Everyone (99.9% of whom have never heard of me) knows that I am in no legitimate position to criticize Jeff Koons. He is a world-famous artist, singularly successful, with a broad imagination and remarkable productivity.
And yet, more than any other artist I can think of, he is held in contempt by much of the art world. We all know that he doesn’t make his own art. He has 50 or 60 or 200 Oompa-Loompas who fabricate his work, notably matching his numbered colors and polishing his shiny colored steel (not a double entendre).
Currently he is represented by all of the galleries in Chelsea. Or at least it appeared that way to me as I headed west today to see his new work in two David Zwirner spaces (http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibition/gazing-ball/), and his old work at Gagosian (http://www.gagosian.com/artists/jeff-koons).
Maybe it was just my perversity, but I was determined to like it. And yet it wasn’t that simple. Koons pretends that his work is easy. That it is meant to reflect (pun intended) our current society and perhaps bring pleasure to the viewer. That there is no subtext. In this he is the rightful heir to Andy Warhol, inventor of the artist’s factory.
Part of what is confounding about Koons’s work is his complete transformation of his materials. Or perhaps I should say, the way that what we assume we are looking at is never what we’re looking at. The enormous balloon animals (Gagosian) look just like mylar but are powder-brushed steel. And their incredibly smooth shapes were not achieved by a clown twisting hot-dog-shaped balloons, but were deliberately designed. By Koons. The hot-pink nude woman who serves as the centerpiece of the exhibition is absolutely delicious. Had she been made in clay or concrete or wood, we would all be admiring the cartoon twist brought to the reality of obesity. Or maybe we would refer to fertility goddesses, or just admire the perfect balance of buttocks and belly with the ridiculous hairstyle she sports.
In the Zwirner show of new works, the star is the blue blown-glass garden ornament (which Koons refers to as a gazing ball) which appears as part of each otherwise all white oversized sculpture. There are statues of Greek and Roman Gods, each with a gazing ball. There is a snowman, who should be made of plaster like the other pieces, but instead is a fabric sculpture (with a gazing ball). And a true kitsch masterpiece of a young boy (with a gazing ball). Is he saying that we have managed to reduce all of Greek and Roman culture to garden gnomes? No. He is saying that in seeing our reflections in the blue balls (double entendre? I’m starting to wonder) we stop to consider our own beings. Or something like that. It was in the press release.
Is he making fun of us because we take this art seriously? or because we don’t? When the Incredible Hulk blow-up doll is actually a solid carving that weighs a ton, he has fooled us with his materials again. I think it’s possible that he believes his work is serious, but he doesn’t believe that we know it. So maybe he’s disdainful of us and how we can’t get past the deceptive and beautiful surfaces he creates.
One of his biggest balloon pieces at Gagosian is a turquoise penis with blue balls (intentional double entendre, no doubt). From behind it looks like the kind of twisted balloon swan that small children wear on their heads. That is disturbing in concept but beautiful in the gallery. There was a time in the past when he made pornography with his porn-star wife. It was deeply personal art which he destroyed when the marriage fell apart and he lost custody of his son. I don’t think we’ll see him delve below the surface like that again. But what he does with his surfaces is mesmerizing and confounding.
Some people don’t like Jeff Koons because they think he thinks he’s smarter than we are. I’m beginning to think he might be.