People really love to hate Jeff Koons; artists especially. The laundry list of criticisms levied against him are vast and plenty. The fact that he doesn’t physically make any of his own artworks and they are actually the factory fabrications of a team of nameless makers seems to rub some people the wrong way. Marcel Duchamp started that avalanche a century ago and Warhol had no trouble cashing the cheques as a result of it. One major difference between Koons and the elder statesmen of art is that both Duchamp and Warhol had the technical skill to execute anything that they put their name to. With Jeff Koons it’s not so apparent, but Koons’ power stems from what Duchamp so eloquently pointed out forever ago, is that the idea is where the art lies and the object is just the conduit in which it is communicated. Who cares where the object came from as long as an artist infuses it with their own artistic conception?
So what exactly is Jeff’s conception? This is probably the other major sticking point for his critics. Some people think he doesn’t have one. He is accused of creating super polished art-bling for the super rich. It has no worth except for what it’s worth. Is this where Jeff’s genius lies? Like Warhol said “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Jeff Koons’ career trajectory has been cool and very calculated and Jeff is a very clever boy who knew to steal from the best. Take a look at his early vacuum pieces. One part Duchamp one part Dan Flavin and voilà instant art that has an existing built in conception. The vacuum pieces work now more from an 80’s artifact curiosity factor than a neo-dadist sensibility.
Neo-dadist art eventually morphed and transitioned into Pop art and that is where Koons found his true calling. Jeff Koons is a pop artist perfectionist with the budget of a Hollywood studio. In the beginning he didn’t always have the resources he possess today. He did this by investing in himself. He took all his money and put it into the fabrication of his ideas, sometimes selling them at a loss to help perpetuate his brand. Employing scientists to help you figure out how to make a Dr. J basketball eternally float suspended in time doesn’t come cheap. Casting an inflatable dingy in bronze also doesn’t come cheap; irony costs. Is this where Jeff Koons brilliance lies?
In the late 80’s Jeff Koons hit his stride. He became an expert anthropologist/alchemist, mining the cultural landscape for gold. He could turn led into a precious metal. He could turn the banal into candy and intrigue. He played with materials and surface with astonishing results. His rabbit from this time was an artistic revelation. Koons worked in steel, wood, porcelain and fabrication. His work was a celebration and easy fun.
Jeff Koons throughout his career has channeled his inner child. With works like Play Doh and Balloon Dog playfulness is on display in a monumental way. The facts they are in themselves very grown-up feats of engineering (Play Doh took 10 years to figure out) is invisible. They are made to be loved and when it comes to his Balloon Dogs mission accomplished. In my opinion the Balloon dogs are his most successful works. They work on a conceptual and aesthetic level. In their presence you are impressed by their scale and tickled by their polish. On the flip-side, in every way his sculptures succeed, his paintings fail miserably.
His paintings are meticulous recreations of bad Photoshop collages. When I look at them I just feel sorry for the poor painters who had to waste countless hours of their lives creating unneeded forgettable images. The best of Jeff’s art works because he willed it into existence. The fact that Seal Walrus Chairs exists in itself is ridiculous. Creating painted bronze casts of pool toys trapped in a stack of plastic deck chairs defies all common sense and that is why it works. There is an implied narrative there that none of his paintings exhibit.
The bulk of the metallic sculptures are exercises in execution but ultimately don’t come close to a Rabbit or Balloon Dog. There’s a specificity to them that the stronger work isn’t chained to. It could be any balloon dog among millions as opposed to one Popeye, Hulk or what have you. Inflatables are meant to be inconsequential and not revered as monuments.
The Whitney has done a good job surveying an international art star’s evolution and success. They have included the good, bad and ugly (Made in Heaven: Koons’ misstep into sex and images). I was looking forward to this show and was not disappointed. I left wondering: is Jeff Koons a genius? On the one hand, none of this would have happened if it weren’t for the Warhol blueprint ( who in my mind is a genius). On the other hand these ridiculous monuments to the inconsequential were willed into existence by Koons’ creativity and tenaciousness. Are these important art objects or hyper expensive lawn ornaments for the uber-rich?
Why not go to the Whitney and decide for yourself? The Jeff Koons Retrospective is on until Oct 19th.