For me, going to see an exhibition or a movie or a new play, it's always the same: the biggest surprise comes when I have no expectations, and the biggest disappointment occurs when, for whatever reason, I expect quite a lot. So when I went a couple of weeks ago to see selections from the private art collection of Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou at the New Museum in Manhattan, I thought I was in for a treat. After all, the exhibition was curated by none other than Jeff Koons, not only one of the most commercially successful artists of our time, but a huge celebrity in his own right and a friend of the collector. The story goes that when twenty-five years ago Dakis Joannou spotted Jeff Koons' sculpture - a basketball floating in a glass tank - he fell in love with the piece, and thus a new collector was born. However, in spite of the exhibition's suggestive title, "Skin Fruit," and the fact that a number of works address human sexuality in an explicit manner, the overall impression is of a somewhat stultified energy and a certain degree of detachment – the very qualities that define Jeff Koons as an artist but work against him as a curator.
For the last several decades, the critics' favorite pastime has been disparaging the choice of artists for the Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, so I went there out of a sense of obligation, not because I particularly wanted to. A very big surprise came the moment I stepped out of the elevator and was greeted by a gigantic, mixed media sculpture by Piotr Uklanski that looks like a theater curtain for an avant-garde production of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Then came a monumental woven tapestry by well-known Los Angeles artist Pae White, showing drifting plumes of smoke - a favorite subject of the artist in recent years. When I stepped into the dark room with a video installation by Jesse Aron Green depicting a group of performers on a set reminiscent of a gigantic chessboard, I knew that I had seen it before – but where?
Only when I returned to LA did I recall that yes, I had seen it as part of the Master of Fine Art exhibition at UCLA in 2008. My overall impression of the current Whitney Biennial was that the curators were not afraid to be perceived as champions of such old-fashioned genres as figurative painting and sculpture rather than cutting-edge conceptual and installation art, which has dominated Biennials in recent years.
As an extra bonus to this year's Biennial, the top floors are given to the delightful exhibition from the museum's permanent collection highlighting works of many participants of Biennials from past decades, which reads as a "who's who" of American art.
I wonder, if not for the two new exhibitions at the Getty that I went to see immediately after coming home, would I still be thinking about New York? Last week was a double-header for the Getty; in Brentwood they opened an exquisite exhibition of works by Leonardo da Vinci, presented along with sculptures inspired by his art. The following day, the Getty Villa hosted a groundbreaking exhibition juxtaposing the splendor of ancient art from the Aztec Empire with the art of Imperial Rome. I couldn't have wished for a better homecoming.
Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection
On view at the New Museum through June 6
2010 Whitney Biennial
On view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 30
On view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through November 28
Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture: Inspiration and Invention
On view at the Getty Center through June 20
The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire
On view at the Getty Villa through July 5
Banner image: (L) Robert Gober, Untitled, 2008-09, © Courtesy the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens; (C) Tim & Sue Noble & Webster, Masters of the Universe, 1998-2000; (R) Jeff Koons, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985)