October 5, 2014

The Enigma of Jeff Koons: Formalist; Social Critic; Showman; Cynic; Buoyant Optimist??

Sponges with single double-sided floor mirror, 1978, (partially refabricated 2014); sponges, mirror, and acrylic

One of the exhibitions I saw on my recent trip to NYC was Jeff Koons: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Having seen much of his work over the years, some of which I loved, some was bemused by, some I thought silly, I wondered how it would all look together. I have to admit that I went to the show wanting to like it––which I did, though definitely not all of it; some of the work is awful––because of the shocking level of vitriol directed at Koons and at his work. In this post I want to stay away from discussion of the art market––which many think is a main content of Koons' work, although I don't––and just look at the work in front of me, the work I liked, and try to decipher it. The thing that most surprised me with the early work was its strong formal qualities: yes, the materials were ordinary objects that refer to Duchamp, but the way they were combined was visually powerful. A few colored sponges act as elements in a minimalist sculpture, the mirror making them self-conscious, more than kitchen cleanup tools.

Teapot, 1979; teapot, plastic tubes, and fluorescent lights, 26 x 9 x 13 in.

from the series "The New"

The central circles of these two pieces have a vigorous presence; their simplicity allows an abstract reading: we don't have to know what the objects actually are. I first see the compositions, then I realize what they are made from. I have to say here, and will repeat, that small reproductions of Koons' work do not give a good sense of it; the work is very physical and requires a physical engagement.

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J241 series), 1985; glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water, and basketball. 

This installation is one of the great highlights of the show. It was a brilliant decision to place the single floating basketball in a small room with one of the Marcel Breuer angled windows. The piece is remarkable, mysterious, with a sense of timelessness; though that is belied because the ball will eventually sink. This reminded me of nothing so much as one of Malevich's Suprematist paintings.

Woman in Tub, 1988; porcelain, 23 3/4 x 36 x 27 in. 

A few years later comes the series––Koons works in named series––called "Banality", which made him notorious. Working with fine craftspeople, Koons enlarged small kitsch objects, such as this silly woman in a tub being frightened by something or other. The most famous of this group is Michael Jackson and Bubbles. The series of works is funny, grotesque, off-putting, and probably more than what it seems. I saw these when they were first exhibited in New York's Soho art district and remember thinking that they were subversive works: Koons had made kitsch objects into high art, and gotten collectors to buy works the small originals of which they wouldn't be caught dead having in their houses. Of course I have no idea if this was in Koons' mind while making this series; he seems to be deadpan sincere about all his work. 

Vase of Flowers, 1988; mirror, 72 1/2 x 53 x 1 in. 

This extravagant, over the top mirror is similarly kitschy in feeling. Over the years I've been thinking about Koons' use of these "lower class" objects, and how angry people get about them. Yes, of course there's something about the glitz and the marketing, but there's also the big issue of class: the bringing of attention to objects many think would be best disappeared is an interesting stance for an artist to take. I think of Oldenburg and van Bruggen who also make large public sculpture using ordinary objects––lipstick, clothespins, trowels––but don't seem to attract the vituperative responses that Koons gets. Their work is more aestheticized, abstracted, the objects more neutral in feeling. It, in a word, is more tasteful

Large Vase of Flowers (detail), 1991; polychromed wood, 52 x 43 x 43 in.

Good taste does not enter into this crowded vase of flowers, which has more of a Little Shop of Horrors look to it, and is a distant relation to the many 17th century Dutch still lives of flowers.

Elephant, 2003; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 36 1/2 x 29 x 19 in. 

 I love Koons' balloon pieces, from this little elephant to the huge balloon dog below. There is something joyous about their rounded sparkling surfaces, as they take us back to childhood memories of happy playtimes. I don't think his paintings are as successful; they seem less inventive, more derivative of artists such as Rosenquist and Salle and Will Cotton.

Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008-12; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 102 x 48 x 50 in. 

This piece, inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient fertility statuette, was new to me and a complete knockout. The beautifully rounded forms are majestic, each angle of observation showing new, rich, formal relations. There is no way to get any idea of this piece unless you are standing there alongside it. The constantly shifting reflections and highlights on all the mirror polished works add a non-stop energy to them.

Hulk (Organ), 2004-14; polychromed bronze and mixed media, 93 1/2 x 48 5/8 x 27 7/8 in. 

Hulk is hilarious: that big green monster, looking so frightening with the bristling organ pipes rising from his back, the ultimate macho beast. From the Whitney Museum explanation of this piece, Koons thinks the figure represents "both Western and Eastern culture and the sense of a guardian, a protector". Well, no, not for me; for me he's a fierce inflatable, easily deflated, a figure "full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

Cat on a Clothesline (Aqua), 1994-2001; polyethylene plastic, 123 x 110 x 50 in. 

For another take on masculinity, there's this cat, hanging in a long bag, with two floral accompaniments. This is a huge, 10 foot high, piece that made my friend and I have a long fit of giggles. Koons has very effectively emasculated the male gender with this work (or do I have a dirty mind and it's just a cat in a bag? "a cigar is sometimes just a cigar")

Lobster, 2003; polychromed aluminum and coated steel chain, 57 7/8 x 37 x 17 1/8 in. 

Lobster brought up interesting issues of realism and representation. This is a sculpture made of a hard metal that looks exactly like a soft inflatable, one of those rafts for kids for floating in the pool (another tacky kitsch object). So, what to think of this verisimilitude? When you make a painting, even if it's a photo-realistic one, it is an abstraction: a three dimensional world is flattened into two dimensions. With this sculpture, Koons has reproduced the reality exactly, in three dimensions. It is an uncanny experience standing in front of this lobster, knowing it's a metal sculpture but believing it's an inflatable toy. If I was a philosopher I'd probably have more of an understanding of these issues, but I do believe it brings up questions of the nature of reality and of art.

Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994-2000; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 
121 x 143 x 45 in. 

A large gallery at the Whitney housed some monumental pieces, including this gorgeous Balloon Dog. I remember the delight I had in seeing this work on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. The perfectly rounded forms reflected Central Park; the sculpture carried memories of children's parties. Its perky presence (look at that tail!) still enchants in an interior setting; it is a joyous work.

Balloon Dog (Yellow) detail

The tied end of the balloon on the dog's nose is a touching detail.

Moon (Light Pink), 1995-2000; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 
130 x 130 x 40 in. 

In a small photo this sculpture is reduced to the size of the balloon that was its model, while in reality it has an enormous presence. It contains a reflected world, including Balloon Dog and Play-Doh, and Cat on a Clothesline. Its simple form would be austere in another material, but Koons is out to enchant; it is lush minimalism.

Play-Doh, 1994-2014; polychromed aluminum,
120 x 108 x 108 in. 

Play-Doh, another childhood memory. The wall label states that Koons remembers his son giving him a  Play-doh sculpture he had made; if so, the son must be all grown up by now since this piece took 20 years to realize. The surfaces and texture are remarkably like that well-loved material with the very distinct aroma (which the sculpture doesn't replicate); they also can't help but bring to mind playing with poop. Like Lobster, it brings up issues of realism: are the formal aspects of this work strong enough to have it rise above mere bloated representation? I think so. Things that are so ordinary and simple in reality are transformed by Koons into imposing, yet light-hearted, monuments; there's no question that he's a showman, an optimistic one. It's quite a different strategy from that of Chardin and John Peto, who painted the ordinary, but it has validity. Monumental sculpture doesn't have to be restricted to the "Serious", such as the work of Richard Serra. I have room in my world of art for both Koons and Serra.