JULY 2, 2017
THROUGHOUT THEIR DECADES-LONG careers, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have by turns been hailed as the most important and influential artists of their time, blamed for debasing the sanctity of art, credited with democratizing the esoteric art world, and savaged for contributing to the vulgarities of the market. The quintessential neo-Pop provocateurs of the ’80s and ’90s, Koons and Hirst have both suffered reputational declines in recent years. Today, Koons is widely considered an artist past his prime, making oversized and overpriced curios for the super-rich. Hirst has experienced an even more ignominious fall, having come to represent the worst of the market profligacy of the aughts.
This spring, both artists have made splashy comebacks, with Koons launching “Masters,” a collaboration with Louis Vuitton, and Hirst unveiling his first major show of new work in 10 years. In Los Angeles, Koons was feted at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual gala and opened an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills (on view through August 18) — but gained more widespread attention a block away on Rodeo Drive, where his Louis Vuitton collection is prominently displayed. Koons’s 51-piece line, a project spearheaded by the daughter of Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH and a long-time Koons collector, is an homage to the Old Masters, featuring handbags printed with reproductions of iconic paintings by da Vinci, Fragonard, Rubens, Titian, and Van Gogh and overlaid with the respective artist’s name — e.g., “DA VINCI” — in bling-y metallic lettering.
Meanwhile, in Venice, Hirst’s show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, occupies 54,000 square feet across Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, two venues owned by François Pinault, another French luxury magnate. The exhibition purports to comprise 189 objects recovered from an ancient shipwreck, some bearing the patina of age, others coral and barnacle encrusted. The treasures, so the story goes, once belonged to Cif Amotan II, a wealthy freed slave from northwest Turkey who lived around the mid-first and early second centuries AD (and whose name is an anagram for “I am fiction”). They were loaded onto the Apistos — which translates from Koine Greek as “the Unbelievable” — a colossal ship that foundered in the Indian Ocean and remained undisturbed at the bottom of the sea until 2008, when the site of the shipwreck was “discovered.” Hirst’s exhibition features photographs and film of the supposed salvage operation, showing divers encountering the works in vibrant blue-green waters amid shimmery schools of fish. Among the exquisitely crafted (if aggressively tacky) objects are sculptures of a Rihanna-lookalike Nefertiti; a Pharrell-esque pharaoh; Kate Moss as the Egyptian goddess Hathor, rendered in gold, silver, and turquoise; and even the artist himself. A 60-foot statue based on William Blake’s painting The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819–’20) fills all three floors of Palazzo Grassi’s atrium.
While Hirst and Koons intend to provoke with their gaudy new work, the most shocking aspect of these two projects is how dated they feel. Resembling the kind of kitschy souvenir bags sold on the tourist-choked streets of Venice, the Koons/Vuitton collection has been deemed “garish,” “trashy,” and “cheap.” Hirst’s show has drawn even more vitriol, with some critics declaring it “disastrous” and a “spectacular failure.” Both eschew the dominant tropes in contemporary art — i.e., neo-minimalism in neutral tones with pops of neon color, or shiny, reflective surfaces — for grandiose pastiche. Both are more evocative of ’80s postmodernism than the kind of “tasteful” contemporary art that can be found in a Céline boutique, an influencer’s Instagram feed, or at the Venice Biennale.
Today’s most acclaimed and successful artists, such as Mark Bradford, Carol Bove, Rashid Johnson, and Sterling Ruby, evince impeccable taste through spare compositions and assemblages that draw on the language of minimalism, often in dialogue with aesthetics from fashion, architecture, and design. In contrast, Hirst’s and Koons’s projects are characterized by overwrought conceits, aesthetic excess, and a kind of deliberate, even defiant, tackiness.
Consider some of the artworks currently on view at the 57th Venice Biennale, the Olympics of contemporary art — events are held every two years and organized by nationality — which runs through November 26. Bradford represents the United States with large-scale, heavily layered mixed media works embedded with social commentary. The abraded, textured surfaces of Bradford’s abstract paintings and biomorphic sculptural installations speak to the history of violence against black queer bodies, though the aesthetic effect achieved is of elegant compositions of color enveloping the US Pavilion’s Palladian architecture. At the Swiss Pavilion, Bove’s sculptures require juxtaposition to achieve their full effect; a glossy white tubular glyph is placed next to an assemblage of weathered, rusty found steel and bright yellow fabricated steel to create a dynamic and photogenic display. The installation opens out onto a courtyard where vibrant blue column sculptures made of crushed, torqued I-Beams and cylindrical tubes stand in formation.
Elsewhere, works ranging from Charles Atlas’s video wall of coordinated sunsets to Rasheed Araeen’s brightly hued open cubes to Alicja Kwade’s installation of mirrors, stones, wood, and bronze, derive meaning from the selection and placement of images and objects while deploying minimalist strategies like the frame and the grid to denote a restrained tastefulness.
A vaporetto ride away, Hirst’s privately organized exhibition is opulent and wasteful, pompous and playful. Most of all, it is a stupefying spectacle of managerial prowess and economic might, with more than 1,000 suppliers and 250 craftsmen from across the world enlisted to realize Hirst’s vision. Koons, too, is known for his industrial-scale approach to art-making, employing some 120 studio assistants. For the Louis Vuitton collaboration, the brand’s signature PVC-coated canvas was reportedly printed up to 60 times to faithfully render the paintings’ details, from brushwork to craquelure. “When I spend so much time and effort on the surface of a sculpture or the refinement of a painting, it’s because I’m trying to communicate to the viewer that I care about them, and that everything, all communication, is based on trust,” Koons says. “The care Louis Vuitton takes over craftsmanship says exactly the same.” The equation of the two brands is evident in the “JK” logo that cheekily adorns the line’s handbags, which is of equal size and placement to Louis Vuitton’s “LV.” In addition, Koons has applied his handwritten signature, suggesting a mar of authorship and authenticity, and calling into question which brand — Jeff Koons? Louis Vuitton? Leonardo da Vinci? — is adding value to which.
In both projects, the artists’ earnestness, coupled with the overwhelming scale of their efforts, make them decidedly uncool. Despite the silly premise and Hollywood-prop-closet aesthetics, Hirst is adamantly committed to his show’s conceit: the lengthy exhibition guide provides background and historical context for individual works in convincing museum-speak. Koons uses his Louis Vuitton line as a platform to assiduously promote the Old Masters, including brief CliffsNotes-esque exegeses on the artists’ careers stamped on the insides of the bags, despite the fact that the public increasingly prefers contemporary art.
The deadening extravagance is surprising, given the uncanny feel for the zeitgeist the artists have demonstrated throughout their careers. By consistently pushing against the boundaries of art and commerce, Hirst and Koons managed to walk a tightrope between complicity with and critique of the market, gaining begrudging respect as incisive commentators of consumerism. Koons has always mined mass culture, from Hoover vacuums to porn, manipulating scale and material to imbue the works with a familiar yet foreign tension and an eerie, seductive quality. Hirst’s best work, like the famous animals suspended in formaldehyde, betrayed a dark, mordant wit that made the work simultaneously compelling and repulsive. Hirst and Koons also maintained just enough critical distance for their work to convey ambiguity, neither overly earnest nor cynical.
Indeed, outside of the art world, neo-Pop’s upcycling of banal visual motifs from consumer culture continues to resonate. In fashion, Demna Gvasalia, helming Balenciaga and its ur-cool line Vetements — and perhaps the most influential designer of the moment — collaborates with brands like DHL, Champion, and Hanes. Delivered with an insouciant attitude, Gvasalia excels in luxe normcore, like the $2,000-plus blue leather carryall modeled after the 99-cent nylon Ikea Frakta tote. Low-to-high appropriation is also the modus operandi of Jeremy Scott, who brought his brand of tongue-in-cheek kitsch punk to Moschino with great success, evident in his mash-up of McDonald’s branding and Chanel tweed suit style. Irony is the essential ingredient here — which is why Balenciaga’s take on an Ikea bag is chic, whereas Koons’s blinged-out museum totes are not.
Though it has clear precedents in their earlier work, the baroque maximalism of Hirst’s and Koons’s latest projects represents a departure for both artists, who are known for pieces that reference and appropriate mass culture while still drawing on the formal language of minimalism. Koons’s basketballs suspended in tanks and Hirst’s animals floating in formaldehyde-filled vitrines employ the same restrained geometric framework as a Sol LeWitt or Donald Judd sculpture. While a work like Koons’s Seal Walrus (Chairs) (2003–’09) appears to be composed of kitschy, lowbrow ready-mades — stackable plastic lawn chairs and inflatable pool toys — it is transformed through the minimalist tactic of repetition, so that the effect is uncanny rather than vulgar. But in the artists’ new projects, the tasteful restraint of minimalism has been abandoned entirely; they are characterized completely by their aesthetic glut.
In both instances, the abundance of ideas on display suggests that there was little editing on the artist’s part. But such self-indulgence can appear, in our current historical moment, subversive, given that self-conscious taste — made manifest through the process of selecting, culling, and distilling — may be the defining aspect of the art of our time. The primacy of taste in contemporary art is evident in the work of artists like Bove and Kwade, whose métier is deft selection and arrangement of everyday objects and industrial materials to strike succinct, potent visual statements. It also coincides with the “curating” phenomenon in the larger cultural sphere, which has rendered food, fashion, and travel all opportunities for “curatorial” intervention. The pervasiveness of the internet and the rise of social media have not only presented a platform for self-promotion but have also inundated us with a surplus of information that necessitates gleaning. Increasingly, the dominant contemporary art aesthetic, propagated by art fairs and biennials, is one that feels pared down, carefully edited, and meticulously composed. As a result, good taste has become so hackneyed that Hirst’s and Koons’s new work, steeped in kitsch, seems to occupy a contrarian, even avant-garde, position.
Although these projects may be conceptually lacking and aesthetically bankrupt, they hold up a mirror to our cultural values, much like Koons’s “Gazing Ball” paintings from 2015 (which are said to have inspired the Koons/Vuitton collaboration). In that series, which is currently on view at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, Koons appropriated famous artworks, had them repainted in oil on canvas, and affixed a gazing ball — a blue glass globe with a highly reflective finish — on each. “This experience is about you,” Koons has said, “your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image.” Similarly, if there is lasting interest in Hirst’s and Koons’s new projects, it will derive from the moment they reflect rather than any quality inherent in the art itself.