In theory, this Jeff Koons retrospective is a big deal. It has taken over the entire Marcel Breuer fortress at 945 Madison Avenue—an honor that, if memory serves, has been accorded to no previous artist. Perhaps more important, it is the last exhibition that the Whitney will ever mount in the Brutalist landmark that has housed the institution for nearly half a century: Sometime next spring, the museum will reopen in a new and far vaster venue in the Meatpacking District, three miles to the south and west. Thus, even those members of the press and public who, for years, have taken a somewhat skeptical view of the Whitney’s doings cannot look with an entirely dry eye upon this powerful reminder of the evanescence of earthly things.
In a sense, there is, or should be, added poignancy in this tribute to an artist who is now in his 60th year. For it was in these very galleries, some 25 years ago, that, with one imperishable basketball floating in a fish tank and one metallic simulacrum of an inflatable rabbit, Jeff Koons commenced that sustained ascent from anonymity to wealth and status in the art world. To lay my cards on the table, I have never thought much of him: The doctrines that inform his work—having to do with postmodern appropriation, abjection, and the critique of consumerism—were none too impressive, even when they were fresh and new, three decades ago. The fact that Koons appropriated his forms and had them assembled or executed by others—a process once thought challenging—now seems scarcely worthy of mention.
If, with a gun to my head, I were compelled to emphasize the positive, I should have to admit that Koons is not boring and that, in his almost servile eagerness to please, he has managed to fill the cavernous galleries of the Whitney with colorful, diverting stunts that make for a pleasant afternoon. That is more than I could muster for the gray and overrated dullness of Jasper Johns, another and earlier creation of the Whitney fame machine.
Certainly the works on view at the Whitney get your attention, and for several powerful reasons: first, because they tend to be bigger than you and are arrayed in brilliant colors—which humans tend to like; and then, because they re-create in new materials things we are used to seeing in other materials. Thus, the inflatable bunny looks for all the world to be plastic—but it’s metal! Similarly, a 10-foot pile of brightly colored Play-Doh—that fixture of baby boomer childhood—is actually fashioned from polychromed aluminum.
As Koons has aged, his eagerness to please has grown only stronger. His earliest works, those floating basketballs and vacuum cleaners in glass cases, were relatively chaste affairs, their punning point being the reenactment (in baser materials) of the solemn artifacts of the Minimalist movement, then only recently deceased. Boring! Koons has not repeated the mistake. Instead, he seems willing to do anything to win the viewer’s attention, which usually means pornography. And allow me to say, as an aside, that pornography—in purely rhetorical terms—rarely gets the respect that it deserves. Say of it what you will, it pierces the intellect with the speed and instantaneity of sight itself. And so, in Koons’s images of himself copulating with his erewhile wife, the Hungarian-Italian porn star Cicciolina, or in his multihued images of actress Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page straddling a plastic porpoise, he compels the attention of all but the most jaded viewer.
There has always been a subtext of hypocrisy in Jeff Koons’s public persona, an imputation he has embraced with such exuberance that to mention it at all is to seem to fall into a trap, to risk that most unconscionable of fates: to appear to miss the point. Savor this bilious morsel from Rosalind Krauss, the septuagenarian doyenne of art historians, as quoted by curator Scott Rothkopf:
Artists’ interest in using the media against itself was formerly subversive and parodic, beginning with Dadaism. . . . Koons, on the other hand, is not exploiting the media for avant-garde purposes. He’s in cahoots with the media. . . . It’s self-advertisement, and I find that repulsive.
Clearly, Krauss has not understood that to inveigh against Koons’s selling out, against the absurd sums that his works command, is to fail to understand that that marketability is (we are assured) part of his critique of late capitalism, or the art market, or both, or something else.