Talk about art going big: the New York Times reported last night that the Whitney will mount an enormous Jeff Koons retrospective as its last hurrah in the Breuer building on the Upper East Side, before moving downtown to the High Line neighborhood in 2015. Probably out of necessity as much as for flair, the exhibition will take over the entire museum except for the fifth-floor permanent galleries — the first time the Whitney has given over that much space to one artist.
With a show like this, timed just before the move, the Whitney is no doubt hoping to bolster its Art Establishment cred as much as anything else. But, wary as I am of the Koons circus, I’m also excited by the prospect of seeing so much of the mega-artist’s work in one place. This will be the first comprehensive Koons exhibit in New York, creating an opportunity to evaluate him in a way that’s previously been impossible here, since we tend to only get one-off giant sculptures or smaller-scale gallery offerings. Time to brush on those talking points!
But how is it possible, you may ask, that there hasn’t been a Koons retrospective in New York before? According to the Times, other museums have tried to undertake the task but failed, most notably the Guggenheim, where they’ve been talking about it since 1996. Not surprisingly, part of the problem has always been money:
Reasons included the high cost of fabrication and technical difficulties in making the works that are part of Mr. Koons’s “Celebration,” a group of large-scale sculptures and paintings. Because of their size and the materials — stainless steel and plastics that are hard to manufacture — they require special use of foundries, a cost that has nearly bankrupted some dealers who tried to produce the pieces. That series is only now nearing completion.
Of course the question arises: how can the Whitney afford to go where no other New York museum has gone before? Extra-rich donors? A secret Jeff Koons endowment fund? Even if the Celebration series is almost done, it can’t be cheap to move these massive and expensive works, and the issue becomes more muddied when you consider that many of the artists participating in the current Whitney Biennial weren’t paid for their inclusion. Artist Dawn Kasper took to online fundraising to generate the $9,000 she needed to cover the costs of her performance and living in New York during her residency at the Whitney. And Hyperallergic contributor Alexis Clements did some of her own digging, as well as reporting on the recent W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) survey, with dismaying results:
In the weeks prior to these survey results being released I had been conducting my own, informal survey of the artists participating in this year’s Whitney Biennial, and found that none of those exhibited in the galleries that I exchanged emails with were paid to include their work — arguably one of the most important exhibitions of young and contemporary artists in the city. At most they had some of the costs of bringing the work to the museum covered, such as transporting or installing the work. But according to the W.A.G.E. survey, 58% of the artists they surveyed didn’t even have their expenses reimbursed.
I won’t argue with the value of a Koons retrospective, but the contrast says a lot about where the museum’s priorities lie.