From Popeye to Play-Doh: The Psychology of Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art
June 27 to October 19, 2014
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York City, 212 570 3600
I am not a fan of Jeff Koons. It is not a matter of his being a symptom of a culture gone bad, or that the work is self-indulgent. It is simply that sometime after the early stainless steel pieces, organized at the Whitney under the title Statuary, I found that it became uninteresting — and over the long years had stopped thinking about it. This retrospective has not changed my mind but it does have me rethinking the nature of his subject, which is not popular culture but the artist himself. The key to Koons is his narcissism — whether actual or faked I do not know.
In a funny way, therefore, I have a newfound respect for his conceptual complexity. A key work that supports my premise of narcissism is not, as it happens, included in the exhibition. The New Jeff Koons (1980) is a self-portrait of what appears to be an enlarged family photo of the artist-to-be exuding the wellbeing of a middle-class boy circa 1960. The young Jeff sits at a desk with a coloring book, a crayon poised in his fingers. This staged photo seems to imply that ‘The New” of the title is meant to indicate perfection in the sense of both pure as well as reinvented.
Koons identifies with his iconographical subjects — they represent both how he hopes to present himself to others as well as his fears as to how he might be perceived. We find the hero, the king, and the demi-god alongside the comedian, the cartoon character strong man and the gorilla. Mirrors and polished surfaces, his most recurrent motif, are in essence narcissistic, a product of someone who in all ways is watching himself. His portrayal of women reveals his fear of them, and his adolescent obsession, which reduces them to sexual fantasy and object. Within his work we also find a record of all he has done to become a celebrity, a star, a success and all he has done to hide his secrets behind a veil of postmodern pastiche, eclecticism, and appropriation.
Such, indeed, Koons’s cleverness often conceals his serious intellectual abilities that I have to consider whether I have been taken in, that the discerned biography is a red herring rather than a sincere expression of the artist’s psyche. This encrypted biography is actually part of Koons’s masterly invention of himself not as artist but as huckster, a con man that promises his audience what they really want, glamour and allure. Yet, even with his declared mission of making things alright, he has made no commercial concession to his popular audience. Instead of creating a mass market for his work he has instead made ever more expensive works — although recently he has signed a deal with H&M to design handbags.
Problematically, to this day Koons’s works do not escape the gravity of Duchamp, or that of the notion of appropriation, which permits everything to become a readymade via its re-presentation, re-contextualization, or re-purposing, the mainstay aesthetics of the early ‘80s. His works in themselves are insignificant — even with the seriousness and insight one can afford them in hindsight, they have not been influential or culturally affective the way, say, Warhol has been. What saves Koons from being reducible to reflections on our material culture and the semiotics of objects is that there is something more personal in his focus on domesticity, perfection (newness), infallibility (expansiveness) and identity. Without these tropes the imagery Koons employs would have revealed itself to be little more than an intellectual form of flower arranging — a motif, in fact, of his early work.
The young Koons, we find at the Whitney, was an assembler who juxtaposes existent ideas and practices. His early works exploit the fact that Minimalism, Pop, and Conceptualism shared an antecedent in Duchamp’s readymade. Koons combines these three movements in cartoonish, multi-colored, cheap inflatable flowers, arranged on or in front of acrylic mirrors so as to multiply their image. The resulting arrangement, as in Inflatable Flowers (Tall Purple, Tall Orange) 1979, make a comic reference to Warhol’s flower paintings while Sponges and Single Double-Sided Floor Mirror, 1978 seems to reference Robert Smithson’s mirror displacements of the late 1960s.
The Flowers are followed by a series of pop-minimalist assemblages in which he combines banks of fluorescent lights recalling Dan Flavin with such household items as a tea pot and a Hoover vacuum cleaner. These were followed by a series consisting of differing models of Hoover vacuums sealed into Plexiglas boxes. More than introducing another of Koons most persistent themes — a pristineness and purity associated with newness — these works produced between 1978–80 also give expression to Koons’s initial intuition that the readymade has the capacity to transform everyday objects into a commentary on the confluence of modernity, technology, aesthetics, mass production, taste and their illusionary nature.
Combining readymade imagery, with which he personally identifies, with a finish-fetish aesthetic and cunning intellectualism, Koons tracks the process by which all aspects of our lives, desires and fantasies — even our neuroses — are objectified, commodified, and culturally sold back to us. Importantly, he does this without implicit or explicit judgment or criticism. Viewed in this manner, his works’ content and potential meaning lies in his shrewd ability to use a thing’s attributes to create analogies and metaphor, rather than commentary. For instance, while his Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules, 2013), and Popeye (2009-12) respectively reference classicism and comics, in turn they each also represent the demi-god, the hero, and the strong man. The irony here is that Hercules is made of plaster and Popeye is carved from granite. Subsequently, along with Buster Keaton, Kiepenkerl, Michael Jackson with Bubbles, Self-Portrait, Hulk (Organ), Gazing Ball (Mailbox), etc. these works in passing index masculinity. Throughout his work other such indices can be assembled concerning women, (love, class, and childhood). Another pattern set early on, is that for each new subject and form he employs a new technology, as well as the highest production values that industry can supply. As such, his works also represent the best that money can buy.
There is a significant shift in Koons’s works grouped as Equilibrium (1985) where he introduces celebrity basketballs afloat in steel and glass tanks. This is followed by Luxury and Degradation, which consists of liquor ads and stainless steel sculptures of kitsch objects. With this work Koons becomes the maker of stand-alone 3D images, rather than representing and arranging objects. At the same time, he has decided to make himself the subject of his work. This is the moment in which Koons appears to win the coveted position held by Warhol, left vacant by his death and that of his heir apparent, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Yet rather than model himself on the idiot savant Warhol played, Koons emerges as the glad-handed politician and big smile huckster who is willing to repackage for his middlebrow audience high-art as novelty and fetish, and the artist as personality.
He begins to cast in stainless steel things such as Jim Beam-J.B. Turner Train and Louis XIV (1986), producing up-scale facsimiles of souvenir shop items and collectables in glazed porcelain or polychrome wood. These are exhibited under the heading Banality. Koons employs advance technologies, skilled labor, and high production values for these works but as before, these items are not a portrait of our culture so much as loaded meditations on sex, desire, success, masculinity, competence, and self. I suspect both Michael Jackson with Bubbles and Pink Panther (both 1988) are surrogate self-portraits for they seem to sum up Koons’s sense of himself, whether via the tragic creative childlike genius of Jackson or the sly cartoon character whose popularity spurs it on from being a film title character to a classic cartoon series with international appeal. A clue that he might be indexing these images to himself is the contemporary portfolio of four Art Magazine Ads each featuring Koons projecting a different persona.
Made in Heaven (1989-1991) consists of works we might see as collaboration between Koons and his then wife, Italian porn star turned politician Ilona Staller (La Cicciolina). With these works he gives his life over to the spectacle of tabloid journalism and male fantasy. The result is images of him and his trophy (La Cicciolina) engaged in sex presented as over-life-size, highly retouched photographs, printed on canvas and/or made into Venetian glass figurines. These softcore, de-eroticized images, rather than emancipating his audience from shame and embarrassment, undo the promise of pornography, announcing that the fulfillment of male fantasy is sterile — all the ambition driven by self doubt and adolescent desire comes to emptiness.
After his acrimonious divorce there appears to be an eight-year break in Koons’s production. Then under the title Easyfun (1999) he produces a series of colored crystal animal head-shaped mirrors, then with Easyfun_Etheral (2000) his studio begins to turn out collage-like paintings that are highly derivative of the works of James Rosenquist, Sigmar Polke and the later paintings of David Salle. Koons attempts to produce two-dimensional works have in general been uninspired. This may be a result of the fact that it is harder to produce iconic images by appropriating, de-contextualizing, or merely representing existent materials.
Between 1994–2003 he appears not to have been able to produce coherent bodies of work as he had previously done, though he continues to group works under various titles, such as Celebration and Popeye. These works form a confused assemblage of assorted inflatable poolside toys and re-runs of earlier imagery such as the up-scaled balloon dog. All these works seem to be about scale, fetishistic surfaces, production values, and illusion — though one may suspect that they in some way are inspired by Koons growing brood. Then with Hulk Elvis (2006–14), Antiquity (2009) and Gazing Ball (2013) Koons turns to the Pop, Classical and the Baroque periods as references. These works collectively appear to be engaged in an extended and perplexing meditation on masculine identity, women and sex. Many of these recent works sport flowering plants (a sign of optimism?). Along with these he has produced oversized sculptures of the baubles one buys as anniversary and Valentine gifts: diamond rings, heart-shaped pendants, bouquets of flowers. Though much is made of Koons’s happy marriage with six children and the (obsessively) perfectly ordered life, one gets the impression from his work that his psychic life is still full of sexual confusion and a conflicted sense of identity. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that his retrospective introduces the never-before-seen Popeye, and ends with a monumental multi-colored sculpture of unformed lumps of Play-Doh.