Phew! A collective sigh of relief is heard across the art world. Not from every dealer in town: Some, for sure, must be frantically checking through their paperwork and shipping orders in the wake of District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau’s declared crusade against sales tax evasions on art purchases. But for us aesthetes, a disaster has been averted. Dennis Kozlowski’s taste, it transpires, is about as dubious as his ethics (if the indictment against him proves valid).
OK, he likes some of the obvious stuff. He bought himself a Monet and a Renoir. No number of chocolate boxes and Hallmark cards can really do anything to dent the aura of these great, sumptuous, deservedly popular masters. But they are the “masters” that a Business Week-nominated “Most Aggressive C.E.O.” would gravitate toward with Pavlovian predictability. These Impressionists go with the territory of yachts, racehorses, and Lamborghinis. And judging by the reproductions I saw of the Renoir and Monet in the newspaper this morning, neither is really museum quality—they are very “safe,” conservative choices.
But when Mr. Kozlowski trusted his own eye with lesser-known artists, Kitsch with a capital K caught up with crass fiscal cheapness. The man who allegedly risked his fortune and social standing for avoidance of New York’s 8.25 percent sales taxes pinned his reputation on some pretty dire stuff.
Starting with the archvillain of Bad Art, Adolphe-William Bouguereau. For the best part of a century, his has been a name synonymous with schlock. Bouguereau was the crowd-puller at the Parisian Salon at the very time of the exclusion of today’s crowd-pleasers, the very Impressionists with whom he now shares Kozlowski wall space. As it happens, Po-Mo revisionist art historians have recently attempted to rehabilitate this painter of pearly nudes. Indeed, Bouguereau was so over the top, it is hard not to read him as playing some clever deconstructive game with taste, even though of course he wasn’t. He can be found, for instance, on Madonna’s walls, alongside Tamara de Lempicka and Frida Kahlo. But there he makes a different kind of sense. He is, as it were, Madonna’s found object (like the legendary urinal that Duchamp declared a fountain). Even without having been to Chez Kozlowski, one nonetheless suspects that there a urinal is just a urinal.
On the subject of which, our Most Aggressive C.E.O. next splashed out on an Alfred Munnings. Again, this painter of saccharine, illustrational hunting scenes might well be ripe for revival from the clever-clever brigade (if Rockwell, why not Munnings?). But Munnings will surely always be best remembered as the president of the Royal Academy of Arts who got drunk at his institution’s annual dinner, which was broadcast live by the BBC, denounced Matisse’s work as “aesthetic juggling,” and blustered that “my horses may be all wrong, but I’m damned sure that [Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child ] isn’t right.” On another occasion, a private art school in his country ‘hood run by a gay couple burned down. (The fire was started, accidentally, by a pupil named Lucian Freud.) Munnings drove past the next day in an open-top car shouting, “Hurrah,” and “Down with modern art.”
Is there any point in wanting a gent with below-average morals to have below-average taste? Aesthetes might want to believe that ethics is merely good taste extended to the domain of social relations, but there have been way too many instances of ogres with a good eye, from the pyromaniac Nero to the plundering Goering. I say that if poor Mr. Kozlowski is to contemplate a grim future, let him find consolation, in the meantime, in the murky Victorian street scenes of the passable academic John Atkinson Grimshaw. (With Bouguereau and Munnings, Grimshaw brought Mr. Kozlowski’s bill at Richard Green to $1.98 million, shipping—but of course not tax—included).