PRINT February 1992

Jo Anna Isaak

FOR THEIR STARS, the very successful Ken and Barbie dolls, the people at Mattel toys have invented a whole young-adult romance: Ken and Barbie go on a date, Ken and Barbie go to the beach, Ken and Barbie go to the movies, Ken and Barbie go dancing, and, eventually, Ken and Barbie get married—all of these activities involving the purchase of new costumes, which is why they were devised in the first place. So far as I know, however, the couple’s progress after the wedding has been left to a satiric ditty I heard on the radio once. There, a marital therapist explained why “the marriage was a failya”: “They have no genitalia!” Indeed: Mattel had failed to endow its dolls adequately or even at all, though it did give Barbie a set of conical ’50s tits.

The first generation to grow up with these toys is now adult, and Jeff Koons, with a mass-marketer’s sense of opportunity, has overcompensated for Ken and Barbie’s gender deficiency with the anatomical correctness of the doll sculptures he exhibited last December in New York. He and Cicciolina, as an emancipated and well-equipped model couple in tinted Steuben-like glass, were pink, blue, and cherry with joy and excitement; hummingbirds poked proboscises into dilated flowers, butterflies gathered round the Holy Couple, adorable puppies lifted up their little wet noses, and heaven and nature took on the rosy pastel glow of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. And all this just before Christmas. Still, in the terms Susan Sontag suggests in “The Pomographic Imagination,” the show may have been as close to transcendence as we are likely to get. Most pornography, Sontag writes, points to “the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsession. . . .The need of human beings to transcend ‘the personal’ is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual.” In a society based on an insistent, stultifying individualism, pornography may be a forum for the kind of temporary loss of self provided in other cultures by communal or sacred institutions such as religion.

Sontag, however, recognizes the doubleness of the pornographic urge: “One is offered a choice among vocabularies of thought and action which are not merely self-transcending but self-destructive.” Koons’ ritualized scenarios contain not a trace of self-destruction, only wholesome homogeneity. Our most intimate relationship, the forum for our most private “self,” is subsumed in a stereotypical if acrobatic apotheosis of heterosexual monogamy. If this is sex, it is scrubbed and sanitized—sex with Ken and Barbie.

When I saw the Koons show I had just returned from Saint Petersburg, where a number of artists are currently exploring the uses and abuses of pornography. In what was until recently the Soviet Union, artists were forbidden even the slightly suggestive. In this context, I found, the representation of something called “sex” can participate in a process of emergence, an articulation of previously repressed behaviors and desires: an announcement of the existence of an individual or of a community, an attack on reductive assumptions of normalcy, a celebration of physicality, a liberation of the self from the deeroticized body constructed by a totalitarian ideology. Yet here, too, pornography easily slides into the familiar sexploitation that we know as part of the everyday chauvinism of Western culture.

Which brings us to the Friends of Jeff Koons Fan Club, or, rather, to Enver, the self-proclaimed leader of a group of women artists to whom he has given that name. The women’s work actually has nothing to do with Jeff Koons. But Enver is a Koons clone, or a Koons wannabe, and his art, when it doesn’t imitate his master’s, eerily foreshadows it. One suspects that the main attraction of Koons for Enver is less esthetic than behavioral—that Enver aspires to the model of the artist implicit in Koons, or rather to the explicit celebrity and financial success. Still, an early painting—a voluptuous reclining nude, legs spread, masturbating—shows how adept Enver was at cliched carnality before Koons ever got around to it. And in a series of photographs from 1983 called “The Consumer Becomes the Work of Art,” the female purchaser of one of the artist’s sculptures poses beside it naked—a marketing strategy Koons has not yet explored.

A group of Enver’s photographs from 1986 involves a small female figure—plasticine, about the size of Barbie, enhanced in all the right places—and a lilting nude woman. When I visited his studio, he insisted that I compare him with the Western artists he had read about in the art journals, which would prove, he said, that what they did he had done first. It would have smoothed the conversation considerably to name the closest art-historical parallel I’m aware of to Enver’s works; but I was not to know what that was until I got back to New York.

Jo Anna Isaak is a writer who lives in New York. She teaches art history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva. N.Y.