art brief desert xxx

Art Brief: Desert XXX

There are plenty of deserts around the world. As President Trump memorably said when he abruptly pulled American troops out of Syria as a favor to the Turkish president Erdogan: “There’s a lot of sand there.” So why is it that Desert X, the organization that has put on two well-regarded biennial shows in the desert of the Coachella Valley, decided to agree to a special installation in the Saudi Arabian desert opening this month? Was the Sahara off limits, or is this all about a public relations campaign by the kingdom to greenwash its image after widespread condemnation of the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi? The funding for the installation comes from the Saudi monarchy.

Madain Saleh antiquities site AlUla Saudi Arabia

Visitors walk outside the tombs at the Madain Saleh antiquities site, AlUla, Saudi Arabia

The Desert X board of trustees’ decision to do an installation in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, at the UNESCO World Heritage site of the ancient city of Hegra led to the October, 2019 resignations of three board members, including artist Ed Ruscha and art historian/curator Yael Lipschutz. The chosen site is replete with ruins dating back to antiquity that few Westerners have seen, so it would seem to be an intriguing location. The Saudis are seeking to diversify their oil-based economy and see the show as part of an initiative to increase tourism.

Despite material modernizations in the feudal kingdom, it remains a tightly controlled monarchy ruled by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). U.S. intelligence officials believe MBS personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment in its Istanbul consulate. Prior to the Khashoggi atrocity, in 2017, MBS showed the kingdom’s princes and billionaires who’s boss with the house arrest of dozens of the upper crust in the Riyadh Ritz Hotel for months—where they were terrorized and blackmailed into submission to MBS. There are virtually no human rights afforded in the kingdom and though women have finally been granted permission to drive, they are still subject to the whims of male family members.

Shape of Clouds 2019 Photo credit Lance Gerber

Desert X installation view, Armando Lerma, Visit Us in the Shape of Clouds, 2019. Photo credit: Lance Gerber.

Apparently, MBS has some interest in the art world, as evidenced by his purchase of “Salvator Mundi,” a portrait of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which shattered the world record for a painting sold at auction in 2017 when he paid Christie’s $450 million (the painting is reportedly secured on MBS’s super-yacht, despite the expectation that it would be loaned to the Louvre Abu Dhabi).

The suppression of human rights and the Khashoggi murder were central to Ruscha’s decision to quit the Desert X board, as he stated in an interview with Frances Anderton, host of DnA on KCRW, labeling the impending exhibition “the equivalent of inviting Hitler to a tea party.” Lipschutz cited reasons such as the Saudi war with Yemen and its suppression of LGBTQ rights for his resignation from the board. In addition, Desert X is a nonprofit and the outrage surrounding the Saudi exhibition caused one major donor, the MaddocksBrown Foundation, to announce cessation of its funding in protest.

Mosquito Net 2019. Photo credit Lance Gerber

Desert X installation view, Cecilia Bengolea, Mosquito Net, 2019. Photo credit: Lance Gerber.

The Desert X controversy is part of a rising tide of art world social consciousness. In last issue’s column, I surveyed protests in the art world to remove donor recognition rights afforded the Sackler family—who own Purdue Pharma, the major supplier of Oxycontin, source of the opioid epidemic— and other actions around dubious business ties of art mega-donors.

On Anderton’s KCRW show, Neville Wakefield, artistic director of Desert X, pushed back: “I think essentially you either believe in embargo and that you don’t communicate with people with whom you believe there are differences, or you believe in the power of art to connect people.” The Desert X message is that the Saudi installation will help build western bridges to the kingdom.

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Lita Albuquerque, Stellar Axis: Antarctica, 2006. Photo credit: Jean de Pomereu.

Participants in the Saudi show include Lita Albuquerque from LA, Egyptian-born Sherin Guirguis, Danish art collective Superflex and at least six Saudi artists. Albuquerque has done site-specific installations in deserts around the world, including 2017’s inaugural Desert X. She will install a mile-long sculptural work at the Saudi site.

The Saudis have taken too many steps backward since the Crown Prince assumed power, and all their art outreach and public relations can’t obscure their obscene and dismal failure to become enlightened citizens of the world. Desert X has made a major blunder. When Desert X fundraisers inevitably ask for more donations from the art community, they may find they are stranded in the desert without a drop to drink.

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ART BRIEF: Blood Money?

nangolden at met

nangolden at met

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

In September during a visit to Paris, I got lost in the Louvre, a common occurrence caused by its diabolical mazelike layout (maps are useless) and I found myself in the museum’s Oriental Antiquities wing. After viewing hundreds of paintings in the French and Italian rooms, I’d had enough art, so I turned around for the exit, which is why I failed to notice an alteration to the plaque on the wall, a blackout of the Sackler family name—chief benefactors of the Asian wing. 

If you haven’t heard of this family, or viewed the Met’s massive Egyptian Temple of Dendur in its Sackler wing, the Sacklers are among the most generous donors to the world’s art institutions.  However, they are also owners of America’s third-largest privately held company, Purdue Pharma, infamous for having held patents on OxyContin and other opioids which have caused the untimely deaths of thousands. This makes them one of America’s most controversial families.

Nan Goldin protest

Nan Goldin protest

Purdue was acquired by three Sackler brothers in the 1950s and management now encompasses their third generation. The Sacklers have been accused of trying for years to cover up OxyContin’s addictive nature. Some of the Sackler heirs have little to do with Purdue and, according to the New York Post’s Page Six, a Sackler couple recently decided to sell their $6.5 million townhouse on the Upper East Side, after being shunned by high society, only to decamp to Palm Beach (pauvres petites choses).

The Sackler controversy roiled the art world for much of this year.  There have been demonstrations at the Met and the Guggenheim—which have received millions in donations from the Sacklers.  The most notable took place in the Guggenheim rotunda, where protesters lined its famous spiral walkway and rained down hundreds of dummy prescriptions for OxyContin “signed” by Purdue’s chairman, Richard Sackler. The protest was organized by artist Nan Goldin who has battled addiction and who prostrated herself on the rotunda floor. The crowd unfurled banners reading, “Shame on Sackler—Two Hundred Dead Each Day—Take Down Their Name.”

Gessen GoldinSacklerProtest

Gessen GoldinSacklerProtest

So far, only the Louvre has taken down the Sackler name (although the Met announced it will turn down future donations from the Sacklers). The reason American museums have balked at removing the Sackler name may be related to contractual restrictions—a multi-million-dollar donation is often accompanied by a contract tying the donation to naming rights to a physical location in the building in perpetuity.  If the donor’s name is removed, then the donation may be revoked or cease.

The Sacklers are not the only art patron family coming under fire for where their fortunes come from. The ultra-conservative Koch family (owners of America’s largest privately held company—Koch Industries) have long been major and controversial donors to the arts. David Koch, who recently passed away, was a fixture at the Met’s most glamorous functions. Koch Industries’ main business is petro-chemical processing; and the Kochs are big time climate-change deniers. The renovated area adjacent to the imposing Met entrance stairway was recently named David Koch Plaza (its unveiling drew protesters).

nan goldin protest on pool

nan goldin protest on pool

One of the strongest protests occurred this summer against Whitney trustee Warren B. Kanders, a major donor. Kanders’ “crime” is that he owns Safariland, a manufacturer of police and military supplies. Apparently, some Safariland tear gas grenades were used against protestors at the Mexican border.  After eight artists pulled out of the 2019 Whitney Biennial in protest, Kanders issued a letter of resignation..

The problem of dirty money and its influence on the art world is nothing new. After all, the Getty Museum and Villa rely on the immense fortune of legendary oil baron J. Paul Getty.  The Hammer Museum in Westwood is named for the late chairman of Occidental Petroleum, Armand Hammer.

The real question is where to draw the line.  As government funding for the arts continues to decline, art institutions rely more heavily on private donations. Naming rights are an established way to loosen the wallets of the wealthy. Should the Koch’s millions be denied the Met because they are climate-change deniers who may be whitewashing their money?  How was the Whitney supposed to know Kanders’ company manufactured tear gas grenades that would be used against peaceful protestors? There are no easy answers.

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CREATIVE INFERNO: MR. CHOW Restaurateur/Artist Mr. Chow Sets Off Smoke Alarms

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Mr. Chow standing next to “Four Seasons.” Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

Before I interview Mr. Chow, he sets my copy of his book on fire. After smashing large Sharpies onto a blank page of the book in a riot of color (“green always goes well with red”), he pours flammable paint thinner on the page and calls for his “darlings” to bring him some Kleenex which he rubs onto the page (“I like having some dimensionality”) while his assistant hands him a blowtorch to set the page on fire. Just before it gets out of control, another assistant quickly douses the flames with a spray water bottle. He hands back my book and pronounces it a work of art.

A couple of weeks earlier, I’d attended a party at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery near Hancock Park to mark the closing of his eye-popping neo-sculptural show, PeopleUrs Fischer had rendered a full-scale wax figure of Mr. Chow in his signature double-breasted suit and owl glasses, and when I spotted Chow, he was holding his head in his hands courtesy of Deitch, who periodically allowed the wicks at the top of the waxwork to be lit—Chow’s head had melted off at the neck. Chow had enough of the party and as I followed him out I said, “I’ve been told your latest art work is spectacular.” “It is!,” he said. “Come to the studio and see.”

sculpture of mr chows likeness by urs fischer

Sculpture of Mr. Chow’s likeness by Urs Fischer. Photo (detail) by Fredrik Nilsen. Photo courtesy Mr. Chow.

Michael Chow (referred to by friends as “M”), now 80, recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his legendary eponymous restaurants known as Mr. Chow, but Chow is not serving Chinese food this afternoon. That much is clear. I’m in his enormous bow-and-truss art studio in the warehouse district of the city of Vernon, just outside DTLA, having survived a potential collision with the dozens of tractor-trailers and freight trains weaving in and out of the side streets. I’m hungry (our meeting was around noon), but he’s a man obsessed about creating art—no time for lunch.

Chow is wearing a surgical mask to protect himself against the paint fumes and tugs it down below his chin as we sit in front of his large abstract works, decorated with sheets of richly colored hardened house paint on canvas. He uses eggs to color the painting, and sometimes leaves the shells on the canvases. He also makes use of cellophane wrap, bubble wrap, coils of dried varnish and other surprises.

Chow left China in his teens and was educated at St. Martins School of Art in London. At the time he knew artists Peter BlakeDavid Hockney (a student at the Royal Academy of Art) and Howard Hodgkin. He pursued the life of an artist, but he says a “Chinaman” had no chance in those days and that it’s all “fucking different today.” “Now if you’re a gay, black, female artist, you’re set,” he says matter-of-factly. So he took a “fucking side trip” into the restaurant world and opened his Mr. Chows in London, New York, Beverly Hills and Miami.

mr chow phoenix rising mixed media collage 2019

Mr. Chow, Phoenix Rising, mixed media collage, 2019. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

Chow tells me he painted a huge canvas titled “Four Seasons” in “four fucking seconds.” When I give him the fish-eye, he proudly explains that he punched a concentration of paint with a hammer to create a colorful splatter pattern that took only a second each for the four joined canvases.

When he realizes I haven’t read the two books his assistant just gave me, he dismisses me and tells me to return after I’ve done my homework. I figured there was no use trying to push it—he just wasn’t in the mood for an interview and really wanted to paint.

When I return about a month later, having read Chow’s books, his signed “art work,” Mr. Chow 50 Years (which reproduces art works of Mr. Chow and of his family made by Hockney, Ruscha, Warhol, Schnabel, Basquiat, Clemente, Haring, Scharf and Jonas Wood) and one about his father, Zhou Xingang, the longtime superstar of the pre-Cultural Revolution Peking Opera. Chow is more subdued than the manic version I’d encountered previously. But first he gives me a test: “Quick. Name the top five AbEx painters in order of importance.” I rattle off Willem de KooningFranz KlineMark RothkoClyfford Still and Barnett Newman.

But you left out number one—Jackson Pollock

“Not bad. But you left out number one—Jackson Pollock—and take Rothko out of the top five,” he says, allowing no room for my explanation. This makes sense since Chow clearly fits into the subcategory of action painting—there’s a lot of chance involved in the creation of his work. Pollock almost “singlehandedly shifted the focus of the art world from Europe to America,” he says.

In 1968 Chow opened Mr. Chow in London. He recalls swinging London in the ‘60s as “a British cultural revolution—The Beatles and Michael Caine had working-class accents and achieved instant prominence, unheard of before.”

It’s how you serve the fucking food

He attributes the restaurants’ success to integrating food with art and theater: “It’s how you serve the fucking food—the waiters’ body language must be like a dance. You have to transcend the restaurant experience. It’s like entertainment—making a show out of the waiters carving a duck, the chef twisting the noodles by hand, the wine steward rolling out the Champagne trolley.” His restaurants were “global melting pots” that had Chinese cooks and Italian waiters.

“The restaurant is like a musical,” he says, and he took it on the road. By 1980, the show reached New York City and Mr. Chow became a center of New York café society. But it also became a haven for the city’s artists, whose superstars included Chow’s friend Julian Schnabel, who “exploded onto the scene.” David SalleFrancesco ClementeAndy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat also hung out at Mr. Chow. The art crowd partied at the Palladium and Studio 54 where Chow was given a birthday party. Artists were making a lot of money and Chow encouraged them to spend it at his restaurant—Keith Haring pre-ordered 80 bottles of Cristal for his birthday party at Mr. Chow. By the early ‘90s the party was over—many of the ‘80s artists fell out of favor.

mr chow tiger mountain mixed media collage 2019

Mr. Chow, Tiger Mountain, mixed media collage, 2019. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

In the ‘90s Chow spent most of his time in Los Angeles, but he didn’t think much of the art scene, and so he spent the first decade of the new century in what he calls his “Tibet,” watching movies and playing poker.

In the last three or four years he has returned full circle to focus on his own art practice. He calls himself “a collagist.” “Collaging puts things together in harmony that weren’t supposed to go together, like oil and water. Collage is one of the most important art movements.”

He points out that many of his paintings are in 3D and are part sculpture. He says his innovations include the use of dried sheets of house paint and silver leaf that oxidizes into different metallic shades.

No form is a form allowing for spontaneity.

Chow seeks freedom in his art. “No form is a form allowing for spontaneity. In collage nature does the work for me.” Chow describes what he calls the “controlled accident,” as exemplified by his large work “Four Seasons.” When Chow brings up his burning technique I mention the work of contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who uses gunpowder explosions on his canvases. Chow says he’s a fan of Cai. “You can’t paint better than nature. There’s minimal execution – you let nature paint for you.” But he warns that it requires a lot of practice. He’s motivated by Kung Fu and his process comes from “Chinese spirit and energy.”

mr chow downhill racing mixed media collage 2019

Mr. Chow, Downhill Racing, mixed media collage, 2019. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

When I ask him how he was inspired to get back into art, he mentions encouragement from Julian Schnabel and Jeffrey Deitch “who rediscovered me.” He credits Deitch, Larry Gagosian (Chow hosts Gagosian’s February pre-Oscar parties at his Beverly Hills restaurant) and Hauser & Wirth for presenting “museum quality” shows in LA. As for a possible Los Angeles show of Chow’s works, he says that an exhibition will be forthcoming, but he declines to reveal where—although I’m told it will be at a major gallery.

Mr. Chow burned down the traditional Chinese restaurant and reinvented it and now he seems poised to set the art world on fire too.

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art brief artists and bad behavior

Art Brief: Artists & Bad Behavior

emil nolde three russians 1914

Emil Nolde, “Three Russians,” 1914

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

Should an artist’s vile personal acts or beliefs be considered in whether to hear or view their work?

The Me Too movement has pushed the private behavior of artists and performers into the public square. Accusations of sexual harassment have damaged the reputations of dozens of artistic figures from Chuck Close to Kevin Spacey. The question is whether these controversies—proven or not—should be cause for a boycott of a performer’s works. Should people turn off Michael Jackson’s music and Woody Allen’s films even though the accusations against them have never been proven? Should an artist’s vile personal acts or beliefs be considered in whether to hear or view their work?

One of the oldest controversies involves the racist writings of the German composer, Richard Wagner, whose Ring cycle is usually an event whenever and wherever it is staged. Wagner was anti-Semitic and was worshipped by Hitler. Some of Wagner’s warped 19th-century writings were referenced in anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda. While I’m an avid fan of the LA Philharmonic, I’ve never attended a Wagner concert. The main reasons are that I do not enjoy Wagner’s music and because I decline to support a racist composer or artist in any way—even by buying a ticket.

Controversy surrounding German Expressionist Emil Nolde (1867–1956) was recently revived when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to remove two of his paintings that were hanging in her office in the Chancellery. Merkel lent the paintings to a recent survey of his art—“Emil Nolde. A German Legend: The Artist During the Nazi Regime” currently showing at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum. This provided Merkel with a convenient excuse to announce that the works wouldn’t be returning to her chambers. The chancellor made her decision after the Nolde Foundation’s new leaders decided to open its 25,000 documents to the public. Amongst the trove was renewed evidence of Nolde’s unswerving allegiance to the Nazi party.

Emil Nolde Seebüll Farm in Nordfriesland Evening Mood 1935 1940

Emil Nolde Seebüll Farm in Nordfriesland Evening Mood 1935 1940

Nolde’s affiliation with Nazism was not just something that started when Hitler took power in 1933; he had been an ardent supporter since the early 1920s. To keep in the Nazi’s good graces, Nolde never failed to point out that he had been at odds with what he perceived as the “undue influence” of Jews in European art circles, taking particular aim at artist and writer Max Liebermann, the long-tenured president of the Prussian Academy of Arts until 1933 when he was dismissed by the Nazis.

What makes Nolde’s case so interesting is that despite the fact of his loyalty to the Nazi Party, Nolde himself was one of the greatest victims of the Nazis’ war on what they labeled “degenerate art.” This resulted in the censoring and confiscation of thousands of works of modern art from Germany’s museums and galleries, culminating in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937 which traveled all over Germany and Austria for the next two years attracting millions of viewers.

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Emil Nolde, Old Peasant Couple, 1942

More than 1,000 of Nolde’s works were confiscated during the Nazi lunacy spearheaded by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (who years earlier, like Merkel, actually hung Nolde’s work in his office). Ironically, the centerpiece of the Degenerate Art exhibit was Nolde’s epic nine-canvas life-of-Christ altarpiece. The problem for Nolde was that his work was firmly rendered in the expressionist style which Hitler (who flunked out of art school) personally despised. No matter how hard Nolde tried to get back into favor with the Nazis, he never would.

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Emil Nolde, Life of the Christ (La Vie du Christ), 1912

After the war, Nolde began a campaign to show that he was, in fact, victimized by the Nazis, but artfully concealed anything that would show his allegiance to their cause. Over time all was forgiven, his work was displayed again, and his reputation whitewashed, until recent years when his own foundation outed him.

The legendary degenerate art show of 1991 at LACMA curated by Stephanie Barron, which gathered many of the works banned in 1937, was groundbreaking. Scholarship into the degenerate art catastrophe was further advanced in 2014 when the Neue Galerie in New York held a show of the work of the “degenerate artists” that included such expressionist greats as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Ernst Kirchner and Nolde. Catalogs from both shows are essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about how attacks on artists and intellectuals are de rigueur for authoritarian regimes (The Nazis also banned music by a long list of composers).

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Installation photograph, “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991

The tale of Emil Nolde has resonance in our turbulent times. If one thing is clear, it’s that an artist’s private misbehavior will always shadow him or her throughout history. There should be no rush to judgment about alleged misconduct of an artist. For some, like Nolde, it took decades for the case to be closed. For others—like Woody Allen or Michael Jackson—evidence is still coming to light.

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art brief theater of the absurd

Art Brief: Theater of the Absurd

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”—intended to be the most important show of Chinese dissident art in recent years—limped into California late last year. The show traveled to the Guggenheim Museums in Bilbao, Spain and New York before its display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The namesake of the show and the first piece on display—Theater of the World (1993) by Huang Yong Ping and two other works were censored by SFMOMA, which claimed it was following the lead of the New York Guggenheim’s controversial decision to pull the works due to “serious” security threats received after PETA and other animal rights groups vehemently protested.

There are a number of striking works of dissident art in the show including Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (2006), a video of numbing repetitive tasks performed by workers at a light bulb factory in Guangzhou, China, Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder mushroom-cloud works, and Ai Weiwei’s somber display of a wall-size register of his “citizen’s investigation” exposing the suppressed identities of the 5,386 children who died when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—an event that was heavily covered up by the Chinese government. However, the censorship issue casts a pall over the entire show. Upon entering the first room, visitors are confronted with two large empty hand-made terrariums carefully crafted by Huang intended to contain his Theater of the World. They were originally meant to be filled with a variety of insects and reptiles which would fight for dominance of their miniature world—perhaps a parable of the human struggle for survival (Huang referenced Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy as an influence). We are greeted with a plaque containing the “artist’s statement”: “It is a ‘living’ work in the truest sense, as there are living insects inside. But this work has repeatedly encountered ‘premature death’ without ever having a chance to ‘live.’ … [It] is said that more than 700,000 people are opposed to this work [through an online petition circulated at the time of the New York opening] that involves living animals; but how many of those people have really looked at and understood this work? …Everyone can express their views, but unfortunately their views are too often mere repetitions of others’ views.”

A second censored work, Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994), is a video showing two pigs that the artist stamped with lettering—one with Roman lettering and the other with made-up Chinese characters—mating in a pen while spectators watch.

A curator’s statement situated next to the blank video screen says that the pigs copulate “ …in an allegorical, nonsensical meeting of East and West. For Xu …the performance was a literal and visceral critique of Chinese artists’ desire for enlightenment through Western cultural ‘transference.’ …This work has gone on to become one of the seminal images of experimental art in China during this period, and Xu has since received honors in his adopted U.S. home—including a MacArthur Fellowship …” The curator considers it “a seminal work” and yet we can’t even view it.
The third censored work, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, is a disturbing video of tethered pit bulls that face each other on treadmills. SFMOMA placed a statement next to the blank monitor: “When the [Guggenheim] was planning this exhibition in 2017, it received repeated threats of violence in response to the role of animals in the creation of this artwork. In consultation with the artists, the Guggenheim left the video documentation in place but turned it off. SFMOMA has chosen to replicate this modification to acknowledge the fact that the tension between political activism and animal rights is now part of the history of the artwork.”

This museum statement is absurd—an artwork should speak for itself. An artwork should not be replaced by a statement claiming that controversy “is now part of the history of the artwork.” The “history” of the dispute should be left to news reports. This statement is a bad precedent for the way museums should handle attempts at censorship that may become more frequent now that online petitions are in vogue.

A spokesperson for SFMOMA, Jill Lynch, assured me that the threats of violence against the Guggenheim were “very serious,” but would not go into detail because of “security issues.” It may be necessary to increase security at art museums, including the use of metal detectors, due to the coarse times we are living in, with internet trolls running amok spreading misinformation. These may be costly measures, but the mission of these institutions is to preserve artistic freedom above all else, not to bow to mob rule.
Ironically, a major show focused on dissident Chinese art by artists who may have risked their freedom and their lives for the sake of art has devolved into a fiasco in which America, the supposed paragon of artistic freedom, has engaged in wholesale censorship of these brave artists.

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Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi c.1500 oil on walnut 45.4 × 65.6 cm 470x260

Art Brief: Russian Oligarch Jolts the Art World—Again

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

russian oligarch jolts the art world Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi c.1500 oil on walnut 45.4 × 65.6 cm

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1500

The bitter years-long dispute between billionaire Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev and Swiss art-freeport mogul Yves Bouvier (reported in this column previously) has spawned a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Sotheby’s and has resulted in possible criminal charges in Monaco against Rybolovlev—who has ties to the Kremlin. Rybolovlev is known primarily for two things: 1) buying a Palm Beach mansion from Donald Trump for more than twice the price he paid for it only a couple of years previously (raising eyebrows as to whether the transaction was a concealed gift to Trump made on behalf of Putin, and reportedly attracting the attention of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators); and 2) selling Salvator Mundi, a portrait of Christ that set a record auction price for a work of art—$450 million. The controversial painting, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, was purchased by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and will be unveiled shortly in the new billion-dollar Louvre Abu Dhabi.

You would think Rybolovlev, who made a huge profit on Salvator Mundi, would have been pleased, but the painting was one of 38 works that were sold by Bouvier to the oligarch and alleged to have been marked up by over a billion dollars. Rybolovlev claimed that Bouvier had agreed to serve as an art consultant and receive a fixed commission fee, but Bouvier countered that he was acting as an art broker and was free to add fees on top of the prices he paid for the works—which he did not have to disclose to Rybolovlev.
Ultimately, Rybolovlev discovered Bouvier’s game—he had dramatically jacked up the prices he said he paid for the works. For example, the Salvator Mundi was purchased by Bouvier for $80 million, but he sold it to Rybolovlev for $127 million. Rybolovlev also made millions in profit on Modigliani’s Nu Couché, (another work sold to him by Bouvier) when it realized $153 million last May at Sotheby’s—the house record for an individual art work.

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Modigliani’s Nu Couché

Perhaps Rybolovlev didn’t think Sotheby’s did such a good job selling the Modigliani, since he filed a $380 million lawsuit in New York in October, 2018 against the auction house claiming it was a willing partner with Bouvier in his alleged swindle of the oligarch, according to artnet News. The suit accuses Sotheby’s of inflating appraisals of one-third of the works Bouvier sold the Russian, in order to inflate Bouvier’s profits. For example, Rybololvlev claims “Nu Couché was appraised by Sotheby’s at $110 million on behalf of Bouvier although he had recently paid $93.5 million for it. The complaint alleges that Sotheby’s consistently omitted details of Bouvier’s recent purchases from the transaction records of the appraisals. Sotheby’s vehemently denies the charges in the complaint.

There has always been doubt about the legitimacy of Bouvier’s fraud charges in Monaco, based on the Russian oligarch’s influence in the tiny principality where he owns a spectacular penthouse, the most important professional soccer club, and often moors one of his super-yachts. On November 6, 2018, according to Bloomberg, the ongoing corruption investigation in Monaco resulted in the oligarch’s detention for interrogation and possible criminal charges for undue influence and a search and seizure of evidence from his office and villa. The corruption probe previously led to the resignation of Monaco’s justice minister, who is facing criminal charges himself for allegedly accepting bribes arranged by agents of Rybolovlev to pursue a case against Bouvier. Now the French press is labeling the scandal “Monaco-gate.” Rybolovlev and his attorneys have scoffed at the allegations against him.

Meanwhile, Salvator Mundi’s attribution to Leonardo continues to roil the art world, with publication dates looming on several books questioning whether it was actually painted by the master. The Guardian reported in August, 2018, that Oxford art historian Matthew Landrus claimed that its actual painter was Bernardino Luini, one of Leonardo’s studio assistants. It should be kept in mind that there are 20 known variants of Salvator Mundi painted by studio assistants of Leonardo—making the original difficult to identify.

Landrus, a Leonardo scholar, claims Leonardo may have painted only 5 to 20 percent of the work. Landrus is doing a comparison study of Luini’s other known works with the Salvator Mundi in conjunction with the update of his 2006 book on Leonardo. According to the provenance for Salvator Mundi written by Christies, it was identified as Luini’s work when it was acquired for the British aristocrat Sir Francis Cook’s collection in 1900. There it remained until the dispersal of the collection in 1958 when, amazingly, it sold at auction for only $100. There’s little doubt the mystery surrounding Salvator Mundi will rage on for years to come.

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Art Brief: Ai Weiwei Goes Hollywood

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

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Myself with Ai Weiwei at Deitch opening, photo by Eric Minh Swenson

The first week of October was Ai Weiwei week in Los Angeles—a triple-header of shows including the Marciano Foundation, the opening show of former MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch’s new Hollywood gallery, and at the recent UTA gallery in Beverly Hills. First stop was the Marciano Foundation. At the crowded press conference Maurice Marciano was overcome with emotion when discussing the sudden death at only 40 of his friend Josh Roth, of UTA talent agency, who had signed Ai to the agency. Marciano was so overwrought that he cut his remarks short. This sense of grief carried over to Ai, who simply uttered a couple of sentences and took no questions.

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Installation view of Ai Weiwei: Life Cycle, Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles, courtesy the artist and Marciano Art Foundation, photo by Joshua White/

However, Ai’s work speaks for itself. The Marciano show was spectacular, beginning with a massive perfectly groomed floor box of 49 tons of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds made to resemble the real things.

Life Cycle, the show’s centerpiece, exhibited in the Marciano’s former Masonic theatre, features a giant-size bamboo replica of a refugee boat surrounded by mythological Chinese creatures magically suspended from the theatre’s ceiling. These beasts were hand-crafted in bamboo and silk in a Chinese provincial city with a tradition of kite-making going back hundreds of years.
A few days later, Deitch, sporting a pink suit, opened his new gallery with Ai’s show “Zodiac.” A friendly Ai posed tirelessly with adoring fans and their endless selfie requests. Deitch also hosted a private VIP dinner for Ai, attended by Frank Gehry who designed his gallery

The Deitch show featured almost 6,000 antique three-legged stools from China that Ai had salvaged from ancient traditional Chinese neighborhoods demolished to make way for high-rise apartments. The show included a ton of tea compacted into a dense large square and traditional Chinese animal head signs of the zodiac pictorially rendered in LEGO block configurations.
The third show “Cao/Humanity” (dedicated to Roth) opened five days later at a new gallery space that Ai, trained as an architect, had helped renovate in a former tool company building in Beverly Hills. Ai made good use of the relatively small space which has a bow-and-truss roof and three asymmetrical rooms. The UTA gallery was to be a showcase for the artists Josh Roth represented for the agency, and the huge opening-night crowd overwhelmed the modest space. Just who will fill the shoes of the seemingly irreplaceable Roth is unknown.

The Cao (“grass” in Chinese) show is outstanding with a tall rusted metallic tree husk looming over the centerpiece, a field of “grass” made up of 727 hexagonal pieces of marble “turf” from which the marble “grass” sprouted. The show also featured Ai’s take on 19th-century Chinese porcelain export-style bowls and plates, depicting the 2016 saga of the Syrian refugee crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. One of the plates displayed a dead refugee boy on the shoreline—an homage to the notorious photo that shocked the world. Ai controversially posed as the dead boy near the location of the tragedy in conjunction with his stunning 2017 documentary The Human Flow, which captured the recent Syrian and African diasporas in all of their horrors.

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Installation shot at UTA

The final room at the UTA space was covered in wallpaper with a repeating pattern of kaleidoscopic images in gold of surveillance cameras, Twitter birds, and handcuffs. I was told that most of the work at the UTA space was for sale, including even the wallpaper.

Ai Weiwei has been one of the most famous artists in the world for years—his fame skyrocketing with his stunning design for the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the 2008 Olympics in Bejing. The Ai adoration was a long-time coming to Los Angeles.

Ai is easily entitled to identify with the refugees who suffuse so much of his current work since he now lives in exile himself in Berlin, having been banned from China after its government destroyed his massive studio complex in Shanghai.

There is little question that Ai is the most important conceptual artist in the world and one of its most vital political dissidents as well. But having come to Hollywood at long last and coming under the wing of a talent agency, the question remains as to whether this town will corrupt or taint him as it has countless other creative souls, or whether Ai will maintain focus on his core convictions—a steely dissent from the forces of authoritarianism now sweeping the globe, including right here in America.

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Art Brief: Trump Gives Arts the Hook

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

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Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, collection of MoMA NY.

President Donald Trump is no fan of the arts. His first budget proposed entirely eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Congress saved both agencies by funding them in the current budget, but their future is still murky considering Trump’s contempt for and ignorance of the arts. So far, the White House has disregarded an important amendment to the NEA passed in 1984 which tasked the agency with choosing annual recipients of the National Medal of Arts.

Ronald Reagan was the first president who awarded the annual medals in what has become a White House ritual ceremony. By all accounts Reagan relished his role—after all, it gave him a chance to pin the medal on several fellow actors.

Over the years scores of fine artists, writers, composers, musical performers, film directors and arts patrons have been recognized with medals. In the graphic arts recipients include Louise Nevelson, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Helen Frankenthaler, James Turrell, John Baldessari and Jack Whitten. The medal itself was designed by LA’s late great sculptor, Robert Graham. Every president since Reagan has presented the medal to approximately 12 recipients a year, including the likes of Johnny Cash, Stephen King and Clint Eastwood.

One of the reasons Trump may be reluctant to hand out the medals may be his desire to kill the NEA altogether

However, since Trump’s inauguration, no arts awards have been handed out. According to The New York Times, while the White House plans to go forward with the awards, there’s no word as to when. One of the reasons Trump may be reluctant to hand out the medals may be his desire to kill the NEA altogether. Efforts to eliminate the NEA date back to the 1990s when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now an all-out Trump supporter, attempted unsuccessfully to eliminate the NEA.

Trump’s problems with the arts are not limited to his failure to award arts medals. In the wake of the Charlottesville fiasco of August, 2017, when Trump did not adequately condemn the neo-Nazi torchlight protesters, the entire President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned and has not been replaced.

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Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton on stage

President Obama, an avid supporter of the arts, invited numerous artists to perform at the White House—proceedings that were mostly broadcast on public television. Obama showcased great jazz performers, but the most memorable performance was by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind the smash musical Hamilton. Who can forget Miranda unveiling an early version of Hamilton to the president and the nation on PBS? In keeping with his image as the anti-Obama, Trump has aired no arts performances from the White House.

Trump declined to attend the nationally televised Kennedy Center Honors program last year so as not to “politicize” the honors, according to the White House. There’s been no signal whether he will attend this year’s Kennedy Center Honors. Among those scheduled for honors in this coming December’s telecast are Cher—who compared Trump to Hitler—and composer Philip Glass, who labeled Trump “an idiot.” Ironically, in a Kennedy Center first, a work of art itself, Hamilton (which Trump labeled “overrated”), will be honored. Undoubtedly, Miranda, a vocal critic of Trump’s slow-walking of Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery efforts, will attend, creating a dilemma for Trump, who tweeted that Pence had been “harassed” by the “rude” Hamilton cast.

Trump and his pal Rudy Giuliani have a history of suppressing the visual arts. In 1999, in a fit of pique, the former New York City mayor—currently Trump’s “lawyer” and mouthpiece in all things related to the Mueller probe—demanded that the Brooklyn Museum take down artist Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, which involved his trademark use of dried elephant dung. Trump publicly and vocally backed Mayor Giuliani, who claimed that Ofili had blasphemed the Holy Mother and had engaged in “Catholic-bashing.” Trump called the Ofili piece and other work in the Brooklyn exhibition, “absolutely gross, degenerate stuff.”

Giuliani tried to evict the museum from its historic building and fire its board of trustees

During the protracted battle over the said “gross art,” Giuliani tried to evict the museum from its historic building and fire its board of trustees; then he succeeded in temporarily cutting its public funding. Finally, a threatened contempt of court citation forced Giuliani to strike a deal in which the museum dropped its First Amendment suit against the mayor and he dropped his eviction action and promised to refund the $3.5 million he had withheld from the museum.

Trump and Giuliani, both of whom revel in blatant lying, were made for each other. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to predict that the president and his consigliere will seek to target an art exhibit or performance for censorship to fire up enthusiasm among Trump’s political base.

Make no mistake—the NEA is not out of the woods yet. As long as this president remains in the White House, the arts will remain a convenient whipping boy.

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New Chief For Moca (Again)

Does New Director Mean a Calm in the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

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Klaus Biesenbach

This week’s announcement that Klaus Biesenbach, director of New York’s PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s satellite in Queens, was chosen to be the new MOCA director was greeted by mixed notices among the LA art community including: “He never smiles.” Continue reading

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Art Brief: The Whitewash

Graffitist Scrawl New Rights For All

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

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5pointz in its glory days

Whenever I mention the V.A.R.A to artists, I’m invariably met with a blank stare. The Visual Arts Rights Act, passed by Congress in 1990, grants artists a form of Droit Moral or moral rights, intended to protect artists’ control over the fate of their works. Moral rights have been preserved more effectively in Europe, which has a long history of granting artists protection. The V.A.R.A. provides that artists’ works of “recognized stature” whether or not still owned by the artists, cannot be altered or destroyed without 90 days notice to the artist, subject to certain exceptions. Artists are often asked to waive V.A.R.A. rights in written contracts, and they often do so without even knowing what rights they are giving up.
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