In a Madrid club in 1986, I watched [Jeff Koons] confront a skeptical critic while smashing himself in the face, repeating, “You don’t get it, man. I’m a fucking genius.” […] I agreed.
— Jerry Saltz, 2014[i]
THE TITLE of “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,” currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art, shifts the weight of three decades of work onto the man himself. It’s not the art so much as the idea of Jeff Koons that gets here both its fullest expression and most public trial to date. The Whitney show and accompanying catalog form yet another episode of a career composed of pushes and pulls, catastrophes and triumphs; Koons is a figure that sometimes appears to recede, sometimes — as now — seems unavoidable. In the past year, Koons mounted concurrent shows at Gagosian and Zwirner in New York, and both New York Magazine and Vanity Fair ran profiles of the artist. The present Whitney exhibition, curated by “preeminent Koons scholar” Scott Rothkopf,[ii] is the most recent culmination of the Koonsian narrative, the latest climax of the artist who most assuredly and most nakedly pursues the fulfillment of a debased American dream.
The Whitney catalog, accordingly — like the exhibition — reinscribes a standard Koons chronology. A series of biographical studs support a narrative as honed, as perfectly obsessed-over, as his sculptures: youth in quaint, white-bread Pennsylvania; emergence in New York with “The New” and “Banality” series as the seminal artist of the 1980s; spectacular downfall, both public and personal, precipitated by the life-art excess of 1990/’91’s pornographic “Made in Heaven”; reinvention and triumph with the instantly iconic mirrored steel balloon dogs et al of “Celebration”; and now, legacy as the ultimate global artist, heir to Warhol if not in personality or philosophy then as business-artist and celebrity, and honored with a blockbuster monographic exhibition — the last show at the Whitney’s landmark uptown building. It’s a compelling mythology, an almost classical five acts — a comedy, of course, since Koons has not died but instead, still virile at 59, poses in the pages of popular magazines, lifting weights naked or standing with his teeming family of eight. The Koons story arc describes a small-town American boy who dreamed big, became not an astronaut but a salesman, but such a damn good salesman that he wound up in a rarefied orbit just the same.
The moral of this story, latent in nearly every piece of Koonsian rhetoric, is that Koons, in his eminent “acceptance” and hyperactive “creativity,” his untroubled embodiment of post-capitalist aesthetics and maneuvering, is beyond criticism. “He says if you’re critical, you’re already out of the game,” offers dealer David Zwirner — an oft-quoted nugget from the New York Magazine piece.[iii] Perhaps this is why, as Thomas Crow puts it in his Artforum preview of the Whitney retrospective, writing on Koons amounts to “a superficial record of critical commentary, with gossip on one side and commodity-fetish myopia on the other.”[iv] Rothkopf begins his catalog essay by retreading some of the more immoderate statements about Koons, then adds, “At the risk of another hyperbolic generalization, I’d wager that no artist of the past thirty years has inspired more mosts. This alone is enough to make Koons worth thinking about.” Koons’s every move is “chronicled with the same ardor and snark once reserved for more run-of-the-mill celebrities.” Indeed, a glance down the catalog’s lengthy bibliography shows, in periodicals post-1986, a disproportion of articles on Koons’s prices. The “real” criticism, the long hard look at a practice that, Rothkopf argues, deserves our careful consideration, is less evident. This may be in part because “the longer the art world defers real criticism, which is neither rejection nor praise,” as critic John Yau wrote in 1993, “the more it can pride itself on being open-minded and understanding.”[v]
What Koons doesn’t have, what he can’t buy, what can only be given in the double-edged sense of the word, is serious critical attention.[vi] The present catalog aims to change that. Following Rothkopf’s own lengthy, career-spanning essay, behind a sequence of over a hundred color plates, are eight studies by highly regarded authors ranging from, in the curator’s words, “scholars and critics of Renaissance and contemporary art to a novelist and a neuroscientist.”[vii] These “scholars and critics” include the likes of current Artforum editor Michelle Kuo and Texte zur Kunst founding editor Isabelle Graw. None are unknowns; the Whitney has engaged writers capable of cladding the empty Koonsian core with dazzling critical thought. Having first reiterated the Koonsian chronology, the catalog offers a possible future — one where Koons’s “broad reverberations within the realm of art and beyond” have been not only chronicled but considered in depth. This structure implies that Koons, Rothkopf, and the Whitney have succeeded in commissioning the one thing the artist has always lacked.
Yet, as the artist koans in nearly every interview he gives, the path to self-acceptance is through accepting others. Only by refusing to judge, says Koons, can you realize your own potential. The notion of “criticism” is antithetical to Koons’s professed ideals: Acceptance of Others, Acceptance of Self. At the same time, an exhibition catalog surely closes the critical distance usually considered necessary for such writing; there can be nothing “critical” here, nothing damning, anyway, beyond the usual shade of controversy that Koons himself cultivates. A deep engagement with Koons seems to involve the suspension of critical faculty; without acceptance, you’re in no position to understand, never mind critique. Yet, paradoxically, if acceptance is a prerequisite for understanding Koons, then perhaps there is no better place from which to critique his work — indeed, from which to speak truth to power — than from within his catalog.
Rothkopf’s piece is a zealous introduction to the Koons we know. While the other eight essays specialize, slipping under some of the larger Koonsian problematics, Rothkopf isn’t afraid to fight. One by one, he brushes away old insults, and fends off the pesky criticisms that hover like flies over any Koons-brand ointment. First: Koons as polarizing figure; this catalog hopes to counter the sense, present even in the early days, that Koons has been ignored by serious critics, lauded or loathed to extremes but rarely considered. Then, “But Is It Art?”: Rothkopf elaborates on Koons and the readymade, distinguishing his take from that of Duchamp and Warhol; he traces Koons’s development of the persona as an integral, value-added part of the work, including Koons’s magazine appearances and ads, the matinee-idol-style publicity surrounding “Made in Heaven,” and Koons’s developed, candidate-like, almost ventriloquized interview presence. Finally: the prices, the privilege, the rich collectors, the ever-more-unpopular income gap of which Koons, riding High and Low, is a ready symbol. Yet Rothkopf polishes each point of contention into a virtue — examples of boundaries expanded and overthrown. With Koons it’s somehow always more, further, best: a brilliant extension of the Duchampian readymade, an honest reinvigoration of kitsch, and a bold transcendence of neoliberal pursuits.
Perhaps Rothkopf’s most Koonsian proposal hones the idea that the cost of Koons’s sculptures is itself part of his work. A Koons is expensive because it has to be; selling it is part of getting it made (as, given his mammoth production budgets, Koons’s profit margins are precariously thin). The constant hustle, Rothkopf argues, the glad-handing and salesmanship, isn’t what Koons wants; but it’s as much a part of his process as technical innovations or detailed craftsmanship or meticulously mixed colors. “At an art fair, at a museum gala, or smiling from within a magazine spread,” writes Rothkopf, “Koons seems at ease not just by dint of his cheery disposition but because such appearances are indispensable to the creation of his art, and therefore central to his practice.” As for the unsavory sources of said funding, Rothkopf compares a Koons to “the dome of Saint Peter’s, which, like Koons’s work, was paid for by the one percent but broadly enjoyed by the remaining ninety-nine.” Isn’t that a fair price to pay for an enduring masterpiece? Rothkopf quotes an anonymous artist who “memorably expressed her admiration as follows: ‘He’s figured out this way to deal with so much bullshit in the world to make exactly what he wants. That’s just really hard to do.’” Rothkopf agrees. “In her eyes, [Koons’s] example is not one of capitulation or collusion with the system but of holding one’s own in the midst of it.”[viii]
When it comes to Koons himself, few people are as fully “in the midst of it” as Rothkopf, whose graduate and doctorate work at Harvard revolved around Koons and the art of the 1980s, who has visited the Koons studio dozens of times, and who continues to see in Koons a “limit case” through which to read the art of nearly every other artist. His thorough essay retraces these limits, outlining Koons’s 35-year career, but without contradicting the artist’s most essential characteristic: his emptiness. Indeed, from his inflatables to his basketballs, his vacuum cleaners and light bulbs to his perfect replica of the Liberty Bell, his stainless steel liquor collectables to his balloon-Venus-of-Willendorf bottle for Dom Pérignon, Koons’s sculptures are consistently hollow. Koons has often suggested what his 2,000-pound balloon dog might mean: it’s anthropomorphic; it breathes; it’s both male and female; it’s a Trojan horse. Pressed as to what this Trojan horse might contain, Koons replies, it’s full of “information.”[ix] What kind, he doesn’t specify. We’re presented with the Koonsian notion that everything has been made plain, yet the info gap persists.
It is precisely this “information” that each of the eight writers offers — a circumscribed thesis, in each case, taking on one specific phase or aspect of Koons’s career. Huddled inside the chromed perimeter of Koonsdom, each purports to give Koons and company the “real” criticism they’re paying for. This supplementary Koons reader, as Rothkopf and the Whitney suggest, attempts to bring new depth to the superficial body of Koons scholarship. Some authors nonetheless end up providing academically inflected versions of Rothkopf’s PR, only adding to the sheen of the already immaculate Trojan balloon. This is certainly the case in pieces that shill for Koons outright, evincing some personal investment in his work, and for those writers that seem professionally oblivious or immune to the consequences of supporting such a contentious artist. Of course, each writer might have succeeded in giving Koons the criticism he deserves, and it’s the tantalizing possibility of a sneak attack, launched from within, that is both the most Koonsian — the most frankly opportunistic — and potentially the most disruptive. Say what you will, argues Rothkopf; Koons has figured out how to use the system to get exactly what he wants. In the same way, each of these authors might have used the system of academic criticism to withhold, or to otherwise poison, their expected production. Skepticism in this case is easy; acceptance is hard; but with Koons, acceptance is the path to true rejection.
The essays begin with a piece by Jeffrey Deitch, who — like Rothkopf — makes no secret of his personal investment in Koons. Deitch helped finance the “Celebration” series, is his sometimes dealer, and even feted Koons at his gallery, Deitch Projects, on the artist’s 50th birthday.[x] Not surprisingly, Deitch’s essay, “York to New York,” is an unambiguous elaboration of a key piece of the Koons myth: his youth in York, Pennsylvania. The essay frames Koons’s entire career as the refinement of infantile obsessions into adult fascinations. A baby’s oral exploration of every object in sight becomes Koonsian acceptance. “He claims even to remember being in his crib,” writes Deitch. The vacuum sculptures of “The New” can be read as sexualized childhood memories — stockinged legs, sucking, heavy breathing. The mirrored surfaces of “Celebration,” Rabbit, etc., Koons freely admits, are designed to give a certain Lacanian pleasure. Born in 1955, the artist is now in his late 50s. Yet Koons still trades in black-and-white ’50s America. Indeed, like the catalog itself, Deitch’s essay loops its way back to the beginning, emphasizing (as has so much recent press, as do the artist’s wall labels) that Koons splits his time between New York, New York, and his grandfather’s farm in York, which he bought around 2010. There, Koons is “re-creating the images that resonate in his memory. His rebuilding of the farm is like a Gesamtkunstwerk,” writes Deitch, “an immersive aesthetic experience. He is re-experiencing his early artistic influences through his own children.” For Deitch, “the optimistic period of Koons’s youth and America’s ascendance” coincide perfectly. It’s no accident that this rhetoric is built with the same metaphors, the same fantasies of self-made salesmen, fathers’ shops, and close-knit families, as the Reaganite America of the ’80s — the era in which Koons so successfully marketed his own childlike fixations.
On the other side of Deitch’s nostalgia, yet also emphasizing another Koons chronology in miniature, is Michelle Kuo’s “One of a Kind,” the eighth and last entry, which leads us through the almost amoral progress of Koons’s high-tech methods. “We have seen the future,” Kuo opens, “and it is Jeff Koons.” Here too, the essay describes a narrative of constant, uncompromising refinement. “His reality is enhanced,” she writes. The famous vacuums of “The New” didn’t come straight from the showroom, Kuo points out, but were tweaked, adjusted; Koons even redesigned the filters. “From very early on, Koons was already amending the readymade, if ever so slightly — as if to fine-tune it, to make it somehow more readymade, more perfect.” But redesigning vacuum filters was just the beginning. Koons’s exacting fabrication processes often exceed the standards of the military and medical applications for which they were developed. Kuo describes the artist’s early adoption of “structured-light” scanning; then, when this proved unable to image details like the inside of a toy cannon’s bore or the tulle of a ballerina’s dress, Koons moved to “an even more sophisticated and specialized mode of 3-D scanning: the computed tomography (CT) scan.” Kuo notes that most large corporations can’t afford to use this method with the same precision as Koons. Today, his studio is on the cutting edge of digital modeling, exploring the possibilities of voxels, or volumetric pixels.
Kuo’s explanation returns a sense of material reality to art designed to seem perfectly unreal, grounding Koons’s sculptures in a technological genesis while demystifying the specific mechanisms at work. Kuo takes as objective a position as possible within this monographic structure, barely mentioning the art or its meaning — beyond the usual implication, reinforced elsewhere in the catalog, that Koons’s work is characterized by a perfectionism that only the newest machines can satisfy. Process becomes a parallel narrative of hardship and triumph, one detached from the problematics of Koons’s oeuvre. The technology itself, of course, is just a tool, an amoral “sequence.” It’s as if the necessity of armament is self-evident, and only the specifics — the quantity and reach of ICBMs, for instance — that can impress or distress. Their actual use prompts moral and political questions; but such questions, Kuo implies, are not for technicians to answer.
For that, we turn to an artist — or at least a novelist with art-world ties: Rachel Kushner. The title of her essay, “Happy Hour, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Message,” references Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 parody of 1950s Cold War patriotism, while echoing the slapstick inevitability of the fact of Koons. Kushner proposes to unpack the hidden sexual messages in Koons’s “Luxury and Degradation” series. “Nothing of Luxury and Degradation fits with the sugar-frosted world of Jeff Koons,” she writes. “The pieces are mysterious and ambivalent.” In particular, Kushner refers to a series of liquor advertisements that Koons reproduced using the original plates. In one Hennessy ad, for example, a woman brings two glasses of cognac to her partner, who is hunched over a book at his desk. The copy states, “The civilized way to lay down the law.” Citing the ploys revealed by Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders and Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction: Are You Being Sexually Aroused by This Picture?, Kushner suggests the ad plays on a subtext of controlling and “laying” your woman. Perhaps, and yet the ad seems directed at women as well, who might “persuade” their man to give up on his “law book” for the night. Regardless: subliminal, it is not; we hardly need reminding that, in each of these ads, liquor leads to sex. Kushner performs close readings of spreads that Koons chose for the unsheathed “purity” of their intentions. Her discussion of advertising and appropriation provides a welcome shot of pop, but dissatisfying insight. In fact Deitch has already summed it up, in the course of his essay on Koons’s childhood: “When asked about the sexuality that permeates his work, Koons responds, ‘That’s what life is all about.’” Kushner is more astute when, elsewhere in the piece, she places Koons on the “star map of appropriation”: “While [Richard] Prince is emphasizing the power of the myth and [Cady] Noland is draining myth to its dregs, Koons is replicating the myth itself, in all its empty formality.” Indeed, if you are “being sexually aroused by this picture,” it is with total Koonsian openness and honesty.
Still — the question remains; how far do we trust Koons? His public speech appears calculated. He repeats himself in interviews, darting from talking point to talking point. As critic Isabelle Graw points out in her essay, “Life as a Resource,” in the 1980s Koons already laced his speech with “terms like ‘self-confidence,’ ‘safety,’ acceptance,’ or ‘trust.’” This persona begins to morph into a product, while the artist’s products reflect his glowing persona. Compellingly, Graw places Koons in a lineage of (mostly German, mostly male) artists: Beuys, Kippenberger, Polke, Koether — for whom public appearance was both provocation and raison d’être. In the United States, Graw writes, “the idea that an artist might plan his career strategically and signal his approval of existing social conditions, as Koons did, was much frowned upon.” Yet his critical reception in Cologne was positive from the beginning, even before his work made its local debut in 1986. For Graw, the Koons persona is, if not trustworthy, then certainly about trust; collectors and curators must believe in an artwork, in an artist, for it to become a viable investment. “The genesis of such confidence, however, does not depend solely on the product,” she writes. “The artist’s persona must appear to be credible as well.” Sincerity as such is less important, less powerful, than appearance, image, self-evidence.
Koons’s persona is so potent, in fact, that it consumes the catalog’s only sustained look at labor — a discussion that, given the neoliberal scope of the Koons studio, remains conspicuously lacking in this critical mini-corpus. Graw is one of three of the volume’s nine authors to mention Marx by name, and the only one to undertake an extended Marxist reading of Koons’s work. (She is also the only one to use the verb “exploit” with a human object — referring to the possibility that, for “Made in Heaven,” Koons exploited not products, not a situation, but his then-wife.) Perhaps this type of analysis falls too squarely, for the catalog’s overseers, into the category of reactionary anti-Koonsmanship. Or perhaps a vehement market-based critique of Koons seems like old news. Graw’s approach, though, is different — more generous, and more instructive. Koons’s sculptures, which evince no trace of handiwork (the result of a huge number of work-hours spent effacing all traces of human labor), are the very definition of the commodity fetish — indeed, beam this fact. Yet, “to put it bluntly, there is no value without the suggestion of aliveness.” This suggestion arrives via the sculptures’ shininess; the anthropomorphism of their voids and skins; and, crucially, through Koons himself, whose persona animates his lifeless, touchless art. “Maybe,” she writes, “there is only one way out: a higher awareness of the specific nexus between product and person in our new economy.” It does seem promising that, as Graw concludes, “once this tension is acknowledged, it can be negotiated.” Her reading nonetheless deflects attention from one Koonsian problematic in order to defend another; a discussion of labor relations serves as a prop for Koons’s personality. In the end, even the dismal science is an indifferent tool.
Indeed, curator Achim Hochdörfer rereads Koons’s gleeful exploitation of the market as evidence of Marx’s obsolescence. For Hochdörfer the Koonsian post-critical position is a logical next step after the poststructuralism of the 1970s and ’80s. He cites Jacques Derrida’s notion of the gift: that gifts come with a catch, because they require reciprocity. “Gift” in English means “present”; in German, Derrida notes, the same word means “poison.” The philosopher takes up a story by Charles Baudelaire, in which a man gives a beggar a counterfeit coin, and all art, Hochdörfer suggests, is like that coin: if we question its veracity, it ceases to be art, and becomes something that could get us arrested. Safer, then, to arrive at Kushner’s conclusion (but this time, without irony), and learn to love Koons’s message.
Hochdörfer faults Douglas Crimp and other critics of the Left for adopting Derrida but “[shying] away from this radical corollary of their arguments.” To his mind, these theorists stop short of the “nullification of the faculty of critical judgment” and instead reflexively, defensively dilute poststructuralist insight with “elements of a traditional critique of ideology, ultimately derived from Marx.” According to Hochdörfer, the double-edged idea of the gift should underscore the absolute simplicity, and necessity, of the culture industry. Anything else, he argues, is an attempt to “square the circle.” Once traditional modernist oppositions are broken down by poststructural theory, says Hochdörfer, critical distance collapses into a kind of ultimate complicity with the object of critique — in this case, art. ‘“Criticality gone,’ as Koons once pointedly remarked.” It is precisely the gift-like aspect of Koons’s work — its shininess, newness, paradoxical (dare we say dialectical) elements of surprise and cliché — that brings us to this closeness, that “presents” and “poisons” at the same time. In Koons, slipperiness is virtue; the moment we slide into this kind of semantic ambivalence, couched in the rhetoric of absolute self-evidence, we are indeed beyond the reach of traditional criticism.
But Hochdörfer ignores some crucial tenets of poststructuralist thought himself when he makes universal claims for the power of Koons’s art: he writes, for example, that in viewing Koons’s “Celebration,” “even the social differences among viewers” might be “suspended for an instant.” Elsewhere he states that Koons’s sculptures possess the power “to elude simple rationalization and speak to us directly, regardless of our background.” And yet the gift comes from somewhere, the gift has a price, and while some may feel a certain vertiginous thrill in accepting the Koonsian bargain at face value, others can, and do, reject this gift.
In the following two essays, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and Renaissance scholar Alexander Nagel perform as expert witnesses at the trial of Koons. Both are qualified — Damasio oversees the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, and Nagel has published a half-dozen books of art theory and history — but although Nagel has written for Artforum, neither of them traffics in quite the same contemporary art world as the other contributors; thus we might see them as objective, tackling questions of history and aesthetics writ large, without any personal stake in Koons’s career. Damasio’s insights into the possible benefits of shiny surfaces, for example, are worth quoting at length, as he appears to work from the oversized frame of our evolutionary history:
The big hearts, the balloon dogs and bunnies, are […] of interest because of the biological meaning of shining surfaces. […] Living beings gravitate toward shiny surfaces and move away from dull ones. The preference was set biologically, long ago in evolutionary history. It emerges in the human mind and in action thanks to the brain’s design. We perceive certain patterns in the environment and respond with systematically adaptive emotions and feelings that ultimately increase our chances of survival. We take pleasure in shiny surfaces. A comparable evolutionary device is at play when living beings gravitate to a green landscape near a body of water and away from barren, dry land. One possibility is that shiny, sparkling, animated surfaces — in the eyes of another, for example — are a sign of life and health, just as dull surfaces can signal disease and even death.
Although his essay may have something to say about the nature of creative activity, it adds little to our thinking about Koons; in fact, this passage echoes Koons’s own (albeit more succinctly phrased) ideas about his balloon dogs. Nagel’s essay is more specific, suggesting parallels between the “Christian cult of relics” and Koons’s “Banality” works. “Jeff Koons consecrates not just living beings,” he writes, “but also ordinary things.” And indeed, it is this meticulous consecration, in both cases, that has allowed both ancient bits of wood and Koons’s grandmother’s porcelain tchotchkes to survive for generations. Taken for granted, though, is the veracity of Christian relics; again, as with any gift — especially those that require outright worship — questioning the truth of what’s inside will get you in trouble. Nagel’s final two paragraphs recount the arc from his experience of “Banality” in 1988 — “The work made me a little sick,” writes Nagel, “even as I felt an almost irresistible invitation to submit to it” — to his eventual acceptance of Koons: “It was also clear that everything was here; I didn’t have to do anything other than accept it. […] Nothing about it was lying.” Nagel ends a devotee, if a “queasy” one.
The most openly distrustful of Koons is art historian Pamela M. Lee, who, in her essay “Love and Basketball,” closes in on the pivotal moment in the Koonsian chronology — the dawn of the downfall — the opening day of “Made in Heaven.” Lee uses this juncture to reify a neoliberal shift: the move from “Equilibrium” to the a-critical, creepy power of “Heaven.” “Purity,” Lee writes, “is an amoral condition,” and Koons’s “guileless self-promotion” represents the purest form of self-promoters like Julian Schnabel. The basketballs don’t judge, and neither do true loves, even if critics do. Yet, more than any of the other authors, this seems to make Lee pensive, even sad — not ecstatic or combative or neutral — and here, Lee strikes a remarkably subversive tone.
In 1991, Lee was a member of “a not-quite lumpen society of art handlers, studio assistants, archivists, and desk girls”; she and her fellow Metro Pictures employees were given the morning off to see “Made in Heaven” at Sonnabend before it opened. The show “registered something” for Lee, “not only about the increasingly itinerant flights of the art world but also the conflicted fortunes of art criticism as well.” “Made in Heaven” is not literally beyond criticism, but it coincided with a cultural shift away from Greenbergian pronouncements toward Baudrillard’s then-fashionable “ecstasy of communication.” Koons was savvy enough to design his art and his rhetoric tocapitalize on, even perpetuate, this shift; his move from the Lower East Side to SoHo signaled “what others have come to lament as art’s ‘post-critical’ condition.” Indeed, Lee’s account is a coming-of-age story — not Koons’s, her own — that of a critic and historian discovering art after Koons. In the world Lee enters, and that we inhabit, art itself is seemingly an amoral condition.
After eight essays’ worth of critical thought, we seem to arrive where we began: with the idea that Koons’s art transcends criticism. Each essay, in its way, expounds upon a particular aspect of Koons’s work: Deitch recalls Koons’s All-American childhood; Lee marks Koons’s, and our, moment of strife; Kushner reminds us it’s all about sex; Graw foregrounds the Koons persona-as-art; Hochdörfer leverages Koons’s generosity as an argument against objective criticism; Damasio supports the notion of the creative individual with generic biology; Nagel reflects on the banal spirituality of Koons’s sculptures; and Kuo raises the artist’s technical achievements to the level of fetish. Koons himself has touched upon all eight of these topics — although with nowhere near the depth provided here. In all, this discourse skirts around the monolithic quality of Koons: his money, his fame, his talent; and the source of his money, the nature of his fame, the evidence of his talent. Koons’s post-critical mystique is a deflection, after all — and an excuse for those who would critique to write Koons off as a designer of four-story topiaries, yachts, and BMWs, but not an artist. Surely someone with Koons’s reach and resources, if he’d truly wanted it, could have found an articulate, thoughtful critic willing to tackle the thornier problematics of his work — without turning them into selling points. Surely Koons, Rothkopf, and the Whitney could have hired someone willing to speak truth to power.
Jeff Koons is an artist, and he is not going away. We will need to contend with, if not Koons himself, then with the post-critical, neoliberal condition he supports. After all, neoliberalism is not just economics, but a philosophy — an organizing principle that divides society into those buying the balloon dogs and those polishing them. Now well into the afternoon of his career, Koons has turned to reproducing classical Greek marbles in plaster. We too might recuperate a Greek concept — that of parrhesia — the notion of speaking fully and with courage — of speaking truth to power. Michel Foucault develops this idea in his late work, advancing the possibility of a disruptive speech-act where power has otherwise limited your agency. More recently, critic and artist John Kelsey pegs the trend in endlessly sponsored, polite, and thus impotent “art discourse” in his essay “Escape from Discussion Island,” which begins with the sentence: “When the discursive situation is called Art Basel Conversations, and sponsored by Bulgari, parrhesia is most likely neutralized in advance.”[xi] Parrhesia always involves risk; someone must be told something they don’t want to hear. In the art world, we risk offending a colleague, insulting our hosts, damaging our professional relationships and career prospects. Yet this risk is an absolute condition of real critique. What better place to start than from within a Jeff Koons monograph? “What people want to do the most in life is what they avoid the most.” Jeff Koons said that.[xii]
“For the last three decades,” writes Whitney director Adam D. Weinberg in the catalog’s foreword, “Jeff Koons’s work has been so omnipresent that it is now hard to imagine a pre-Koonsian age.”[xiii] Hard, but not impossible. Pamela M. Lee, at least, can remember such a time. More importantly, Lee’s essay shows us the possibility of art after Koons. Her melancholy, funereal account in effect retracts her total acceptance, returning Koons to a critical orbit. Without getting hung up on a prelapsarian fantasy of our own — when galleries were small and scrappy, artists weren’t ashamed to read books, and Jeff Koons was just another sideburned kid from the sticks — we too might exercise Koonsian acceptance — and from this understanding, find an understanding after acceptance. If no one author here completely accomplishes a killing blow to the post-critical regime (but what would that look like?), then we detect in a few — Graw, Lee, Kuo — moments of abdication: refusal to write to Koons’s specifications, instead writing to their own. Arcing between these essays’ lacunae, a fuller picture of Koons does in fact emerge — one in which we might see a more nuanced reflection of the current state of contemporary art, and contemporary malaise. If Jeff Koons symbolizes our era, we deserve a better era — and that is the truth.
[i] Jerry Saltz, “Taking in Jeff Koons, Creator and Destroyer of Worlds,” New York Magazine, June 25, 2014 <http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/jeff-koons-creator-and-destroyer-of-worlds.html>.
[ii] Thomas Crow, “Previews: ‘Jeff Koons: A Retrospective,’” Artforum vol. 52 no. 9, May 2014 (New York), 183.
[iii] Carl Swanson, “Jeff Koons Is the Most Successful American Artist Since Warhol. So What’s the Art World Got Against Him?” New York Magazine, May 13, 2013, accessed August 18, 2014 <http://www.vulture.com/2013/05/age-of-jeff-koons.html>.
[iv] Crow, “Previews: ‘Jeff Koons: A Retrospective.’”
[v] John Yau, “The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine,” The Brooklyn Rail, February 2, 2010 <http://brooklynrail.org/2010/02/artseen/railing-opinion-FEBRUARY-10>.
[vi] Nor can you buy good taste. Taking aim at Los Angeles–based Koons collector Eli Broad, artist Rasmus Røhling argues that while top-tier collecting-cum-philanthropy is in many ways beyond the reach of critics, the collector nonetheless still lacks an appreciable understanding of the art he owns. Røhling echoes Allan Sekula’s letter to Bill Gates, which similarly counters the artist’s relative impotence with conceptual dexterity. Rasmus Røhling, “The Physical Impossibility of The Broad in the Mind of Someone Living,” Prism of Reality, Issue Number 3, Winter 2013 (Los Angeles), 127-130.
[vii] Scott Rothkopf, “No Limits,” Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (New York: Whitney, 2014), 16.
[viii] Rothkopf, 32.
[ix] Of Koons’s balloon dog, Stephen Colbert asked if there are “Greek guys in there.” Koons responded, “You can feel that there’s information inside. There’s a certain darkness or depth there.” The Colbert Report, episode 08130, aired July 31, 2012 <http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/p9ejfs/jeff-koons>.
[x] Kelly Devine Thomas, “The Selling of Jeff Koons,” ARTnews, May 1, 2005 <http://www.artnews.com/2005/05/01/the-selling-of-jeff-koons/>.
[xi] John Kelsey, “Escape from Discussion Island,” in Rich Texts, ed. Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw (Berlin: Sternberg, 2010), 87.
[xii] Jeff Koons, “Short: Jeff Koons: Potential,” art21.org, 2009 <http://www.art21.org/videos/short-jeff-koons-potential>.
[xiii]Adam D. Weinberg, “Foreword,” Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, 7.
Travis Diehl lives in Los Angeles and edits the artist-run arts journal Prism of Reality.