The Cult of Jeff Koons
Whitney Museum of American Art, 303 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Imagine the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the perfect storm. And at the center of the perfect storm there is a perfect vacuum. The storm is everything going on around Jeff Koons: the multimillion-dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the hyperbolic claims of the critics, the adulation and the controversy and the public that quite naturally wants to know what all the fuss is about. The vacuum is the work itself, displayed on five of the six floors of the Whitney, a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies.
Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them. This is the last show that the Whitney will mount in its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue before moving to new quarters in the Meatpacking District, and Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, has come up with a parting shot so swaggeringly obnoxious that it can’t be ignored.
Anybody who has taken Modern Art 101 will be able to give you some general idea of how we arrived at the point where a ten-foot-high polychromed aluminum reproduction of a multicolored pile of Play-Doh holds center stage at the Whitney—and is hailed by Roberta Smith, one of the chief art critics at The New York Times, as “a new, almost certain masterpiece.” What we are seeing at the Whitney is the mainstreaming of Dadaism and in particular of the readymade, the ordinary and frequently mass-produced objects that Marcel Duchamp reimagined as art objects, including, early on, a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, and a urinal.
Duchamp produced his first readymades roughly a hundred years ago. At the time they were seen by hardly anybody; they were the ultimate insider’s cool dude joke art. This was a joke that Duchamp presented deadpan, with the deliberateness of a man who very carefully weighed every move he made. He had already pursued a serious career as a painter; he had created a sensation at the Armory Show in 1913 with his Nude Descending a Staircase; and he would not have abandoned painting without cause. Duchamp felt there was too much of a mystique around art. Years later, he told Calvin Tomkins, “I don’t believe in [art] with all the trimmings, the mystic trimming and the reverence trimming and so forth.” The readymade was an act of supreme skepticism; at least that is what it was for Duchamp.
Koons, simply put, is Duchamp with lots of ostentatious trimmings. This is not a pretty sight. Duchamp’s readymades have an almost monastic austerity. Koons has bulked them up, transforming the ultimate insider’s art into the art that will not shut up. For Koons’s supporters, and they are legion, this is an anti-tradition that has become an honorable tradition, with all that implies about the risks and rewards of legitimacy. The art historians, with their addiction to neat chronologies, will tell you that Duchamp begat Rauschenberg and Johns, who begat Warhol, who begat Koons. It has been Koons’s weird instinctive salesman’s genius to capitalize on the art world’s increasingly confused adulation of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol, who are nowadays seen as seductive mixtures of trickster, mystic, magus, prophet, virtuoso (and at least in Warhol’s case, huckster).
There is a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t element to the reputations of all these artists, who are viewed as simultaneously criticizing and celebrating the commercial culture that is their inveterate subject. If you listen in on conversations in the galleries at the Koons show—whether a museum lecturer speaking to a group or a more knowledgeable visitor giving some friends the lowdown—you invariably find that the Whitney’s overwhelmingly middle-class audience is being told that Koons presents a sly critique of middle-class values. Of course everybody can also see that he is having his way with commercial culture—and with us. Koons knows how to capitalize on the guilty pleasure that the museumgoing public takes in all his mixed messages. He knows how to leave people feeling simultaneously ironical, erudite, silly, sophisticated, and bemused.
Koons presents his work under an assortment of brand names, and many of these brands have their own galleries at the Whitney. Everything Koons produces has a factory-produced impersonality. His studio is a kind of factory, although a far cry from the darkly druggy escapades of Warhol’s Factory. There are some 128 people employed in Koons’s studio, which from photographs looks as antiseptic as an operating room; sixty-four employees work in the painting department, forty-four in the sculpture department. Among the brands he has marketed since the early 1980s are “Equilibrium” (the floating basketballs); “Statuary/Kiepenkerl” (stainless steel replicas of a statuette of Bob Hope, an inflatable rabbit, a bust of Louis XIV); “Banality” (reproductions in porcelain and polychromed wood of various knickknacks); and “Made in Heaven” (photorealist paintings and glass sculptures of Koons in flagrante delicto with his then wife, Ilona Staller, known in Italy as the porn star Cicciolina).
The newer brands include “Celebration” (jumbo-sized renderings in mirror-polished stainless steel of a heart, an egg, and a variety of animals) and “Easyfun” (colored mirrors shaped like animals’ heads). Balloon Dog, from the “Celebration” series, may be the most famous of all Koons’s concoctions. This is a ten-foot-high rendering, in mirror-polished stainless steel with a translucent color coating, of a canine made from the kind of sausage-shaped balloons that amuse little children. Koons’s Balloon Dog was produced in an edition of five. The yellow one is on display at the Whitney. The orange one sold last year at auction for more than $58 million, the record for a living artist.
Koons has his detractors. Some years ago, Rosalind Krauss—who as one of the founders of the magazine October pioneered a strenuous mix of left-oriented political, sociological, and semiotic thought—told The New York Times that Koons had turned Dada on its head because he was “in cahoots with the media.” She said she found his “self-advertisement…repulsive.” These are strong, smart words.
But in the art history departments where Krauss and the somber style of Octobermagazine still reign more or less supreme, Koons is now regarded, like it or not, as a part of the history of our times. So there is a determination to account for his success and (let’s be honest about this) to give some scholarly tone to the megabucks art world fun. Koons’s low-meets-high-meets-low mix-ups have proven to be catnip for quite a few intellectuals. Joachim Pissarro, the art historian who was for a time a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote an essay not long ago claiming that Koons’s work “goes back, somehow, to our innermost desires”—that “our” really gets on my nerves—and managed in his first sentences to cite not only Freud but Plato.
Norman Rosenthal, for years head of exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London, is about to publish a book of interviews with Koons, in which the artist at moments imagines himself a sort of philosophe of the twelve-step program. “Morals are very important,” Koons opines:
You cannot separate the moral from the visual. I really believe that to have transcendence into the highest realms you have to have acceptance of others. You have to leave the self. You get so bored with the self.
And in Koonsland, if transcendence doesn’t work, there is always shopping. The clothing chain H&M, a sponsor of the Whitney show, has just come out with a handbag bearing Balloon Dog’s image, priced at $49.50; it was unveiled along with the new flagship H&M on Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, the store’s façade emblazoned with giant images of Balloon Dog. Just north at Rockefeller Center, Koons is letting the summer tourists get a gander at the latest of his topiary concoctions, a work called Split/Rocker, with the combined half-heads of a horse and a dinosaur covered with real flowering plants. A nearby bar is offering a Koons cocktail, the “Split/Rock Margarita.”
To evaluate this onslaught can feel hopeless, if not downright absurd, as if one were some Judge Judy of the art world, examining a situation so incredible that the very act of judgment calls one’s credibility (and credulity) into question. Perhaps this helps to explain why so many sophisticated observers, confronting the Koons cult, would rather join than fight. Certainly one of the fascinations of the Whitney show has been the near unanimity of the critics of record, who appear to be of the opinion that it’s high time for everybody, like it or not, to make their peace with Koons.
In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, certainly a man of discriminating tastes, basically announced that there was no way of arguing with his success. Koons is “the signal artist of today’s world,” Schjeldahl wrote. “If you don’t like that, take it up with the world.” In New York magazine Jerry Saltz announced that “haters will hate, but ‘A Retrospective’ will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling, alien, annoying artist.” And Roberta Smith, after expressing reservations about a ten-foot-high stainless steel rendition of Bernini’s Rape of Persephone outfitted with live petunias, felt the need to censor her own feeling that it might be “déclassé,” commenting, “but there I go again.” The critics, of all people, are putting the world on notice that the work is criticism-proof.
“In my observation,” Schjeldahl writes, “Koons’s most ardent detractors skip aesthetic judgment of his art to assert a wish that it not exist.” When Schjeldahl regards Koons’s overblown baubles, what he sees is an authentic aesthetic response to the mind-bending pressures of a global consumer society. Our Gilded Age, so Schjeldahl may imagine, precipitates—empowers, even legitimates—this high-tech kitsch vision. But does it follow that those of us who do not respond to the work are in denial—that we are, whether consciously or unconsciously, delegitimizing a legitimate aesthetic? Is Schjeldahl suggesting that the very existence of the work forces some sort of aesthetic embrace? Must it be appreciated simply because it exists (and sells for so much money)? And where does this leave the average museumgoer, whoever that mythical being might be, who has been told even before walking through the doors of the Whitney that whatever scruples he or she has are suspect?
The Koons phenomenon has a belligerence that may well be unprecedented in the art world. For many that belligerence reached a climax in 1991, when Koons exhibited paintings and sculptures in which he and the glossily pneumatic white-blond Cicciolina are having sex and nothing is left to the imagination. The effrontery of these photorealist paintings, with cocks and cunts presented front and center, isn’t so much in the X-rated material as in their gaudy narcissism—in the cheerfully salacious swagger with which Koons shoves his lady love and himself in our faces.
But the tough-guy swagger is invariably a central element in the Koons operation, even when the subject matter is only kid’s stuff. Everybody involved with the work seems fascinated by the in-your-face mood. Even when Koons is lighthearted, as with Play-Doh, his admirers are raising the stakes. Jerry Saltz, although uncertain about what he actually thought about Play-Doh, says that he “flashed on Koons as a modern mound builder, making sculpture that is instantly archeological, mystical, able to mark a future burial of contemporary culture.” And Peter Schjeldahl, if it’s possible, pushed even farther, arguing that Play-Doh “might stand as an imperishable symbol of art’s present unworldly estate: child’s play in a game with no-limit stakes.”
Koons is a high-end purveyor of the literal and the obvious. That makes him the perfect artist for an era when everybody from the couch potatoes who are only now wearying of reality TV to the politicians in Washington who have made realism their watchword will assure you that the promise of something different or better is no more. The twenty-first century is proud to be done with the ideal. And if there is one thing that you can say for Koons’s work it is that he deals in what is taken to be the real—even if the real is an act, a fake, a copy, an impersonation, what might be called the really unreally real. There is nothing on Planet Koons we haven’t seen before, admittedly generally in smaller, less costly, less shiny versions. His work is the apotheosis of Walmart. For the sophisticated museumgoing audience, which is inclined to boycott Walmart because of the miserable way it treats its workers, Koons’s supersized suburban trinkets can be a smarmy guilty pleasure.
Nothing is left to the imagination in Koons’s work. That, so I believe, is the source of the almost limitless fascination he exerts. His elaborate matter-of-factness makes him a populist of sorts. He likes to explain that a recent series of sculptures, in which replicas of classical statues are juxtaposed with blue gazing balls, was inspired by the gazing balls on lawns in rural Pennsylvania, where he grew up and now has a vacation home. “I want my work to be accessible to people,” he told a reporter at the opening of the H&M store on Fifth Avenue.
Koons is a recycler and regurgitator of the obvious, which he proceeds to aggrandize in the most obvious way imaginable, by producing oversized versions of cheap stuff in extremely expensive materials. It is only when he rejects the real in favor of the surreal that the audience’s interest begins to cool. In his recent paintings he has created what amount to photorealist collages, with inflatable toys, cartoon characters, classical statuary, and details of a woman’s hot-red lips or sexy head of hair layered and juxtaposed to create trippy Pop fantasy visions. These 3-D surrealist dreamscapes, with their echoes of Dalí—Koons cites Dalí as a major early influence on his work—are almost invariably said to be his weakest stuff. The public wants its Koons real rather than surreal. People want their Koons straight up, unadulterated. Koons is here to prove that in our been-there-done-that society metaphor and mystery and magic are dead and gone. It all comes down to familiarity.
The Koons retrospective is a multimillion-dollar vacuum, but it is also a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism and Dada and Duchamp has gone to die. I am aware that some people embrace Koons because they believe his armor-plated work is a necessary evil, the tougher and cleverer product that art must become if it is to survive. Of course they see that Koons has put the readymade on steroids. But that, so the argument goes, is what is needed to give Duchamp’s nerdy anti-art a fighting chance in our media-mad world. However persuasive it may seem to some, this argument, which is pure art world realpolitik, has the effect of shutting down the discussion we really need to have, which is about the ideas and (dare I say it?) the ideals of the Dadaists, and the significance of anti-art a hundred years ago and its potential significance today. Frankly, I wonder if those who hail Koons as the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art really know what anti-art is all about.
Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the Whitney show, who has been praised for his streamlined installation, makes a rather telling historical misstep at the very beginning of his catalog, even as he is arguing that we must understand Koons’s work “through the lens of the readymade.” Rothkopf asserts that Duchamp “first exhibited his urinal in 1917.” The trouble with this statement is that Duchamp never actually managed to exhibit the urinal that he purchased at the J. L. Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue and dubbed Fountain. After heated debate among the organizers of the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, Fountain was not displayed, although this was an organization with which Duchamp was closely involved and that had intended to exhibit anything that was submitted along with the $6 entrance fee.
There is some possibility that Fountain was hidden behind a curtain at the exhibition for three days, but what is certain is that Duchamp took it to Alfred Stieglitz, who made a photograph that appeared in a little magazine called The Blind Man. The work itself disappeared not long after; it is only replicas of the urinal that were eventually exhibited in public, many decades later. My feeling is that Rothkopf, immersed as he is in Koons’s virulent brand of exhibitionism, can hardly grasp the extent to which for Duchamp the readymade was a private avowal, an act of inwardness, an effort to see what art was and was not and could and couldn’t be for him.
Dadaism, which erupted a hundred years ago in the midst of World War I, may be one of the most misunderstood developments in twentieth-century art. There is a purity, almost an innocence, about the carnivalesque impurity of the original Dadaists and their objects and their ideas. So far as I am concerned, Jeff Koons has as little to do with Duchamp as he has to do with Bernini or Praxiteles or any of the other historical figures whose names are invoked in relation to the follies he calls art. Koons’s show-offishness is almost the exact opposite of Duchamp’s reticence. Art, Duchamp worried, is “a habit-forming drug,” and with the readymade he somehow hoped to break the habit, which is perhaps what every artist hopes to do by inventing art anew.
Jean Arp, one of the very first Dadaists—he was also and almost simultaneously one of the great classicists of twentieth-century sculpture—wrote that “Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order.” The delicacy with which Arp describes an old reason being destroyed in order to discover a new, “unreasoned order” (ordre déraisonnable) has nothing whatever to do with the chilly, pompous certainties that fill the Whitney. Koons’s overblown souvenirs are exactly what Duchamp warned against, a habit-forming drug for the superrich.
Dada—whatever its deficiencies, and the fact is that it produced relatively little enduring art—was part of a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art. You can trace this tradition back to the accounts in Pliny and other historians of the struggles of ancient painters to disentangle the relationship between the natural world and the pictorial world. The tradition runs through Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic worries about the conflict between the material and spiritual powers of art. And it reaches a first tragic climax in Chardin’s statements about the uselessness of artistic training as a preparation for the real challenges of art and his haunting confession that painting was an island whose shores he doubted he even knew.
There is not a shred of doubt in Jeff Koons. And where there is no doubt there is no art. Those who care to understand Duchamp’s impact on recent art must look elsewhere—perhaps to the enigmas and paradoxes of Robert Gober and Vija Celmins, two artists who keep some of Duchamp’s quixotic elegance and eloquence alive. But Gober and Celmins are artists’ artists. That is what Marcel Duchamp and the rest of the Dadaists were, at least for most of their careers. Koons is a publicist’s artist.
Might does not always make right, although that would seem to be the proposition on which Koons’s current lofty position is based. In art history departments there is nowadays an inclination to submit all art to a sociopolitical analysis, which is convenient when critics and scholars want to rationalize the considerable attention they pay to Koons’s marketing strategies. Too many column inches have been wasted on his stint in the early 1980s as a commodities broker on Wall Street and on his powers of persuasion when it comes to pushing art dealers to bankroll the extraordinary production costs involved with his work. Why should we care about any of this? When was it that the art of the deal became the only kind of art that art people want to talk about?
For Koons’s supporters, his business savvy, with its elements of risk-taking and maybe even recklessness, is a new Gilded Age avant-gardism. His combination of in-your-face banality and in-your-face extravagance takes the place of what must by now seem the excessively earnest campaigns of the avant-gardists of earlier generations. From the first supporters of the Cubists to the critics and collectors who embraced Abstract Expressionism early on, the bewilderment one sometimes experienced on encountering new art was embraced as a complicated intellectual challenge, demanding new alignments of sense and sensibility. We are all acquainted with the derision with which Matisse’s Woman with a Hat was greeted at the Salon d’Automne in 1905 and the protests provoked by Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913.
For the Gilded Age avant-garde, such legendary events have become the model for new marketing opportunities, and there is an assumption that if the public has a very strong negative reaction to something—if a work of art disturbs or annoys or flummoxes some of the public—it most likely is important. Incredibly enough, there are highly intelligent observers who believe that Koons challenges them in more or less the same way that Matisse, Picasso, Nijinsky, and Pollock might once have done. In the very first paragraph of his catalog introduction, Scott Rothkopf quotes the late Robert Rosenblum, a distinguished student of nineteenth-century neoclassicism who doubled as a critic of contemporary art, declaring in 1993 that “Koons is certainly the artist who has most upset and rejuvenated my seeing and thinking in the last decade.” Later in the Whitney catalog, the art historian Alexander Nagel recalls his first encounter with Koons’s work—the “Banality” series at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1988—and explains that it “made me a little sick, even as I felt an almost irresistible invitation to submit to it.”
I would have hoped that by now everybody agreed that not all unease is equal. Why should we imagine that because once upon a time certain gallerygoers were troubled by something that they later came to admire, then it follows that anything that troubles a gallerygoer is necessarily worthy of admiration? Just because it makes you sick doesn’t mean that it’s any good. I am not saying that either Rosenblum or Nagel, both scholars widely admired for their erudition, would take this view. But there is no doubt in my mind that Koons is alert to a tendency on the part of the art audience to submit—to submit to something (to anything) that exerts a certain discomfiting power. This is the S&M of the contemporary art world, with the audience angling for an opportunity to grovel at the feet of the superstar.
In the run-up to the Whitney show, Jeff Koons posed for Annie Leibovitz’s camera for Vanity Fair, working out in his private gym and wearing nothing at all, his physique quite impressive for a man well into middle age. What on earth was the point? On the face of it, Koons’s Vanity Fair star turn looks tiresome, the swagger of a macho buffoon. And yet it does the trick. Koons is the bully in the playground. He is also the class clown. He will do whatever it takes to win, and in our winner-take-all culture that passes for profundity.
Of course even those who take a serious interest in Koons know that he’s also full of baloney. Roberta Smith, reviewing the Whitney retrospective in the Times, comments on his “slightly nonsensical Koonspeak that casts him as the truest believer in a cult of his own invention.” That is well put. The essential fact about the Koons cult, however, is not that Koons invented it, but that it has gained such extraordinary traction, in the art world and well beyond. Day after day, the crowds are lining up outside the Whitney, waiting to get in to see the Jeff Koons show. What are they to make of the tens of millions of dollars that have been squandered on this work? What are they to make of the critics and historians who are defending Koons with a belligerence that allows for no debate? And what are they to make of the Whitney Museum of American Art?
That Koons will be Koons is his own business. That he has had his way with the art world is everybody’s business. No wonder the people in the galleries at the Whitney look a little dazed. The Koons cult has triumphed. For his next project Koons should consider manufacturing a ten-foot-high polychromed aluminum Kool-Aid container. It could come right after Play-Doh in the “Celebration” series.
This article was reported by Georges M. Halper – [email protected]