EssaysWeekend

Jeff Koons: Shiny on the Outside, Hollow on the Inside, Part 1

Jeff Koons, “Tulips” (1995–2004), high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating, 80 x 180 x 205 in, outside Christie’s Auction House, November 2012 (photo by the author)

Shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside. That is how the work of the American artist Jeff Koons has been generally described and received, not only by those who are less than affectionate toward it but also by those who like it. That is evidently how we like our art today — which has been in fashion now for more than a protracted ‘moment,’ although we still seem able to make belated room for the likes of a Bruce Nauman, David Hammons, Not Vital, Kiki Smith, or Robert Gober. But we would arguably, for better or worse, have no Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, or even John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage, and many others today, without the example of Koons — without the ‘release’ from certain superficial sexual repressions and constraints. Some will go a step further and say Koons’s work is a perfect reflection of the American ethos today, that it reflects the way Americans are — shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside; in a word, soulless, without any spiritual or intellectual depth, but ‘open,’ sexually available, happy-go-lucky, if you like, just like Koons’s sculptures (and, consensus has it, that background noise he calls his paintings).

Some will even bring history to bear upon the argument: that there is precedence for this approach, namely Pop Art, and for this kind of artist, in the rather formidable figure of Andy Warhol. (Whose work and whose person were hardly ‘sexually available’; but, after all, there are differences between Warhol and Koons.) Shiny, with reflective surfaces, on the outside, and hollow, with the nothingness of structural armature, on the inside, where the soul used to abide, at least metaphorically, if not metaphysically — the ‘soul,’ which was defined (and controlled existentially) by the Europeans before World War II, and which was posited culturally (transcendentally), for the first (and last) time in America, by the Abstract Expressionists just after the war. The ‘soul,’ which barely survived the Holocaust and Hiroshima, in the form of Giacometti’s demoralized and emaciated but still standing figures, de Kooning’s crushed but enduring Clamdiggers, Rothko’s irradiated landscapes-cum-diffused-fields-of-color, and Pollock’s atomic dissolutions of form. When we think of shiny and hollow, how can we not think of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of celebrities, or, more to the point, his helium-filled mylar “Silver Clouds,” first installed at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1966, especially with reference to Koons’s use of stainless steel, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, and polychromed aluminum, not to mention all the works availing themselves of organ-like and breathing-inspired devices and effects. If Pop Art killed off the soul, then Minimalism and Conceptualism, in America, at any rate, supplied the coffin and the flowers – hardly fleurs du mal – for the funeral. (The European versions of these movements, Nouveau Réalisme and Arte Povera, comprised wholly another matter, some of it having to do purely and simply with the decorative, as well as the anti-decorative, in art. Duchamp, as a precedent for Pop, and clearly for Koons, is a related but entirely different kettle of fish, given his far more complex intellectual erotics and hubris.)

Andy Warhol, “Silver Clouds,” helium-filled mylar, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. The work was first exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, in 1966. (via Flickr/liz…z)

In the case of Koons, I am not simply speaking of the Easyfun pieces and beyond, beginning in the New Millennium, made of crystal glass and stainless steel; nor only of the Celebration works, such as “Hanging Heart” (1992–2006) or the Balloon Dogs and Flowers (such as “Tulips”) from 1994 to 2007. I am also speaking of the stainless steel Statuary works of 1986, especially the “Rabbit,” and the stainless steel Luxury and Degradation series of the same year; the basketballs floating in distilled water in the Equilibrium tanks from 1985; the rug and shampoo polishers and vacuum cleaners of The New, from 1980 to 1987, with their breathing apparatuses (‘lungs’), illuminated by Flavinesque fluorescent lights from the cold depths; the shiny, new home appliances (now dated and seemingly funky) attached to fluorescent lights in the Pre-New (1979–80); and the Inflatables, with their vinyl flowers and mirrors, from 1979 (cartoonish riffs on Andy Warhol’s flowers and Robert Smithson’s mirror displacement works of the 1960s and ’70s). We will not address all the other mirrors in Koons’s work, since they are not exactly hollow, even if they are shiny, but simply empty, until we step into them and blemish them with the figures of our own self-satisfied, smiling selves, our own cynical and complicit beings, our own out-of-control, over-the-top egos. Not that we can entirely deny these objects their biological fervor as cold organs ‘operating’ pristinely in a world of radical consumption and dishumanized (sic) reproduction. If we cannot think of the twentieth century without such icons (many of them sexually inflected) as Picasso’s depiction of a brothel in “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913), Duchamp’s urinal (with its over-replete and often forgotten title “Fountain” [1917]), Malevich’s white-on-white Suprematist square (1918), Brancusi’s “Endless Column” (1938), Pollock’s action paintings in the late ’40s and Twombly’s ‘seminal’ mythological scrawls of the ’60s, Cage’s silent musical composition 433 (1952), Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” (1953), and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), to name just a few in a long line of revolutionary ‘moments’ (to borrow Renato Poggioli’s term again) and oeuvres, then what is Koons’s stainless steel “Rabbit (1986) if not a Benjaminesque icon of reproduction (as opposed to representational) values gone haywire? By ‘reproduction’ I am thinking of everything from issues of mechanical reproduction (vis à vis the advertising industry) to overpopulation and the corporate exploitation of global markets, as opposed to those intellectual slights that become the substance of critical theories of representation from which professors of Postmodernism make a resentful living. Never was an object more perfectly sterile and yet symptomatic of an age of rampant self-consumption and overproduction than Koon’s “Rabbit.” In the light of this uncompromised legacy, that we should ever have found of interest Koons’s self-exploitation of pornographic imagery (so falsely or dissemblingly life-affirming, and yet another instance of reproduction run amuck) in his Made in Heaven series (1989–90) speaks more to our prudishness than to iconicity.

When exhibited in ‘The Last Laugh: Irony, Humor, Self-Mockery and Derision,’ curated by Collins & Milazzo, Massimo Audiello Gallery, New York, January 6–February 17, 1990, “Inflatable Flower” (vinyl, mirrors, acrylic, 16 x 12 x 19 in) was dated 1978, not 1979, as shown in the catalogue ‘Jeff Koons: A Retrospective’ (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014). Artists in ‘The Last Laugh’: Donald Baechler, John Baldessari, Saint Clair Cemin, Billy Copley, Deborah Kass, Jeff Koons, Cary Leibowitz, Roy Lichtenstein, Vik Muniz, Richard Prince, Ad Reinhardt, Allen Ruppersberg, Tyler Turkle, Julie Wachtel, Andy Warhol. (photo courtesy the author)

Koons’s quintessential “Cracked Egg (Blue)” (1995–99) from the Celebration series, proves beyond any doubt — as if any more proof were needed — that the ‘inside’ is not only hollow (viscera-free, flawlessly sterile to an extreme), but, in this case, also shiny, making it absolutely what it is: an ironic or paradoxical icon (of reproduction, par excellence) embodying the creative (or ontological) void as an Absolute, and this through the absolution of kitsch. We are not simply in the realm, the reified presence, of the de trop or the superfluous, as Sartre might have defined it; nor are we even in Guy Debord’s world of the Spectacle. We have entered a new realm, a new era, in American culture, with Koons’s supremacy, in which the superficial or shallow, as such, in the form of Super-Kitsch, has become, in the early years of the twenty-first century, the commanding new super-paradigm in art (with Hirst and others desperately riding neck-in-neck, even where Hirst consistently flirts with a darker, Bleckneresque, existential component – and a case can be made that he got his butterflies and dots from Bleckner’s birds and dot paintings), whose blatant agenda is to entertain, amuse, or, in Montaigne’s more psychologically incisive word, distract. Why shouldn’t the Superflat in Murakami’s paintings (and objects), for example, be considered a logical cultural extension of Clement Greenberg’s defense of flatness as an abiding Modernist principle, given Greenberg’s implicitly Hegelian belief that what is Modern keeps moving forward?

Jeff Koons, “Rabbit” (1986), polished stainless steel, 41 x 19 x 12 in (photo by the author)

But ‘distract’ us from what? Is it from the proverbial depths (of the soul), that inexpressible place inside us, which occasionally sings with joy or cries out with indescribable pain, and which can be so easily bought and sold, despite all our post-existential hijinks? (Although it is no longer fashionable to speak of the soul or of the spiritual in art, we still refer to such things as subjectivity, values, influence, even truth, [in a highly bracketed, post-Platonic form, if we follow Badieu] — how do we quantify these things, these abstractions…are they really more materially and metaphysically manageable, available to us, than that thing or state we used to denominate as the soul?) Or does this new paradigm of Super-Kitsch distract us from that void, that groundlessness, which we sense inside, which subtends all living things, and which subsists despite such incomparable odds? Or does it distract us from that murky domain of subjectivity, which Wittgenstein exiled from philosophical speculation in the early 1920s as linguistically insubstantial? Or does it distract us from that so-called more objective axis of reality revolving around history — History, which, like the News, is currently being “erased by entertainment,” to borrow Peter Nagy’s formulation from 1983, and which has become nothing more than the handmaiden of opinion, hidden agendas and axe-grinding?

If it is these things, or some vague, hand-me-down version of these things, that comprise this void, then, in a dialectical twist worthy of “Hegel on Madison Ave.” (a self-deprecating term we, Collins & Milazzo, used to describe our own critical practice during the so-called disreputable 1980s), Koons’s work ironically contains, objectifies, indeed, celebrates it (this void), confronts us with it, like no artist before him, including Dalí (whom Koons admires intuitively much in the same way he admired Michael Jackson and Marcel Duchamp in the same passionate and inexplicable breath, providing us with ‘bubbles,’ so to speak, or “Woman in Tub [1988] as a perversely viable update of the latter’s [Duchamp’s] Étant Donnés). We are given a ‘gilded’ (metaphorically, if not allegorically, replete) mirror in Koons’s Wishing Well (1988) in which we cannot deny our own reflections. His work even goes so far as to re-predicate history momentarily as the lost temporality of youth, his reflective surfaces allowing us to scan or surf the history of our lost innocence. With respect to the childlike dimension of his work, think of the Inflatable Flowers, or of his concept of the virginal or The New, or the Banality series of 1988, the “Puppy of 1992, or the over-the-top juvenile and glitzy Popeye and Hulk Elvis works from 2002 to the present. Think of all the children and child-related figures and toys literally and figuratively populating these works. Kunstforum (Cologne) reproduced “Two Kids” (1986) for an article Collins & Milazzo did on his work in 1986 — Koons’s first magazine cover, by the way! Unlike Claes Oldenburg’s deflated blow-ups or the shaky contours of Donald Baechler’s sad but caustic brats, this population of bulbous — ontologically obese — magnifications of two-dimensional figures simply ask us not only to celebrate but to identify with the void of their imaginary two-dimensional lives. No one could be prouder of this genetically modified – technologically perfect — ‘food’ for public consumption than Koons! We devour (sic) this pill of technological perfection until we are fully sedated, until we have fully abandoned all semantic and linguistic, not to mention critical, pretensions — other than emitting cries of sheer ecstasy! We have only to peruse the six pages by Michelle Kuo analyzing (subliminally lauding) Koons’s perfectionism — entitled, no less, “One of a Kind”! — in his retrospective catalogue to become convinced of how oblivious to, and accepting of, his rhetoric we have become. This certainly carries the concept of the Golden Arches or playing to an all-too gullible audience to an extreme.

If we complain that Koons’s work speaks thusly out of both sides of its mouth — constituting, as it does, both the object and the subject of the critique as its predicating agent — then when in history has dialectical reasoning not actually done that very same thing — doubled back and sublated the (so-called) implacable groundlessness of its terms? (For example, it was partly for this reason, and others — to clarify the ‘language’ of symbolic logic – that Rudolf Carnap conceptualized the terms ‘object-language’ and ‘meta-language’ in philosophy.) By one definition, dialectics is the ability to derive the positive (literally, the posit) from negation (not the other way around) within the necessary ‘bounds’ of the original proposition (that is, the linguistic boundaries, if we follow Wittgenstein, again, in this). This activity was in the best tradition of the Pre-Socratics, and later, even incorporated the Socratic method, but was eventually diluted by Plato, and especially Aristotle, not only in behalf of so-called non-paradoxical thinking or reasoning but also, more importantly, in behalf of the Absolute (disguised as Idea and the Ideal) in philosophy (which was, in the end, after all, nothing more than a trope, granted a dangerous one, but nonetheless a trope among many other tropes, i.e., ideological exaggerations), which is precisely when thinking became a mechanical gesture. Lawrence Durrell put it once this way, in his book Sicilian Carousel (1977), speaking of the early Greeks: they had the uncanny ability of maintaining simultaneously two contrary, indeed, contradictory, positions, and believing in both with equal passion. An ‘ability’ that can be cannily coopted, manipulated, sold and resold, over and over again, as a visionary gift wrapped in oracular pronouncements. Koons merely represents the apotheosis of this kind of thinking in the art world, relaunched some time ago by the Pop artists — ‘relaunched’, because there is a long history of academic or frozen thinking and frozen images in the history of art.

* * *

Koons is no Pre-Socratic, but he has distinctly tapped into the consciousness and conscience of American culture. For this reason, a collector who might collect Michael Asher, Lawrence Weiner or Dan Graham, or even Richard Serra’s work, steeped as they are, or once were, in institutional critique (a certain school of criticism might claim), would have no problem whatsoever justifying the inclusion of Koons’s “Tulips” (1995-2004) in his or her collection, depending, of course, on their success (or lack thereof) in the marketplace. No critic I know who has written with a particular preference for the work of Asher, Weiner or Graham would consider refusing to write about Koons, not that such critics are very likely to be invited. Koons is smarter than that. Why take the chance of a single spoiler, who, by the way, would be forgotten sooner than any of those who have sung his praises? Not that we are looking for consistency in such matters of the heart and brain. (Hopefully, I do not need to disinter the irony buried in between these lines.) If they were invited, I am sure they would adjust their critical acumen and rhetoric to suit the subject and the context, fully compromising whatever politics they thought they were practicing previously in order to clutch at the few crumbs (if they can even be called that) inadvertently falling from Koons’s dining room table onto the floor.

The dialectic that applies to this artist, or to any artist, for that matter, does not or cannot apply to the critic. For the critic’s spiritual plight is lodged at the very inception and conception of the critical function, given that his or her action contains nothing that is fundamentally itself, apart from the void it must necessarily embrace, even if he is to make the most modest of assertions. However, almost immediately, he convinces himself that his practice is pure; but this is precisely because within the technology of its phenomenological life this practice is ‘groundless,’ and only because of this. That is, it is fundamentally grounded in a void at its very center. This kind of purity is necessarily, that is, categorically, disconnected from the source of its perceptions, unless it reconnects intuitively to the object of desire, which it simultaneously and paradoxically resents and shuns either for moralistic or ideological reasons. (By ‘disconnection’, I do not mean to imply anything other than the way predication is never more than momentarily or provisionally bound to its object, to any noun, to the nominal process, within any given sentential instance, within the reality of the way the critic is ‘sentenced’ to the art object.)

We see this in Kant’s aesthetic principle of disinterestedness, which, like his notion of the Sublime, is grounded precisely in this disconnection between the noumenal and the phenomenal, and, by extension, the Subject and the Object — which perhaps can better be described as an all-consuming disenchantment with the material world. But the deflection as such can be motivated by an excess of any kind or by the erotic opulence of the object itself, which can become ultimately a source of embarrassment. What else is the object of desire, if not these things and more (or less, given their denudation), which the critic cannot by definition control? Instead of indulging the intuitive relation toward the object in the hope that it might become something other, predicate its being as such, he represses it. The further he pulls away from his instinctual or intuitive life, especially with age (why else do you think Plato sponsored ‘friendship’ as the highest form of love?), the less appealing or more vulgar the object and such displays become. It is exactly at this point that the critic’s practice becomes wholly dominated either by envy (invidia) or by insidiousness (insidia) – pardon the latter neologism or faux, Easyfun etymon).

Jeff Koons, “Cracked Egg,” aluminum with high gloss red finish, 4.5 x 3 x 3 in, invitation created exclusively for the February 9, 2008 Gala Opening of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum, not to be confused with “Cracked Egg (Magenta)” (1994–2006), high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating, 78 x 62 x 12 in (photo by the author)

While we may not speak of a void per se, since we can predicate nothing beyond the aforementioned groundlessness (if the deconstructivists have proven anything, they have proven this beyond any doubt), we may, however, speak of a dialectical negation situated at the very core of the critical function — the ‘source’ being construed as nothing more and nothing less than a preeminent threshold. Nothing can (so why should we say ‘should’?) grow out of the de-eroticization or de-spiritualization of the creative act, not that I personally subscribe even to the default ethical dimensions of this particular narrative, no matter how poignant. Which is a rather harsh way of putting it. Let us say simply that what the void at the heart of this narrative offers (falsely) or returns to us is what is given to it (‘originally’) as an object of desire. At its lowest threshold, the critical function may try to mimic this object; at an unimaginably even lower threshold, it becomes dedicated to denuding itself of its erotic power through diverse forms of resentment (we are following Nietzsche on this, again). (According to this logic, Duchamp would have approved of Warhol but not Koons, despite the latter’s Made in Heaven cycle.) If the critical function cannot assert this object (of desire), by definition, through an affirmative act, then why shouldn’t it, as its adversary, as a shadow object, negate its postulates as source material? This is why so-called New art (which is merely a momentary indulgence) is often dismissed so off-handedly by most or all so-called older critics (myself included). Where the relation is not internecine, the critical function is fatal, mostly towards itself, in this regard.

If Koons’s shiny and hollow egg is cracked, perhaps it is not only to underscore the inherently ephemeral or fragile nature of ‘perfection,’ which he has so fetishized, but also to comment upon the critique all creative work must endure. Or perhaps it is cracked open as a symbol of that ultimate void in life we can only experience tautologically as a void, namely death, but intuited merely as a concept, as an abstraction — and a silly one at that. There can be nothing more open and perfect, more unendurable and unimaginable, than that. Or perhaps it is a way to objectify the critical function, in the only way that an artist can, by reconverting the void it creates into the consummate space of penetration (hollowness) and reflection (shininess), something the critic cannot do without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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