Jeff Koons

Deutsche Guggenheim

When I saw Jeff Koons’s new paintings, my initial thoughts turned to their presentation—the timing couldn’t have been better. These painted collages—exhibited to great effect, thanks to their billboard format, in the claustrophobic spaces of the Deutsche Guggenheim—fitted perfectly into a range of issues, from the ongoing visual-culture debate to the revival of photorealist painting. In addition, they implicitly demanded an engagement with the potential of so-called appropriation art of the ’80s, a potential that has so far been undervalued. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the series on view, “Easyfun,” is part of the “Celebration” group that was in fact years overdue. All one heard of Koons involved financial woes and postponed exhibitions. Now it is clear that the delay paid off—and not just in terms of raised expectations.

Given the vigor of these photorealist paintings and their baroque dynamic of ascension, it seems legitimate to direct attention to the individual’s aesthetic experience. In fact, the viewer is gripped by the works’ energy and caught in their undertow, a disorienting whirlpool effect the images themselves in fact thematize, as in the Bridget Riley-esque spirals of Grotto, 2000. Similarly, the rendered liquids—viscous, sticky-looking light brown areas or sprayed, milky “splashes”—seem designed to provoke a physical reaction in the viewer. It is a consequence of the specific materiality of these at once hyperrealistic and surrealistically attenuated liquids that I sometimes had the feeling I myself was becoming liquid, melting. Whether these images correspond directly to the Lacanian notion of "surplus enjoyment that transcends immediate use value, they surely offer a formal analogue. Put differently, they possess the very properties of the commodities they represent, whether that means the shiny icing of cookies and doughnuts or the sticky chocolate filling.

With these works Koons refines what he began in the ’80s with his “appropriated” advertising photographs: Then too the artistic procedure receded behind sensual effects. In Stay in Tonight, 1986, the sea of wavy amber liquid already announces the atmosphere of the “Easyfun” images. Since that time Koons has perfected the “multiple fetishism” typical of his work. Like the commodity fetish, his objects are cleansed of all trace of human touch. But to the extent that the physical labor put into them remains invisible, the verbal expenditure is pronounced. It immediately made the rounds that up to forty assistants, closely supervised by Koons, worked on the new images. These are two sides of the same coin.

Has Koons actually drawn conclusions from the fact that the artist as “cultrepreneur,” self-modeled after the manager, has now become the norm? At first glance, it looks as if today Koons wishes to play down his managerial status and instead emphasize an artistic procedure that could be compared with paint by numbers rather than what one might expect from an army of assistants. One searches in vain for any trace of the painterly, the drips and voids that ordinarily signal a “painterly sensibility.” But it is nonetheless the procedure, largely formal, that is responsible for the designation of a concrete object—the commodity fetish of a particularly American vintage. Koons isn’t content to practice the “fetishism of the means” that even Adorno could sanction on occasion. No, the potential fetish character of the art is doubled through traditionally fetishized motifs—e.g., high-heeled shoes and fluttering strands of blond hair. These images echo the American cult of waxed legs and manicured feet—a mania that became openly visible in last season’s fashionable stiletto mules. Niagara, 2000, is a veritable monument to stilettos and their baroque heels, reminiscent in other respects of Warhol’s “shoe” series. The smallest crease between the big toe and the strap is taken into account.

In the ’80s, the anxious question around Koons was whether the difference between art and commodity had completely collapsed. The concept of appropriation signaled that the artist had been granted the potential to assimilate popular culture yet still intervene. This resulted, however, largely from the fact that one still expected too much of artistic work to hastily reduce it to its political function, whether instrumentalized or critical. Indeed, the context in which Koons and others were received was such that the artwork was deemed “critical” only when it visibly raised objections or approached its subjects from a distance. If one understands critique, however, as a procedure of distinction and designation, then Koons’s new works can be taken as a “critique of visual culture” (Diedrich Diederichsen). Koons confronts the competition—electronically generated images—in order to mark a decisive difference. The data of visual culture—from cornflakes packaging to toys—are filtered through artistic conventions from Max Ernst to James Rosenquist emphasizing the particularities of art as a framework. The images have the edge in that they expose the specific, internal laws and economy of attention in art. They allow another look at the use of collage in, say, David Salle’s early work or Albert Oehlen’s computer images. If collage has long since lost its claim to criticality in the wake of advertising and music videos, it still proves well suited to presenting the delirious dance of spiraling capitalist production. While Koons tries to make different elements into a picture, Oehlen emphasizes the absurd differential that separates each element. What Koons, Oehlen, and Salle have in common is that they demonstrate the abysslike quality of the desire represented by fragmentation.

A further effect of these images is that they reveal the limits of the photorealist revival, from Stephan Jung to Richard Phillips, both of whose works are largely one—dimensional images tied to an often explicit “agenda” (for Jung, to represent techno- and commodity culture). Perhaps it has to do with the gesture of retreat Koons has chosen for himself that his new images don’t settle for univocal resolution—but satisfy equally on a formal and thematic level.

Isabelle Graw