Call me old-fashioned, but sex can still be startling. At least the many iterations of sex showcased in “Desire,” the second Miami Art Week show produced by art-world stars Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch (last year’s version, also in the Moore Building in the Design District, was “Unreal”), and curated by Diana Widmaier-Picasso. Walking through it is unnerving, titillating, thought-provoking and occasionally gut- and emotion-wrenching (art will do that to you).
Why an erotic show? “Because it is the essential subject of the artist,” Deitch said Thursday afternoon at the Moore space. “Go back to the ancient world. Greek sculptures and vases. Baroque paintings. Matisse, Picasso. It’s one of the great subjects of art. I asked Jeff Koons, and he said ‘this is what life’s all about.’”
Architect Kulapat Yantrasast, sweeping by on his way out, confirmed that conclusion. “It’s great,” he told Deitch. “It gives you hope for humanity. This is the perfect time for this.”
The show is wildly varied: 50 artists, from Picasso and Lichtenstein to R. Crumb and Tom of Finland, Diego Rivera to Richard Prince, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf to Martin Wong — with painting, photography, sculpture, cartoons, video and, yes, a live nude model. She was lounging on a blue divan on the second floor in Urs Fischer and Georg Herold’s Necrophonia, stifling a yawn and startling a couple of guys who thought she was another sculpture.
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A giant, shiny, cartoon-realistic Jeff Koons sculpture of a couple coupling dominates the first floor — people walk around it, nervously eying its oversized and anatomically exact details. A “cool” conceptual wall includes Richard Prince’s (in)famous “Spiritual America.” His photograph of another infamous photo, a nude 10-year-old Brooke Shields, her gaze unnerving, still challenges us. In the window is Allen Jones’ “Chair, Hatstand and Table” — three mannequin sculptures dressed in S&M gear in masochistic poses as furniture — a comment, perhaps, on the Design District’s history selling furniture? On the high-fashion mannequins there now?
Upstairs, there’s a long R. Crumb strip (the revolutionary underground comic artist, specifically included by Widmaeir-Picasso) illustrating, and using the language of, a bizarre 1906 account of sexual fetishes by a Viennese doctor. (Oh Freud.) Some students from Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH) across the street shrugged at explicit Tom of Finland gay drawings. “It’s art,” shrugged one girl. “At this point I’ve seen it all,” said another. Indeed, another Prince photo of a photo, this one a blow-up of an Instagram post of a couple of teen girls, is the kind of provocative thing teens post all the time.
There’s a lot of photography, from Man Ray’s mid-20th century women softly touching their throats, to Nobuyoshi Araki’s giant picture of a dreaming (or ecstatic?) Asian woman on the second-floor landing, to Helmut Newton’s “Big Nude,” gazing defiantly out at us. One of the most unsettling works is Noritoshi Hirakawa’s “Dreams of Tokyo,” with 20 portraits of attractive young Japanese women, prettily and demurely dressed in skirts or dresses, squatting. It takes a few seconds before you realize that none of them are wearing underwear. Their direct gaze and solid stance challenges ideas of vulnerability, exposure, strength and control.
There’s a Kenny Scharf painting where figures and genitalia cycle in a glittery, slithery tangle. Martin Wong’s enigmatic “Heaven” is a circle showing a brick wall, with a small black hole in the middle, beckoning and enigmatic. Is it an orifice? Escape? Eyehole into darkness? (Wong died of AIDS.) In Eric Fischl’s “First Sex,” a nude woman confronts three boys in a night landscape — which of them is in control?
Hard to imagine walking through this show without being unsettled; however sophisticated we may be, this is sex, after all. Yet each piece is also layered with so many other things — ideas, cultural references, our own response, the drama of the action, the intention of the subject (what do those perpetually subjugated mannequins feel?). Essential subject, indeed.