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Jeff Koons:Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988 • Photo courtesy of Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art  

JEFF KOONS RETROSPECTIVE:

SO SIMPLE EVEN AN ARTIST CAN DO IT

 


By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 2 DECEMBER 2014 — It was fitting that, like those Occupy protesters who occupied everywhere without a unified message other than their need to be seen not liking what they saw, Jeff Koons should occupy virtually the whole of the Whitney Museum of American Art from almost the moment the most recent Biennial ended. This year’s Biennial followed in the tradition of its predecessors: consequential to the point of being a necessity in understanding the directions in which contemporary American art is moving, it nevertheless offered a fair sampling of those works that even a seasoned museumgoer can only stare at with diminishing expectations, wondering just what the artist intended.

Just as the Biennial proudly bucks clichés about the simplistic nature of American culture by offering unabashed highbrow journeys into opacity, Jeff Koons carries forward the American tradition of clarity in excess.  He does that by celebrating the triumph of the popular culture that American intellectuals (no, that is not an oxymoron) have been battling since before the invention of radio; most of all, he accomplishes it by letting you know, at every turn, that Jeff Koons has been at work here. There may be no unified message sent by Koons to the art world other than to protest the art that protests the commonplace, but nearly all the individual pieces are as immediately comprehensible as a child’s picture book.

When you join a docent’s tour during a Whitney Biennial, she explains even the most perplexing works so reverently that what starts (to use an actual example from some time back) as nothing more than a wall decoration of brightly colored parallel stripes will take on transcendent meaning. And then, as the docent moves on, an inquisitive herd traveling thoughtfully with her, the explanation slowly fades from the art that is left behind until all that remains are colored stripes fastened to the wall.

In the Jeff Koons retrospective, few such problems arise, at least for anyone who is not looking to comb the works for the broader meanings that Koons and others offer on the audio guide and elsewhere. When you see a mural-sized depiction of Koons having sex with his first wife, it remains an oversized image of the former Mr. and Mrs. Koons having sex, even after the docents have gone and you have turned off the audio guide. That is all the more impressive because the starring narrator on the audio guide is Koons himself. As an example of his explanation of the works from his copulation series (that resulted in his famous/infamous1991Made in Heaven show at the Sonnabend Gallery), he respectfully compliments the first Mrs. Koons for having the self-confidence to expose her anus in his art. Considering that first wife—the former pornographic film star and Italian parliament member "La Cicciolina" (real name: Ilona Staller)—fled to Italy with the couples’ only child, Ludwig (causing Koons to spend a small fortune in a determined but failed attempt to obtain legal custody), Koons’s repeated use of the more familiar word for anus in his commentary on Staller signals that his claimed admiration for her is likely a coy, coded joke.[i]  Whatever the personal misfortune that lies behind it all, we never have trouble getting the art.


Jeff Koons at Made in Heaven show, 1991
at Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Photo:  © Alan Behr

Koons seems to have no allegiance to any medium, willingly experimenting with everything from oil paint to vacuum cleaners in order to fulfill his high esthetic demands. Regardless of medium, Koons’s work favors bright colors and is uniformly brilliant in technique—in no small part because he pays outstanding technicians and artisans to make the work for him. Koons’s method is to think big, to have others execute big, to convince yet others to sell high for him, and to promote himself and his work as expansively as the elastic boundaries of the art market permit.  He has made thereby himself the artistic heir of Andy Warhol and, like his mentor, he has become a celebrity in his own right. And he did it all as a heterosexual, no less. (You need only look at Koons’s literally titled sculpture Woman in Tub (1988)—bathtub, cupped breasts, exclaiming mouth—to know that Warhol’s gay perspective has been left behind.)

How many exhibition audio guides include a lecture on copyright law?  Professor Amy Adler of New York University Law School gives an excellent capsule explanation of the doctrine of "fair use," which provides those exceptions by which you may use copyright-protected material owned by others. As professor Adler correctly notes, American courts have increasingly shown a willingness to see fair use where once they would have found infringement; for that reason, she concludes, Koons would likely win Rogers v. Koons were it adjudicated today rather than in 1992. This being Jeff Koons, a piece at the Whitney that led to what was surely an expensive legal defeat was a String of Puppies (1988): eight German Shepard puppies, that is, held by a man and woman seated on a wooden bench and photographed in black and white by a photographer named Art Rogers. Koons bought an authorized reproduction on a notecard and had artisans turn it into sculpture made to his precise instructions, which included rendering the puppies in shades of blue.  In the process, Rogers’s charming and forgettable image became a part of the history of American art—to which the photographer had a very American reaction: he sued.


Jeff Koons: String of Puppies, 1988

I have twice been on legal panels with John B. Koegel, Koons’s lawyer who lost that case (and who, in fairness won the later Blanch v. Koons for the artist); he and I respectfully agree to disagree on where Koons’s avowed mission to blur the line between popular and high culture has resulted in infringement by him (and others) of source material, but for Koons, a legal victory is more than a win in court. That is because, under the doctrine of fair use, to win, Koons has to show that he "transformed" the pop culture image he has used; that is, he has to show he made something fundamentally different out of the source material. Because his pop culture sources are chosen precisely because they are not valued as art, and Koons claims to make art, winning one of these cases means nothing less than the difference between being found (a) to have copied and sold, without permission, some lowbrow but delightful fluff, and (b) to have made fine art from it.  Is Koons a mere repackager of the consumer culture he claims to mock or he is a true artist—a creator of unique vision and execution, a champion in the ascendance of what is fine over all that is insubstantial?  Few litigants have ever had more at stake.[ii]

Although celebrated abroad (in 2008, seventeen works by Koons were exhibited at the Château de Versailles), he is safest on home ground.  In Europe, culture worked its way from the top (the aristocracy and academia) down, which is why taxpayers of all classes in European countries continue to subsidize wonderful museums containing former royal collections, innovative opera houses playing in cities too small by American standards for legitimate theater, and enormous numbers of contemporary artists making nothing of interest to anyone. What Koons understands, and America’s educated elite cringes to consider, is that culture here comes from the bottom up. Children’s media on which we were raised poked fun at the tastes and manners of the rich and the educated.[iii]  Upper middle class adolescents take style queues from trend-setting thugs. Our culture, like our democracy, both celebrates and emanates from the viewpoint the common man and woman.


Jeff Koons: Pink Panther, 1988
 Photo: © 2013 Jeff Koons

It is easy for an artist who explores and celebrates that institutionalized banality of American life, as Koons declares he does, to become a prisoner of his sources. Pop culture trophies fill the Whitney galleries, and what you feel about the Koons works is in large measure grounded in what you feel about the original sources for them. Any review must therefore be given windage for the reviewer’s own pop culture biases.  I do not find his Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) interesting, probably because I knew enough about Michael Jackson not to care. I am neutral about the Incredible Hulk, have always liked Popeye the Sailor, and as for the actress Gretchen Mol, seen in a Bettie Paige getup for Koons’s canvas Antiquity 3 (2009-11): Koons shows her in a relatively modest faux-Paige pose (in stockings, heels, panties and bra, sitting astride a dolphin and ready to arouse an inflatable monkey), but the original, that great, campy pinup in dark bangs, was always at her best when teasing through nudity or when doing an S&M tableau vivant. As noted in a prior Culturekiosque review, I enjoy Koons’s Pink Panther (1988); I have loved the Pink Panther character since he was nothing more than animation for the opening title sequence of the first Inspector Clouseau movie. And who could ever fling a cruel word at the voluptuous body of the lady (Jayne Mansfield) carrying him in the Koons sculpture?  The same could be said about the sources used by Koons’s spiritual mentor, Andy Warhol: if you adored Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Campbell’s soup—the pop culture behind the high culture—he was the artist for you.

And that is the problem. When pop culture is your starting point, you have set yourself down a winding, unpaved road to make fine art of it, however loose that the distinction between the two will thereby become and whatever courts of law may conclude about whether you succeeded. The artist’s most recent work, Play-Doh (1994-2014), shown on the top floor of the exhibition, looks like an enormous pile of the child’s modeling material, albeit formed from sheets of polychromed aluminum. Who does not like Play-Doh?  If it were a pile of unbranded goop or a heap of generic rusty nails (stop me if you think I am anticipating the next Biennial), would we like it less? As Koons knows full well, the answer is probably yes.

Take the familiar references away from the art, however, and the art of Koons at last gets to breathe. The Equilibrium series, which have basketballs suspended seemingly by magic in the middle of aquariums filled with an aqueous solution, have been marvelous to see since they debuted, back in 1985. Perhaps because I am not particularly interested in the game of basketball is why I have always seen these as works of art and not just attempts at art; that is, remove the pop culture reference, and Koons can stand or fall as do all artists, which is on the art he creates and not the things he appropriates, imitates, references, emulates, calls to mind or simply steals.


Jeff Koons: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985
Photo courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art

Michael Jackson, lawsuits, the Pink Panther, adorable puppies, basketball, pornography, a foolish first marriage. What better amalgamation formed seemingly by happenstance can define the American experience?  This is an entertaining show about things we know, most of which are things we enjoy.  But is it art? The Whitney and many critics and academics are as empathetic with the answer of "Yes!" as are the many others who stand resolute with the counterpoint of, "No, no one thousand times no." For me, fun is reason enough to see Koons at the Whitney; it is no less art than brightly colored stripes on a wall. It is therefore surely art enough make Jeff Koons an appropriate send off for the Whitney Museum of American Art as it leaves my quiet neighborhood on the Upper East Side for the restless world below Fourteenth Street. (When you visit the Whitney’s next exhibition, it will be at the museum’s new, larger and better-looking home, in the Meatpacking District.)  If you absolutely need to be sure you are seeing fine art in the meantime, head one flight upstairs from Koons’s meditation on Play-Doh and experience there for one last time a representative sample of the museum’s incomparable collection of paintings by Edward Hopper. Whatever Keff Koons provides that is also art to your eye will be a happy bonus.

Notes:

[i] The artist’s reflections concern a work entitled Ilona’s Asshole (1991), which is a front and center depiction of same.
 
[ii] Switching here to my role as an art lawyer, I believe that both the Rogers and Blanch cases were correctly decided—although Professor Adler is probably right when she notes that Rogers would likely have gone Koons’s way were it decided today. The appropriated work in Blanch was an image of a woman’s feet in sandals.  Koons had scanned it from a print advertisement for Gucci sandals and suspended the appropriated feet, along with three other pairs of feminine paws, over a landscape of appetizing confections.  In short: the unintentional kitsch of the Rogers photograph was not transformed by Koons when he turned it into intentional kitsch; however, he did transform the feet from the Gucci ad by creating a canvas of leaping pedicures.  Entitled Niagra (2000) and debuted at a Koons exhibition at the Guggenheim in Berlin, which is where I first saw it, the work is not a part of the Whitney exhibition.
 
[iii] Now that educators have seized control of children’s programming, my five-year-old son is getting more refined television than is typically offered to his parents.

Headline image: Jeff Koons: Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988
Photo courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art

Alan Behr, an art, publishing and fashion lawyer, is a member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art and the American Society of Media Photographers. He last wrote on Art Basel Hong Kong for Culturekiosque.

The Jeff Koons Retrospective travels to the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris (26 November 2014 – 27 April 2015) and to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (12 June 2015 – 27 September 2015).

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Dispatch from Versailles: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Jeff Koon's Hanging Heart Sets Record at Auction

Book Review: Ripple Effect: Leo Castelli and the Birth of the Contemporary Art Market

Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection - Curated by Jeff Koons

Comment: Frye-Ku Folio: 8.



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