Boy (4th century BC) stripped of his Greco-impossible ideals – a representation of the human form from our time and similarly a sculpture that is going back to the beginning, a nourished as well as tidy Ötzi the Iceman.

JG Ballard’s Crash (1973) is a novel that Ray used to mention recurrently (though it reads like a book written by a crash test dummy). Unpainted Sculpture (1997) is a full-scale, precise replica and a ghost work of a crashed ’91 Pontiac Grand Am which Ray cast in fibreglass: “I think of its life – from the factory in Detroit, through the wrecks, then ending up in my hands, and now it’s ended up in another weird assembly line in my studio, and it’s going back out again. It has a funny trail of identity.”

The ungainly Tractor (2003–05) is in the show. Ray purchased the ghostly vehicle and had it dismantled in order to cast each individual piece by hand in aluminium, down to the tiniest detail (such as a coin that someone had dropped in an engine part). Another “tractor piece” by Ray is his Father Figure (2007), based on a toy he got from fellow artist Kiki Smith. The result is a green-painted steel sculpture that weights a staggering seventeen tonnes. These works link together the toys from our childhood – and some of the earliest pleasures we experienced – with Ray’s ideas about the inseparable relationship between man and his machines.

Tractor may also be a piece about a lonely, dyslectic boy who couldn’t tie his shoes, who was sent to a Catholic military school, and who came out as an eminent teacher at the UCLA and as one of the finest sculptors that we have in this world.

Sculpture After Sculpture features five works by Katharina Fritsch (b 1956), and three of them are good to quite great. People who have been to London’s Trafalgar Square lately know her four-point-seven-metre-high cockerel Hahn/Cock (2010) in bright, powdery International Klein Blue (placed on that fourth plinth reserved for contemporary artworks). The Professor of Sculpture at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf says that her work “is always on the borderline between a detailed sculpture and a sign”.

Fritsch’s Figurengruppe (2005–08) is an unusual band of holy or symbolic figures and a big black serpent, made in different materials and lacquered in individual, striking colours. Fritsch was exceptionally delighted by the positive response to this group of figures when it was on display in the garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011: “It was unbelievably popular. I think people were attached because it was about colour – and there were no pedestals. The impact of a sculpture becomes very direct when you can stand next to it and take a photo.” This is Fritsch at her best.

Part of the Figurengruppe, and part of Sculpture After Sculpture, is her powdery, lemon Madonna (1987/2009). Madonna is a human-size polyester sculpture of a religious souvenir, of purchased holiness. It looks as if it was made out of sugar, or like it was a blow-up of a dream edition toy from a Kinder Surprise egg. (I mean this as a high praise.) The first manifestation of this work appeared in a medieval square in the German city of Münster in 1987. The polyester Madonna was stolen and the second version (in cement) desecrated: “People got very emotional. In the daytime, people brought candles and flowers and stood there singing and taking pictures. Then in the night, drunken people hit her and sprayed her. I never experienced anything like it.”

The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones wrote (on September 17, 2001) that “In the art of Katharina Fritsch the Middle Ages return to menace the modern world.” Her Ghost and a Pool of Blood (1988) is a murder mystery (next to Koons’s billion dollar doggie) with a five-litre puddle of Plexiglas blood and, further away, an entity draped in a white sheet. “I find it interesting that in this work I have made something real that does not in fact exists,” says Fritsch. Her ghost is as much a ghost as Nicholas Monro’s good-natured Martians (1964) – a green sculptural group of four red-eyed frogmen aliens – are extra terrestrials.

Painted in the most dissonant – one might say evil – chord of blue, Apple (2009–12) is a far more sinister work than the Ghost piece. The god in the Christian manual punished women to forever suffer at childbirth because the first human beings dared to taste the fruit (often referred to as an apple) from the Tree of Knowledge – just like any sensible person would do. The artist thought of colour – “In the more abstract 20th century colour was lost. It was not allowed because it was maybe too childish, too sensual, too emotional” – and she thought of Claes Oldenburg’s Apple Core (1992) when she made her “forbidden fruit”.

Mary Poppins, Botticelli’s Venus on her seashell surfboard, and the pretty lady from Mackintosh’s Quality Street tin – they all gather in Fritsch’s fancy Woman with Dog (2004) together with the art of Arcimboldo, Hieronymus Bosch, and Elsa Beskow and her Aunt Lavender (who also had a dog). Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Woman with Dog is a piece of fluff and excessive ornamentation. The garish sculpture is built on an armoury of seashell forms. The pink woman has a seashell umbrella in her right hand and a cupcake sea anemone in her left. Another replaceable work is Fritsch’s blue-greenish polyester cast of the elephantine animal in the Zoologisches Museum Koenig in Bonn. The pedestalled Elephant (1987) is a very big piece with so little impact.

During his Artist Talk at the Moderna Museet, Charles Ray said that the prospect of Sculpture After Sculpture felt like “hundreds of thousands of birthdays coming up”.

At the press conference, Bankowsky mentioned a special museum visit when he and Ray had gone to the Getty Villa in Malibu and there, in the atrium, saw a two-thousand-year-old sculpture that had left Rome for the first time: “And of course it was broken in fragments as classic sculptures often are. And Charley said, ‘I would like to see Balloon Dog with a missing leg.’ And of course, it might have sounded aggressive but it is really a compliment from one artist to another, that in two thousand years this thing will still hold up as an object when it is broken apart.”

The sculpture in question is Lion Attacking a Horse (4th century BC), which was fully restored in 1594 since it was one of Michelangelo’s favourites.

In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s totally magical one-sweep over the Birdman’s nestBirdman (2014) – there is a strange note on the mirror in Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) dressing room that says: “A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing.” Well, the thing is that an exhibition like this one needs criticism in a new key. It is a tour de force kind of undertaking to put on a show of such grandness. It’s a pity though that it implores the mock erudition of someone from Art Forum.

When Bankowsky put the Balloon Dog in the Sculpture After Sculpture setting, he knew that it had to be the red one. Imagine George Taylor on that beach in Planet of the Apes (1968) in 3978 AD when he finds the ruined body of the red Balloon Dog in the sand.

Will he damn us all to hell?

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. © Jeff Koons.

Sculpture After Sculpture at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through January 18, 2015.