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Tag: pop art

Jeff Koons Retrospective

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Michael Jackson with Bubbles 1988

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?

New Hoover Celebrity III’s, 1980

New Hoover Celebrity III’s, 1980

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.

One Ball Total Equilibrium (detail) 1985

One Ball Total Equilibrium (detail) 1985

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?

Ushering in Banality 1988

Ushering in Banality 1988

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.

Play Doh 2014

Play Doh 2014

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.

Seal Walrus Chairs 2003

Seal Walrus Chairs 2003

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.

Balloon Venus 2013

Balloon Venus 2013

Metallic Venus 2010

Metallic Venus 2010

Popeye 2009

Popeye 2009

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.

Balloon Dog (Yellow) 1994-2000

Balloon Dog (Yellow) 1994-2000

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?

Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) 2013

Gazing Ball (Belvedere Torso) 2013

Why not go to the Whitney and decide for yourself? The Jeff Koons Retrospective is on until Oct 19th.

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W.T.G.A.: Dali vs Warhol

dali vs warholTwo more theatrical artists you’ll never find. Both achieved international super stardom in their lifetimes. They became that very rare species: artist celebrity. Today your average person would be hard pressed to name a living artist. Not even our so called art celebrities like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Matthew Barney pull that much weight in a world of Justin Biebers and Lady Gagas.  Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol were and are to this day household names. Pretty good for guys who painted melting clocks and Campbell‘s soup cans, but who is the greater artist?

Dali The Basket of Bread 1926

Dali The Basket of Bread 1926

Before the ants, crutches and barren landscapes of the subconscious shifted everyone’s perceptions of reality; there was a young Spanish art student born in 1904 in the North Western corner of Spain named Salvador. Dali exhibited a master’s talent from an early age and as a youth he attended a prestigious art academy in Madrid, but dropped out (or was expelled) before completion; citing he was better than all his instructors. A controversial move but a correct one. From an early age Dali understood his place in the universe and wouldn’t be satisfied unless he was the center of it.

Warhol Shoe 50's

Warhol Shoe 50’s

Andrew Warhola was born in Pittsburgh in 1928. Andy Warhol was born in New York city in  1949. By the fifties, the once shy and frail bed ridden boy had reinvented himself as the most sought after illustrator in New York. His inkblot drawing style was both elegant and whimsical and proved irresistible to magazine editors. Although Andy was at the top of his field he yearned to be considered a real artist.

Dali The Persistence of Memory 1931

Dali The Persistence of Memory 1931

Introduced to Surrealism in the late 1920’s Dali soon became its most visible proponent. Although he would later reject its staunch confides, it is the movement most associated with him. An early work and probably one of the most recognizable artworks on the planet The Persistence of Memory does exactly what its title connotates. The dream world of the subconscious rocks the viewer into a whole new way of seeing. In my opinion this is Dali’s crowing achievement and possibly one of the act of painting’s crowning achievements.

Advantage: Dali

Warhol Campbells Soup Cans 1962

Warhol Campbells Soup Cans 1962

Andy may have never painted anything as seminal as The Persistence of Memory but he had a gift of transforming everything he painted. He elevated the banal to the iconic. The greatest example of this would be his soup cans. 32 hand painted still-lifes arranged in a pattern (originally shown as a long row, now a grid). The power of subtle change and repetition is undeniable. When first exhibited in California only one sold to the actor Dennis Hopper. Later it was returned to maintain all 32 as a single work. The effect they had was stupefying. They questioned what could be considered  art and flew directly in the face of the godfathers of American art the Abstract Expressionists. Materialism and Pop culture were meant to be condemned  not exonerated in the halls of fine art but Andy could see the future, and not only recognized the power of Pop but helped push it over the edge.

Advantage: Warhol

Dali Premonition of War 1936

Dali Premonition of War 1936

As interesting as Surrealism is, it can’t compete with the juggernaut that is Pop, but Pop too has its limitations. Pop’s subject matter will always be itself, it’s like a snake swallowing its tail. Dali could use Surrealism to its full advantage and utilized its storytelling ability to comment on the political unrest of his beloved Spain. The late great art critic Robert Hughes said that Dali’s Premonition of War was one of the greatest comments on war ever depicted, even eclipsing Picasso’s Guernica. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but the anguish and tension is palatable.

Warhol Electric Chair 1963

Warhol Electric Chair 1963

At his best, Warhol transcended Pop and even appropriated his own working methods to delve deeper into the human condition than celebrities or cow wallpaper. By the 60’s Warhol had set up his Factory and adopted silk-screening as his number one working method. It provided him an easy way to repeat an image as  opposed to the tedious and laborious method of hand painting he used for his soup cans. Utilizing a bevy of assistants and quick working methods, Warhol’s production went into high gear. He later expanded his art into the movies, publishing and sculpture. Not all of it was stellar but it demonstrated his endless creativity, proving he didn’t like to stay in the same place for very long.

Advantage; Warhol

Dali Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937

Dali Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937

Dali at his best, transformed the way we see the world and at his worst, his paintings became cheap parlor tricks that turned into optical illusions that are better suited for the walls of a dormitory rather than a museum. Unfortunately near the end of his career Dali became a caricature of his former self. He notoriously signed a stack of blank paper that became countless forgeries. The art market was awash with fake Dalis with real signatures.

Warhol Marilyn 1964

Warhol Marilyn 1964

Warhol himself didn’t even sign half his work, he got his mom to do it for him. His portraits became a formula, starting with a simple Polaroid passed to assistants then silk-screened with Andy doing as little as collecting the fee which was $50 thousand a pop. The commercialization of his art is both his worst failure and his greatest accomplishment. His example has been followed by countless others that came after him. His influence is immense, but it would be dismissive to underestimate his contribution to the canon of art history. Andy Warhol changed the way we perceive process, culture and ultimately art and that is no small accomplishment.

Winner: Warhol

Paradigm Shift

A few years back I participated in a 2 day outdoor art-fair in downtown Toronto. (One of the great things about Toronto is that it has a number of wonderful opportunities for artists to get their work out there.)   The fair comprised of a few hundred tents set up in a west end park with every manner of art available. The park itself was riddled with hipsters drinking organic coffee, admiring each others skinny jeans and mustaches; occasionally taking the time to check out some art. To be fair, the fair attracts all sorts of people from all over the city; families taking a stroll, serious art lovers, local celebrities and the odd politician (my wife had the late Jack Layton come to her tent – as I said, it was a few years ago). The weather was perfect all weekend long and the mood was sunny.

Near the end of the first day, I decided to take a break from the tent itself and positioned myself across the aisle on a park bench. I was close enough to make myself helpful if needed but out of sight for people walking by. Sometimes an empty tent is more inviting than an occupied one at these type of things. The multiple art-fair strategies that people employ, can totally  make your head spin. You get the Walmart greeter, the aloof artist, artist in action, the art-fair pro and the newbie amongst others. I myself fall into the smile and nod category. As I was enjoying the sun on my face, I noticed two men checking out my paintings; engaged in what seemed like a lively conversation. It slowly dawned on me that these men looked very familiar. To my utter surprise, I was looking at both of my former high school art teachers that I hadn’t laid eyes on in nearly two decades!

David Michelangelo 1504

You never forget your high school art teacher(s). Every school seems to have an eccentric individual or individuals that are passionately conveying the virtues of creativity and expression. These guys were no exception. For most artists, high school is the place where you begin to develop your early attitudes towards art, later on in university they may try to indoctrinate you into their way of thinking and then after that you have to unlearn everything you’ve been told. In high school most Art development usually starts in the realm of photo realism. The teenage mind is obsessed with making something look exactly like what they think it’s supposed to look like. This is what constitutes what can be considered ‘good art’.  A lot of adults still carry that preconception of art; which can eventually lead to “my kid could do that” comments when presented with anything that doesn’t fit this particular paradigm. An early love for Art is usually accompanied with an early appreciation for the great masters. There is no denying the genius of Leonardo or Michelangelo and as a kid these are the first few household artists’ names you become familiar with.

El Jaleo John Singer Sargent 1882

As a kid learning to draw, I was influenced by comics and the art books found around my parents’ house. I spent hours pouring over the the paintings of the Sistine Chapel or the portraits of John Singer Sargent. I was enraptured by their technique but the content and expression were lost on me. Up until high school, the only art history we were taught was the Group of Seven. At the start of high school Picasso and Van Gogh interested me but I still wanted to draw like Robert Bateman Throughout high school, the two men who took turns teaching our art class showed us countless examples of what art could be and then in grade 11 it happened.

 Mr. B. was teaching us mold-making and he brought in a piece that he had made; a giant roll of Lifesavers. I had never experienced anything like it. We were all blown away. He had made a clay version, then made a mold and then made various coloured versions using dyed resin. These were little familiar candies blown up to the size of dinner plates. This was Alice in Wonderland, this was Pop. In that moment, my paradigm shifted – Art could be pop culture, Dadist, expressionistic and most importantly fun. It was like entering a whole new world and the depth of my appreciation was multiplied incalculably.

Once I recognized who was in my tent I made a B-line to greet them. We had a warm reunion sharing our lives over the past years since we had last seen each other. They were on their way to dinner and had planned to check out the fair before hand. The fact they had happened upon my booth was a complete fluke. Mr. B. had retired from teaching years ago and Mr. W. was getting close. I told Mr. B. what an impression the Lifesavers had made on me and inquired if he still had them. He figured they were in a box somewhere in his apartment and said he was willing to part with them. We made arrangements for me to pick them up and true to his word they were tucked away in a box in the corner of his studio. I’ve seen them both since and am looking forward to Mr. W.’s retirement party.

The Lifesavers currently sit atop my bookshelf, reminding me of the day my whole world shifted.

Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective

Ohhh….Alright 1964

This was the second Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective I have had the pleasure of seeing and just like the first; it did not disappoint. The first retrospective I saw was in Montreal in 1994 organized by the Guggenheim.  Nearly 18 years later, the paintings hadn’t lost any of their punch. The beauty of seeing these paintings in person is their scale and presence. Tiny comics blown up to enormous proportions give the subject matter a sense of urgency and importance. The recently closed show at The Art Institute of Chicago contained nearly 170 works from the late great pop artist. Best know for his iconic comic strip inspired canvases, the retrospective illustrated that the artist was far from a one trick pony.

Step-on Can with Leg 1961

Lichtenstein was a master of appropriation. He mined sources from the pop culture of his day to the masters of the western art canon and beyond. He had an impeccable eye for subject matter. He spotlighted the art contained in the simple narrative of comic strips by isolating single panels eliminating the context and highlighting the raw emotions. He transformed simple objects into iconic portraits.

Ball of Twine 1963

His style evolved from the comics but soon eclipsed it. He integrated many printing techniques including benday dots, parallel lines and flat bold colours. Although his style appears to be totally graphic in nature; the influence of the Abstract Expressionists is very evident in a lot of his work. The brushstroke series is a direct comment on how they applied paint, where a piece like Composition II is a nod to the all-over style.

Rouen Cathedral set 5 1969

Lichtenstein tackles luminaries such as Monet and Picasso. The Pop filter he applies only helps to accentuate the greatness of the originals. The retrospective does a wonderful job of organizing the many series he explored during his career. Along with the art history paintings; he explored interiors, mirrors, comics, moldings, still-lifes, landscapes and even (a slight misstep in my opinion) nudes. He mostly succeeds in all areas.

Brushstroke Abstraction II 1996

Near the end of his career he incorporated the direct brushwork of the abstract painters he so admired. It was nice to see the direct evidence of the artist’s hand that had been camouflaged by the mechanical reproduction techniques he so often employed. The end result of the  juxtaposition of the two diametrically opposed styles together on the same canvas is fantastic. I didn’t get to see these paintings the first time around because they hadn’t been created yet. A few notable paintings that were missing this time from the first time around would be Girl with Ball (one of my favourites) and Grrrrrr

Landscape in Fog 1996

The Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective is now on its way to The National Art Gallery in Washington, then on to the Tate in London and the Pompidou in Paris.

What’s so Funny about Peace, Love and an Inflatable Rabbit?

Jeff Koons Rabbit 1986

Art can feel like a very serious affair sometimes. We have built austere institutions in every major city to exalt its importance. Billions of dollars are spent annually trying to acquire its cultural cache. Art represents taste, prestige and social class. So, if an art object can symbolize status in society, what does a multimillion dollar inflatable rabbit cast in stainless steel say about society?

The bunny in question would be Jeff KoonsRabbit from 1986. Art historians and critics have argued about the validity of Koons’ work since its inception. It has been dismissed as sensationalist kitsch or praised as postmodern pop that holds a mirror up to society’s guilty pleasures and vacuous need for consumption. However you view the importance of it in the canon of western art, there is a certain pleasure of seeing yourself reflected on the highly polished surface of a multimillion dollar inflatable rabbit cast in stainless steel. The absurdity of it is funny.

What’s funny doing in the serious world of art? Humour has existed in art from its conception, but the latter half of the twentieth century saw the advent of artist as part-time comedian.  In the 1960’s the seriousness of the Abstract Expressionists was replaced by the whimsy of the Pop artists. The greatest and possibly the funniest of them all would be Andy Warhol. Along with his depictions of car crashes, electric chairs and consumerism, Andy Warhol had a funny bone. In the 1970’s Andy had a book deal to write The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again chronicling his personal views on art and life. He had an assistant write it for him. During a book signing; fans were asking him specific questions that Andy was unable to answer. Andy hadn’t bothered to read the book and had no idea what his own personal philosophy was! That’s funny.

Funny has become more of the norm in twenty-first century art as illustrated by the recent Maurizio Cattelan retrospective at the Guggenheim. His work is truly absurd: an old woman in a fridge, a squirrel committing suicide in a miniature replica of his childhood kitchen and the Pope being struck by a meteorite all cut deep into societal norms. He has been labeled ‘L’Enfant terrible’ of the art world with many critics immune to his charms. For his final act of absurdity (he has said he is retiring) he suspended all his artworks from cables down the center of the Guggenheim’s rotunda leaving all the galleries empty. It was an engaging way to view the work. Pieces floated in and out of your periphery creating unexpected associations. The title of the show was all. Everything was there, including the funny.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen my own reflection in Jeff Koons’ Rabbit at the Pop Life exhibit, walked into a room full of floating silver pillows at The Warhol Museum and made the spiral hike up the Guggenheim to take it all in. All these experiences cemented in me the belief that not only is art meant for you to think about and re-exam  the world we live in but sometimes it’s there just to make you smile.

State of Independence

Flags 1994

This painting is a combination of Jackson Pollock‘s drip technique and Jasper Johns‘ flag series.

Donna Summer State of Independence

Opinion

opinion 2011