Taking in Jeff Koons, Creator and Destroyer of Worlds


Photographs: Museo Jumex, Apapacho Gallery 

One can’t think of the last 30 years in art without thinking of Koons, a lot.

It’s all helixed into this: something fantastic, something disastrous. “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” is upon us. One can’t think of the last 30 years in art without thinking of Koons, a lot. I’ve witnessed this career from very close range. I have seen him transform himself into the Koons hologram we know now; him polishing sculptures late at night in galleries before and during his shows; not selling his work; almost going broke; charging less for a sculpture than it cost to produce. 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.” The fit passed when another critic who was also watching this, the brilliant Gary Indiana, said, “You are, Jeff.” I agreed.

No, Koons is not “our Warhol,” as so many claim. Warhol’s complex aura changed everything, whereas Koons is cheery, centerless, more of a bland Mitt Romney Teletubby than a mysterious force of nature. But once upon a time, it was thrilling to live though the undeniable challenging newness and strangeness of his art, the novelty and luxury of watching money pour into the art world and focus on him, seeing Koons twist all this for art’s purposes while providing respite from older, much more doctrinaire, appropriation artists and conceptualists. It’s hard to see it now, but he did break some ice. Watching Koons between 1985 and 1992 was like being on a roller coaster, beholding the readymade crossed with greed, money, creepy beauty, and the ugliness of our culture. We witnessed this squirrely celebrity as he was born out of a small East Village gallery. Everything about him was played out in public: the hype, the high prices, the collector love, the critical cringing, his Twinkie-like quotes, like “It’s like I have God on my side or something,” and the almost-career-killing spectacle he put up in 1991, the show of enormous photographic paintings of himself with waxed chest and having anal sex with his porn-star ex-wife, Ilona Staller. In part owing to Koons, art in general regained the power to show us what Wallace Stevens called “the possible nest in the invisible tree.” Koons helped art reenter public discourse while also opening up the art world. A generation of artists and gallerists who had similar aspirations took the stage to excellent effect in the 1990s. That’s when their world began to mutate into what it is today.

Which is what? The very environment he did so much to reengineer, followed by the mad amplification of the luxury economy, has meant that Koons’s art now seems to celebrate the ugliest parts of culture. The rich and greedy buy it because it lauds them for their greediness, their wealth, power, terrible taste, and bad values. Just as Koons was a positive emblem of an era when art was reengaging with the world beyond itself, he is now emblematic of one where only masters of the universe can play.

This isn’t shooting the messenger. Few artists have ever exercised such precision targeting of an audience. Koons’s ideas about his work — even if they have never made any sense to me (likening his art to a “sacred heart of Jesus”) — are always stated up front. His notion of how to behave as an artist is crystal clear. I love the weird, sick, fascist undertones of that pose he struck, naked and lifting weights, for an Annie Leibovitz picture in this month’s Vanity Fair. It’s impossible to imagine any other artist doing this. Especially a male one.

Can we look at Koons at all with the ever-present knowledge of how the feeding-frenzied art market enables him? He and other superstars are able to employ huge teams of assistants to make high-production art that sells like crystal meth for obscene prices to megacollectors and museums with atria that need filling. Moreover, his retrospective arrives at a moment when museums themselves are at a tipping point, getting ever bigger and more obsessed with newness — often at the expense of their permanent collections. Most curatorial decisions today come off as predictable. Even a massive earnest undertaking like this will strike many as simply the ratification of the inevitable — or worse, an afterthought.

Which leaves one to wonder if there’s any way a Koons show can enlighten or surprise, let alone shock. Before even seeing “A Retrospective,” I knew that there are whole bodies of Koons’s work I have never related to. I’ve loved a handful of paintings for looking like they’ve never been touched by living beings but have been made by scores, maybe hundreds, of hands, almost transcending human touch, for their mutilating of ambiguities. Most of the others, though, strike me as hyper-anal-retentive Pop collages peppered with cartoon creatures and vulvas. I don’t like his work when it’s all about technical prowess, shininess, cuteness, or replication of an everyday object or children’s toy. Except for the giant Balloon Dog (oddly, only the red one) and a few of the other huge, shiny baubles for billionaires, I don’t like much that he made between 1994 and 2007. Nor does much of the work from the “Statuary” series, from 1986, transcend its buzz of fun: These nifty, simple casts of everyday objects or works of art have density and surface, but little more. And I don’t get much from the carved polychromed wood and porcelain sculptures of bears, Buster Keaton, and St. John the Baptist from the 1988 “Banality” series. They are all curio, empty idea, obviousness, control, and kitsch. The big exception from this series is the large porcelain Michael Jackson cradling his beloved pet monkey, Bubbles, in which both figures have painted white faces — a sculpture that should remain uncanny as long as the memory of this pop star lasts. Otherwise, though, this work never changes or displaces thought. (String of Puppies is riveting, too, even though it got Koons in trouble for supposedly stealing the image from a postcard. He lost the case, even though his work has no resemblance to the so-called stolen one. Absurd.)

The Whitney’s show shocked me — by catching me completely off guard. Ingeniously organized by Scott Rothkopf to entirely bypass hysteria and spectacle, “A Retrospective” is as near to a great show of this colossally controlling artist as will be possible as long as Koons is alive. For one thing, it’s well installed. Koons installs his shows like crowded showrooms, but the roughly 150 objects in “A Retrospective” all have space, pacing, placement. The show looks great. In Rothkopf, Koons has met his almost-equal obsessive, but without the artist’s showboating. 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.

Koons has always worked in very distinct series, and the show is installed thus. This allows viewers to track his development, concerns, material hunger, peaks, plateaus, and valleys. Start your tour on the museum’s second floor, and you’ll instantly be confronted by two rows of vacuum cleaners stacked in acrylic vitrines, internally lit by exposed fluorescent lights. These are from “The New,” made beginning in 1980. The installation discourages walking around these aberrant things, but that doesn’t diminish the work’s undeniable optical power. It’s hard to overstate how different this work was from everything else being made at the time. Anywhere. The works weren’t — aren’t — the snazzy cross-breedings of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Duchamp, and Warhol, or only about commodity culture or post-Pop. You’re seeing Koons’s ability to tease anthropomorphic meaning from everyday objects. These works have a totemic quality, like high-tech Neolithic stones or temple sentinels. The vitrines are space-age Egyptian sarcophagi and canopic jars for preserving these industrial-age machines for the afterlife. Breath, breathing, making things vividly visible, placing objects in suspended physical states, visual theatrics executed with meticulousness: These are ongoing concerns for this artist. The objects are visual anomalies, exuding hollowness. You look in, and nothing happens. Here is Koons’s great creepy beauty.

Read more: