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Controversial New Museum Opening Dazzles, Kicking Off Armory Arts Week

Koons, Joannou, and David LaChapelle at the New Museum last night.

All is forgiven — apparently. The happy buzz that greeted the opening of the New Museum’s “Skin Fruit” show appeared to close the book, at least for now, on the show’s controversial genesis. The exhibition features contemporary artworks from the collection of Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou, a trustee of the museum, and it was curated by artist Jeff Koons, one of the artists Joannou collects. A curious and curiously large mix of celebrities and art-worlders — Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Museum biennial curator Francesco Bonami, U2’s the Edge, and collectors Don and Mera Rubell — were among those who streamed in last night.

The exhibition, when announced, was met with criticism on the grounds that it risked turning the institution into a for-hire “vanity” museum. Joannou is a longtime trustee of the institution and a funder of some of its shows. Plus, the Joannou exhibition is the first in a series called “the Imaginary Museum” that will put private collections on view. The choice of Koons as curator was also attacked by some.

The ethical brouhaha didn’t prevent — or perhaps it helped create — a Disneyland-like line outside the institution last night. Once inside, the ethical question was somewhat trumped by the quality and rarity of at least some of the works on view: several Robert Gobers, a shimmering sculpture by Liza Lou of a revolutionary in hot pants, a giant Charles Ray of a woman in a power suit, various Kara Walkers, Matthew Barneys, Paul McCarthys. Joannou, often under the tutelage of dealer turned museum director Jeffrey Deitch, collected a who’s who of the last generation of art early in their careers. The collection is a string on figurative sculpture, which is to say many bodies, whether they be shrouded, injured, buried, giant, or mutated, held sway in the galleries.

Museum director Lisa Philips said, “For us, it was always about the art. People have to experience it for themselves” to see why the show was worth bringing to the museum. Some vocal opponents — names unmentioned — have actually apologized since seeing the show, she says. And “a couple of people who wondered how Jeff could ... add anything are super-impressed,” she added.

At an after-party at the Bowery Hotel, a long line of well-wishers swarmed around Joannou, who said “the response has been incredible.” While Joannou said he was shocked to see his collection without the Koons works — the artist included virtually none of his own work in the show — but “what Jeff Koons brought to the show was his mind,” and it enabled Joannou to see his own works in a new light. Koons doesn’t look like he’s had his fill of the museum life: He’ll curate a show, opening March 18 at Gagosian’s 980 Madison Avenue space, of the works of Chicago artist Ed Paschke. Koons worked as a studio assistant for Paschke, a post-Pop painter of ferocious, neon-colored images, earlier in his career.

The New Museum opening was just one of several events that kicked off Armory Arts week yesterday. Uptown, the Art Dealers Association of America art show had Steven Schwarzman, Donald Marron, and Michael Ovitz shopping the aisles. Scope art fair held a packed opening party at Quality Meats, Pulse staged one at the Rivington Hotel and the Jumeirah Essex House held a Magnum photo exhibition and private party for Armory Show VIPs. “There is a sense that wishful thinking will lead to success,” said Alexis Hubshman, of the art-fair extravaganza. “But maybe that’s okay.”

Related: 61 Minutes With Dakis Joannou [NYM]

Photo: Patrick McMullan