New York

Jeff Koons, Violet Ice (Kama Sutra), 1991, colored glass, 13 x 27 1/4 x 16 1/2". From the series “Made in Heaven,” 1990–91.

Jeff Koons, Violet Ice (Kama Sutra), 1991, colored glass, 13 x 27 1/4 x 16 1/2". From the series “Made in Heaven,” 1990–91.

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Violet Ice (Kama Sutra), 1991, colored glass, 13 x 27 1/4 x 16 1/2". From the series “Made in Heaven,” 1990–91.

On the occasion of a 2006 exhibition of his work at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Jeff Koons spoke to journalist Farah Nayeri about one of the infamous pictures from the “Made in Heaven,” 1990–91, series depicting the artist and Ilona Staller (aka Cicciolina), his then-soon-to-be-ex-wife, in scenes of intimate joy and compromise: “I always liked this painting,” he said with a straight face. He then praised the pimples on Staller’s backside and explained how the work conveyed a “removal of cultural guilt and shame.”

Twenty years after the debut of the series at the 1990 Venice Biennale, “Made in Heaven” returns to New York at Luxembourg & Dayan’s elegant Upper East Side town house gallery, and we are given the chance to reconsider questions of guilt and shame as they pertain to explicit sexual imagery, Koons’s work in general, the mores of the contemporary art world, and whatnot. As town houses go, this one is quite modest in its proportions, something that adds to the weirdness of the artworks on view. Koons’s “Made in Heaven” paintings are quite large, some of them as big as twelve feet across and eight feet high; the rooms that house them are very narrow. You could not take your distance with respect to the pictures—if you did you very well might end up backing into the painting on the facing wall. This certainly wasn’t the experience I remember from seeing “Made in Heaven” the first time around in New York, at Sonnabend’s former SoHo location in 1991. One thing that this extra-up-close-and-personal view afforded is the realization that indeed these pictures are still quite dirty. Oh sure, many people have seen worse, but it’s still odd to look at semen pouring out of a woman’s mouth in a posh gallery. That’s the sort of thing it’s so much easier to look at online, where it’s available to the average twelve-year-old.

In the setting of Luxembourg & Dayan’s jewel-box galleries, the “Made in Heaven” paintings took on a strange immersive quality. Many people have carped about the supposed poor quality of these ink-jet-on-canvas pictures as paintings. I was surprised by how much I was drawn in by them. As I stood at most three feet from any given work, the experience seemed quasi-AbEx, as if I were “in” the Koonses, the way Pollock was “in” his paintings. Crazy. I guess that means I was party to a ménage à trois. Curious instances of flagrant prettiness also took me in, e.g., the Warholian treatment of Cicciolina’s eyelashes in Ilona’s House Ejaculation and Exaltation (both 1991); or the diaphanous veil effects achieved through the exceedingly blown-out pixilation.

Other seemingly out-of-place art historical references bubbled to consciousness: Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, 1964, for instance. Here was another precursor of the Koonsian pornographic in-the-picture immersion. I tried to watch a clip of Meat Joy on YouTube, but I needed to sign in as an adult or some such, since “this content may contain material flagged by YouTube’s user community as inappropriate for some users.” So I didn’t bother. Schneemann described the activities of the cavorting performers this way: “Meat Joy has the character of an erotic rite: excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, rope brushes, paper scrap. Its propulsion is toward the ecstatic—shifting and turning between tenderness, wilderness, precision, abandon: qualities which could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent.” Schneemann proposed a different sort of release from cultural shame and guilt, sans semen. Then I looked up “Made in Heaven” on YouTube: None of the results that appeared required “user community” advisories, though only one depicted a work from this exhibition. Granted, that one work is Violet Ice (Kama Sutra), 1991—one of the few extant glass sculptures, most supposedly having been destroyed by Koons after his marriage to Staller went sour—and it isn’t explicitly pornographic. The fuzzy, poor-quality image has been paired with a sound track taken from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I couldn’t help but think the artist would appreciate the simplicity of this gesture.

David Rimanelli