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SKIN FRUIT: Jeff Koons Picks Some of Dakis’ Toys for the New Museum

March 3, 2010

Eighties pop singer Cyndi Lauper (L),  infatuated with “Super Sister” by Liza Lou, from Dakis Joannou’s collection, now at the New Museum

(**All text and photos by Susan M. Kirschbaum)

“It was instinctual.” Artist Jeff Koons tells me of his curation of the current exhibit that opened at the New Museum on the Bowery last night, some of the private collection of mega collector, Cypriot builder Dakis Joannou. Koons refuses to tell me how long it took him to pick from Joannou’s vast collection, which features the work of Urs Fischer, Chris Ofili, Dan Colen, Charles Ray, to name a few,  and a ton of Jeff Koons.

While the works on display here at the New Museum seem to form a somewhat non connected playground of larger than life pieces, like walking onto a movie set for giants, the piece de la resistance clearly belongs to Maurizio Cattelan: a figure of the late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy laid out in a coffin in an ante chamber. I describe the piece, as well as a full tour of Joannou’s private home in the reprinted piece below that I originally penned for Whitewall Magazine for the Spring ’08 issue. I believe it adequately describes not only Joannou’s acquisitional  instincts but also why he’s so relevant to modern art.

The New Museum show, entitled “Skin Fruit,”which runs until June 6, 2010– will give the viewer a taste of Joannou’s complex visual and visceral world, albeit a minimal one through the glimpse of Koons.

I do ask Koons why he did not pick more of his own pieces, which really form the base of Joannou’s home viewing. He tells me, “I don’t see the world through my own work.” I find that strangely humble, refreshing.  Perhaps that’s why he seems to hold such a diplomatic hand over his choices of what to display in this appetizer to the full meal of a collection.

Talented photographer and friend, Sean Donnola and Dakis Joannou, at art opening after party, Bowery Hotel

Dakis Joannou’s Secret House of Horrors

Candy for the Mind Under One Roof

By Susan M. Kirschbaum

(**Originally published/written for Whitewall Magazine/Spring Issue ’08)

“If you can’t take a joke, get the fuck out of my house.” says Dakis Joannou, through deliberate visual cues. Joannou, the global builder and art collector, nods to the words of artist Chris Wool: the fuck off sign, black block letters on white, one of the first things to greet you in the main gallery of his labyrinth like Athens home.  What comes before: the Duchamp urinal in the entrance way, a Juergen Teller photo of a nude model by the coat closet, and a passageway – Joannou’s work in progress hub—filled with a Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners lying in glass coffins and various series of photos of sexy young things, outdoor scenes, trees by Wolfgang Tillmans.

“He captures the moment, nature, personal, social, recognizing various parts of our lives.” The collector explains of Tillmans, belying what one might expect of a 67-year-old Cypriot, father of four, grandfather of eight, engineer, architect.


Joannou, whose sparked brown eyes and arched eyebrows shed light on intensity behind the grandfatherly guise, could be considered a sort of Willy Wonka of modern art. He shops the world for it, filling the Deste Foundation (founded in 1983 in Athens), gallery shows across the globe, his boats, and his homes in Hydra and Athens, much to the joy or chagrin of his wife and family. It often depends on his furniture choices of the moment, which also change regularly. (He consults Koons at intervals for replacement hoses to his vacuum sculpture.)

In Athens, he’s exchanged warm traditional Forties’ wood and cushion pieces with odd shapes made of fiberglass, plastics, rubber, and vinyl circa 1968-70. He explains the older stuff “does not correspond with the building.”  In Joannu’s living room, off the white flokati rug and diagonal to the Christmas evergreen, sits a chair entitled “Libro Chair” by Gruppo Dam. You can turn the white vinyl square cushions, much as you might the pages of a novel, to sit on any of them. This room is the center of the house, above gallery spaces on the first floor, a stairway, and antechamber filled with startling objects by Kiki Smith, Maurizio Cattelan, and Pawel Althamer.  The furniture, a recent obsession, needed to match up.

“Here, material really made a difference. It’s not that comfortable.” He says, sitting on a sofa made of butterscotch leather car seats, not far from a gray foam rubber love seat.

In this parlor, family photos adorn tables, including a wedding photo of his daughter Ellie and her husband taken two years ago in front of their wedding cake – a pink swan and blue rabbit made of marzipan – by Jeff Koons. “You don’t know which form is the male or which is the female.” Joannou says of the Koons dessert. He chuckles, eyeballing the shag rug and holiday ornaments, oddities here.

“I had to respond to my wife’s needs. She accuses me of being really driven. That’s why it’s a bit more cozy. She almost killed me two years ago when I bought Bazaar by Superstudio/Giovanetti. He points to an image in a catalogue of a gray sofa composed of plastic and wool that resembles a mammoth ear canal. “It was like being in a cave. Nobody would sit in it.”  So Joannou got rid of it. (He can’t resist much.  He’s even hung Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe photos behind the treadmills in his wife’s workout room.)

He rarely sells pieces. Like an encyclopedia of sublimated fear and fantasy brought to life, he thinks seriously before acquiring. The Wonka wizard Joannou – a trustee of the New Museum in New York, and member of the International Directors’ Council of the Guggenheim – often consults his consiglieri, consisting of Soho based dealer Jeffrey Deitch, artists Maurizio Cattelan and Jeff Koons, and critic/curator Massimiliano Gioni. They form a clique, through Joannou’s inspiration, which propels a certain aesthetic, one that traditional Greeks and Europe’s old world, might find creepy, even perverse.

Across from the fuck off sign in the downstairs main gallery, a large blonde statue of a woman in a purple power suit, towers a foot higher than Joannou and myself. It’s by Charles Ray and she’s got one palm turned up as if to say, “Don’t get too close.” So I ask, why she’s placed there, facing Wool’s sign as an obviously hostile hostess.

“To intimidate you.” The collector answers me. “When you walk into a room, to read that and then look at her.” He’s silent for a minute. “It shocked everyone in the beginning. Now, they are not shocked with Chris Wool. They are shocked with Urs Fischer.”

But no Urs sits in this initial gallery. Instead, there is a tribal collage by Chris Ofili filled with cut out eyes of hip hop stars; a lonely drain by Robert Gober; Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey, by Jeff Koons in garish gold and white; a silver train, also by Koons – filled with Jim Beam whiskey – and a mobile of stuffed animals, clinging to one another, suspended from the ceiling by Mike Kelley.

“Artists are taking a huge risk to the public, hanging themselves to the world. I wouldn’t judge it. There’s a part of me in every piece.”

When pointed out the implications of Michael Jackson, a suspected pedophile with a predilection for both young boys and zoo animals, Joannou’s tone flows like pond water. “My perspective hasn’t changed. He’s still one of the biggest in music. He’s a great artist.  It’s different the way children and adults react. Those with knowledge react in a different way. You feel something strange happening when looking at it.”

Indeed, what’s startling regarding the pieces in this main room is the interplay between the id and the super ego, adolescence and authority.

There’s a Jeff Koons painting from the “Celebration series” in the middle of the room, featuring a giant donkey and colorful pin tails. When we look at another Koons piece, a sculpture of Crayola hued flowers, Joannou comments. “It’s the most sexual piece. That’s how I see it.” Even the Jim Beam train emits such taboos. Labels taped over the various liquor spouts silently instigate. “You are not supposed to break the paper.” Joannu explains. “It’s a very intense thing.”

There’s a Koons’ pig with three children – two boys and a girl angel – patting it from behind; a red baseball hand, without the mitt (Joannou can’t remember the creator but insists there are many with mitts and he wanted “the original, the prototype.) We glimpse two giant diagonal Medina chairs, one red and one silver; thus, the Wonka like illusions.

“Kids connect more with the sculptures.” Says Joannou. When we get to the beaten Mike Kelley animals in orgy like masses above our heads, he adds. “The kids love this but the adults find it creepy.”

He refuses to count his acquisitions since the process marks one of pleasure for him, seeking out the new. (Chris Wool was one of about five artists he found later and was forced to buy at auction.) Once he commits, her rarely lets go.

Joannou, who studied engineering at Columbia University in the Eighties, started serious buying with Koons’ “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,” which also sits in the main room. (The basketball, floating in a tank moves with temperature, but the owner tells me he always sees it in the center, even if it has moved.)

He did relinquish some of his early purchases, including pieces by James Rosenquist and Donald Judd. “I loved those but you have to make a decision.”

He shakes his head vehemently when I ask if he will sell the current favorites, showing me a Richard Prince painting. “I didn’t collect him earlier because he was one of the joke artists. There are two kinds of mistakes you can make. You choose an artist with whom you are not so connected or the other mistake, you don’t realize the connection with an artist until later.” Of Rosenquist and others from the Eighties, he only kept his Warhol Brillo box, now an end table in his parlor.

As we round-up a circular stairwell, a dejected figure, long hair hanging over long legs affixed to the wall, greets us.  Kiki Smith’s she man, possibly nourishes himself on his own genitalia. That’s what I see, but Joannou –now evidently Greek—interprets.

“It must start from the crucifix, just bent down. Christian Orthodox religion is so centered in our lives. We understand the value and importance of sacrifice. After that, resurrection. It teaches us to be ready to give something to people, to give back.”

We climb to a secret chamber, like a tower chapel in a church. There, a central stone, by Jenny Holzer reads: “Blood goes in the tube because you want to fuck. Pumping does not murder but feels like it. You loose your worrying mind. You want to die and kill and wake like still to do it again.”

On either side of the Holzer tombstone is a window by Pawel Althamer, the Polish artist, featuring fat puppets: Pope John Paul II, a street beggar, and a prostitute. Directly across stands a series of baby Jesus figurines in various Baroque hand greetings from the 17th century, the only objects bought on the street by Joannou himself.

“I got them when I was in school in Rome for $10 each. It was the late Sixties, springtime. We would have dinner on Saturdays and at midnight we’d go to the flea market at Porto Portese. These figures were there for two months, then I never saw them again.”

Behind the faux chapel, lies John F. Kennedy, laid out in a wooden coffin, by Maurizio Cattelan. Joannou tells me that Cattelan researched the suits Kennedy wore and recreated the crisp white-collar and navy jacket, trousers. He’s barefoot, and Joannou indicates, JFK’s got an erection.

We discuss the obvious themes. A Catholic president, his sexuality, is he dead? “It’s really about lost hope.” He tells me. “When he became president, it was incredible, the possibilities. Now we have Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Maurizio did it right after that.”

Joannou leads us back down the spiral, up another way into the living room again. A white bust of Jeff Koons embracing his first wife, porn star Ilona Staller sits before a romantic pastel. A George Condo depiction of Joannou as a sailor in a striped polo and Cattelan in a priest’s collar with carrots through his ears adds to the whimsy. A Dan Colen boulder with painted chewed gum and pennies finds a space between the living and dining rooms. “I think Colen’s a serious artist.” Joannou tells me.

The initial sketches of Assume Vivid Astro Focus hang behind a rectangular dining room table. They are sparse and intimate including a girl, squatting with her head between her legs. They had been originally featured in Deste’s “Panic Room” show that corresponded with the 2004 Olympics.

These drawings are the opposite of AVAF’s life like wall graffiti installations, and when I compare those to psychedelia, Joannu corrects me. “It has nothing to do with the psychedelic feeling of the Sixties. Then, it was breaking barriers, drugs, more extroverted, aggressive. Now, things are accepted in our own communities.”

Again we go back to his own clique of artist and dealer friends. “Jeff Koons will never comment on another artist.” He says. “But with Maurizio, you just look at him and you know.”  Joannou is consulting his inner circle about his new Hydra project, an actual slaughterhouse he bought there, where he will host the collection of a different artist each year, starting this June.

He takes me outside to the terrace. To the left corner of his pool, an Urs Fischer skeleton peers out. There’s even fake breath on a reflection. “I love it overlooking all of Athens.” Joannou chuckles.  On the other side of the pool sits an African man and woman, afros piled high, sitting on individual potties and shitting. It’s by Chris Ofili. Joannou explains the idea was taken from something he calls “cacanel,” a Brazilian tradition; to place similar miniature images by the Nativity scene. “It humanizes the Christmas scene.” He explains.  And here, it’s just comical, giant sculptures, bums bared with “ca ca” in the form of coiled snake crap.

At Joannou’s Deste Foundation, in the suburb of Nea Ionia, a fifteen-minute drive from his home, a show called “Fractured Figure” is open.

The sign outside, says “Gagosian Gallery,” a spoof by Cattelan that Joannou considers a work of art in itself. The show is all about cracks in perception and two white chocolate mountains by Dennis Cole face us first. Joannou snaps off a piece and eats it.

Around the corner a towering parody of Michelangelo’s David by David Altmejd, with stuffed squirrels eating the legs, stands before a bread house by Urs Fischer. Joannou explains that the bread house could be considered active art, since every time it’s assembled; they need to tap local bakeries.

Other works include a Paul McCarthy sculpture of pigs, Bill Clinton, and one time mistress Paula Jones, pink, pork like, and sexually engaged; a black and white graffiti “outing” Tom Cruise as a homosexual, entitled “Tom Cruising.” And two videos by a young Swedish artist, Nathalie Djurberg, showing a girl who lets a tiger lick her vagina and another:  a man and woman having sex in chair until the man castrates himself with a knife, and cuts off his limbs. She is forced to fuck his nose.

I encounter two Greek women, likely forty something, both sporting short spiked hair and minimal black style. One of them, Penny Veneri, tells me she’s retired and now studies art history. Of the videos, she says, “I find it comforting. It expresses the truth of human nature and relationships. They are not so long, so it’s easy to watch.” When I ask if anything shocks her, she refutes. “I’ve seen so much I like contemporary modern art, new horizons.”

Michael Buka, a 37-year-old architect and Tania Merlanou a 38-year-old engineer are strolling through Deste. “We are in a circle that has a contact with art.” Merlanou says.” Here, there’s not so much as in other countries.  Her date interjects. “ In Greece they are used to something more secure, things they can hang safely.  We find close contact with this art really exciting. Some of the time you can find it, but not in such an amount. There are nice surprises.”

The discovery value, perhaps, represents Joannou’s ultimate goal, for himself and the visitors to his exhibits at Deste and elsewhere.

I ask Joannou — responsible for construction throughout Greece and the Middle East — how, between building projects, he’s able to immerse himself in new art. He grimaces. “I don’t play golf. I don’t play cards. I don’t watch television. You don’t ask people who play golf, where do you find the time.”  As he says this, I feel as though Jeff Koons’ laughing face is winking from the wall behind him.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 10, 2014 7:05 pm

    Cyndi hey girls just want to have fun!

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