PRINT September 2013


Jeff Koons

IF JEFF KOONS IS SEARCHING for a position in art that “lies beyond both critique and affirmation,” as Dorothea von Hantelmann has recently argued, his lifelong pursuit has just come to an end. In a classic tabloid profile of the artist, published this May to coincide with Koons’s two sprawling Manhattan shows at David Zwirner gallery and Gagosian Gallery, New York magazine attempted to polemicize the artist’s status and recall Life magazine’s famous 1949 Jackson Pollock spread with the headline “Jeff Koons Is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol: So What’s the Art World Got Against the Guy?” But what’s there to be against? Koons’s white pancake makeup and arch poses in the guise of famous classical statuary on the cover and pages that follow provided perhaps the best way for him to portray himself as his own kind of transcendent monument, above the fray of mercantile intrigue or critical approbation.

Don’t be fooled by the frivolous nature of this tableau: These performative images should be understood as the twenty-first-century sequel to the artist’s infamous series “Art Magazine Ads,” 1988–89. Except this time around, Koons is not creating a paid advertorial in a trade mag—this is free PR on a mass-culture populist platform. Literally whitewashed, Koons’s neoclassical pantomime at once raises his stature to that of Praxiteles and conjures the disarming mien of Pierrot (à la Watteau and Nadar). He’s arrived at a place where redemptive sociopolitical messages and aesthetic judgment are irrelevant. No guilt, no need for criticality here.

What models did Koons emulate to finally arrive at this destination? Most accounts would attribute his ascent to his late-Warholian DNA—to his having perfected and adapted the “business = art” model to the totalizing effects of the art and entertainment industries. Yet on closer inspection, it is not just Warhol at play; we should also look much farther back in art history’s grab bag for Koons’s studied inspiration. Given that Koons is a well-known collector of old-master paintings, and no stranger to the raiding-the-icebox strategy for source material, his art-historical turn to the nineteenth century in his much-debated dual New York exhibitions feels inevitable. The artist’s transhistorical journey from the slick surfaces of 1980s neo-geo to his neo-Neoclassical white plaster casts cannot be understood purely in iconographic terms. Beyond the obvious references to rediscovered antiquity that dominate “Gazing Ball,” 2013–, his new sculptural series that debuted at Zwirner, and the archaeological themes in the new paintings and updated stainless-steel sculptures (this time around, the Venus of Willendorf joins his balloon-animal menagerie) showcased at Gagosian, this current chapter of the Koonsian enterprise is deeply indebted to paradigms forged all the way back in the early 1800s. After all the newsroom carping about Koons’s high-stakes dance with multiple galleries had dissipated, one actually had a chance to digest both shows and the media storm around them. When the dust settled, it was the twinned apparitions of Antonio Canova and Gustave Courbet that emerged.

Long before Koons ever created a stir, Courbet trail-blazed such publicity stunts in his assertion of a new type of artistic agency—one that sought to upend the traditional relationship between the (servile, dependent) artist and the (wealthy, controlling) patron. He was a savvy press manipulator and an inventor of the populist succès de scandale, and his notorious aphorism “For when I am no longer controversial, I will no longer be important” might have come directly from the Koons playbook. (It’s no accident that Koons’s personal collection boasts several Courbet paintings, and one can’t help but draw the overdetermined parallel between the latter’s L’Origine du monde, 1866, and the former’s “Made in Heaven” series, 1990–91.) For Courbet and Koons, controversy was a business tool, a pathway to independence and art-world ascendancy.

And although the name Antonio Canova hardly raises the same red flag of controversy, the sculptor’s shadow looms even larger over Koons’s recent works—both as a superficial referent and a strategic model, for the plaster casts that make up “Gazing Ball” and the statues within the palimpsests of the Gagosian paintings immediately conjure Neoclassicism: Think Canova’s highly dramatic, alabaster figures in the round, such as his Apollo Crowning Himself, 1781. In the archaeological collections that flourished in Western Europe throughout the nineteenth century, plaster was the medium used to replicate classical artifacts, becoming one of the principal vehicles through which the public could discover the aesthetic achievements of ancient civilizations. Canova (and his industrious workshop) modeled his classical subjects in plaster before making them in marble.

Admired as “the modern Phidias,” Canova became one of the most celebrated artistic figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, thanks to his reinterpretation of antique themes. As a consequence, he was also one of the most commercially solicited artists of his day—enjoying the concurrent patronage of massively powerful yet competing entities. Sound familiar? The linchpin of Canova’s success was not just his sculptural virtuosity, as art historian Christopher M. S. Johns argues in his groundbreaking 1998 study Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe, but also his seductive—yet strategically chosen—subject matter. Canova, like Koons in his latest shows, shrewdly steered clear of “controversial” subject matter for his commissions while consolidating his independence and influential position—all this in an age when most artists gained favor and power by allowing their work to be political instruments of warring clientele. Canova’s simultaneous commissions for the pope, Napoleon, the Austrian Hapsburgs, and the Republic of Venice find a revelatory echo in Koons’s ability to navigate the gallery system, rival contemporary-art foundations and collectors, and the highest echelons of oligarchic wealth. (Given Koons’s seamless insertion into the Château de Versailles in 2008, it’s as if he enjoyed a commission from the Sun King himself.) Recalling Canova’s strategy, Koons appropriates a pleasing sign of perfection: Greco-Roman statuary. And there is of course one more giant on whose shoulders Koons’s gazing balls rest: Picasso, whose own neoclassical turn in the ’20s similarly signaled aesthetic reinvention and a return to order.

The “Gazing Ball” casts are ghosts, spectral substitutes for the original ancient sculptures or their nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reworkings. Thus inscribed within the world of antiquities, myths, and gods, Koons places his art under the sign of the historical. History as such communicates something much more commanding than a transitory, contemporary fame. History signals the pedigree of duration. The Koonsian touch—a suburban version of the Claude glass, that black convex mirror of the Enlightenment whose magical fish-eye reflection could transform a landscape into a picturesque image—serves as a logo to brand these blank plasters. The spheres seem to absorb us in their strangely all-consuming reflections, reminding us of the artist’s signature balloon sculptures that were on display a few blocks away.

In the end, it is superfluous to discuss whether Koons’s new work is good or bad. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the artist is beyond judgment. The formal qualities of his objects, their ability to generate emotional affect or symbolic meaning, have become overshadowed by the emotional, symbolic value of Koons’s own reception in history. His self-mythologizing and its circulation eclipse the art on display. Surrounded by his own designated pantheon of gods (both Greco-Roman and art-historical), Koons has finally Made It to Heaven. And yet the artist must still resolve a schizophrenic, deistic desire: to be the talk of the town while satisfying his powerful audience. Is there life after heaven? I eagerly await the next Koons show to find out.

Alison M. Gingeras is a curator and writer who lives in New York and Warsaw.