Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jeff Koons Retrospective, Part 2

By Charles Kessler

This is my second post about the Jeff Koons retrospective (on view at the Whitney Museum of Art until October 19th). The first post is here
Installation View: Jeff Koons, A Retrospective, Whitney Museum.
(Click to enlarge)
Koons is one of those artists I hate to love, but when I made a concerted effort to ignore the fact that he's so rich and famous, and kind of a jerk, and I approached the show as if seeing the art for the first time, his work nearly blew my mind! It's bold, inventive, gutsy, impeccably crafted, and sometimes it's even profound. Is his art worth tens of millions? Of course not – but that's a different issue having to do with conspicuous consumption, not art. In a deeply visceral way, Koons captures a crass and vulgar part of our culture. As Peter Scheldahl wrote in the New Yorker, "if you don't like that, take it up with the world."

Of course I don't like everything Koons made – if I did it would mean he wasn't taking enough risks. For one thing, I don't think his paintings are very good. His early paintings are washed out color-wise (strange in light of their Pop imagery); and his later paintings have too much crammed into them, as if he's trying to muscle them into greatness. His Made in Heaven series of erotic paintings may be interesting conceptually, but they're pretty boring as paintings. And even his best paintings, the ones that aren't cluttered (like Loopy, 1999, below), don't go beyond basic 1960s Rosenquist-type Pop Art.
 Jeff Koons, Loopy, 1999, oil on canvas, 108 × 79 1⁄4 inches (Bill Bell Collection).
I have fond memories of seeing and being amazed by Koons's early work in the East Village at the International with Monument Gallery. It was completely different from the Neo-Expressionist and graffiti-oriented work so popular at the time. And looking back, many of the innovations and themes Koons was to deal with in the future were there: kitsch, sex, bright colors, mirror reflections, a variety of textures, inflatable sculpture, weight vs. weightlessness, and density vs. hollowness. 
Left: Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White, Pink Bunny), 1979, vinyl and mirrors, 32 × 25 × 19 inches (The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica © Jeff Koons); right: Sponge Shelf, 1978, sponges and mirrors (collection of the artist).
But even though Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the retrospective, has mounted a well-organized and coherent installation, and was sensitive enough to install this intimately scaled work in smaller rooms, it just can't hold up to the vast, crowded space of the Whitney.

To my surprise, after three visits to the show, I ended up liking Koons's later work the most – unlike practically everyone else writing about it. His later sculptures are simpler and more straightforward than his paintings, and there's a perverse intensity about them I find at once compelling and disturbing. His big flashy ones, the ones he's most famous for (like Balloon Venus below) are accessible, playful and monumental, like Claus Oldenberg's public sculptures – and they work great in this context. 
Left: Venus of Willendorf, ca. 28,000 BCE - 25,000 BCE, 4.25 inches high, oolitic limestone tinted with red ochre (Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria); right: Jeff Koons, Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008–2012, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 102 x 48 x 50 inches.
Koons sculptures have several layers of meaning. Balloon Venus, for example, makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the famous prehistoric sculpture the Venus of Willendorf; and the differences highlight the contemporariness of the Koons sculpture. The Venus of Willendorf is a personal figurine meant to be held. It's a modest 4 ¼ inches high, and it's made of gritty stone. Balloon Venus is showy and public, 8 ½ feet tall and made of smooth stainless steel with a high-tech mirror coating. The Koons is all glitz. It's experienced as light-weight and empty (literally and figuratively) like our pop culture; whereas the Venus of Willendorf  is stone-age solid.

Koons is fanatical about getting the trompe-l'œil realism exactly right. He even worked with a balloon designer (who knew there was such a thing?) to create the models for his balloon sculptures, and he insisted on making each model from a single balloon so the finished sculpture would have a sense of continuous air pressure throughout the piece. Even the rendering of textures, for example what looks like inflated plastic in Hulk (below), is miraculously convincing. (BTW, it's a real functioning organ, not a bronze replica.)
Close-up detail of Jeff Koons, Hulk (Organ), 2004-2014, polychromed bronze and mixed media, edition of three (Broad Art Foundation).
A somewhat earlier sculpture, Aqualung, 1985, is especially impressive even though it's smaller than the work Koons is famous for. It is made up of 30 separate molds, and although they're all bronze, there's a remarkable variety of textures – everything from the rough surface of inflated canvas, to hard and shiny metal, to the texture of string and webbing.
Jeff Koons, installation view, Aqualung, 1985, bronze, 27 x 17½ x 17½ inches (edition of 3 plus AP). 
To his credit, Aqualung goes beyond showy facility; it's interesting from all angles, there's a complex variety of positive and negative spaces, and there is a unique play between weight and weightlessness – being bronze, it's permanently inflated, but, like Life Boat, 1985 (below) you would sink if you tried to use it. 
Jeff Koons, Life Boat, 1985, bronze, 12 x 80 x 60 inches (edition of 3 plus AP).
The flower sculptures and reliefs in this show are pretty opulent, but my memory of them is that they were much shinier in the 1991 Made in Heaven exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery in Soho. And because they were so gleamingly glossy, the Sonnabend flowers were as lurid and shocking as the sexually explicit paintings in that show. I thought that was brilliant.
Detail view of Jeff Koons, Wall Relief with Bird, 1991, polychromed wood, 72 x 50 x 27 inches, edition of three.
Unfortunately the ones in this retrospective, while lavish (perhaps excessively so – and that's a good thing!), don't have the glitzy vulgarity of the Sonnabend ones. I checked with one of the Whitney curators – sorry, I forgot to get her name – who looked it up and told me the flowers in the retrospective weren't in the Sonnabend show, and the Sonnabend flowers were made of glazed porcelain, while these are painted wood. Too bad. 

The same goes for his 1988 Banality sculptures. The ones carved from wood are warmer and not as edgy or as off-putting as the shiny porcelain ones. The warmth of wood is too friendly, too like the original tchotchkes they're modeled after. 
Installation view, Jeff Koons, Banality Series.  Pink Panther, 1988, on the far right, is glazed porcelain; and String of Puppies, 1988, second in from the right, is painted wood.
They are all, however, very weird – disconcertingly so, even if (or because) they're outwardly playful. Here are some examples:

Koons's blissed-out goofus of a Saint John the Baptist holding a pig that looks brighter and more alert than he, is pretty zany – although Koons's model, the 500-year-old painting by Leonardo with its eerie and epicene Saint John making an ambiguous gesture, is ultimately even more bizarre and unsettling. (Perhaps I'm over-interpreting, but I wonder if Saint John embracing a pig is a comment on Christianity nullifying kosher laws.)
Left: Jeff Koons, Saint John the Baptist, 1988, porcelain, 58 ½ x 30 x 24 ½ inches (the Sonnabend Collection); right: Leonardo da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513-16, oil on wood (Musée du Louvre in Paris, France).
Ushering in Banality, 1988, is ludicrous enough, but it gets even weirder when you put it together with this quote from Koons: “I’ve always thought of myself as the young boy in the back pushing the pig.”
Jeff Koons, Ushering in Banality, 1988, polychromed wood, 38 x 62 x 30 inches (edition of 3 plus AP); and detail from the back. 
Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, is the most acclaimed sculpture in his Banality series, and it's loved by most critics, even Peter Plagens who otherwise hated the show.

The work derives from a famous publicity photo of Michael Jackson with Bubbles, his beloved pet monkey.
Left: publicity photo of Michael Jackson with his pet monkey; right: Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, porcelain, 42 x 70 ½ x 32 ½ inches (private collection).
Most critics believe the sculpture is about kitsch, fame and glitz, but I have a somewhat different interpretation. I believe it's about a poignant relationship.

In the photo and sculpture the poses are similar, and Michael Jackson and his pet monkey are wearing matching marching-band uniforms. Of more interest are the differences between the photo and sculpture.

In the Koons sculpture, the sleeves of the monkey's uniform hide its fur, and the foot of the monkey has no fur and looks so human it could easily be mistaken for one of Michael Jackson's hands. All of which make Bubbles seem more human-like. (Koons, remember, also humanized the pig in Saint John the Baptist, however unflattering to the saint, so there is some precedent.) And Bubbles is keenly looking out at the viewer, unlike the introspective and rather sad Michael Jackson.
Two views of Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, porcelain, 42 x 70 ½ x 32 ½ inches (private collection).
Furthermore, they're not sitting on grass, as in the photo, but on a shiny white and gold pedestal festooned with gilded flowers. In contrast to these rather regal surroundings is a lonely and isolated superstar gently holding his beloved Bubbles in his lap. I really do find the sculpture touching and heartbreaking.

And finally, there's Play-Doh, 1994-2014, a sculpture I love, and which Roberta Smith referred to as "a new, almost certain masterpiece.”
Installation view, Jeff Koons, Play-Doh, 1994-2014, polychromed aluminum, edition of five. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad, The New York Times.)
It might be the newest work in the show, but because of Koons's perfectionism, it took 20 years to fabricate the 27 interlocking individual pieces of painted aluminum.

Play-Doh was inspired by a mound of Play-Doh that Koons's son proudly showed him. The colors are thrilling – bright but semi-gloss and tactile, unlike his gleaming earlier work. And, like Ken Price’s Specimen Rocks, the crevices and broken edges are the same color as the surface, so it feels as if the color goes all the way through. And the work has a sense of weight and density, unlike most other colored sculptures which feel light and hollow (Koons's Balloon sculptures being an extreme example).
Detail close-up, Jeff Koons, Play-Doh, 1994-2014, polychromed aluminum.
BTW, I could swear there’s a dog image here – the yellow shape on top is his head and ear; the blue circle, an eye; and the blue curve, his nose. Koons made dogs in the past, as can be seen below, so this wouldn't be unusual.
Left: Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2014, armature with about 50,000 live flowering plants, 37' tall (it was on view in Rockefeller Center until September 12th); right, detail of the top of Play-Doh. 

No comments: