“There is something nightmarish about Jeff Koons,” Peter Schjeldahl began in his 2008 review of the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the New Yorker. This verdict had long arrived — it has always seemed that the critical wagons were circled on the subject of Koons. An ArtNews feature from 2007 encapsulates this sentiment, declaring that the artist has been “sharply attacked by some of the most respected names since he started showing his work in the early 1980s.”
But when one considers the actual record, a more complicated truth surfaces. With his Whitney retrospective nearly upon us (and inspired by Art in America‘s recent decision to highlight some of its early Koons reviews), below are some selections from this period. The following articles date from the mid-1980s, when the artist’s recognition gained momentum, through the early 1990s, when the critical consensus began to shift, and reveal a more varied response:
- In 1985, Gary Indiana found Koons’s 1985 debut solo exhibition in New York at International With Monument gallery “unusually poetic … carr[ying] a feeling of somber reverie quite at odds with the whimsical materials it used.” (Art in America, 1985)
- He “provides a dazzling update on Brancusi’s perfect forms” for Roberta Smith in 1986, when she singled Koons out in a group show at Sonnabend for the New York Times, going on to praise him as follows:
The show’s only sculptor and most developed artist, Koons has made a name for himself by presenting vacuum cleaners and basketballs in pristine light- or water-filled vitrines, creating works of a strange, disembodied beauty that expand our notion of what sculpture is and means.
- Also in 1986, Los Angeles Times critic Suzanne Muchnic positively noted his exhibition at Daniel Weinberg Gallery.
- In 1987 Koons did a “special project,” Baptism, for Artforum. (In 2008 he would memorialize his late gallerist Ileana Sonnabend for them as well.)
- In 1989 William Wilson highlighted Koons’s contribution to the Whitney Biennial for its “vibrant funny charm of true vulgarity” in the Los Angeles Times.
- Also in 1989, the Los Angeles Times‘s Kristine McKenna wrote that “Jeff Koons’ high-profile marketing and media manipulation makes his talent seem secondary.”
- “In the waning weeks of 1988, it was impossible to meet an art-worlder who was not burning to know what one thought about … Jeff Koons,” Arthur Danto wrote in 1989, addressing Koons mania in the context of the Whitney Biennial for The Nation (database subscription required):
A fair amount of critical boilerplate had been generated in response to Koons, all of it of the tiresome order that speaks of commodification, simulacreation and late capitalism — categories that apply, unfortunately, to so many things that it would be difficult to explain on their basis the peculiar frisson felt by those who attended this show.
- Mark Stevens in Vanity Fair, 1989: “whatever Koons says, Warhol said better.”
- Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, 1991:
Just when it looked as if the 80’s were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade.
- “Mr. Koons seized the day” wrote Roberta Smith in 1992, of the artist’s installation of his topiary dog concurrent with — but not part of — Documenta 9.
- Peter Schjeldahl called Documenta 9 the “Documenta of the Dog” after Koons’s topiary sideshow, endowed with “sculptural finesse far beyond the gimcrackery of the Rose-Bowl-parade floats it might recall.” (Art in America, 1992)
- Later in 1992, Roberta Smith derided in passing “Jeff Koons’s pornographic photo-paintings of himself and his wife having sex.”
- In response to Roberta Smith’s Documenta piece, the painter Edwin Ruda wrote the following letter to the editor published in the New York Times:
To the Editor:
Rabid reviews and esthetic skulldoggery aside, may I suggest that Jeff Koons’s paradogmatic pet “Poodle” would be no match for a true pedogreed Duchampion [“How Much Is That Doggy in the Courtyard?,” July 5].
By the way, was that a Doge-house in the background of the photograph?
EDWIN RUDA New York
These selections are by no means comprehensive; feel free to slog through the official Koons bibliography and/or add any choice reviews in the comments.
I will start by saying I do not like Koons work-I find it narcissistic, vapid and a major contributor to the decline of the arts. This being said, I also find him one of the best commentators on contemporary culture-he shines a light on the self obsessive, celebrity driven culture and could be considered a contemporary iconographer/altar builder to all that is driving our western society. The true progenitor of the selfie engorged culture, he presents the shallow, ugly side of what drives pop culture and I think he willingly and knowingly does this all the way to the bank.
Thank you for what you’ve said. I think it’s insightful. I just have to take issue with one aspect of your observations: that he shines a light. That phrase suggests intentionality and thereby a kind of self awareness. I’m not at all convinced of that. I think his work REflects the self-obsessive, celebrity driven, (and I would add easily distracted, overly concerned with surface and the ostensible) culture. His work does clearly tap into a zeitgeist, but what it does with that moment is not particularly illuminating, simply demonstrative of its ubiquity and power.
If anyone really cares, watch the “New Shock of the New”, the update Robert Hughes did in 2004 of his earlier film series about Modern Art. In it, Hughes interviews Koons and allows him to destroy himself. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
The people who are really responsible for Koons becoming the figure that he is are the critics, such as Roberta Smith and her ilk, the gallerists and museum curators, and the art “consultants” and journalists. These people have brought contemporary art to a low, seldom if ever seen. It’s of course all about money and literally nothing. else. besides. money. It also confirms the shallowness of the oligarchs (where ever they may call home) who buy this dreck, their lack of discernment, their failing to consider anything other than novelty and surface, their disdain for any consideration of the important issues of our world which great art can address.
You can find the entire film on youtube.
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