What a party!
Roger Kimball goes to the launch of Modern Painters' special New York issue It is often said that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Obviously, this is not invariably true. One unpleasant disproof of the idea is the cover of the spring 1998 number of the quarterly Modem Painters, a special issue devoted to the New York art scene. The cover is essentially an advertise- ment for an interview, featured inside, between the 'artist' Jeff Koons and the androgynous pop singer David Bowie, who has lately developed an interest in high finance (he is still, I believe, the only pop singer to have been rated by Standard and Poors) and contemporary art, and who now sits on the editorial board of Modem Painters.
The cover of this special issue depicts Koons, grinning goofily, and Bowie, look- ing ever so cool and menacing in round sunglasses and black sweater, a lighted cigarette dangling from between his lips, a carefully tended few-days-growth skirting his chin. A caption inside reveals that the two are at Koons's studio in SoHo, which explains the vivid monstrosity in the back- ground: a shiny pop fantasy of hypertro- phied kiddie toys, gigantic pieces of popcorn and cartoon candy. Really, that cover says all you need to know about the current state of Modem Painters.
It is a sad story. Magazines, like people, can decline and die in any number of ways. Some grow plump and dull and complacent before popping off suddenly one summer afternoon. Others go out with fireworks and lawsuits. Modem Painters has done it by traducing the Ruskinian aesthetic princi- ples that animated the late Peter Fuller, the indefatigable art critic and ex-Marxist polemicist who founded the magazine in 1987.
In the inaugural issue of Modem Painters, Fuller decried those institutions of modern art that 'promote a tacky preference for the novel and fashionable, exemplified in the taste of the Saatchis, the patrons of New Art, successive Turner Prize juries, and journals like Artscribe International . . All too often, their first concern seems not to be with the good, the true or the beautiful — but rather with the advancement of their own careers: they tend to debase and to affront public taste, rather than to chal- lenge, or, least of all, to nurture it.'
When Fuller died suddenly in 1990, the fate of Modem Painters was very much up in the air. Fuller's idiosyncrasy guaranteed that Modem Painters would be quirky and unpredictable; his passion guaranteed that it would be interesting; his deep serious- ness about art, especially about the fate of modern British art, guaranteed its signifi- cance. What would become of Modem Painters without Peter Fuller?
If the answer to that question had at one time been in doubt, it was answered with a sickening clarity on the evening of 31 March. It was then that several hundred sweaty people crammed into Jeff Koons's huge studio in SoHo to celebrate the launch of Modern Painters' New York issue and books by two of its regular contribu- tors: William Boyd's hoax biography of the make-believe American artist Nat Tate, and the new edition of Matthew Collings's paean to trendiness, Blimey! From Bohemia to Briy,op.. The London Art World from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst. The two books mark the American debut of 21 Pub- lishing Ltd, a self-declared 'anti-elitist' art publishing house founded by Bowie last year. Its goal, one reads in a press release, is 'to present incredibly readable books about art to mainstream audiences blokes who are bored by academic writing'. The present editor of Modem Painters is also a partner in 21.
One would have needed the combined talents of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and Tom Wolfe to do justice to the awful gathering at Koons's studio. Probably the most artistic phenomena on view were the dozen or so security guards, beefy chaps and lasses with ear-phones and little pins on their lapels, looking for all the world like understudies for a Secret Service detail.
What they were protecting, though, was not the President but Koons's work in progress — or, more accurately, his 'work' in 'progress'. Of course they were also insu- lating all us beautiful people with invita- tions from the disappointed masses lingering outside, who were hoping that fate would supply them with a friend pos- sessing an. invitation. Inside, the Macallan Scotch company was much in evidence with endless free glasses of their liquor (only the 12-year-old stuff, though). Altogether, just the sort of event one expects from an 'anti- elitist' venture.
The main attraction of the evening was a reading, by Bowie and Collings, of bits from the three feted publications. Sample one, from Bowie's interview with Jeff Koons: I walk into the now familiar Koons studio ... And there in the centre of the floor is one of the icons of late twentieth-century art: not Jeff himself, of course, though he is, but the Hoover Celebrity Three (Quiet Series) . .`Is this for the Guggenheim retrospective?' I ask. 'Or has some collector decided to make an extremely late purchase?' Not at all,' replies Jeff Koons, the puzzled child. 'This place is getting so messy that I just wanted to vacuum.' VACUUM? Koons is about to turn the art world on its head. He's taken one of the key ready-mades of our time and is going to SNORT UP THE DUST BUNNIES.
The real burden of Bowie's interview, it transpires, is money: poor Jeff doesn't have enough of it. At one point, Bowie explains, he was employing 50 sculptors and 20 painters to fabricate the repulsive exercise In kitsch that he regularly inflicts on the art world (for, of course, Koons possesses no plastic talent himself). But let us, as the philosopher David Stove was wont to say, draw a veil over this melancholy subject and return to the read- ing. Here is sample two about Charles Saatchi, from Matthew Collings's Blimey!: And really you have to admit he's been an amazing force in the London art world. At this moment the whole thing more or less depends on him. He just goes round all the shows buying them up ... In this country there are very few collectors and almost all of them are low energy except him. He is nucle- ar energy. The other countries' art scenes depend on the middle ground of medium col- lectors, whereas over here we depend only on him.
Are things really that bad in London?
There are still some good things pub- lished in Modern Painters. But the writing is on the wall. The Bowiefication of the mag- azine is proceeding at breakneck speed and is now nearly complete. Peter Fuller said in his first issue that Modem Painters would seek 'to uphold the critical imagination and the pursuit of quality in art'. What we see now is the wholesale scuttling of aesthetic quality for the sake of fashion, celebrity and the dazzle of lucre. Modern Painters once took a courageous independent stand against the ephemeral and merely commer- cial. Now it embraces both with promiscu- ous abandon. There was a lot of buzz at Jeff Koons's studio the night Modern Painters launched its New York issue. But the grinding noise one heard was Peter Fuller turning in his grave.