Saturday, August 9, 2014

Jeff Koons: The Artist Critics Hate to Love – Part 1

By Charles Kessler

People waiting to get into Jeff Koons: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art.
Jeff Koons is having a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum (until October 19th). It's the largest retrospective the Whitney has ever had, and it's the last exhibition in this space – in the spring, the Whitney is moving to a new building in the Meatpacking District near the Highline.

The public loves Koons – and why not? His work is fun, bright and shiny, accessible, sexy; and the craft he employs (literally – Koons employs hundreds of other artists and craftspeople to make his works) is miraculous in its verisimilitude.

Koons has taken over more than the Whitney – his work can be seen all over New York right now.
H&M’s new flagship store on Fifth at 48th Street opened with a line of handbags inspired by Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog.
Left: Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2014, armature with about 50,000 live flowering plants, 37' tall (Rockefeller Center until September 12th). Right: a gardener maintaining Split-Rocker.  
But there’s something about the popularity of Koons with the public, and the huge sums of money that his art sells for (in 2013, Koons’s Balloon Dog sold for an astounding $58.4 million - the most ever for a living artist) that rankles critics – myself included, I must admit.
Installation view of Jeff Koons, A Retrospective.
(Click to enlarge.)
I can’t think of an occasion when critics struggled so much with their ambivalence. I will be quoting them a lot not only to illustrate this ambivalence, but also to pass on their insights into Koons's art. (Another summary of the critical reaction to this show can be found at artnet.)

Jerry Saltz called the art Koons made between 1994 and 2007 "... huge, shiny baubles for billionaires. ... the readymade crossed with greed, money, creepy beauty [I love that phrase], and the ugliness of our culture;" and on the other hand, he wrote, "Haters will hate, but A Retrospective will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling, alien, annoying artist."

Roberta Smith wrote that the works "unavoidably reek of Gilded Age excess, art star hubris and the ever-widening inequality gap that threatens this country. ...a stunning allĂ©e of bizarre Pharaonic splendor." But she also referred to Play-Doh as "a new, almost certain masterpiece;" and wrote,  "There are surprises around every corner. Despite some ups and downs, this is a gripping show... ."
Jeff Koons, Play-Doh, 1994-2014, polychromed aluminum, 120 × 108 × 108 inches, edition of five.
Peter Scheldahl, in the New Yorker, wrote the most favorable review, but even his writing is filled with backhanded compliments such as: "It’s really the quality of his work, interlocking with economic and social trends, that makes him the signal artist of today’s world. If you don’t like that, take it up with the world." And on Koons's antics: [they] "call to mind Degas’s remark to Whistler: ‛You behave as though you had no talent.’”

Peter Plagens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, was the most negative (and funniest): "You leave the show feeling you’ve eaten entirely too much cotton candy on the boardwalk;" and: "The real subject of the exhibition, however, is not Mr. Koons’s bright, empty, perhaps ironic and ultimately numbing art, but his persona." But even Plagens was mixed: "The beginning and end of the show contain the good stuff;" and Plagens also wrote that Play-Doh is "a technical and aesthetic masterpiece."

Koons might be making "huge, shiny baubles for billionaires," as Saltz charges, or his work may "reek of Gilded Age excess," as Smith claims, but I don’t think it would be reasonable to go further and charge him with cynically making art only for the money. Koons is such a fanatic perfectionist that he keeps pushing the technology and craft, sometimes spending more on his sculptures than he got for them, and several times he spent to the point of near bankruptcy. This is not the behavior of someone in it for the money.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008–2012, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 102 x 48 x 50 inches.
An excerpt from an article by Nina Stoller-Lindsey in the Atlantic about the fabrication of Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008–2012, will give you some idea of what a stickler Koons is.
A reference to the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf statue, this sculpture owes its especially reflective surface to a custom stainless steel alloy Koons developed in collaboration with German fabrication firm Arnold. The structure itself is perhaps even more technologically impressive. Koons began the piece by working with a balloon designer to create an original model of the stone Venus from a single balloon. “Any normal person would have made the hair out of one balloon and the body out of another,” says Rothkopf  [Scott Rothkopf, the curator] alluding to the artist’s near-religious commitment to realism. “But by using a single balloon Jeff could get the sense of continuous pressure and air throughout.” To generate the computer rendering necessary for fabricating the larger, final version, Koons relied on 3D imaging. But the light scanning method he used in his 1994-2000 Balloon Dog (Yellow) was insufficient for capturing the balloon’s minute folds in the level of detail he was after. Instead he turned to CT scanning, a technology powerful enough to detect a brain tumor and not often used outside the medical field. The end result is a sculpture cast in such a way that the interior volumes echo the twists and curves of the balloon with hyper-realistic precision.
I don't think money is Koons's motive, at least not his main motive. Peter Scheldahl, in the New Yorker, may have have come closer to the mark when he wrote that Koons's work is "marked by an obsessive perfectionism, and wound tightly around some core emotion, perhaps rage, which impels and concentrates his ambition." I am reminded of a story Saltz recounted in his review: "In a Madrid club in 1986, I watched him confront a skeptical critic while smashing himself in the face, repeating, “You don’t get it, man. I’m a fucking genius.” This is one very intense person! But maybe this rage, sublimated as maniacal ambition, is what ultimately makes his work so interesting.

In addition, Koons has always taken major risks throughout his career, offending the art world time after time. Writing about "Made in Heaven," a notorious exhibition Koons had at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1991, the then New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman called the work “self-promoting hype and sensationalism,” and he called Koons “an opportunistic publicity monger whose conflation of himself and his work precipitated the self-destruction that already seems [his] fate.” Well that ultimately didn’t happen, but it's an example of the heat and anger his work generated, and how Koons kept pushing boundaries in spite of the risks to his career.
Installation view of Jeff Koons, Made In Heaven, Sonnabend Gallery, New York, November 23 - December 21, 1991.
The 1991 Made In Heaven exhibition contained large, sexually explicit photo-realistic paintings and sculptures of Koons having sex with the Italian porn star, his wife to be, Ilona Staller, known as La Cicciolina. The rest of the show was garish sculptures and reliefs of flowers.

Pornography, even this graphic, was and is common in the art world; why were people so uncharacteristically prudish about these works? My theory is it's because the work isn't anonymous. These were real people – too real for aesthetic distance. The critical outrage is similar to what happened MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO! when Manet first exhibited Luncheon on the Grass, and for the same reason: the depiction of sex was too real. If there were no clothed men in Manet's painting, if there were just idealized nudes, there would be no outrage. I guess art is only supposed to be disturbing in a limited number of acceptable ways.
Edouard Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, oil on canvas, 82 x 104 ½ inches (Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France).
Even today there is a strong reaction to Koons's "Made in Heaven" paintings. People avoid the small gallery set aside for the most explicit work, or, uncomfortable and embarrassed, they leave quickly. (I confirmed this with one of the guards.) And I can't find a site where reproductions of the work is available (there are none on Koon's own, otherwise inclusive, website); and, mea culpa, I don't want to publish any of the pornographic images either.
Sign outside the room of Jeff Koons's sexually explicit paintings.
Significantly, the paintings and sculptures exhibited in a more public gallery at the Whitney (see below) are more idealized, so they don't shock, and in fact are kind of funny if anything.
Installation view, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum.
These are works made in 1991 as part of his Made in Heaven series.
(Click to enlarge.)
One final thought: if popularity, financial success and/or being an asshole were to exclude artists from the history books, we would be bereft of many of the greatest – Caravaggio, Wagner, Pound and Picasso, to name a few.

I'm going on vacation. Next post will be more specifically about Koons's art, rather than his personality and critical reception.