Eli Broad’s conventional art

April 30, 2012

166249456.JPGEli Broad’s new book comes out tomorrow, and the cover alone speaks volumes. The title is “The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking”. And the way that Broad has decided to illustrate how unreasonable and unconventional he is? He’s posing next to Jeff Koons’s Rabbit.

Now I happen to be a fan of Rabbit: I think it’s a genuinely excellent and important piece of 20th Century art. I’m also not alone in that view. Ingrid Sischy explained it well, back in 2001, writing of the “Neo-Geo” show where it was first exhibited:

The piece that grabbed the spotlight was Rabbit, his flawless stainless-steel casting of an inflatable bunny. It was a 41-inch-high art-bomb that thumbed its nose at the aesthetics of high art and yet at the same time embraced them, a fusion of Pop and Brancusi. With its wit, its physical simplicity, and its characteristically Koonsian reference to sexual symbols and childhood pleasures, Rabbit has become one of the artist’s most famous and enduring icons…

Kurt Varnedoe, today the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, is one of many viewers who stayed put when he saw that silver bunny. He recalls, “There are just a few occasions in my art experience in New York where I’ve been sort of knocked dead by an object instantly. This piece was just riveting. You wanted to laugh, you were shocked, you were planted to the floor. I was galvanized by the object. It has such an amazing physical presence… ‘Uncanny’ is the word that comes to mind. There were so many different things going on at once in the piece. It was hilarious, it was smart, and it was chilling… It had that kind of Utopian high-gloss modern clarity to it.”

In 2001, Sischy estimated Rabbit’s value at somewhere in the $2-3 million range; today, it’s probably closer to $100 million. (One Rabbit reportedly sold for $80 million back in 2008.)

Rabbit exists in an edition of three, plus one artist’s proof; Broad owns the artist’s proof, which he bought from Koons in the mid-1990s when the artist needed money to pay the enormous fabrication bills for his Celebration series. Of the other three, two are promised to museums — the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and MoMA in New York. It’s almost the perfect artwork for a financially-minded collector. Because it’s part of an edition, it’s possible for the piece to be owned by MoMA and by Eli Broad at the same time. Because it’s owned by MoMA, it has the best possible institutional legitimacy. And because there’s a “spare” privately-owned Rabbit out there somewhere, Broad can mark his Rabbit to a private market in the piece.

In the book, Broad says that “people often think it’s strange how briskly I go through museums”: he explains that “I’m there to learn and apply my knowledge to our collections. As much as I would like to stay, I have to move on.” Basically, the job of a museum, in Broad’s view, is to ratify Broad’s own collection. In that sense it’s very different from art fairs, where he can go shopping and build his collection: “While I may dash through a museum,” he writes, “I do give myself time to take in artists’ studios and art fairs in Miami, London, Venice, and Basel.”

All of which is to say that Broad’s Rabbit is an example of unconventional thinking in much the same way as a Saudi oil well is an example of an unconventional energy source. Broad’s famous for buying most of his collection from a single gallerist, Larry Gagosian; the piece he chooses to pose with for the cover of his book is the most valuable and recognizable object he owns. It’s a piece which has been ratified by both museums and the market; a piece which is about as mainstream as contemporary art gets.

The cover of Broad’s book does not depict a man who’s secure in his own taste. Instead, it shows a man who collects trophies and prowls museums looking to make sure that he’s collecting the right ones. Yes, Broad’s collection is extremely valuable. But there’s nothing unreasonable about it.

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