I still remember the ripples of titillation — occasionally marked by muffled, satisfied guffaws — that spread predictably through the art world when Jeff Koons first exhibited his shiny white and gold porcelain sculpture, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988) at Sonnabend in 1989. The sculpture was part of the series, Banality, which became a definitive step toward garnering the kind of attention Koons has always craved.
Besides being perfectly, shiny white, as only glazed porcelain can be, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” was noteworthy as the first of Koons’s perfectly sealed, oversized Fabergé eggs. Unlike the original “Imperial” Fabergé eggs — which were priceless trifles painstakingly made for the Russian royal family’s amusement — Koons’s overpriced baubles do not open, revealing a surprise. The only revelation they offer is the immaculate perfection of their gleaming surfaces, from porcelain to stainless steel.
Lots of praise has been devoted to Koons’s desire for material perfection, as well as his use of kitsch objects, in the pursuit of flawless beauty. Little has been said, however, about what it means to fervently uphold ideals related to classical beauty. It is as if the art world has taken a giant amnesia pill, completely and conveniently forgetting the criticism Charles Baudelaire mounted in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), a foundational text that remains essential to radical aesthetic and political thinking.
What Koons embraces with claustrophobic thoroughness is what Baudelaire called the “despotic perfecting process,” in which an artist knowingly “borrow[s] from the storehouse of classical ideals.”
When he is on, Koons has his finger to the pulse of the audience whose adulations he hungers after, as ravenous as the phallic nozzle of the vacuum cleaner he encased in Plexiglas. He is a cultural figure “whose faults,” as Baudelaire said of the then-popular, obsessively scrupulous Ernest Meissonier, are “well attuned to the faults of the masses that have singularly assisted his popularity.”
Like Meissonier, whose work John Ruskin once examined under a magnifying glass, Koons knows that his audience wants art that is as well-made and unblemished as Gwyneth Paltrow’s porcelain white skin, and will all too willingly confuse his fixated perfectionism with genius.
Koons has recently opened two concurrent exhibitions: New Paintings and Sculptures at the mammoth warehouse space known as Gagosian Gallery (May 9 – June 29, 2013); and Gazing Ball at David Zwirner (May 8 – June 29, 2013). If you want to know why Koons made Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee Bubbles white, you need to go to Gazing Ball, where Zwirner’s large, immaculate rooms are filled with plaster copies of Greco-Roman sculptures, each adorned with a perfect blue glass ball, the kind that you see on birdbaths. Not one to trust his audience’s intelligence, Koons includes a sculpture called “Gazing Ball (Birdbath)” (2013) in case you missed the connection. Koons is nothing if not thorough.
The blue balls — like Koons’s balloon sculptures of a red monkey, blue swan and yellow rabbit at Gagosian — have an optical presence; they reflect the viewer, as if to say that you too are part of this work. That’s Koons’ appeal — that he is like us and we are like him, which, I suppose, is okay if you are white and believe in classical ideals, and the unblemished classical tradition.
The “gazing ball” perched on the shoulder of Koons’ plaster copy of the “Farnese Hercules” (“Look, I can see myself, up there on his shoulder”) is an appeal to his audience’s narcissism. The puffed-up grandeur of his work, mounted on a white Corian pedestal, tells us that the classical tradition will triumph over all. Don’t worry, Rudy Giuliani, there’s no elephant dung here.
Along with the torso of Hercules, Jeff Koons presents plaster copies of Venus, Apollo, Antinous-Dinoysus, and Diana. But he doesn’t stay focused on mythological figures. There is also a plaster sculpture of a row of mailboxes (I wouldn’t be surprised if he got this idea from Dan Douke, whose painstaking facsimiles of mail boxes preceded these by years) and a single mailbox with a carburetor on top, turning it into a car engine (about as visually interesting as paint drying). He also included a plaster replica of an inflatable snowman (white to white, duh).
At Gagosian — the Home Depot for the 1% — where the three balloon sculptures, according to Jerry Saltz in his recent New York review, are “lined up like cabin cruisers at a boat show.” Really, I would say yachts: “cabin cruisers” makes them seem down to earth. Saltz’s soft-pedaling sounds almost like a deliberate equivocation, a sidestepping of issues. Let’s be honest. The loud and continuous message that Koons’s work sends, and which those who support him embrace, is that the amount of money required for the fabrication and acquisition of his work is the shining mark of his success. Art, in this case, is beside the point: production is all. It is the tautology of the rich investing and reinvesting in ever more expensive productions.
Koons’s paintings, also at Gagosian, are derivative of Philip Taaffe in their compositions and not nearly half as interesting. Their insistence on overt symmetry, especially the one with the Superman logo stuck in the middle, where it is supposed to go, makes it pretty obvious that Koons is a visual dullard. His famed fussiness is the result of hiring others to do the work, and hardly rivals the deeply felt meticulousness of Vija Celmins, Judy Fox, or Catherine Murphy.
His use of readymades and liftings from Pop culture (the Hulk, Superman, and King Kong) conveys how exhausted this strain of art making has become. It is not painting that is dead, but the repeated use of Pop culture as an unconsidered source, an easy go-to pool of images.
It is also worthwhile to ask, what does it mean to make plaster copies that harken back to both classical mythology and the 19th-century academic tradition of drawing, particularly since Koons hires others to do the work?
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed in gods that meddled in human affairs, a childishly naïve view of the universe that would seem to tie into Koons’s fascination with childhood and childhood consciousness. Koons and the ancients appease their respective gods for favorable treatment in this world. These gods (Zeus & Co. for the ancients; a bevy of billionaire collectors for Koons), unlike the Judeo-Christian deity, can be bought off. As long as Koons continues to please them, they will continue to shower fortune on him (unlike Job, who kept getting knocked down, or Abraham who nearly sacrificed his own son). The Judeo-Christian view, I daresay, is more consonant with reality, in which anything can happen for no understandable reason. It is a correlative for the universe’s indifference.
Koons’s shiny objects, especially the ones using toys and comics, evoke the naïve security of a child who believes his parents will protect him from any trouble, from any vicissitude of life. The uber-rich believe their money will protect them from everything and anything, including their ceaseless meddling in human affairs, which they do to a far greater extent than the classical gods. In obsequiously seeking their favor, Koons has retreated into a preschooler’s sense of security as well as an idolater’s bargain with fate.
In a way, Koons’s use of plaster casts is a brilliant (if unintended) metaphor for the nostalgia of such a view, since the 19th-century academicians used similar casts to train artists in false classical ideals and as inspiration for paintings that wished the modern world away. Koons’s notorious fussiness and high production values are keenly attuned to the reactionary distrust of the experimental artwork of the avant-garde, and the feeling that just about anyone could have done it.
Koons’s gods relax on yachts in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, drink daiquiris and oil their flawed bodies, while their minions take care of his balloon menagerie, topiary “Puppy” and plaster copies of Greek and Roman gods. Koons made Michael Jackson and Bubbles smooth and white; smooth and white is the ideal his audience believes in. He keeps reassuring them that the more things change, the more they will stay the same.
Jeff Koons: New Painting and Sculpture continues at Gagosian Gallery (555 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 29. Jeff Koons: Gazing Ball continues at David Zwirner (525 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) also through June 29.