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.
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.
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.
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.