August 27, 2014

WANG | Sex and Excess: The Cheap Thrills of Jeff Koons

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The third floor of the Whitney’s blockbuster exhibition, “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,” reveals the artist’s “Made in Heaven” series. Here, room after room teems with both sculptural and pictorial depictions of Koons himself in flagrante with his then porn-star-turned-Parliament-member wife, Ilona Staller. Its explicit erotica, a near banal shock-for-shock-value tactic of many artists, juxtaposes starkly against the neighboring “Easyfun” exhibit of cartoon animal-shaped mirrors. If you’re one of the hoards of New Yorkers who flocked to this landmark final show in Whitney’s Madison Avenue flagship, then you may have wondered: Um, like, what the actual fuck?

Amongst this plentiful penetration, both anal and vaginal, amongst this painstakingly painted ass cheeks liberally adorned with semen, what is, well, the point? Is the juxtaposition of “Made in Heaven” with “Easyfun” about innocence lost and innocence regained? Has Koons, king of the readymade, transformed his wife into his first human readymade? Is Koons suggestively blurring the boundaries between public and private, penis and portraiture, art and pornography?

Though many a straight-faced visitor completes the step-back, furrow-brow, head-nod formula of a seemingly competent art-appraising public, quite few actually walk away from the retrospective with a solid handle of each piece’s significance and Koons only mystifies further. Of this series, he says, “What I really like about it are the pimples on Ilona’s ass. The confidence to reveal one’s ass like that.”

I, for one, can appreciate a juicy ‘donk like a particularly fine Bordeaux, but if this summer’s most-trafficked art show by this universe’s most profitable living artist has affirmed, it’s that even heavily publicized, cheap-thrills art is still inscrutable. The Whitney’s five-floor expanse of polished chrome bar sets, Michael Jackson porcelains, and fluorescently encased vacuum cleaners is pure and proud kitsch. Altogether, the supersaturated colors, hyper-realistic paintings and multitude of reflective surfaces generate an agreeable queasiness — safe for the bread-and-games public to consume quite thoughtlessly. Peek inside “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” and you’ll find a rich kid’s toy chest from an artist who has essentially become the provider of ultra-exclusive tchotchkes for billionaire decorating opportunities.

And when you’re a super-artist like Koons, you can erect a lavish monument to mass-cultural triviality and it doesn’t have to mean a thing. For the power art clique of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, who dominate the art world with their record-smashing sales, no true substance is required of their work. When you become so big and so goddamn rich, you become your own cultural phenomenon. You become Occupy Wall Street or Kim Kardashian; your press begets press. Your persona becomes your most enduring, most arduously crafted artwork, especially for Koons who famously employed image consultants to cultivate his stardom. In this manner, Koons is like his oft-compared Warhol: A Pop artist who himself is a Pop figure, and that in itself is the story of his four-decade retrospective.

As Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, says: “The desire that Koons creates with people is very much about possession. It’s about owning it, ingesting it. It’s proto-sexual. The ability to have the physical proximity to this object.” And proximity is enough. It’s about the dream of a perfect object, the seduction of its high gloss surface, and it’s about the people who can pay for them, too. Such is the case for “Play-Doh,” a 10-foot pile of polychrome aluminum resembling globs of its namesake. This work took twenty years, a team of 130 studio assistants and an inordinate amount of money just to replicate his son Ludwig’s Play-Doh creation, and for what? All that labor, all that expense … for a mound of colored clay?

But is that wrong? For Koons, whose habit of exaggerating his own trappings of fame has only gifted him more fame, his excess effectively breeds more excess. Koons has defined his own bull market for art in which paying a large sum for his work essentially ensures cornering the market on those works. The circle of collectors and dealers who can afford his work is so small and so esoteric that the entire price climate is rigged. If you pay $58 million for his balloon toy sculpture as, ahem, someone actually did, you may have spent several million too much or too little for this work. Because, however, essentially no one can afford to spend that kind of money on a piece of art, you’ve thereby set the value of that and of all Koons’s past, present and subsequent work.

And if you’re a one of these billionaire boy collectors, you couldn’t give a damn whether a Koons or Hirst or Murakami hits or misses. You like your art big and shiny, a large-scale spectacle of ostentatiously displayed wealth, and, most importantly, instantly recognizable. After all, how else will people know you’re better than them if they couldn’t read about your eight-figure purchase in the Wall Street Journal? Likewise, if you’re one of the self-idolating masses who visited the “Retrospective” this summer, what do you care if Koons’s work is radical or regular, meaningful or mundane, when you can take another selfie in the mirrored surface of his balloon dog’s butt and post it to Instagram? Maybe Koons is like his inflatables, a caricature on the outside and absolutely hollow on the inside, or maybe we all are like his inflatables just a little bit.