I sipped Cristal on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum one evening this summer. I wore Prada occuli and Tom Ford for Gucci; I discussed bond-market turbulence with a young woman and, carelessly, I toasted the Jeff Koons sculptures installed there for the season. I felt better. Better, at least, than I’d felt in Chicago, where Francesco Bonami had corralled a glut of Koonses into a queasy retrospective in which early work crowded beside late, and fairground balloon dogs and eggs and rings from the ‘Celebration’ series (1995–2000) blared like marching bands beside smaller – but more seminal and malevolently successful – works such as Rabbit (1986). Even the location felt wrong: Koons began life as a Wall Street commodities broker and naturally evolved into the consummate artist–impresario of the 1980s, a maker of objects as showboat events – what use has he for a temple of culture?
These days one can doubt whether Koons was ever an ‘ordinary’ artist – an artist as part of a community of other artists, who converse through their work. Yet wandering the corridors of the MCA, I encountered David Robbins’ photo series ‘Talent’ (1986) and recalled that, indeed, he once was: the series comprises a sequence of portraits of then prominent New York artists, including Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Allan McCollum and the young Jeff, in the hackneyed style of actors’ agency headshots. Robbins intended a satire on the closing gap between art and showbiz spectacle; little did he know that one of his number was genuinely auditioning for the big time. Yet there was Koons, an ‘ordinary’ artist and a potentially great one too: a Pop Conceptualist with a keen satirical intelligence and a hard-wired instinct for the decisive object. With works such as Rabbit he managed both to salute and to lampoon Constantin Brancusi and Andy Warhol. With works such as the ‘Total Equilibrium Tanks’ and ‘50/50 Tanks’ (both 1985) he introduced enduring threads on gravity and weightlessness. But if the tanks have become touchstones – of the period, and of what Koons thinks about sculpture and commodities – they’re actually uncharacteristic of him. They’re sad: hangdog and unsettled. And although this isn’t often remembered, those works were originally exhibited with a series of appropriated Nike ads which celebrated African-American sporting ambition: Koons was testing himself as a commentator on race, something he hasn’t tried since, perhaps because his efforts proved slightly unconvincing.
That’s because Koons is actually Satan, isn’t it? Certainly, some would have it so. In part, the ire directed at him probably derives from a reasonable antipathy to the bizarre spectacle he made of his marriage to the Italian porn queen La Cicciolina. But it also derives from his attitudes to sex, which shuttle from the admonitory to the celebratory. There are sculptures such as Bear and Policeman (1988), an oversized figurine tableau in which a chubby bear towers over an entranced British policeman, toying with his whistle and, presumably, leading the law astray. But then there is Ushering in Banality (1988), in which three cherubic figures push and prod a fat pink pig/penis: the title alone signals dismay. Koons can be clever and sexy, but more successfully so in works such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), when the sex anxiously sweats from the surface of the objects, randomly and in baffling directions.
It’s easy to take offence at, or be indifferent to, Koons, yet it’s reasonable to suspect that some of the glib distaste for him centres on his deep exploration of kitsch. If Marcel Duchamp had a categorical, intellectual beef with art, and Warhol had a complaint about its noble content, Koons comes at it from the flank of taste and audience, and one feels defenceless. When I catch myself wondering whether I really want to accept his work in an art gallery, I anticipate the thundering rebuke: ‘How dare you object to the taste of the people?’ And that’s exactly the rebuke that made kitsch the perfect house style for fascist regimes.
Unfortunately Koons remains hit-and-miss in his eye for the tasteless, and for all his legendarily obsessive attention to detail it is this that matters above all, as most kitsch is not only a culturally and historically specific affair but a matter of constantly shifting values. But when Koons hits his marks, schmaltz and art are seamlessly swapped. Others may have done similar things, but the awful difference with Koons is that that he offers no refuge for nobler, adult and humane values. He just says, like Porky Pig before him: ‘that’s all, folks!’
First published in Issue 118