PRINT September 1992

Jutta Koether

SIMULTANEOUSLY A MASSIVE coup de main and an ostentatious display of generosity—even of love?—Jeff Koons’ 40-foot-high puppy of living flowers in the palace garden of Arolsen, thirty miles from Kassel, faces down the abundant speculation over his next career move. Koons’ last body of work was a collection of arguably or, rather, notoriously pornographic sculptures and photo pieces. Since their appearance, the always lurking question—part sympathetic, part spiteful—has , been “How will he top them?” He answers in Puppy, a sea of flowers—a work that is popular to the point of vulgarity.

When it became clear that he was not to be included in Documenta IX, press maestro Koons turned this slap to his advantage, leaving the public astonished by his survival instincts. Koons creates himself not just in the realm of theory, but as a living monster. He’s a hard-core coquette who loves little animals.

Physically, the work in the Arolsen garden connects clearly to his own history: his inflated metal bunny rabbit, his folksy carved-wood bear and protracted row of puppies, as well as his stainless-steel baroque busts. Conceptually, it reinvokes his frequent assertion that what he’s doing in his art is opening an avenue to the petit-bourgeois dream. If bliss is based on consumption, on a greed that becomes entropic well-being once it enters the province of elite or aristocratic power, Koons makes this power available to all (whether they’re interested in art or not). Indeed, he is its self-appointed spokesman. The choice of site: palace garden, and the form: landscape art, make this object, this living sculpture, the perfect combination of Euro art-spectacle and EuroDisney.

One admires Puppy’s logic. Through a simple program Koons achieves a complex, even surreal effect, maintaining simultaneously that everything is possible and nothing is fated—this latter point made partly by addressing the attacks he has suffered, which the work answers grandly. Koons’ triumph after these attacks is especially fun: with the self-made man’s sense of his own responsibility to himself, Koons first establishes (or rather buys) credibility (he paid for the work, with help from three others), then immediately, boldly risks it all (Puppy is too cute, too kitsch, etc.). Media hype accompanies Koons wherever he goes, of course, but in this case, inevitably, it is subdued by the neighboring Documenta IX. Yet the result is that the parasitic event in Arolsen is lifted to the same level as that show in Kassel: everyone, of course, has to go to both. It takes an American to force mobility on Europeans.

The result is a double summer extravaganza, with Jan Hoet (officially) and Jeff Koons (with Puppy) as masterminds. While Hoet mimes the maestro role, talking about his “vision” for the cameras, Koons this time disappears behind his work: he has decided, as the ad slogan goes, to say it with flowers. He can afford to be excessive in his desire to bring everyone pleasure, and in this sense Puppy is true folk art, an extravagant adaptation of the summer flower-show common in Europe—perfectly charming, and transcending generational boundaries in its appeal. Behind it the palace becomes a doghouse, and the art world a playground. Here, Koons can simply be an entertainer, cordial, unburdened by the responsibility or compulsion of self-legitimation. That’s left to the other guy.

To the artists in Documenta, Koons plays the role of uninvited guest. He is quite serene about crashing the party, and guarantees his admission with the sort of far-too-expensive gift that you simply can’t resist. It’s so generous you have to love it. Is Puppy a suggestion for a kind of potlatch of art? A proof of love—Puppy love—forever?

Jutta Koether is an artist and writer who lives in Cologne.

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.