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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.
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.
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?
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.
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.