NEW YORK — It's your choice: turn left to see "America's Most Unwanted Painting." Turn right for "America's Most Wanted Painting."
The two options are being presented by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in their "People's Choice" show at the Alternative Museum in Manhattan. The installation reflects the two Russian emigre artists' attempt to answer a simple question: What kind of art do the American people want?
Komar and Melamid used an authentic, above-board polling service to find out. The Boston-based research firm of Marttila & Kiley, whose clients have included Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the American Civil Liberties Union and the NFL Players Assn., tabulated the aesthetic preferences of 1,001 people.
Imagine the average American living room.
The most popular painting won't clash with the couch, provided blue is somewhere in the color scheme. Since blue was voted the most popular color--by 44% of those surveyed--it is fitting that a powder-blue VIP carpet leads up to the Most Wanted painting, which is kept at a respectful distance by a blue velvet security rope.
By popular demand, America's Most Wanted Painting is a bucolic, restful scene, with mountains in the distance, a lake in the foreground, George Washington and the Native Americana walking along the shore, deer cooling off in the calm waters.
The demand for historic figures was substantial, enough (56% of all voters) for Komar and Melamid to include Washington, clothed, thank you very much (68% prefer non-nude subjects). It's a restful scene, as 77% agree that art should be relaxing to look at. (Kind of like a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell scored highest in popularity. Despite Hollywood's recent interest in filming the life of Jackson Pollock, that artist was the favorite of a mere 4% of those surveyed.) All in all, it is an uplifting tableau, by popular demand; 60% of all respondents said "yes" to the statement: "I only want to look at art that makes me happy."
Well, you can't please everyone.
"Even from a distance, I knew it was George Washington, and I find that disturbing," said Brian Keith Jackson, a young writer. "This painting is so dull, so predictable. It's like something you could buy at K mart."
Jackson preferred America's Most Unwanted Painting. "It has an evasive quality that allows me to determine what it is. It's not all spelled out."
America's Most Unwanted Painting hangs in a much simpler room, with no rope, no American flag, no carpet and on a backdrop composed of America's least favorite colors: gold, orange, peach and teal. All orangy edges, inscrutable, it looks like an abstract painting of a burnt macaroni and cheese dinner.
A journalist from Russian television stands before the Most Unwanted Painting, microphone in hand, addressing her camera crew, interviewing Lea Checroni-Freid, director of Arts and Media programs for Citizen Exchange Council, who serves as a liaison between American and Russian artists.
"I don't think Americans like abstract paintings," she says. "Because abstract paintings are not emotional enough for them. I think Americans are obsessed with decorative work, with kitsch, with things that have emotional ties.
"Komar and Melamid do it the best because they're from Russia," she says, then reconsiders. "Actually, it should be larger." (Sorry, survey says only 44% of Americans prefer large paintings.)
Taking an additional poke at data-frenzied Americans, Komar and Melamid constructed life-size graph sticks for the show, standing multicolored pieces of wood in column rows, laying pie charts down on the floor in colorful wood wedges. (Gallery revelers watched as Melamid's wife, Katia, picked up one of the pie chart slices and handed it to a delighted infant.)
To celebrate the evening's most favored color, Komar, Melamid and the gallery owners wore blue.
"We had discussions for years about doing the show," says a navy-suited Andres Perchuk, the Alternative Museum's curator. "We were going to split the gallery into sections reflecting the opinions of America's various socioeconomic sectors. But amazingly, the survey showed that Americans have pretty much the same tastes, across the board. Plus Alex Melamid said that Americans want to see the painting, not a series of paintings. That would be too complicated."
Lest Komar and Melamid suffer financially on this limited edition project, Komar says he has a plan. "We are going to do this same study in England, in Germany and many other countries," he said with a chuckle. "And then we'll repeat this experiment in America all over again, five years from now. Tastes change."
The "People's Choice" exhibition will continue through April 23 at the Alternative Museum in Manhattan.