PRINT September 2014


WHAT COULD BE MORE ICONIC than Michael and Bubbles, or Cicciolina’s white garter, or that raptor-like stainless-steel bunny and that engorged balloon dog? In reality, everything and nothing: The creator of these entities never simply adopts the generic symbols of our time but produces ciphers and substances that seem perpetually new and forever foreign, despite the hyperbolic fame they may acquire. Perhaps the most influential—and controversial—artist of our time, JEFF KOONS makes things that stay strange.
On the occasion of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s major survey of his work, the first that Koons has enjoyed in his adopted hometown, Artforum asked art historian and critic THOMAS CROW to assess the exhibition’s synoptic view, while six artists, each from a generation after Koons’s, reflect on his outsize impact—an effect that is strikingly polemical and everywhere felt but difficult to pin down.

Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flowers (Short Pink, Tall Purple), 1979, vinyl, mirror, acrylic, 16 × 25 × 18". From the series “Inflatables,” 1978–79.

IN ITS FINAL MONTHS on Madison Avenue, the Whitney Museum of American Art has signed off with two exhibitions of distinctly contrasting character. For the last Biennial in the Marcel Breuer edifice, the museum dispersed and outsourced its organization to three curators, each of whom mounted a crowded show on one of three floors. Reviewing the exhibition in these pages, Helen Molesworth found that this multiplication of personnel seemed to reduce rather than augment the curatorial acumen in evidence: Where, she wondered, have all the sight lines gone?

No such doubts attend the succeeding show, the much-anticipated Jeff Koons retrospective, a signature statement that the premier museum of American art must offer the definitive account of the most visible contemporary American artist. To embark on the exhibition’s itinerary is immediately to be gripped by a sight line as spare and locked down as Alberti’s model of linear perspective. A stately corridor of stacked and illuminated Plexiglas boxes on either side converges on a vanishing point through an opening in the middle distance, one unequivocally marked by a single basketball perfectly suspended in the center of its fluid-filled tank.

The formal symmetry of this statement by curator Scott Rothkopf resonates with the theme Koons bestowed on the objects so contained. Under the rubric of a series, “The New,” 1980–87, the transparent containers simultaneously showcase and entomb never-used vacuum cleaners and floor polishers, most memorable among them a squat cylinder with a protuberant hose then marketed as the Shelton Wet/Dry. As the function of these devices resonates with the idea of the immaculate, it has been widely assumed that their presence inaugurates Koons’s preoccupation (read: complicity) with the specious allure of mass-produced consumer goods.

The rigor of Rothkopf’s arrangements seems likely to push visitors in one of two directions. The forward propulsion of the main sight line could impel one quickly to the 1983–93 “Equilibrium” tanks,with their attendant appropriated graphics, on the other side of the opening, leaving the aura of “The New” resplendent and uncompromised, transfigured retroactively by the prestidigitation of the uncannily hovering balls. Conversely, the generous space of the initial room might equally encourage wandering and turning back to more closely examine these domestic relics, perhaps prompting a skeptical reappraisal of the commodity-fetish thesis, at least as applied to this moment in Koons’s career.

The artist’s choice of cleaning instruments in fact leaves much to be desired in terms of seductive appeal or pride of possession: Their principal associations are with disagreeable, and never-ending, work; their homely designs, even in 1980, had stayed unchanged for decades; the canisters of the wet-dry shop machines in particular were so utilitarian that their implicit message to the purchaser promised little more than workmanlike efficiency and durability. A single day of normal use would leave them scratched and battered, their innards besmirched with dirt, lint, and random debris.

As Koons’s claim to visual distinction for these implements lies in their appearing untouched, forever newly minted, and thereby somehow magically removed from all such exigencies, their actual humdrum and charmless character prompts a certain pathos to enter the picture. Circling back around the gallery, moreover, one comes to a smaller side room that provides a flashback to the years just prior to the breakout achieved by “The New” and clinched by “Equilibrium.” There, Rothkopf has brought to light the immediate, little-seen prehistory of Koons’s familiar phases and stages.

View of “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,” 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. From left: String of Puppies, 1988; Pink Panther, 1988; Bear and Policeman, 1988. All from the series “Banality,” 1988. Photo: Chandra Glick.

Sometime after his 1976 arrival in New York from studies at the populist-friendly School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Koons began inviting new contacts to his apartment to see small sculptures composed of inflatable flowers and bunnies in brightly colored plastic, set singly or in groups against ready-made mirrored tiles. These were the same sort of garish props and accessories he used, after he began working at the Museum of Modern Art’s membership desk in 1977, to amuse and entice prospective customers. His first New York works thus bear witness to the pathos of the young artist—his lack of resources, his eagerness to please, his baggy-pants comedic style—as well as to the undoubted success he enjoyed in his immediate aims.

To the extent that Rothkopf has organized, with directorial flair, his principal floors as a three-act biopic, that early side room functions as the production’s Rosebud—even if Citizen Kane transcends the Hollywood formula. As the installation unfolds—each sequence accorded the requisite dignity and scope to stand or fall on its own merits—there is little that does not seem prefigured in that small, flashback gallery. Then, as in any effective life saga, there follows an early pinnacle of achievement: Here, the outsize pastiches of dime-store novelties in the 1988 “Banality” series. (Lined up in soldierly rank along a lateral aisle of the middle floor, these highly exposed sculptures are freshly visible again: Why does Bubbles have no lower body? To what malevolent end has the colossal carnival bear mesmerized the London bobby?)

Such pinnacles must be followed by some catastrophe that lays the hero low: So it is here with “Made in Heaven,” 1989–91. Then begins the painstaking recovery, aided by a return to domestic verities. On his last floor, Rothkopf commendably moves through the latter ascent at a brisk pace. There is enough of the gleaming, gigantic “Celebration” series, 1994–, but no more than necessary, as can be said of the various Popeye and Hulk paraphernalia. For a symbolic repertoire that barely changes, compression of the narrative is entirely in order: It is enough that Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994–2000, stands for the rest of his pneumatic menagerie; Hanging Heart (Violet/Gold), 1994–2006, for the larger family of candy-box trinkets. Looking back to the 1978–79 mirror arrangements, there is one that features two small plastic figurines, one of Michelangelo’s muscular David and the other of a Venus or nymph extending a dainty toe. From “Statuary” in 1986 through “Made in Heaven” to the latest round of molded classical types, those modest found objects anchor a long and constant trajectory.

But stasis in one register will exacerbate changes in others. What has changed over the past two decades is the relative importance accorded flawlessness of finish. The early plastic toys, pieced and joined according to a pattern, conform to one predetermined shape and size: A balloon, short of bursting, can expand along a continuum; the more gas inside, the tauter and shinier the surface becomes. In Koons’s gargantuan replicas of balloon toys, the great expanses of their apparent membranes—gleaming in candy colors—must exhibit a preternatural membrane that appears to remove them from the realm of human manufacture. An imperative peculiar to these particular items has since come to govern the entirety of the Koons output. The work of the 1980s was always good enough; since the mid-’90s, almost nothing has ever been quite good enough, and patrons are willing to pay and pay again for all the destroyed B-stock in order to gain one impeccable example.

In this pursuit, Koons’s studio has lately been pushing technological innovation in mapping and fabrication to levels often exceeding the capabilities of the most advanced design and manufacturing in any other sector. As cogently detailed in the catalogue by Michelle Kuo, the marshaling of such expertise surely represents an unprecedented achievement by an artist, so much so that technique has assumed the primary mimetic function in his art.

It is frequently and justifiably remarked that Koons’s works hold up a mirror to contemporary American society, though too often with little more than a weak wave toward their reflective surfaces. In Rothkopf’s lively formulation: “They take as much as they can from the world in which we live and offer in return a powerful picture of it.” One could expand on that to observe that their channel of taking appears to run largely on the side of technological prowess, that dimension of our world in which human mastery and progress remain impressively undiminished. The complementary dimension of symbols and ideas, however, appears starved of commensurate innovation and energy, if not gripped by regression and atavism. In his holding these two poles together, each at full strength, Koons truly returns a powerful picture of simultaneous enrichment and impoverishment.

“Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through Oct. 19; travels to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, Nov. 26, 2014–Apr. 27, 2015; Guggenheim Bilbao, June 5–Sept. 27, 2015.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.