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What Jeff Koons has wrought
by Eric Gibson
On “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
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The Whitney Museum of American Art has mounted a Jeff Koons retrospective as the swansong in its uptown Breuer building before reopening in its new, Renzo Piano–designed space in Chelsea next spring.1 Besides his stratospheric auction prices, Koons is famous for industrially produced pop imagery such as inflatable hearts and balloon dogs, all of it turned out on a large, sometimes gigantic scale in cheerful, candy-box colors and polished to a high, reflective sheen. According to the Whitney, it is his biggest exhibition ever, and they’ve certainly done him proud. Organized by the Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, it displays some 150 works dating from the late 1970s to just last year, taking up more than three floors of gallery space.
If the scenario sounds familiar, it is. In 1980, prior to shutting down for a four-year renovation and expansion, the Museum of Modern Art gave over its entire building to a Picasso retrospective. The point was to go out with a bang—to affirm Picasso’s position as the most important artist of his time. The Whitney wants to go out with a bang in the same way, and has nominated Koons as its Picasso.
Why not? Koons burst on the scene in the 1980s, quickly taking his place alongside the other young art stars of the time. Yet among them, he alone has survived and thrived in the decades since. David Salle and Robert Longo have pretty much flamed out. Julian Schnabel has moved into filmmaking. Eric Fischl hasn’t been part of the conversation since the controversy surrounding his Tumbling Woman sculpture when it was displayed at Rockefeller Center on the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cindy Sherman might have fit the bill, but MOMA got to her first with a retrospective in 2012. Besides, though her work has continued to evolve, it is still fundamentally rooted in the “Pictures” aesthetic of the 1980s, in which photographic imagery is used to critique the same thing in the mass media and popular culture. Koons left the 1980s behind before they were over.
But Koons was not chosen by default. Distasteful as it may be to bestow such an accolade on someone who traffics so brazenly in the shallow, the banal, the meretricious, and the cheap, he really is the most important artist of our time. Koons is the avatar of a new kind of art and a new kind of art world, both of which he helped to create.
After the unremitting barrage of hype and market talk, the Whitney show makes it possible to take a dispassionate measure of Koons’s achievement. The result is sobering. The work looks oddly out of place at the Whitney, as if it had somehow washed up there accidentally. And right out of the gate it becomes clear that Koons doesn’t have enough ideas to sustain a retrospective on this scale. On the second floor, where the show begins, the elevator deposits you into a gallery filled with eight of the works from his “The New” series (each body of work comes with its own title) that put him on the map in the early 1980s. These are pairs of vacuum cleaners stacked in Lucite cases and illuminated with fluorescent lights—commercially manufactured household appliances displayed as if they were holy relics. In keeping with the avant-garde ethos of the time, Koons here is critiquing society’s habit of turning anything and everything into a salable commodity. Showing two would have made the point; six is padding. This sets the pattern for the entire exhibition.
Koons has parlayed a paradox to fame and fortune. He is the quintessential anti-art postmodernist who has nonetheless become the darling of the art establishment. The wellsprings of Koons’s aesthetic are Pop Art (glosses on Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and James Rosenquist abound here) and Marcel Duchamp. Tellingly, no older art appears to have touched him at all. When it does appear, late in the exhibition in the work of the last few years, it does so as something to be debased in the manner of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. Mona Lisa. Thus Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Pluto and Proserpina (1622), a monument of Baroque art and one of the greatest works in the history of sculpture, is Tricked up like a whore, cast in stainless steel, tinted an acid yellow, and festooned with bouquets of flowers.
The one thing in all of art history that seems to have impressed Koons is the Duchamp readymade, the store-bought utilitarian object (urinal, shovel, bottle rack) consecrated as art by being displayed in a gallery or museum. This concept dominates the early work, such as the vacuum cleaner pieces, the stainless steel ten-foot-long Jim Beam decanter in the form of a train, and much else. Its presence can be felt, too, in most of Koons’s subsequent work.
But around the mid-1980s, Koons seems to have sensed that, with the Pop artists having cornered the market on popular culture, and his contemporaries having done the same with consumer culture, he would need different source material if he was to truly make a splash. So he turned to the last remaining items in the anti-art store cupboard: kitsch and pornography. In the late 1980s he produced his “Banality” series, sculptures of such subjects as Michael Jackson, Buster Keaton, a Leonardo-derived Christ figure, and a Playboy bunny—all executed in large scale in polychromed wood or porcelain, not by Jeff Koons but by other professional artisans.
A little after that came the “Made in Heaven” series, nothing-left-to-the-imagination paintings and sculptures of Koons and his then-inamorata, the porn star Cicciolina, in flagrante. Except that it isn’t pornography—the wall label reassures us—but rather “an extremely risky and vulnerable form of self-portraiture.” (Just to be on the safe side, however, the Whitney has shrewdly confined the most explicit examples of this “vulnerable form of self-portraiture” to the exhibition catalog.) Then it was off to Playland as, in five successive series beginning in the mid-1990s and extending to the present—“Celebration,” “Easyfun,” “Easyfun-Ethereal,” “Popeye,” and “Hulk Elvis”—Koons turned to the world of children’s playthings, beach toys, and comic book figures, casting them in metal, often on an enormous scale. Play-Doh (1994–2014), an aluminum replica of a multi-colored mound of the modelling compound, is ten feet tall.
In the end, “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” is profoundly depressing, the first time I have experienced such a feeling in a lifetime of visiting museums. The show is suffused with the atmosphere of cold calculation, of a career advancing as the result of a series of carefully thought-out moves and strategizing rather than proceeding naturally, without premeditation, as artists normally do. The work feels the same way. For all the warmth of the bright colors and ingratiating subject matter—puppy dogs, hearts, balloons—the manner of their execution, the works’ razor-sharp contours and impersonal, textureless, polished surfaces, makes them feel icily remote and distant. Next to a Koons, your average Canova marble is a roiling cauldron of passion.
Then there is Koons’s relentless drive to the bottom, his unremitting effort to delegitimize the high in order to elevate the low to an equivalent stature. In service of this goal, he adopts some of the techniques of high art (metal casting) as well as some of its attributes (large scale), clothing it all in an overlay of facile “interpretation.” Thus Aqualung (1985), a bronze casting of a diver’s breathing apparatus, isn’t the repurposed readymade it appears to be but “an image of certain death,” a reminder that “despite one’s best attempts to achieve a state of equilibrium in life, mortality is inevitable.” Finally, the show is depressing because of what it tells us about Koons’s rudimentary notions of worth: size + garishness = timeless value. Sadly, he seems to be on to something.
In my view, too little attention has been paid to Koons’s five-year career selling mutual funds and commodities on Wall Street in the 1980s. It is the key to understanding his art. So much of what Koons has done and the way he has done it bears the stamp of an astute entrepreneur rather than an artist. The rollout of each neatly packaged and titled series resembles the test marketing of the latest product line more than the unveiling of “new work”—an artist’s latest démarche. This is particularly noticeable in Koons’s early pieces, produced from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. It is too tidy, missing the mix of unevenness, eclecticism, and general messiness that is the hallmark of a conventional apprenticeship phase. Then there is Koons’s persona. He’s no brooding Romantic loner. Rather, Koons is the affable pitchman, nattily dressed in a suit and tie, ready with a smile and some soothing patter with which to reassure or elucidate the confused spectator. He’s even willing to abase himself just a little in the interests of self-promotion, as he did this summer in a Vanity Fair photo shoot showing him pumping iron in the buff.
Indeed, there’s a sense in which Koons isn’t really at home in the role of artist. He possesses no real imaginative gifts and doesn’t seem to understand what artists do. Real artists take raw material and transform it. Even a Duchamp
This point was brought home to me one afternoon in the exhibition when I saw a group of middle- or high-school students gathered around the enormous Balloon Dog (Yellow) (1994–2000), earnestly trying to capture it with pencils and sketchpads. On one level, they were the latest link in the chain of artists down the centuries learning by copying the great masters in the museums. But in this case the link had been severed. What aesthetic insight was to be gathered from this exercise? The students would have learned just as much about form, proportion, texture, and the rest from drawing an actual balloon dog.
Koons’s Wall Street background is most in evidence in the way he has turned himself into a brand. The connection between art and money is nothing new—it was pioneered by Andy Warhol. Casting about for a new income stream in the 1970s, Warhol settled on the idea of celebrity portraiture, silkscreened snapshots overlaid with smears of color. These works didn’t tell you anything about the sitters, nor advance the form in any other way—they weren’t meant to. Their purpose was strictly pecuniary. A few quick operations in the Factory and presto, thousands of dollars changed hands.
Koons has taken this idea to a whole new level. The exhibition press kit contained the announcement of an alliance between Koons and the fashion retailer H&M, surely a first for a museum. The company described the collaboration as one that would create “a platform through which fans have a unique opportunity to access his artwork through fashion.” Ads around New York this summer announcing H&M’s new flagship store on Fifth Avenue featured not a building façade but Koons’s Balloon Dog. “FASHION LOVES ART—JEFF KOONS,” screams the tagline. It is but his latest such joint venture.
This is why it is makes no sense to talk about Koons’s art in conventional art-historical terms. Discussions of sources and influences, materials and techniques, iconography, good versus bad taste have no place in his art. Nor does it matter in the end whether, as is often debated, Koons is being sincere, ironic, or pulling everyone’s leg. In a world where a bronze aqualung can be passed off as a memento mori, and pornography explained away as a “vulnerable form of self-portraiture,” the boundaries of language have been stretched beyond the breaking point and words have ceased to have any meaning.
“That’s right!” I hear Koons’s patrons cry, “We don’t need no stinkin’ art criticism!” And they don’t. The barker at his auction podium with hammer in hand, the buyers seated below fluttering their paddles, the dealer in the back room working cellphone and laptop in an effort to close a sale—these are the true art critics of our time, at least as far as Koons is concerned. For it is Koons’s signal achievement to have created a wholly new kind of art, one immune to all forms of judgment save that of the marketplace. Trashy? Sure, but it sells for millions—sometimes tens of millions—and there’s no reason to suppose it won’t continue to do so. That’s all that counts. Koons has succeeded by emptying his images of everything except the cheesy, the easy, the sweetly appealing, and the familiar. His works are big, they’re cute, they’re shiny, and they make no demands. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean? Something for everyone. They aren’t there to be pondered or engaged with in any significant way. They exist solely as emblems of value.
This, in the end, is why Koons’s work looks so out of place at the Whitney; it doesn’t belong in an art museum. Its proper venue is the sale room, the commercial gallery, or even the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, places where, with all aesthetic pretense cast aside, it can stand forth fully and unequivocally in its true nature as a high-priced, tradable commodity.
“Commodity”—where have we heard that word before? Ah yes, back at the very beginning of Koons’s career, in the vacuum cleaner pieces and other works that critiqued the values of contemporary consumer culture. Nowadays, Koons embraces those values with a manic zeal—indeed he personifies them. What a long way he has come. Andy Warhol, wherever he is, must be green with envy.
1 “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art on June 27 and remains on view through October 19, 2014. It will next be on view at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (November 26, 2014–April 27, 2015) and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (June 5 to September 27, 2015).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 September 2014, on page 43
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