The Delightful and Perplexing Art of Jeff Koons
By Jason Edward Kaufman
A retrospective of Jeff Koons, the reigning titan of the contemporary art market, has opened to great fanfare at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Every reader is familiar with Koons, but despite his celebrity there has never been a comprehensive survey of his work. The present exhibition of around 150 paintings, sculptures and photographs, created since 1978, fills four floors of the museum, making it the largest devoted to a single artist in the Whitney’s history. It is also the last before the museum moves to its new home in the Meatpacking District, and leases its Madison Avenue building, designed by Marcel Breuer, to the Metropolitan Museum for at least eight years.
There is no disputing that Koons, 59, has achieved considerable commercial success. The orange version of his mirror-finished Balloon Dog sculpture sold for $58 million last year, burnishing his renown among the general public. A yellow version of that smile-inducing statue is on hand, along with basketballs floating in aquariums, vacuum cleaners displayed in fluorescent-lit vitrines, a stainless-steel Bourbon trainand bust of Bob Hope, and ceramic statues portraying the Pink Panther hugging a topless blonde and Michael Jackson with his pet chimp Bubbles. There is also an ample sampling of x-rated photo-based paintings depicting the artist having sex with his former wife, an Italian porn star named La Cicciolina.
Concurrent with the Whitney show, Koons’ towering flower-covered sculpture Split Rocker – which combines the heads of a rocking-horse and a rocking-dinosaur – has been erected at Rockefeller Center, and the artist attended the christening of a New York store for H&M which will be selling a Balloon Dog handbag, affordably priced at $49. The media is awash with coverage.
Critics once reviled Koons’ subject matter, which ranges from readymade housewares to replicas of children’s toys and scaled-up kitsch figurines, all made by hired artisans in color-coated wood, porcelain, aluminum and steel. The pornographic canvases nearly ended his career. But the bold-faced name “Jeff Koons” is now inscribed in the history of art in the last few decades. He has exhibited on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and in the French royal palace at Versailles. Aside from the record-setting Balloon Dog, shiny pneumatic metallic balloon swans, rabbits and tulips have sold for upwards of $20 million a pop.
Most doubters have gravitated — some rather reluctantly — to the Koons tent. Yet, he remains a lightning rod for values in the contemporary art market. Is Playskool kitsch that seems to target an audience of grownup thumb suckers exemplary of the highest expression of human creativity? For all the endorsements and commercial success, the question remains, is Koons any good?
The party line is that Koons is the most innovative, influential and successful artist of his generation. Drawing on Pop and Conceptual ideas, particularly Duchamp’s use of “readymade” found object presented as art, he has broken new ground in terms of content, fabrication, and the relationship of the artist to celebrity and the market. He has created provocative sculptures of great beauty and technical refinement and richly deserves the critical, popular and commercial success he enjoys.
Big guns have sounded in his favor. In late 1992, the late distinguished New York University art historian Robert Rosenblum told me that Koons “has jolted me into new experiences, obliging me to reconsider old questions about good and bad, beautiful and ugly, vulgar and elite.” In 2009, describing a Koons sculpture of a pool toy, the late Columbia University philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto wrote (on Facebook), “What makes it art is the labor of intensive craft, that embodies the taste of three year olds, and their parents that have made them aesthetically happy.”
The “con” position is that Koons appropriates banal imagery and hires artisans to fabricate enlargements in gaudy materials. His childish shiny artworks are intended to shock, and although they have become expensive trophies for billionaires they are not worth the enormous prices paid for them.
Is Koons commenting ironically on consumerism and our fetish for manufactured goods, our pretentions to sophisticated taste, the vogue for celebrity and sex? The late great critic for Time Magazine, Robert Hughes, dismissed him as a “parody of parodies,” but Koons himself says he sincerely embraces lowbrow themes to advocate acceptance of demotic taste rather than elitism. (Nevertheless, he fills his home with Old and Modern Masters rather than kitsch.) Clean-cut in a dark suit and tie, he masterfully delivers a televangelical feel-good art patter that sounds like a mixture of Bob Ross and Mister Rogers.
Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney curator who organized the show, is an ideal champion for Koons. He is the son of David Rothkopf, a government and corporate consultant who has written about the borderless “superclass” of wealthy and powerful politicians, businessmen and celebrities who wield disproportionate influence over the lives of millions. Their counterparts in the art world are the elite club of dealers and collectors who spend astronomical sums on works by Koons and a handful of other art stars, and command a disproportionate swath of art-media bandwith.
A century or two from now, when historians look back, will they deem Koons a genius who found a common denominator for the superclass and the masses, a regular guy who foisted inane kitsch on a public that should know better, or a conceptualist businessman whose brand held a mirror up to the emptiness of his inflated era? Chances are they will see a bit of all three, but meanwhile, we have an opportunity at the Whitney to judge for ourselves.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared in Artphaire (Online), Aug. 5, 2014.