Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Jeff Koons Retrospective At The Whitney: Shiny Reflections But No Self-Reflection

by Drew Martin
This afternoon I went to the Jeff Koons retrospective at The Whitney Museum of American Art. It is a great show to take reflection-selfies in the shiny surfaces of his manufactured sculptures (top), or if you want to see what pornography looks like when it is printed on oversized canvases, and especially if you have a thing for vacuum cleaners.

Snark aside, I have always been impressed by Koons' initial idea to cast inflatable objects; I believe he was the first, and he does this well. I like these pieces the most when the result is a reinvented form as we see in Rabbit (second from top - left), and least when they simply mimic the original, as we see in Lobster 
(second from top - right). Similarly, I think Balloon Dog, which is manufactured to take the form of an oversized inflated and twisted balloon (but does not try to look like a real balloon), is an interesting unintentional evolution to equestrian statues.

Koons is nearly fifteen years my senior, but I feel much closer in age to him, mainly because I also grew up looking to Salvador Dalí as the end-all-to-be-all of living artists at that time. Koons methodically set himself up to be a successful artist but he forgot about the spirit that we both admired.

The juxtapositions and visual narratives of the Surrealists were psychoanalytical experiments, or at least absurdities that had enough bite to create tension. Koons tries to emulate this but lacks the substance and edge. Take his constant lobster reference. It is a nod to Dalí’s lobster phone, and all of his other displays of the creature, typically lodged in the crotch of naked women.

The other great artists for Koons are Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, from whom he learned that the rules of art are what you desire. This is not so much the case with
Dalí because he was, after all, a great painter and was deeply involved with the classically trained manual creation of his work. Koons is comfortable simply managing the process and letting other people get their hands dirty. The problem is that his sculptures are just objects, and his paintings are simply awful. Both are meticulously detailed but neither have an ounce of emotion in them.

I find all of his work, cold, boring, and lifeless. He uses symbols of life and emotions, such as (inflatable) flowers and (stainless steel) hearts, but they are totally divorced from what they are supposed to represent. It is as if his vocabulary is limited to clip art and stock photography, and he never builds up enough creative energy to achieve escape velocity from his superficial visual world.

Koons is a great business man and is committed to his brand, and I admire him for his conviction. I am also totally impressed that after a disastrous end to his first marriage, he rebounded with a devoted second wife and an army of kids. But what I am torn by is that I cannot love his art. It is as if you grow up listening to The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, and a peer of yours is just as into them as you are, and then he goes off and starts Green Day – commercially successful but a shadow of the seminal bands, and you are like “WTF, weren’t you listening?”

The real disappointment is not that I do not like the world of Koons but that his influence on the artworld has disillusioned me from what I think art can do and should be about. Of course meaningful art can still be made but when everyone goes gaga over schlock, values and expectations change. If art has to be scaled up and glossed over to make an impression then this means we are easily deceived. I think a good measurement of 
Dalí’s staying power is his Persistence of Memory (bottom). Take a look at it on the walls of MoMA. It is unbelievably small, and yet it is one of the most famous paintings in the world because Dalí had something to say in it

Koons will never produce a meaningful painting. He is not capable of it, no matter how big and complicated his attempt, or how many assistants he assigns to it. He has organized the production of a lot of shiny and impressive metal sculptures but even those do not go beyond luxury car showroom aesthetics, and everything else is trash.