NEW YORK—In one of his editorial-style cartoons, artist Jonah Kinigstein likens today’s art world to a game of baseball in which all the rules have been removed. A caricature of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 signed a urinal and called it art, squats at second base in front of a sign that reads “Up to Date Museum: Nothing older than 15 minutes accepted.”
In another, some cyborg-harpies—the demons of the avant-garde—gather menacingly around a nude woman who symbolizes figurative art.
Kinigstein’s blunt, darkly drawn, and image-packed pictorial metaphors are the subject of a new show at the Society of Illustrators titled The Emperor’s New Clothes curated by Gary Groth. Critics of the modern art world use The Hans Christian Andersen tale to describe the public’s reluctance to admit that they don’t “get” or simply don’t care for modern and conceptual art, though media tells them they should.
With this series of drawings, Kinigstein has put himself in the position of the child who points out the obvious—that the emperor is naked. Usually in life, the obvious doesn’t bear repeating with as much vehemence as is shown in Kinigstein’s cartoons. But seeing Kinigstein’s cartoons offers some catharsis—but maybe only if you’re already of the persuasion that modern art has little merit.
When Kinigstein pasted his cartoons to the sides of buildings in SoHo in the 1990s, he “had some people coming up and thanking me for what I had to say, and then I had people ripping them off the walls and wanting to fight with me.”
Yes, Kinigstein’s cartoons tend to polarize, but he argues that the modern art machine polarizes too—”eclipses” the world of figurative art, as Kinigstein puts it, with massive amounts of marketing to the point that realists no longer have a place to eke out much of an existence. You’re either with modern art or against it.
A Storied Journey
Kinigstein was born in 1923 in Brooklyn. He had a high school teacher who would correct students’ anatomy drawings. By the time his own children went to school, they were given glue and toothpicks and told to express themselves. He went to Cooper Union for architecture, sculpture, and painting, was sent to Saipan and Tinian while in the Army. There, he painted small landscapes in his free time.
After serving, he continued his career in Paris, Rome, and New York. He painted and exhibited until the new art market won over the galleries that would have exhibited figurative art. Then Kinigstein went to work, like so many of his cohort, in advertising, printing, and designing retail window displays.
All the while he made these cartoons. There wasn’t much of a market for them; people aren’t paid often to express themselves, he said.
Whether Kinigstein’s drawings come from a place of jealousy and genuine bitterness is up to speculation. Some people may be predisposed to believe badly of him. The curators at the Society of Illustrators leave the artist’s intentions rather open-ended, including the intro to the show—a maybe-testimonial from cartoonist Robert Crumb that walks the line between scathing and teasingly sarcastic.
Kinigstein himself said that he hopes his cartoons will wake up the public to the fact that modern art “has no basis of being except that they’re telling you it’s art. They’ve shifted the terminology of art.”
“What I have to say is not popular, I know. Because people are always interested in what’s new … but because it’s new, it’s not always understood. … There are people out there who make a living faking it, trying to convince people they know what it is.”
True Public Sentiments?
Probably few members of the public find flat, bizarre, or subjectless art engaging. A 2011 Daily Mail reporter observing gallery visitors at the Tate found that they only viewed work by Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin for less than 5 seconds. They probably spent more time trying to figure out what they were looking at by reading the wall label. Tom Wolfe wrote about modern art appreciation’s reliance on written explanations in “The Painted Word.”
Kinigstein does something similar by lampooning the personalities and institutions who urged the whole modern art machine on, name-checking on sheet after ink-saturated sheet everyone from gallerists like Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, to the curators of Whitney Museum and the MoMa, to Jasper Johns and Willem DeKooning. These people reached unimaginable wealth and fame through cleverly marketing visual novelties.
It took only a few decades from the turn of the century before fine artists trained in realist methods and accurate figure drawing were forced to take jobs in advertising and illustration. Some artists found the promise of riches in modern art was simply too great to resist, while others found the idea of having to unlearn concepts like composition, proportion, and perspective too degrading and sought employment outside of the gallery-and-collectors circuit.
The new art market had created a totally different framework for aesthetic appreciation. Subject matter became optional, even frowned upon by abstract and minimalist artists and the critics who backed them; found objects were seen as just as legitimate as work created from scratch had traditionally been. Auction houses and museum curators seemed to be in cahoots. Advertising money was everywhere promoting certain artists. All of this adds up to quite a different game from the art world Kinigstein hoped to work in.
“If the rules are different and it’s not baseball anymore, call it something else,” he said, alluding to his baseball analogy. “Just don’t call it art. … I don’t have a name for it, but ‘hype’ comes to mind.”
The Guilty Parties
From Marcel Duchamp and the artists in his wake, to museum curators and the general public, everybody’s guilty for making the art world into what it is today. Jonah Kinigstein spares no one.
“Art should show up some feeling, for one thing. I don’t think there’s a lot of feeling in what they’re doing. They’re more obsessed with structure—locking cardboard together with plastic, and also the size of things. You have to make it real big, so it’s like hitting the critic over the head with a 2-by-4.”
“They just want to make a buck. For a period of time the galleries bought up things they knew were fakes and presenting them as the real thing. It’s been going on for a long time.”
“Guilty. They show anything that someone brought up. I was at the Brooklyn Museum and someone had put together bottle caps together. They got a lot of bottle caps, hung them together, and made it a screen. … I think they’re interested in getting as many people through the door as possible and if you get something new, naturally everyone is going to run for it.”
“They’re jaded. They’ve seen too much. Day after day they get bored with what they’re looking at, so when someone comes in with a couple of sticks on the wall, they say ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that before!’ New material meant more [to them] than what was done with the new material.”
“They’re the prime guilt. Because a collector knows that if he can buy a thing for $200 and hold onto it for three years and sell for $20,000, that he’s making money on the thing. So everybody becomes a collector.”
“They’re all guilty. This is a society made up of people who are mostly guilty.”
“Government was very happy with the abstract painters in the ’50s. Our government, we were out to prove that in our country we could paint anything we want. They sent an exhibition of our painters over to Russia to show how much freedom we had here. In Russia at the time [artists had to] either tow the line of the government or [they] weren’t even going to show [them].”
“Guilty! They don’t allow people to buy things at low prices and if no one wants it at a high price they buy them themselves. So they jack the price way up. And the law allows them to do that.”
“They’re guilty! Everybody could be an educator. People don’t have to paint at all; they could just take art history and pass the lessons.”
Jonah Kinigstein: The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Tower of Babel in the Art World
Jan. 6–Feb. 7
Society of Illustrators
128 East 63rd St.