It all began with the flowers, and the hands holding them aloft.
Romy Golan remembers the day in a Paris garden that she gazed upon Jeff Koons’s “Bouquet of Tulips,” a monumental sculpture that depicts a fist grasping 11 stems topped by balloon-like petals. She immediately saw a conceptual echo of a 1937 mural by Fernand Léger and Charlotte Perriand showing three hands brandishing what look like wild roses.
Both reflected political events: With fascism then on the rise across Europe, Léger and Perriand welcomed a newly elected French Socialist government. Koons’s sculpture, unveiled in 2019 at the Petit Palais, was meant as a symbol of healing and a remembrance of victims of terror attacks that had rocked France a few years earlier.
To explore the use of similar motifs by artists of different generations, Golan, an art historian in New York, got an interview with Koons, an influential but often-polarizing artist who has set auction records with his toylike “Balloon Dog” and shiny “Rabbit” sculptures. Then she accepted an assignment to compare Koons’s “Bouquet of Tulips” — described by some cultural figures in France at the time as “opportunistic, even cynical” — and the Léger mural as a guest critic for the Brooklyn Rail, a New York City arts journal that publishes critical essays, reviews and writers like Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem. The Rail’s managing editor, Charles Schultz, gave her a thumbs up after she filed her story, writing that the essay “does justice to the memorial, to its legacy, and historical significance.”
But all of that quickly gave way to accusations and counter-accusations once the Koons studio read a copy of the unpublished essay. The artist’s reaction: Kill the story.
When Golan arrived at Koons’s 10th Avenue studio in New York last winter for her interview, she said she was asked to sign a filming release giving the artist the right to “view and approve any footage, still images and/or promotional material that are proposed for use.” Golan had no plans to film her interview or take photographs but signed the release. After Golan sent her essay and a copy of the signed release to the Rail, Schultz told her to share her story with the Koons studio. Later, Schultz wrote to the studio himself to ask whether the essay was “acceptable to the artist,” according to email exchanges provided by Golan to The New York Times.
It was not. Koons’s studio, citing “Jeff’s concerns,” responded that Golan had misrepresented his sculpture as “a symbol of violence,” and asked that her essay not be published “because of its defamation to Jeff.”
At that point, according to Golan, the Rail’s publisher and artistic director, Phong Bui, suggested turning her 2,000-word article into a short introduction to essays by other writers exploring historical images in political art.
Golan, a professor of art history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, withdrew her piece from publication. “I thought it was pathetic,” she said. “Supposedly these journals are about opinion, about free speech, so where’s the free speech?”
Koons did not reply to several requests for comment made by telephone and email to his studio and his gallery, Pace.
Golan’s criticism of the Rail over the handling of her essay is one of several recent cases in which writers have accused a publication of yielding to pressure from a subject or killing a critical story. It also may show how, after an invasion of privacy lawsuit financed by an aggrieved billionaire led Gawker Media, owner of the gossip site, into bankruptcy in 2016, smaller publishers can be wary of antagonizing famous people with deep pockets. In interviews, several art historians, critics and journalism experts said Golan’s experience raised questions about editorial independence and the prerogative of critics, who are generally afforded wide latitude in expressing opinions.
Tai Mitsuji, a critic and art historian who has written for The Guardian and taught at Harvard University, said, “Removing an informed opinion from an essay, even at the request of an artist’s studio, would reduce that writing to little more than marketing.”
Jane Kirtley, a lawyer who directs the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, after reading Golan’s essay, said her opinions about Koons’s work would not be considered defamatory. Kirtley cited the Supreme Court’s view that “there is no such thing as a false idea” — that statements that cannot be proven true or false are opinions, and thereby protected by the First Amendment.
Referring to Koons, she wrote in an email, “It does seem ironic that someone who makes his living engaging in creative work that is protected not only under the First Amendment, but also international norms of free expression, would appear to attempt to stifle legitimate critical analysis of that work.”
Bui, the publisher, said in a telephone interview on Monday that the Rail, a nonprofit newspaper distributed for free and underwritten by art foundations, “is not a form of regular journalism,” but rather “a monthly meditation on culture.” An artist in his own right, Bui added that what Golan had written “was very disagreeable to Jeff.”
“I defend an artist any time,” he added, “because I see how many times they have suffered.”
He denied he had wanted to reduce Golan’s essay to a mere introduction, saying he had asked her to remove the focus from Koons by describing works by other artists. Koons had engaged in “legal disputes for years and years,” Bui said, adding that publishing Golan’s essay without Koons’s permission would have exposed the Rail to a lawsuit. “I did not censor her voice,” Bui said of Golan, adding, “I don’t want Jeff Koons to sue me or Romy.”
Editors regularly make judgments about what is fit to print. But the suggestion that a publication has changed or killed a story to avoid upsetting a subject can be cause for profound embarrassment.
In Golan’s case, the filming release presented a thorny challenge, according to Kirtley of the Silha Center. On one hand, Kirtley wrote, it could be argued that the release was not appropriate for a written article; on the other, Golan had given Koons the opportunity to review her work before publication and withhold consent, creating the potential for a lawsuit if Koons alleged she was violating the agreement.
Katie Roiphe, the director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University’s graduate school of journalism, said that the Rail erred in sending the entire essay to Koons, allowing him to participate in the editorial process and create a “chilling effect on the critical culture.”
If the Rail was concerned about the filming release, she added, it could have allowed Koons to review quotes from Golan’s interview with him — a practice that she said is unusual within journalism but allowed by some publications.
“Obviously, this writer should be able to have her own interpretation of whether Koons’s work resembles other work,” Roiphe said, adding, “essentially pulling a piece involving analysis or interpretation is anathema to critical freedom.”
Claire Bishop, an art history professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, suggested that the Rail may be concerned with maintaining the good will of its subjects. “They’re very entangled with artists,” she said.
Still, she added, the publication’s actions were difficult to understand given that no piece of writing was likely to affect the career of Koons, whose gleaming steel sculptures of toy dogs and rabbits have sold for tens of millions of dollars.
“Nothing you can say about Koons will ever dent that shiny, happy, luxurious facade,” Bishop said.
The Rail began in 1998 with a mission “to provide an open forum for criticism and free expression,” Theodore Hamm, a founding editor who is no longer with the Rail, wrote in 2002.
In 2015, Bui told The New York Times that “we respect individual voices.”
The Rail has in years past printed provocative work. The November 2009 cover featured a depiction of Koons as Howdy Doody, part of an illustration by the artist William Powhida titled “How the New Museum Committed Suicide With Banality.”
Golan’s assignment came late last year, she said, when Bui asked her to write an essay on the Koons and Léger works and to commission essays by other writers to run with hers.
The email exchanges from Golan show that Bui wrote that her “deep scholarly interest” in political images could result in “a fascinating and compelling guest critics page.” He ended his message with the phrase “Your new friend, in solidarity, with love and courage.”
In the essay she submitted, reviewed by The Times, Golan described how the good intentions of 1930s agitprop, including the photomural by Léger and Perriand, “were destined to disappoint” and how Koons’s 41-foot “Bouquet of Tulips” made a “truer connection between art and politics.”
Of the Koons sculpture, Golan wrote: “There is a certain tension that reads as the aftereffect of the violence that prompted the memorial, latent in the way Koons’ arm juts out diagonally from its base.” Golan added: “It is this remarkable mix of benevolence and tension in Koon’s gesture that marks his ‘Bouquet’as an important artwork.”
That tension was at the heart of Koons’s objections. In an email message, the artist’s representative, Lauran Rothstein, wrote to Golan: “You refer to Jeff’s passive gesture of offering as one of violence.” She added that Golan’s essay had aligned Koons “with extremely negative connotations.”
Golan, the author of “Modernity and Nostalgia: Art and Politics in France Between the Wars,” which explored the interaction of art and ideology, said she was surprised that the Koons studio had not understood that her essay was complimentary. “What I say about Koons is actually positive,” she said.
A few days after the artist’s studio asked the Rail not to publish her essay, Golan said Bui proposed that she reduce it to a precis to writings by others. Golan then withdrew her piece “as a matter of principle.”
“It’s like inviting people to dinner and not being at the table,” she added. “It’s like they wanted me to ghost myself.”