The Alchemist

Whitney Museum of American Art
June 27 – October 19th, 2014

Rem Koolhaas: “But is there a Machiavellian part of you?”

Jeff Koons: “Some of it is there. I guess it is harder to recognize that, because I think people look at that notion negatively rather than as a tool of communication.”

Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Jeff Koons Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Opinions Differ

I like Jeff Koons’ art.

Not everyone agrees. This has been the case since he first began showing at the end of the 1970s. But his current Whitney retrospective has elicited particularly strong responses in both directions from the critics. Roberta Smith in the New York Times found it “gripping”, while Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker calls him “the most original, controversial, and expensive artist of the past three and a half decades”. In the negative column, Barry Schwabsky brings a Marxist perspective to aver in the Nation why “the work fails me”, while Saul Ostrow writing for Artcritical finds the works psychologically “insignificant”. Jed Perl lets out all of the stops in The New York Review of Books to declare that the entire retrospective is nothing but a big “vacuum”. That Koons can still evoke such strong reactions after showing for over thirty-five years is interesting in itself. That each critic felt the need to go into great detail explaining the reasons for their acclaim or derision is a testament to the problems, aesthetically and intellectually, Koons work presents for critical analysis. The thing is that, as diametrically opposed as these critiques are to one another, Koons work is so incredibly slippery that it is difficult to argue that any of them are outright wrong. Critically, trying to draw a bead on Koons is like trying to shoot Schrödinger’s cat.

Jeff Koons  Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White and Pink Bunny), 1979 Vinyl and Mirrors

Jeff Koons
Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White and Pink Bunny), 1979
Vinyl and Mirrors

Everyone Starts Somewhere

It is notable that all of these reviews share the opinion that, for good or bad, Koons is regarded as one of the most important artists working today. This is so pivotal to understanding where each is coming from that it is easy to forget that Koons was not viewed as a superstar when he first began showing. In fact, if I recall correctly, Koons left one of his first New York dealers because they were not willing to give him a solo exhibition, at least not as soon as he wanted one.

Nor did his very early work radically stand out from his peers. Much of the art dialog of the 1980s was defined by artists working with Readymades, corporate critique, and appropriation. Besides Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ashley Bickerton, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine, to name but a few, were equally active participants in this conversation. This is in not to make less of the works that comprise “The New”, “Equalibrium”, or the “Luxury and Degradation” series, just a reminder that Koons was a mere mortal once like the rest of us.

It was as in 1988 – in between the stock market crash of 1987 and the disastrous Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction of 1989 – that Koons unveiled the Banality series and began to truly set himself apart.

Viewers having fun at Jeff Koons: A Retrospective

Viewers having fun at Jeff Koons: A Retrospective

The Banality of…

Koons had played with pure kitsch earlier in the Statuary series. But those works are cast in stainless steel and, in spite of their lowbrow source material, have an undeniable formal elegance.  The Banality series transforms the original source material only by increasing its scale – a fact emphasized by the artist’s statement that, as with the inspirational tchotchkes, traditional German and Italian craftsmen made these too. There is no eluding their content through transformation, and if Koons previous content could be puzzling, some of the works in this series are absolutely baffling. Notoriously, there is the white Michael Jackson with his pet chimp Bubbles, but also the girl in the bath tub with the snorkel (and also the couple on the bench holding puppies that brought on a copyright lawsuit which Koons ultimately lost). Yes, there was the usual insistence by the artist that these works incorporated an excruciating level of attention to detail and quality control, but to what end? The trans-formative veneer of formalism has been removed, and we, or rather Koons high end collectors, are being asked to spend a great deal of money to buy an exceedingly large tchochke and put it in their home. Which, in fact, they did.

As the question of what Koons is up to increases exponentially from this point in his career forward, it is worth taking a moment to remark on the one major piece that is rarely if ever discussed: the character called Jeff Koons.

Jeff Koons Walrus (Blue Green), 1999 Chrystal glass, mirrored glass, carbon fiber, foam, colored plastic interlayer, and stainless steel

Jeff Koons
Walrus (Blue Green), 1999
Chrystal glass, mirrored glass, carbon fiber, foam, colored plastic interlayer, and stainless steel

I Am the Walrus

Throughout the 1980s, Paul Rubens appeared only as Pee Wee Herman. Andy Kaufman maintained character to such an intense degree that to this day some people believe he faked his own death as one of his “works”. For both of these performers the line between themselves and their creations was so fuzzy, so confounding, that something exciting, even dangerous, was engendered in the gap between what was real and what was fake. It is obvious that Koons artworks play with our uncertainty about their sincerity. But what of the artist himself? Is Jeff Koons for real?

This question, which underlies so many others concerning the artist’s work, was arguably pushed to its limits with the Made in Heaven series.

Made in Heaven was first shown in the 1990 Venice Biennale, and critical response was, to say the least, poor. If we are being generous, we might give the artist a pass on this entire series as works created under the stress of a failing personal relationship. But that is in hindsight, and an assumption at that. Koons, at least “the artist Jeff Koons”, spoke at the time of the works offering viewers a chance to reclaim their sexual innocence, to once again experience Eden. He spoke of erasing barriers, moving beyond censorship, freeing our minds. What viewers got were explicit photo-realistic paintings and sculptures of Jeff Koons and Italian porn star Illona Staller, his girlfriend and soon to be wife (and then ex-wife), having sex.

As I said, I like Jeff Koons art, but this particular body of work fails on so many levels. First and foremost, it must be noted that Illona Staller, whose stage name is Cicciolina, had already created an identity and narrative almost identical to the Made in Heaven series. It might be debatable whether or not Koons adoption of Staller’s narrative falls short of outright plagiarism. That he gave her no credit at all is simply unacceptable.

Equally disturbing are the images themselves. Pornography depends, at least to some extent, on the anonymity of the actors, on the ability of the viewer to place themselves in the image. Because Made in Heaven depicts images of two extremely well known people, it is the opposite of this. In fact, standing in a public gallery space looking at celebrities able to have sex in front of you – something the rest of us absolutely could not do – seems like an act of immense, unbridled, in-your-face privilege.

How well I remember walking into a back viewing space at Sonnabend Gallery in 1991 during the Made in Heaven exhibition and seeing an extremely large painting of a photographic close up of Jeff Koons penis inside of Illona Staller (displayed in the “adults only” section of this retrospective and too graphic to put on this website). And I thought, okay, I now know more about Jeff Koons than I ever needed or wanted to know. He’s finished for me.

Jeff Koons Puppy, 1992 mixed flowers, transparent colour-coated chrome stainless steel, 43' high

Jeff Koons
Puppy, 1992
Mixed flowers, transparent color-coated chrome stainless steel, 43′ high


After Made in Heaven it appeared that Koons star was in retrograde, that he had flamed out. As the current retrospective has shown, there are always those ready to dismiss him and his work. Some took the fact that he was not invited to Documenta 9 in 1992 as confirmation of his fall from grace. And for many artists after crashing and burning in such a spectacular manner, recovering their careers to any degree would be a remote possibility.

So one cannot dismiss the fact that for many, the most memorable installation at Documenta 9 was not, in fact, in Documenta 9 but at the nearby Arolsen Castle where Koons had convinced three of his dealers to pay for the creation of 43 foot high flowering Puppy.

It might be odd to use the words balls and puppy in the same sentence, but it is necessary to understand Koons achievement on both levels; that he had the nerve to risk such a major statement after such a devastating (for most) fall, and that the resulting work was such a wonder to behold, even in reproduction. The fact that it followed Made in Heaven can still give one aesthetic whiplash thinking about it. That Koons could go from failed porn to flowering puppy did more than hit the reset button for his career, it elevated it to another level. One simply could not, can not, pigeon hole or make assumptions about what Koons is doing or what the work is ultimately about. It was at this moment that I became convinced that Koons work is for real.

Also, it is impossible to think of Puppy and not smile.

Jeff Koons Gorilla, 2006-11 Granite

Jeff Koons
Gorilla, 2006-11

Nothing is What it Seems

Koons work is for real, but the world is not. One of the major themes of his work is that surfaces are deceiving, that nothing is what it seems. The water holding the basketballs in suspension in the Equalibrium series is not simply water. The stainless-steel tchochkes in the Statuary series are neither tchochkes any longer nor the valuable silver they visually promise. Made in Heaven does not depict sexual freedom or bliss or a new Eden.

Often Koons goes a step further: things may even be the opposite of what they appear. The inflatables in Seal Walrus (Trashcan) are not fragile plastic filled with air about to be punctured, but hard aluminum. Play-Doh is also aluminum, and the apparently cheap molded plastic Gorilla is actually made from granite.

Which must lead us inevitably back to the artist’s creation of “Jeff Koons, the artist”.

Jeff Koons Cat on a Clothesline (Aqua), 1994-2001 Polyethylene

Jeff Koons
Cat on a Clothesline (Aqua), 1994-2001

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Koons often speaks of his work in happy terms, promoting it as if each piece was emotionally intended to be a version of Puppy. He speaks of the unbelievable attention to detail and scrupulous craft that is involved in making every work. These points are most often the things related by collectors and curators talking about his work as well – one need only read the accompanying wall labels and catalog for the current retrospective. To listen to Koons, one might conclude that his work is only about surfaces, and only meant to reflect back his collector’s rose colored view of themselves like one of the mirrored pieces in the Easyfun series. To no small degree, this might be why so many artists and critics think Koons and his work as the equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

But I think of Francis Picabia. During WWII, after the Germans entered France, Picabia made a unique body of works, completely different from everything he made before the war and after, which may be typified by Women with Bulldog, 1941. The astounding thing about these works is, for the Nazi, they appeared to fit perfectly into their warped idea of representational beauty, while for everyone else they appear as an acidic commentary on the perversity of Nazi vision. One assumes that Picabia never spoke of this, as to do so would be to give away the game.

So it is, I believe, with Koons. “Jeff Koons the artist” appears to be a courtier, making art with the highest attention to craft and workmanship, just as his (super) wealthy collectors would expect. But he’s filling their homes with monstrous treacle, gigantic kittens playing peekaboo from hanging stockings. They see gold, we see dreck. For this to succeed, Koons can never break character.

Jeff Koons is not the Emperor’s New Clothes. Jeff Koons is the tailor.

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