PRINT September 1993

Jeff Koons’ Christ and the Lamb

ANNIVERSARIES MEAN TRIPS down Memory Lane; and now, thinking of 30+ years of Artforum lands me back in March 1965, when I first appeared in a journal already three years old but still the hottest new art-magazine in town. I had a hot and youthful topic, too, Frank Stella, who was then not even as old as Artforum is today, but who had already polarized the art world into the ranks of sneerers versus enthusiasts. Now I’m asked to select a work of art that updates for me those eureka experiences of the 1960s. I make a beeline for Jeff Koons.

Koons is certainly the artist who has most upset and rejuvenated my seeing and thinking in the last decade. Choosing a work, however, is harder, since Koons’ range—from Plexiglas to topiary, from Woolworth’s to Versailles, from basketballs to pornographic bibelots—keeps expanding. But I have finally homed in on a mirror Koons produced in 1988, Christ and the Lamb—the title a reference to a minuscule detail, almost entirely camouflaged by the gilded swirls of the rocaille frame, quoted from Leonardo’s Virgin, Child, and Saint Anne. Flamboyant and asymmetrical, this object could make flesh crawl, should that flesh belong to an art-lover who abides by the rules of good taste.

We might not blink at this wall decoration in a furniture store in Little Italy, but in the spaces of art it may at first produce the righteous outrage, or else the pleasurable bewilderment, that Jasper Johns’ flags and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strips prompted at their debuts. Among other things. Christ and the Lamb flouts familiar categories, being at once a relief sculpture and a framed picture of the room it’s in or of the spectator who confronts it. In other words, it’s just a mirror, so why isn’t it off with the decorative arts, instead of being mixed up with painting and sculpture? On the other hand, if we think of it in an artier category, posing the questions mirrors have often asked in art history, we might also place it in an erratic genealogical table that would include Lichtenstein’s own painted illusions of framed mirrors, not to mention Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass. But Koons’ provocations are hardly so lofty or metaphysical.

If Koons storms the galleries as a ruffler of feathers, it is because he jangles our preconceptions of the beautiful and the ugly, forcing us to look head-on at the weird, intricate fusion of the repellent and the enticing that marks the world of kitsch. To me, the most startling of his assaults is his resurrection, in the most unexpected contexts, of an art-historical style at the opposite extreme from modern visual prejudices: the Rococo. To be sure, we have all relaxed some since the days of Minimalism and “less is more”—relaxed enough, most of us, to embrace the original masterpieces of Rococo art, especially in their most spectacularly excessive variations at, say, Amalienburg or Wies, sites easily accessible to Koons, who usually keeps one of his nomadic feet in Bavaria. But all that happened in the 18th century, where it presumably belonged. Later, bastardized progeny of the Rococo, from King Ludwig II’s castle at Linderhof, outside Munich, to Liberace’s latter-day palaces, outside Los Angeles, had drifted far beyond the pale of proper art history until Koons crash-landed his bizarre mutations of the style onto the walls of SoHo, where they demanded equal time.

To be sure, Koons is not alone here—both Barbara Bloom and Cindy Sherman have had their neo-Rococo moments. And way back in 1963, a Lichtenstein painting magnified to hideous dimensions an ultra-Rococo specimen of kitsch jewelry. But Koons’ version of the Rococo has a full-scale embrace. From the mid ’80s on, in fact, the aura of the Rococo and of its more robust parent, the Baroque. has permeated most of his art, whether literally, as in his polychrome-pastel cherubs who, were it not for an intrusive Popples, might be at home fluttering in a Bavarian church, or more figuratively, in the Counter-Reformation theater that he invented as the cosmic stage-set for his rapturous sex life.

In one of his deadpan pronouncements transforming the high-minded past into the language and thought of consumer culture, Koons explained, “When you go to church and you see the gold and the Rococo, it’s there, they say, for the glory of God. But I believe that it’s there just to soothe the masses for the moment; to make them feel economically secure; to let something else—a spiritual experience, a manipulation—come into their lives.” Koons’ sweeping vision would cover our planet with an unsettling hybrid of history and modernity, of the unspeakably vulgar and the seductively beautiful, rattling Modernist and even post-Modernist nerves with his delirious excesses. He reminds me of another offender of good taste, largely scorned in our century until Sir John Summerson, in 1945, published his pathbreaking essay “William Butterfield, or the Glory of Ugliness,” reclaiming the ferocious originality of this Victorian architect’s attack on received standards of visual propriety. In Koons’ mirror, the disquieting “glory of ugliness” shakes us again.

Robert Rosenblum