Jeff Koons Does Just Fine As An Adult

by Paddy Johnson on October 14, 2010 · 16 comments Reviews

Jeff koons, art fag city

Jeff Koons, Fingers Between Legs, 1990, Oil inks silkscreened on canvas, 95.8 x 144.1 inches, Via: Luxembourg & Dayan, New York

A predictable pan of Jeff Koons porn paintings at Luxembourg and Dayan by Roberta Smith shows up in The Times today. The early nineties series no critic seems to like, Made in Heaven, features Koons in pre-fucking, mid-fucking, and post-fucking stages with his then-wife, Italian porn star and politician Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina. Smith’s complaints: The inkjet prints are repellent, Cicciolina’s outfits are generic, the paintings might not be art, but rather documents, because no sex actually occurred, and no transformation of materials or of the viewer occurs.

Whatever you think about the paintings themselves, the rationale above mostly reveals an unwillingness to engage in the work itself due to a dislike for the source material. Arguably Koon’s Michael Jackson Bubbles doesn’t transform its source either, but fewer people complain about that, because it’s socially acceptable to gawk at Jackson. Fewer still take issue with the Jeff Koons puppy, an Edward Scissorhands tour de force of gardening and flowers, a piece also laudingly noted by Smith.

The piece came up as a result of a 1980 lightbox portrait of Koons as a child also displayed in the gallery titled “The New Jeff Koons”.  “The contrast between the unspoiled child and the knowing, even jaded adult of the sex pictures is extreme, and yet even more disturbing is the notion that they are not all that far apart.” writes Smith, “The innocence of the child is replaced by the cluelessness of the man, one who confuses posing and empty exhibitionism with emotional vulnerability.” This line of thinking eventually leads her to tepidly conclude that Koons “perhaps” makes a better child than an adult.

This might be a reasonable conclusion if the only work Koons ever produced were porn and embiggened toys, but that’s not the case. Koons’ Luxury and Degradation series drawn from subway advertisements in the 80′s made very poignant social commentary as a call for underprivileged workers to “hold on to their economic and political chips“. As it happens many of these works were printed on canvas, pointing to a factual inaccuracy in Smith’s review. The critic claims “Made in Heaven” was his first attempt at painting and a failed one at that.

I suspect I’m one of only one or two critics in the city that like Koons “Made in Heaven” series, but so be it. Koons attention to detail is incredible. Granted his glass works offer a much more powerful interpretation of porno products – only one is included in the show, and it’s no sci-fi porno power crystal — but a fair number of the paintings are worth a second look.  The badly painted waves behind Koons and Cicciolina in Fingers Between Legs and Cicciolina’s perfectly manicured hands, the Lord of the Rings type landscapes, and the butterfly winged beds; each strange enough to be interesting. Occasionally they even manage to be a turn on (NSFW).

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    made his rep, so, the market says, cool … cannot imagine it being more that a footnote in fifty years. or less.

  • Rob Myers

    Some people are just hung up over sex. I’m not in the city but I’ve loved Koons’s work since I found the Handbook and the Taschen book as a student. Made In Heaven included.

  • http://twitter.com/j_d_hastings j_d_hastings

    Embiggened is a perfectly cromulent word.

  • Vera

    You speak of koon’s paintings as if he himself did them. I’m not a koons knower, but unlike his obvious predecessor Rosenquist who did most of his paint application, I was told by a museum official that koons did not paint his paintings, that an army of assistants did, hence his claim/defense that he directs each stroke as if he did it himself. So, did he?

  • Sven

    I think its a stretch to call the luxury and degradation series “poignant social commentary.” I understand one seeing them as casting a critical eye on advertising culture but I fail to see how that would empower and enable lower class workers (unless they learn from what his series makes clear? thats taking it a few steps too far). This line of critique is absent from his work as a whole, though. Hasn’t much of his ouevre been a wholehearted embrace of the dream sold through the contemporary capitalist machine? I remember a quote from him describing a night of drinking with friends, where his life seemed to be straight out of the fantasy of a high class liquor ad, and his realization that this made him feel terribly happy and complete. This reverence of capitalist fantasy seems to be key to his work. Sorry for not backing up the quote. I like some of his works when I’m in enough of a kitschy mood to swallow the fantasy with all the accompanying warts but this series (made in heaven) always fell flat to me.

    • Anonymous

      Made in Heaven fell flat for me too until I saw the crystals (not in this show). It made like the paintings a lot more, even though I think they are too big. Koons has a lot to say about this work that I don’t think matches to the paintings — well at least with regards to Ilona’s Asshole (also not in this show), the act of exposing it being one of great vulnerability. I don’t buy that given the size and its anonymity, but like porn, Koons’ art rarely provides intimacy anyway. Mostly, I just really love the backgrounds. I also like that he started getting crazy about the work, and working out so he’d look like a more “authentic” porn star.

      Luxury and Degradation deals specifically with class, since the liquor ads were culled from those on subways. It came about because he noticed the ads that appeared in cars that traveled through richer neighborhoods relied on metaphor to convey quality and richness. By contrast advertisers lured the lower classes with promises of wealth through gambling. It was the specific arrangement of these ads in the gallery, that meant to illuminate the differences in marketing, and though subtle, implored viewers to, in Koons’ words, “Hold on to their chips”. My favorite piece in this series is the travel bar. These used to be very popular amongst the middle class — his father had one I think. There was something very personal about that work and I think it was very much about finding ways to transcend class.

  • Anonymous

    Koons spoke in Dallas years ago right after Made in Heaven–I was living there at the time and likened the performance to a combination of art historian, zen master, and Ronald Reagan. Koons had constructed a retroactive narrative–essentially the “story of banality” that he told and retold–to explain each phase of his career, leading up to the Made in Heaven images. Like Reagan, who generally said nothing but was very congenial, Koons walked us, with calm, slightly psychotic certainty, through wacky explanations of how earlier pieces laid the foundations for the current work, for example, “this is a porcelain pig ushering in banality, the herald of my future perfect love for Illona.” It was all so measured and plausible-sounding that by the time he got to showing enormous, projected slides of his skanky porn (in one of the most conservative cities on the planet!), it all seemed logical, inevitable and normal. Commenter Sven (and from what it sounds like, Roberta Smith) aren’t accounting enough for the irony in Koons’ schtick; porn is not “perfect love” or, jeezus, “emotional vulnerability” any more than his “wholehearted embrace of capitalism” uh, wholeheartedly embraces capitalism.

    • Sven

      OK….I do like the irony in some of the 80s pieces ie mj and bubbles, the pink panther, etc. but how does he not embrace capitalism? where is the critique? in the irony present in some of his pieces? ( irony which he does his best to disavow in any of his talks)

  • http://escape-to-new-york.blogspot.com/ escapetonewyork

    I’m pretty sure Koons wouldn’t mind it being a footnote; in a lecture he gave a few years ago at the Guggenheim, he rushed through the slides and said he basically regrets ever making them. I almost felt sorry for him. And then I didn’t.

    • Anonymous

      As I recall the rationale for that had to do with a soured relationship with his ex-wife.

  • Vera

    AFC: “It came about because he noticed the ads that appeared in cars that traveled through richer neighborhoods …” I’m not understanding how ads in subway cars could target neighborhoods unless they were on iPads, which will happen one day prompted by zonal signals. As one NYTA driver once told me they switch the cars so some cars on the NJT route out of Penn may wind up the next day on the Long Island RR, and on the West Broadway local the next. How could ads on various cars target an area since they might not pass thru a poor, wealthy district? Maybe u mean the ads at the subway platforms and stairs, so the Johny Walker ads in Harlem differ from Soho, Central Park?

    The idea of class exploitation and audience manipulation in ads is hardly Koons observation, as sociologists have written on this since the 70′s w/ the dawn of subliminals. And Koons analysis in a wealth stratified art gallery is helping what group of people? Greenberg said Politics in art is either bad art or bad politics. In the porn paintings, I see only one more staging of a white male positioning and controlling females, like I haven’t had bad dates w/ guys like him. Since nothing is happening w/ the craft, there really isn’t much to do with these kinda pathetic attempts. It looks like bad Academic Art of the L’Ecole des … . What I find interesting is why these are being brought out now? Nervous owners attempting to resell before values keep falling on his work? Is the tag team of Saltz/Smith pretending to distance themselves from Koons, especially after his amateurish attempt at curating? (He does not know what he’s doing hanging a show, he can’t even fake being bad.)

  • Anonymous

    He regrets making the slides?

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  • Urbach3

    ‘Like Reagan, who generally said nothing but was very congenial, Koons walked us, with calm, slightly psychotic certainty, through wacky explanations of how earlier pieces laid the foundations for the current work, for example, “this is a porcelain pig ushering in banality, the herald of my future perfect love for Illona.” It was all so measured and plausible-sounding that by the time he got to showing enormous, projected slides of his skanky porn (in one of the most conservative cities on the planet!), the images seemed logical, inevitable and normal.’
    Well put.
    Agree.

  • http://www.chrisrusak.com Chris Rusak

    Jeff Koons is scary enough without having to see his wang in ink.

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