Taking The Air Out Of Balloon Dogs

by Dish Staff

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The current Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney is leaving many critics cold. Jed Perl describes the exhibit as “a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies”:

Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them.

Perl argues that Koons has failed a tradition of anti-art pioneered by Duchamp:

The Koons retrospective is … a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism and Dada and Duchamp has gone to die. I am aware that some people embrace Koons because they believe his armor-plated work is a necessary evil, the tougher and cleverer product that art must become if it is to survive. Of course they see that Koons has put the readymade on steroids. But that, so the argument goes, is what is needed to give Duchamp’s nerdy anti-art a fighting chance in our media-mad world. However persuasive it may seem to some, this argument, which is pure art world realpolitik, has the effect of shutting down the discussion we really need to have, which is about the ideas and (dare I say it?) the ideals of the Dadaists, and the significance of anti-art a hundred years ago and its potential significance today. Frankly, I wonder if those who hail Koons as the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art really know what anti-art is all about.

Eric Gibson, harsher still, suggests “too little attention has been paid to Koons’s five-year career selling mutual funds and commodities on Wall Street in the 1980s. It is the key to understanding his art”:

[I]t is Koons’s signal achievement to have created a wholly new kind of art, one immune to all forms of judgment save that of the marketplace. Trashy? Sure, but it sells for millions—sometimes tens of millions—and there’s no reason to suppose it won’t continue to do so. That’s all that counts. Koons has succeeded by emptying his images of everything except the cheesy, the easy, the sweetly appealing, and the familiar. His works are big, they’re cute, they’re shiny, and they make no demands. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean? Something for everyone. They aren’t there to be pondered or engaged with in any significant way. They exist solely as emblems of value.

This, in the end, is why Koons’s work looks so out of place at the Whitney; it doesn’t belong in an art museum. Its proper venue is the sale room, the commercial gallery, or even the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, places where, with all aesthetic pretense cast aside, it can stand forth fully and unequivocally in its true nature as a high-priced, tradable commodity.

Barry Schwabsky also sees an artist suited to the current economy:

Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the exhibition, points out that the first review of Koons’s work had already pegged it as “a commentary on the glamour of conspicuous consumption.” This is what separates Koons from Warhol, who, in an era when CEOs made about twenty times the average worker’s salary (rather than nearly 300 times, as today), saw consumerism as a force that leveled social distinctions. “The richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest,” he said. “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” Koons, by contrast, has perfected the art of taking the same crap on offer at a big-box store—be it an ordinary pail or kitschy figurines—and making it better than anything you could ever own, so that the buyers of his art might feel superior to the plebs without having better taste than they do. “True, this might be possible only in an era of increasing inequality,” Rothkopf admits—but forget it, just enjoy, have a slice of gilded cake.

(Photo by Flickr user Kim)