The Art World’s Most Absurd, Dramatic Moments in 2019

From Jeff Koons’s “buttholes” to Maurizio Cattelan’s banana.

Maurizio Cattelan's "Comedian" On View At Art Basel Miami 2019
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

With a blockbuster auction and exhibition curated by Hailey and Justin Bieber as its swan song, the art world is about to bid goodbye to 2019. And while Kylie Jenner singing “Rise and Shine” at an opening might be the final art-related absurdity, it was by no means the only one that came to pass this year. There were developments in sagas that refused to fade into the past. (Salvator Mundi has apparently found refuge from all the drama on board a yacht, and Maurizio Cattelan’s solid gold toilet splashed its way back in the news.) And there were turns of events that were simply unprecedented, like when a banana became so popular it became a safety hazard at Art Basel Miami Beach. Here, a recap of all the drama Cattelan and artists like Jeff Koons served up this year.

Jeff Koons’s “Ass Tulips”

Jeff Koons poses in front of his 27-ton sculpture *Bouquet of Tulips* near the Grand Palais in Paris, France, October 2019.

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Back in 2016, Jeff Koons announced his plans to give the city of Paris a sculpture that would commemorate the victims of recent terrorist attacks. Upon learning that he was actually only giving the idea of the sculpture—meaning the city would have to foot the estimated €3.5 million it would take to execute and install itself—the response was almost universally “that’s very kind, but no thanks.” (More or less, anyway; others, like the two dozen French art-world figures who condemned the “opportunistic, even cynical” project in an open letter, chose not to mince words.)

And yet, the sculpture prevailed. Several months after another of his sculptures became the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction, Koons officially unveiled Bouquet of Tulips—a 27-ton bunch of flowers clutched in a disembodied hand—in a park behind the Petit Palais. Critics, who’d at that point been stewing for years, got even more blunt. The philosopher Yves Michaud’s description of Bouquet of Tulips as “11 colored anuses mounted on stems” struck such a chord that it’s been unofficially rechristened Bouquet of Culipes, or “ass tulips.” The phrase “11 Trous du c…,” or “11 Holes of the butt…,” was even briefly graffitied on its base.

Instagram’s nudity policies

In October, Instagram invited a number of art-world figures to its New York City headquarters for a roundtable discussion about how it moderates art-related content. (Its current approach has been regularly criticized for years.) This was no bald play for good publicity: The closed-door meeting was instead shrouded in secrecy, to the point that participants were required to sign NDAs. Of course, word made it out anyway—first via ARTNews, which conducted an investigation into the meeting with a little help from the pioneering feminist artist Betty Tompkins, who had received an invite but was unable to attend. Unfettered by an NDA, Tompkins once again aired her criticisms of the app—this time, with much more attention from the public, and with an emphasis on the fact that she and other artists who’ve been censored for posts containing nudity actually weren’t violating the app’s “community guidelines,” as Instagram had claimed. “There was this one little section that was a total shock to me—and I’m sure the thousands, millions of other artists who are on Instagram have never read it either,” Tompkins later explained to W. “I mean, the sentence has no qualifier: It says ‘Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK.'”

Ironically, a few days later, Instagram would once again disable her account for supposedly violating their guidelines. This time, though, it was quickly reactivated, and the artist and the app now seem to be on relatively good terms. As for the rest of the world’s (lesser-known) artists, that remains to be seen in 2020. (Instagram’s guidelines remain unchanged.)

Jeffrey Epstein’s Bill Clinton Portrait

Looking back, the fact that Jeffrey Epstein owned and displayed a painting of Bill Clinton wearing heels and a blue dress is by far one of the least disturbing aspects of the entire Epstein scandal. And yet, it still managed to dominate headlines, just days after news broke of Epstein’s death. The conspiracy theories were myriad—even after artnet News tracked down the artist, Petrina Ryan-Kleid, who said that the painting was originally part of her masters thesis, which had nothing to do with Epstein. (Clinton-Epstein conspirators have since found other ways to have fun.)

Hudson Yards’s “Shawarma”

After 12 years of planning and six years of construction, the highly controversial $25 billion private real estate development known as Hudson Yards finally opened to the public—at least technically. Plebeians only really have access to two sections of the “billionaire’s fantasy city“: the gigantic shopping mall, and the gigantic outdoor structure crafted by Thomas Heatherwick, which any and everyone is invited to climb. The latter is technically known as The Vessel, though it soon took on another name: “The Shawarma,” in a nod to its brown, conical shape.

But the fact that $200 million was pumped into creating what resembles a giant, multi-level meat stick—and one with limited access for disabled visitors at that—was just the beginning of the outcry. It soon transpired that signing up to climb The Vessel required agreeing to a lengthy list of “terms and conditions,” which imposed alarming restrictions on anyone who dared to photograph the structure, or even take videos or audio recordings in its vicinity. (Including those who respectfully refrained from using the hashtag “#TheShawarma,” and were essentially generating free publicity.) “If I post any Vessel Content to any social media channel,” the statement read in part, “I hereby grant to Company and its affiliates the right to re-post, share, publish, promote and distribute the Vessel Media via such social media channel and via websites associated with the Vessel or Hudson Yards (including my name, voice and likeness and any other aspects of my persona as depicted in the Vessel Media), in perpetuity.”

Hudson Yards has since tweaked the terms of service, and pledged to improve its accessibility for those with disabilities. That’s not so surprising; when it comes to controversy, the complex increasingly has much bigger fish to fry.

Maurizio Cattelan’s Banana

When it comes to a pairing like Maurizio Cattelan and Art Basel Miami Beach, chaos is guaranteed. Still, the match in trouble-making heaven truly outdid themselves in causing complete and utter pandemonium this December, when Cattelan purchased a banana at a local Miami grocer and stuck it to one of the fair’s walls with duct tape. By the end of the VIP preview day, the professional provocateur had sold out all three editions of the Comedian—two for $120,000, and one for $150,000. And then, as Cattelan predicted, the banana went global: Over the course of its week-long reign of power, the banana showed up everywhere from Brooke Shields’s forehead to the cover of the New York Post. A fairgoer ate the banana, and attempted to pass it off as performance art. Eventually, it had to be removed from the fair a day early, thereby finally giving the world a chance to reflect on the fact that the hoopla was all a part of the work’s conceit. (Or at least just to catch up on all the memes.)

Maurizio Cattelan’s Toilet

“America”, a fully-working solid gold toilet, created by artist Maurizio Cattelan, installed at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, England, September 2019.

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Following a crushing rejection from the White House, Maurizio Cattelan’s America—a fully working solid 18-karat gold toilet—found a new home at Blenheim Palace, which was once Winston Churchill’s family residence. Alas, America only got to enjoy it briefly: Just days after it was installed, as part of a Cattelan exhibition, the toilet mysteriously vanished, leaving a significant amount of flooding in its wake.

At first, the theft seemed like signature Cattelan—as did his denial that it was yet another one of his pranks. But the artist seemed surprisingly earnest, to the point that he managed to convince the police. They eventually arrested six people in connection to the theft, though all have since been released. To this day, the toilet remains to be found, though there’s a good chance it’s been melted down; a toilet is much easier to trace than the estimated $4 million worth of its 103 kilograms of gold.

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