By Alex Greenberger
Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” 1988, porcelain. Private collection. © Jeff Koons
“Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” demands a lot from its audience — titillation, frustration, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, all in equal measure. But that’s what makes the Whitney Museum of American Art’s largest-ever retrospective devoted to a single artist so fascinating. It considers art star and impresario Jeff Koons as both a showman and a thinker, and curator Scott Rothkopf shows thirty years of Koons’ work with a straight face, no easy feat in itself.
Rothkopf is really the only curator suited for the job when it comes staging a show of Koons’ artwork. The extraordinarily talented, young curator, who staged the Whitney’s brilliant 2011 Wade Guyton retrospective, understands Koons’ work in a way that many curators cannot. He knows that Koons makes art with an industrial sense of grandiosity, and Rothkopf curates the exhibition with a similar sensibility. (He also sifts through Koons’ word vomit, at times even questioning the validity of the artist’s strange interview antics in wall text.) Each work is given more space than is even probably necessary, but it really lets viewers appreciate how big, technically difficult, and, for better or for worse, bad some of Koons’ sculptures are.
Jeff Koons, “New Hoover Convertibles Green, Blue, New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue Doubledecker,” 1981–87, four vacuum cleaners, acrylic, and fluorescent lights. Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase with funds from The Sondra and Charles Gilman, Jr. Foundation, Inc., and the Painting and Sculpture Committee 89.30a-v. ©Jeff Koons
It may not be as hard to take Koons’ early work seriously because it’s more humble than the monumental sculptures and technically impressive paintings that appear at the show’s end. Beginning on the second floor, the start of the museum-wide exhibition is “The New” (1980), a series of vacuums mounted in glass vitrines and placed on top of white fluorescent lights. For an artist whose work would later become, by turns intentionally and unintentionally, about the intersection of art and commerce, it couldn’t be more appropriate that the show begins here.
The series, which originally appeared in the front window of the New Museum, looks a lot like store displays. It encourages contemplation for these Hoover vacuums—which, according to Koons, were never used and are never meant to be used—in the same way that Russian icons ask viewers to worship the Virgin Mary. We’re drawn to these vacuums as though they were monoliths. We’re obsessed with looking and buying, but it’s a dangerous obsession. The vacuums seem to suck these displays of any trace of life, as do the photorealistic paintings of advertisements that surround them.
“The New” is such a fabulous opening shot that his 1979 “Pre-New” vinyl inflatable flowers in the adjacent gallery pale in comparison, even though these kitsch readymades are also amusing. These two galleries are wonderful—they make you realize that Koons, now every art critic’s least favorite millionaire, once worked on a humble budget and still had big ideas. Quite possibly more so than any other artist working today, Koons has a knack for inspiring awe, and still, over 30 years later, Koons’ earliest works create a sublime, surreal atmosphere from everyday objects.
Jeff Koons, “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series),” 1985, glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water, basketball. Collection of B. Z. and Michael Schwartz. ©Jeff Koons.
“One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J241 Series)” (1985), a basketball suspended in distilled water, is Koons at his most spectacular. At this point, suspending objects in vitrines has been done to death — we can thank Damien Hirst for that. But “Equilibrium” works on its own terms because it is poetic, and because unlike Koons’ other works, “Equilibrium” indulges the potential for failure that is natural in life. The ball will sink as time goes on because of slight vibrations caused by footsteps of passersby; the work will be ruined. And all we can do is watch in awe.
The third floor starts bringing out the Koons we’ve come to know and hate. His “Luxury and Degradation” and “Statuary” (1986) series introduce the kitsch wackiness that is now often associated with Koons’ work. Here, it’s a little self-aggrandizing — his stainless steel sculptures of both figures from high art (Louis XIV) and low art (Bob Hope) have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that is now often missing from Koons’ massive, overly serious monumental sculptures. Even these, though less thought-provoking than “The New,” are refreshing.
His signature mix of high and low culture gets progressively more obvious in these galleries, and it climaxes in “Banality” (1988), polychromed wood and porcelain enlargements of kitsch objects. The sculptures range from being bad on purpose (and also, really, quite good in that respect) to being terrible by accident. It’s weird, and it’s got an even weirder sense of classicism that runs through it — both in Rothkopf’s choice to let them sit on pedestals and be viewed in the round, and in Koons’ bizarro subject matter. “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988), a porcelain depiction of the King of Pop with his pet monkey, recalls images of the Madonna with a baby Jesus in her lap, while a porcelain sculpture of Buster Keaton on a horse brings to mind equestrian sculptures from ancient Rome.
Jeff Koons, “Made in Heaven,” 1989, lithograph on paper on canvas. ARTIST ROOMS Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008. ©Jeff Koons
Then there’s “Made of Heaven,” the controversial, arguably pornographic 1989 series of silkscreens depicting Koons and porn star La Cicciolina engaging in acts that are, well, quite intimate. When the series was shown at the 1990 Venice Biennale, it was panned. Today, it is considered by many to be the turning point in Koons’ career. Perhaps there is something brilliant there. One particularly explicit silkscreen shows Koons penetrating La Cicciolina in close-up shot from behind, with her anus exposed to the viewer, almost as if by some wacky parody of Gustave Courbet’s “Origin of the World.” There are also a lot of references to Rococo and Baroque art in the campy, overblown backgrounds. It may be something about art’s inherent potential for voyeurism. It also might be Koons messing with his audience in a particularly nasty joke.
What follows after “Made in Heaven” are the two decades of Koons’ work that we know and hate — stainless steel balloon dogs blown up to the size of science-fictional monster, James Rosenquist-like paintings composed of fragmented images that look as if they were never touched by a human hand, classical subjects made into industrial objects, a Play-Doh sculpture with the proportions of a mound of trash, last year’s plaster sculptures from “Gazing Ball” at David Zwirner.
Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog (Yellow),” 1994 – 2000, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating. Private collection. © Jeff Koons.
I’ve condensed nearly a third of the show into one paragraph, and I’ve done it for a reason. In my mind, there is no doubt that Koons’ first decade and a half of work is by far the most compelling stretch of his, like it or not, extremely important career. Maybe that’s intentional. I’ve always believed that Koons has made it his purpose to sell out — to test the limits of what the art world will accept with a cold, cynical, Warholian eye.
This retrospective reinforces that idea, although it makes Koons seem like the great artist of our time. I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t know if it’s wrong either. I’m also not sure if it’s not because Koons is yet another straight white male that Rothkopf is easily able to say that. I’m also not sure if that isn’t the point.
In short, “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” let me feeling unsure of a lot of Koons-related ideas, but it got me thinking. That’s what any good exhibition does. You walk in one way, you come out feeling and thinking in another. And surprisingly, that was exactly what happened to me — I left the exhibition with an un-ironic love for some of Koons’ work (I repeat: “some of”), and I’m going to keep thinking about Koons’ antics. My hope is that historians will do the same.
Alex Greenberger is arts editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.