Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons’ work maintains an ambiguous position in relation to American consumer culture: a position of both confirmation and critique. Koons claims references, on one hand, to political issues of class and social responsibility, and on the other, to poetic metaphors for emotional and physical states, but his self-proclaimed determination “to find total liberation in the mainstream” leads to the privileging of the work’s status as self-conscious commodity. The artist’s articulate explanations—offered on videotape in the gallery’s downstairs orientation space—surround each piece like gift wrap, ensuring the work’s open-armed reception by an art world eager to meet an intellectual challenge. The result, in this case, is work with a perfect pedigree but little potential for engagement beyond the bounds of its self-defined terms. There is no room left for the audience; its position is too neatly and articulately circumscribed.

Examples of all of Koons’ major work over the past nine years were presented here: vacuum cleaners, basketballs, the cast aqualung and life raft, appropriated advertisements for sneakers and liquor, the train decanter, kitsch statuary, and two recent porcelain pieces. Nevertheless, the show felt small. Perhaps because each piece met with success almost immediately, the work seemed too familiar and lacked surprise. The two new porcelain pieces—Popples, 1988, cast from a bug-eyed stuffed bear, and Serpents, 1988, replicas of two bowtie-wearing toy snakes—do not indicate an important new direction, but continue Koons’ project of combining kitsch, or “mass culture,” commodities with incommensurate materials in an attempt to level class differences. Much of Koons’ work deals with suspended states: vacuum cleaners preserved in Plexiglas, whiskey permanently sealed inside its train decanter, bronze casts of inflated objects forever sealing the “life breath” inside them, as well as statuary pieces cast in stainless steel or porcelain—a bust of Louis XIV, a set of crystal glasses, a flower arrangement, and fat-cheeked kids in droopy bloomers cavorting with a bucket. Such suspension implies both immortality—the state of never aging, a possibility that the newness of manufactured items suggests we might attain; and death—stasis, stultification, permanent closure—an implication that reinforces the overall closure of the work.

There are two pieces, however, that escape neat circumscription, existing as enigmatic and open images. These are the various versions of the basketballs in equilibrium tanks, 1985, and the stainless steel cast of an inflated bunny, Rabbit, 1986. The bunny wears its absurdity on its flattened, reflective face and in its eager, frontal posture. Every detail of the cheap original has been preserved, including the plastic seams and wrinkles, making the object look very much like a Mylar balloon, except for its apparent weight and absolute stillness—no blithe float, but fierce fixity. In this piece, Koons’ earlier interest in animated qualities of inanimate objects comes to the fore, as do all the Baudrillardian and mass-culture references of his later pieces, but what really makes this object work is difficult to decipher. One has the sense that Koons finally looked, and something beyond his language overcame him.

The equilibrium tanks continue to be tremendously compelling visual images. They speak most literally of suspension, not only because the basketballs float in water, but because their suspension is felt to be temporary. This implied transience, this potential change, gives the basketball pieces a certain poignancy that the other, more static works deliberately erase.

Laurie Palmer