Koons in Paris: More Is Less

Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1 994-2000 ∏ Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog (Magenta)” (1994–2000), mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 1 of 5 unique versions (Pinault collection, © Jeff Koons)

PARIS — As we well know, Jeff Koons looms large as the major symptom of the hype, hubris, and money that have swamped the global art scene. His signature brand aesthetic of defiantly vacuous hyper-commoditization is veined with suspicions of 1% financial empowerment coupled to technological power. It assumes the mainstream fundamental dynamic of public culture: the battle for your attention. This is what makes his art the most recognizable and expensive in the world — work that is also the symbol (for some) of flaccid degeneration.

For these, the success of Koons’s empowered empty-headedness means that much of art’s worth has been depleted, as copiers of his victorious aesthetic of happy consumption have turned more and more artists towards modes of expression that are unimpassioned and imitative. However, with his Centre Pompidou retrospective/celebration (as in New York, comprehensive and chronological) I think I sensed that his treatment of art as hypertrophied kitsch is in the process of concluding. At balance is the fate of originality.

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Jeff Koons, “Large Vase of Flowers” (1991), polychromed wood, edition no 3/3 (Sammlung Ludwig – Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aix-la-Chapelle, © Jeff Koons)

There is nothing intricate or subtle to engage with here. Typical with Koons, such as in “Large Vase of Flowers” (1991) or “Loopy” (1999), ground never dominates over configuration. As a consequence, his is not an art that needs to be interacted with imaginatively. So, one never feels a sense of languor there. Indeed people seemed in a hurry to move along, as clearly viewers are not in the presence of an invitation to reverie. The work is never more affective than discursive — never more enigmatic than dogmatic — as it contains very few possibilities of interpretation. Thus it never seems magical.

Plus, the work has no negative capability, as it is relentlessly upbeat in a way that is untrue to life. The man himself, with his apparent insistent smiling cheeriness, suggests to me a Scientologized Howdy Doody.

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Jeff Koons, “Buster Keaton” (1988), polychrome wood, edition no 3/3 (The Sonnabend collection & Antonio Homem, © Jeff Koons)

Much of the work, such as “Buster Keaton” (1988), is dreadfully simple, clear, direct, conformist, maudlin, and sentimental. Indeed much is heavy-handedly zealous, huge, gaudy, and uniformly simplistic, as we can see again with the three-meter “Balloon Dog (Magenta)” (1994-2000), in “Moon,” and with the maudlin red “Hanging Heart” that was set off against a splendid view of Paris (all three works from the Celebration series are on loan from French billionaire François Pinault).

These works, with their high prices, gives juice to the idea that it is wrong for art to be difficult — because that leads to obscurantism, exclusion, and elitism. That it is right that things be easy and entertaining. Indeed Koons is aggressively anti-intellectual and he shuns aesthetic complexity. Consequently, his work is fodder for all that thwarts, represses, starves, withers, deadens, limits, and narrows our real (complex) selves.

In the discourse around (and by) Koons, the heroic fight against art as elite class snobbery is often heard. After examining his entire body of work, it is apparent to me that this is a shiny red herring used to justify the dumb-down ethos employed in his art, art that bends towards the low hanging fruit of reductive simplification.

Jeff Koons, “Lobster” (2003), polychromed aluminum and coated steel chain (photo byTom Powel Imaging, collection of the artist, © Jeff Koons)

Koons’s work never offers a sense of moreness — nor eloquence, mystery, poetry, tragedy, delicacy, or doubt. It is a globalized neo-conceptual art of appropriation and fabrication that thrives in an environment where no dominant discourse determines artistic value. Yet the work has one dominant feature. It partakes in the cult of the sweet child. Indeed Koons prides himself in his work’s polite innocence: in its omission of significant content. Yet I don’t see it as innocent. Koons’s work does nothing to disrupt cynical power with innocence. In fact, it just inscribes elite power-wealth as innocent (which it is not).

What is at stake with Koons’s looming easy/nice/fun is the principle of anti-foundationalism: the recognition of art as a means of seeing through Orwellian falseness, through the clichéd, through the indifferent, through the tendentiousness of trumped-up, hyped-up, falsified life of majority – through attempts to reduce art to capitalist propaganda.

“Self-Portrait” (1991) Marble, Edition of 3 + artist’s proof, photo: Douglas M. Parker Studios, Los Angeles Private collection © Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons, “Self-Portrait” (1991), marble, edition of 3 + artist’s proof (photo by Douglas M. Parker Studios, Los Angeles Private collection, © Jeff Koons)

With Koons, the point of view of the eye of your mind has no special claim. He limits and demeans us by pandering to us as passive recipients. He never stirs in us consciousness of our own unique existence – something not achieved passively.

Koons’s work has no complex inter-relational transitions. His work never reminds us that the primary feature that distinguishes aesthetic consciousness is imagination and that imagination entails visioning and symbolizing, areas of practice useful in heightening perception and intuition. Indecision, ambiguity and conflict never become dynamic and useful values in his work. With Koons, never are we challenged with what I think of as the responsibility of looking — where we can re-appropriate our senses and our fragile capacity to visualize on a personal basis — something that cannot be appropriated by capital.

Koons’s retrospective proves illusionary the Baudrillardian ideal of subversive conformity popular in the 1980s. At the Pompidou, there is nothing suggestive of the anti-pop (no-logo) struggle that is taking place around the world (particularly in youth culture). There is nothing indicative of social relationships outside of passive pop consumption. The accustomed platitudes of the corporate logo model for art (immediate and bright) are never submitted to transformation. Indeed, the feeling here is of a corporate stooge tightening the tourniquet of powerlessness about our eyes and throat. Here we cannot take back our head.

Jeff Koons: La Rétrospective continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris) through April 27, 2015.

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