Letter from London

Letter from London: Pop Life (It’s The Only Life I Know)

Jeff Koons with 'Rabbit' (1986) at 'Pop LIfe', Tate Modern

Jeff Koons with "Rabbit" (1986) at "Pop Life," Tate Modern.

It’s not cool to be depressed by the brazen commercialism of certain facets of the art world, yet you’d have to have a heart of stone not to leave Pop Life, the new exhibition of post-Warhol contemporary art at Tate Modern, without feeling that at least a little part of you had died. Not that it’s all bad, by any means, but the sheer glitzy glibness of it all did make the gurgling Thames, far below outside the café windows, seem more inviting than ever.

The story doing the rounds is that the show was originally going to be called Sold Out – a much better title, given most of the artists’ exploration and sometimes celebration of the evils of commerce – but one of the artists took offense. (Part of the fun of the show is working out which one was haughty enough to do so). It’s a less misleading title, too; those coming in expecting Pop Art will be half disappointed. Despite the opening salvo of Warhols, the relationship to popular culture – always glancing at best in Pop Art – peters out halfway through, replaced by the kind of buyer-friendly slam-bang conceptualism Russian oligarchs used to buy back in the olden days. Its appeal is in the suddenness of its anachronism.

Pop Life tracks the extrapolation of something Andy Warhol said about making money being the best form of art. Like everything Andy Warhol said, that probably should be taken with a mouthful of salt, but it’s made literal by many of the works here. How about an actual shop in an art gallery, rather than making work about commerce (Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, recreated here along with DJ and dinging cash register)? How about actually using a Hollywood star in a work of art, rather than just making work about Hollywood stars (i.e. Takashi Murakami’s pop video of Kirsten Dunst singing The Vapors’ Turning Japanese, directed by McG, of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle notoriety)? How about actually having sex with an art collector for money, rather than figuratively whoring oneself out (Andrea Fraser’s untitled 2003 video of exactly that)? Frankness is all. Subtlety is out.

And yet the most controversial work is the one that’s most coy about its reason for being. The Tate’s removal of Richard Prince’s installation Spiritual America, under advice from Scotland Yard, comes as something of a surprise, considering its (as far as I know) uncontroversial appearance in the artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim a few years back. The installation consists of a re-photographed photograph of a nude 10-year old Brooke Shields, posing in a bathtub for Playboy spin-off Sugar and Spice in 1976. Whatever you think about Prince’s “strategies of appropriation,” it’s an image of an image, not an image itself. Its androgynous creepiness and air of sad artifice is the point, and its absence here looks like cowardice, an institutional covering of ears and la-la-la singing to block out something nasty.

Prince’s installation, with its teasing of sexual mores, looks well-mannered alongside some of the more explicit works in the show, all of which have ‘over-18s only’ labels with guards stationed on vertiginous stools to police the age restriction (Pop Life, with its blaring music and garish installations, must be one of the least fun exhibitions to guard ever). One room, a reinstallation of Jeff KoonsMade in Heaven series from 1989, provides a great people-watching opportunity: huge blow-up photos of Koons and his then-wife La Cicciolina engaged in various permutations of the marital act, in front of which people snicker, snort, or studiously check their mobiles, their ears empurpling. Compared with this, his aluminum Rabbit, installed in the first room of the show, looks humble and sort of sweet. A video next to it shows its reinterpretation as a Macy’s Parade inflatable, undulating and nodding over the heads of the onlookers, contemporary art’s Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

As a maker of modern iconography, Koons is unbeatable, even by his acolyte Damien Hirst, whose works from his extraordinary Sotheby’s auction show are shown alongside other YBA work by Emin, Lucas, and Turk. Their works look self-consciously quirky and parochial now, at least in this company, and Hirst’s display – a golden rack of diamonds, a betanked calf with golden hooves – makes him look like a hanger-on, affecting an American accent to impress his new friends. No wonder his old ones look so mean-spirited.

Thoughtfully re-enacted installations dominate Pop Life. A gold-wallpapered room by Rob Pruitt and Jack Early  is a recreation of their early nineties show, Fear of a Black Planet, that apparently, and bizarrely, made them art world outsiders for years. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone finding their installation – a series of geometric shapes collaged with famous black American stars – offensive nowadays; it just looks crass and cack-handed.

It’s Warhol, though, who ultimately steals the show with a room of his 1979 Gems, a suite of silkscreens sprinkled with diamond dust and shown under ultraviolet light, which evoke a cave, a shop, and a tomb, all at once.


  1. Max Weintraub says:

    Ben,
    To your point about Prince’s “Spiritual America” being excluded from the Tate show: how fitting that Prince’s photograph–based on a commercial image of a pre-adolescent Brooke Shields, whose androgynous body is (mis)cast in the cosmetics and pose of full-throttled sexuality–speaks to the lack of guardianship and the perils of art-world celebrity and commerce, something that the originally proposed title of the exhibition–Sold Out–sought to evoke, if not examine. Indeed, how ironic that the exclusion of Prince’s work from the show speaks to the Tate’s lack of will to deliver the full critical review that the commercially oriented art in the show deserves, given that the title of Prince’s censored work references Alfred Stieglitz’s 1923 photograph of the crotch of a gelded–which is to say, castrated–horse.
    Warhol’s diamond-dust canvases are wonderful to behold–the ultimate and unabashed synthesis of two forms of commodity, a synthesis Hirst would of course revisit in his (un-ironic?) diamond skull. Perhaps if the show stands as a testament to the prospect that today artifice is too often substituted for irony, then it might also ultimately explain the Tate’s decision exclude Prince’s Spiritual America.

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  2. Ben Street says:

    The plot thickens. The Tate has now agreed to show a later image of Brooke Shields by Prince as part of the show:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/14/brooke-shields-tate-modern

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