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?