Is Jeff Koons More Like Edward Snowden or Buzzfeed?

by Paddy Johnson on June 30, 2014 · 22 comments Reviews

Jeff Koons, Fourth floor at The Whitney

Jeff Koons, Fourth floor installation view at The Whitney. All images: Christian Grattan

Jeff Koons may inspire more debate than any other living artist. His work is kitschy, expensive, and market-friendly. He recycles imagery to the point of looking intellectually lazy. Is his factory of art makers really that different from Buzzfeed, a vast and wealthy website that brings together hundreds of pre-existing and manipulated images for little more than entertainment?

I suspect it’s that question, paired with his sky-high sales, that makes Jeff Koons such a divisive figure. Today, he is often vilified for representing kitsch without criticality—all the while, raking in millions. His retrospective at The Whitney, which includes posters, neon lit vitrines, aquariums housing floating basketballs, photorealistic paintings, shiny balloon dogs, ceramics, and endless variations on the inflatable, has renewed all that animosity. The fact that it’s being bankrolled by Gagosian, the largest gallery in the city probably doesn’t help. Facebook, twitter, blog comment threads are filled with debates over Jeff Koons’s work. Ben Davis even went so far as to write an entire article denouncing the absence of a moral compass.

My reaction to curator Scott Rothkopf’s Koons retrospective—the Whitney’s final show in the Breuer Building before they move to their new building on Gansevoort—has been pretty much the opposite of outrage. I think the five-floor show does an excellent job of showcasing the implicit criticality within Koons’s early work and its subdued presence in the later work. It also reveals Koons’s obsession with fabrication, marketing, and play, which is where his virtuosity lies and often where the work fails. Reflecting on childhood may be a subject worth exploring, but monumentalizing too many feel-good toys that have bankrolled and bankrupted the artist can make an artist look either opportunistic or creepy. Koons isn’t always on the right side of that line.

But those building-sized toys mostly comes later in his career, which means the second and third floors in this chronologically-arranged retrospective offer the most payoffs. Vacuums in neon-lit vitrines, and household objects suspended against wall-mounted neon, launch this show, and to great effect. With light emanating around them, they take on a godly presence; they look new; they look sexy; they look like you should buy them.

Jeff Koons Retrospective at The Whitney

Jeff Koons Retrospective at The Whitney

All this is great, but the appeal also seems dangerously close to mindless celebration of consumerism. In the context of the rest of the show, though, it’s hard to believe they were assembled without any criticality. Is there no self-awareness in artist who brings together a bronze lifeboat, basketballs in aquariums, and Nike ads of basketball stars equating social mobility with athletics? Even if you don’t believe that a lifeboat certain to sink questions the message those ads are peddling, the market does it for you. The Nike posters are not reproduced in publications and books or sold half as often as the basketballs; without shows like this, African Americans would be erased from the Koons art making narrative without so much as a conversation.

One room over, Luxury and Degradation similarly reflects on race and class inequity. Speckling the room is a series of six liquor ads placed on New York subways in the 80’s, and stainless steel sculptures that include a booze travel kit, an ice bucket and a Jim Beam model A pick-up truck. Apparently the advertisements placed on trains that serviced lower income neighborhoods were more literal, whereas those in higher income neighborhoods tended towards abstraction, and we see this play out in the show. While Frangelico’s ad features only the subtle undulations of their caramel-colored hazelnut noisette, Bacardi pictures a glass of rum and a hand of domino chips.

Back at a talk I attended at the 92nd Y in 2008, Koons said he was trying to implore underprivileged workers to “hold onto their economic and political chips”. That specific call probably won’t be obvious to many—Davis called the series “unformed”, while conceding that there might be a thought to it—but for me, it’s enough. Koons’s appropriation and representation of materials may seem like a familiar gesture by now, but we don’t need to look that far outside the gallery to see how powerful acts like this can be. After all, when Edward Snowden released documents revealing that the NSA was spying on Americans and the rest of the world, it didn’t come with an interpretive key either. Whereas Buzzfeed mindlessly regurgitates what we already know, Snowden made visible what was previously unseen, and let others decide what to do with that information.

Bear and Policeman at the Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney

Bear and Policeman at the Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney

Representation and reflection are at the heart of Koons’s work and often the site of criticality. The third floor showcases sparsely arranged reflective mirrors, shiny stainless steel inflatables, and mashed up stuffed animals and gift-shop figurines. His “Banality” series, which includes his iconic Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a larger-than-life sized white and gold ceramic sculpture of the pop icon with a monkey, reflects and amplifies the most ostentatious kitsch that defined the late 80’s. There’s very little banality about these sculptures. Each monumentalizes the excess and sickness of pop culture– be it the sexual undertones in a Pink Panther hugging a naked woman, or the uneasy power dynamic between an oversized bear gripping a police officer’s whistle.

This is increasingly evident in his series of ads for Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, and Art News (all on the lower level): Jeff Koons poses next to a pig, grinning; Jeff Koons wears a luxurious bathrobe; Jeff Koons is served cake by half-naked women; Jeff Koons stands in front a of room full of children spelling out the word banality on a chalkboard. In all, the series is a powerful representation of the grotesqueness within celebrity culture—in part, because Koons is such a shameless exhibitionist, gleefully inserting himself into any situation, no matter how bizarre. That he brings his own creepy grin to these scenes just seems part of the sickness. The ads are staged, but Koons evident self-awareness keeps him from being wholey complicit.

This room leads to Made In Heaven, a series of pornographic works featuring Koons and his ex-wife Ilona Staller. They almost cost him his career, and it’s not hard to see why; look at too many pictures of any artist’s dick and you can’t escape a feeling of narcissism. More importantly, though, the study of kitsch and celebrity doesn’t subvert anything. Staller was a porn star, but not a shared cultural reference point, and costuming her as the Princess Bride doesn’t alter our understanding of kitsch within the porn industry. The only piece that really works from this series is Bourgeois Bust, a ridiculous marble sculpture depicting a bejeweled and barechested Staller embraced by Koons. It’s the perfect Kardashian wedding centerpiece.

Made in Heaven

Jeff Koons “Made in Heaven” series at The Whitney

While the suitability for celebrity weddings may be a sign of success for Koons, it doesn’t apply across the board. For example, one could imagine any number of the oversized sculptures that fill the final floor at one of these events, but they wouldn’t read as an absurd representation of an ostentatious culture, as much as they would mere ornamentation. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the top floor looks like little more than a Gagosian showroom. We’re offered up a building-sized aluminium mound of Play-Doh, a cat in a sock, and a 9 ½ foot purple hanging heart. These objects, which are part Koons’s Celebration series, don’t seem as tightly bound thematically, and lack the moral compass that drove so much of the early work. Like Buzzfeed, they are for entertainment alone, which is why they chafe so much. The Play-Doh in particular reads like a cartoonish expression of Koons’s interests; play and childhood monumentalized.

Meanwhile, probably the strongest work Koons has made this decade, the Gazing Ball series can’t be found on the top floor—they’re tucked aside in the first floor lobby. (Notably, these were the only works shown by David Zwirner, a competitor to the show’s sponsor, Gagosian). Perfect white plaster replicas of the God Hercules, a Belvedere torso, and a pimped-out mailbox, each with a single blue gazing ball resting upon it. Aesthetically, these pieces are masterful—it’s hard to imagine a more visually satisfying juxtaposition than the unfinished casts and precisely-manufactured shiny balls. But they aren’t just eye candy. These works bring together art history, mythology, and contemporary art making as if to suggest that time is more fluid and malleable that we might think. Unlike the showroom upstairs, which mostly demonstrates the artist’s ability to get lost in his own work, this series is made with a returned awareness of his art audience. That ball is made for you; look in it, and you see yourself, a passing reflection in one more iteration of art history. The gesture invites narcissism, self-examination, and maybe a hint of what it’s like to be Koons.

  • Sven

    So Luxury and Degradation makes you draw an analogy to Edward Snowden? really?

    Do you think that appropriating advertisements in the hallowed white cube context empowers the political agency of the disenfranchised? If so, how, and what way that was not being done before Koons did it?

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

      It probably doesn’t empower the disenfranchised because they aren’t spending a lot time in galleries. That’s a problem for museums too but less so. Given the reach Jeff Koons, yes I think it reached some people.

      It’s worth mentioning that Edward Snowden is an analogy. The point wasn’t that they are doing the exact same thing but rather we can look at the way one act functions to establish the critical intent of another.

      • Sven

        >It probably doesn’t empower the disenfranchised because they aren’t spending a lot time in galleries.

        But if they had gone to the galleries that the works were shown it at the time, the disenfranchised would have somehow benefited from seeing the work? Do you really think the “disenfranchised people” we are talking about are dumb enough that they need Jeff Koon’s appropriations to elucidate the circumstances of their exploitation by consumer capitalism?

        >That’s a problem for museums too but less so.

        I don’t understand the moralizing undertone with which you write of Koons, and why you feel it necessary to establish a pedigree of criticality in his work (albeit basically in this series).

        >The point wasn’t that they are doing the exact same thing but rather we can look at the way one act functions to establish the critical intent of another.

        Snowden saw the overreach of the US govt, of which the vast majority of americans were unaware of, and pulled the wool from over the eyes of millions, if not billions of people. In what way do you think Koons performs an action in any way similar?

        I’m not trying to couch my position in one of morality authority, I just don’t think you need to establish critical intent to justify pleasure in Koons’ work, and I think you are overreaching in your attempt to do so.

        • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

          Tom Moody has pretty much answered your questions for me.

          • Francis Thiebaud Winters

            No offense Paddy, but anyone who found Snowden’s reveal to be in fact revelatory was naiive and/or not paying attention. I mean really, you found mass gov’t surveillance in the “post 9./11″ world shocking? surprising? C’mon.

          • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

            Eh, I think people found it revelatory, though I know what you’re saying. I mean, we’re hearing all kinds of stories about large tech companies losing contracts overseas on the grounds of NSA spying.

          • Sven

            Moody writes that the intended audience is “the decision making class.” If so, how does the luxury and degradation series rest on solid critical intent, and if you agree with Moody about the intended audience, then do you think the Snowden analogy is sturdy?

            Personally, I occasionally find things to enjoy in Koons’ art, but it is usually out of disaffection and beguilement.

  • http://tommoody.us tom moody

    The intended audience of “appropriating advertisements in the hallowed white cube” is what Ronald Jones and others called the “decisionmaking class.” Yes, believe it or not, the 1% don’t actually look at the world all that critically unless you shove it in their faces, within their chosen haunts. Koons may be a rich and powerful artist now, but it was not always thus. Every artist, even ones with trust funds, start from a position of disenfranchisement because most people don’t even know what art is (only what they like). The person “establishing critical intent to justify pleasure in Koons’ work” is Koons himself, not the author of this blog post. It’s always been a subtle dance, and will never satisfy Marxist scolds such as Ben Davis, who took a wrong turn on the way to a political science career and wound up in the art world.

    • Francis Thiebaud Winters

      (re: Ben Davis) oh, BURN.

    • Sven

      >The intended audience of “appropriating advertisements in the hallowed white cube” is what Ronald Jones and others called the “decisionmaking class.”

      If I were to agree with the critical intent that Paddy elucidates (I have only seen this work in reproduction so I can’t give a solid opinion either way, apologies), then I would tend to agree with your assessment that the intended audience is the “decisionmaking class.”

      However, my point of contention was with Paddy’s implication (with her analogy to Snowden) that this series somehow empowered “underprivileged workers” or disenfranchised populations.

      >The person “establishing critical intent to justify pleasure in Koons’ work” is Koons himself, not the author of this blog post.

      I was not party to the discussion that Paddy heard w Koons at the Y in 2008, so I can’t speak to his words there, but most of the criticality that Koons grounds his work in (as I have encountered it through his words and ubiquitous aphorisms, etc) seems to be about mysticism and obsfucated metaphors, characterized by a seemingly spiritual relation w commerce and commercialism.

      If he succeeds in establishing his own critical grounding and conceptual underpinning then more power to him. I was just taking issue with Paddy’s assessment of his critical intent.

      • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

        This from a facebook comment by Sally McKay:

        I have always liked Koons for many of the reasons that you state. The creepiness of the ceramics, in particular, is in part through a visceral aesthetic that has to do with the smoothing of detail through enlargement, all those soft, glazed curves are gall-raising. I also think it’s important to locate the earlier works in their historical time/place. Culture jamming used to be a thing, before art-activist practices of intervention became thoroughly co-opted by corporate culture. Koons was making work right in the middle of that very distressing moral shift, and there was a lot of catharsis in it at the time. He got sued by MGM for his use of Pink Panther and made public statements about battling corporate usa for the right to own and use images that they have been forcing on us.

        • Sven

          That’s an interesting take. However, the issue I have with your review is that of implied intent. The culture-jamming slant is intriguing, but I don’t think that was his intent.

          • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

            Well, bring the issue to the artist then, because he’s the one who has described his intent. I don’t share your doubts.

          • Sven

            You call the methods koons used in the Luxury and Degradation “powerful” and you say that it is “enough” for you that Koons claims “he was trying to implore underprivileged workers to “hold onto their economic and political chips”.” You then bring the Snowden analogy up: “Snowden made visible what was previously unseen, and let others decide what to do with that information.”

            I respect you as a critic and find you intelligent. You are making an assertion and I am asking you to substantiate it. Your assertion seems to be that in works like the Luxury and Degradation series, Koons reveals aspects of our society that were previously unseen and by this process he mounts some type of solidarity with lower class or disenfranchised people. I don’t see evidence for this.

            This is what koons says of the series, which to me makes even less sense than your assertion: “I was telling people not to give up their economic power — that this pursuit of luxury was a form of degradation and not to get debased by it but to maintain their economic power. I was really telling people to try to protect themselves from debasement”

            So he wants people to protect themselves from the debasement of luxury, and he does this by turning them into even more obscene luxury objects? I don’t thinks that makes sense, and I think he is just engaging in obfuscation to empower his work.

            http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=5204552#top

          • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

            Hi Sven,

            What I mean is that those ads ran on subways, in plain site, but they were disperate and weren’t meant to communicate about anything other than what they were selling. Without them all in the same room, you wouldn’t necessarily think about what’s being marketed, and to whom. So, together you can see the different messages that these companies are communicating; on the one hand underprivileged classes shown how sexy gambling is, on the other, those with more privilege are given just the idea of liquor.

            It’s less a critique than it is a study in marketing, but I think the gesture of making that study apparent can be powerful. It makes people think about subjects they weren’t, and while there isn’t the same urgency to do something about it in the way that there is with Edward Snowden, I think the gesture itself is very similar.

            Does that make sense?

          • Sven

            Okay the gesture maybe related. But I think a quasi astute subway rider would have picked up on the discrepancies in marketing tactics. I’ll get a better idea when i see the work in person. thanks for clarifying.

  • http://tommoody.us tom moody

    Thanks for giving us a glimpse of the heavy critical power talk on Facebook, the new home of art discourse (and hoodies). Not sure where Sally McKay is seeing “ceramics” and “soft, glazed curves,” though. The Banalities series is polychromed wood. Koons also works in bronze, stainless steel, marble… Is there any ceramic in the show? Koons may have been sued over the pink panther but it was “string of puppies” that went into law books as a damaging precedent. Cooler heads advised Koons to settle that one and he kept fighting to prove that everything was fair game for appropriation. Eventually he got a judge who would definitely state, for posterity, that he stole the idea. This gave the litigation-minded firmer ground for coming after artists. In any event, I don’t think we need to contextualize Koons as a forerunner, the critical (and audacious) nature of the work is fine in the here and now.

    • Sven

      what do you define as the “the critical (and audacious) nature of the work”?

      • http://tommoody.us tom moody

        See the work and read what the critics have said about it. You’ve formed an opinion based on jpegs and are hectoring people to get them to agree with it.

        • Sven

          Thank you for the presumptuous comment. I have seen plenty of his work in person, so I am not merely forming my opinion from jpegs. Peace.

          • http://tommoody.us tom moody

            I presumed to take your comment “I have only seen this work in reproduction” to mean all the work. Sorry if that’s not the case.

          • http://tommoody.us tom moody

            In reply to my question above, “Is there any ceramic in the show?” — some of the Banality sculptures are polychromed wood and some are porcelain.

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