In Celebration of Bad Taste

Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum, , June 27 – October 19, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

You despise him. He’s crass, obvious, stupid and yet totally irresistible. You want to stare forever at the smooth polished surface of his giant balloon dogs and Venus à la Willendorf. You are mesmerized by its perfection, its unreal miraculous color, its sheer technical genius, its enormity, its impossibility. You want to gawp unabashedly at that perfect ass-hole (belonging to his ex-wife, the porn Goddess, la Cicciolina), devoid of hair, pimples and sweat in his Made in Heaven series. Oh, that naughty Mr. Koons, just as sexy as a man on a bodice-ripper cover. His image inserted everywhere. He allows you to look closely in public, smack in the middle of the Whitney, at two beautiful people grappling, no holes barred.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994 – 2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 in. (307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm).  Private collection. © Jeff Koons.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994 – 2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 in. (307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm).
Private collection. © Jeff Koons.

I have trashed him and then been seduced, but now I step back and think that his work remains so obvious, so immediate, so simply about what it’s about – sex, commercialism, kitsch, the wacko art world, our vapid society—that, yes, he is a genius of the obvious. Hats off! He is a world-class philosopher. What is high art? What is illusion? What is real and, of course, what is fake? What is pornography versus erotic art? What is man-made artifice versus natural beauty? Is there any equilibrium, any real perfection? His art poses such lofty questions but never answers them.

Born in 1955, Koons is a child of the 60s. Educated at MICA and the Chicago Art Institute, his art reflects his fascination with Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalì, Pop Art, Minimalism and Photorealism and yes, performance. It is produced in 33,000 square foot (hyper-clean) Westside Studio with the aid of state-of-the-art technology and a mere 125 assistants. Still he insists, “I’m responsible for everything.” And I believe it. Koons produces relatively few pieces a year. He often begins with two-dimensional designs that are then developed into 3D, involving numerous models. When it comes to detail and technical perfection, he has the gifts of an astro-physicist at NASA.

Ultimately, his work is about art as fraud and not in the good sense. No matter how slick his style, no matter how much Koons makes you stop and think that little toys have an innate beauty, his art ultimately offers none of the deeper pleasures and emotions associated with the objects. You never want to eat his hot dogs, kiss his floating lips, make love to his (ex) wife. You may be intrigued. You want to look closely, touch those shiny surfaces (to make sure they are real), look at forbidden things but you don’t want to taste them or really think very much about them. They are free of any memories and personal history and live in a commercial void. In this way, his grandiose aesthetic transfigurations often make less, not more, of these objects of the popular imagination.

When I look at Koons’s Made in Heaven paintings, I think of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World. Yes, it’s a vagina super close up, but it is mysterious, intriguing, sensual, forbidden, delicious, erotic, strange, uninhibited and ultimately beautiful. When it comes to Koons, I have no relationship with those giant plaster figures, those porcelain Shepherdesses, those mirror cut-outs. I acknowledge their brilliance, their pseudo-originality and I’m done. It’s a conceit. It’s like eating cotton candy, bubbly mouthfuls of air and artificial sugar that leave you hungry.

If art is irony, then Koons is the master. He made ordinary objects out of stainless steel (the common man’s metal of choice), only now they fetch millions. He claims that his brand new vacuum cleaners in Lucite box frames made in the 80s relate to the eternal feminine (mom pushing the machine and oral/vaginal suction) and the masculine power (that electric engine and the vrrrrmmm). Yep, that is just what comes to mind when I run my Miele. A frame makes an object a work of art, or does it?

The Whitney show, intelligently curated by Scott Rothkopf, is spare and elegant with plenty of room to showcase the larger pieces (aka 27,000 square feet). It smoothly reflects basic themes in the artist’s work from 1978 to the present with an array of 150 pieces.

In the end, I think everyone should see Jeff Koons, acknowledge his mastery as anihilistic artist. None of his flowers will ever evoke a smell. None of his dogs will bark. Is he a genius? Yes. Does he reflect our crass commercial age? Yes. Is he iconic? Yes. Is he good-looking? Sure. Do I want to know him, have a walk in the park with him and laugh about Karl Ove Knausgard and tell him how this or that relates to my life. Not particularly. Do I want him in my home, in my bed, on my plate, in my mind? No thank you. This said, I will always secretly love his giant blue Balloon Dog. Why? Because it is something other. It has morphed into a sculpture with a life of its own. Unlike everything else that is endlessly perfect and static, it reflects us as we walk by and makes us laugh and perhaps, weep.

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