It was two hours before the Tuesday night opening of “Desire”—a show of erotic works curated by Diana Widmaier-Picasso and presented by Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch—but the gawkers were already filling up every inch of window space outside the Moore Building in Miami’s Wynwood district, cupping their hands to the glass to get a look at what’s inside. There are 150 works in the show, but it’s likely they were just staring at one: Jeff Koons’s epic and epically graphic sculpture Dirty – Jeff On Top (1991), a work from his “Made in Heaven” series that presents the artist quite visibly penetrating his wife of the time, the Italian politician and porn star Cicciolina.
“This is the first time this amazing sculpture has ever been seen in in the Untied States,” Deitch told me during an early tour Tuesday afternoon.
We were standing next to the very accurate, very larger-than-life depiction of Koons copulating. I looked at it, close up, and asked how exactly he managed to get it in the show.
“We spent the money, we went for it!” Deitch said. “My philosophy in presenting an exhibition is you don’t hold back, you gotta go all the way. The great artist does not hold back. So we went for it. We could have easily said, Oh, it’s too much money to send this from Cologne, and are we really going to sell it? But this is essential for the show.”
The Koons sculpture does indeed anchor a sprawling and ambitious show devoted to all kinds of sexual acts among humans. It’s the second time the unlikely duo of Deitch and Gagosian, two rival dealers with somewhat differing sensibilities, have come together—last year they presented a show they dubbed “Unrealism” in the same space. This year, they’re playing with a wildly varying selection of artists, photographers, and filmmakers—from Richard Prince to Barkley L. Hendricks, from Diego Rivera to Juergen Teller, and from Alex Israel/Bret Easton Ellis to Francis Picabia.
“This Picabia, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Deitch said of the work by the 20th-century master art trickster, who of course has a marvelous show up at the Museum of Modern art in New York right now. This painting, an untitled one from 1941, was of a woman with no top and another figure with a towel in a great glowing red, with two curious Dalmatians yapping at them.
“It’s has humor, with a Dadaist streak, and it’s playing with high culture, pop culture,” Deitch went on.
Then we were on to Jenny Saville’s big treatment of a threesome, Odalisque (2012–14).
“The Jenny Saville, it’s a fascinating art-historical exercise, in the tradition of Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, the English figurative tradition,” Deitch said. “I see very much a dialogue with Manet, the Olympia, with the white nude with the black maid. The black maid now becomes the black male lover.”
He took me over to the other side of the first floor, a wall that featured Ed Ruscha’s Desire (2013), Richard Prince’s Spiritual America (1983), Jeff Koons’s giant “Made in Heaven” canvas Hand on Breast (1990), and Alex Israel & Bret Easton Ellis’s Trent Looked at Tara (2016).
“This is the hot wall and this is the cool wall,” Deitch said. “It’s very important for us to have the Ed Ruscha as the cover piece.”
He paused for a second as we stepped toward Desire, which has the word sitting before a reasonably phallic mountaintop.
“This is not at all a pornographic show, this is about a central concern of the artist, going back centuries,” Deitch said. “With Ed, it’s more conceptual.”
He’s also a particular fan of the Alex Israel & Bret Easton Ellis joint, the first batch of which premiered at a show at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills space earlier this year.
“Alex Israel is from Los Angeles, looking at the history of text painting, and this is an amazing art-historical innovation: the first time when an artist and an novelist have collaborated.”
Upstairs there was work by Eric Fischl and David Salle and John Currin that led to a room that warned of extremely graphic content, where Harmony Korine was helping install White Cleat Garcia (2016), which consisted of a pair of white sneakers strewn next to a dresser, upon which was placed a television set that was showing a woman orally pleasuring the large penis of a man sitting in a chair while ’70s yacht rock played on speakers.
“It looks better with the smoke machine,” said Korine, who had two cigars sticking out of the breast pocket of his shirt. Urs Fischer—who was standing nearby, having installed his sculpture collaborations with Georg Herold in a studio-style hang—nodded.
“Could we get the smoke machine going?” Korine asked.
“It’s going to take a few minutes,” an art handler said.
“That’s fine,” Korine responded.
The show continues for another two floors, with a spree of great Tom of Finland works; the puzzling inclusion of photographs by the filmmaker Gaspar Noé that appear to be stills from his very naughty film Love; one of those pervy Richard Prince Instagram works, inevitably; and a wonderful Martin Wong from 1985, Si Eso Secederia, Alguna Vez.
Some here in Miami have suggested that, given, you know, the political turmoil that’s embroiled the country, especially Florida, it might have made sense to not present a show devoted almost entirely to hanky-panky.
But Deitch explained that desire in the purest sense is always timely, and has universal appeal for artists going back to the dawn of painted expression. There’s never not a good time to do a sex show.
“It goes back to the ancient world,” he said. “You see this kind of imagery in cave paintings, you go to Greek vases—it’s one of the most compelling themes for the artists since antiquity. So many of the great artists—of every generation, men and women—take up aspects of this theme, and what’s interesting is to see how different artists approach it from their perspective.”