Essays

Jeff Koons, Kara Walker, and the Challenge of Public Art

by Jillian Steinhauer on July 3, 2014

Jeff Koons, "Split-Rocker" (2000), at Rockefeller Center (all Koons photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Jeff Koons, “Split-Rocker” (2000), at Rockefeller Center (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

As if his museum-filling Whitney retrospective weren’t enough, Jeff Koons currently has a massive sculpture on view at Rockefeller Center. “Split-Rocker,” presented by Gagosian Gallery and organized by the Public Art Fund and real estate developer Tishman Speyer, is comprised of two halves, one the recreated head of a toy pony rocker that belonged to his son, the other the head of a toy dinosaur rocker. Each side is made out of steel and covered in flowering plants. They are brought together imperfectly, and where the edges of one don’t quite align with the edges of the other, you can peek inside to see the tubes of a sprinkler system.

Gazing up at “Split-Rocker” on the day of its opening last week, I found myself thinking about Kara Walker. In the dark, dank space of the old Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront — quite far, although not too far from the touristy crowds of Rockefeller Center — she has also installed a work of public art: “A Subtlety,” a gigantic sculpture of a mammy-as-sphinx made out of sugar, presented by Creative Time. And though Koons and Kara are about as far apart as two superstars of contemporary art can be, their current public installations have remarkable overlap.

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (2014) at Domino Sugar Factory (click to enlarge)

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (2014) at Domino Sugar Factory (click to enlarge)

Both sculptures take the form of creatures from the cultural imagination. Both are impressively large, and roughly the same height: “Split-Rocker” stands 37 feet tall; “A Subtlety” rises to 35. Both have exteriors made from natural materials: Koons covered his steel shells in 50,000 flowering plants, while Walker coated her styrofoam core in 40 tons of sugar. This means that both sculptures have been and will continue changing over time. (Additionally, both artists’ shows are New York’s star summer art attractions.)

These likenesses may sound superficial. In a way, they are. But that two quite different artists have, when given the opportunity to make a public artwork, done something quite similar is worth exploring.

There could be a very specific reason for this. When I read the first article to offer a glimpse of Walker’s Domino installation, in the New York Times, my reaction was that this piece seemed to be Walker’s take on big, boring public statues and on white guy art. By “white guy art,” I mean the big, bold, ‘shocking’ kind: Koons balloon dogs, Damien Hirst sharks in tanks, Paul McCarthy poops. It was brilliant, I thought, for Walker, a black female artist, to take the much-lauded, generally empty genre and one-up it, do it better.

Detail of Jeff Koons, "Split-Rocker" (2000) (click to enlarge)

Detail of Jeff Koons, “Split-Rocker” (2000) (click to enlarge)

Now that I’ve seen “A Subtlety,” I still think that. Walker’s work at Domino is so much more engaging — so much more thoughtful, impactful, and meaningful — than Koons’s at Rockefeller, it’s almost laughable to compare them. Standing before “Split-Rocker,” once you’ve taken in the size and noted the plants, you become acutely aware of standing before nothing more than an oversized empty shell. Yes, the dissonance of the two mismatching forms makes for a nice, cockeyed contrast, especially with the flowers. But there’s a painful scarcity of content. Maybe you recognize the form of your son’s own rocker, or maybe your favorite flower is hidden among the 50,000, but all “Split-Rocker” has to offer are chance personal connections like these. And photo ops.

Walker, on the other hand, has put almost too much content into her piece, so much so that the photo ops have become their own problem. There’s the symbol of the sphinx, which conjures up ancient civilizations and mysteries; the positive and negative meanings of her fig hand gesture; her rendering in sugar, a material that harkens back to the slave trade; and her form as a mammy, which raises questions of the representation of black women. “A Subtlety” may be massive, but it can barely contain all of these ideas — they are swirling around and oozing out of it. (Not to mention the added dimensions of the 13 blackamoor sculptures that are made from molasses and scattered, now melting, throughout the space.) “Kara Walker has trenchantly used Koonsians [sic] tactics for very un-Koonsian ends,” Andrew Russeth recently wrote in Gallerist. And in doing so, she’s made Koons look exceptionally foolish. Why pour a well of resources into a sculpture that is its own end game when that same sculpture could be a beginning?

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (2014) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

The answer to that question lies in how you conceive of public art. If you take it to mean a work of art widely available and accessible to the public, then yes, a big sculpture in the middle of Rockefeller Center works fine; if, however, you think about public art as a work that engages with the public, draws them into a conversation — well, then the primary difference between the Walker and the Koons becomes clear. In her book Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, art historian Cher Krause Knight cites critic Patricia Phillips and her conception of how art “becomes fully public”: “it is public because of the kinds of questions it chooses to ask or address, and not because of its accessibility or volume of viewers,” Phillips says. Knight then offers her own addendum: “To this I would add that art’s publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchanges with audiences.”

This extends to the way Koons and Walker approach their subjects: Koons began with a personal object (as many of us do), added a neat formal twist … and then stopped. Walker’s art has long sprung from her identity as a black woman, but she focuses on a place where private narratives overlap with public histories. “A Subtlety” is no exception. Koons’s failure to take this leap speaks to his white male privilege, or his lack of imagination as an artist, or both.

SplitRocker4

Jeff Koons giving an interview in front of his “Split-Rocker”

Nonetheless, “A Subtlety” isn’t perfect public art either. As my colleague Hrag Vartanian noted in his review, Walker still relies on the sphinx’s scale to deliver much of its punch. The figure is loaded with symbolic associations, but they impose more than they ask — an extremely problematic position for a sculpture that replicates racist imagery. This silence, combined with the lack of context provided at the site by the artist or Creative Time, have created a situation where people — particularly white people — feel free to pose offensively with the woman-as-sphinx, thereby reproducing racist power dynamics. In the wake of that, it’s been left to independent groups to organize actions around “A Subtlety”: people of color gathered for “We Are Here” on June 22 and the Free University of NYC has planned a teach-in for this Saturday. The exchange between Walker’s sphinx and its public is one-sided.

And that’s because, hard as Kara Walker may have tried to subvert the trope of big, static, public sculpture with shocking imagery, unusual materials, and an artwork that decays over time, she has still, at the end of the day, made a big, static, public sculpture. During a conversation with RadioLab’s Jad Abumrad at the New York Public Library in May, Walker discussed some of the ideas she’d had before arriving at the sphinx. In the time since, I’ve found myself returning over and over to one: filling the space with a bunch of women dressed as mammies roller-skating around with brooms. Walker dismissed it as absurd, and I certainly see her point — but I can’t stop thinking about how dynamic it sounds. There are so many ways to make art and so many ways to engage the public; why settle for the most obvious one?

Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” is on view at the Domino Sugar Factory (South 1st Street at Kent Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through July 6. Jeff Koons’s “Split-Rocker” is on view at Rockefeller Center Plaza (Midtown, Manhattan) through September 12.

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  • Barb

    Wow, these will be amazing for people to see in 100 years or do – oh, wait, no they won’t. Temp work that rots won’t be here.

  • elgati

    I am SO glad that someone is writing on the problematics of public art, because by and large the curators who are in charge of putting this work out there seem oblivious to the difference between public and private work.

    Most public art works these days are nothing but blow ups of what one may see in a gallery by the same artist. Jeff Koons is the epitome of that and that is why his work is perceived as closed by those who are critical thinkers. On the other end of that you have Carsten Höller and his chutes at the New Museum where intellectual engagement has been replaced by a type of “adult theme park” engagement complete with Magic Kingdom lines of people waiting to get their cheap thrill fix.

    In the 1930’s, when the Mexican Muralist movement was in its apogee, David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote a manifesto on public art which is still of relevance today in which he talks about the different functions of public and private works and how they are and should be conceived differently. In contrast to the private work, the public one has an onus upon it to represent the public. In that sense it should be more “propagandist,” meaning it should have something to say and it should be unequivocal. To whatever degree it is ambivalent, the ambivalence should not be of values or interpretation. The ambivalence should be one of self introspection. Kara’s other work is wonderfully ambivalent, but in the public setting that becomes a liability because the message is easily distorted, or just ignored. You take that and you super charge it with all the pomp and spectacle around big museum installations where you have to make lines and the like and people are going to feel entitled to do whatever they feel like. Compare the experience of trekking to “A Subtlety” to that of trekking to Four Freedoms Park, a work by another American giant. The later one feels more like a pilgrimage, provides space for thought, self-reflection and critique, and really how many Instagram pictures are there of someone licking FDR’s face?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I both agree and quibble with you. I think you’re spot on mostly, and I would love to read that manifesto (title??). But I do think it’s a bit unfair/imbalanced to compare a sculpture of FDR and one of a naked, nameless black woman. The cultural value we, as a society, assign those two figures is vastly, vastly different, and that problem is, I’d say, out of Kara Walker’s control. In other words, no one is licking FDR’s face not because Louis Kahn is a genius but because everyone is taught to treat FDR with respect.

      • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

        I think no one is licking FDR’s face because it’s not made of sugar.

        • elgati

          I had in mind this picture when I wrote that: http://news.artnet.com/art-world/kara-walkers-sugar-sphinx-spawns-offensive-instagram-photos-29989
          I think the gentleman was aiming at her rear end/vulva, which would probably trump sugar.

          • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

            I was thinking of this — http://hyperallergic.com/46464/statue-porn/ — which puts the image into a context.

          • elgati

            Oh my… My guy is a prude compared to those… I think we need a sociologist to explain this, or who knows, perhaps we’re too prudish. Maybe the ancients did it too (minus the picture).

            When I was doing research in Sri Lanka a lot of monks were complaining to me about Westerners doing the same to their temple statues, and it takes some amount of acrobatics to get to those. Those statues are sublime, so I’m not sure we can blame the art in that case (and that kind of contradicts my thoughts above), so maybe it’s a different question which needs to be asked. I don’t know what that would be right now.

      • elgati

        True. It’s a bad comparison. And thanks for replying.

        I meant it mostly in terms of the whole “making a line”/Disney aspect to it. There are many ways to open a window into a work, and this ticketing
        model is by far the worst for a so-called work of public art. Imagine if they had blown out those walls and really bring the “public” into it. I don’t know that it would have stopped the worst behavior, but it would have toned down the entitlement, I believe.

        The Siqueiros essay is part of a book called “Como se pinta un mural.” In it Siqueiros talks about how to embrace new technologies in paints and airbrushing for murals, and his discussions with his American and Mexican students. I came into it because a friend couldn’t find a translation for the book and asked me to read it for him. I translated the most didactic part of it here: http://blog.joserg.com/no-hay-mas-ruta-que-la-nuestra/,
        and I just found a digital for another book of his bearing the same title as the essay here: http://icaadocs.mfah.org/icaadocs/THEARCHIVE/FullRecord/tabid/88/doc/774358/language/en-US/Default.aspx

  • Antihistaminer

    Little has been said about the environmentally irresponsible use of large quantities of polystyrene in works like Walker’s and others. Supporting some positive cultural ideas while trampling on others of equal importance.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Great, great point.

  • Peter Malone

    There is also the souvenir aspect to the comparison. Walker’s piece connects slave labor (they harvested cane as well as cotton, with cane often a more lethal task) to the racist souvenirs—Mammy’s, black-face banjo players and other “traditional” images—one can still find in tourist gift shops below the Mason-Dixon line. I found several in Nashville not five years ago. And of course the whiteness of the sugar carries hints of Melville. Koons on the other hand creates souvenirs for millionaires. The last show at the Whitney could be seen as one big gift shop for the 1%. As to the public art issue, public art is inevitably tempered by a consensus of involved parties and doesn’t work very well as an expression of a single individual defying any sector of the public, whether “correctly” or otherwise. Walkers sugar piece works because it is temporary. Koon’s Popeye is ostensibly destined for a museum. They are both unsettling, but in very different ways.

  • Betty Pieper

    Wonder if there would be any disrespect if there had been a 35 foot “Sugar Daddy” of J.P. Morgan…
    in brown sugar.

    • Jayson Carter

      not really a fair question to ask

  • Cat Weaver

    Lately the volume of Koons bashing has gone off the charts. I keep on the fence, usually, about figures like Koons because I love to hear from the haters and the lovers and the mehs. But through sheer contrariness, I’m gradually being outed as a Koons Appreciator.

    Poor Jeff Koons; accused of being an unapologetic white man making art about his white kid and his white marital issues from his sorry white ass POV —and having all the social and personal and even primal meaning he put into the split rocker boiled down to scale and flowers — my god, when he actually made the the thing half monster/half toy, both gigantic in elation and gigantic in mourning, full of public love without reprimand…sigh…

    A long career leads to some reptetion; the request for translations of serial gallery and private artwork into public art can indeed lead, in many many cases, to a dilution of meaning — perfect, I’d say, for Rockefeller Center.

    So Koons isn’t yelling at anyone. So he work is largely a dreamy ivory tower gaze through the cheesecloth (awkward pun acknowledged) of the banal and the primal (simultaneously, mind you). Isn’t it just wearying, just dreary, to compare him to Kara Walker who is opposite to him in every way except the monumental presence of the work?

    Walker imbues weight. Koons light. Walker is political. Koons is playful. Walker is cruel, in your face, and lyrical. Koons is fun and silly, condescending perhaps, and mechanical.

    I don’t prefer one to the other. Apples and Oranges.

    • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

      Still it is a conversation worth having and I do appreciate the article for presenting it. However since you made the comparison lets explore the nutritional qualities of an Apple and an Orange. The orange is a sweet happy fruit health benefits in the form of Vitim C. Cultivated in China as far back as 2500 BC it has enjoyed international success in Europe and later the American continent in the mid-1500s. So it is well liked.

      The apple in the other hand is equally as nutrition but comes with a heavy somewhat depressing history associated with it. Not accounting for the Norse and Greek mythology there is the tiresome Christian association with it being the forbidden fruit of knowledge. The very object which has represented much conflict and tension in Western Civilization. I don’t know about you but I would rather avoid the Apple. I don’t even own an I Phone.

      • Cat Weaver

        I dig both

        • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

          me too.

  • Andrew

    Koons is a snake-oil salesman.

  • jack g

    Kara Walker could be well aware of the racist interactions that would happen due to widespread ignorance/cultural imperialism/ dominant white supremacist racist imaginaries. Perhaps part of Walker’s intention was to create a public spectacle in which expression of these racist imaginaries, usually kept to private spheres, was brought out into a public space. Because of subtlety’s size, it becomes circus-like, a spectacle to be consumed with “well-intentioned, light-hearted fun” for those not aware of the poignant subject matter Walker’s addressing. What becomes explicitly clear at the site of exchange is just how unaffected and unaware most white people are of this history. In this way, they themselves become a spectacle — showcasing a small manifestation of the very systemic racism that Walker is bringing attention to in her work. Several articles written by people of color express this awareness. She created a beautiful piece of work and stimulated necessary, subversive public dialogue.

  • Jayson Carter

    “There are so many ways to make art and so many ways to engage the public; why settle for the most obvious one?”

    I think the biggest difference between the pieces is that the sphinx is a historically monumental installation with cultural connotations; the immensity of Walker’s Mammy seems to directly parallel that, whereas Koons’ work seems more intent on altering the audience’s perceptions and projections of objects by aggrandizing them. Although it does seem that public art isn’t public unless it is created on a grand scale, I don’t think that Ms. Walker is interested in big for the same reasons as Mr. Koons — at least not when it comes to “A Subtlety.”

  • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

    In contemporary public art the obvious way is the best way.

  • johannah rodgers

    One other glaring similarity: they were both sponsored by real estate developers.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      GOOD POINT

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