BWW Reviews: Art to Respect, or Art to Reject, in JEFF KOONS: A RETROSPECTIVE
Anyone who sees Jeff Koons: A Retrospective as a solemn occasion is seeing it all wrong. True, this will be the last special exhibition at the Whitney Museum's Upper East Side location--the end of the Museum's five-decade tenure in its custom-made Marcel Breuer building. But enough with the nostalgia. No other living artist has drummed up as much controversy as Koons has, and by hauling in around 130 of his gigantic, brash, infamously expensive works, curator Scott Rothkopf goads his visitors to pick sides in that controversy--to duke it out, and keep duking it out long after the Whitney has relocated downtown. What has the art world come to when an old basketball poster, or a twenty foot-long piece of pornography, or a granite sculpture of Popeye sits just a few museum floors down from Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keefe?
What indeed. As of now, the lines for this Retrospective stretch all the way around the block. Everybody loves a villain, and Koons is an art world villain as florid and fascinating as they come, sort of like Willy Wonka from Hell. And it turns out that "Willy Wonka from Hell" is one of the kinder descriptions that's been thrown at Koons since he popped up in the late 1970s: liberals deride him as a misogynistic one-percenter who manufactures inane sculptures for other one-percenters, and the folks at the conservative New Criterion recently compared Koons to "Arno Breker, the sculptor who earned his reputation as 'Hitler's favorite sculptor'." Koons partisans, who are only a little less vocal, greet Koons's forms, his materials, and his mixture of whimsy and transcendence with something bordering on euphoria. Then there are all those Sunday sightseers queued up on 75th and Madison--the curious, the undecided, the expectant.
Fortunately for those droves of Whitney visitors, neither the Koonsians nor the Anti-Koonsians are ready for a truce. The great virtue of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective is that it shows how much there is left to say about Koons, love him, hate him, or something in between. While my own responses to Koons have normally ranged from "This is kind of interesting" to "This is kind of dumb," this show elicits stronger reactions: this much Koons in one place is a necessary overload. Think of it not as an assault on the eyes (Rothkopf's installation is too roomy and well-considered for that) but as an intellectual kick in the pants, the push you need to confront Koons for the first time, even if you've been glancing at him for years.
Nor is this the only revelation; it is fitting that, in this last exhibition, Rothkopf has figured out some near-perfect uses for the Whitney's format, space, and atmosphere. The showcase begins with Koons's early creations: Hoover vacuums in clear cases, basketballs hovering in tanks of sodium chloride, stainless steel cocktail kits, inflatable bunny pool toys. These works call up very different associations--the bunnies are twee and ridiculous and subtly sad, while those preserved Hoovers and ghostly basketballs look like they should be at a science fair or in an aerospace museum--and here the Breuer building shows its versatility. The display room for the vacuums is shadowy, crepuscular, almost planetarium-like, while the bunnies sit on the floor of a more alcove-like area--and seem right at home.
One floor up, Rothkopf manages Koons's subsequent works with more bravado. The absurd, oversized tchotchkes of Koons's Banality series (1988) stand all in a row in a space that calls to mind the close quarters of a storefront gallery. A few steps over, the translucent figurines and colored billboards of the Made in Heaven cycle (1989-1991) line the four walls of a sizeable room, immersing you in Koons's version of paradise and a prude's version of purgatory, if not pure damnation. Made in Heaven was (and to some extent still is) excoriated by art critics: the series depicts Koons with his pornstar ex-wife Ilona Staller, both of them doing what pornstars generally do. Koons's reputation took a hit on this one and his marriage to Staller ended in mutual hatred, but Koons's critics look sillier in retrospect. (Didn't the 19th century teach you people that griping about sex always backfires?) For my part, I walked through, then shrugged, then chucked at the fact that Made in Heaven is next to a room of cartoon character cutouts, then climbed the stairs to the next section.
The uppermost floor, which focuses on 1994 to the present, shows Koons attempting a more mature pose: not a hard thing to do when you're starting out with five foot-long liquor ads, but an effort is an effort. While the motifs don't get much loftier, the techniques rise to mind-numbing heights of precision and expense. In 1979, Koons was happy with an inflatable flower that's really an inflatable flower; in 2003, he only settled with an inflatable lobster that's really an aluminum metalworking designed to look (down to the last crease) like an inflatable lobster. Then there are Koons's famous balloon dogs, reflective metal sculptures in magenta and sapphire and orange-bronze, each one expensive enough to put eight kids through Harvard. Along with much-ballyhooed new sculptures such as Play-Doh--a ten foot-high metal rendering of (yup) a glob of Play-Doh--these suggest an approach to childhood that is at once earnest and callous. They are as big, and as commercially calculated, and as finally loveable as so many of the things real children love.
They aren't beautiful, though. Anyone who finds formal bliss in Jeff Koons: A Retrospective has either a jejune sense of art history or an unhealthy fetish for shiny objects. A balloon dog in incandescent colors is still a balloon dog, and instead of holding me in awe, Koons's sculptures make me wonder what artists with real talent for shape and contour--Elie Nadelman, David Smith, the folks at Pixar--would have made of such lavish materials. I can't shake the troubling hunch that such backward glances and "What ifs?" are all that Koons will offer in the future: his recent Gazing Ball series re-creates classic statuary with a little cleverness and a lot of forced, failed gravitas.
Come what may, we'll always have Banality, a series that shows Koons at his faux-sentimental best. Even capsule descriptions of the works in this group reveal that Koons was onto something: a couple of cherubs pushing a potbellied pig, a gruesomely effeminate John the Baptist, a lanky Buster Keaton on an undersized horse, a gold-and-white depiction of Michael Jackson, and (my personal favorite) a muppet-like bear and a boy-like policeman. Together they demonstrate like nothing else why Jeff Koons: A Retrospective is a can't-miss showcase. Sure, the Pop artists regularly created images that are funny and ironic, and some of their direct descendants, such as the Sots artists in Russia, could be even funnier. Yet in Banality, Koons isn't merely funny or ironic; his work here is blatantly moronic and flat-out hilarious. There were other times in the Whitney Retrospective--the Made in Heaven room with its smugness and campiness and crystals (yes, porn and crystals), the smilingly idiotic painting Shelter--when I was speechless with laughter. If a few vituperative reviews in the New Criterion are the price of giving art such powers of expression, so be it. It's an achievement: a bizarre, entertaining, stunningly presumptuous achievement.
Four floors later, I walked out of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective feeling completely unconvinced that Koons is a master sculptor. But as a humorist, as a nihilist, he is an undeniable genius.