There exists a fine line between fetish object and art object, camp and kitsch, high and low. This slippery demarcation subsists at the margins of taste, determining the course of art history and culture as well as defining the parameters of consumption and capital. No living artist comprehends this liminality better than Jeff Koons, whose more than three decades of work currently occupies the largest footprint in the Breuer building’s 48-year exhibiting history. The retrospective, Koons’s first ever in New York, will also be the last exhibition mounted within the iconic structure, a farewell that, for all of the fanfare surrounding it, reveals itself to be a less provocative valediction than might have been hoped for.
On ViewWhitney Museum of American Art
June 27 – October 19, 2014
One of the reasons may be the retrospective model itself, which, as the curatorial team states, was approached from a rather traditional standpoint. Each floor of the museum features a different era of Koons’s output, working its way chronologically forward from the lowest level of the building, up. On the lowermost level, along with the Whitney’s café and two hulking sculptures in black granite—Koons’s iconic “Popeye” (2009 – 12) and “Woman Reclining” (2010 – 14), a larger than life replica of a kitsch female figurine, legs in the air, a bed of live flowers nestled near her exposed genitalia—one encounters the most humanist, and in this regard, interesting works of Koons’s oeuvre. Polaroid images from the late ’70s document cropped clusters of the artist’s early vacuum and flower inflatables, images that, exposed to the patina of time, retain a sense of investigative looking and personal touch intentionally reticent in so many of the later works. Adjacently installed along this same wall and in a large glass vitrine are intimately scaled drawings for future projects, as well as the “Art Magazine Ad Portfolio” series from 1988 – 89. Flash forward a decade since the polaroid experiments, the portfolio of four lithographs sets the stage for the slickness of the floors above, each poster-sized image featuring a young, finely quaffed Koons in various states of flamboyant leisure: in a bathrobe flanked by two flower-ringed seals; cuddling a baby and mother pig; knowingly seated at the head of a children’s classroom; and poised between two swimsuit models, the odd triumvirate replete with a wailing donkey, an unabashed marker of sexual innuendo. In these images, Koons disappointingly abandons the rawness of the early works, his deft understanding of the relationship between art and advertising taking precedence. Exposing the artifice of both mediums through the not-so-subtle framing of advertisement display and celebrity aggrandizement, Koons, the commercial star, is born.
Such loaded pairings continued to inform The New and Luxury and Degradation series, both from the early to mid-’80s. Capitalizing once again on themes of cultural vacuity, The New, with its impeccably mummified vacuum cleaners and florescent lighting, and the latter’s high art reconstitution of advertisement jargon, point to the dialectic throughlines that inhabit almost all of the artist’s output: the manipulation of beauty and surface as a ruse for introspection, on the one hand, on the other, the illumination of our consumerist penchant for the fetish object. Whether it be the carnivalesque display of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee Bubbles (1988), cast larger than life in porcelain, or the stainless steel reproduction of a bust of “Louis XIV” (1986), art history and the cult of the celebrity play equally pedestrian roles as validators for Koons’s dystopic/utopic themes.
One series succeeds at moving beyond such trite juxtapositions: Made in Heaven (1989 – 91). Over two decades after the work was first created, more appears at stake in these works, with the artist posing as the unclothed male lead alongside his then-wife, Italian porn star and (yes), politician, Ilona “Cicciolina” Staller. Photographed in increasingly explicit sexual encounters, Koons subjects himself and his erstwhile partner to the same type of scrutiny we might bring to a bad play or Vegas style production. Set in a Rococo fantasy world of pastels and butterflies, Koons and Ilona embrace, tease, and penetrate one another, all with one eye on the camera. The graphic nature of the works (the most X-rated of which are delegated to a small corner gallery where few viewers ventured to spend more than a few minutes), toy with the conflation of art (each of these scenes is meticulously reproduced in oil on canvas), pornography, and voyeurism in ways that, for a brief moment, earn Koons’s reputation as the rebel/provocateur he was heralded to be early in his career. While in the early ’90s, these paintings, sculptures, and billboard-sized displays were, at best, sensationalist, and at worst, exploitative, with a callous indifference to the then widespread AIDS epidemic, now, owing to the personal controversy that surrounds them, they retrospectively constitute some of the more revealing and vulnerable examples of self-portraiture I have come across in quite some time.
Unfortunately, this sense of risk-taking is quickly eschewed in the EasyFun, EasyFun/Ethereal, and Celebration series that were to follow, where once again, we witness Koons’s reliance on exacting production techniques and Wall Street cool to produce monolithic replicas of quotidian banality that harken more to mass appeal than to art or history. The uppermost floor of the exhibition features some of the artist’s best-known works: “Balloon Dog (Yellow)” (1994 – 2000), “Hanging Heart” (Violet/Gold) (1994 – 2006), and “Play-Doh” (1994 – 2014). It is also the least intellectually engaging and, as the wall text repeatedly insists, technologically advanced of the floors, with dozens of oversized objects dedicated to virtuoso advancements in science and sculptural fabrication as opposed to philosophical or aesthetic leaps. Here, time and again, Koons returns to his interest in the readymade, that relationship now complicated by his sense of scale and the technological interfaces that mediate the creative impulse. With these iconic works, it seems, Koons is no longer satisfied to present the object unadultered by human hands, as with his Duchampian The New, but rather, seeks to indemnify its place in the consumerist imagination via pumped up scale and the sleek allure of mirrored facades.
A handful of paintings proffer a would-be exit from this rabbit hole—“Geisha” (2007) from the Hulk Elvis series, for example, falls intentionally flat with its vast areas of unarticulated silver and orange paint, a Trojan horse for our vacuous obsession with power and digitization. “Antiquity 3” (2009 – 11), from the Antiquity series, features the model/actress Gretchen Mol posing as a young Bettie Page and straddled atop an inflatable dolphin, the pair a contemporary reinterpretation of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek symbol of love and desire. The painting’s background, a complex layering that sports marble replicas of the goddess, a marker drawing of a sailboat and other digitally sourced images painstakingly replicated by hand, lends the work an air of playful mischievity absent in many of the series’ highly glossed, three-dimensional brethren.
In the end, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective reveals little of the thornily nuanced complexities one might anticipate drive so controversial and beloved an artist. This is both a product of the exhibition’s curatorial arrangement, where the chronological ordering of the work, rational as it may be, merely succeeds in capitalizing on the sterility of the artist’s factory-waged execution, with few occurrences of surprise or risk, and Koons’s own shortcomings as an artist: for all his discussion of art’s transcendental efficacy, it is difficult to read these works as mired in anything but earthly provocation. While the Whitney display does much to support Koons’s particular brand of spectacle (it is somewhat of a treat, after all, to see those basketballs hover miraculously within their saline-filled tombs), as with most of the artist’s projects, its minutely calculated and controlled design leaves one rather cold. No doubt, the survey is destined to achieve blockbuster status, but as we know too well, an all-star cast does not, necessarily, a masterwork produce.