Jeff Koons Kills Brooklyn Rail Article

Chilling Impact on Arts Criticism

By: - Dec 17, 2023

It started with the revelation that former Rolling Stone publisher, Jann Wenner, allowed celebrities the opportunity to edit interviews he conducted with them. That had the industry wide impact of allowing celebrities the power to censor what is said about them.

Unfortunately, at one time or other anyone who covers the arts has felt that pressure.

The Cars censored an article I wrote for a rock magazine. Alan Shestack, then director of the Museum of Fine Arts, threatened to sue Art New England stating that he was misquoted. Fortunately, the publisher, Carla Munsat, stood up for me. When I wrote about an installation by an artist friend, the institution demanded that I kill the piece as they were pitching the story to major publications. Realist painter, Jack Beal, demanded that I withdraw an article for the Washington Post. I had spent months working with him.

Occasionally, I get requests to see pieces prior to publication. The general answer is no. But there are exceptions of individuals I have collaborated with over a number of years.

When a major artist made that demand I turned down the interview.

That’s what the prestigious on line publication, Brooklyn Rail, should have done with the artist Jeff Koons.

As the New York Times reported on December 17, “When (Romy) Golan arrived at Koons’s 10th Avenue studio in New York last winter for her interview, she said she was asked to sign a filming release giving the artist the right to 'view and approve any footage, still images and/or promotional material that are proposed for use.' Golan had no plans to film her interview or take photographs but signed the release. After Golan sent her essay and a copy of the signed release to the Rail, Schultz told her to share her story with the Koons studio. Later, Schultz wrote to the studio himself to ask whether the essay was 'acceptable to the artist,' according to email exchanges provided by Golan to The New York Times.

“It was not. Koons’s studio, citing ‘Jeff’s concerns,’ responded that Golan had misrepresented his sculpture as 'a symbol of violence,' and asked that her essay not be published 'because of its defamation to Jeff.'

“At that point, according to Golan, the Rail’s publisher and artistic director, Phong Bui, suggested turning her 2,000-word article into a short introduction to essays by other writers exploring historical images in political art.”

When Golan arrived for the interview it is arguable whether she was meeting with an individual artist or the CEO of a corporation. For decades Koons has presided over a studio which fabricates his concepts. The artist is notable for a conceptual, hands off approach to overseeing a kitsch- based production. This allows the artist to release a high volume of work at optimal prices. The practice is similar to that of the British artist Damien Hirst.

There is nothing new about this as the great Renaissance and Baroque artists maintained large studios and a staff of assistants. Art historians research and debate just how much is by the hand of the artist in works and projects by Peter Paul Rubens or Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino. The school of Raphael, who died young, was the breeding ground for the emergence of mannerism and included Giulio Romano the master of Palazzo del Te in Mantua.

It is doubtful that scholars will be ferreting out the genius practitoners in the studio/ factories of Koons and Hirst. More likely working for these artists is a better gig than waiting on tables or driving a cab.

Full disclosure, I worked as a studio assistant for James Rosenquist. He was a great guy and I learned a lot from him but it made little impact on my career. But Jim did give me great insights of what it takes to be a major artist at his level. We ponder what the young Brice Marden derived from assisting Robert Rauschenberg.

Given a corporate approach to their oeuvre essays by art historians like Golan for Brooklyn Rail are essential to understanding the intentionality and integrity of creators like Koons and Hirst. Golan and others on her level explore the fine line between artists and grifters.

The conundrum may be true for Marcel Duchamp, that ultimate master of aesthetic legerdemain. Most of his original “found objects” were lost or abandoned during studio moves. Duchamp later editioned them and commissioned Joseph Cornell to create a number of his Boxes including deluxe editions.

While purists see chicanery, Duchamp lived modestly and never really cashed in on his celebrity. No doubt he was a source of inspiration for Koons and Hirst but his avant-garde bona fides and integrity have never been questioned.

Depending on your point of view, he was either the greatest and most influential artist of his generation, or the worst. I have read many arguments for the latter.

While Koons attempted to crush criticism of his work he has, ironically, not killed the snake but scotched it. Golan’s essential points have been included in the Times piece, thereby, reaching far more readers than that of the respected but esoteric Brooklyn Rail.

The Times reported “
Referring to Koons, she wrote in an email, ‘It does seem ironic that someone who makes his living engaging in creative work that is protected not only under the First Amendment, but also international norms of free expression, would appear to attempt to stifle legitimate critical analysis of that work.’ “

While Koons was successful in killing this story it leaves a dent in his armor. The work will continue to sell but his integrity is now more in question than ever.

And what of that of Brooklyn Rail? It opted to fold rather than stand up to a bully with deep pockets. While it has escaped potential annihilation, moving forward, can we respect its standards for journalism and criticism? What is the long term impact when arts publications bend to the demands of the art market?

Maintaining a wall between sales and editorial has long been a myth for major art magazines. There is little actual criticism in features and reviews. The primary function of these magazines is to fan the flames of the art market. That's why blogs like Brooklyn Rail have emerged to speak truth to power. Which is why the Koons controversy is so significant.