Jeff Koons, whose pop art retrospective runs at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan through October 19, is controversial in a way different from most self-consciously “transgressive” artists. For one, he’s very popular among collectors, which is in certain circles unforgivable. Left-wing art critics (but I repeat myself) accuse him of vulgar capitalism and make hay off his history as a (gasp!) commodities trader. The Village Voice called Koons’ career “the triumph of stupidity,” and if that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is. (How critics can denigrate Koons but exalt Andy Warhol, another artist who made a vast fortune by playing with America’s cultural iconography, is a deeper mystery.)
Blissfully ignorant of the current art scene, I found the camera-friendly exhibition, generously stocked with over 120 pieces, at the least amusing and occasionally amazing, with a couple of smiles guaranteed. I dare say it would be a great visit for children, though given that a Koons’ piece once sold for $58 million (making him the most expensive living artist) perhaps don’t let them get too close.
Even Koons’ most contemptuous critics are disarmed by his 10-foot tall Play-Doh sculpture on the 4th floor (that floor houses the newest, brightest, most childlike stuff). Who knew the world wanted to see tons of aluminum painstakingly crafted to look like the result of a toddler’s random play-date? An adjoining gallery is stocked with masses of stainless steel, painstakingly worried over for years by teams of artists to make it look identical to the inflatable floats available for $7.99 at Wal-Mart. “Art” or not, the technical achievement on display is undeniable.
Balloon Dog (Yellow) looks lighter than air but is made of stainless steel. It’s delightful, charming, and apparently just crammed with scatological and sexual references, according to the wall text: “…an air of innocent playfulness as well as elements that suggest sexual orifices and protuberances.” Alrighty then. The descriptions do make one appreciate the technical difficulties Koons and his artist workshop must surmount.
Just as a souffle, despite being light and airy, is a challenge to make, the lightness and playfulness of Koons’ work masks the enormous man-hours and technological innovation put in to their creation. Just getting them into the Whitney required the logistical skill of a field commander – removing the front doors, for starters.
The centerpiece of One Ball Equilibrium is a basketball, balanced perfectly in a solution of sodium chloride in a glass showcase. (My expert opinion? It’s pretty neat.) Some pieces are both tacky and disturbing, like the gigantic porcelain figure of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles. Yet being “disturbing” is what art’s supposed to do, or so we’ve been informed.
And some is simply effective, like “Loopy,” a glossy montage painting centered around Trix cereal and the Trix bunny, encapsulating a child’s excitement when the world was smaller. And the vacuum cleaners lit up in Perspex glass surely convey a significant message about consumerism, or something.
Only the 1989-1991 series Made in Heaven, featuring explicit shots of Koons and Italian porn actress Ilona Staller (later his wife/ex-wife) is utterly without charm and eminently missable, especially if you’ve brought the aforementioned kids.
Despite the de rigeur ironic distances and paradoxes, one senses Koons isn’t smuggling subversion into his work, or that he holds the pop culture he manipulates in contempt. That may explain why politicized critics can’t forgive him his financial success. (The venerated Warhol made a mint with his mass-produced art, without racking up Koons’ massive costs).
Koons’ pieces have been dismissed as toys for the rich, and indeed you may be tempted to take one home. Just bring a crane and enough cash to buy a medium-sized island.
photographs by the author