Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Top dog again

Childlike glee meets pneumatic sex: Balloon Dog (Yellow), by Jeff Koons

A recent visit to New York brought me to "Jeff Koons on the Roof" at the Met, which I thought was worth a brief comment, as at the very least the show marks the official return of this narcissistic prodigal son to the embrace of the art establishment.

In the early 90s, of course, Koons had famously fallen from grace with a series of images called Made in Heaven, which featured himself and his then-wife, former porn actress Ilona Staller, in actual coitus (one of the milder images, Fingers Between Legs, is at left). At that point collectors collectively took a step back from the wunderkind's blunder, even though Made in Heaven was a logical development of his "work" (that word is in quotes because Koons, like many current artists, never fabricates his own pieces). Humiliated (maybe), Koons seemed to wander for a while in the wilderness - but Staller was soon history, of course, and he began to work his way back into the public consciousness with the creepy/cute Puppy (a gigantic tschochke made of flowers) and his "balloon" sculptures (one of the best of which is the centerpiece of the Met show).

Of course it's far too late to "do" anything about Koons; he's part of officially accepted art now, so we have to make the best of him. And there's a case to be made for him as the avatar of the Warhol-derived "school" of American art (Minimalism, which was in many ways a reaction to Warhol, is probably the other major American "school"). There's even by now a catalogue of pretty-good works - the basketballs floating in aquaria (Equilibrium), and Puppy, and maybe even the early vacuum cleaners. Perhaps not a cornucopia of achievement, it's true - but hey, Richard Serra had to get to the end of his career before he came up with anything really good.

And there's definitely an amusingly perverse vibe to the balloon sculptures, which are assemblages of shiny, streamlined phalli/breasts (Balloon Dog (Yellow) also sports on its knotted nose a crisply puckered anus). Here childlike delight meets pneumatic sexuality: this time the porn is just under the surface, which is glistening, supersweet, and faintly disgusting - classic Koons, and, I suppose, a kind of "comment" on pop culture (if it required such an obvious comment). Sacred Heart (Red/Gold), at left, is even more bewitching, perhaps because it's so impeccably fabricated (by someone else). Indeed, stainless steel never seemed so taut, or crinkled so alluringly. The piece's reference to Catholic theology (and the "Sacred Heart" of Jesus), however, struck me as something of an overreach; not because the Sacred Heart of Jesus isn't an erotic object, but because its eroticism is charged with deeper, darker currents than I think Jeff Koons can encompass. I mean how fertile a field, in the end, is Banality (another Koons series), especially given that he's tilled it for some thirty years, and has maybe twenty more to go? That's a whole lotta balloons. I wonder what Ilona's up to?


  1. Stuff like this sometimes makes me embarrassed that I paint.

    I mean, there's nothing *wrong* with it, in its Cooler-Than-Thou way it achieves its intention ...which is more than I can say for my own work.

    Perhaps the problem is, that it just all reminds me of a view of creating that's two decades old or more -- and, while perhaps the art world still feels this way, it's as if the rest of the world has moved on.

    Some good art comments on fads rather than culture (Daumier's drawings, for example). And we've come to equate the two, which may be one of the problems Koons is supposed to 'address,' but it's not enough anymore --at least not to me.

  2. You would have felt in even more of a funk if, like me, you had then gone downstairs to view the stunning Turner survey on the first floor (which closes, I think, this weekend). It's hard, very hard, not to feel that something has gone very, very wrong with the art world when you encounter an old master like Turner, who is hardly working through a marketable theory but is, instead, both positing a fiercely original lyricism while almost trying to punch through the canvas with a personal primal mystery. Leaving Turner, you simply feel more alive; leaving Koons, you feel titillated, smug and knowing - rather a raw deal, if you ask me. What's more depressing is that it's hard to think of anyone in something like the last forty years who has reached anything like the plateau that was home to Turner, or Watteau, or Chardin (never mind the Parnassian heights that boasted Vermeer, Titian, Rembrandt, etc.). And that length of time without a major new force or figure is unprecedented, I think. I know, you can make good cases for Freud, or Marsden, or Richter, or if you want, Serra or even Anish Kapoor, etc., etc. - there's still lots of talent and brains around; we live in an age of interesting minor figures. But somehow none of them really make you feel more deeply alive. Perhaps Western visual culture has indeed reached a kind of impasse.