The Jeff Koons show at the Whitney is a failure

You know whose work this is even without a caption, photo by Sean Rocha

The Jeff Koons exhibit that opened at the Whitney on Friday is a failure.  The show comes larded with superlatives — the most comprehensive retrospective ever of his work, the last Whitney exhibit to be shown at their signature Marcel Breuer building where I once worked — but one would expect a mid-career retrospective on this scale to make a compelling case for the artist’s place in history and, perhaps, provide an opportunity to see his body of work differently.  This exhibit does neither.

The New York magazine art critic Jerry Salz once began a review this way:

Pretend Jeff Koons is an artist. Not a happy hotshot in a suit, serving as crystal meth to big-game-­buying megacollectors and auction ­houses. Pretend he’s not a self-styled weird Mitt Romney–like family man, a hollowed-out Howdy Doody…

Some like Koons, some detest him, but I suspect no one who sees the retrospective at the Whitney will change their mind about him.  If you’ve always thought his work shallow and the man a fraud, the sheer accumulation of finely fabricated crap on exhibit will do much to confirm that view.  On the other hand, if you admire Koons for his ability to transform the banal and ephemeral into the iconic — or, occasionally, make high art banal — well, there’s plenty of that here too.  There are casts of classical statues with glass ball lawn ornaments attached to them, oversized tchotchkes, basketballs floating in water, and various eye-deceiving inflatable toys.

Jeff Koons floating basketball at the Whitney, photo by Sean Rocha

The Whitney website is careful in the claims it makes on behalf of Koons, calling him “one of the most important, influential, popular, and controversial artists of the postwar era” — the wall text, if I remember correctly, repeats this claim without the ‘important’ — and I think the choice of words is revealing.  Important is questionable; the rest are circumstantial.  For example, except for a few of his sex photos with Cicciolina, I don’t think Koons is actually ‘controversial.’  His work is intensely disliked by many, which is a different thing, as well as being a huge financial success with a few; divergence of opinion is not controversy in itself, though.  Koons does provoke the old “But is it art?” debate, but that’s a perennial so I am not giving him credit for that.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and chimp at the Whitney, photo by Sean Rocha

As for ‘influential,’ that’s more complicated.  I don’t know that many artists of the next generation will explicitly follow his lead, mainly because it is not clear there is a rich vein of material there still untapped — what gold there is to be wrung from outlandishly priced tchotchkes has been wrung by Koons himself.  But merely by making himself such a large presence in the art world for so long, Koons’s ‘influence’ will be attributed to much work to come that no doubt would have been done without him.  That is the nature of mass culture, which is what Koons has managed to become.  He is famously sincere in his appropriations: he is not critiquing consumerism or kitsch but rather exalting it.  Similarly, he is not referencing mass culture; he is mass culture, in the way in which enormous production budgets and huge promotional efforts can make ephemera lasting.  I mean, who in the 1980s imagined that all those bad synth bands would live on, decades later, on the playlists at Whole Foods?  The sheer mass-ness of their exposure, rather than their quality, meant they would be absorbed into the culture and became a common reference point for that generation once they reached a culturally productive age themselves.

There is a lot of this at the Jeff Koons show at the Whitney, photo by Sean Rocha.jpg

Koons, too, is mass in a way few artists are: when I went to the exhibit on opening day, the halls were filled with people taking selfies in front of Koons sculptures like tourists in Times Square.  Koons not only dredges the most middlebrow elements of American culture — it is a wonder he has not appropriated Thomas Kincaid yet, though perhaps that is coming — but he speaks to an audience that may not follow art closely but recognizes a familiar brand when they see it.  In this context, the shiny balloon animals might as well be Mercedes emblems.

Yet I’ll allow that the shiny balloon animals may be the only thing worth a damn in this exhibit.  Quite a lot of fuss is made about Koons’s “obsessive perfectionism” and how complicated the fabrication of his objects is but at some point in the endless repetition of that claim a weary doth-protest-too-much skepticism sets in.  You start to wonder whether that line has been put about to inoculate the artist against the usual charge, which is that he relies entirely on assistants to produce these works for him so where, really, is the hand of the artist in all this?  The artistic temperament, in this cartoonish rendering, is taken to be obsessive by nature so Koons is fulfilling the role without, in any productive sense, actually creating the art himself.

Early work by Jeff Koons at the Whitney, photo by Sean Rocha

It marks you out as old fashioned to ask this question about production.  A more modern approach, commonly employed when Koons is involved, is to use the art market as a proxy for subjective judgment in much the same way that people take the daily gyrations of the stock market as an indicator of the state of the nation.  Here Koons is a powerhouse: the prices he commands at auction are the highest for any living artist.  This becomes a sort of trump card of validation (to his admirers) or an emperor-has-no-clothes moment (to his detractors) who see it as proof that there is an essentially commercial, rather than artistic, mechanism at work with Koons.

So what do these prices really indicate?  It is hard to say.  The art market is a well known method for laundering money, so maybe it means that oligarchs with millions to clean favor a few marquee names with which to make large-scale trades rather than parcelling out their purchases a few small bits at a time.  Or it could mean that the smart money has already decided Koons is the most important artist alive so all you can do is join the crowd or risk being left behind and looking foolish.  That is just what an asset bubble looks like, in fact.


Update (8 July 2014): five days after writing that I was walking on Houston and Lafayette Streets in New York and saw these billboards from H&M boasting “Fashion Loves Art Jeff Koons” and using the balloon puppy at the top of this post as a logo signifying ‘art’ to go with its own logo signifying ‘clothes.’

Koons has become just another brand, New York, photo by Sean Rocha

This seems to me a perfect illustration of what Koons has become: he creates recognizable images with certain desirable associations — in his case, almost all of them having to do with money, either in production or in the selling — that function just like the models in these billboards to help sell stuff.  Sometimes he is selling himself; sometimes he is selling cheap Swedish clothing, or real estate (as in the lobby art I saw on Astor Place).  In a way, Koons is like an advertising executive who fabricates things rather than shooting 30-second ads.


Where the Whitney fails, the Guggenheim succeeds: the Italian Futurism exhibit (up until 1 Sep 2014) is a revelation and challenges whatever you thought you knew about them.  I’ll write more on that soon, I hope; until then, here is the Economist on the subject:


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