There’s no question at this point that the financial miasma surrounding the New Museums decision to have incredibly expensive artist Jeff Koons curate a show from billionaire NuMu trustee Dakis Joannous collection — populated by many a pricey Koons — obscured “Skin Fruit” for too many viewers. Coming so quickly after the collapse of the loathsomely corrupt Wall Street system, this arguable self-dealing at the heart of the exhibition should have caused someone at the museum to cry out “Too soon!” But now that the pitchfork-wielding townsfolk of the art world are starting to move on from the Bowery institution, it’s possible to spend a truly enjoyable afternoon at the show — which is most interestingly viewed as a window into the mind of the curator, who as usual is less concerned with money than material, and humorously randy ideas.
Yes, Koons only selected one of his own works to include in the show, his iconic 1985 One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, the first piece of his that Joannou purchased and the acquisition that the Greek magnate says made him a serious collector. As Lee Rosenbaum has pointed out, the basketball suspended in the fish tank greets viewers as they get off the elevator to enter the show on the second floor, suggesting a lens (complete with floating eyeball) through which to see the rest of the exhibition. “I really wanted to examine and have a dialogue with everyone else’s work,” Koons has said. And while some critics have failed to uncover the artist’s curatorial hand — with others calling it puerile and perverse, to match the “Skin Fruit” title — it bears remembering that this most obsessive of artists put a lot of his idiosyncratic thought into the installation, going so far as to have a scale model of the museum built in his studio.
For all the themes in Koons’ own work reflected in the show, sex paramount among them, it’s striking how much of the art on view is anti-Koonsian in its materiality. His sculptures and paintings are fetishistically glabrous, frictionless, and high-toned, almost to the point of being purely ideational. Here the work bristles with hair: Tim Noble & Sue Websters hominid couple, emerging like Adam and Eve from a prehistoric mist; Robert Gobers pale-ankled legs jutting from the walls; Maurizio Cattelans elegantly coiffed J.F.K. (how much were his haircuts, one wonders?) lying in state; David Altmejds towering Giant, with his biker mustache, thickly pelted nude body, and cohort of furry squirrels.
Along with Gober, Kiki Smith is tapped again and again as the corporeal antithesis of Koons. Her autoerotic Mother/Child, 1993, is fleshier than flesh, with unevenly applied beeswax standing in for skin; around a corner her 1995 Untitled (Bowed Woman) impossibly sits up high on the wall, dangling her long mane down and revealing patches in her paper-mâché body. It’s hard to get more grossly carnal, in both senses, than Smith’s pile of penises that shares a corridor with Ashley Bickertons F.O.B., 1993, a blob of ass and flab impaled on a pole like a disgusting lollipop.
Other materials that Koons has denied himself over his career are given play too, such as in the bisected Buddha in Mark Manders Unfired Clay Figure, 2005-6; the riot of countryside detritus in Elliott Hundleys Garland, 2006; and the performance aspect of Pawel Althamers Schedule of the Crucifix, 2005, which involves a man who periodically changes into Christ garb and mounts a wooden cross (a nice, Easter-appropriate piece). Of the work in the show most similar to Koons’ in style, Cattelan's Canova-esque body bags carved from Carrara marble is the most exquisitely produced, with Charles Rays white-painted Aluminum Girl, 2003, sharing the same love of pure surface — though its disconcerting small scale gives it a queasily surrealistic touch. (Ray is another one of the show’s mainstays, reappearing throughout like a friend in art.) Most of the paintings in the show share Koons’ taste in Greenbergian flatness, with the notable exception of Roberto Cuoghis trompe-l’oeil-ly sculptural Mega Dakis (2007), which undercuts the show’s Joannou-fawning aspects by portraying the collector as a Roman emperor with the body parts of babies littered in his thinning hair.
Thematically, it’s possible to read a very affecting personal touch that Koons embedded in the show. One room has been set aside as an installation of three Gober works styled to resemble a nursery. On the wall, wallpaper of friendly country roads extending into the distance would make ideal decor for a child’s bedroom, connoting limitless possibilities; the two traveling-salesmen legs jutting from the corners could even be welcome too. But the sculpture of a distorted crib in the middle of the room is a terrifying counterpoint: whatever baby sleeps there is likely insane. Looking at this anguished vision of childhood, it’s impossible not to think about Koons’ heart-breaking battle with his porn-star ex-wife, La Cicciolina, over the custody of their young son. The artist’s estrangement from the boy for much of his childhood led to Koons’ most famous body of work, the desperately communicative "Celebration" series, and it’s natural that he would reference that struggle here.
The show is at its most gleefully Koonsian, however, in its unapologetically naughty embrace of sex. Vaginas and penises abound, sometimes sprouting from the same owners, popping out of unexpected places (like in the grotesque Paul McCarthys), or masquerading as other forms, like Terence Kohs Untitled (Chocolate Mountains), 2006, an edible yonic landscape to the tenth degree. It’s here that Koons seems to have the most fun curatorially, and certain pairings hint at distinctly adult Night at the New Museum romps. On one floor a super-tall blond stewardess mannequin by Ray and a bead-studded sculpture of a gun-toting Afro-ed black woman by Liza Lou share a room with a towering Cuoghi statue of the Assyrian demon god Pazuzu. A Gober bed, meanwhile, is discreetly tucked around the corner.
What happens here when the lights go out? The god and the stewardess have scale similarities (Cuoghi made his by blowing up a miniature statue from the Louvre), but there’s the problem — pointed out in a rare piece of wall text — that he’s missing his customary serpent penis. Luckily, there are replacements at hand. A phallic crystal-shard sculpture by Altmejd could work, or Urs Fischers winding, snake-like Cioran Handrail, 2006. What about the girls? They’re positioned on opposite sides of the room, gazing at each other — though the sexy Super Sister is aiming her gun at her Aryan rival. Perhaps Altmejd’s self-satisfied giant downstairs would swing by to liven things up.
Much has been made lately of the salubrious effect of letting artists curate exhibitions, and along with Gober’s recent Charles Burchfield show at the Hammer Museum and Cattelan’s current installation of the Menil Collections holdings, "Skin Fruit" is proof that it’s a great, refreshingly unpredictable way to shed light on art. It’s also an argument to let Koons’ unconventional thinking loose in other precincts: imagine what mischief — and what delightful improprieties — this connoisseur of art history could stir up at the Met.