PRINT February 1992

Rhonda Lieberman

I’M CONVINCED that Jeff Koons came out of the same petri dish as those helmet-haired guys on late-night infomercials who tell you you can fully self-actualize yourself financially and spiritually by buying their tapes. As the self-appointed prophet of banality, Koons stands in the trusty line of American self-helpers from Benjamin Franklin to Dale Carnegie to Jane Fonda who preach salvation through good salesmanship. You can live in the present and free yourself from guilt and shame through deep self-packaging. Or in Koons’ version, one may bliss out in the eternal return of pink butterflies, happy terriers, lovely labia, and silver spikes if one accepts that the highest evolution of human power is a hard-core version of Disneyworld. Most important, Koons is selling us the usual American line that intelligence is stupid, or rather, it’s intelligent to be dumb and to bludgeon oneself with whatever style, content, or identity has been market tested. The message persists, with a New Age twirl, just when you thought the ’80s boom in art yuppies was over.

The show looked really good. It featured Koons having sex in a variety of kitsch formats with his new wife, Ilona Staller, the extremely photogenic Hungarian-born porn “star” slash Italian politician professionally known as La Cicciolina. As an orgiastic celebration of the inarticulate—I mean capital, biology, and kitsch—the show truly struck one dumb with the undeniable trauma of power as a saccharine Sadean surfeit: private parts, lingerie, and luxe versions of popular genres such as glass tchatchkes, painted-wood figures, and billboardesque color photos of the exemplary couple having sex abounded in your face. If these pieces were edible they would induce insulin attacks in diabetics. “I want to give a sense of security and a sense of authority in trying to meet people’s needs,” Koons says in a recent interview, sounding uncannily like a nasty rewarmed serving of last week’s Ronald Reagan.

I accept Mickey Mouse. I hail Donald Duck. I like Bambi, too. In fact, I cry every time his mother gets shot. And I don’t mind seeing other people fucking in kitschy formats in a gallery situation. As an art phenomenon, Koons provides us with a sublime demonstration of how the fetish truly simulates the sacred: by producing the same effect. Part of me is converted, in fact, and I do believe that everyone can achieve a kind of New Age exaltation by fucking in front of a camera crew, and attempting to overproduce oneself as a media icon: “When you make a hard[core] photo session there are normally at least seven people present,” Koons earnestly remarks, “sometimes as many as ten. It’s hard to explain why it’s so liberating but making this hidden act in a public manner really is quite good for self-esteem.”

The best thing about this show is the way Koons has truly gone over the top. What his bloated rap and chronic Christ complex lack in humor and humility is retrieved by the sheer excessiveness of his approach. Through excess he does achieve a kind of capitalist sublime; if Ronald MacDonald and Madonna spawned art-world offspring, they would be Koonses, but in limited editions. He recently referred to himself and Ilona as the new Adam and Eve. At any rate, you have to love him for including those dogs. The dogs were highly effective. The canine gazes of life-size Disneyesque doggie sculptures delightfully echoed the lascivious and slightly abashed looks of the human spectators. A duo of cheerful terriers with hair bows perched on a pedestal. A sole sheepdog poised on its own pedestal near the “dirty” image of the amorous couple smudged with mud. There were poodles too. The animal presence enforced the feeling of a theme park of creatures happy to pant at, consume, and be kitsch objects. Forever.

Despite the sexually “explicit” content of the pieces, a feeling of sanitization prevailed, evoking the strangely garbage-free environment of Disneyworld as well as wholesome Aryan art of the ’30s. Interestingly, Koons has chosen to settle in Munich, where Hitler centered his carefully controlled environments as well. In fact as a combination of Disney, Hallmark, and sex, the show hypertrophized family values. Koons is fascinated with his “biological relation” to Staller, and plans to include their spawn in their combined art slash life activities. By “estheticizing” hard-core sex, he successfully captures the traditional Sadean moment, when sheer repetition swerves into apathy, and initial enthusiasm turns into workmanlike concern for technique. One begins to examine Ilona’s unusually accessorized pubic region, appreciate her sassy blue mascara, and remark how Jeff’s ass is airbrushed while hers is not. In the midst of all this, he reinjects prosthetic sentimentality in the form of the Hallmark greeting-card—moment the rainbow, the large pink butterflies. That is when the stuff gets a little fresh, and less perverse. Koons is hypernormal. That is, by embracing kitsch as a vehicle to conflate sentimentality and sex, he freshens up the traditional Sadean discipline in which one was trained to publicize one’s private parts out of rigorously apathetic compulsion rather than mere enthusiasm.

Since his early glass-cased vacuum-cleaner days, Koons has explored how shiny new appliances seem to jack into whatever passes for immortality. He applauds Staller because she is always new and adaptable and agreeable, the perfect commodity, “the eternal virgin.” He re-created himself as a shiny new appliance with a Schwarzenegger-designed workout regime and an airbrush. Koons practices and exposes the will to media power as a nightmarish simulacrum of the eternal return: what sells is what is good, what is good is what is reproduced. Market testing becomes a simulacrum of morality. His total conviction mirrors the delirium peaking late this century when capital, as the apparent legislator of value, had become the simulacrum of God. Koons presses on with his mission to communicate oneness and spirituality through luxe kitsch. And furthermore become a star. He maintains that his work is not about alienation and that he does not want to alienate the public. “In the face of all this cynicism,” he explains, “[I was] showing people you can create something that was unique and new.” While his relentless campaign to do this can be confused with narcissistic display, he is offering himself up in the spirit of public service. As the art world’s version of MacDonna, the proof will be in the wannabes. The show was a visual hoot. As for Koons’ neototalitarian New Age spiritual fitness plan, to quote Joan Rivers upon hearing that Yoko Ono wanted to eat her placenta in order to preserve her youth: “I’m nauseous!”

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.