MuseumsWeekend

Have a Nice Day: Jeff Koons and the End of Art

by Thomas Micchelli on June 28, 2014

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Jeff Koons, “Popeye” (2009). Black granite, flowers (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic.)

Gleaming in the ghost-light of fluorescent tubes, the vitrine-encased vacuum cleaners that open the Whitney Museum’s Jeff Koons retrospective are nothing short of spectacular. The rest of the work, however, with few exceptions, reveals itself to be as thin, puerile and derivative as the artist’s harshest critics would expect. But to take Koons’s art to task for the hollowness at its core is shooting fish in a barrel — a truism that leads us nowhere.

In fact, there is something grandly tragic about this exhibition, and not in a good way. What a piece of work is a man, it asks, that would fashion an enormous block of black granite into an oversized Popeye or toy gorilla? The endgame it presents is that of a once-aspiring culture — the dream of a bold and unruly American art, symbolized by the Whitney’s audacious Marcel Breuer building — collapsing into philistinism and sentimentality, a surrender to the leveling forces of consumerism.

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Jeff Koons, “New Shelton Wet/Drys Tripledecker” (1981). Three vacuum cleaners, acrylic, and fluorescent lights. Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections; purchased with funds from Roy Halston Frowick by exchange (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the same time, its exaltation of kitsch is unapologetically legitimized by a corporate art establishment invoking an aesthetic that’s more than 100 years old, rooted in Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (which were invented in the run-up to the First World War) and refined by Andy Warhol a half-century ago. Koons’s contribution to this entrenched tradition is his unmatchable verisimilitude and material finesse, qualities that enshrine a strain of American provincialism — measuring the success of a work of art by its resemblance to its subject — against which proponents of Modernism have been struggling ever since Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded her museum in 1914.

Koons began his career as part of a wave of Simulationists — artists such as Meyer Vaisman and Haim Steinbach who based their work on kitsch and consumer products and leaned on Jean Baudrillard for intellectual heft. And his early work, which spans the 1980s, was not unpromising: the vacuum cleaners, such as the towering “New Shelton Wet/Drys Tripledecker” (1981), possess a beauty that’s simultaneously stark and fizzy, and the sculptures from his Equilibrium (1985) series — in which basketballs are suspended in tanks of sodium chloride reagent and distilled water — stop you in your tracks to this day.

His bronze “Aqualung” (1985) is also striking in both content and execution: despite the fussy meticulousness of its realism, it revels in a sensuousness that melds seamlessly with a simple formal rigor. This duality is at the heart of Koons’s art, but even if it succeeds on that level — a rare feat — it stumbles on a clunky obviousness in some works and a puzzling capriciousness in others. While many of the sculptures manifest a rude, gawky verve that turns the majority of Koons’s paintings into so much overdone wallpaper, most of them — especially the over-scaled dime-store figurines tarted up in porcelain, polished stainless steel and polychromed wood — are simply awful to look at.

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Jeff Koons, “Aqualung” (1985). Bronze. Edition no. 3/3. Private collection (photograph by Michael Groth for Hyperallergic)

The tackiness of his imagery (most notoriously embodied in “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” 1988 — see Ben Davis’s trenchant observations in Artnet on the disturbing racial implications of this work and others in the show) is, again, not unique to Koons: Julia Wachtel, for one, was exploring exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. While Koons managed to make his art bigger, brighter and much, much more luxurious, his choice of subject matter is, to say the least, erratic, with nothing adding up to a coherent formal investigation. This is especially the case with the works from the Banality series, which are installed in a large, narrow gallery in one long row. These include “Michael Jackson” as well as “Buster Keaton” (1988), which depicts the silent film comedian riding a pony with a cartoon bird on his shoulder, and “Saint John the Baptist” (also 1988), a three-dimensional, much more androgynous version of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Saint John the Baptist” (1513-16) at the Louvre.

As in the original, Koons’s Saint John, his head adorned with long, curly locks, smiles meekly at the viewer as he points toward a cross he holds against his chest. Except that in Koons’s version, he is also holding a piglet and a penguin, without rhyme or reason. The point, one supposes, is the dilution of fine art by way of mechanical reproduction and capitalism’s exploitation of the lowest common denominator: Leonardo’s miracle of light, texture and form is replaced by dumb literalism and Disney-cute. But haven’t these ideas, we may ask, been hashed over a thousand times before Koons stepped into the spotlight?

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Jeff Koons, “Saint John the Baptist” (1988). Porcelain. Edition no. 3/3. The Sonnabend Collection, Nina Sundell, and Antonio Homem (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

There’s really no getting around the sense that such preciously fabricated works as “Saint John” and “Michael Jackson,” when placed inside the walls of a preeminent art museum, bespeak a contempt for the less-affluent classes who find the Walmart versions of these images pleasing. Whether such latent condescension is intentional on the part of the artist or museum doesn’t matter; the imagery’s faux-democratic appeal to easy fun (to reference the title of another of Koons’s series) is bound to engender in the art-smart viewer either regression or ridicule, despite Koons’s stated goal, as related in a wall text, that they be seen “as an elaborate allegory […] aimed at freeing us to embrace without embarrassment our childhood affection for toys or the trinkets lining our grandparents’ shelves.” We really don’t need an assist from Koons to accept the unsophisticated joys of childhood; the ideal of the child has been a tenet of Modernism since Charles Baudelaire.

Duchamp’s “Fountain” was made in the middle of World War I, pissing on Western culture and all it stood for. Warhol returned the readymade to art — making simulacra of Brillo boxes — to open up his imagery to daily life, a turn of events that Arthur C. Danto termed “the end of art.” In a well-known passage from his book, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (1996), Danto examines what the lack of outward differences “between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and the Brillo boxes in the supermarket” conveyed:

It meant that as far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was, you had to turn from sense experience to thought. You had, in brief, to turn to philosophy.

By greatly upsizing found objects into bronze, steel, porcelain or wood — thereby establishing, by means of scale, a readily identifiable distinction between the work of art and the thing it’s mimicking — Koons is returning thought to sense experience, but a form of sense experience that is both highly materialistic and deeply conservative, relying on orthodox, costly mediums to affirm the elevation of his lowborn subject matter into art. His lack of adventurousness and invention in this regard is in sharp contrast to the silkscreening (then considered solely a commercial process) adopted by Warhol for his paintings, or the soft vinyl sculptures of everyday objects concocted by Claes Oldenburg (who can be seen, in many respects, as the anti-Koons, outclassing him on every count of wit, irony, and imagination). Koons’s bravura handling of granite and bronze, the materials of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, reflects the reactionary attitude toward materials that cost Marcia Tucker, the founder of the New Museum, her job at the Whitney in 1977 after she exhibited Richard Tuttle’s sculptures made out of wire and rags.

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Jeff Koons, “Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Dr. J Silver Series)” (1985). Glass, steel, distilled water, sodium chloride reagent, and three basketballs. Edition no. 1/2. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Gerald S. Elliott Collection (photograph by Michael Groth for Hyperallergic.)

There is a funereal air about this exhibition, but not the uproarious, New Orleans-style one the museum was hoping for (the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, in his comments during the press preview, remarked that “we wanted to say goodbye” to the Madison Avenue location “with a flourish”). It is more like a dirge, and a tinny one at that. The exhibition’s historical position as the last to fill the Breuer building is a travesty, an abdication of the museum’s responsibility to balance aesthetic discernment with the forces of the marketplace.

As the museum settles into its new, greatly expanded premises downtown, its role in the creation and presentation of art will undoubtedly evolve in unpredictable ways, but in the meantime, forget the Whitney. Art is elsewhere.

Jeff Koons: A Retrospective continues continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until October 19.

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  • Betsy Fenik

    Glad I didn’t pay or waste my time to see this.

  • skywaterblue

    Even as Koons’ work bespeaks a vast contempt for the lower-Walmart-consuming classes, I’ve always felt it was equally contemptuous of the blue-chip Art Basel-consuming classes. If all it takes for chintz to be sold to a billionaire is enlarging it to life-scale and wrapping it in gold in his own factory, what distinguishes this from the original? Just the material value as it passes through his hands?

  • http://saksafridi.com Saks Afridi

    Haters gonna hate. His work, craft and approach are entirely unique and it’s sad that you can’t see that. I guess that’s what makes it art.

    • PonckhockieCreekwoman

      He didn’t even do his own work. Other artists do. It is their craft. Approach different? He is most derivative artist on the planet, nothing unique here.

  • http://saksafridi.com Saks Afridi

    Speaking as a sculptor, it is technically impeccable. His fabrication, use of materials, combinations of finishes are flawless. Along with his team, he has innovated techniques that make his pieces look the way they do. The choice of materials that make a sculpture are extremely important and his use of porcelain and steel on these scales is pretty amazing. One can hate the statements (or lack of) his pieces make, but you can’t knock it for craft.

    • http://giornata.net/ Thomas Micchelli

      I don’t see how phrases like “unmatchable verisimilitude and material finesse” and “bravura handling of granite and bronze” constitute knocking Koons’s craft. His workmanship is impeccable, as you state, but it is also a major symptom of his academicism.

      • punktoad

        It sounds more like my contractor.

    • http://josephayoung.tumblr.com/ JosephYoung

      Interesting how this debate plays out in all the arts–visual, music, writing: “impeccable craft” vs “dirty panache.” Really though, I think both qualities are subsumed in that third, unnamable “knowableness,” art.

      Haha, how’s that for obscure gobbledegook?

    • skywaterblue

      If you had a zillion dollar budget and 100-200 semi-permanent employees to make whatever you wanted, I would hope you would use it on something more interesting than a knockoff Popeye figurine in life sized granite. At least the original Popeye comics are honest about their communication purposes.

    • Den Hickey

      So, lets start with the uniqueness of his work… it has none.
      Then lets move on to its supposed impeccability… yeah, thats pretty easy to get when other people make all of your art for you. Its not something Koons produces.. its something he BUYS.

      Even if we were to accept that.. he is a craftsman, at best, as his work is utterly vapid and grossly cynical.

  • beergas

    One thing appeals to me which is now Barncusi and Rodin look even better than before. Meh. Thanks for spot on review.

  • punktoad

    Expensive bobbles!

  • gdorf

    Why does this (facile) point have to be made in a museum? Because museums are businesses themselves and because they service the corporate/collector class. Their financial structure depends upon it as does its insatiable need to expand. An artist in his/her studio works far too slow, is much too undependable, and produces (what used to be) museum-quality work all too infrequently, to form the basis of any market. A market needs product. It needs quantities of product. Koons and many others like him form a new paradigm. As too whether these points are ‘facile’, that does not make them incorrect. As Borges once noted, the cliche is bloodless but rarely truthless.

  • http://www.brianeisley.com/ brianeisley

    I hate Jeff Koons. His art is hideous, cynical, and pointless.

    I hate him far more than I hate Thomas Kinkade, which is saying a lot. At least Kinkade was earnest and unpretentious in his banality. Koons is a contemptible snob without the talent to redeem it.

    It’s a good thing I won’t be seeing this show, because I’d last maybe 30 seconds before I started looking for something to use as a sledgehammer.

  • Cat Weaver

    Koons is camp. His purported intent to celbrate and to worship are best taken in earnest; do only that (take him on his word) and the ironies implied by his use of scale, his choice of subjects, his gloss on (and over) what you usually think of as political, will all be sharper, funnier, and more defiant.

    Koons is the John Waters of sculpture. He’s only off when he fails to plug into resonant subjects (which is rare).

    Aside from camp, his eye for perfection, his insistence upon it, his pursuit and achivement of it are not to be set aside. It is naive to view manufactured art as being something separate from the artist’s work. That renaissance artists had student painters, and Warhol sent work out to be made; these are references for future ready-made and factory artists. ANd, as anyone who has ever worked with manufacturers knows, getting what you want, having it perfected, and doing that on budget (and he does, mind you, have a budget — a huge one, but one defined by his market [yes, yes, of billionaire art collectors {'scuse me, but, duh}]).

    There is a meta-realization going on in his career; moving from the worship of the mundane household object, to the worship of celebrity objects, to the worship of sentiment — taking all those variations of the primal urges for property, for cleanliness, for perfection, for power, for wealth and teasing them into cracks and crevices of “good taste” — I’d call that bold. Bold and funny.

  • Seph

    Dear Thomas Micchelli, thank you for this article. It does a very competent job of laying out the issues brought up time and time again with Koons’ work. I just want to raise one concern: when you write that “But to take Koons’s art to task for the hollowness at its core is shooting fish in a barrel — a truism that leads us nowhere.” there is an assumption here that remains hidden in the rest of your piece.

    The problem with your argument is precisely that it rests on the idea that despite the work not changing in all its vapid, boorish, extravagant mediocrity, you seem to expect the criticism of it to change. Why? The critique of his oeuvre is still relevant and does not need to adapt to the vagaries of public attention. From what I can tell the essence of the critique about Koons’ hollowness is that the hollowness stems from his inability to make clear and insightful and meaningful distinctions in his work between commentary on a thing and exploitation of the (pop icon’s) cultural status. Everything is fair game for exploitation by Koons (who seemingly can’t tell what he is actually doing), because his intellectual compass points towards the market, and the more vapid and un-earnest his work is in referencing popular culture the more it (makes people comfortable with the current state of culture and) sells.

    Again, why is this critique a truism, and why does that lead us nowhere? I disagree. I think it leads us to greater consciousness of the pernicious effects of market rationales on aesthetic production. The place where I end up is sharper and sharper focus on the distinctions between the meaningful and the inane (as gussied up as that inane might be). If you think a critical consciousness is its own reward then you don’t give up so easily.

    • http://giornata.net/ Thomas Micchelli

      The opening comment of the review, that the hollowness of Koons’s art is a truism, was meant to indicate that I didn’t intend to revisit the way his work reflects contemporary consumer culture; rather, the larger issue for me was the Whitney’s role in presenting a body of work that is essentially conservative and conceptually secondhand, thereby furthering a retrograde notion of what is noteworthy in contemporary art.

      • Seph

        Okay. Fair enough.

  • Stephen Aman

    I find it strange that in film a director is LEGALLY REQUIRED to acknowledge the various people involved in bringing the project to fruition, but in high art it’s understood, acknowledged, even encouraged that the ownership of the work belongs entirely to the art director. All of which is built on the very flimsy premise: Duchamp justified Warhol who justified Koons. It’s a house of cards built on a urinal. If the critical establishment had the guts to consider that perhaps the Urinal on a Pedestal might have been meant as a joke; that perhaps labor and suffering and personal expression and skill might lend critical human value to art, then art might become more than just a status symbol for the rich. Sad that too much money’s already in circulation around this crushing display of banality.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Very interesting comparison between film and contemporary art.

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