Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons and the Culture of Hyperbole

Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), porcelain; 42 x 70 1⁄2 x 32 1⁄2 in, private collection (© Jeff Koons, image courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art)

Recently, I read a statement by Kenneth Turan, film critic for the LA Times:

[T]he fuss about [Richard Linklater’s] “Boyhood” emphasized to me how much we live in a culture of hyperbole, how much we yearn to anoint films and call them masterpieces, perhaps to make our own critical lives feel more significant because it allows us to lay claim to having experienced something grand and meaningful.

Turan’s phrase “the culture of hyperbole” struck a chord. As a poet and art critic, it is impossible to ignore the reams of exaggeration I am bombarded with on a daily basis, from blurbs attesting to the gorgeous mastery to be found in a young poet’s first book to the unrivaled brilliance to be encountered in an artist’s most recent exhibition. Doesn’t the yearning for significance that Turan speaks of permeate the art world, particularly when it comes to grand public events such as museum exhibitions? The nonstop use of superlatives suggests to us that we are either living in a fast-moving world of the latest masterpieces or listening to the newest round of tall tales.

I did wonder why Turan, who admitted that he had “become increasingly resistant to coming-of-age stories” never got around to stating what he felt were the failings of Boyhood. This is a film that has been widely celebrated in the press and, as Turan points out, his fellow critics have described as “visionary,” “transporting,” and “profound.” The New York Times called Boyhood “one of the most extraordinary movies of the 21st century.” Turan may have felt that he was swimming upstream alone, and that any criticism he had of the film would marginalize him or, worse, be seen as the sign that the writer was out-of-tune with the times and thus irrelevant or, as one critic once said of me, “comatose.”

The only point where Turan seems to be critical is when he states:

Finally — and this is critical — I have always been cool to Linklater’s films, have never connected emotionally to his self-involved characters and a slacker aesthetic that treats banalities as if they were words of wisdom.

Am I the only one who was reminded of Jeff Koon’s sales pitch patter when I read Turan’s comment? What are we to make of Koons’s statement: “It’s like I have God on my side or something” or “I was just trying to say that whatever you respond to is perfect, that your history and your own cultural background are perfect” or “if you’re critical, you’re already out of the game.” Don’t all these statements deny the possibility of a dialogue or exchange of any kind? I mean, how do you talk to someone who believes that he has God on his side and everything about himself is perfect? What are we to make of someone who, when he felt he was being ignored by the New York art world, compared himself to Joan of Arc being burned at the stake, and who repeatedly claims to be a “genius”?

And if your cultural background is perfect, what are we to make of the wall label at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (June 27–October 19, 2014), that Ben Davis cited in his brilliant piece, “Jeff Koons as the Art World’s Great White Hope”:

When the work was made, [Michael] Jackson was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world and Koons admired him as the epitome of mainstream appeal, just as the artist’s own celebrity was reaching new heights. “If I could be one other living person,” Koons remarked at the time, “it would probably be Michael Jackson.” Koons praised Jackson as someone willing to do “absolutely anything to be able to communicate with people.” In Koons’s eyes this included plastic surgery and skin-lightening procedures that he claimed Jackson undertook to reach more middle-class white audiences. “That’s radicality. That’s abstraction,” Koons said.

So art is a game in which the goal is to communicate with a wide, white, middle-class audience? What about the non-white audience, of which I am a bona fide member? (“The Chinese-American art critic and poet John Yau” is how Lance Esplund described me in the Wall Street Journal [January 22, 2011] because I had the temerity to suggest that Helen Frankenthaler was interested in, as well as inspired, by Asian art. Despite the fact that her house in Connecticut was filled with examples of Asian art, Esplund and others assert that she was never influenced by it. It seems Color Field painting could have only come from High European Modernism through Jackson Pollock, and nothing else — got to keep those bloodlines pure.)

Seemingly speaking for us all, whether we are white, yellow, black, brown, or red, Jerry Saltz writes: “it’s thrilling to see this work in a museum — even if the objects are better than the paintings.” Among the objects Saltz singles out for praise — and he certainly isn’t the only art critic to do so — is the porcelain sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), in which Jackson and his identically dressed pet chimpanzee have been painted white.

As I see it, this sculpture and certain other works by Koons, which Davis discusses in his article, are part of Pop art’s subtle and not-so-subtle highlighting of the advantages of assimilation, of leaving behind all traces of ethnicity and becoming white. This is the aesthetic goal that one should be willing to do anything at all to achieve; this is what it means to be American. The Whitney Museum’s wall label that Davis cites is excerpted from this statement by Koons: “I wanted to create him in a very god-like icon manner. But I always liked the radicality of Michael Jackson; that he would do absolutely anything that was necessary to be able to communicate with people.” He means, of course, white people, who make up the largest part of the market share, at least when it comes to music fans, museums, and Chelsea art galleries.

Roy Lichtenstein, "Masterpiece" (1962) (via flickr)
Roy Lichtenstein, “Masterpiece” (1962) (photo by Lindsey Davis/Flickr)

In 1963, Andy Warhol said in an interview with Gene Swanson: “Somebody said my life has dominated me. I liked that idea.” This was three years after Warhol, who had been using comic strips as a source, changed his subject matter after learning that Roy Lichtenstein was doing the same thing. In the painting, “Advertisement” (1960), he incorporated a number of images he found in the pages of a newspaper, including an ad for plastic surgery with the banner, “Before and After.” Shortly afterwards, Warhol made a painting that focused solely on the ad’s pairing of two graphic images of the same woman’s face in profile, but with a large Semitic nose on the left and a conventionally pert, chiseled nose on the right. By 1962, he had completed three versions of “Before and After,” each a more perfect version of what preceded it.

The ad’s obvious subtext is that with the right amount of money you can effectively alter your ethnicity, and go from being a hated Jew to a beloved WASP. If you have the means, and are not the wrong color, you can join white mainstream society, effectively cutting all ties to your past. In this regard, Warhol believes that assimilation is both absolutely necessary and completely worthwhile. If it requires that you remove overt markers of ethnic difference, then you should do so because it might enable you to attain the status and privilege routinely accorded white men and women, bringing you a step closer to the flawless heterosexuals populating Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings.

If you look at Warhol’s red, white, and blue painting “Race Riot” (1964) on purely pictorial terms, forgetting for a moment its source and historical background, you are left with four identical views of a black man who is being bitten on the ass by a dog. Look at the crowd of black men and women on the other side of the street, eyes turned toward the police assault; in another context, they could be seen as spectators watching a parade. And for the white viewing public looking at the painting, the black man being bitten is a clown in a circus, performing the same act over and over again.

Andy Warhol, "Race Riot" (1964), acrylic and silkscreen on linen (screenshot from Christie'
The online auction listing for Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot” (1964). The work sold for over $62.9 million at Christie’s last May. (screenshot via

In Warhol’s “Before and After” and Koons’s “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” we go from a black-and-white newspaper ad for plastic surgery to its disturbing aftermath. Jackson underwent a number of procedures to alter his appearance, to look more Caucasian. Is this what is meant by progress in art? That you have to do whatever is necessary to appropriate the right look for yourself and your art? Are Warhol and Koons “geniuses” because they developed a trademark aesthetic that enabled them to celebrate a world that values plastic surgery and skin lighteners? Aren’t they celebrating the American equivalent of the Aryan ideal and the triumph of white capitalist culture (the beauty business)? Is this the “grand and meaningful” experience (to use Turan’s words) I am supposed to have when I look at “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”? Is this what I am obligated to find “thrilling?” Or do I see a celebration of self-hatred, as well as obeisance to a soul-destroying ideal?

It seems to me that Koons was covering his tracks when he said: “I was just trying to say that whatever you respond to is perfect, that your history and your own cultural background are perfect.” Since the goal is to “communicate with people,” he wants them to know that he and they are perfect, that there is nothing to be critical of, just accept everything about yourself.

But Koons’s white porcelain sculpture, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” would seem to come closer to telling us what he really thinks, which is that to be out of the mainstream is in fact a mark of imperfection, and that you must be willing to do anything necessary to be embraced by the white middle class. For the 1% of the super-rich who support Koons’s work, it is not about art, but about achieving the rank of tastemaker. One reason they love Koons is because he spends huge amounts of money on something they are buying for an even larger sum — money chasing money. Everyone who praises Koons writes about both his desire for perfection and his need to be in complete control — as if being a perfectionist and an autocrat helps you deny fate. It is certainly hyperbolic to refer to Koons as some kind of creative genius, but he does share the genius of corporate marketers, who are able to convince consumers that the product they are selling is absolutely essential to their lives. Want to buy some skin lightener? Add a supratarsal epicanthic fold to your upper eyelids? Get rid of baldness? Yes, you too can be white, beautiful, and watertight.

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