The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
27 June – 19 October 2014
by JILL SPALDING
The packing, transportation, installation and insurance – just the cost of it all – is why Koons hadn’t had an extensive gallery or museum show in New York for 10 years, nor would now, but for the backing of H&M, the retailer aiming to move upscale by association with high art. And, oh my goodness, the difficulties of adapting to the building. Two front doors had to be taken out, ceilings and floors reinforced, and the elevator manually engineered to support the unprecedented weight. Added to all this was the Koonsian obsession with getting everything right, which entrusted the mammoth undertaking to the Whitney in great part because its associate director of programmes, Scott Rothkopf, who since his student days has closely documented the artist’s oeuvre, has exhibited the same precision in his obsessively immaculate installations.
Happily, given that this show has been four years in the planning, the museum’s timing is right on. Judging by the market, this is Koons’s moment. Coming off his Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold last November for $58.4m (£34m), the highest price ever paid for a living artist, two other shiny sculptures adorned the catalogue covers of Sotheby’s and Christie’s spring sales, with Jim Beam – JB Turner Train, the stainless steel train filled with bourbon, selling for $33.7m, and Popeye going to Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas casino for an above-estimate $28.1m. Fans packed in like sardines last year for Koons’s solo shows at New York’s Gagosian and Zwirner galleries, which pitted his Gazing Ball plaster casts against work just off the production line, and are currently filing through Rockefeller Center to view Split-Rocker, rising 37 feet (11 metres) in the air, with the hairs of its 50,000 living flowers standing on end.
Given its venue and the 27,000 sq ft (2,500 sq metres) allotted it, the Whitney retrospective is Koons’s coronation. Never before has every one of the museum’s five exhibition floors been given over to the work of one artist. Laid out chronologically to follow each of the breakthrough series, the show is at once a joyous exhibition of top hits and a learning exposition of big misses.
Protecting the temple entrance are two kitschy figures, Popeye and a naked woman kicking up in a bathtub, both ennobled by a black-granite-similarity to basalt that, not incidentally, references the pharaohs, while exuding a flexed muscularity and flaunted sexuality that suggest binary portraits of the artist’s personality. The second floor opens with the wow of the early 1980s series The New. Between gladdening poster blow-ups depicting the Americana of cool drinks and a roadster, float the “iconic” (get used to that word, it comes up a lot) vacuum cleaners: columned in Plexiglas perpetuity and bathed in pristine fluorescence, they are so precisely curated as to suggest admission to the inner sanctum of a cult. They did look ever so new a quarter of a century ago, and that they feel so again makes them the perfect entry point to the world of Koons. Equilibrium follows, an excursion into the womb to experience “what is prior to life and after death” via basketballs wondrously floated in a scientifically precise mixture of distilled water and salt. Chronology detours you to the less felicitous store-bought plastic inflatables, pastel sunflowers and pink bunnies, important solely as the nursery for what fully bloomed later – the only intervention at this stage being small squares of mirror that reflect two more angles of their cuteness. Luxury and Degradation ups the materials to “proletarian platinum” – Koons-speak for polished steel – fashioned into the boozy paraphernalia of the alcoholic Gatsby days and set against sunset posters advertising golden liquors.
Blindfold the children before accessing the third floor, which presents, front and centre – and with the same institutional disregard for family access that once famously stirred up trouble for the Corcoran’s showing of sexually explicit Mapplethorpes – Made in Heaven, a series of graphic billboard paintings, photographs and sculpture depicting Koons’s pre-marriage acrobatics with (Italian porn star) La Cicciolina. Oddly, the strong lighting and unabashed presence of a politely groomed poodle and elegant floral bouquet carved of polychrome wood deadens the sneak-peek frisson that marked their wild outing 10 years ago at the Sonnabend Gallery. The fallout at the time from Koons’s perceived descent into sleaze was so radical as to cost him coveted patronage, and incline him toward the safety of fetishised kitsch. Mounted here with reverence, their primal power derives less from shock than from awe, which, through their size, mastery of production and utter gall, is considerable. The next gallery takes the pressure off with the saccharine blandness of Banality, a row of 10 dreams that money can buy drawn from mass-market figurines and conceived, for the most part, as consummate branding opportunities. Here is the Pink Panther (art as sex object), there the Baroque gilded mirror (art as luxury accessory) and reflected in it a charming copper taking time out with a bear (art as a nursery tale). And over there, St John the Baptist, clutching a cross and a pig (art as the new religion). Front and centre reigns the mock gilded-age porcelain of Michael Jackson hugging his chimpanzee – the ultimate, down-the-line-art-bubble Bubbles.
The fourth floor is staged as an operatic grand finale. Exuberant, colourful and bursting to the seams of its magnificent space with the signature works that you have both loved and hated to love, the Celebration series is the visual equivalent of Jersey Boys. Freeing the kids to scamper between the green Hulk and blue dolphins, you’ll want to dance to the romance of the big shiny purple heart, whistle to your image flashed on Balloon Dog (Yellow), slice into the painted birthday cake and pluck the moulded pink daisy for your mother. Logos of the child’s toy and adult tweet, these are the implacable signage of lost innocence, the indelible signifiers of a simpler time, and I defy anyone to resist them.
Visitation, however, should have been put on a timer, given that inflatables – even solidified into the heavy metal tchotchkes Koons has so successfully commodified – are subject to entropy. If you want to leave on a high, take the lift to the lobby and walk out, because if you run through the whole show again you’ll be brought down to earth by the misses. A silly stack of pastel kitchen sponges – the kind sold in cellophane packs that you can’t wait to throw out; the scaled-down stainless steel sculptures whose busy, pinched surfaces hold none of the magic of Rabbit’s mirrored perfection; paintings whose blatant debt to James Rosenquist and Kenny Scharf is deflected only by their dulling paint-by numbers execution; a bronze Liberty Bell that replicates, crack and all (yawn) the bronze Liberty Bell; a small cobalt glass ball fixed to a big plaster reproduction of a famous Renaissance marble for no reason that becomes clear in the time you’re willing to give it; the bloated, magenta (Willendorf) Balloon Venus (Orange) that was mistaken by a group standing near me for a pregnant housewife in curlers; Gorilla, whose most interesting feature is that its weight of 15,000lb (6,800kg) consigned to a lift calibrated to 14,000lb exacted an elaborate intervention to install it; a lobster homage to Dali, painted and sculpted, whose puckered riff on an inflatable toy so late in the game speaks to an idea winding dangerously down. Most dismaying, given its billing as the retrospective’s crowning masterpiece, and its imminent enshrinement in Eli and Edythe Broad’s illustrious collection, is Koons’s overthought, overwrought, monumental Play-Doh, a 10ft tall, polychrome mess involving 27 sections of slathered aluminium embellished from lumps of polyurethene configured years ago by his son, whose unfortunate proximity to the balloon dog suggests a mountain of dogdo. Circling this laboured work-in-progress, you might wonder what this mound of silliness can possibly contribute to the vocabulary of art, other than as a backdrop for the press view photo-op, suggested by the artist himself as he posed at its base bathed in self-inflicted celebrity for the endless time it took iPhones packed six-deep to get a good shot of him. The question answers itself when you learn that the collection Koons himself has been forming – over many years and in depth – is anchored by old masters.
More urgently, had you overheard Koons’s eerily spiritual answers to breathless questions by the journalists – mostly young women – who hovered around him, you might ask; who is Jeff Koons? “I really believe in the transcendence of art”, he expounded, “it’s taught me how to feel, to enjoy the ephemeral realm of ideas, to become a better human being,” Was this candour? Or was this consummate people-pleaser deploying the same disarming technique that throughout his career has pre-empted accusations of banality, decadence, narcissism, expropriation and facile fun by incorporating these very pejoratives in the titles of his shows, by posing stark naked, and by staging showy interventions to elevate the worn-out exercise of “appropriate” to the exalted one of “reference”. Koons has made a glossy career out of referencing, thereby alienating as much of the art world as he has attracted. Patently, comparisons to Courbet (where’s the brush on canvas?) to Rauschenberg (where’s the complexity?), to Pollock (where’s the rhythm?) and even – for his plastic readymades – to Duchamp (where’s the intellectual depth?) are wildly exaggerated. Such storied comparisons mire what remains fresh about the Koons vocabulary in allusion and metaphor. With the exception of Warhol, whose cult of celebrity, flattened reality, easy fun and art-as-business mantra Koons has so profitably taken up, I think Norman Rockwell a more apt comparison. Like that of the magazine illustrator, Koons’s world-view is simple, optimistic, parochial and deeply American. It is also, like Rockwell’s archetypal best-of-all-possible-worlds nod to Voltaire’s Candide, gently mocking, disarmingly sophisticated and deceptively naive. Setting aside the shenanigans (I can’t picture Rockwell mugging nude for Annie Leibovitz as Koons did for this month’s Vanity Fair), they share a fundamental understanding of how to gloss over life’s fatal flaws. The latent irony and suspect sweetness that tug at the hem of a perfect world, so relevant to Rockwell’s sudden elevation to high art, are what today’s informed viewers get right away, and what justifies the collecting imperative that to form an important collection of contemporary art without a Koons is to have missed out.
The jury is still out on Koons’s staying power – you may believe that, despite sumptuous riffs on Louis XlV and Bernini, the emperor has no clothes – but ask not why the Whitney, whose mission statement to show great American art was framed by such heavyweights as Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe, has risked gravitas for a send-off promising the pulp-novel gratification of “a dramatic narrative full of plot twists and discoveries”. Not only does a Koons extravaganza have critical youth appeal, but added to the likelihood that the majority of the museum board owns at least one of his works, the number of mega-collectors identified by the wall texts as having loaned one confirms Koons’s command of the zeitgeist. It follows that, aside from the certainty that a show with “crowd-pleaser” and “blockbuster” written all over it will be no-brainer lucrative (who is not going to bring the whole family and buy one or more catalogues?), it is possible that Koons really matters. It is no accident that his latest series is titled Gazing Balls; like all the immaculately mirrored surfaces that have dotted his work, they furnish the selfies that constitute today’s portraiture. “Genius”, the term universally linked to him, is not inappropriate. There may be no other word for Koons’s unquestioned ability to fence, parry and dazzle. He has sidestepped the disdain accorded to, say, Mark Kostabi’s much-maligned factory output, by positioning as a guild the more than 120 artisans who craft works he may never have touched; he has obviated the need for a new vocabulary by retooling a readymade one; he has irretrievably folded branding into the definition of art; he has elevated gimmick to concept, and concept to art-making. Most impactfully, he has altered western civilisation’s very understanding of art from one of soul-stirring, eye-opening, heart-stopping revelation to one of stunning production values. On this level, the gauntlet thrown down by Rothkopf is apt: “It’s hard to think of another living artist who has pushed as many aesthetic and cultural limits.” There is no disputing Koons’s present significance. Challenge it many do, but there is no other artist who has so completely harnessed the moment. The false simplicity, deliberate cheer, safe subject matter and shiny idealism of his better work speak to a world eager for an antidote to bad news and terrifying possibilities. And the gorgeous finishes reassure that the alchemy of artisanry, so skilled through the centuries at making gold out of dross, is still very much alive, and, properly funded, will remain very well. That the Koonsian construct is fake takes nothing away. Fake has proven to work perfectly well if it is seamless, polished, happy and indestructible.
There is even an answer to the inevitable backlash of work whose exorbitant fabrication costs and unconscionable auction prices render it unaffordable to all but the infamous .001%. If the catalogue, with its safe, happy floral cover, doesn’t satisfy as a trophy, starting 27July, you can take home an H&M handbag (edition, of course, limited) featuring Balloon Dog (Yellow). What could be a more perfect signifier of Koonsworld than a branded readymade conceived to first generate, and then carry, cash? Possessing none of the production values of its avatar, the JK/BD(Y) would be as ephemeral as any item of low fashion but, encased in glass, as it surely will be, it will likely become immortal and, assuredly, iconic.
Ask not, therefore, why the Whitney has chosen to sign off on the Marcel Breuer building with Koons. It may well turn out that when the detritus of found art, the scramble of digital photography and the poignancy of performance art have long vanished, the Heaven of Tomorrow will be guarded by five Crayola-coloured Balloon Dogs, catered by Popeye, and held in perpetual equilibrium by three Spalding basketballs.