New York

Jeff Koons

Sonnabend Gallery

Jeff Koons did not become the most famous artist to emerge from the milieu of ’80s New York because of his paintings—but they have always been there. He produced works on canvas as early as 1986 in his “Luxury and Degradation” series, which appropriated liquor ads from magazines and reproduced them without alteration in oil ink on canvas. In 1992, an adamant Koons designated the photographs in his notorious “Made in Heaven” series as “paintings.” Consisting of images of Koons and his porn-star wife, Ilona Stahler (aka La Cicciolina), engaged in uninhibited sex, the works were printed with oil ink on canvas, each in an edition of three. The designation couldn’t account for the loss of uniqueness that echoed in their hybridized status; nonetheless, the series marked the first time the subject of painting usurped the place of sculpture in Koons’s practice.

“Made in Heaven” was obviously a major turning point in the artist’s career. His personal life collapsed: a significant problem, considering that Koons’s life and art had become synonymous; and support for appropriation art was waning as the art market went deeper into recession. That same year, however, he began a series of paintings called “Celebration,” which were made the old-fashioned way (as have been all his subsequent paintings)—though not by Koons’s hand but by legions of professionally trained artists rendering his computer-generated maquettes. The shift in production values from machine-printed to painted-by-hand coincided with a larger agenda in the art world in the early ’90s to reinstate sincerity in place of irony (which had become synonymous with “cynicism”). At the same time, a refrain echoing throughout Koons’s art from the ’80s to the present—“Everybody I Love You,” to cite one of his magazine ads—was brought to the fore through the instrumentality of stock images associated with happy times: ribbons and bows, jewelry, toys, birthday cake, and lots of shiny new stuff.

With the paintings from his current, as yet untitled series, the legitimacy and quality of Koons’s painting can no longer be in doubt. Freed from the banality of merchandising that constrained the “Celebration” series and from the saccharine simplification of emblems of childhood that characterized “Easyfun”—a 1999–2000 series that retreated into nursery-school subject matter associated with Koons’s young son—the five canvases on view here (all works 2002) unabashedly indulged in a mesmerizing, maximal onslaught of cleverly composed, superrealistic depictions of the lush life. Numerous appetites converge in glowing images of absolute perfection. Spilling from flesh to food to beach life to sunlight, amid a great deal of streaming, splashing, and swirling, the effects of sustained visual excess are those of tour-de-force animation, full of dizzying warps and folds of deep and shallow space and speed-of-light shifts in subject matter. Even so, the paintings’ surfaces are models of Apollonian restraint: cool, smooth, and controlled.

Every image is distilled from the great renewable resource of mass visual culture. Things look familiar, doubly so because of the 3-D imaging software that trips imagery into hyperbolic spatial relations and takes viewers along for a visual ride. More significantly, Koons is again relaxing into pictures that provoke as much as they satisfy, that raise questions yet to be examined—for example, about the complexity of depictions of women throughout his work. The sublime states the works represent, the many feminized spaces they inaugurate with telescoping interiorities and fragmentation, and the potential identities they support place them at the forefront of the artist’s production. One sculpture in the show, Dolphin, is noteworthy for ushering banality back into the picture in a big way (despite touting Koons’s return to “readymades”)—but it’s the paintings that prove that Koons is relevant again.

Jan Avgikos