Left: Marian Goodman and Jeu de Paume director Marta Gili. Right: Eija-Liisa Ahtila and art historian Régis Durand. (All photos: Lillian Davies)

Arriving at Jeu de Paume just after 11 AM on Monday for the opening of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s first retrospective in France, I immediately found the artist, dressed in slim, dark jeans and a pin-striped blazer, holding court in the luminous triple-height entryway. Ahtila gave me a polite hello but quickly urged me down the gray stone ramp toward her newest work, Where Is Where, allegedly finished just two days before. “It takes fifty-two minutes, so go on.” An attentive crowd was gathered inside the six-screen installation, absorbing the poetic drama of mortality and colonial politics. The starting point of the film is a case study presented in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth of two Algerian boys who killed their European schoolmate acting, some claimed, from internalized anguish caused by the Algerian War. However, Ahtila was quick to point out that she wants this reference to be considered a metaphor rather than a provocation. “Provocation is like throwing a stone,” she explained. “I don’t want to point my finger at anyone. You could put whatever in the place of the Algerian boys: Iraq, Afghanistan . . . I’m not blaming the French, I’m implying everyone.” Where Is Where is also replete with standards of the Christian lexicon—the Lord’s Prayer, a Finnish hymn, and allusions to the afterlife—about which the artist clarified: “I am not a churchgoer, but religion is a central part of world politics. You can’t ignore it.”

A small cocktail lunch followed the morning view. I caught curator Suzanne Pagé sneaking out the door, back to her new offices at Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, where she has recently taken up the post of artistic director of the LVMH Foundation (heading up the megabrand’s alarming Gehry museum project) after having been the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for nearly twenty years. Marian Goodman, who flew in that morning from New York, arrived just in time for the 2 PM screening. Pausing for a moment to greet Jeu de Paume director Marta Gili, Goodman seemed anxious to see the final version of Ahtila’s new installation.

Left: Ellipse Foundation curator Alexandre Melo and Marian Goodman senior director Agnès Fierobe. Right: LVMH Foundation artistic director Suzanne Pagé.

At 6 PM, a much bigger crowd gathered for the invite-only evening reception. Quite a few of the foppish characters in the throng were collectors, working in finance, fashion, and the always-nebulous “consulting” business. Thankfully, in the melee, I managed to find Régis Durand, author of one of the catalogue texts and an initiator of the exhibition. He explained that the starting point for Where Is Where has a personal resonance for him—he remembers friends going off to fight in the Algerian War in the late 1950s and early ’60s (at the time, the French government was calling the situation a “police action”). Durand found the work’s “anchorage in a particular situation” its most compelling aspect.

Throughout the day, I had heard conflicting explanations about who was responsible for programming Ahtila’s exhibition at Jeu de Paume—Durand while he was still director or Marta Gili after she took over. Gili, working the crowd in a bright red jacket, clarified: “When I arrived in 2006, the exhibition program of 2007 was already planned and discussions had already started with Ahtila.” Gili had included Ahtila, as well as Richard Avedon, in her proposed program and was surprised to find exhibitions with both artists already in the works when she arrived. In fact, Gili showed Ahtila’s Consolation Service at Sala Montcada in Barcelona in 2001. About the newest work, Gili exclaimed, “It’s the strongest piece she’s ever done!” Rushing toward Gili as we talked, Guillaume Piens and Valérie Fougeirol, coordinators of Paris Photo, sang her praises: “She’s a breath of fresh air for Paris! Marta, bravo!”

At about 8 PM, the senior director of Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery, Agnès Fierobe, slipped me a tiny piece of paper with the address of a local restaurant, Pinxo, for a dinner following. About an hour later, at a cozy table, Alexandre Melo and Pedro Lapa, curators at the Ellipse Foundation in Portugal (host, in March, of the next presentation of Where Is Where), and John Zepetelli, curator at DHC Art in Montreal—hoping to snag the North American debut of the work—cozied up to Goodman, Fierobe, and a director of the gallery’s New York outpost, Rose Lord. As we enjoyed an eclectic (and aesthetically challenging) series of bite-size dishes (poached eggs in tomato jelly?), champagne, and red wine, conversation returned to the new element in Ahtila’s work: politics. But we were no longer speaking in metaphors. Goodman declared Mitt Romney “crap, no really, crap” and Giuliani “crazy.” And of course she loved Gloria Steinem’s recent editorial in the New York Times. So as we feted Ahtila’s new work (not to mention Gili’s efforts at Jeu de Paume), Steinem’s words remained relevant: We’re supporting her because she’s a great artist “and because she’s a woman.” It’s about time politics made its way back into art.

Lillian Davies

Left: DHC Art curator John Zepetelli and Marian Goodman director Rose Lord. Right: Paris Photo fair manager Valérie Fougeirol, Marta Gili, and Paris Photo media coordinator Guillaume Piens.

Crossover Appeal

Park City, UT

Left: Tilda Swinton with artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien. (Photo: Jason LaVeris/WireImage) Right: Robert Redford. (Photo: Amy C. Sancetta/AP)

Last Thursday, while I waited for Robert Redford to show up at the Leaf Lounge on Main Street, the temperature outside hovered at eighteen degrees and the street was jammed with temporary migrants here for the Sundance Film Festival. Something like sixty thousand people are expected to attend the twenty-fourth edition of the event, and it seemed as if they were all on Main, cruising for distribution deals or hunting for stars to snap, paparazzi-style, as they rushed from one media fete to the next. At one moment or another, Quentin Tarantino walked by, as did Paris Hilton in pink, Sir Ben Kingsley, and a scruffy Colin Farrell, here as star of opening night’s all-too-pat black comedy–cum–morality tale, In Bruges. Sundance has swollen so large that Park City can barely handle the crowds, the venues for this year’s estimated 125 films and eighty-five shorts, and the A-list party crawl that lasts until the snow-drenched dawn.

Redford, the founder of Sundance, has been widely quoted for his remark at the packed opening press conference that this year’s festival is all about change—a theme that immediately rhymed with the slogans of politicians now stumping around the country. But I’m here to talk with Redford about a different species of change. “New Frontier on Main” is an artists’ showcase in its second year at Sundance, curated with verve by programmer Shari Frilot and consultant Mike Plante and eccentrically sited in a subterranean purple lounge in a shopping mall. I suggest to him that the true possibility of change that the exhibition incites is toward new kinds of visual thinking. “That’s right,” he replied, with that quick, appraising Redford smile. “Start with the fact that I began as a painter, studying in Paris and then at Pratt Institute. So I’ve always wanted to show art. It’s taken a long time to get there, but we decided the best way to do it was in combination with new technology, to give filmmakers ideas about the ways artists are using new means to tell stories. If there can be some crossover between new film and new art that’s symbiotic, that’s going to be an important part of the future for Sundance—and for film.”

Left: Director Martin McDonagh interviewed on Main Street. Right: “New Frontier on Main” programmers Mike Plante and Shari Frilot. (Photos: Steven Henry Madoff.)

Down in the purple cave, there were eighteen works on view, many of them familiar to the art world but surely new to the film crowds that packed in, curious and evidently entertained. Doug Aitken was represented by a single-channel version of Sleepwalkers, and Robert Boyd screened Xanadu, his deliriously dystopian assembly of video clips about man’s unslaked thirst for mayhem and apocalypse, set to a disco beat. Hasan Elahi’s video starred the artist in a roomful of simulated monitors, surveilling himself every minute of the day to abet (and, in fact, deluge) the government’s own surveillance operation, which had mistaken him for a terrorist. In a side gallery, Eddo Stern stumped amateur gamers with his perverse two-person shooter Darkgame, while out in the main space, Jennifer Steinkamp exhibited her well-known animations of a quartet of trees metamorphosing through the seasons like a sylvan dream of Ovid. Marina Zurkow, inspired by Asian scroll painting, presented three elegantly simple and unsettling panels of animation, depicting a polar bear and several characters firing off guns in the globally warmed Arctic north. Other works left less of an impression and made me wish for a little more thematic coherence, but Brent Green’s Whitmanesque, hallucinatory performance with the band Califone rocked my spirit in front of his funky film animations, and Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse’s Invisible Threads: A Virtual Sweatshop in Second Life, in which workers who are members of the online community get paid ninety cents an hour to design facsimile blue jeans that are then printed and assembled on the spot at “New Frontier on Main” for waiting viewers, really is a new kind of interactive storytelling with obvious social and political heft.

The artists floated in and out of the show over the four days I was there and could be glimpsed here and there at the endless parties, like the one John Johnson (the founder of Eyebeam) threw for his new, eco-minded Harmony Project, where Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, chatted with Danny Glover and Oliver Stone, or U2’s bash at the Riverhouse on Main after they premiered U2 3D, their high-tech concert spectacle codirected by Irish artist Catherine Owens, who said that “artists have been exploring 3-D forever, from Vermeer to Hockney. 3-D is like installation art—I could actually integrate art pieces into the set that felt physically present in 3-D—and film offers a larger conversation than the narrow focus of the art world, though technology is beginning to change that.”

Left: Artists Paul D. Miller and Hasan Elahi. (Photo: Steven Henry Madoff) Right: Artist Brent Green performs with Califone. (Photo: Matthew Simmons/WireImage)

At one point, Miller and Elahi entered into a deep dissection of the moment that “New Frontier on Main” confronts, in keeping with Frilot’s remark “Cinema is in our pockets now, in our malls, in our cabs. That’s the technology. It’s moment-to-moment all around us. I call it physical cinema.” Riffing, Elahi said, “Actually, I think the physicality is deteriorating. YouTube changed everything.” Miller: “It’s like Deleuze’s idea of deterritorialization. The cell phone, the iPod, the Web—the whole idea of a centralized screen, of the totalitarian imagination for centralized distribution, is changing. You see what you want where you want.”

I wanted to see some old-school cinema, too, though. Among the films were The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, Pietra Brettkelly’s fascinating blow-by-blow documentary about Vanessa Beecroft’s slightly mad, questionably intentioned obsession to adopt two motherless children amid the bare-bones poverty of Sudan; and Derek, Isaac Julien’s heartbreaking and giddily alive biopic about filmmaker, painter, and general renegade Derek Jarman. Tilda Swinton’s gorgeous presence, ripe with immensely articulate and sometimes mournful reminiscences, walks through the film like a grave revenant. I caught up with Julien the night before I left. He said, “I’m curating a show of Derek’s paintings at the Serpentine Gallery in February, so there’s a nice crossover between the art world and cinema with this project. And, you know, I think there are still so many misunderstandings between the art and film worlds because of the different languages they use. But with the rise of digital everything, they’re becoming more closely linked because they’re both being invaded by new economies. ‘New Frontier on Main’ gets at that, though I think it has a ways to go. It has to grow. It has to take itself more seriously. But then, don’t we all?”

Steven Henry Madoff

Left: Artist and filmmaker Catherine Owens. (Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage) Right: Performance view of Invisible Threads: A Virtual Sweatshop in Second Life. (Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage)

Photographic Memory

New York

Left: Artists Jutta Koether, John Miller, and Mike Kelley. Right: Curator Okwui Enwezor. (Photo: David Velasco)

“I’m not going to talk about the exhibition in any detail now, as many people would fall asleep.” Okwui Enwezor is usually not one for such rhetorical caginess, as evinced by his thorough dissection of last summer’s European “Grand Tour” in September's Artforum, yet in addressing the crowd at the Thursday-morning press preview of his new group exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography, he had evidently decided that it would be best to save his theoretical chops for a more opportune moment. Introduced as “our globe-trotting adjunct curator,” the slender, dark-suited Enwezor thus gave only the briefest of introductions to “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” but later led an energetic walk-through that saw the assembled scribes eddying through the ICP’s extensively reconfigured lower galleries in a desperate effort to keep up. Barbara Bloom, whose exhibition “The Collections of Barbara Bloom” (characterized with wearisome frequency by staffers and the artist herself as “a cross between a midcareer retrospective and an estate sale”) occupied the upstairs galleries, was a shade more exploratory in her own thank-you speech but also saved the serious stuff for her guided tour.

The shows’ evening openings may have suffered a little from inclement weather and an early-closing bar (necessitated by insurance concerns), but were busy nonetheless. Bloom and Enwezor were present and correct, as were a smattering of artists from the latter’s show, including Stan Douglas, Lamia Joreige, and Ilán Lieberman. (“Archive Fever”—Derrida devotees will recognize the title—also features work by the likes of Walid Raad, Lorna Simpson, Hans-Peter Feldmann, and Anri Sala, among others.) Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, senior curator at large Francesco Bonami, arriving with entourage, momentarily confused Bloom’s multifaceted arrangement with Enwezor’s, but soon solved the puzzle and headed downstairs. There, ICP chief curator Brian Wallis and director Willis Hartshorn were occupied ushering visitors around the space—made rather bunkerlike by a black and tan color scheme—while Bloom lorded, amiably, over her visually brighter presentation above. Both shows have plenty to offer; Bloom’s arrangement is playful and personal (it doesn’t get much more personal than her signature installation, The Reign of Narcissism), while Enwezor’s, which takes Hal Foster’s formulation of an “archival impulse” as its jumping-off point, is complex, persuasive, and not in the least soporific.

Left: Artist Barbara Bloom. Right: ICP chief curator Brian Wallis. (Photos: David Velasco)

The following evening, an overambitious attempt to haul ass from a party in honor of artist Jen DeNike at MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach’s Chinatown apartment to a musical performance at the smaller of Friedrich Petzel Gallery’s two Chelsea spaces in just ten minutes left me ten minutes late—and hanging around an awkward corner from the action. I ought to have anticipated the mob; raising the ruckus were avant-garde musician and filmmaker Tony Conrad and artists John Miller, Mike Kelley, and Jutta Koether. Critic Martha Schwendener and I exchanged notes and attempted, in vain, to see around the most impenetrable of walls as the sound emanating from behind it swelled.

We weren’t alone in our frustration; an understandably disgruntled-looking Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were at our backs, as was Performa curator RoseLee Goldberg. Writer and editor Domenick Ammirati and I exchanged “Is this good?” shrugs across Petzel’s lobby as we tried to imagine the sources of the various disjointed bellows, scrapes, slaps, thumps, hoots, and rumbles that drifted our way from the room itself. Periodic bursts of applause or laughter (“There’s something really funny happening now,” someone offered, helpfully) further piqued my curiosity, and a couple of sneaked photographs revealed some curious goings-on indeed: Kelley wielding a long, polelike instrument and Conrad dressed, leprechaunlike, entirely in emerald green. Quitting the scene alongside curator Bob Nickas and artist Kathe Burkhart, I resolved to stake my claim a little earlier next time; ten minutes is a long time in the art world.

Michael Wilson

Left: “Archive Fever” artist Lamia Joreige. Right: “Archive Fever” artist Ilán Lieberman. (Photos: David Velasco)

Bandi Camp


Left: Artist Zhao Bandi with collector Paul Tai. Right: Artist Zhou Tiehai. (Except where noted, all photos: Mathieu Borysevicz)

“That was the first time I sat next to people who were actually interesting at an event like this,” a Shanghai fashion agent quipped as he exited ShanghART Night, Zhao Bandi’s Panda Couture fashion extravaganza staged on a two-hour cruise up and down the neon-splashed Huangpu River on Tuesday night. “I think it was all a little over the top” a jaded socialite muttered as she swished coffee around her champagne glass. As the yacht docked, the evening’s VIPs filed slowly off into the freezing night.

The event witnessed the most recent conceptual provocation in Zhao’s long career of mainstream manipulation. After a short stint making paintings and installations, Zhao broke out of the contemporary art world’s crystal cage to engage that nebulous entity—the public—in a series of colorful stunts. It was in 1996 that Zhao established both the panda image and the use of celebrities as conduits through which he could connect with the masses, implicating them as he did in works involving subway posters, marathons, mock Olympic ceremonies, and now—fashion shows.

Zhao’s floating burlesque, hosted by Shanghart, Shanghai’s longest-standing gallery, was a scaled-down version of the artist’s inauguration into the world of haute couture just a couple months ago, during China Fashion Week in Beijing. That event had garnered a wave of media attention not only because one of the models, none other than China’s blogger-cum–sex celebrity Sister Lotus, experienced a wardrobe malfunction as she pirouetted on the catwalk one time too many, but because the Chengdu Municipal Committee (habitat of China’s last living pandas), which interpreted the entire escapade as another vicious exploitation of the beloved panda, decided to take legal action.

Left: Bandi models. Right: Contrasts gallery's Pearl Lam, choreographer Jin Xing, and writer Mian Mian.

The show this evening began with a quiet cocktail party, where the usual Shanghai art elite—including dealer/patron Pearl Lam, writer Mian Mian, and artist Zhou Tiehai—mingled with fashion folks like rising-star fashion designer Lu Kun and, of course, the stray mainstream-media pundit. It was a calculated crowd of fifty, assembled with precision to cross disciplines effectively and garner maximum exposure. MTV was there, working hard to maneuver a large camera in the tight quarters while simultaneously blocking the Chinese press corps from getting in the way of its runway shot. The dinner gave way to a pumping beat and dimming house lights, and the panda show began. Zhao’s collection was a crossbreed of the furry endangered animal and societal archetypes: Panda Teacher, Panda Student, Panda Policeman, Panda Corrupt Official, and so on. The juxtaposition of China’s chubby black-and-white bear (whose low procreation records suggests they’re the most prudish of creatures) against the lanky sexiness of the models created a surprisingly interesting aesthetic—a little like Leigh Bowery goes to the zoo.

Surrounded by his “panda concubines,” Zhao bellowed: “China has entered the age of luxury. This line represents Chinese luxury.” Then, in response to the evening’s MC (Guangdong Television fashion correspondent Ou Zhihan) asking why he brought the show to Shanghai, Zhao recited the story of an American fashion designer who in 1936 brought the first panda to the city. “It’s time for the panda to return to Shanghai.”

Left: Bandi models with curator Biljana Ciric (middle). Right: Guangdong Television fashion correspondent Ou Zhihan.

This panda spectacle had quite the fitting postscript: an auction. “After all, what would a contemporary art event in China be without one?” noted one magazine editor. The Panda Policeman outfit, hand-tailored white leather and thin black stitching, started at an inexpensive figure, but after the MC mentioned the Chinese artist’s quickly ascending values, the bids began pouring in. One of the bidders was none other than the son of the late, great artist (and auction-record breaker) Chen Yifei. But he was left in the dust by a volley of bids that increased in enormous increments, eventually ending up at the outstanding hammer price of ¥600,000 ($83,000). Everybody looked at one another as the event got a notch more surreal. Business as usual in Shanghai.

Mathieu Borysevicz

Burrs and the Bees

New York

Left: Artist Agathe Snow. Right: SculptureCenter executive director Mary Ceruti with artist Tom Burr. (All photos: David Velasco)

The chatter at the opening, on Sunday, of Tom Burr’s exhibition “Addict-Love” at the SculptureCenter in Queens concerned in part the three f’s of international art tourism—flights, fairs, and fatigue. Burr’s London dealer, Stuart Shave, for instance, shared with the group his smart new travel tactic: limiting trips to two days and never getting off UK time. Others predicted that Art LA 2008, which opens next week, would soon rival Art Basel Miami Beach. But while the list of talking points for the event may have been standard, there was one late addition, which visitors tossed around with particular fervor: art-world porn.

The tattle had reached just about everyone. Next weekend, Lawrence Weiner would be shooting an update to his 1976 art-world skin flick, using as a set Burr’s other current New York show, a double-feature with photographer Walter Pfeiffer at the Swiss Institute. Speculation ran wild. Who would participate? Was casting closed? How did one “audition”? Details had yet to be established. In the meantime, I found myself viewing the Long Island City exhibition through “blue”-tinted glasses. Burr’s black hinged-plywood constructions looked like reclining figures or some form of s/m chaise longue; his platforms, with their velvet curtains and red spotlights, like strippers' booths; the normally puritanical colonial balustrades like warm-up bars; the straitjackets like—er, you get the idea. The sprawl of sculptural vignettes, all of which relate to three figures who championed “the modern” of their respective times—Weimar composer Kurt Weill, early- to mid-century Wadsworth Atheneum director Chick Austin, and the New York School’s Frank O’Hara (a poem of whose lends the show its title)—looked, well, sexy.

Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami, Galerie Neu's Alexander Schroeder, and Modern Art's Stuart Shave. Right: Artist Fia Backström with Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer.

According to New York dealer Stefania Bortolami, it also looked “theatrical.” Such a vibe was aided, in large part, by Burr himself, who stood center stage joking with friends, charming visitors, letting out a hearty laugh when one visitor knocked over the chair featured in one of his works. Clad in a sharp jacket and a long scarf, the artist was not unlike a contemporary version of the suave guy appealed to by the vintage Esquire ads, Architectural Digest spreads, and modernist design objects that populate his works, all of which point to a cinematic notion of the American gentleman: tumbler in hand, one foot in Connecticut.

In any case, for many New Yorkers, a trek to Long Island City seems just that, so the big turnout was a welcome surprise, making as it did for a festive occasion and for reunions all around. “Hell-o-o-o-o-o-o,” Mary Ceruti, SculptureCenter director, piped to Liz Mulholland, Andrew Kreps Gallery director. “So good to see you,” artists Angelo Plessas and Andreas Angelidakis, in from Athens, said to a friend. Artists Rachel Harrison, Robert Beck, and Peter Coffin were out and about, as was Whitney Biennial 2008 cocurator Shamim Momin. Nick Mauss, who also shows with Galerie Neu, Burr’s Berlin gallery, noted that the white rubber flooring in one work was the same material that Chick Austin had throughout his house.

Left: Collectors Howard and Barbara Morse. Right: Artists Amy Granat and Stefan Tcherepnin.

Other voices, other rooms. The group show downstairs seemed good enough in that derelict Lower East Side way, an impression enhanced by its dank, claustrophobic environs. Agathe Snow’s contribution—a corridor hung with kitschy wreaths, beginning with an entryway of running vacuum cleaners—seemed popular. Tickling my fancy was Drew Heitzler’s Night Tide (for Sailors, Mermaids, Mystics), 2007—a re-edit of the titular 1961 noir film, in which a young Dennis Hopper plays a sailor, on leave in Venice, California, who falls in love with a sideshow performer, Mora the Mermaid.

An informal dinner followed at local Italian joint Manducatis, but it wasn’t until the after-party at LIC Bar, where I spotted Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer, that I was able to follow up on the porn rumors. My first question: Just how open were the open casting calls? Jetzer smiled slyly: “We are casting for every type of scene: men-men, women-women, men-women . . .” Would he himself be participating? Outlook not so good. But he did joke that some situations, if entered into for “professional reasons,” might not be as sticky as they seem. Letting my mind wander, I found myself sharing the sentiments expressed at dinner by Burr when, as we tried to imagine just what the action would entail—would the players interact either on or with the sculptures?—a look of mock horror shot across his face: “That’s untreated wood!”

Left: Artist Mai-Thu Perret and Elizabeth Valdez. Right: Artists Andreas Angelidakis and Angelo Plessas.

“T” and Sympathy

New York

The New York Times's Carol Vogel with artist Jeff Koons. (All photos: Wellington Lee)

From Mel Brooks to Martha Stewart, the New York Times “Arts and Leisure Week” serves up a high-class menu of achievers, live. Alas, I attended “Big Art, Big Ideas” to hear Jeff Koons (according to the brochure) “talk about his career creating sky-high art with sky-high prices,” interviewed by the Times’s Carol Vogel.

Entering the sleek new TimesCenter in Times Square (“by Renzo Piano,” volunteered the nice culture vulture who helped me operate the design-y sink in the ladies' room), I grabbed a coffee in the “Kia Lounge.” A big screen advertised the event’s sponsors (the Container Store, HBO, Rodney Strong Vineyard, Sedona SUVs, and Greater Fort Lauderdale) to rows of dummy JetBlue airplane seats and tables stacked with featured authors’ books, thus setting the tone for entitled consumption, be it closet organizers, vacations, or Art. At the threshold of the plush auditorium, I had to stop, mesmerized by the schlocky display of Times-branded swag: a pink baseball cap with the Times “T” logo (for lady Times readers?) and, worse (for the Times-loving long-term-care patient?), stripey fleece lounge pants in red, yellow, and white with the most hideous imaginable blouse to match, a “T” stigmata at the breast. What better hors-d’oeuvre for Koons’s wildly expensive affirmations of kitsch?

Koons, as always, resembled Howdy Doody’s handsomer brother. Introduced as “the world’s most expensive artist at auction,” the audience (a middle-aged, Upper West Side–looking crowd and a smattering of art-student types) listened up in reverence. Instead of an interview or a conversation, what followed was more like an artist’s infomercial, with Vogel prompting Koons for dates and materials as if she were a dutiful grad student putting together a catalogue raisonné. Rather than probing his unflappable, peculiar Tony Robbins–meets-art-CEO shtick, she just took everything at face value. Beneath a slide show of his oeuvre, the ex–Wall Street broker free-associated about “accepting yourself” and other self-help platitudes, compared his various luxe-kitsch pieces to the old masters, made vague remarks about “the sexual aspects” and anthropomorphism of vacuum cleaners and the (super-expensively refabricated) found objets he produces, overseeing over eighty “in-house” employees for “efficiency.” (“My responsibility is to educate people on what I’m looking for—every moment of the day.”) All delivered in the soothing, condescending tones of a nurse in a mental ward: "You know, Carol, what I really love about art is the ability it has to bring transcendence into your life.” On the screen above them was his Hummel-esque porcelain piglet with three frolicking tots, titled Ushering in Banality: “It’s so important that people accept themselves. Then you can be more objective and transcend.” Carol nodded, in a tasteful black suit. The next image was another porcelain figure, a lady grasping her giant boobies with red talons, Woman in Tub—surprised by a snorkel, a piece inspired by the artist’s uncle’s naughty ashtray: “Carol, children learn about their bodies in the tub . . . and acceptance of the self . . .”

Carol Vogel with Jeff Koons.

Perhaps the most disciplined salesman in the contemporary art world who isn’t himself a dealer, Koons is notoriously “on message.” Clearly, old-master references mingled with self help–isms slathered with gobs of luxury-sales-style condescension is a formula that works! When asked about the sometimes unstable materials of his quasi-found pieces: “A lot of my work has a maintenance aspect,” Koons patiently explained, “Being a collector is a responsibility. We try to educate people about their ongoing obligations.” Throughout, I was appalled to note that Vogel didn't even try to engage any of this material, she just enabled her subject’s self-promotional bubble. (Is this the recent New York Times model of the journalist as stenographer to power?) It was unsettling to watch.

The only breath of fresh air came during the closing Q&A. A rumpled, bearish guy asked: “Regarding prices [like Koons’s recent $23.6 million record for one of his Hanging Hearts in November], is there some level of absurdity that’s going on with your staff of eighty and your readymade housed in a private collection like a treasury note?” I wish this guy had done the interview.

“I’m grateful to the art world for the opportunity,” Koons intoned, apparently oblivious to the understatement. “The artist had better come up with something that is really strong and make people’s lives better than they were the day before.”