Standing at the very beginning of the Jeff Koons retrospective, on the polished floors of the Whitney Museum, I scrutinise my distorted, disproportional and caricatured reflection in the pristine mirrored blue orb, teetering precariously on the shoulder of a 25 foot plaster cast copy of Hercules. This is part of the “Gazing Ball” series which includes other archetypal examples of chiseled Renaissance male body parts. Alongside these western exemplars of physical perfection, the artist marries the seemingly ensorcelled blue reflecting ball with a Koonsian hybrid of archetypal Americana, a household mailbox typically found on rural roads that curiously sprouts the pipes from a hot rod engine. A clin d’oeil perhaps suggesting the potential for reciprocation with popular culture and antiquity? The museum wall caption reads: “drawing in their surroundings, they focus our contemplation and conjure an ethereal world beyond the one in which they sit, just as his idealized figures straddle the line between gods and men”. It sets the mood for the rest of the exhibition. In effect it is the essence of Jeff Koons, who, having ceased to inhabit the world of mere men, instead has entered the domain of the gods, the Art monarchy, where he is a key presiding figure.
I decide to go directly to the top floor where Koons’ most recent works are on view (the exhibition is chronologically arranged by floor) and, as soon as I enter, I am met with my similarly distorted reflection in the ‘Candy Heart’, the ‘Balloon Dog’ and ‘The Moon’, fabricated and polished with the gleaming shininess of a Bentley in a Mayfair showroom. The sculptures, like Hercules, are visually grandiose and kinesthetically seductive, hurtling back multiple projections of myself and the information in the room surrounding me, containing people, artwork, architecture and space, and where each new fresh viewing angle is different to the next. I am left wondering if there is anything I can know about myself to be absolute truth, because Koons engineers this information with almost Machiavellian guile.
This is the genius, and hubris of Jeff Koons. A mythological trickster defying the rules of the gods and of nature, a court jester, the tailor who crafted the emperor’s new clothes if you will. It’s probably also a safe assumption to say that there has never been such a plethora of adjectives to describe an artist, praiseworthy or derisive. And whilst he didn’t exactly come from nothing, as an “artist”, he’s the quintessential American self-made man, thriving on the cult of celebrity and society’s penchant for panic buying as in the stock market. At this point it compels the question: Is It Art?
To be fair to Koons, he simply capitalises on the contemporary zeitgeist, and he does it masterfully. And as a major museum retrospective of a prominent art world power player, the exhibition offers a coherent chronological and thoughtfully curated representation of Koons’ career. It also situates the public within the general parameters of the evolutionary development of the art world from Duchampian times to the present day by defining the designation of the ready made as art object (albeit with Koons’ superior production techniques) that embraces the notion of simulacrum. In so doing, Koons repurposes found objects by plundering signifiers of culture from every source: antiquity, porn, kitsch, childhood toys, race politics, luxury items, suburban banality, even food stuffs like salami and mayonnaise. Reframing devices and adjustments in scale are the trademark of his métier. My personal preferences leaned more toward impressive technical achievements within the “Popeye” series for example, with works like “Hulk”, “dog pool ” and “seal walrus” where materials like bronze and galvanized steel mimick plastic inflatables to sheer and exquisite hyperreal perfection particularly with portraying their sense of weightlessness. Or “One Ball Equilibrium Tank” where he collaborated with a Nobel prize winning physicist to achieve a precise equilibrium of distilled water and highly refined salt to make us believe that the presented basket balls miraculously hover in thin air.
There is simply far too much that can be said about Jeff Koons and the more sensationalised parts of the exhibition like the “Made in Heaven” (with his ex-wife and porn star Illona Staller) and “Banality” series have caused enough of a stir and rhetoric that I can’t add more without using far too much space here. In his defense it’s way too interesting to lightly skirt over the topic.
Koons propagates the notion that everything is art, however he contravenes the notion that everyone is an artist, well not unless you can raise enough funds to produce it and market it. In Koons’ own words, “the only way artists can find their own glamour is to incorporate aspects of systems other than ‘art’ and to be creative and confident to exploit what they have”. He is a simultaneously a product, and architect of our age. And if nothing else, Koons, has the capacity to inspire wonder, at his commitment to his profession, his command of the industry, his technical prowess, and has succeeded in attaining the coveted status of “the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist”.
Words/Photos: Karen Garratt © Artlyst 2014
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