What to Make of Jeff Koons

In a hypothetical scenario in which one besets upon the mission of pinpointing the zeitgeist of contemporary times, with the condition that only one artist can be examined, one would be hard-pressed to pass on selecting Jeff Koons. Koons polarizes and perplexes critics and spectators alike: he celebrates the banal and openly courts the desires of the art market in a way that was once deemed beneath the artist. Some claim he has formal aesthetic talent while others find him to be nothing more than an obnoxious, self-promoting hack. The intention of this piece will not be to rule in favor of one side or the other on the talent debate, in truth Koons is a walking contradiction and does not seem to mind being labeled as such, but rather we shall delve into Koons’ psyche, what drives him to produce the art he creates, and what the message behind his art may be—if there is one at all. As will be seen, critics are eager to attack Koons, accuse him of intellectual bankruptcy and far worse, and in fairness their critiques might well hold weight, and yet he presses on.

“As Koons likes to point out,” remarks Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, “someone in every generation has to be held up as a shining example of what is wrong with current art.”[1] Fair play to Koons one may conclude, he relishes the role of the villain, and indeed he does, but what is so fascinating about Koons is that he plays the role of villain while also preaching harmless optimistic mantras such as, “art can be something that can empower you,” and the idea he strives towards is “art as a sense of your own potential as a human being.”[2] It is this cookie cutter ideology of sorts, if one were inclined to grant that messages found within fortune cookies can classify as an ideology, that encapsulates, “why he is held in such unsteady regard by critics … and is so beloved by spectators.”[3] In other words, Koons is an adored populist of sorts, but he could ultimately stand for nothing—at worst, everything that is ugly about our times. The remainder of the piece shall ultimately be dedicated to determining whether this is a fair characterization of Jeff Koons.

We will begin with a brief biographical analysis of Koons as it, in many respects, sheds light on why he operates the way he does. Perhaps above all else, Koons is a salesman, he is conscious of the art market and grasps that his wealthy clientele is the necessary vehicle to sustain his artistic ambitions, and he had a penchant for sales from a very young age. “Everyone else would sell Kool-Aid [at the local golf course], but I would sell Coca-Cola in a really nice jug,” he recalls, “really try to make it a nice, hygienic experience.”[4] It is this appreciation for elevating the everyday object, to make it noteworthy and desirable, that he would continue to carry with him. Marcel Duchamp’s theories were, “a revelation to Koons,” and while working at the Museum of Modern Art he began to, “fool around with a bunch of cheap inflatables … riffing on Duchamp’s idea of readymades.”[5] Koons himself described his engagement with the readymades as having a, “sexual power that was intoxicating,” and it is safe to assume that when he says things such as, “I’m most proud of making work that lets viewers not feel intimidated by art, but feel that they can emotionally participate in it through their senses and their intellect,”[6] his primary goal is to evoke the intoxicating allure that he once felt as a young man.

But is that all there is to Koons—this desire to please viewers on the pre-reflective level and little more—and, if it is, does he deserve to be shunned for offering little more? Puppy (1992) offers ammunition to those who purport that Koons simply seeks nothing more than a nod and a smile. He called Puppy a, “spiritual work communicating happiness,” and I am inclined to declare that the 43 ft. tall topiary sculpture succeeds in communicating happiness, or, as art critic Peter Schjeldahl brilliantly puts it, “if you manage not to enjoy the lustrous pooch, I don’t understand you,”[7] but does the work of the most financially successful artist the art world has ever known owe us more? It is perhaps unfair to hold Koons to this standard, countless artists also create works that do not quench our thirst for extensive analysis, but the elephant in the room is that Koons makes millions doing so, that Koons is financed by unreflective millionaires building social capital through his works, that, in spite of the critics’ scorn, Koons not only cast aside the gatekeepers of the art world but now defines the art world itself. This is a man that, according to gallerist David Zwirner, says things such as, “if you’re critical, you’re already out of the game,”[8] and the critic recoils in consternation upon realizing that Koons is questioning the very necessity of their existence. And, in the court of public opinion, it is Koons that is winning: in his words, he wishes to, “educate people about materialism through my work, I try to show them real visual luxury, and I realized that people respond to banal things.”[9] Whether spectators reflect upon the fact that it is banality that they are embracing with open arms seems to be beside the point, at least to Koons anyway, and the response in defense of Koons to those who bemoan this predicament is that Koons is giving the people what they want and making art accessible to those who are often the ones that feel alienated by the elites. In this regard, he has rewritten the sacred rules of art.

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Before honing in on the ramifications of this embrace of banality, however, it is imperative that we consider the merits of Koons’ works from a formal standpoint. For, at this juncture, it may seem as though Koons has no aesthetic intelligence. We return to Schjeldahl who espouses, “Koons has no end of talent and, within his range, mastery, marked by an obsessive perfectionism … it’s really the quality of his work that makes him the signal artist of today’s world.”[10] Evocations of classical Cubism and Surrealism are on display in Split-Rocker (2000), a second towering floral sculpture, and Play-Doh (1994), says Schjeldahl, “[is] a goad to the mind, it might stand as an imperishable symbol of art’s present worldly state.”[11] Schjeldahl rests his case with the powerful line of, “Koons’ most ardent detractors skip aesthetic judgment of his art to assert a wish that it does not exist.”[12] Schjeldahl’s latter claim that detractors wish Koons’ art did not exist is most assuredly accurate, but it is the former claim that they skip aesthetic judgment when critiquing Koons that we will explore in some depth. Nevertheless, Schjeldahl’s insights are important because they do reveal that Koons can be interpreted as having formidable aesthetic intelligence. It seems ridiculous to point out that the torchbearer of contemporary art possesses formal talent in the eyes of at least one critic, and this is a testament to the overall critical disdain of Koons.

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Indeed, Koons has received his fair share of negative criticism, and the pinnacle of such criticism occurred in the aftermath of his Made in Heaven series (1989-1991), consisting of sexually-explicit sculptures and paintings depicting he and his Hungarian-born Italian porn star ex-wife Ilona Staller.[13] “Just when it looked like the ‘80s were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade,” lambasted New York Times’ critic Michael Kimmelman.[14] It is, “an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of sanctimony,”[15] that has appeared to repulse critics for multiple decades. “He has the slimy assurance of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida,” rails critic Robert Hughes,[16] “Koons’ show-offishness is almost the exact opposite of Duchamp’s reticence,” adds Jed Perl at The New York Review of Books—drawing a direct comparison between Koons and his idol and painting the protégé in an unflattering manner.[17] It is that Koons does not doubt himself that incenses many of his harshest critics. He shows no humility, no reverence for what 18th-century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin called painting: an island whose shores he doubted he even knew.[18] Is doubt essential to artistic creation? Perhaps not, this stance sounds inherently rigid, but Koons does little to help his case because he fails (or foregoes) asking questions in his art. And, in order to probe at finding answers, a question needs to be introduced. Again, we feel shortchanged by Koons—offered up images that are void of any meaning, let alone any of the latent variety.

Time and again in the literature on Koons, it is the lack of depth that is cited as the primary cause of frustration. “The imagery does not ripen in the mind: it fades as quickly as a passing smile,” begins Vanity Fair’s Mark Stevens, “there is something cuckoo about studying a porcelain of the Pink Panther feeling up a blonde bombshell and then, with hardly a smile, going on to present weary generalizations about the soul of contemporary civilization. Just as cuckoo is deciding that because you hate it you actually love it.”[19] In this passage, Stevens is referencing Koons’ Pink Panther (1988)—and he is in fact suggesting that viewers are participating in an act of self-deception if they conclude that they like such a work of art. It should be noted that Stevens is not referring to all of Koons’ work, Puppy evokes a pleasant viewer response prior to any consideration of deceiving oneself for instance, but equally, make no mistake, when Stevens suggests that much of Koons’ art requires the viewer to convince themselves that something bad is in fact good, he does not merely have Pink Panther in mind. And yet even with regard to Puppy, as kind as Schjeldahl’s quip that he does not understand anyone that does not enjoy it is to Koons, his very next line follows, “But if you’re afflicted by an attendant feeling of intellectual free fall, in a vacuum of identifiable emotion, we can talk.”[20] He goes on to suggest that noblesse oblige is at play here, and it could be, though admittedly I am more inclined to believe dogs are universally beloved, Koons knows dogs are universally beloved, and thus he presents the spectator with a magnificent sculpture of a dog. But with Koons’ other works, in particular works he sells to the super wealthy for millions of dollars, the, “gesture of solidarity with lower-class taste,”[21] as Schjeldahl puts it (presumably on the part of Koons, viewer, and eventual purchaser), becomes a fascinating argument to make.

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So let us grant the supposition that Koons’ art is largely unreflective. So what? From Stevens, “In this environment, it should come as no surprise that some young artists, following Warhol’s lead, try to shock by upending the old romantic myths.”[22] Koons does this by shamelessly courting the super rich, a former Wall Street commodities broker himself, he admits, “the responsibility of the artist is to seduce, manipulate, and win his negotiations.”[23] He says everything the artist is not supposed to say. Even if beneath the surface the vast majority crave the financial success and public accolades, the artist is not supposed to meddle in the marketing of his work because the work is supposed to speak for itself. With Koons, marketing is a pivotal asset, and many would say his art pales in comparison to his prowess in the business realm of the game. But can marketing out of the top draw sell a lackluster product? Anyone who has ever been pressured into buying something they would later regret buying would answer affirmatively, but we are still left thinking with regard to Koons, as Hyperallergic’s Thomas Micchelli says, “We really don’t need an assist from Koons to accept the unsophisticated joys of childhood.”[24] When Koons tells us to appreciate life as children, in a not-so-thinly-veiled manner, we reply, “tell me something I don’t know.” So then how does he sell a concept that is obvious and overdone? It is partly formidable marketing, but Micchelli astutely digs deeper and concludes, “By greatly upsizing found objects into bronze, steel … thereby establishing, by means of scale, a readily identifiable distinction between the work of art and the thing it’s mimicking … that is both highly materialistic and deeply conservative, relying on orthodox costly mediums to affirm the elevation of his lowborn subject matter into art.”[25] Thus, he is able to appeal to his buyers because he is able to use the finest material, hire hundreds of staff members working around the clock, purchase the most innovative technology, and the cycle funds itself every time a work is sold for six or more figures. The critic wept.

Perl writes, “Everybody can see that Koons is having his way with commercial culture—and with us.”[26] Amidst consumerism, banality, cheap thrills, and minimal expectations, Koons carved his niche. “To evaluate this onslaught can feel hopeless, if not downright absurd, examining a situation so incredible that the very act of judgment calls one’s credibility (and credulity) into question,” continues Perl, dejectedly, “Koons is a high-end purveyor of the literal and the obvious. That makes him the perfect artist for an era where everybody from the couch potatoes to the politicians in Washington will assure you that the promise of something different is better or no more.”[27] This is a terribly pessimistic note to conclude on, and Perl’s exasperation clearly jumps off the page—revealing the crushing weight of the realization that Koons’ popularity is a reflection of the times in which we live. “We live in an art world of excess, hubris, turbocharged markets, overexposed artists, and the eventocracy, where art fairs are the new bilennials,” writes art critic Jerry Saltz.[28] Does Koons owe an apology for profiting—for mastering the times? Well, this is the age old question that capitalism’s victors should look themselves in the mirror and answer, but Koons is not mounting riches off the backs of the exploited, he is not forcing anyone to buy his work, and, given the very wealthy nature of his buyers, his artwork’s hefty costs are not damaging the livelihoods of, frankly, anyone. I suppose the saving grace is that if one does not like Koons’ works they are not forced to engage with them. And, chances are, beyond a glance and a smile, you would not be able to afford making it your own anyway.

[1] Ann Landi, “How Jeff Koons Became a Superstar,” Artnews 1:1 (2007): 1, 1.

[2] Emma Brockes, “Jeff Koons: ‘People respond to banal things – they don’t accept their own history,” The Guardian 1:1 (2015): 1, 1.

[3] Carl Swanson, “Jeff Koons is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol. So What’s the Art World Got Against Him?,” Vulture 1:1 (2013): 1, 1.

[4] Ingrid Sischy, “Jeff Koons is Back!,” Vanity Fair 1:1 (2014): 1, 1.

[5] Ibid, 1.

[6] Ibid, 1.

[7] Peter Schjeldahl, “Funhouse,” The New Yorker 1:1 (2008): 1, 1.

[8] Swanson, “Jeff Koons is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol. So What’s the Art World Got Against Him?,” 1.

[9] Brockes, “Jeff Koons: ‘People respond to banal things – they don’t accept their own history,” 1.

[10] Peter Schjeldahl, “Selling Points,” The New Yorker 1:1 (2014): 1, 1.

[11] Ibid, 1.

[12] Ibid, 1.

[13] Ibid, 1.

[14] Michael Kimmelman, “Art in Review,” The New York Times 1:1 (1991): 1, 1.

[15] Swanson, “Jeff Koons is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol. So What’s the Art World Got Against Him?,” 1.

[16] Ibid, 1.

[17] Jed Perl, “The Cult of Jeff Koons,” The New York Review of Books 1:1 (2014): 1, 1.

[18] Ibid, 1.

[19] Mark Stevens, “The Shock of the Faux,” Vanity Fair 1:1 (1989): 1, 1.

[20] Schjeldahl, “Funhouse,” 1.

[21] Ibid, 1.

[22] Stevens, “The Shock of the Faux,” 1.

[23] Ibid, 1.

[24] Thomas Micchelli, “Have a Nice Day: Jeff Koons and the End of Art,” Hyperallergic 1:1 (2014): 1, 1.

[25] Ibid, 1.

[26] Perl, “The Cult of Jeff Koons,” 1.

[27] Ibid, 1.

[28] Jerry Saltz, “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same? And Taking in Jeff Koons, Creator and Destroyer of Worlds and Post-Macho God: Matisse’s Cut-Outs are World-Historically Gorgeous,” Columbia University Press 1:1 (2015): 345-361, 356.

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