I wrote most of the first two sections of this essay (Part 1) in March 2011, but never submitted it anywhere. I think I lost interest in the subject. I thought I wrote it well before the negative critiques would surely come rolling in, even before Koons’s retrospective at the Whitney in 2014. However, with few exceptions, they never rolled in, and when they finally stumbled in, they were washed away like so many lemmings rushing, or rather, being pushed, over the by-now rusty cliff of the academic avant-garde by all the unmitigated praise. Quite the contrary: Koons seems to have spawned a whole new (and not so new), younger generation of apologists (see the Whitney catalogue, most especially the introduction, particularly the last two sections).
For years I have privately heard the artist described in the most acrimonious and invidious of terms, the worst of which possibly was that “Koons was [or had become] the Kostabi of my generation”! This claim being patently, indeed, intentionally, disingenuous, since both artists are, at least chronologically speaking, from the same generation. This was painful to hear because in point of fact ‘my generation,’ my circle of artists, never included Kostabi, and the generation they were alluding to was very specifically Ross Bleckner, James Welling, Peter Nadin, Kevin Larmon, Richard Prince, Steven Parrino, Peter Nagy, Sarah Charlesworth, Mark Innerst, Gretchen Bender, Meyer Vaisman, Allan McCollum, Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, Philip Taaffe, Robert Gober, Not Vital, Abraham David Christian, Saint Clair Cemin, Annette Lemieux, and later, such artists as Meg Webster, Sal Scarpitta, Lawrence Carroll and Vik Muniz, among many others. Many of whom, by the way, are currently being reassigned new lives as part of the Pictures Generation — a generation of critics and artists-as-critics who, in fact, never supported the above-mentioned artists, and whose ideological closure and moralisms (here I am speaking again of the Pictures Generation and their various deconstructions of desire and representations of it) I found almost more objectionable than the self-indulgence and excesses of the Neo-Expressionists (and their various reconstructions of subjectivity) whom I also relentlessly critiqued in the 1980s. ‘Reassigned,’ that is, when they are not all being lumped together as that much vilified ’80s generation, which today’s younger dealers (Matthew Marks vis à vis Gober and David Zwirner vis à vis Koons, to give just two overt examples), who pretend to walk on higher aesthetical, conceptual (sic), and even moral (sic) grounds, are only too eager to recontextualize, reanoint or simply re-present. So, clearly, this all but chronological misassignment (on all fronts) was intended to speak to Koons’s supposed over-the-top superficiality, which he, unlike Kostabi, was able to reboot as a counter-critical strategy. This involved converting the superficiality into the semblance of an anti-critical maneuver of some kind, whereby Koons could épater not le bourgeoisie but criticality itself — excepting from the formulation, of course, only the subtlest form of critique which could then be used to justify this selfsame superficiality as a meta-form of mindless celebration (‘fun’) and bankrupt acceptation (‘easyfun’, as if fun per se were not easy enough!).
“Criticality gone!” Koons liked to say. The idea was simple: let’s do away with any critique whatsoever, but especially any that might prove to be unhappiness-producing, for we certainly have had enough of that in the art world, enough of that hand-me-down pseudo-Frankfurt-School joylessness! Nor do we want even any of that French-imported, post-structural, post-semiotic discursiveness — even the pleasure-inflected kind — but especially of the deconstructivist variety, when we can instead, as Americans, resurrect, at least in our minds, that sacrosanct, prosperity-generated, post-World-War-II exuberance of the 1950s! Which could be enjoyed again, but this time around not only by the ever-diminishing middle classes and by the one-percenters, who are buying up all the art, but by anyone, the artist reasoned, who could afford the price of an admission ticket to see a Koons’s show at the museum! This rehabilitated innocence is what Koons’s cajoling smile personifies. (We will not speak, here, of the extravagant entrance fees — the Museum of Modern Art having led the way in this disreputable practice, and now even the Metropolitan Museum, in its recommended admission price, has followed suit — which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for younger, poorer artists, and non-artists alike, to visit their museums on a regular basis — their sense of institutional entitlement only adding insult to injury.)
Even where the critics, and artists in general, have not swallowed this Kool-Aid, they have exhibited a remarkable patience, one might even say an inexplicable tolerance, for Koons’s work and for the rhetoric he has generated around it over the years. In all the time I have been in the art world (a very tiny place growing tinier everyday despite its global economic affectations), I have never witnessed such tolerance, such patience, for any one artist, for any one modality of art — let’s call it neo-Pop, or, more accurately, Super-Kitsch — which has basically taken hold of this subset of the cultural world-at-large like a virus, simply not allowing itself to be countered or subverted, neither from outside nor from the inside (David Salle’s concept of subversive complicity notwithstanding). Even Richard Prince, with the exception of his best work (the early photography) from the late 1970s and early 1980s, has succumbed to a version of this modality. If you think the drone of Hip Hop, with all of its pseudo-dialectical racism in tow, is the only kind of music out there, because that is all that is funneled through the media and Pop Culture, controlled as these are by certain corporate interests, then you must also think the only artists who matter out there right now are the ones represented by galleries or, in this case, major labels. Think about the uproar and debacle surrounding “Tilted Arc,” a work of art by Richard Serra stationed on Foley Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981. Whether you were for or against it — this ominous, hulking thing which mutely imposed itself on the office workers when they congregated on the Plaza, usually during their lunch hour, and generally blocking the flow of pedestrian traffic — you knew in your heart (that inconsequential organ with no philosophical basis or reality) that this was really about the limited and oppressive nature of Minimal, and even Postminimal, art (with the possible exceptions of Hesse, Smithson, and Nauman), and that the culture had had enough of Judd’s ridiculous pronouncements about the end of art, a movement which was so utterly and inherently corporate in nature. A ‘movement’ surpassed in the ludicrousness of its ethical claims only by Kosuth and ‘his’ followers. What had come to pass was not the end of art but the end of a certain period or kind of art — thankfully.
There was manifest in the culture, in whatever deformed state, a critical threshold, which not only made people impatient, it even made them, wrongly or rightly, intolerant of what had by that time become the status quo in the art world, or, let us say simply, an annoying irritant in that world, and especially in that unknowing (but knowing) larger outer world, no matter how ‘light’ (Conceptual Art in the form of a ‘menu’ or list of directions) or how heavy, how many tons, that irritant weighed. Not only has there been no real negative or critical reaction to Koons’s work on the part of artists, there has been almost no critical response that has not simultaneously greeted the work ultimately with open arms, taking at the most ad hominem pot shots at the theatrical, Dalíesque, ever-smiling persona Koons has shrewdly shaped over the years. A cartoon character he has created, partially to protect himself but also partly to dare, to encourage, these whimsical attacks, which he knows ultimately advance his cause, since he also knows that even bad publicity is good for the cause – the ‘cause’, of course, being himself. In this respect, he has an overwhelmingly generous dialectical mind, and this text only contributes to that cause – and no amount of Brechtian self-awareness or bracketing of this argument or discourse (such as this selfsame period) will change that.
In any case, Koons has simply been allowed to walk, indeed, stroll with impunity along the Napoleonic higher ground, which I suppose many artists seek. Picasso was hardly the beginning of this syndrome. We can go all the way back to the Renaissance during the Vasariesque-like wars over secular and non-secular commissions alike — all commissions, in the end, being sacred! Critics, no matter how low on the food chain, have also participated in this ambition. Over recent years, many have sought this so-called higher ground and temporarily held it for a nanosecond (which always seems to last, at least in the mind of that critic or artist, for an eternity): Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd, Achille Bonito-Oliva, Julian Schnabel, Robert Longo, Damian Hirst, just to name a random few. (Naturally, I have intentionally left off this list the names of those artists and critics who secretly and perversely would have liked to have been included on it.) Apart from two reviews, one by the left-of-center Peter Plagens (“Confectionary Overload”), which appeared in The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, July 22, 2014), and the other, by the normally over-reactionary, right-of-center Jed Perl (“The Cult of Jeff Koons”), in The New York Review of Books (September 25, 2014), both well-written but neither going nearly far enough to examine, beyond exposing, the anti-critical fervor to which Koons’s work lends itself, nothing has been written really addressing this phenomenon of over-arching non-critical acceptance of this artist’s work. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. Think of the cowardly (systemic and chronic) disposition of the Democratic Party distancing itself from one of the most remarkable Presidents, with some of the most remarkable achievements to his credit, in the recent history of the United States as it neared midterm elections. Obama’s defect? Trying to keep us out of several new (and old) wars — unsuccessfully, I might add. Not that we cannot subject Obama to a much deserved critique based on the non-indictments of Bush, Cheney, and company for war crimes, for extending corporate welfare and other financial privileges to banks and Wall Street, and for currently attempting to further expedite the corporate exploitation of Third World labor markets in Asia (via the Trans-Pacific Partnership) where workers are paid on the average 56 cents per hour. It is also frightening to think that in the 2016 election many of us (myself included) will vote for Hillary only because she is a woman, since we (or some of us on the eccentric, anti-authoritarian Left) know that at heart she is a hawk, and a dangerous one at that, given the way she has actually voted since she was a New York State Senator.
Among the few silent critical voices I heard in the street was one who wondered aloud, and rather naively, why Koons had not mounted his retrospective in the Whitney’s new building … if he is so Napoleonic, why did he wind up doing it in that inhumane, bunker-like old building which, despite its ‘distinguished’ architectural pedigree, looks like it had been dragged from the gray D-Day shores of Normandy? Why share the spotlight with a newly architected building, especially one by Renzo Piano, when you can swallow the old one whole, was the response. If the exhibition had been held in the new building, the discussion might surely have been bifurcated – although given what I have seen of it, from the outside, at least, I think we are sunbathing once again on the sunny gray shores of Normandy. In the race for the Napoleonic heights, Koons’s work might still have prevailed.
* * *
One last, rather long afterthought. It was remarkable seeing so many pieces in the show which I had exhibited in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among them was the ‘monumental’ stainless steel piece, “Kiepenkerl” (1987), which was shown for the first time in the United States in an exhibition Collins & Milazzo curated, The Last Decade: American Artists of the ’80s, at what was at the time Tony Shafrazi’s spanking new gallery in Soho, New York, in September 1990. Shafrazi opened with this exhibition, technically a good show but one that I never liked. Our arms had been twisted, and so we wound up doing something we hardly ever did: compromise. We were gently coerced into including three or four artists I never liked and had never shown before, and excluding approximately the same number whose work I favored and which I had supported almost from the very beginning, such as Sarah Charlesworth, who, I found out years later, never forgave me. About a year before she died, we were working on a very large project that unfortunately never came to fruition. When the topic came up, she asked why I of all people — the very person who had originally found a gallery for her (International with Monument, the only gallery, she confided, that ever really meant anything to her) during the mid-’80s, when no one wanted to show her — had left her work out of such an important exhibition. I assured her that it was not an important show — not for the specious reasons Peter Schjeldahl had given in his review (“Nothing Special,” in the Village Voice), but for reasons beyond my control at the time. She didn’t believe me, and continued to question me, although for some reason she continued to trust me with her work and pretended not to resent me for something that in the end I really was responsible for.
Seeing Koons’s vacuum cleaners and tanks, which I liked so much, if not “Kiepenkerl”, per se, which seemed so inconsequential, both then and now, brought all of this back to me. Positioning it in the lobby of the Whitney, crowded as it was during the retrospective, as a substitute for the crowded old market in Münster where the ‘original’ presides, in no way convinced me of its so-called ‘populist’ intentions, no more than recasting it in stainless steel did — the material of the “proletariat” — when Koons first conceived it. But all of these works reminded me of a very important factor. Seen alone, isolated, in the full purity of their dispassionate and displaced egotisms, Koons’s various bodies of work appeared denuded of the very thing, of the very dimension, that had made at least the early bodies of work seem so meaningful, so radical, and even beautiful: their criticality. Missing, too, was that indefinable quality or attribute which no one who was not part of that (aforementioned) circle of artists can possibly understand: their self-criticality — which seemed to, and did, in part, remove the rug, if not the ground itself, from beneath the critic’s feet … feet which were never particularly blessed with any skills beyond the incestuous kinds spawned by the inner circles of the Academy, at least not at that point in history (with the possible exception of Gary Indiana, who was a relatively independent voice), much less dancing abilities. Think of how absurd the vacuum cleaners (‘dirt-eaters’), especially those lying prostrate, must have seemed relative to the purity of the Minimal object, and how perfectly counterintuitive is ‘sinking’ a single basketball into the very middle of a tank of water, this to capture the purity of a transcendent moment — that exquisite moment of perfect equilibrium when the ball is no longer ascending nor has begun its descent, but is arrested at its very peak! Perhaps, in the end, these were two self-consuming ‘circles’ destined to self-immolate, given their insouciance and self-referential nature — although I must say I thought the will to self-critique, however qualified, exhibited by ‘my generation’ (sic) of artists, and the relentlessly provisional context, differentiated us.
Then I had to ask, as I stood in the middle of the Easter-Island-like monoliths of the fiberglass-encased and florescent-lit rug and vacuum cleaners at the show (more like a carnival packed with fun-seekers), where this criticality had actually come from and how could it have been swept away so easily, like so much dirt under the carpet, so much imperfection, so much unadulterated destabilizing energy, even if its value, indeed, its very existence, had only been an illusion in my own mind as a critic and curator of the work at that time? I realized that, before this sensation of criticality had been stripped away, it had come from Koons’s work being a part of something larger than itself – not being part of a community per se (let’s not get carried away), but part of a critical context that had, for better and for worse, helped to push aside the Neo-Expressionists, and, perhaps, less willingly, the picture theory artists and their critical proponents and apologists, the Octoberists, a far more insidious cult, a cult that has tragically come to dominate the teaching industry today, spawning a gaggle of Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens wannabes. Apart from this adversarial dimension, there had been not only the affirmation or ‘birth’ of a whole generation of artists – not simply by implicitly or explicitly critiquing Neo-Expressionism and postulating an alternative to picture theory art — but a concerted critical awareness of social and historical issues transcending the narrowest of ideologies and sometimes, although rarely, even personal ambition.
Without being surrounded by that critical context which we and our generation of artists helped to create — artists such as the ones listed above — Koons’s work looked and felt denuded, disembodied, like puppets on a string, with Koons believing, I’m sure, that he is the one pulling the strings. It dangled there, like one of his multi-million dollar “Hanging Hearts” over a precipice, buoyed only by its economic standing. It even seemed amorphous somehow — not simply soulless, in a way that a figure by Giacometti or De Kooning or Twombly could never be, despite being stripped of their respective gestation periods (when all artists have something to be gained from solidarity), but utterly hollow and spiritless, in a way that Minimal and Conceptual Art often are, in a way that even one of Schnabel’s most bombastic sculptures could never be. Where Salle had postulated for his images a certain kind of exquisite postmodern deathfulness (sic), a simultaneously lustful and mournful cognitive reality, Koons’s work seems now to want to exist in the eyes of his viewers as the very embodiment of a posthumous state of perfection. The objects, especially the later ones, are too self-reflexive as ideas to be utterly inert (D.O.A.); rather, they would embalm perception itself as an Absolute. While this appraisal assigns a great deal of power to them, it also underscores just how inadvertently vulnerable, how unempathetically helpless, they really are; whereas an artist like Gober, with something as seemingly modest and impersonal as a ‘tenement’ sink (effectively, and sometimes literally, a replay of Duchamp’s urinal) — albeit entirely handmade and profoundly psychologized — plays shrewdly, poignantly, and powerfully to our imperfections, our ontological groundlessness, our fundamentally oneric being in the world. Not that Gober is entirely free of certain ideological and figurative mannerisms, especially in the later work. Koons seeks to reassure and infantalize us (as if Americans were not already suffering from this disease, which he is so obviously exploiting), and ultimately, bedazzle us with ‘toys’ that have been, unbelievably enough, dumbed up (sic) so that we may never suffer another dark, internal moment of self-reflection. Gober propounds a domestic metaphysics devised to ‘hit home,’ to destabilize the very ‘ground’ we walk on, inviting us to explore the formlessness beckoning to us from every nook and cranny of our existence, even where, at times, the claims of subconsciousness in his work seem coy at best, surrendering all-too-readily to Surrealist affectation. Baechler, in a similar fashion, with all the apparent ‘merriment’ of his beach balls, flowers, ice cream cones, underwear, vegetables, clocks, suitcases, telephones and the existential circus of his lions, horses, birds, detached feet and hands, crowds and globes, rendered flatly and in seemingly child-like scrawls, manages to generate in us the suspicion that not all is well with the world, not even the most facile version of it at our fingertips.
Koons’s monumental “Play-Doh” sculpture (1994–2014), the pièce de résistance of his retrospective, seemed ironically and paradoxically to embody perfectly the disembodiment his works unabashedly proselytized as an externalization, if not a downright exiling, of consciousness. Critique is the least of it; consciousness itself is at stake — and this is ultimately what Koons would like us to sacrifice. An unthinking, all-accepting happiness embodies his objective. (Even the assertion of this disembodiment has about it the air of a paradoxical circumlocution, not unlike one of Koons’s own many quixotic, if not utterly unbelievable, pronouncements.) Unlike most of the sculptures, which encourage our two-dimensional ‘reflections’ in their endlessly shiny, seamless, glitzy (mindlessly glamorous) surfaces, “Play-Doh’s” relatively opaque surfaces configure this disembodiment, this grotesque amorphousness, this underlying formlessness as an overriding eschatology — a massive, apocalyptic suspension of disbelief. But it’s not the same ‘formless’ that certain critics have written about within a narrative that is more closely bound to classical Conceptual Art, one that is itself soulless and eviscerated of any meaning beyond its own academic tautological impetus. In the same ironic way that Koons’s early Inflatables are related to Smithson’s mirror displacements, it can be argued that this formless (ultimately highly concocted) mound of Play-Doh is related to Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), except that Koons is endeavoring to deny or mask and ultimately counteract the effects of entropy, especially evident in the sclerotic dispersal of energy in his own work, by supplying us with the ‘materials’ (Play-Doh) to build or construct something! He is always working on our behalf! But this ‘gift,’ this happiness pill, he is handing us, allows him to treat us ultimately as if we were children who needed to be pacified or medicated, seeing immanence itself, when faced with the prospect of entropy, as the potential plaything of unhappiness, erosion, disease, and finally, death — unless, of course, it is converted immediately into something that is eternally joyful, and, by doing so, turning it into something that is, if not eternally, then quite possibly, false.
However, it is more likely that the formlessness of “Play-Doh” (I keep hearing playing with dough) speaks perhaps inadvertently or unself-consciously to a condition afflicting American society in general, and especially Koons’s own work, and that can only be described as a kind of thriving, self-justifying, spectacular infantilism that pushes beyond the long-standing discourse of American innocence abroad (with respect to Europe) or at home. This ‘innocence’ has always cultivated its place in American literature, and was given its most rigorous articulation, but in the most adulterated of styles, by Henry James.
In art we have seen this tradition evolve in the works of Twombly, Lichtenstein (think specifically of his comic book based images), Basquiat, Haring, Dunham, Gober and Baechler. Not that there were not European precedents for such manifestations in the work of Rousseau, Dubuffet, and even Giacometti. Where a child playing with its own feces (biological formlessness) may constitute, as the psychoanalytical critic Donald Kuspit once claimed, primordial evidence of creativity, arrested at this level this impulse, no matter how abstract and seemingly transcendent, can yield a subject, the infinite child in us, if you will, and a whole culture, that is easily and endlessly mesmerized by shiny, hollow things. Saint Clair Cemin, an extraordinary sculptor, who knows a thing or two about the phenomenological parameters (and ‘cuteness’) of objects, finds Kuspit’s notion (obviously inherited from Freud) reductive, and argues contrarily “that the child who plays with his feces is simply an artist who is working with the material at hand,” that perception itself presupposes the creative act of representation, at all levels, biological and cognitive. Which is to say if we look for the infinite child rather than the infinite artist in us, then what we have minimally is psychoanalysis’s articulation of its own arrested development projected as reality, something Lacan and his contemporaries tried to redress. I don’t believe colorizing this symbolic mound of feces, if that is what this is and that is what Koons has done, even subliminally, in “Play-Doh,” can reverse the entropic function Smithson was trying to document in “Spiral Jetty.”
As such, lumps of Play-Doh stacked on top of each other, magnified many times over, and perfectly, flawlessly cast, make a perfectly legitimate, and even academic, sculpture, echoing the gigantism and flaccidness of Oldenburg and bringing to mind that most playful of utterances, articulated almost exactly a hundred years ago, ‘dada’! But while Dadaism was born in the midst of the First World War as, in part, a critical reaction, in Koons’s case this diminutive cry — dada! — is the utterance of a spoiled child indulging himself in a spoiled land. His ‘rattle’ is his work, and he would have us enter this La La Land of his “Play-Doh” world — a world of seemingly endless opportunity, of American exceptionalism, that even Left wing liberals propound and buy into and that would blind us to reality, to the realities, for example, of perpetual war (no longer merely the academic claptrap of Semiotext(e) authors) and corporate excess. We go on and on, in the media, about the ‘accomplishments’ of fashion designers and about the achievements of more ‘substantial’ (sic) figures, like Bill and Melinda Gates, and the good causes they sponsor, but has anyone bothered to look beneath the surface of their wealth to the labor markets they have exploited globally to accumulate that wealth and the ramifications of that exploitation? We speak of corporations operating with impunity, literally erasing national boundaries, importing ‘democracy’ (as if it were canned happiness) with Koonsian smiles on their faces, using ideology and the dumbing down (and up, as it turns out!) of whole populations (our own included), repressing and/or watching critique wither away, so that they might excavate new markets, but we pay absolutely no attention to individual manifestations of these exploits. We sublimate them and then rave on about them. But their outcomes are devastating. For substance — the soul’s threadbare humanity (once Modernism’s pride and joy) — Koons has substituted the consummate superficiality of technological perfection; for meaning he has engaged non-threatening empty signifiers that reinforce self-satisfaction; for the transcendence of ego he has presumed collective values that have been denuded of all reality except those that can be recognized and transacted in the global marketplace either as souvenirs or relics of our post-humanist condition. But that this lump of Super-Kitsch [“Play-Doh”] — symptomatic as it is of a monumental and child-like acceptance of so much unquestioned matter and matters, both within and without Koons’s work — should become the dominant paradigm globally, and for so long and so intensely, is something we should look at a bit more closely, perhaps in the coming years when we have finally become sick and tired of being made fools of.
Of course, I miss the context that might have lent even this metallic lump of clay meaning beyond its own amorphous, self-consuming, child-like ego. Beyond the artists themselves, there were also those critical voices, some more or less effective, who were there right at the beginning — Peter Halley, for one, whose voice was hardly consonant with my own, but which I respected. Hopefully, without turning to Baudrillard, he might have made sense of this rampant infantilism characterizing not only Koons’s sculpture, and his work in general, but the art world and the culture that reflects and so deserves this kind of shiny and hollow work. And there were other independent, non-institutional voices that have long since been silenced or withered away, either by the unknowing sounds emanating from the academic world or the more knowing ones of the marketplace, establishing and controlling the credibility of culture today.
Santa Monica, CA, March 13-14, 2011 / New York City, October 8–10, 2014
Several of the ideas in this paper were delivered at a Pop Art seminar at the School of Continuing Education, New York University, New York, October 14, 2014.